Brandon Smith is an absolutely massive part of the Beat Drop Community. In addition to teaching Synthesis, Sound Design and Keyboard Fundamentals, he is the head technician at the Beat Drop Repair Shop. Brandon is an active member of Calgary's music scene and plays keyboards in several bands. Yet, somehow he finds time to work at the National Music Centre, a cornerstone of the Calgary scene and "a national catalyst for discovery, innovation and renewal through music." We sat down with Brandon recently to find out a little more about him and his life as a professional musician. P.S. Brandon can I please borrow your Minimoog?
BD: Tell us about yourself. Where are you from? Where do you call home?
BS: I was born in Cold Lake, and moved to Calgary after I finished music school in Nelson BC. Spent lots of time growing up in Ontario but now call Calgary home.
BD: What rules do you try to live your life by?
BS: Try not to be a jerkface.
"I’ve always tried to take a stance of respecting music that I’m not totally into, and being unashamed about the music that I do like"
BD: What are your values?
BS: It’s important as a musician to contribute to your local scene in a meaningful way. In this business there can be all sorts of ego and constant comparisons – whether it’s “this band is better than that one” or “this producer makes better beats than this guy”. I’ve always tried to take a stance of respecting music that I’m not totally into, and being unashamed about the music that I do like, regardless of whether or not it’s “hip” at the moment. I have certainly heard music that is just offensively bad (to me), and yes, I’ll have a little fun laughing at it. All music has its place and everything has its fans and detractors. The real innovators in music are often the ones that aren’t very well received initially. So, um, yeah don’t be afraid to like what you like – and remember popular opinion isn’t always the best one.
BD: Describe a highlight of your musical career?
BS: Opening for B.B King, Kool & the Gang and others and sitting in with Sonny Rhodes and Russell Jackson. Playing a gig at the grand opening of a Zehrs grocery store in Sarnia Ontario is a very close second.
BD: What was your biggest musical failure?
BS: I can’t think of any big “failures”. I’ve been kicked out of bands, quit bands, and have them otherwise just dissolve, but that’s just part of finding my niche. There were plenty of concept recordings, albums etc. that never got off the ground. But each of those was a valuable learning experience in its own right. Sometimes you have to throw a bunch of @#$% at the wall until something sticks, as the saying goes. There was a XXX-rated band (whose name I shall not repeat here) that I was part of in college. We covered some very explicit material (Easy-E, Blowfly etc.) Not really a failure, but we only ever played 2 gigs and I always wished we had done more. Perhaps a reunion tour is in order….
"It is way too easy to become complacent once your band starts getting gigs"
BD: What do you fear most professionally?
BS: Stagnation. It is way too easy to become complacent once your band starts getting gigs. As tough as it is to schedule rehearsals, learn new tunes and keep writing original tunes – bands who don’t tend to settle into a comfort zone and never progress further. Too many bands rely on the same 3 sets of repertoire, but it’s that drive to stay fresh that separates the serious career musicians from the weekend warriors.
BD: What other projects are you involved in outside of Beat Drop?
BS: I play keyboards with various bands and projects in Calgary and Edmonton. These include The Rondel Roberts band, Trackzilla, Wake the Town, JK & the Static, Shadow Government, The Mocking Shadows and Sammy Jean and the Samsonites. In addition to the bands I do side work as a session player, primarily for friends who run recording studios. I also work part-time at the National Music Centre, and have done many things there over the years including working as a tour guide, sound tech and recording engineer.
"Focus on the song writing aspect of music first and nit-pick over the sounds later"
BD: Can you share a music production or DJing tip?
BS: My music production tip is simple: I like to focus on the song writing aspect of music first and nit-pick over the sounds later. When musical inspiration hits I don’t want to waste time trying to figure out which synth to use or what sound works the best. As long as the idea is there in MIDI, you can always fiddle around with that stuff later. I’m also a firm believer in writing on something very basic like a piano. If the song can be conveyed well acoustically using just piano and voice, the production becomes re-enforcement rather than a crutch to be relied upon to make a song more interesting. Oh and buy at least 1 piece of hardware! Plugins are great and all, but there’s just something about playing a physical instrument that causes you to approach it differently.
BD: What drives you to pursue your passion?
BS: From an early age I’ve always felt that music is what I was put on this earth to do. I really can’t picture myself doing anything else. At the end of the day, it’s a desire to do something meaningful with my life and share my passion with others.
"From an early age I’ve always felt that music is what I was put on this earth to do"
BD: Can you share a personal Beat Drop story with us?
BS: Beat Drop found me through the National Music Centre. A while back, I gave Mitch Lee and a few of the other Beat Drop staff and friends a tour of the collection. I guess I must have made a good impression, before I knew it I was part of the Beat Drop crew!
BD: Favourite/least Food?
BS: I’m not a very picky eater; I love all sorts of ethnic food – Indian, Mexican, Japanese, and Pho etc. I also really like Pappa John’s pizza and southern style BBQ. Smoked brisket is where it’s at. The only things I find off-putting are boiled eggs and pineapple on pizza.
BD: Do you read in the bathroom?
BS: There’s a Far Side anthology that’s been in our bathroom since the beginning of time. Those comics will never get old.
BD: Who are you listening on high rotation?
BS: “Keep on Loving Me” by the Whispers has been on a constant loop for the last few weeks. I’ve also been on digging on Blood Orange and of course, listening to lots and lots of Prince. R.I.P
BD: Favourite part of working at Beat Drop?
BS: To have people come up to me after completing a course and tell me how it’s helped them get the sounds they want or play the keyboard parts they want is very gratifying. The inspiration goes the other way too – sometimes a student will ask “why can’t we do X this way…” and I’ll scratch my noggin and go “hmmm….yeah why can’t we?” These days technology has levelled the playing field so much that it’s not as much a matter of having the best equipment or the most experience – it’s about fresh ideas and a desire to figure out how to make them happen.
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