Music in His Genes
BUSAN, South Korea – Sitting down to talk to 16-year-old rock prodigy Eugene Smith is like reading the book of your favorite film. You pretty much know what’s going on already, but still interesting details emerge and come into focus. I’ve had countless discussions about rock music with the half-Brit, half-Korean, native Costa Rican singer/songwriter/guitarist of the band Millstone Grit over the last few years, with varying degrees of seriousness, and I’m always left disbelieving our 25-year age gap.
It turns out we have much in common, musically. We both were weaned on the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, and are still both closet U2 fans; our fathers taught us our first guitar chords, and we were in our first rock bands in early high school (still currently for him). But a glaring difference soon appears: he knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s doing it right.
Smith spends much of his time attending shows and is always ready to talk about what’s going on in the scene. He says the last great rock show he saw was the farewell performance of the Headaches, and recalls getting as close to the stage as possible so he could absorb all he could from Robbie Wagner’s guitar playing. He’s become such a fixture at Busan rock venues that it’s hard to picture him taking exams.
Millstone Grit was formed in 2009, and has played practically every venue that supports local rock in Busan. The power trio – comprised of Jerome Bremer on drums, John Hotra on bass and Smith as guitarist and frontman – are a staple of the expat music scene. Aside from being a geological term, the band’s name evokes a sense of a life tempered by hard knocks. It is a legacy of sorts from Smith’s father, Kevin, whose teenage band back home in the UK bore the same name. “When we were forming the band, we couldn’t think of a name for it… all our names for it were rubbish, and my dad had a band called Millstone Grit so I thought I’d just nick that.”
He credits his father for setting him on the right musical path, whereas other people in his peer group would likely dismiss their fathers’ anecdotes and simply accept pop charts as the authority on what’s good. However, Smith adamantly rejects mass-marketed music awards as indicators of musical virtue: “Raw Power by Iggy Pop got to 173 on the charts and that’s the best album in the world, and Britney Spears has been number one how many times?”
While he doesn’t automatically reject recently successful bands (he cites the Strokes, Kasabian, and the Libertines as all successful indie outfits), he adds that the true indicator for greatness lies in how influential an artist is over time. When asked at what point would he pause and say, “Whoa, we’ve really made it, haven’t we?” Smith remarks that a lot of bands fall flat after their first successful album, and while a world tour supporting his first critically acclaimed album would be a huge achievement, he would like to view his overall story arc in terms of a series of stepwise achievements, looking forward to each successive short term goal.
Millstone Grit is first and foremost a gigging rock band, and though demo recordings are available, it seems their fans will simply have to wait for a formal debut album. A lot of groups these days release everything they record, but not Eugene Smith. He thinks through every move while maintaining an overarching perspective, and one can’t help but be struck by how clear-headed and deliberate he is when it comes to leaving his mark on the music world. “If it’s an album, I want it to be a signed contract, a proper thing… I wouldn’t make an album until we’ve so-called ‘made it’.” But for this band, it will only be a step in the process. It’s difficult to imagine success ever going to Smith’s head. “I think humility brings people back to earth and stops them from getting their heads too far up their ass.”
Like I said: he knows what he’s doing.
Lead photo courtesy of Koreanbri.blogspot.kr.