Smashed So Good
Smashed So Good
A Q&A with Kevin Miller
By Geoff Gehman
Kevin Miller loves to make you sing, swing, bop, shake your booty, play air drums, high-five strangers, remember your pleasant past and forget your painful present.
The Allentown native hits his marks as the drumming, singing founder of Kevin Miller’s Smashed, a powerful performer of a powerhouse of popular songs all around the map and dial. The six musicians serve a wedding feast of rock (Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”), country rock (the Eagles’ “Take It Easy”), R&B (the Commodores’ “Brick House”), New Wave (the Eurythmics’ “Would I Lie to You?”), hip-hop (Warren G’s “Regulators”) and Goth (Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People”). Vocalist Ash Hill leads medleys of chart toppers by Christine Aguilera and Lady Gaga while Miller anchors hits from Fuel, for which he drummed from 1998 to 2004, the alt- rockers’ glory period of touring with Aerosmith, contributing to the soundtracks of “Scream 3” and “Godzilla,” and gigging for Leno and Letterman.
On July 14 Miller and his mates will fill the Mauch Chunk Opera House with sing-and-swing-alongs from Blondie, Boston, Heart and Thin Lizzy. Miller will leave his kit to sing a medley of “Space Oddity,” “Rebel Rebel” and three other tunes by David Bowie, one of his heroes. Below, while driving to a Smashed concert at the new Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, he discusses the joy of listening to Rush drummer Neil Peart in a ’60s Chevy pickup; his less-is-more approach to percussion; his role as Fuel’s drummer/driver/mechanic; changing sets in midstream to satisfy listeners, and his absolute hatred of spiders, specifically the Brown Recluse.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that flayed and slayed you?
A: I grew up in a household of older brothers, which meant I listened to what they listened to: Badfinger and Cream and the Beatles. One of the first songs that really got me going was [the Beatles’] “Birthday”: I would play air drum to that over and over again. As I got older my third oldest brother turned me onto Yes when Alan White came in as the drummer, after [Bill] Bruford. Alan White was a big influence on my drumming. I love the way he approaches a song; he is so simply complex. I’m also a huge fan of John Bonham and Neil Peart; I love dissecting their drum fills with Led Zeppelin and Rush. And Stewart Copeland for the Police: I love him to death. I could go on and on.
Q: What were the first drum patterns that tattooed your ears, heart and soul?
A: I loved Neil Peart’s drum fills on Rush’s “2112” album. We used to drive around in my buddy’s ’60s-something Chevy pickup with the shift on the tree and a hunter-green paint job: remember hunter green? It had a big stereo and we used to listen to “2112” time and time again. Oh my gosh, we knew every drum fill. Those are very great memories.
I went through a slight punk phase, everything from the Dickies to the Nosebleeds to the Dead Kennedys. That was short lived because the drumming didn’t excite me enough. Later on I played punk for a year and a half in this little cover band called Frog C, named after the cartoon character. We had to learn so many songs because some of them were 17 seconds long [laughs].
Q: You’ve said that Frog C had a repertoire of 87 songs. On your management’s Web site the repertoire for Kevin Miller’s Smashed is 87 songs. What do you think of that cosmic coincidence?
A: Oh, that’s kind of weird. I can tell you that we take great pride in changing the set list so we never play the same show twice.
Q: Why did you call your band Smashed?
A: It came up as a complete giggle. I was weeding through local musicians with my keyboardist Rick [Repsher], the only original member of my current band. I was trying to find older gentlemen—old dogs–who are very proficient; I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to proficiency. I ended up surrounding myself with guys like me who like to sip bourbon. During one of the rehearsals we had a lot of bourbon and I was slurring into the microphone: “Well, I guess I should call the band Smashed.”
When David Sestak [founding president of Media Five Entertainment in Bethlehem] became my agent he wanted to put my name in front, to trade on my past accomplishments, especially with Fuel. I fought against it until I decided it made perfect sense.
Q: Why did you decide to make Smashed a cover band rather than a band that mixes covers with originals?
A: I started the band because I missed playing drums and I just wanted to have fun. I didn’t want to go through the old hassles of recording new songs and dealing with A&R people and promoting records and selling tickets. I just wanted to get onstage and play songs I loved without all that other shit.
It’s funny you should ask that question because I’m putting my feet back into the original music scene. We’re writing songs on the side, when we have a free moment. Songs are coming out better than I expected; [vocalist] Ash [Hill] is a very fine writer. I hear them and think: Okay, we’re on to something really interesting. I think you’ll recognize the sounds and the grooves from my previous bands. If I were to put a label on our original music, it would be somewhere between the music of Paramore, Evanescence and Fuel. Releasing our new songs to the market won’t be the same for me as it was back in 1999 and 2000. The demographics have definitely changed: there are far fewer people today who buy new albums than back then.
