Chas Smith

Composer, performer, and instrument designer Chas Smith has appeared on dozens of feature film scores, rock, jazz, and blues albums playing pedal steel guitar and organ, but since the 1990s he concentrates on his impressive metallic sound sculptures. Following in Harry Partch's footsteps, he builds his own instruments, structures that can be struck or bowed in various places, and writes for them. He is an acolyte of Rick Cox, Michael Jon Fink, and Jim Fox, all revolving around the label Cold Blue. His music, eery soundscapes both soothing and haunting, can be heard on Nikko Wolverine (2000) and Aluminum Overcast (2001). Smith's mother was the church organist for the First Congregational Church, so he went through piano lessons starting at the age of eight. He got his first taste of the electric guitar when he heard Link Wray's "Rumble" on American Bandstand and at age 14 dropped the piano. The guitarist started to play in a few rock & roll bands and even played Hammond B3 organ on porno movie soundtracks in the early '70s, but he had higher aspirations. Smith enrolled at Berklee Music School in Boston as a pianist to study jazz composition but dropped out before completing his first year. A couple years later, after hearing Morton Subotnik's "Silver Apples of the Moon," he left his native New England and moved to California to attend CalArts, where the composer was teaching. He also studied privately with Mel Powell, James Tenney, Earl Brown, and Harold Budd (he played on the latter's The Room and Serpent in Quicksilver). He graduated in 1975 and completed his M.F.A. in music composition in 1977. Soon he began to perform pedal steel guitar on various film scores, an activity that would become increasingly important for him during the late '80s and '90s (he appeared on American Beauty and The Shawshank Redemption, to name only two). He also became a regular member of John Trubee & the Ugly Janitors of America and Tokyo 77, while contributing to dozens of albums, including some by Neil Mooney, Ethan James, and Carol Caroompas (he even recorded a session with punk rockers the Pagans). In the mid-'70s, Smith began to work as a professional welder and machinist. His first experimentations in instrument design date from that period, even though he had been modifying his guitars since the '60s. A large chime made of aluminum tubes set to 45 tones to the octave was used on his first full-length release Nakadai (1987). Still, it took him some time to master this aspect of his artistic vision. The first of his elaborate structures, the Bass Tweed, was completed in 1993 and put together from junk metal pieces. From that point on Smith focused his activities around his sculptures, devoting to them two albums on Cold Blue in the early 2000s. ~ François Couture, Rovi