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Exclusive! Interview With Shinedown Vocalist Brent Smith

By Brian Davis, Contributor
Monday, May 17, 2004 @ 10:24 AM

Vocalist Smith Discusses Shine

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I love it when I’m wrong. At least, I do in this case. Yes, I love this band; but I was one of the first to dismiss them. Not that they aren’t good enough -- they most definitely are, but that’s just more the reason why the mainstream wouldn’t usually touch them. I anticipated the album Leave A Whisper to drop into oblivion, under the radar, until it was forgotten by all but those fortunate enough to have been moved by it. But ah, was I wrong. Out of the blue, nearly 8 months after the review that predicted an unfortunately early demise for this band, we get word from Atlantic/Elektra of how well the band’s latest single “45” is doing and asking if we’d review the disc and conduct an interview. With review already in the bag and a great relief to hear the guys are truly making it happen, I jumped at the chance. And in turn I was moved and blown away even more. Humility, compassion, sincerity, drive, intelligence, talent -- All dominantly powerful and positive facets of a strong spirit; of the spirit within Brent Smith. The guy blew me away: A positive, realistic, and powerful influence emerging from the husk of an overly saturated and perpetually self-devouring commercial mainstream monster. Who’d have thought? I know I didn’t. But that’s alright… sometimes it’s better to be wrong…

BRENT SMITH: What’s up, Brian? I’m Brent, nice to meet you. Good to be talking ya, man.

KNAC.COM: Yeah, it’s great talking to you too. This is an excellent opportunity -- it kinda caught me off guard. I discovered you guys back in August, right after the disc came out, and was just totally blown away, so I reviewed it immediately. Your label just got a hold of my editor asking if we’d do a review of it and we were like, "Shit, we already did!" [Laughs]
SMITH: [Laughs] Well, thank you so much for the support and the compliment.

KNAC.COM: Well, I’m a Death Metal head to the end. I write Death Metal reviews and what not, so….
SMITH: Oh really? Jasin [Todd], my guitar player -- he’s like full on into every death metal band; seems like all that ever came out he’s just majorly, majorly into.

KNAC.COM: Excellent! That’s why you blew me away so much -- you guys are more commercially accessible, yet… I don’t know, there was a lot of strength and power there that you normally find in underground type music.
SMITH: Well, the entire band -- we’re just really eclectic, because like myself, my biggest inspiration is Otis Redding. I’m a big soul guy. I like Sam Cooke and Al Green; I like Etta James and Billie Holiday, but you know, I also like [Guns ‘N Roses’] Appetite For Destruction, which I think is one of the most brilliant vocal albums ever created. He just shreds on that thing. We all love, of course, Led Zeppelin and going all the way to Soundgarden. [Bassist] Brad [Stewart], he’s all into the Grunge era, and then like [drummer] Barry [Kerch] is all into Funk and is real Jazz influenced. And then Jasin, like I said, he’s into the Death Metal, but he’s also a huge Blind Melon fan and loves Jeff Buckley. So there’s a lot of diversity.

KNAC.COM: That’s great -- it plays into the music and keeps it fresh, too.
SMITH: Yeah, I mean I really feel like that’s a lot of why the music is what it is. I try to explain it to people as easily as I can so it doesn’t get too complicated, but I usually just say, ‘Man, there’s a lot of peaks and valleys in the music.’ We like to have a lot of big crescendos and we love-- you know, I was always really big on the swooning kind of verse, and then build in the pre-chorus and just give ‘em an enormous chorus and kill ‘em with a bridge and then chorus out. But I mean, I also just kinda stick with the songwriting format, you know. I just stick with 4/4 and verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, chorus out. A lot of the time people ask, ‘Doesn’t that ever get old?’ and I’m like, ‘Well, when you’re writing a song, my biggest thing is the lyrics and the hook. So the music is a very essential part of it, but sometimes I’ll already have the melody in my head and I’ll just give it to them and they’ll just write off what I’ve already written and melodically build around it’. That’s how “45” was written. I had the melody and the lyrics for the chorus, and then the music was written around that. Essentially, the beginning part of the song, which is the verse riff, came afterwards. But that’s just one example of a song that was written around a vocal.

KNAC.COM: As a matter of fact, “45” is your new single now, and you just finished shooting a video for it.
SMITH: We’ve finally-- ah, we’re so blessed, we’ve finally got a video, so we’re just blown away. I think it’s been like the #2 video on Fuse Oven-Fresh for the last 4 or 5 days. It’s funny because it was to debut last week on Monday [April 19th] but it didn’t debut, yet it was the #1 requested video. They didn’t even play it until Tuesday!!!

KNAC.COM: (laughs) Damn!
SMITH: And then on Tuesday it was #2, right behind Seether with Amy Lee for “Broken.” So it’s great. MTV, on the other hand, are having issues with it.

