Oakland, CA native, Eric Smith is at the top of the touring urban / pop music market. As a musician and music director, he’s worked with such heavy hitters as Jill Scott, Jamie Foxx, P. Diddy, Fantasia Barrino, Anastasia, TLC, Destiny’s Child, Darius Rucker, Jessica Simpson, and many more, and is currently on tour with Rihanna as her bass player and music director.
We caught up with Eric on a recent tour stop at the HP Pavilion in San Jose to ask him a few questions about his playing and preparation habits, and his approach to being a professional — though not necessarily famous — working musician…
How did you get into the business?
I did an audition for Sheila E in the early ’90s. I was hired and from there it’s been all God!
As a musician-for-hire, how do you prepare for a gig when it comes to gear?
I pretty much have a standard sound in my head that I’d like to achieve — I like my sound to be clean but also have the ability to get dirty if need be. With that in mind, I’ll grab my Mike Lull Jazz Bass with Dunlop Stainless Steel Strings (45-125). I use effects sometimes, but I won’t leave my house without my MXR Bass Envelope Filter, a must have for every bassist. I’ll have the MXR Blow Torch for distortion, the MXR Bass Compressor to keep my sound tight, and the MXR ’74 Vintage Phase 90.
How do different gigs force you to rethink your approach to playing for different artists?
I generally study the record first. For instance, pop music producers aren’t always musicians so they don’t use a lot of “live” instruments in the studio. With that in mind, it’s my job to bring life to a song on bass while keeping the integrity of the song — quality of notes over quantity of notes. There are normally quite a few tracks being played from a computer so I have to make sure that I’m not in the way. When I work with artists such as Lalah Hathaway, it’s more about dynamics, knowing when to play and when to fall back.
How do the duties of a MD differ from those of a player, and is there a trick to balancing the MD job and the musician job when you’re doing both?
Being an MD is a different beast. The idea is to make the music sound sonically like it was recorded, and if it was recorded live with no tracks or samples, that’s a much easier task. You have to think like a producer. I could rearrange a tune and think that it’s an amazing arrangement, but it may be so different that the average listener doesn’t recognize the song anymore. Even when I’m wearing both hats, the idea is to make sure that I respect the music and the band does the same. It’s a better compliment to have someone tell me that the show was killing as opposed to someone telling me that I was killing. That would make me feel like I may have overplayed.
What is the most important quality needed to be a sideman on a big tour?
Be a team player, on and off the stage. Remember that it’s not about you, it’s about the artist on the ticket stub.
How do you prepare for a new gig as far as learning the material? Do you get charts, do you write it out, do you just commit it to memory?
I’ve never been a sight reader. God blessed me with a good set of ears. Most of the time I’ll listen to music to get familiar with it, but I’ll learn it on my way to rehearsal, and that’s why I like driving to LA — five hours of learning from the Bay Area.
As an MD what do you look for in other musicians?
Great attitude, great feel. I couldn’t care less about chops.