Although Red Hot Chili Peppers member Chad Smith and his doppelgänger Will Ferrell may have spent much of 2014 trying to prove how different they are from one another, with their hilarious competition on The Tonight Show, the drummer does have something in common with the actor: he’s very funny. As Rolling Stone read the drummer the questions fans sent in via Twitter, he cracked wise about everything from the Chili Peppers’ penchant for wearing socks on their private parts to how Ferrell “robbed” him of the Golden Cowbell during his drum-off with the actor this year.
Over the past quarter century, Smith has played with the Chili Peppers, the supergroup Chickenfoot and various sessions with the likes of Kid Rock, the Dixie Chicks and Johnny Cash. And, with an eye toward helping other musicians, he has also spent time lobbying for music education in Washington, D.C. – including a recent trip to the White House – and building a drum community with his Chad Smith Drum App. The drummer’s steady, busy schedule has helped him amass a wide-ranging collection of funny stories, which he delved into deeply while answering Rolling Stone readers’ questions.
Would you rather jam with John Bonham, Keith Moon or Neil Peart?
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I would like to take a lesson from Neil Peart. I would like to jam with Bonham and party with Keith Moon. If we were playing “fuck, marry, kill,” then it would be I’d probably marry Neil. [Sighs] Ah, I couldn’t fuck or kill either of those guys. Plus, they’re both dead. That’s not fair.
How do you and the band sort out the set list before a gig?
There are certain songs that we play nightly, and we switch up a bunch of other ones that are up to Anthony and how his voice is feeling. So he writes out the sets, we chime in, but we try to mix it up a little bit, just to keep it fresh for us.
What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you onstage?
Back in the days when we used to play clubs and smaller venues, people would jump up onstage and stage dive. Once in a while you get the overzealous fan that wants to get a little closer. And for encores, we used to play with socks [on our private parts and nothing else]. I had one female fan jump up onstage that was gung ho on trying to get my sock off. The other guys can run around a bit or put their guitars in front of them. For me, it was a battle for about two minutes, but I won. I stayed intact. It was very funny. She had balls…she almost had my balls.
Why did you guys stop doing the socks?
— Rolling Stone
It’s not that we stopped or never would do that again. It was fun to play like that. And 20 years ago, we were known for that. Somehow in Europe, it overshadowed the band a little bit. Like, “Oh, the guys with the socks on their dicks.” But it’s really just a spontaneous thing. We’ll be playing and we’ll finish, and somebody will say, “Hey, socks? OK!” It’s nothing really too planned out. You never know. I don’t know if anyone wants to see 50-year-old guys with socks on their dicks. That was a long time ago. But we like to entertain; we’re from Hollywood.
I wouldn’t say “never” to anything, but we’re always moving forward and we don’t look back too much. That seems to me that you’re really going back. We have so much other material, and so much music that we want to play. But, again, I wouldn’t say that we’d never do it, but it’s not something that’s ever really come up or discussed or talked about or anything. It’s not going to happen anytime in the near future.
How’s the new album shaping up?
The new album is shaping up good, man. We’ve got lots of songs, and we’re working with an unnamed producer who is really challenging us to find new ways to come up with new music. We’ve done the “guys get in the room and jam out songs, everybody playing together all at once” thing. And we wrote a bunch of songs that way. And we’re now going to try another method that will be really challenging for us and will bring new, exciting results for the band. We’ve written and recorded in a way that we’ve never done before, so the record is going great. We all have high hopes that it’s going to take off and we’re going to do something very different and unique for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
As far as percussion goes, I foresee Mauro Refosco, the percussionist that we had record with us on the last record and tour with us, coming in and being a part of this record as well. I would think that he would add some nice, interesting percussive elements. But, as far as what I’m doing, I’m just playing my same old beat that I’ve been doing for 25 years, faster and slower.
Earlier this year, Flea said you’d written more than 30 songs. Is this new direction a writing or recording phase? And just what are you doing?
— Rolling Stone
Anything we do is going to sound like Red Hot Chili Peppers. Certainly with Anthony [Kiedis] singing and the way that we play. We’re just trying to break new ground and come up with something. All I can say is we’re taking a different approach that is going to wield different results.
We’re going to probably write some more new songs this way, but we’re also going to work on the ones that we have as well, which we’ve already done. We’ve already recorded some of the songs, just a few that we’ve been working on. But this is also going to be in addition to those. It’s a new process. I don’t know how long it’s going to take. We’ll have a record out next year.
Who would win in the Hunger Games final: you or Will Ferrell?
I’m not familiar with the Hunger Games. I don’t know what it is, but I would win. He’s a pampered movie star, and I do have an edge. Rock & roll wins out over acting. I’m physical and I would survive. He’s going down.
Do you have any new drum battles with Will Ferrell coming up?
— Rolling Stone
We had such a good time, and we were so overwhelmed with the response from our Tonight Show drum-off. Both of us were like, wow. We were just trying to show people that we’re not the same guy. We raised a lot of money for charity, which was the great thing about it. He has this Cancer for College charity that he champions, and he did an event in Seattle, so I came up there for that too and I put a little band together: Mike [McCready] from Pearl Jam and Duff [McKagan], Stefan [Lessard] from Dave Matthews and Brandi Carlile sang. Will came up and played cowbell with us. It’s been a fun thing that has just kept going. It’s got this life of its own.
I can’t really expound upon details, but we have been talking about doing something next year that will combine music and comedy – a show. It will benefit the charities that we’re into. Plus, I think I need to redeem myself from how I was robbed of the Golden Cowbell. I don’t want to burst any bubbles, but he wasn’t even playing the drums, people! Shenanigans! Call the cops, I’ve been robbed! Yeah, so, it’s not over.
