The portion of Poison's journey you logged on for will probably dictate which guitarist you most associated them with. If you came in during the ‘80s, it’s going to be C.C. DeVille's brand of badassery. If you dropped by in the early ‘90s, you’ll recall Richie Kotzen holding the fort. Blues Saraceno came next – but not for long, as he handed the baton back to DeVille, who has remained since.
Got all that? Well, not so fast; you’ll need to clear some additional headspace for the guitarist who predated them all: Matt Smith. Before Poison blew the lid off the glam scene, Smith was their capable six-stringer, who harbored a deep love for the rhythm chops of Keith Richards and the inherent sleaze of Joe Perry.
”I always liked music but I never considered playing guitar until I saw Aerosmith in ’76 on the Rocks tour,” Smith says. “That’’s when you wanted to see them. I was 14, and they blew me away. It was the moment where I said, ‘Yeah, I want to do that. I want to play guitar.’”
That led to early gigs around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he “started writing songs because we couldn’t play other people’s”. That was a precursor to a journey that led him to the glam metal success – only to have it abruptly ripped from his fingers.
Though he rarely does interviews, Smith dialed in with Guitar World to recount the earliest hours of Poison, why he walked away, and where he ended up thereafter.
How did you join Paris alongside Bret Michaels, Rikki Rockett and Bobby Dall?
“I answered an ad they’d placed in The Recycler that said, ‘Theatrical band looking for a guitar player.’ And if I remember, it said something about moving from Pennsylvania to L.A. I called them up, told them I was interested, did the audition, and got the gig. It was Bobby who I spoke with first, which was cool – I knew him since we'd taken guitar lessons from the same guy.”
According to manager Vicky Hamilton, you were the best musician in Paris, and their sound centered around you. Is that accurate?
“Yeah, I think so. The way I envisioned the band was different from how Poison turned out. Let me put it this way: when Guns N’ Roses came out, I said, ‘That’s the sound I was searching for.’ But I didn’t know that early on, so I was looking toward Aerosmith. Looking back on it, I would have had another guitar player in the band if I had to do it again. That will have filled the sound up more and made it more alive.”
Paris changed to Poison and went to L.A. What was that like?
“Going to L.A. was something we wanted to do from the beginning. We had long talked about going, and after playing the Pennsylvania area, we said, ‘Let’s sell everything and do it.’ We sold all our shit – I quit the job I had at the time, sold my car, got a van, and we went out there.”
What gear did you take with you to L.A.?
“Like Joe Perry, I had two Fender Strats, both left-handed but strung right-handed. I had one from '64, which I got from a guy Rikki knew, which was my main guitar. And I had a '78, which I bought from Chuck Levin's Music Center. But I sold them [later]. Man, if I had known what I know now, I would never done that. But along with the Strats, I had a Marshall half-stack.”
Coming from the East Coast, was the Sunset Strip overwhelming?
“It wasn’t too overwhelming; it was the place to be. It was this grand place, filled with places to play and people everywhere. We might have been East Coast guys, but we fit in. Our first apartment was on Whitley and Franklin Avenue, and then we moved to Orange Drive.
“Once we were there, the guys had girls there all the time, which drove me crazy. I wanted to rehearse, but the rest of the guys… well, you get it. But it was fun, and if a girl came over, she had to bring beer or food because we never had day jobs.”
The glamorous life of a starving musician!
“Yeah, pretty much! But it got better once we started playing the Troubadour. That’s where we met Vicky Hamilton, who wanted to manage us. Those gigs were great; I played that same gear I told you about before, and we started to play some of the material we’d been working on live.”
And what songs would those be?
“Well, we had songs that we went out to L.A. with, but this would have been a new batch of songs we worked on. Many people know Rock Like a Rocker, but I didn’t help write that. I did have a hand in writing #1 Bad Boy and Blame it On You, from the first album [Look What the Cat Dragged In]. It’s hard to remember what other stuff we worked on. It was a long time ago, man.”
Were those songs on the demo that caught the eye of Atlantic Records?
“Yeah, some of them. Ratt’s first album [Out of the Cellar] was out when we first got out there; and somehow we got the engineer from that record [Jim Faraci] to produce our demo. I was never nervous playing live, but once we got in the studio, I was very nervous.
“After that, Poison had two showcases for Atlantic. The first one went well, and they wanted to see us again, but after the second, for whatever reason, they called and let us know, ‘We’re going to pass.’”
Is it true that you became disillusioned with Poison after Atlantic passed?
“I’ve seen that, but we were on the same page regarding sound. What led to me leaving Poison was after I got out to California, my girlfriend from back East came to stay with me, – and long story short, she got pregnant. So she went home to Harrisburg, and I waited nine months to see what would happen. When Atlantic passed I said, ‘This is no place for a kid. I can’t do it.’ The whole thing wore on me, and I knew I’d have to come home before my son was born.”
That must have been incredibly difficult.
“It was, because that was what I wanted to do with my life. But even after Atlantic passed and I had to go back home, I knew that, with or without me, those guys would make it big. If I had stayed, I know we would have made it. We probably would have been a little heavier than after C.C. joined; and like I was saying, I would have brought a second guitar player in.”
Interestingly, you had a hand in selecting Poison’s new guitarist, which came down to Slash or DeVille.
“Yeah, that’s true. By that point, I was sure I was leaving, and there was no changing my mind. So it was down to those two guys, Slash and C.C. – I don't even think they tried anybody else out. They were both great candidates, but I favored Slash. I barely remember the C.C. audition, but when Slash came, we started playing Aerosmith’’s Last Child, which was a fun memory.”
Why do you think they chose C.C. over Slash?
“I guess because he was an East Coast guy. Considering their success, it’s hard to argue. They also wanted to go in a glammier direction, and C.C. fit that style. I found out they went with C.C. when Rikki called me after I got back to Pennsylvania and told me. And don’t get me wrong, that was cool. I hoped they’d pick Slash, but I understood.”
How did things shake out for you after that?
“I decided to form a band called the Syn D’Cats, which was the best band I was ever in. It was more like a Rolling Stones vibe, and we were writing songs like the Black Crowes before they even came along. We did a showcase for a few major labels at The Cat Club, but I can barely remember how it went because I was drinking too much, which is probably why we didn’t get offered a contract.”
Do you see yourself picking up the guitar again?
“I didn’t play guitar much for years. I wasn’t inspired to play because I had nothing to play for. I retired in June, and I’ve been playing a ton – but I’ve got carpal tunnel, which is a pain in the ass. I could get it fixed, but getting my hands cut into doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve got my little Vox practice amp and a new Strat. I’m working on some new music with a real Stones vibe.”
Do you have any regrets about leaving Poison?
“I still text with Rikki. Aside from that, I have no regrets when I look back. I’m proud to have been a part of Poison, and I’m glad I did it. But I’m happy I made the decision to leave because my son will be 40 soon, and it turned out okay. But, man, it really blows my mind when I think back on how long ago it was.”