Tuk Smith / The cracking culmination of hard graft and challenge

Tuk Smith is in a relieved mood. Tuk Smith and the Restless Hearts debut album, The Ballad Of A Misspent Youth, has just been released. The culmination of hard graft and challenge, it’s a cracking album, and you can read the review of the album here.

MetalTalk’s Paul Hutchings caught up with Tuk at home and started by congratulating him on the album and checking how he feels about the release. “Finally, man,” he sighs. “It’s a fucking victory. I’ve been saying this all week. I celebrate the smallest victories because everything has been so fucking hard lately. So yeah, I’m stoked, man. Yeah, I’m happy.”

Tuk tells me that early response to the album is positive. “People are calling me. Feedback, as an artist, you put your blood in, your sweat, yadda yadda. All the cliches in your songs. It hurts when people talk shit. But you know, it comes with the territory, so I braced myself for impact, but there’s been no impact. It’s been awesome. It’s been overwhelmingly positive, and it makes me feel great.”

Tuk Smith and The Restless Hearts – Ballad Of A Misspent Youth (MRG)
Tuk Smith and The Restless Hearts – Ballad Of A Misspent Youth (MRG)

It’s heartening to hear this. Tuk’s been around the industry for a couple of decades. This ain’t his first rodeo. He was in Biters for nine years and The Heart Attacks before that. “Yeah, we got started when we were teenagers. You give some pirates some tour dates and put them on the road, and it’s destined to implode, self-destruct.”

You pour your heart and soul into an album. You finish it. What then? Is Tuk one of those artists who needs to move on to the next thing from a creative point of view? Or is he still able to work with it? “I mean, it’s a really good question,” he says. “Of course, I’m proud of the record ’cause I worked hard on it. When I get to pull it up on Spotify or pull it on vinyl, it’s just a beautiful thing. But I do have another album written, and if somebody said you gotta start working on it next week, I would be more than happy to record another record.”

During the pandemic, Tuk And The Restless Hearts put out an EP called Covers From The Quarantine, which features five songs. Whilst a lot of artists released music to help with the creative itch, there’s a more straightforward reason in Tuk’s case. “To be honest, the label I was on, I was fighting with them because there were multiple things going on mentally and emotionally in the state of the world, and they wouldn’t let me. I asked if they could pause my record deal and I could release music on my own, and then when the world went back to normal, could we resume?

“They didn’t want to do that, and so the only way for me to release any kind of music was to do covers, and the stipulation was I had to cover a popular Top 40 artist, and the songs had to have high algorithmic reach. That’s why there were no rarities on that. So you choose your battles, and I thought, well, I guess I’ll just do these recordings. I had a studio at home, and I was just able to do it.”

If you listen to Covers From Quarantine, you’ll find versions of INXS’s Don’t Change, Bowie’s Life on Mars, Layna Del Ray’s Summertime Madness and The Who’s Behind Blue Eyes. There’s also a cover of Kiss’s Hard Luck Woman. Hardly a staple of the Kiss catalogue, I suggest. Tuk argues that if you’re a fan, then it would be. “It’s an amazing song,” he says, “and it was fun to record.”

I first saw Tuk with Biters in 2017, supporting Blackberry Smoke, which would have been towards the tail end of their lifecycle. “Right, I think like 2018, almost 2019. I think we played our last show in 18 or 19. I can’t remember. It was somewhere around that time.” [Biters at Bad Reputation 21 July 2018, according to SetList FM]

Tuk’s on record as saying that the splitting was necessary as the band needed to explore other freedoms. I wondered if he was at another stage in his life now. Obviously, creativity needs that kind of space anyway. Was the change a universal decision, or was it more driven by Tuk?

He’s honest and open in his response. “It was multiple factors,” he says. “And when I mean multiple factors, I mean on an emotional and spiritual level. And then I mean on a financial and business level. We had odds stacked against us from every end, and you know, when you’re in a band with people so long, it’s like family. You fight. There are resentments, but you love each other. And then, at some point, you lose track of the goal or what you want, and it’s normal for people to want stability, a home, a family, or a job that they don’t have to hate.

“You know we were all working shifts. We were bartenders and worked at restaurants. I mean, I sold drugs, everything during Biters to keep going. When I started, I was washing dishes. It wasn’t an easy way, and you know, that was weighing on us, and there were some substance issues that come with the territory of being in a rock band.

“And then the business side of the thing started to degrade. With Earache Records, and you know as many negative things as I could say about them, I could say as many equal and amazing positive things. They really helped Biters and believed in me and the band in the UK. But unfortunately, that relationship started to decay, and that’s happened to many bands on that label and other labels.

“It kind of comes with the territory. But it had gotten so bad, and I can’t really speak about it openly because of legal stuff, but it had got so bad. Basically, the only way for me to keep going musically was to go ‘solo’. I still love those guys, and I’m friends with them. But it just became time.”

