Back to the Buzzbin #3: The Smooths

By Jeff Takacs

Anytime a specific genre or subgenre gains mainstream popularity, the floodgates tend to open and waves upon waves of bands playing that style of music emerge. Unfortunately, many of these bands simply don’t have the talent nor the heart to be successful. There’s a few among the waters, however, that are incredible but don’t get a chance to stand out against the hundreds of wannabes. What happened in the mid-’90s with punk-tinged ska music, classified as “third wave ska,” was no exception. For every Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Less Than Jake and Save Ferris, bands who were extremely talented and successful at the right time, there were others who frankly shouldn’t have donned a checkered shirt. However, there were also many who were excellent but never reached the level of popularity and success of the other bands. One of the best among those was the Baltimore, Maryland band The Smooths.

Tom Gilhuley and Tim Doscher were freshmen at Loyola College and met at the school’s orientation for new students. The two eventually came across each other when Gilhuley, a drummer who could also sing, met Doscher, a trombone player, at the school’s jazz ensemble. That day at the ensemble’s practice, Gilhuley noticed Doscher’s Scofflaws shirt and struck up a conversation about ska. After that the two decided to start a band and worked to add more members, which eventually included Tim Hoenig (sax), Brodie Ruland (bass), Jamie Robertson (drums), James Stillwagon (vocals), Lucas Herchenroeder (guitar) and Jeb Crandall (keyboard).
Since Gilhuley and Doscher were members of the jazz ensemble, the band was given permission to practice and begin working on songs in one of the on-campus classrooms According to Gilhuley the band had humble beginnings. “We were pretty horrible,” he says with a laugh. “Our first song was called ‘Fish In My Bed’ that we wrote for the first Loyola CD. Some kids came up with the idea to put out an album of Loyola bands, so we got to record a track at a small local studio.”

Around the time that The Smooths were improving as a band, Baltimore didn’t have a ska scene into which the band could fit neatly. They would work to get shows with local rock bands and the occasional a reggae show. Fortunately for the band, there were thriving ska scenes to the south in the Washington, DC/Northern Virginia area and to the north in cities like Philadelphia and New York. With these flourishing scenes just a van trip away, The Smooths would often play shows with bands like The Skunks, Checkered Cabs, The Toasters, Scofflaws, Ruder Than You, The Slackers, Spring Heeled Jack and Pilfers, a virtual who’s who of the great ska bands of the region at the time. However, it was their meeting with one band from Washington, DC that had the biggest impact on them.

The Smooths first met the DC legends The Pietasters when they played a show together at the Theatre of Living Arts in Philadelphia. As Gilhuley recalls, “it was a show with them, The Slackers and Ruder Than You. We got a little crazy backstage before our set and well, we didn’t play our best set, but we had a hell of a time.”

While being an incredible band that would go on to release six albums for the likes of Moon Ska Records, Hellcat Records and Fueled By Ramen, The Pietasters, led by vocalist Steve Jackson are also the ultimate party band. That rubs off on everyone around them, the crowd as well as the other bands. And while they may have showed The Smooths how to have fun, Jackson and the band were critical about their progress. “Without Steve Jackson and those guys becoming sort of our mentors early on, we wouldn’t have played a lot of the shows we did and definitely wouldn’t have wound up signing with Side One/Dummy Records.”

In the months that led up to this point, the band had survived several lineup changes, with new members being Ben Treat (guitar), Jeff Brigman (bass), Curtis Reeves (drums) and Jenny Stillwaggon (younger sister to James, baritone sax). The most notable of these changes was the emergence of Gilhuley from behind the drum kit to behind the microphone as the band’s singer, as Stillwagon left the band to further his studies abroad.

Smooths VOV

Prior to Jackson’s introduction to Joe Sib and Bill Armstrong of Side One/Dummy Records (which predates the label’s merger into SideOneDummy Records, as it’s known today), The Smooths had self-recorded and released their first full-length, Very Own Vegas in 1996 (Side One/Dummy would later purchase the rights to the record and re-release it in 1997). With many bands playing ska during this time, The Smooths accomplished something with Very Own Vegas that few could: craft a blend of ska that was uniquely their own to form one of the best debut ska albums ever recorded.

What makes Very Own Vegas and The Smooths’ sound unique is how they brush up against genres like jazz, punk, pop and ska without getting pulled too far into any of them. It’s that perfect balance of all of them that can’t be replicated. The album was recorded in Philly and Gilhuley admits, the band had no idea what they were doing, how much it would cost and how long it would take to record. Ultimately, Very Own Vegas took three or four recording session to complete, with the band going home to Baltimore after each session to play shows and ask friends and family for more money to complete the album. While the band was not completely satisfied with the recording process or the sound of the songs, Very Own Vegas stands the test of time. With their new album in tow, the band toured regionally as well as the east coast, travelling to Florida and back.