KNAC.COM: Of course.
SMITH: Yeah, I knew they would. They want us to take like the entire hook of the song out, the chorus. They want us to take the whole, ‘And I’m staring down the barrel of a .45,’ like that whole part completely out. So the video would run and there’d be no beginning in the chorus. We’re trying to get them right now to just allow us to take the word ‘barrel’ out. I wrote a letter to the heads of the Video Department there stating that this song is not by any means glorifying suicide and the devastation that it causes in people’s lives. It’s about an affirmation to live. It’s about someone that has two roads they could go down. And it’s not by any means sugar coating anything, it’s very much being blunt about what the subject matter is; but I’m by no means glorifying anyone taking their own life. But it’s difficult with MTV because of the gun reference and stuff. There have been other bands that have had difficulty with them, I mean hell, Pearl Jam with “Jeremy”… that’s why they stopped doing videos. They were like, ‘If we can’t do it the way we want, then why do it?’

KNAC.COM: That’s kind of ironic to me, because when I listened to the album and listened to the lyrics it really shocked me that in this day and age of music that’s focused on negative images -- you know, the childhood dramas, the abuse and what not -- just this very pessimistic outlook on life. And then you guys come out and you’re facing similar objects but it’s with determination and courage. That’s a much better message and it really rings true through the songs.
SMITH: I just wanted to write a record -- and the band did as well, we all did collectively -- but my biggest thing was I wanted to write a record where people understood hopefully that I never wanted to sacrifice the… I wanted to write a positive record, but never wanted to sacrifice the listener knowing that you have to come from a dark place sometimes, and if you don’t pull yourself out of it you really have nobody to blame but yourself. So you have to find the strength within yourself to get through it no matter what the obstacle is. People would ask me all the time, “What does ‘Fly From the Inside’ mean?” and, “What are you talking about, because I really didn’t understand it?” and they were having a hard time with it. So when I would explain it to them, it would be like, “No one can steal the sun from the sky” --that’s ridiculous, but that’s the metaphor. It’s about having an unattainable dream that maybe the people around you are telling you that you can’t accomplish and you’re never going to succeed at it, and maybe they’re being that way towards you because they didn’t go after THEIR dreams. And “Fly From The Inside” is just a metaphor about believing in yourself and going after anything that seems unattainable. You have to at least try for it... [short pause]… because you’ll be kicking yourself in the ass if you don’t! [Laughs]

KNAC.COM: Exactly!
SMITH: You know, you look back 30 years and the only thing that keeps running through your mind is, “What if?” or “Why didn’t I?” So you know, this record-- I just wanted to make sure that it was positive but that the underlining point of it is sometimes you have to pull yourself out of a hole.

KNAC.COM: Right. And as far as I’m concerned, that definitely stands out. I mean, the darkness is there, but just as well is the notion that you CAN make something better of it. That was one of the first things that really grabbed me and pulled me in with it. So now are you guys on tour currently?
SMITH: We just got off tour with Tantric, we had 5 days off, and now we’re right back on tour. We needed that 5 days. We just got done doing a bunch of festivals, and we’re doing an acoustic show in Orlando. We just did the “Earth Day Birthday” yesterday for about 3,000 people, which was insane! So we’re doing this acoustic show tonight, and then we’re flying out at 8:00 in the morning to do Conan O’Brien. And then we get right off that and our first day of the tour starts in Jacksonville, Florida, which is where the band’s from, around the first of May. And supposedly… I don’t know if you can really write this... I hope I don’t get in trouble for this, but from what I know -- my management has already told me we have this -- from what I know, I believe we got the Van Halen tour.

KNAC.COM: Whoa, nice!
SMITH: I mean knock on wood we already have it -- I’m pretty sure we do, but I’m not 100%. But that starts in June, so if we get it we’ll be starting that then.

KNAC.COM: So a couple months ago did you see yourselves going on Conan O’Brien and having the opportunity to open for Van Halen? I mean, did you ever see it as being that immediate?
SMITH: You know what, man -- to be honest with you, its not really been immediate. I mean, I’ve been with Atlantic Records going on 5 years, and the album took about 3 years to finish, and there was a lot of songwriting involved and there was a lot of studio work before we actually got out of here. We just feel really, REALLY blessed -- and this isn’t me trying to be, you know, sappy about it -- I’m just being completely honest about it. We feel really blessed to be working as musicians now, because there are not a lot of bands right now getting the opportunities that we’ve been blessed with, and we just feel really lucky, man, that we’ve just been given this gift right now to be working and to be musicians at this day and age; we just feel really fortunate to be out. So I guess… ‘Did I foresee it happening?’ I hoped it would happen, that this stuff would be happening. But you know, our work ethic is pretty strong, so nothing is ever worth it if it’s given to you; you have to earn it. I don’t think that anything is worth it if you don’t work for it.

