It has been 20 years since three kids from Basic High School started a metal band called Hemlock. No doubt it wasn’t the only teenage metal band bubbling up from what was then still a metal-friendly Valley, but here’s the difference: Hemlock is still at it. For a while, the founding trio of dreadlocked bassist Chad Smith, his older brother Brian and their friend Richard Burnett became fleetingly, marginally famous—they shared a stage with System of a Down!—but they certainly never got rich. “If I was doing Hemlock for the money, I would have given up 19 years ago,” Chad Smith says. “It’s not about that. It’s about playing from the heart.”
Now based in Iowa, Hemlock returns to Las Vegas at 8 p.m. August 31, when they will celebrate their 20th anniversary at LVCS. Despite the band’s tough exterior, aggressive sound and growled lyrics, Hemlock’s shows have always been upbeat and good-natured. The lineup has changed, but Chad Smith remains the band’s driving force, smiling and playfully pulling on his dreads as he connects with the crowd. He also writes the songs, creates the artwork for CDs and T-shirts, books the shows, designs the posters, promotes the band and drives the tour bus.
In the band’s early days, it was nearly impossible to drive around Las Vegas without spotting Hemlock’s handmade posters, strategically placed at points along U.S. 95 and throughout the Valley, advertising their next show. Their hands-on, grassroots approach, promoting one show two months in advance, helped the band grow a loyal local following, leading to an opening slot on the road with Hatebreed, then their first full national tour in 2002, with Otep and Sworn Enemy. Over the years, Hemlock shared the stage with bands such as Slayer, Ministry, Slipknot and Lamb of God, and had the opportunity to tour Canada, Europe and Japan.
But money was tight, and the original nucleus of the band began to come apart in 2000, when guitarist Burnett left the lineup. Another hard loss came in 2003, when drummer Brian Smith parted ways with his brother. In 2006, Chad and his wife, Jilynda, left Henderson for Iowa. Hemlock, however, would not die: One by one, Smith replaced the pieces (the current lineup includes guitarists Jezy Ward and James Gelber), and in 2009 Hemlock got reacquainted with its roots, when Brian moved to Iowa and rejoined the band.
“Getting Brian back,” Chad says, “was like winning the lottery.”
Hemlock still tours about eight months each year, playing both big cities and towns such as Tuba City, Arizona. “It’s hard to do the Tuesday nights in the middle of nowhere, playing the small bars to connect the dots,” Smith says. “The Tuesday and Wednesday shows, sometimes you’ll play for 50 people and you’ll get gas money and just continue the tour, and you roll with it.” It’s the musical version of a politician’s whistle-stop tour: After each concert, Smith poses for photos and signs autographs, winning fans over one at a time.
“If you really, really want to do it professionally, you’ve got to be willing to do the work,” Smith says. “And I’m still one of the first dudes that will be willing to jump out of the bus and go hand out fliers, 20 years after the fact. Give me some tape and a poster, I’ll go hang it up. We’re always out there hustling and working.”