If you’ve had the opportunity to listen to Ballad Of A Misspent Youth (and you really should), you’ll find that whilst it isn’t a long album, it’s quality rather than the quantity that is most exciting. One of the tracks is called Girl On The East Side Of Town. As a big Thin Lizzy fan, I found resonance in that song with Lizzy, in the way the song is written, almost poetically, very much in the manner that Phil Lynott would write. What’s Tuk’s view?

“There are some artists that will deny their influences,” Tuk says. “Phil Lynott is one of the biggest influences on me as a musician and songwriter. He’s in my top three. Of course. I’m not going to deny it. Everybody knows that he’s the best. The funny thing about that? Because that song was more inspired by Bruce Springsteen and Steely Dan, and Nick Lowe.

“During that time, a lot of bands kind of had that Lizzy feel with the guitars and stuff. Of course, Lizzy are in there, but I’m such a Lizzy fan. I’ve been talking about this all week because people have been asking me. You could tell he [Lynott] loved Van Morrison, but you could also tell he loved those early Springsteen records like Spirit In The Night and things like that.

“And so, I was heavily influenced by that kind of song. When I did that, that’s why the acoustics and the pianos are in there. That’s like the Springsteen production, and the duelling guitars are the Lizzy production, you know, and so I kind of wanted to put those sides together.”

It’s humbling to spend time talking with someone who is so open and honest, and it’s clear that Tuk has been through some tough times. With everything going on, it would be a challenge for anyone to focus, but Tuk is a determined individual.

Did the album develop naturally? “I feel like the music and the writing came organically,” Tuk says. “I lost everything during the pandemic, like a lot of other people. And my story is not different. People lost their businesses. People lost their lives. People lost things, so it’s not a competition.

“The positive that came out of it is I had time to sit at the piano and write, and I had time to work on these songs. I wrote a lot of songs, and then I had time to stay up all night and demo and produce them. I didn’t have a deadline, and I was in solitude. I didn’t know what I was going to do with them, so these songs were written with no intention but to fulfil me as an artist, and that goes for the second batch of demos as well, which didn’t make this record.

“I don’t have any life skills. When my parents die, the only thing I’m going to inherit is the funeral bill. I don’t even know if I could function in society at this point. And, you know, I survived by writing songs and producing bands and things, so you know, this isn’t something that dawned on me recently.

“But over the last couple of years, I was like, I’m not going to be able to be on American Idol. I don’t sing like that. The only thing I can do, and I’m not a guitar virtuoso, but I know I can write a song. So, I just focus all of my energy on trying to write the best songs and become a great songwriter. So, the part that was the easiest was writing, financially getting the record out, trying to find a label that was a nightmare.”

Tuk Smith - Tuk Smith and the Restless Hearts
Tuk Smith Interview. “I love the UK, and I loved playing over there.”

The Restless Hearts comprises Tuk plus three other members in Ricky Dover, Shane Richards, and Nigel Dupree. How did Tuk get the band together?

“Well, when I made the record before this one that got shelved, I had studio musicians. The only guy that played on the record was Ricky, and Ricky played bass in Biters for the last year. He did a couple of tours with us, and he was great. But he’s a phenomenal guitar player, so I knew that I wanted to start the band with Ricky.

“Then I met Nigel through a mutual friend. We both lived in Atlanta. He was awesome and amazing, and then we couldn’t find a bass player for months. We found this guy working in a second-hand store who looked like he was in our band. I said, what are you playing? And he told me he played bass. And it was like the universe dropped the present on your front door. It’s hard to put together any band, but when you’re in a band that has a specific look and feel and vibe, it’s even more difficult. So I’m blessed to be able to find players who fit.”

As we chat, I establish that the tour with Blackberry Smoke was not Biters first trip over to the UK. In fact, it was Danko Jones who brought Tuk and the band over way back in 2012/13 as an unsigned band [Setlist FM has 2015 logged as a headline tour here]. My memory of the reception that Biters got in Bristol in 2017 was very positive. How does Tuk find the UK audience?

“I love the UK, and I loved playing over there,” he says. “The tours with the sleep exhaustion and shit were the hardest tours I’ve ever done. They were so much harder mentally than American tours, just ’cause of travelling, but as far as support and fan base, the UK is amazing. I focused a lot of energy on this record in the UK because I just feel at home there, like I have a musical family.”

Anyone that’s seen Blackberry Smoke live will know that they are incredible musicians. But sometimes you don’t actually realise it until you watch them live and you see them doing their extended jams and stuff. Was it a learning experience touring with the band (and our best wishes to drummer Brit Turner as he recovers from his recent operations)?

Tuk is full of praise for the Georgia outfit. “Well, Blackberry Smoke are incredible, I agree. When I toured with them, it was a lesson in ass whooping. It was a humbling experience as a frontman who watched somebody like Charlie Star never miss a note on guitar or vocally. And do it with such coolness. Yeah, it was humbling. They’re amazing.”

Tuk has been open about himself as a person and his emotions. I wondered where he feels he is now. Is he in a place where he’s more comfortable than when Biters were coming to an end?

“Look, man. I’m going to be honest, my upbringing and the sum of who I am. I have a huge chip on my shoulder, and I grew up in a place, in a situation, and I’m a work in progress. So yes, I’ve self-sabotaged myself a lot. I’m aware of it, and I did the partying, and I probably could have handled it differently.