[Laughs] We got such a kick out of saying we’d battle Lars, who obviously looks nothing like us — this small Danish man. We’re like, “Yeah, that guy really looks like us.” “Yeah, Lars.” All the Metallica fans were like, “Lars will drum circles around you guys.” And I think Lars’ response was really great. He took it and was really fun about it. I don’t know. We’ll figure it out. We’re open to any and everything and anyone that wants to step forward.
What was your favorite album this year?
I’m a child of the Seventies, so I listen to so much music of that era. I sound like such an old fart. But I like the Jack White record [Lazaretto]. I thought that was good. Daru Jones, his drummer, is very unique. I like him.
Who are your top five drummers of all time, dead or alive?
I have to put John Bonham and Keith Moon up there. When I was growing up, the music that I listened to was from the late Sixties, early Seventies. English rock drummers are very influential to me, like Bill Ward from Black Sabbath. I would say I wasn’t really listening to Buddy Rich at the time, but he’s probably the greatest technical drummer. Then I would say Mitch Mitchell, Ian Paice, Ginger Baker, Roger Taylor, Nicky “Topper” – all those guys. It’s hard to leave out Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr, you know. I like American drummers, too, but those English guys really had it going.
It’s brought together this real community of some Chili Pepper fans, but also drum-oriented. ‘Cause the app is very drum-music oriented, but very drum-oriented. And now that it’s been around for a couple of years, 20 percent of the people who use it are hardcore and on there all the time. I think that’s pretty cool. I’m happy to have a place where people can connect with other people and be the conduit.
I would love to do some more Chickenfoot, but it takes four people to be in the same place at the same time. Sam [Hagar] does other things and, of course, I’m busy with my band. Joe [Satriani] has his solo career. Mike [Anthony], I think, is pretty open; he’s kind of hanging. But it was a really fun thing to do. I haven’t been very available. They had to get a different drummer, Kenny Aronoff, to tour the last record. I wouldn’t be able to do any extensive touring with them, but I would love to make another record. I love the creative process, and I hope that we can do that in the future. But right now there’s no plans for any new Chickenfoot stuff.
Why exactly are there no penguins in Alaska?!
Is that true? There’s a lot of moose. I’ve seen them. They wander the streets. I came out and they were in the parking lot of a gig that we played in Anchorage. I think Sarah Palin has scared all the penguins away.
Which album was the most fun to make?
Blood Sugar Sex Magik was a really fun one to make. We were working with Rick [Rubin] up in that house in Hollywood. We were just firing on all cylinders. Everybody was in a good place, playing exciting music. I had just met my first wife. I remember it being quick and easy. That was the first time the band captured, properly, sounding how we do when we play in a room together.
The first Chickenfoot record was fun. We were working with Andy Johns, who recorded a lot of Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones records; all kinds of people. He had great stories. It was just exciting because we were doing a new thing, but it had a lot of energy and [we] put a lot of creative input into songs we were making.
Didn’t you record with Johnny Cash at some point, too?
— Rolling Stone
Yeah, I did. I had the good fortune of doing a session with him. One night, Rick had him and he was doing American Recordings, his first record that he had recorded all with this voice and guitar. And then [Rick] thought it might be interesting to do the songs with a band.
One night, I was having dinner and Rick says, “What are you doing? Can you come down to the studio and record with Johnny Cash tonight?” The phone is, like, hanging; I’m all the way out the door. I was the first one in the studio. I walked into the tracking room and there’s a little vocal booth that’s like a little closet. Johnny Cash is standing in the vocal booth with a guitar and glasses down on his nose. And I walk up – and I’m sure I was like a stuttering 12-year-old – and I’m like, “Uh, Mr. Cash, my name’s Chad. I’m the drummer.” He turns to me and he goes, in that voice, “Hi, I’m Johnny Cash.” I was like, yeah I know! Immediately, though, he put me at ease. He’s so cool, and we were like peers right off the bat.
He asked me, “What do you think of us doing this song tonight? This is one Dolly Parton gave me called “Bird on a Wire.” And he starts playing it and I’m standing a foot away from him and he’s singing the whole song, and finishes it and I’m like, “That sounds great.” And he’s like, “This is another one that Danzig boy that Rick knows, it’s called ‘Thirteen.’ He wants me to do this. What do you think of this?” Sings me the whole song. I’m getting a private Johnny Cash acoustic concert in a little vocal booth, and I just met the man. He was so gracious and open and sharp and funny. We played five or six songs that night. Some of them came out. We did a Neil Young song, “Heart of Gold,” and we did a couple other covers. It was probably one of the highlights of my career, whatever that means.
Whether it’s a drummer or not, who is the one person in the entire world that had inspired you the most?
Probably my father and my brother. My dad, for his work ethic. I grew up outside of Detroit, and he worked for Ford Motor Company for 32 years. I think he enjoyed his work but it was hard, and that left quite an impression on me. Nothing is handed to you. Fortunately, I found something that I love at an early age. It doesn’t feel like work to me, but you do have to put in the hours and you do have to work hard.
And then my brother was two years older than me. He loved music and played the guitar. Those drummers I spoke about earlier, those were all records that he had. He really took me under his wing, and luckily he had good taste. Later on, he turned me on to the Police, all kinds of different music. But at an early age he was really influential. I looked up to my brother and we’re still very close. So yeah, those are the two men of the Smith family. My mom’s not gonna like that. But I don’t think she gets online too much with Rolling Stone.
If you could choose a superpower, what would it be?
Oooh, X-ray vision. [Laughs] That’s all I’m gonna say about that. Use your imagination.
How would you sum up your career in three words?
Just. Getting. Started.