On the Road

Chad Smith’s voice trembles and quakes like he’s standing upon an angry fault line.

"It’s a bumpy road," he says.

It always is.

Laying in the back of his band’s van, the Hemlock singer/bassist is in a familiar position, barreling down the highway, en route to another gig, spending almost as much time on the road as the asphalt itself.

"It’s a different adventure every day," he chuckles.

Those adventures include lots of junk food — today it was Jack in the Box — all-night drives, the thick aroma of sweaty socks in cramped confines, the occasional broken axle.

And then there was that time when the van ran out of gas in the vast open plains of Southwestern Texas.

"We were stranded in the middle of the night with no cell phone service," Smith recalls. "We had to do the old fashioned thing and wave down a car. They’d pull over and see a group of raggedy looking guys and take off."

Smith chuckles as he recollects some of his band’s touring mishaps, sounding like a war vet proudly flaunting his battle scars.

"I’m mister over-optimistic about everything," he says of his band’s occasional van woes. "I’m like, ‘C’mon, man, who cares? Let’s get that fixed and get to the next town.’ There’s always drama."

And there’s always another show somewhere for these heavy metal vagabonds, who call Vegas home in the loosest of terms. Last year, Hemlock toured for eight months straight, a grueling stretch for a then-unsigned band, all sleeping in the same hotel room every night, strip-mining one another’s nerves raw, hitting towns you’ve never heard of.

It’s a life of sore backs, callused hands and that dislocated feeling of waking up in a new city most days of the year.

Hemlock has toured at this pace for the past seven or eight years, making the rounds with heavyweights like Slayer, Hatebreed, Disturbed and just about every other band you’ll see on "Headbanger’s Ball."

The group has made a name for itself by stopping in places where other acts seldom play, from cornfields in Iowa to Indian reservations in New Mexico.

"We hit a lot of weird markets that bands don’t go to, and those kids there love it more because they appreciate you coming," Smith says. "We play all the big cities, but we also go out of our way to play places like Roswell, N.M.; Victorville, Calif.; Fallon, Nev. We play a lot of the Indian reservations. A lot of them don’t have cars, but they’re like the hugest metal fans there are. We do really, really good out in that circuit."

Of course, success is relative when fighting for attention on the road. Smith hasn’t had a day job in six years, and steady income can be precarious when relying mostly on merchandise sales to make ends meet.

"We’ve had a couple of guys fall off in the past just because they couldn’t hang on the road or finances weren’t flowing in," Smith says. "You never know with a tour how many blowouts you’re gonna have or how many kids are going to buy T-shirts that night. I always tell everybody that it’s kind of a gamble. Some of the shows will do really, really well, we’ll do $2,000 or $3,000 in merch, get paid $3,000 or $4,000. But then some of the shows where nobody knows who you are, you’ll be lucky if you walk out of there with $150. That’s barely enough to break even on the day."

Still, Hemlock, formed in 1993, has made real headway in recent years, selling 10,000 copies of the band’s latest, self-released album, 2004’s "Bleed the Dream," a disc that screams to life with caustic, chip-on-the-shoulder thrash colored by catchy, thick-muscled riffs and the ill temper of a disgruntled landlord.

"Nobody knows what a killer looks like!" Smith growls on the teeth-gnashing "My Eyes Itch," sounding as if he’s towering above you, spitting the words in your face, ready to scratch your eyes out.

The success of the disc recently landed the band a deal with Candlelight Records, an indie metal label home to such heavyweights as Entombed, Destruction and Pro-Pain, with whom Hemlock recently completed its first European tour.

"We’ve done what we can in the last 14 years, but we’ve never had anybody to help us to get it to that next level," Smith says of being signed to a label for the first time. "It’s just awesome to have somebody out there help fight the fight."

It’s a long way from the band’s do-it-yourself origins.

"When we started, I didn’t even have a computer, so we didn’t even know how to make a flier," Smith recalls. "I’d just grab a piece of paper and a pen and draw. We didn’t know how to book a show, because there wasn’t really a ton of places to play here, just bars, and I was 15 years old.

"But we just figured it out as we went," he continues. "We started making vinyl signs and tying them to the side of freeways, whatever we could do to promote and get it out there. A lot of bands will get their 50 or 100 bucks from playing the bar circuit and they’ll go out and buy cases of beer and party. We were always like, ‘Let’s take that money and buy a new batch of T-shirts for the next show.’ We’d always tried to be smart about it. We just kind of made it up as we went."

And the band is still doing as much, still spending most days in the company of offramps and truck stops. Like many of the places they play, they’re out there, just waiting to be found.

"We’ve covered a lot of ground, but I’m still always fishing for that other market that nobody knows about, where there’s a bunch of kids who are bored, the middle of nowhere," Smith says.

"We’re not gonna give up," he adds, a few hours from Reno on yet another tour. "We’re gonna keep truckin’ along."

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