“But that’s like most musicians. We do this ’cause something is wrong with us. I’m aware, and I’m at this point where I’m doing everything I can to keep myself between the lines to be professional, loving, humble, gracious. And to just do it for the love of it. I’ve still got the fire, but there’s less piss and vinegar of like a fuck you attitude. I mean, that will always be me, but you know, man, every day is a feat unto itself if I can just stay level.

“And for me, that means I have to exercise a lot, and I have to meditate, and I have to practise gratitude. It’s not the most rock ‘n’ roll thing in the world, but it’s better than the other option.”

I have to say that Tuk looks incredible. Slim, with the glow of someone who is taking care of themselves but still every inch the rock star he is. It’s a credit to him that he’s managed to navigate two of the most challenging years so well.

Obviously, the usual touring cycle would be next on the agenda following the release of a new album, but these are difficult times for musicians, and we’ve seen lots of cancellations for financial reasons in recent months. Where are Tuk And The Restless Hearts?

“Well yeah, all those are good points,” he says. “When I released this record, I told my manager and band I really wanted to focus on the UK and Europe. And you know, we talked to Michelle Kerr [Cosa Nostra PR], who I love very dearly. She’s my press person. She’s awesome, and she’s my friend and a mentor. And so that’s my shout-out to Michelle. She told my manager, just so you know, touring in the UK and Europe is three times more expensive than it was when Tuk last toured in 2018.

“So right now, I’m just trying to build up the awareness. The press has been great, and Planet Rock and Primordial Radio have been great, so now I’m looking for a partner in the UK to kind of hopefully licence the record.

“So I have some kind of home base over there to get back and forth. I’m probably going to get dates coming in February and March. I just signed with CAA worldwide for booking, which is amazing. So, yes, a lot of touring on here for the album. So yeah, I’m excited about the future, man.”

It’s been a couple of months since Tuk has played live, and he explains that he’s been focused on the album. “We’ve been shooting music videos. We’ve shot three videos, and my band are busy. You know Ricky, the guitar player, plays in probably seven or eight other projects. He stays very busy. Unless the show is worth it, I’m more selective just because it is so expensive and so much work that I’m more selective about shows. My drummer is a drum tech for touring bands.

“If they have great opportunities, I’m not going to keep him here for a couple of local shows, you know. So we have a couple of shows coming up in December, and then stuff will be announced through spring.”

It’s a challenging time to be a musician. It’s probably never been more difficult, yet also quite an empowering one with the way in which you can actually reach people. How does Tuk feel about the whole social media circus and streaming?

“It’s exactly what you said there,” he says. “It’s two sides of the coin. There are a lot of negative aspects. I mean it’s ying and yang. It’s like nature, man. There are horrific elements of social media, and then there are beautiful things. I think that.

“Let’s start with the beautiful things I’m friends with Michael Des Barres, Rick Nielsen, Tracii Guns; I could go on about these people that I’m friends with on social media that I meet and connect with. Some of my rock ‘n’ roll heroes. I would have to write a fan mail to Rick Nielsen in the past. And so you are able to be exposed and share stuff at a very fast pace, which is a beautiful thing. And streaming, well, anybody can check you out automatically, and we can do this through technology which is beautiful.

“The negatives are like 100,000 songs are being uploaded to Spotify daily. Now everything is paywalled. It’s pay-to-play. A couple of years ago, people said it was the best time to be an independent artist. Well, these platforms figured it out quickly. How to monetise your post if you want it to get seen? Pay for it. If you want your video to get seen, pay for it. If you want this, pay for it, so it’s a money game more than ever.

“If you have generational wealth, it’s easier than ever to play. You’ve got to be really scrappy to play the game, and as much as I don’t like social media, it is part of my job. I have to accept that it is part of my job, and I try to do it, but there are some days I don’t want to do it.

“My biggest issue is TikTok. I don’t like it for musicians. I just think it makes rock ‘n’ roll a parody and like cosplay, and that takes away from the real artist, which is not my personality. But there are some people that go on there and dress up like they’re Jimi Hendrix and play and have millions of followers and end up getting a deal off that. It’s wild times, dude.”

I’m always curious to know what music musicians listen to. Some are so left of field it’s amazing, whilst others are much more traditional. As my final question of a really enjoyable conversation, I ask Tuk what he’s been listening to.

“One of the bands that I’m producing,” he says. “Their mix is going crazy, so I’m doing a band now called Speed Of Light from Orange County area, and they’re a young sibling band. They’re like 15, 17 and 19 and peaking on TikTok. They’re blowing up on there. I’ve been doing their record in their very ’90s-influenced way. It’s not the usual stuff I produce, and it was really fun to study their records. So yeah, tearing my hair out with their mix is like going back and forth.”

As for music, Tuk shows me his record wall. “It just depends on my mood,” he says. “My record wall now, it’s Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, I got Nick Gilder City Nights, I got Nick Lowe, Jesus Of Cool and 2020 power pop and then Dwight Twilley.”

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