11 Questions: Justin Smith
interview by Brent Cole
photo by Sarah Van Houten
Justin Smith is one of those guys around town that kind of hides in the shadows, but plays a huge roll in the music scene. With his time in Snug Harbor and owner of NorthWest Sound Studios, he’s been an integral part of the Bellingham funk scene. On top of his keyboard collection and deep soul, Justin is an incredible cool and wondrous person.
Who are you and where did you come from? Please tell us about yourself.
Hi low, my parents named me Justin Smith and I hail from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I moved out here in 2006 after graduating from USD with the vision of attending WWU for grad school and now I’m apparently permanently magnetized to this glamorous land we call Bellingham, Washington. I’m obsessed with all things music, outdoors and basketball. I play keys with Snug Harbor, Sour Note, UNO Momento, Soul United All-stars and hit drums for Hot Cotton. I also am an owner at NorthWest Sound Studio doing all things recording.
Last fall you befriended keyboard god, Bernie Worrell. You played keys at the Bernie Benefit before he passed in June. As a fellow keyboardist, what did you learn from his playing?
There are only a handful of musicians in history that can be identified through just their voice on an instrument. Bernie was certainly one of them, specifically on the Hammond organ, Hohner Clavinet and a Moog Model D. He didn’t just play the instrument, he played through it, he connected with the instrument and through those tools, he might scare you, relax you, surprise you, he could made it growl, purr, hiss, scream, whisper or cry. He could exercise power or restraint, create tension or release. He was never scared to “just go for it” meaning he would pioneer experimental sounds on the fly using drawbars on the organ or any, if not all of the modulations on a synthesizer. I think that’s one of the fundamental reasons Bernie’s sound was so futuristic even in the 70s is he was always reaching for fresh original different sounds that were different than what everyone else was doing. One thing is for sure once you understand his sound and playing style, you can pick him out of a line up of a room full of keyboardist.
Can you describe what it was like playing on stage at the Bernie benefit with Bernie and Tim Alexander of Primus? Did you have nerves, initially?
Surreal… Hands down one of my favorite gigs of my career helping coordinate some of my talented musical friends together with Tim and Bernie to play for Bernie’s benefit. I’ve known Tim Alexander for about 4 or 5 years and we have always been good friends. I thought it seemed fitting to ask him if he wanted to play drums with Snug Harbor featuring Dr. Bernie Worrell and also connecting Tim with Bernie for the first time. I’ve had the pleasure of playing a few shows with Bernie from the Wild Buffalo, my living room, to assisted living homes and he is one of the most humble, kind and encouraging musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing with.
I can’t say that I ever had any “nerves” about the actual set. The band had the songs down in rehearsal, Tim is certainly qualified to point guard the rhythms and Bernie wrote all the songs we played so the most challenging part was going into the gig without ever playing in that arrangement. Soundcheck was dialed, we talked about a few minor details and the show went even better and everyone got to share an amazing rare night of music in little Bellingham, WA!
If you weren’t playing funk, what other genre of music would you find yourself in?
Easy, Afrobeat or Afro Cuban! Anything that embraces a lot of rhythm I will naturally be listening to. I also have a deep love for jazz, boogaloo, fusion, big band, but afrobeat is like funky big band. It’s incredible. I have been arranging, writing and recording a lot of Afrobeat based songs lately with a couple of new groups ta’ boot, so keep your ear to the ground!
Along with being a musician, you are part of NorthWest Sound Studios. How did you become involved on the recording side of music and who are some of the bands that have played there?
I guess it all started as a teenager when I found my grandpa Smitty’s Tascam 4 track recorder in his music room. I started recording and experimenting on that with my dad’s help at a pretty young age and developed interest and relationship with recording side of music. My dad is also a musician and taught me a lot about recording, he would help me out with my amateur home recordings and still to this day helps me out with things that I can’t figure out.
We’ve had a plethora of bands, singer songwriters, session work and events at our studio in only our first year and a half. We hosted Tim Alexander for a couple of months while he practiced for his upcoming Primus tour which was pretty cool to have the biggest drum set I’ve ever seen in our studio. We did some Bernie Worrell synth leads recordings for a band out of Colorado, Joe Marcinek band. We also did a really cool television spot on KING 5 on with the help of our good friend Davin Steadman on a show called Up Late Northwest featuring a bunch of local Bellingham brewed bands such as Baby Cakes, Polecat, Snug Harbor featuring Bernie Worrell and others. Sam Chue engineered the entire day and absolutely knocked it out of the park! As the day went on, he didn’t know what the instrumentation of the upcoming band was and with swiftness, would have to break down one 7-piece band and set up a 10-piece band and this happened throughout the day.
It’s Sunday morning after a good Saturday night, what are you up too?
Hopefully wake up to a face of sunshine smiles, play some polyphonic synthesizers on some fresh ears to stimulate the senses a little. Then we should get the blood moving around a little and either go play in the mountains or go kayaking out in the bay and go sit on an quiet island for awhile and think about where I’m coming from and where I’m going. Then call some buddies for a few games of ping-pong or some 3 vs 3 dunk ball is a good way to wrap up a Sunday.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last five years and why was it so special?
A good friend gifted me a book entitled Zen Guitar. It’s a book that talks about the spiritual side of music as well as the discipline, stages, plateaus, mistakes and many more topics. It’s billed as a guitar book but can relate to life in general and it connected to me being a bass/guitar instructor to encourage young people not to follow someone else’s path but to forge their own. In a nutshell, we are all students and we are all teachers in everything we do. A parent learns from a child and a child learns from a parent.
If you didn’t live in Bellingham, where would you be residing?
It’s hard to imagine myself removed from this community. I first would have to make sure the beach is within reach and so somewhere on the west coast…umm Santa Cruz?
Please tell us about your greatest memory playing music.
I’ve been blessed to have many memories over my 25+ years of playing but I think it boils down to my pre teen years when I had the chance to play gigs with my Dad, and my grandpa and grandma. Three generations of Smith’s playing at the same time! Those are really the people along with my mother who encouraged me to play music at a very young age and they also had the tools to make it happen. My mom ran the music at our church so I started playing in front of people bi-weekly around the 3rd grade and I was able to play music with my mom and dad at least a couple of times every month.
What is one thing about Bellingham you’d like to see change within the next five years?
Somehow connecting musicians with other musicians in a live playing environment. When I first moved here I met most of my musician friends by going to the Rogue Hero on “open jam” nights hosted by Eli Jayson. I think it’s a great way for people looking for other like-minded musicians to meet and hopefully generate even more bands in our community. I’m all about more bands, more places to play, and more creativity.
Any last thoughts?
Learn an instrument. Start a band and make your own art that speaks to you… It’s a lot of fun and you meet some of the most beautiful people the world has to offer!
Published in the August 2016 issue of What’s Up! Magazine