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Digging Deeper: An interview with Roy Schmall (Smoke Inc.)

For this edition in our Digging Deeper series we had the pleasure of speaking with Roy Schmall from the band Smoke Inc. Their 7”, ‘Waitin’ For Love / It’s the Same Old Song’, heralds the launch of a new 7” series from Mr Bongo. In partnership with London-based DJ and digger, miche, the series will feature his latest discoveries, as well as choice cuts, taken from his 'With Love' compilations. For the inaugural offering, we take a trip to hazy San Francisco, California, in 1977. Smoke, Inc. were an emerging band in the Greater San Francisco Bay area and a regular fixture in the buzzing live music scene.

‘Waitin’ For Love’ is an incredible, soulful AOR glide that is well due another round of appreciation. It’s very rare, and consequently very expensive, so, 46 years since its original release, it is our privilege to help Roy and the gang’s light shine once again and let a whole new audience relish the beautiful sounds they created.

Let’s go back to the start, who were the members / players in Smoke Inc., and where did you guys all meet?

The band’s core was: Stan Terry, vocals/harmonica; Ollie Shotka, Bass and vocals; Keith Stafford, drums and vocals; Roy Schmall, keys and vocals; Lloyd Gregory, guitar; Archie Williams, guitar; Terry Haggerty, guitar; Carlos Alverez, percussion. We all met in Marin County, just north of San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge. Stan and Ollie were playing in another band and I was playing with Kathi McDonald who went on to take Janice Joplins place in Big Brother and the Holding Co. We all had a mutual friend, Snooky Flowers, a baritone sax player who played with Janice at Woodstock, who, recruited Ollie and me to play in his band with Lloyd. After that band broke up, Snooky became our “coach” and, along with Stan and Tim Blain, our manager, helped with getting the rest of the Smoke band together. All our artwork was done by Pat Ryan, who was one of the original San Francisco poster artists.

What was the Bay Area musical scene like when Smoke Inc. formed?

San Francisco had a great music and art scene in the 1960’s. Great venues to play at and lots of musicians to play with. The “peace and love” movement started getting taken over by bad drugs. Mostly speed and heroin. That’s when a lot of musicians and artists moved to Marin County. It had a few world class recording studios where many hits of the day were recorded. The Record Plant and Studio D just to name two.

We read a press release that listed some impressive names that band members had worked with, how did this come about?

We got to open for and occasionally got to play with: Sly and the Family Stone, Rick James, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Burning Spear, Frank Zappa, Bob Marley and others that came thru town.

Who were your personal musical influences?

Some of my musical influences were: Dr John, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Leon Russell, Booker T, Elton John, among other blues and rhythm and blues players.

Did you guys build a following as a live band and then progress to recording music, or was the recording element there from the start?

We got known for our live shows up and down the west coast, but we were always recording whenever we got the chance. We had our own studio that we would rehearse and record whenever we were around home.

Did you have a live band residency?

No residency, but we were in rotation in most of the Bay Area clubs.

Discogs lists 2 x 7” and a 12” EP as your recorded output, was there more? How much is still in the vaults?

The 7” and 12” EP were recorded in major studios: Wally Heiders and the Record Plant, but we had a bunch of songs recorded at our studio that never made it to vinyl.

You released ‘Waitin’ For Love’ in 1977, what can you tell us about the writing and recording process?

I came up with the music to ‘Waiting For Love’ at my home studio. I gave the music to Stan and he wrote the lyrics. Took the song to our studio where we all learned it. We thought it could be a hit so we booked Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco and recorded the 4 songs on the 2 x 7” records.

How was the 7” received by the public, radio and music press at the time of release?

We got lots of airplay on all of the stations that were around then. At that time, there was no internet so the stations were pretty localised. We got written up in all the publications that were around the Bay Area and was voted best Independent band by BAM (Bay Area Musician) Magazine.

Did you get to tour outside of the Bay Area?

We did tour up and down the West Coast, but stayed mostly in the Bay Area.

What do you think when you see just how much people are paying for an original copy of the 7” now? (Someone paid close to $3,000 for one!)

The amount of money people are willing to spend for these records is pretty nuts. Sure wish I had more copies of the originals.

Why did it take 5 years from when the first 7”s to come out until the 12” EP was released in 1982?

We did a lot of original songs and recorded them in our studio. Never pressed any of them. Wish we did.

What happened after the release of that EP?

After the release of the EP we got lots of airplay and it was in all the mainstream and independent record stores that were around at the time. Unfortunately, the band didn’t last long after that.

How do you feel about the renewed interest in your music?

It feels great to have people listening again after all these years. I never would have expected it. I guess if you have a good song it’s always out there. It’s just too bad most of my old bandmates aren’t around to see it.

Thanks to Roy for his time and the music, and thanks to Sarah and Kani, Stanford's widow and daughter, for their assistance. Big love to miche for putting us onto this killer release and for making the introductions.

Be sure to check out the 7” Waitin’ For Love / It’s the Same Old Song’ HERE. Released on Mr Bongo, August 25th.