Recording artist, DJ and songwriter Steve Smith, 44, is the lead singer for the Grammy-winning band Dirty Vegas. Born in Kent, England, he was raised in London and studied music at Stationers’ Crown Woods Academy in Eltham. He signed his first record deal with Parlophone (EMI) in 2001 and won a Grammy for “Best Dance Recording” in 2003. Since then, Smith and the band have toured the world, appeared on most of the major late-night talk shows and remixed songs by artists including Madonna and Justin Timberlake. Smith has also composed music for television and film. His new solo EP, Union, debuts on Feb. 24, and he will play an acoustic set at Cambridge’s Club Passim on Feb. 22. He lives on the South Shore.
Jonathan Soroff: Most intimidating person you ever performed for?
Steve Smith: That would be His Royal Highness, Prince William, in November. He’s the ambassador for the charity Centrepoint in the U.K., and it turns out that he’s a fan of the band, so he asked us to play at the gala at Kensington Palace. Table one was him and Nile Rodgers. Table two had Princess Eugenie, loads of soccer stars and pop stars from the U.K. It was pretty intimidating.
Where did the name Dirty Vegas come from? A late-night drunken session at a casino in London. We were called Dirty Harry at the time, and as the band started to become more successful, we were told by Warner Brothers that we had to change the name for legal reasons. After 2 am in London, at the time, the only place to get a drink was a casino. So we were sitting there, discussing it, and we looked up and saw a neon sign that said Las Vegas. And that was it. Dirty Vegas!
Are all record executives weasels? Most of them.
Where do you keep your Grammy? It’s in my living room. We do polish it every once in a while. And when we got it, we did pour Champagne into the gramophone part of it. That’s about as rock and roll as it got.
Song you wish you had written? That’s really tough. There’s a lot there. I’m going to say one of my favorite songs of all time: “Tempted” by Squeeze.
Any song you did write and wish you hadn’t? [Laughs.] There’s loads of them. There’s a song on our second album that I can’t bear to listen to. Actually, more than one.
Artist you worked with who made you star-struck? We’ve done lots of remixes over the years, and they send you separate music files—we call ’em Stems. Anyway, we did a remix with Madonna, and I was pretty star-struck by that. There was a vocal part that I wanted to record a harmony for, and everybody was like, “You can’t do that with Madonna! She’ll go crazy!” But we gave her one version without my harmonies and one version with, and she actually chose the one with the harmony. So in a crazy way, I ended up doing backing vocals for Madonna.
Biggest onstage faux pas? Well, we were on Jay Leno’s show, and of course, it’s live. There is a few seconds’ delay, but our song was triggered by a sequencer. So when we came back from the commercial break, because of the noise and the clapping, [my bandmate] Paul didn’t get the cue, so we stood there for a good 10 seconds looking like fools.
Weirdest fan encounter? Most of them are really nice, actually. One time in San Francisco, I took my coat off during the performance, and a young lady in the audience took her bra off and stuck it in the pocket. I discovered it the next day at the airport. That was kinda weird.
Strangest place you ever were when one of your songs came on? One of the guys from Capitol Records in New York took us to a strip club, and one of our songs came on. It was kind of embarrassing.
Top three things in heavy rotation on your current playlist? I’m really, really into a band called Rüfüs du Sol. I’m listening to the new Frank Ocean. And particularly right now, George Michael.
Thoughts on electronic dance music? For me, there are certain parts of that genre that I don’t think really connect with the spirit of going to a club. The corporateness of it is what’s frustrating, and there’s this fear from some DJs of putting their own identities into it. They seem to stick to a very, very narrow format.
Funniest memory from the Grammys? Well, there was a story that went around in the British press saying that we were in the bar when we won, being disrespectful. It wasn’t true. We were nominated for three Grammys. One was for artwork. One was for video. And we’d lost those two, and we were sitting with the guys who did the video and the artwork. We didn’t think we had a chance in hell of winning, and when they called it, we were all the way in the back of the auditorium. So we had to run the entire length of Madison Square Garden, and we walked onstage sweating and out of breath. But that rumor spread like wildfire.
Why did you move to Boston? I always loved movies that were set in New England, and when I finally got here because I was working with a band in the late ’90s, I instantly fell in love with it. It’s a wonderful melting pot, but it also feels very British. I just love it here.
Anyone you’d never work with again? Well, there was one guy who had a really big hit in America in the early 2000s, and we worked with him once. He came into the studio and virtually locked us in. He was completely crazy. So much, to the point that I called our manager at something like 2:30 in the morning and said, “You’ve got to get us out of this session. He won’t let us go.”
Stadium shows or acoustic sets? Right now? Acoustic sets. We’ve been fortunate enough with the electronic side of things to play large venues, and it’s really exciting. But when you’re out on stage with only a guitar and your voice, you have absolutely nowhere to hide. It’s just you, and that really appeals to me as much as it also scares me to death.
Favorite venue in Boston to play? I always liked Avalon on Lansdowne Street, but I’m a sucker for those classic 1800s or early-1900s buildings, so it was really cool when I joined Squeeze onstage at the Wilbur last year.
If I’d said to you 30 years ago that you’d be where you are today, what would you have said? I would have said, “You’re crazy. Absolutely crazy.”