In 1997, momentum began to build for The Smooths and the turning point was the signing with Side One/Dummy. While other labels had expressed interest in the band, they went with Side One/Dummy partly because of Jackson’s help, but also because the label wasn’t solely focused on ska music like the other suitors were. “We wanted to play more punk shows, and Side One/Dummy were tight with all kinds of punk bands, other label people and tour promoters, so it just made sense to go with them,” Gilhuley recalls. “Not to mention they treated us great and were rad dudes.”

The move to go with Side One/Dummy proved to be beneficial for The Smooths. With the label’s help, they were able to play the Locals Only Stage at the 1997 Washington, DC date of the Warped Tour at RFK Stadium. The band had never played a show that large before, and they also had the special and memorable occurrence of playing right before Descendents played on the stage immediately next to them. A high honor indeed. The label also connected The Smooths with Mike Leonard, who would become their tour manager, trusted confidant and solid friend.
Later that year, the band embarked on two tours with very influential and important bands. The first found them teaming up with The Pietasters again along with New Jersey stalwarts Bouncing Souls and the second was a tour with No Use For a Name (RIP Tony Sly) and Anti-Flag. Momentum continued to build as they opened for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones at their famed Hometown Throwdown 4 in Boston. It was then that they met Joe Gittleman (the bass fiddleman) of the Bosstones, who would later work with The Smooths to produce their second album and their first proper release for Side One/Dummy, No Brakes.

Smooths No Brakes

No Brakes was recorded in early 1998, with Gittleman having spent some time with The Smooths in Baltimore prior to help them with some of the details of the songs and prepare them for the studio. In two separate recording sessions, one for rhythm tracks up in Boston and the other for the rest of the record in Providence, the band completed the album and were happy with the results. Working with someone of Gittleman’s talents alongside access to great gear courtesy of the studio and the Bosstones meant that the songs came out as the band had envisioned them and a great time was had by all during the process.

Around this time, Gilhuley got a call from Side One/Dummy boss Joe Sib telling him that The Smooths were going to be playing not just one Warped Tour date during the 1998 tour, but all of them in North America and Europe, truly an amazing opportunity for a band that started at a college jazz ensemble practice and one that they were beyond eager to take. That year, some of the bands that played Warped Tour were NOFX, No Use For a Name, Lagwagon, Bad Religion, The Specials, Rancid and ALL, all of which were extremely crucial to the shaping of punk rock in the ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond. The Smooths even got the opportunity to participate in the press conference announcing the tour, which was held in California. The band was there alongside representatives of Vans, Warped organizer Kevin Lyman and a lot of others involved with the tour. It was in the middle of Warped in July of 1998 that No Brakes was released.

The 12 songs in No Brakes pick up where The Smooths’debut Very Own Vegas left off but also marks progress in the band’s sound as one would expect from playing many shows together at this point, along with working with someone like Gittleman. No Brakes starts with the ultra-catchy “Commander 7 To Spaceboy” and doesn’t quit with its upbeat and danceable rhythms through the end of the record. The sound throughout the album is cleaner, fuller and bolder than Very Own Vegas, an evident result of the improved recording process.

In addition to the band’s ability to masterfully mesh several genres of music in their songs, another standout characteristic is Gilhuley’s crooning voice. Think about it: by naming themselves The Smooths, there is already an expectation of what they will sound like.

Fortunately for the listener, the name suits Gilhuley’s voice and the instrumentation of the rest of the unit perfectly. Whether it is a faster-paced song like “History’s Burning” or a slower tune like the intro to “One More,” Gilhuley effortlessly alters his voice and tone to match the nature of the song while remaining consistently smooth throughout. One of my other favorite aspects of his voice is that as a singer, he is an excellent annunciator, allowing the listener to hear and understand each syllable that is coming out of his mouth without over-emphasizing them. It sure does make singing along that much easier.

As The Smooths began to hit the road throughout the United States, Canada and Europe, another aspect of the band started to shine through and get them known within the Warped Tour circuit was their unmatched love of wrestling. In fact, the band took their fandom of the sport to a whole other epic level Like their mentors in The Pietasters, the band were known to be able to kick back and party while on the road. However, they were able to add their love of wrestling by creating their own internal league called the Drunk Wrestling Federation (DWF). Yes, you read that correctly, the band started their own, small wrestling league for their friends and called it the Drunk Wrestling Federation.

DWF all started as the band, along with their friend and super wrestling fan Andy Gilmartin, would watch old World Wrestling Federation (WWF) matches on video cassettes while drinking and would talk about the sport and come up with their own funny wrestler names. As you can imagine, one thing led to another and the gang started conducting their own made up matches.