Q: Why did you hire Ash as a lead vocalist; what does she bring to the Smashed table? She certainly looks sleek in her clothes, makeup and hair; she certainly has a new New-Wave edge. And she certainly captures the spirits of the likes of Debbie Harry and Lady Gaga.
A: She’s just a doll to look at. She has a unique stage presence; she doesn’t move like anyone else. Other singers will be shaking their booty and trying to be sexy. Ash definitely has a cool thing going on, which is definitely her own thing. As a vocalist she’s spot-on every night. She’s the consummate performer to the 10th power; she’s come onstage with a cold and soldiered on every time. She fits our band like a glove. She’s just a doll to be around and the guys feel much safer because she’s very good at martial arts [laughs].
Q: With such a large repertoire it must be extra challenging to choose the right tunes for the right listeners. How do you tailor sets for venues as varied as the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino and the Chesapeake Inn Restaurant and Marina?
A: We have a bunch of seasoned guys who are very good at going with the flow. If I’m reading the crowd and I feel that what’s next on the set list won’t go down well, I know I can call an audible and they’ll follow me without a problem. Yesterday at the [Hard Rock] Casino we were supposed to play “Play That Funky Music White Boy” and “Superstition.” I noticed people were liking more of the ’80s-type music and I thought: Yeah, “Play That Funky Music” is not going to work right now. So I called an audible and we went into an ’80s medley: The Outfield’s “Your Love” [sings opening line: “Josie’s on a vacation far away”], then “Unbelievable” by EMF, then “The Look” by Roxette, and we finished it off with “Would I Lie to You?” by the Eurythmics. We ended up bringing down the house.
Q: Why did you sign up to drum for Fuel? What were the attractive elements besides a new hit song (“Shimmer”) and a growing national reputation?
A: At the time  I was playing in the Armadillos and both the Armadillos and Fuel did gigs at places like CBGB’s and Arlene’s Grocery [in Manhattan]. Both bands were getting nice notices; both bands were being looked at by major labels. We became buddies with the guys in Fuel. When Fuel went into the studio [to record its 1998 album “Sunburn”] they were having issues with their drummer, Jody Abbott, and they ended up bringing in a studio musician, Jonathan Mover. Then they gave [the job] back to Jody and it didn’t work out. Both Fuel and the Armadillos were booked and managed by Media Five Entertainment and my agent, Greg Eppler, called me and said: “What do you think about getting on board with Fuel?” At first I turned him down because I loved my guys and we were getting some good outside attention. My best friends and my wife pretty much told me: You’re stupid [not to join Fuel]. It’s like getting two lottery tickets; one has already won and the other one might win.
I did a pseudo-audition [with Fuel] and I didn’t hear anything back for like two weeks. Then I received a call from Greg saying: “It looks like they’re going to take you on as drummer.” He called on a Tuesday or a Wednesday and they wanted me to play a record-industry audition at CBGB’s that Friday. I thought I’d have a rehearsal with them the day before but the band was in Connecticut that day and couldn’t practice with me. So I played with them at CBGB’s without a rehearsal in front of big industry people like Polly Anthony [then president of 550 Music, an Epic imprint]. We kicked ass that night and I guess the rest is history. It was definitely trial by fire, as they say
Q: What were your most important contributions to Fuel? How did you change the songs, the landscape, the climate?
A: Musically speaking, I would say, in a nutshell, I contributed my approach, which is less is more. As much as I would like to play extra stuff, as much as I admire Bill Bruford and Alan White and Neil Peart, I like to keep it simple. I’ve never been a guy with an arsenal of a million licks. I like to serve the song: I play more like Phil Rudd from AC/DC.. I’ll figure out the best fill, I’ll add a little extra high hat, that extra accent or splash. The key thing for me is keeping someone’s head bopping through the song.
My biggest contribution wasn’t necessarily the drumming: it was keeping the band on the road and working. I was hired as the drummer and next thing I know I’m the tour manager. Then I ended up doing the bus driving and all the bus repair because I’m a hands-on, handy guy. We had what’s called an Allegro bus, which is just a fancy name for an RV. It was new and out of the box and the biggest piece of shit. The generator broke down and the door would open and the electronic steps that were supposed to come out would get stuck.
