Growing up in rural Georgia, American rocker Tuk Smith cut his musical teeth on a diet of punk rock and hardcore. Spending nine years as frontman of Atlanta rockers Biters, Smith is back with his debut EP, Lookin’ For Love, Ready For War.
From sleeping on floors and washing dishes to working with Butch Walker, one of the biggest producers in commercial rock, Tuk has more than earned his stripes in the music business. Ahead of the release of his new single, we chatted with the man himself to find out more about the EP, his musical influences, and what it is that keeps pushing him on.
Hey Tuk, thanks for your time, how are you?
Tuk Smith: “I’m good, thanks, I appreciate your time.”
Likewise. So you’ve got the new single out, “Same Old You,” but this is a new chapter for you after Biters. That being the case, what are you most looking forward to about the future?
“Well, I was looking forward to releasing the record and touring, you know, start promoting and touring.”
What’s it like where you are?
“Not everything’s locked down. Like, Georgia is a Republican state and they’re pretty relaxed on the whole thing for like the small home town. Where I’m from there’s never been any masks and nothing’s ever been closed. It’s just been open the whole time. Where I live now though, it’s been pretty strict, no shows, no concerts, but I tell you, man, people are partying.”
“Yes. It’s different rules in different cities. So I think nobody is quite sure as it is different wherever you’re from. We have the problem that there’s not one voice so that’s going to make touring really hard because there are different people involved in every state.”
Onto the new single then, what can you tell us about it?
“It’s a song about a relationship gone wrong but nothing changes while you kind of view it from the outside.”
Could you relate it to any of your time in Biters and your experiences there?
“That song? The thing is, it’s not necessarily about a romantic relationship. Yeah, it can be viewed that way. People I’ve dealt with and seeing people given second chances. It’s definitely something you see a lot. I mean I’ve come away with plenty of scars so it could be biography from that period of my life.”
Like you said, you’ve come away with plenty of scars but what about good memories?
“I had a lot of good memories. I mean that band was around for nine years. I lived in a van with those guys. I’m still good friends with all of them. Yeah, lots of good memories.”
Going back to your growing up. I believe you grew up on a diet of bands like Black Flag and The Exploited?
“Yeah, I was really into punk rock.”
What was it that drew you into hardcore and punk?
“Growing up, rural Georgia was really economically repressed like a super poor place. The people there are very, very Christian. There was a lot of racism, a lot of homophobia, a lot of ignorance. So, punk really spoke to me because I was just inherently born wanting to rebel and piss people off more than anything.”
Onto the album then. You’ve worked with Butch Walker who has worked with some of the biggest commercial pop rock acts like Green Day and P!nk and people like that. What did you learn from working with him?
“That’s a good question, you know. I write a lot of songs on my own and then, after, I feel like I’ve kind of done what I do. I like to go with carefully selected people that I respect, right? So, getting a ride with somebody like Butch Walker, it’s kind of like I’m going to college for a day. You find out how their brain works, see what the magic is in the man. I tell you what I learned from him though, maybe sometimes I take shit too seriously. He really relies on his instincts and some of the decisions we made on that song were super quick. So, yeah, trust your instincts.”
How different is it to when you were writing with Biters?
“In Biters it was different because I was working with a band. Everybody wanted to feel like part of it. You’re dealing with different egos. Working with a band is a lot different to being a solo artist. Usually, for all the songs, I would sit at my piano and write them. I never really co-wrote anything in Biters.”
In terms of artists, like you said you grew up on hardcore and punk. Who would you ultimate collaboration be with?
“I don’t know. I mean a lot of my heroes are dead. So, Phil Lynott. Tom Petty. I would love to work with Joan Jett. Maybe too many to name them all but, I have always been a number one fan of the classics.”
Given the diversity of your music tastes, what can we expect from the album musically?
“It’s pretty diverse for me. In my previous band ,I was kind of stuck to this one genre. I did a country tune and I did like some power pop glam and it pissed a lot of people off. You’ll notice that sometimes, when you’re in a niche kind of band like that, you do little things differently and your fans backlash but, with this, I don’t really have to worry about it. Basically, what I’m saying is that there is some glam, there’s punk of course, power pop, there’s some soul and a country song on there. I got to showcase a little more of what I love but it’s also, you know, just hooky rock n’ roll.”
Could you tell us what inspired the title?
“When I sat down and wrote this record I just loved the phrase. It’s kind of a motto that I live by. The way I grew up was super hostile, violent, and really crazy then you try to grow out of that and become a good person. I did a lot to change who I am and be who I want. So, it’s kind of coming from both worlds. It’s also quite fitting for the time of the moment then with what’s going on worldwide.”
