Many people know Steven Smith from his hosting of Steven’s Untitled Rock Show and the podcast Going Off Track. While it can be easy to brand someone like Steven that ‘host dude’ or ‘music guy’, a quick listen to his podcast shows that he is a modern day Renaissance man. Week by week Steven’s deep knowledge of all topics comes to light as he chats with a wide variety of guests on Going Off Track. We had a chance to speak with Steven about growing up in the DC area, his deep love of comics, and some of the crazy things you may have seen him in.
You have been an outspoken fan of comics, what were your first comic book experiences?
Yeah, comics are my jam. My first encounter with comics was around 3 or 4 years old. It was a Superfriends comic. I still have it, pretty crumpled up but now it’s all protected in mylar. I was a fan of the cartoon but my actual first real memory is of the 1960s Batman. It was the Mr. Freeze episode and I distinctly remember sitting on the floor in blue pajamas watching Adam West as the Caped Crusader. Had a real profound effect on me. I was Batman for Halloween for a good ten years. Then I started being the Crow. Same difference.
In listening to your hosting gigs and interviews, you have a sharp sense of recall of facts when it comes to comics, music, and things in general. Do you think comics helped to form that foundation?
Absolutely. Nerds remember things. When you get into something you want to know everything about it so you delve but you don’t even realize you’re delving. I approached music the same way I looked at comics, with love and fervor. I had to know it all, course now I can’t remember song titles but I’m good on track listings!
What are you digging right now comics-wise?
Saga, Saga, and Saga. Brian K. Vaughan does it again! I’m a huge fan of his and all his books. I can’t believe he dropped this on us. It’s so good. Warren Ellis is my all time favorite but I’m a trader waiter so it takes me a bit to catch up. Chew is amazing and I’m a lifelong Hellboy fan. Hellboy in Hell is exceptional.
You grew up around the Metro DC area. What was the scene like when you were getting involved and who were your gateway bands?
My formative years were indeed in Northern Virginia, which is a complete separate state from Southern VA. No accents. I would love to say I was ankle deep in the scene but I just wasn’t that cool. My friends were but my parents wouldn’t let me go to shows on school nights so I missed all of the Three Bands for Three Bucks shows at the old 9:30. I never went to DC Space. I really wasn’t cool. I did first hear about Fugazi in 87 but it took me a couple years to listen to them. My best friend, to this day, got me into punk and out of my heavy metal phase. It was Minor Threat that did it for me. The first time I heard them it was as if clouds parted and the sun shown down. I was like, “OH, I get it now. This is what I like.” And I never went back. I did go to some more DC shows in the 90’s but I wouldn’t call that a heyday. Once I was into Minor Threat then I kind of went forward/backwards, getting into Embrace, Pailhed, Gorilla Biscuits, and of course Misfits, plus I was a pretty big Ministry fan and idolized Faith No More. Still do. And the Ramones. I saw Rock and Roll High School at 13 but didn’t fully understand their majesty until I was a few years older and got to see them.
Do you think growing up in the area set you up with particular set of scene ‘values’ or way you approached underground and independent music?
I would love to say “Yes! Definitely!” but I just never thought about it. Some bands were on major labels but most were on smaller ones. I never took the time to differentiate the two as everything I had was on a dubbed cassette. I didn’t have many CDS (they were just coming out – I’m OOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLDDDDDDD) but whatever we had, we would always devour the liner notes, see who the band thanked, then go buy those records. As for scene values, I was straight edge but only because I never drank or did anything. Saying that was just easier than saying I didn’t drink. My Southern Baptist Mother instilled in me at a young age that drinking was bad and I was pretty sheltered so it wasn’t until my senior year of college I tried beer.
You actually started in the business as an actor, studying theater for a number of years. Where did you study and when did the acting bug bite you?
I was indeed an actor, and a very bad one. But I had fun. Acting started at a very young age. I was actually a dancer before I was an actor. My Mother put me in ballet class when I was 4 after being diagnosed with hyperactive disorder. She didn’t want me on drugs so she stuck me in dance. I actually danced with a professional troupe by the time I was 8 then quit at 10. Acting kind of followed suit as I liked making people laugh. Couple that with a deep love of old Marx Bros films (Thanks Dad) and that’s a recipe for advanced silliness. I did a lot of theatre in high school but my first ever job was performing at the Kennedy Center when I was 17. Actual paying gig. I took the dough I made acting and bought a drum set. I have a BA in Theater from James Madison University where I studied all aspects of theater but my main focus was directing, which was what I thought I was going to do before I helped a friend of mine move to LA. Don’t help people move.
What ultimately led you to shift from acting to hosting?
The year was 1997, due to not partying in college, I made up for lost time in the bowels of Hollywood. I auditioned for a play at a local theater where I met a young lady who was a swing dance instructor. Remember this was 1997 and swing was the thing, for a minute. She and I are dancers in the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies “Zoot Suit Riot” video. I digress. She was a freelance host and I recall thinking, “I could do that.” I had done a few commercials and had a very reputable commercial agent so I asked them if they had a “microphone talky” department. I didn’t know what hosting was called. They said they did and when they asked if I had any experience I said, “Of course! Tons.” They bought it (or were being nice) and anyway, I went out on my first hosting audition and booked the damn thing. Next thing I knew I was interviewing Fat Boy Slim for Spin TV, something SPIN magazine was trying out. My knowledge of minutiae helped and I finally found something I was really comfortable doing. Acting was never comfortable to me because I’m terrible at being someone else but I’m pretty good at being me. That’s what hosting is. From that little gig, I cut together a little reel and then auditioned for every hosting gig in LA. Four years later I was hired at VH1. One of the casting directors I had seen when I first started auditioning remembered me and gave me my first shot. We’re still friends.
