He can turn anything into a drum, and Hollywood took notice

Maine WF percussionist Quinn Smith has built a reputation in the music world over the past 30 years for being able to play anything.

In addition to mastering just about every type of drum, he has also used old pieces of metal, pipes, wooden boxes and wine glasses during sessions for Hollywood films or with major recording artists, like Daft Punk and Tracy Chapman.

Sometimes his makeshift instruments include parts of his own body. Like when he recorded percussion for the score for the 2016 animated comedy “Storks,” featuring the vocals of Andy Samberg and Kelsey Grammar.

“He played with his body. He was slapping his cheeks and slapping his ribs,” said Los Angeles-based film composer Jeff Danna, who has worked with Smith for more than 25 years. I’m working on, I try to have it, I’m always looking for ways to make the music different. He’s just such an unusual creative mind.

Smith, who professionally uses the sole name Quinn, grew up in Old Orchard Beach and moved back to Maine this year to be closer to her parents after nearly three decades of working in Los Angeles. He now works out of a studio in the small town of Newfield, on the New Hampshire border.

The building, which was part of the former 19th-century Willowbrook Village museum complex that closed in 2016, also houses his hundreds of found or invented drums and instruments. He hopes to one day open the space as a museum and hold music workshops there as well.

“I have hundreds of drums and DIY instruments that help me create this giant library of sounds,” said Smith, 57. “Every songwriter has access to the same things. I try to find what no one else has.

WF Quinn Smith, known professionally as Quinn, taps on a piece of tin he bought at Home Depot. He has an extensive and eclectic collection of percussion instruments, some of which he created himself. Gregory Rec / Personal Photographer


Smith’s relatives ran the Wonderland Arcade in Old Orchard Beach for about 100 years, until 2010. He worked there from a young age, tasked with things like handing out prizes, clearing game rooms and cleaning lanes. Skee-Ball. Smith’s parents, Richard and Edna Smith, were also musicians. His father played the guitar and his mother played the organ, including in church.

Smith started playing the drums, and anything he could hit, around the age of 3. Along with other family members, including her three siblings, the Smiths often played together at home. As a teenager, he played in stage bands and marching bands at school and for local theater productions. He said there was “never a question” in his mind that he would go to college for music. He ended up at the New England Conservatory in Boston, after graduating from Old Orchard Beach High School.

Smith had played with classical bands in Maine and initially focused on classical percussion. Then he started to explore jazz and also found that satisfying. While in Boston, he worked at a drum shop and met many other musicians, some of whom played professionally.

One of these musical acquaintances worked as a drum programmer, the person who programmed the sounds on popular electronic drum machines on Top 40 recordings in the 1980s. Smith decided to move to Los Angeles and look for work doing the same. He began writing letters to composers, usually after seeing their names in the credits of a TV show, and found work.

As he gained experience, he began to be hired for other percussion and drumming work, including TV, movies, and musicians. Even then, over 30 years ago, he sold himself as someone who could bring a different sound to a recording. He carried a computer diskette containing the sounds he had created on his growing collection of instruments, including drums from the Middle East and Africa.

By the mid-1990s, he was playing in bands, recording his own albums and making films, including scores for IMAX and international films. He’s also worked on music that’s appeared on popular network TV shows, like NBC’s “Friends.”

Singer-songwriter Jaspr Byrnes recalls being first impressed by Smith’s creativity when she saw him perform at venues in Los Angeles. More than a decade later, while recording her own solo album — she also served as backing vocalist for John Prine and others — her producer suggested Smith.

“He brought a car full of instruments. I don’t know how he could put all that stuff in his car,” Byrnes said. “I think he hurt his back taking all that into the session.”

Some of Smith’s Newfield studio drums. Gregory Rec / Personal Photographer


Over the years, Smith has played on recordings or live with a wide range of musicians and bands, including India Arie (on songs like “Just Do You” and “Life I Know”), Phillip Bailey (of Earth , Wind & Fire), T Bone Burnett, Belinda Carlisle, Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), Robbie Roberston, Dar Williams and Bruce Springsteen. He has also recorded over 20 of his own albums over the years.

Her film and television credits include the current Starz series “Gaslit,” starring Julia Roberts; “The Greatest Showman” (2017), with Hugh Jackman; “The City” (2010), with Ben Affleck; “The Fighter” (2010), with Christian Bale; and the live-action version of Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” (2019).

One of the highlights of Smith’s live performance was when he played a campaign event for presidential hopeful John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee. He had toured with singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, and Chapman was part of a show that included REM, John Fogerty and Bruce Springsteen, among others.

Springsteen was intrigued by some of Smith’s unusual instruments, including a cocktail shaker made from a moth cocoon and some pebbles he tied around his ankle. So when some of the musicians were called back on stage for an encore, Springsteen asked Smith to join them, with his shaker and a tambourine.

“At one point Bruce turns his back on the audience and just jams with me. That was my Courteney Cox moment,” Smith said, referring to a 1980s Springsteen video of him dancing on stage with Cox. , giving the future “Friends” actress her first moment of fame.

Smith worked on several tracks, including “Give Life Back to Music,” “Touch” and “Motherboard,” on “Random Access Memories,” the Grammy-winning 2013 album by eclectic French electronic duo Daft Punk. from the album of the year. One of the instruments he played on this album was a “talking drum”, where he used strings to alter the pitch of the drum. He also worked with the duo on another yet to be released album.

“People always ask me if they were wearing their helmets,” Smith said, referring to the band’s stage outfits. “They were just the nicest people you would ever want to meet. They were FaceTiming with their children in Paris, with me and all my instruments.

Working remotely in Maine, Smith is always in demand. Some engineers and composers he’s worked with say the increase in the number of movies and TV shows being made for streaming services means there’s more competition among sheet music creators to come up with different sounds or originals. This is Smith’s specialty.

Musicians, engineers and composers who work with Smith said he was not only known for his unusual instruments. He has pure drumming skills – including on standard rock or jazz drum kits – that match anyone’s.

“He’s got perfect timing and this really unusual set of instruments. But it’s not just the instruments that define him, it’s the way he plays them,” said Brad Haehnel, a sound engineer who worked on the 2020 Pixar animated film “Onward” with Smith, between other projects. “Whenever someone wants something unusual, they get Quinn.”

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