I remember I was driving in a snow storm when the air-ride system failed and the RV sank so low that the rear tires were rubbing against the chassis. There were two air bags in the front and two air bags in the rear that kept the ride level. It turned out that an arm down by the rear axle that goes up into the chassis that regulates the valve that keeps the air bags at a certain pressure had snapped off and the ball part had broken off. It’s snowing like the Dickens and I’m underneath, trying to find a solution to the problem, and cars are going by and I’m getting pelted by ice-cold, salty, slushy shit. I ended up hot gluing metal coat hangers together to form balls. I was able to snap the arm back in place and the thing rose up and we were able to drive it for like two weeks, which was kind of miraculous.
My father was a mechanical engineer, so I grew up under his eye. Just about everything was fixable for my pop, including electrical cords that were accidentally cut. One Saturday I was supposed to go inner tubing with my friends and I wanted to get out of trimming the hedge, so I cut the cord to the electric saw. My father was on to me and made me splice the cord so I could trim the hedge before I went tubing.
Q: What were some of the things you wanted to do in Fuel but couldn’t. Two decades ago you complained about a lack of “latitude.” In a recent YouTube interview, holding your son [Joseph, now 10 months old], you mentioned having your “wings clipped.”
A: I did talk about not having enough “latitude” way back when and I was wrong. I think Carl Bell [Fuel’s founding lead guitarist and chief composer] did a hell of a job putting those songs together: he was the hit maker, not me. In the interview with my kid on my lap the interviewer asked me twice about the bad things in the band. I didn’t want to air laundry, I didn’t want to throw Carl under the bus, and I ended up doing it anyway. It was fucking stupid to say my wings were clipped. We sold five million records and I got to play more than most people get to play, so I should shut up. I felt terrible and I called Carl and apologized. I thank him for sitting on me the way he did, for making me a more solid drummer. If I had wanted to play all that complicated stuff, I should have joined a jazz group.
Q: So, Kevin, what tops your Bucket List?
A: To continue to perform until I can’t and always put on the best show I can. My Bucket List at 55 is me playing a song and smiling and seeing the fans with their hands in the air, singing along and smiling back at me. I want to help them let their hair down and have fun and forget life for a few hours. Because life has been so serious lately–the world is just a little crazy at this moment. If I can get them to enjoy losing themselves for a few hours, then my job is done.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: Arachnids should stay the fuck away from me. We live in the country and I’ve gotten bitten at my house by a Brown Recluse. It’s one of our indigenous species that happens to be the most poisonous. I got bitten on an arm and it made about a half-inch-round and quarter-inch-deep ulcerated hole that lasted about four months. The thing would purge weekly with disgusting stuff coming out of it. Miraculously enough, a Brown Recluse bit me on the leg and the same thing happened. The good news is that there’s an anti-venom cream that you pack in the wound, so I don’t have to worry about my limbs falling off.
Q: You shared a 2003 Men’s Health feature with three other rigorous workers with rigorous fitness rituals: a ballet dancer, a stuntman and a rodeo clown. Back then you stayed in fighting form by Bowflexing, eating mainly fish and fowl, and swallowing a ton of bananas to ward off forearm cramps. What was the impact of your profile and how do you stay in fighting form today?
A: I ended up talking with one of the inventors of Bowflex and he actually sent me a machine that I still use to this day. My diet still consists mainly of fish and fowl and a ton of vegetables; I still eat red meat mostly once a week. I still eat bananas like crazy One thing that’s changed is that after a workout I’ll have a drink that’s high in potassium.
Over the years I’ve discovered that the key to staying healthy is keeping your stress level low; you just can’t get upset about everything. Here I am, stuck in traffic on the way to a gig, and 10 years ago I would have done a complete freak out. I’m a lot calmer now; now I realize that getting somewhere later than sooner won’t kill me. My two major words in life are: Fuck It.
Kevin Miller: The Scoop
One Christmas he received a small drum set from an older brother stationed in Vietnam “My dad and another older brother ended up having too many cocktails Christmas Eve and ended up playing it much more than I did. I didn’t touch it for a long time.”
Hearing the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” at a keg party helped convince him that he wanted to be a rock-star drummer.
Ozzy Osbourne, KISS and Kid Rock are among his favorite acts who performed at the Fairgrounds Grandstand in his native Allentown. Kid Rock, who toured with Fuel when Miller was the band’s drummer, was impressed that Miller stayed through the entire show despite being in great gonadal pain from a motorcycle crash that day.
Fuel played New Year’s Eve 1998 in Allentown, using a PA system the club rented from him.
One of his Fuel highlights was touring with Aerosmith and watching Steven Tyler enjoying himself from the wings.
He and other Smashed members plan to match the melody of “Stayin’ Alive” with the words of AC/DC’s “Back in Black”—a most unlikely marriage of Aussie mates.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Kevin Miller’s fondness for the Beatles, Cream and Yes. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.