“I really love the way we construct our set, the way that we play through the set and the way we engage the fans while we’re playing.”
Few drummers are as versatile as Nate Smith. The Chesapeake, Virginia musician can get locked in the pocket for some kickass funk music, or can be abstract and multifaceted while playing a jazz tune. His approach can be everything, or in between.
The proof of these claims is an extensive body of work which consists of playing with a variety of musicians and bands for more than 20 years. Smith’s main project is with his band Kinfolk, which will take the stage at the Sinclair on Dec. 8. Los Angeles native and current New York City-based singer and composer Michael Mayo will open the show.
Smith and I spoke ahead of time about his college studies, making music for documentaries, being part of a unique art event, all those collaborations he’s done, and already jumping on next year’s festival circuit.
You studied media art and design as an undergrad at James Madison University, so have you used this experience to form the art around your music either with album covers, flier design, or anything else? How have you translated your studying of media art & design into your music career?
Media and art back in the day was called “mass communications,” that was my major. I took media art and design closer to my senior year and one of the things I learned from it is this idea of putting a message into your art, putting the message out to the audience and having the audience provide feedback from the message. That’s one of the central themes of mass communication—you make the message, you produce it, you send it out to the audience, and then the audience gives you feedback.
One of the things that I have discovered along the way as a bandleader is that music is a two-way street and the audience is part of the equation. Everything that you make, all the records you make, all the content you produce, all your socials, it’s designed for a particular audience.
You should pay attention to what the audience says when you put that music out, those social posts out, and content out because they’re letting you know if your message is reaching them effectively or not. That’s probably the main thing I’ve learned from my media art and design background.
You’ve composed soundtracks for broadcast documentaries on both Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel, so when it comes to this kind of approach to music where you’re accompanying it with a film, how does the process go for you? Do you have to do anything different than what you would do to write a song or is it all fairly similar?
The process is a little different when writing for a picture generally because it’s a collaborative process, you’re usually working with a director or producers. They’ll come to you first with an idea, they’ll tell you what the story is about along with the scenes and maybe even a script for you to check out. If you’re lucky, they’ll give you time to compose a few things with those ideas in mind. When you’re writing for your band and when you’re writing for your album, you can start with an idea and a story you want to tell but it’s usually your own story. It kind of goes back to the idea of putting a message into the music, whether you’re reading the script or watching the picture you have to find a way to tell that story musically in the same way that you would tell your own stories, it’s not that different but it’s just a different starting point.
Back in October, you were part of this immersive experience called Volumes created by visual artist and musician Ezra Masch at the Icebox Project Space in Philadelphia. On social media there’s a video of you performing at it while doing some hand drumming with a bunch of lights hanging from the ceiling flickering to the beats. How did you get involved in this and what was it like being part of this unique event?
Oh man, Ezra is a really brilliant artist. I think this was actually his second time performing this installation, he’d been working with a lot of other drummers and the way the project is designed is that there’s actually microphones on each drum. Each microphone is EQ’d to a very specific frequency and the frequency is what triggers the different lights so the high frequency triggers a different set of lights than the low frequencies do with the main frequency triggering a different set of lights altogether. It was really cool, Ezra reached out to my team and said, Hey, we’d love to have Nate as part of this exhibition. I saw some video from the prior exhibits which looked pretty cool and when I showed up it was great, it was in a huge space, it was very loud and very dynamic so it was a perfect environment for that kind of light show where you could actually see a physical representation of what the sound was doing.
You’ve performed and collaborated with a lot of different musicians and bands including Robin Eubanks, Jose James, Takuya Kuroda, Paul Simon, Brittney Howard from Alabama Shakes and the Vulfpeck spin-off band the Fearless Flyers. What would you say is the most fulfilling collaboration you’ve done so far in your career?
That’s a tough one, that’s a really tough question. I gotta say the most fulfilling one is the music I make for my own band because it’s my personal story being put to music. I get to honor my family, I get to honor the people who’ve passed on in my family, and it’s very personal so it is very fulfilling to be able to play that. I’ve really enjoyed working with Brittney Howard since I met her back in 2018, she’s a fantastic musician and a great songwriter. She’s one of the coolest people and a very humble, down-to-earth person but also a real bonafide rock star. She’s just the realest deal, but I hope there are many more fulfilling projects in the future too. Hopefully I’m just getting started.
When it comes to these collaborations that you’ve done, have you ever taken parts of that experience with another artist and put it forth with the music you make with Kinfolk? Has it ever fueled that equation?
Yeah, it actually has. When I was working with the Fearless Flyers, one of the things I really love about playing with them is how enthusiastic the audience is. How well constructed the set is, how we really use that enthusiasm from the audience and keep it building throughout the show. I really love the way we construct our set, the way that we play through the set and the way we engage the fans while we’re playing. That’s one of the things I’ve taken into Kinfolk, this idea of a jazz show, even though we used the term jazz loosely because it’s improvised music but it covers a lot of different styles—that can still be incredibly entertaining for the audience.
It can still be a lot of fun to come and see people play music. I think it should be fun and there’s a component of playing music that’s obviously art but it’s also entertainment. People are paying their hard-earned money to come see us play so we should give them a show.
After this short run of shows with Kinfolk that includes a stop at the Sinclair on Dec. 8, what are your plans going into 2023?
[It is] going to be a very cool year. We got a few gigs on the books already but we’re not going to be doing any long touring. I don’t predict that at this point but we’re going to Japan for the first time as a band in March. It looks like we’re going to do the Java Jazz Festival in June and we’re going to do a few new festivals too including the Big Ears Festival in March along with some smaller ones. We’re also doing the Savannah Music Festival in April, so we got a few things going on. I’m not sure exactly when we’re going to record the next album but it’ll be coming soon.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.