You have always had a good rapport with the bands you interview. There always appears to be a genuine mutual affection between you and the interviewee. What in your approach separates you from the typical interviewer?
That’s very kind of you to say. I generally like people and enjoy talking to them. One of the first big interviews I did way back at VH1 was with Tommy Lee and the producer mentioned how he didn’t expect it to go as conversationally as it did. If I had to say I have a style, it would be that. I’m very conversational. I don’t like interviews to feel like interviews because that’s boring to me. You get more interesting information just talking and not being an asshole. There’s just no point. I’ve had my share of dickheads and there are definitely interviews out there where you can tell I’m trying my best to hide my disdain for the jackass I’m talking to but sincerely, for the most part, people are cool. And if you’re cool then they will be too. Also, I feel a genuine sense of enthusiasm helps. If the guest mentions something I enjoy I usually pounce on it and try and broaden the conversation with follow-ups. Follow-ups are the key. It also helps when it comes to musicians that I know a little about music and am not just a talking head. Same with comics. I don’t do sports.
One of the reasons that Going Off Track stands apart from many other podcasts, especially music related podcasts, is your skills as a host. You can very easily hear how you keep conversations going or even shift to queries that will spur more conversation. How did you hone those skills? Did you have mentors that aided you?
Again, you’re very kind. It also helps to have the best co-host in the world be an incredibly well respected music journalist who not only knows everyone but is liked by everyone. Jonah Bayer is the heart and soul of Going Off Track and it wouldn’t exist without him. I need to rave about Jonah because he’s been the life-blood of our little show and had to do many shows solo this past year because I’ve been unable to be there sadly. He can do what I can’t which is fill out an hour just him and a guest. I need other people in the room. It was a cool thing to learn I do my best work in front of an audience but a hard lesson. Keeping the conversation shifting is something Jonah and I learned when we worked on Steven’s Untitled Rock Show together. When you do television there is always a pre-interview, usually done by the producer or the writer, rarely the host. When we did them we found that those interviews where the cameras weren’t rolling were a fuck of a lot more interesting than when they were. The conversation varied from what the guest was promoting to all kinds of random shit, so that was the point of the podcast, just letting the conversation happen organically with zero agenda. My skills were honed just from my years on TV and Jonah’s from writing. When I was at VH1 there was a host there named Aamer Haleem. He taught me so much, even how to stand next to a guest. We’re still close to this day. One of the cool things about working at Fuse was all hosts had to go to a coach. I loved it! Someone completely impartial who would go over what you thought was the best interview of your career and then give notes on it. I worked with a phenomenal woman named Amanda Schatz-Kitaeff. If you want to be on-camera, I couldn’t recommend her more. Coaching and class is so important. Everyone has a coach.
If you had to give 1 piece of advice to an aspiring podcaster or broadcaster, what would it be?
Be curious and sincere. That’s really it, and it’s harder than it looks. And be interested in a lot of things. I’ve always said a good host knows a little about a lot. One time I was interviewing, (watch your feet! here comes a name drop) Shakira, and we had a lovely conversation about Mesopotamian culture. Seriously. Also remember that it’s work, there are basic fundamentals you have to learn. When I first started, a very experienced host said to me, “If people think what we do is easy, then we’re doing our job.” And it’s true. A host is part of a team, your part is in front of the camera, or mic, or screen. There’s a troupe of people making everything happen and one of them was a coach. I can’t stress how important having an outside view is. Athletes have coaches, actors have coaches, it’s important to take a class or get one on one help. It’s indispensable. Also, remember that at the end of the day, you’re not pulling anyone out of a fire – it’s supposed to be fun, so have fun. If you’re having fun, the folks watching/listening will and the people you’re interviewing will too. The best compliment we get about the podcast is that it feels like a “hang” and that’s the point, whether I’m hosting on-camera, in the studio, wherever, it’s a shared experience.
What projects are you working on now?
Aside from the podcast I do freelance hosting gigs, mostly on the web, which is really fun. I just helped out a little on a friends’ musical theater project so that was amazing. I hadn’t used that part of my brain in years. And I am a proud full time father of two. I have three year old twin girls who take up the majority of my time, which is beyond awesome and the hardest, most fun job I’ve ever had.
I checked your IMDB page and you were actually on an episode of the Pretender. Were you a fan of the show? (Full disclosure: I feel it is often one of the more brilliant but overlooked shows from that era.)
Okay, one, I didn’t know I had an IMDB page, that’s hilarious. And two, I didn’t think anyone remembered the Pretender. I was not a fan of the show, mostly because at the time I didn’t own a television, not for any other reason than I was dead fucking poor but the shoot was super fun. I got to have my feet set on fire. So that’s off the list.