“Now, mind you, this wasn’t a big organized thing,” recalls Gilhuley. It was a bunch of drunk fools doing a handful of poorly executed moves at parties.”

DWF had two main characters, Lord Benjamin, played by guitarist Ben Treat and Stu Blood played by trombonist Tim Doscher. Gilhuley would handle the dramatic pre-match interviews, introductions of the wrestlers and refereeing the matches. The band even made a DWF championship belt.

While on Warped Tour, DWF grew in its popularity, with many of the bands watching or participating in the matches including the boys of Lagwagon as spectators and Chris Shiflett, then of No Use for a Name and now of Foo Fighters, as a wrestler. On one date of the tour, several of the bus drivers turned the buses around and put their headlights on to illuminate the makeshift ring, which had been constructed with extra crowd barricades. Gilhuley had use of a megaphone to introduce the matches, adding an extra element of awesome to the events. Some footage of the DWF even snuck its way onto the Warped Tour 1998 DVD.

Getting the opportunity to play Warped Tour in 1998 was huge for The Smooths, but it was the long and grueling nature of the tour that ultimately became the beginning of the end. Before embarking on Warped, the Side One/Dummy folks had asked the band if they would all wear black onstage in an effort to give them a consistent look. Many ska bands at the time were wearing suits while performing, but The Smooths, although when they began as a band would wear suits on stage, where not into doing that anymore. For most of the band members, it wasn’t much of a problem or something to think twice about, since they mostly wore black shirts and stuff anyway.

However, one night while on the tour bus in Europe, bassist Jeff Brigman and drummer Curtis Reeves got to arguing about the idea of it while having a bit too much to drink. The two got into a heated argument about the topic, with Reeves being against being told what to do. The argument then bubbled over into fisticuffs, and not the DWF-sanctioned kind.

While The Smooths continued with the tour, things felt awkward from that point on with Reeves as a part of the band and he later left the band. As the Warped Tour was coming to an end, the band received an offer for a two month tour with the successful swing band Royal Crown Revue that would start almost immediately after they returned home. As Gilhuley put it, about half of the band was excited about the opportunity and ready to go, while the other half were growing tired of touring and of the ill feelings after the fight in Europe. The band turned down the tour, which came as a disappointment to Side One/Dummy, as they were trying to keep the momentum from that Warped Tour summer going for the band.

As 1999 approached, The Smooths gathered themselves up again and hit the road with Spring Heeled Jack and Pilfers. Realizing that Reeves was an essential part of the band and their rhythm section, they welcomed him back for the tour. Unfortunately the bickering and bad feelings continued and Reeves left the band again for good when the tour completed.
During this time and even towards the tail end of the Warped Tour run, the band had started writing songs for a third full-length, and as Gilhuley put it, they were some of the band’s best work to date. Sadly, these songs would never go beyond the rehearsal space.

In the spring of that year, the band decided to find another drummer and continue on, touring with their long-time friends The Mad Caddies. The Smooths found a guy named Karras to fill in behind the drum kit, but he never quite meshed with the band musically or personally, making that tour with The Mad Caddies a difficult one. Adding to the band’s struggles, just one year removed from playing Warped Tour and playing packed shows across the country, venues weren’t booking ska shows anymore. The fad was over for many promoters and they were on to the next opportunity to fill the seats.

“That tour pretty much crushed the soul of the band,” Gilhuley remembers. “We had a band meeting and decided to call it quits. It was heartbreaking.”

After The Smooths called it a day, Gilhuley, Brigman and Treat started a UK punk/mod inspired band called The Set Up, with Gilhuley moving back to drums. Looking for a change in scenery, Gilhuley eventually moved across the country to Oakland, California.

Upon arrival to the Golden State, Gilhuley put up an ad on Craigslist looking for a band. He would eventually hook up with David Castellanos and Brendan Vandermei to form Team Mascot, a power-pop/rock band. They would later go on to release two full-lengths, It’s a Sweater! in 2004 and Prost! in 2008 with various lineup changes.

With moves to several other locations such as Long Island, NY and Gainesville FL, Gilhuley found himself moving back to Baltimore, where he currently resides. He has reunited with the boys in The Set Up and they have released an EP called The Bellend. When they aren’t writing and playing their own tunes, they are the house punk band for the well-known Baltimore venue Ottobar when they have their quarterly Punk Rock Karaoke night. With a set list of about 30-40 punk tunes from the ‘70s to the ‘90s, the boys play before a packed house singing their favorite punk songs of yesteryear.

Looking back to The Smooths, as they departed, they left two excellent albums that stand out as unique and excellent pieces of work during an era where every kid with a saxophone was in a ska band, whether they could play or not. While some bands were able to last beyond the ska craze in the mid to late ‘90s, most could not survive, but bands like The Smooths should never be forgotten.