What has been inspiring you lyrically?
“I had written like 20 to 30 songs myself and I started doing a couple co-writes with people then I started reading the Bruce Springsteen autobiography. Ok, I was kind of a Springsteen fan. I was like, oh he’s ok. I read the autobiography and I got hooked on it and I started just listening to all those early Springsteen records. Lyrically, that was a big inspiration. I listen to a lot of different American songwriters because it’s great to kind of branch out. The album has just kind of got a bit of everything, a little bit of pop on it, rock, a real mix.”
What do you think the album offers rock music in 2020 and what do you think a rock fan would get out of if they picked it up and didn’t know your musical history?
“I think my goal with the record was to play and write the music I love but make it sound so fucking good. So, even if you weren’t a fan of the genre you would want to listen to it.”
What are your ambitions as a musician?
“I want to tour until I’m burnt completely and then it’d be nice to be able to chill out and produce bands and stuff like that. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I love collaborating. I love producing. I love writing. Love touring. So, to keep doing it as long as I can.”
Are there any other new bands that you’ve heard that you think people should be checking out?
“There’s been a resurgence of power pop and punk rock n’ roll bands. There’s a band from the UK called Bad Nerves I really like. There’s a band called The Speedways which are what I classify as power pop. There is a band called Wildlife. There are tons, there’s a bubbling underground scene that isn’t getting any kind of love but, hopefully, a scene can start growing. I guess that’s affected by what’s going on at the moment. There is a network of bands who just can’t do anything. It’s not helping. It’s really hard. If you’re trying to do your own stuff, you’ve got to be super motivated.”
What’s it like being on the other side of the mixing desk and being a producer? What do you try and tell bands from your own experiences?
“I think we connect because, being in a band for my whole life and touring and being broke and sleeping on floors, I’m coming from that place. You know, when I started Biters I was washing the dishes so I’m able to relate. It’s almost like you’re part therapist. You’re in there and you wouldn’t believe how many times I’m working with these bands and their life depends on the money they’re using to record. It is all they have and so temperatures get high and people argue. To me, I can relate to exactly how they’re feeling. I feel like sometimes they trust me a little more to let me kind of get in there and be the extra member, right? You know what though, as far as producing, I wouldn’t want to produce my own records. You always got to have an outside ear that you trust.”
Just from your own experiences, what was the most important lesson you’ve learned about the music business and about yourself?
“Taking responsibility. I used to blame everybody and a lot of the things that I fucked up or haven’t got have been because of the decisions I’ve made. How I’ve acted childish. I have learned that the sooner you can take responsibility, the sooner you can move forward because the music business is a mean, mean motherfucker. You have to really want to do it. You have to really love it.”
What are your hopes for the future then?
“I don’t know man. I’m playing rock n’ roll in 2020 and it’s not the sexiest thing to the music industry. So, if you’re playing rock n’ roll right now, you’ve really got to love it. It’s a labour of love.”
I was going to ask. What drives you to keep doing this? Is it a labour of love or is there something else that keeps you doing it?
“Certainly for not the gold chains. At this point, I’m on autopilot. I love it so much. It’s just such a part of my life. It’s what keeps me waking up in the morning knowing I’m going to sit in from the piano to write a song. It’s what gives me a purpose and everybody needs a purpose.”
That’s the strange thing though, isn’t it? People use music as an outlet for shitty situations but, in the shitty situation we’re in at the moment, stopping people playing music and playing gigs makes it a catch-22 situation.
“Yeah, it’s really weird. You know, I talked to some people at my label and they say streaming is up. So people are listening to more music because, yeah, more than ever right now it does give an escape. I think when it opens back up and they start playing shows, I think we’re going to see people happy. Hopefully, they’ve realized that they kind of took this for granted and start really supporting live music again. Not just the bigger artists either. You know, everything happens for a reason, and it’s crazy now but it’ll get better.”
Given these difficult times for everyone, as a musician, is it rewarding to be able to get music out there?
“The album was supposed to come out in June and what it took me to get that record out was the hardest thing I’ve had to do. I was so proud, so excited, and then, bam, COVID hit. So yeah, it was a real psychological blow but you eat that and accept that I’m sitting at home for the next six months or a year. I got it. It’s made me realize to not take this for granted. Also, I don’t think fans know how important they are to the ecosystem. Without the fans then there is no artist so everybody who downloaded, streamed, bought a record, or comes to my shows, blows me away. Thank you.”