KNAC.COM: Yeah, and a lot of times we don’t think about all the behind-the-scenes stuff; the public’s knowledge of the band begins when the first CD comes out, so they don’t know about all the work that goes in before it gets to them.
SMITH: Oh yeah, there’s definitely an immense amount of work involved and a lot of people that you have to work with. And basically, you have to understand that those people are there to help you and to teach you and to create with you, but there’s a LOT of work that goes into making a record; a lot more than people realize. When you’re out on the road and people ask you, ‘How did you do this?’ and, ‘How did you do that?’ and, ‘How did you guys get started?’ and its like… “Man, I don’t have enough time in the day to explain to you how I got to this point. You just have to work your ass off.” I mean you just literally have to -- pardon my French, but you really just have to whore yourself out. And it’s annoying, I mean, you don’t want to annoy people and you don’t want to have to always be going, ‘Hey, here’s my demo’ and, ‘Hey, here’s this and that’ but if you don’t do it then no one is ever going to know. That’s how it happened to me -- the demo of the other band that I was in got into the hands of someone else who got it into the hands of Steve-o Robertson at Atlantic, and that’s how it happened. I mean, you just have to work and keep giving your stuff to people, and hopefully you’ll get there.

KNAC.COM: Just stay persistent.
SMITH: Yeah, you gotta be persistent.

KNAC.COM: So when did your personal attraction to music begin?
SMITH: I probably knew I wanted to be a singer around the age of 2, and that’s no lie. I’ve wanted to be a singer since around 2 or 3 years old and I’ve never changed.

KNAC.COM: So did you have any formal voice training?
SMITH: No, I’ve never been trained. I think that God gave me my tone and my voice, and I just do it. I mean, I’ve definitely read a lot of books like on warm up techniques -- I mean, everybody knows you have to take care of your voice. You don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you don’t do drugs. And being in a rock band… Let me tell ya, that’s hard not to do! [Laughs] But I don’t-- I mean, being on a tour you have to be very diligent, especially with how I sang on the record. And in order for me to be able to do that every night I just have to be very diligent with myself. And, you know, your voice gets stronger as you’re out on tour; but as far as formal training, not really. I had a couple people do some vocal instruction, like instructors telling how to warm up right and what not to do, what kind of vitamins to take and kinda how to eat, what’s the best diet for a singer to have. But other than that, God just gave it to me.

KNAC.COM: Just comes from within -- that’s excellent.
SMITH: I mean, I don’t even know if I’m a good singer, I just do what I know.

KNAC.COM: Well that was certainly the most impressive thing about the album. The range that you use and the sound -- I mean, you’ve got a lower metal-style tone and you’ve got the great tone for the more ballad types; it just mixes it up really well and keeps the listener from getting bored at any given point, and there’s enough variety from song to song. It just hooks me. I mean, I sent it to my brother, who’s like 11 years older than me and got him totally hooked on it, and I’ve been passing the word on from there. You did a great job.
SMITH: Thank you very much man, that means a great deal to me.

KNAC.COM: I’m real glad to see you guys getting this kind of attention. I’ll be the first to admit that when I reviewed the album I gave it 4 out of 5 stars, I thought it was fantastic; but I also thought it was going to get lost in the shuffle. A lot of other bands come out with a great big album that’s so amazing, and it gets kinda clouded over by the rest of the industry and winds up dropping off and not being noticed. So it’s certainly a relief to see that you guys did get noticed.
SMITH: Yeah, it’s definitely starting to grow --actually now more so. It kinda had a later type of rise but one thing with us is that we’ve steadily kind of grown as the album came out. And it hasn’t been like a huge, big thing, which for us is a good thing, we believe, because we wanna just grow. The way we look at it is we definitely don’t wanna be a one trick pony. We wanna have a career and do a lot of records; we don’t wanna do just one. Maybe one hundred. [Laughs] Like I said before, It’s just an honor to be a musician right now. We hope people look at the music and get something from it.

KNAC.COM: I think they will. I think that’s coming. So, what’s the support like for you in your hometown of Jacksonville?
SMITH: Oh, it’s sick man! Oh it’s sick, it’s sick. I mean, we have some of the strongest fan base -- the people that do know about the band are such die-hard fans. It’s just absolutely incredible, because for us… at the end of the day we don’t care about anything BUT them. I mean, when we stand on that stage and we look into their eyes we learn something from them and we hope they learn something from us. And from day one, the people that are really into this band, they are really into it from day one. They’re just the most amazing people in the world and we just love ‘em to death. They’re so supportive and they do so much for us. We had “Earth Day Birthday” yesterday and this guy came to our tent because we were doing the signings and he was like, “I just wanted to let you know that I have this company…” and in one year he had made it grow -- it started out as nothing, and then he had made this company worth like $4,000,000 in one year. He wanted to tell me that our record inspired him so much that he’d bought 80 copies and handed them out to all of his staff.

KNAC.COM: Wow! That’s unreal!
SMITH: Yeah, he used it as the inspiration, and he used “Fly From the Inside” as the main song. I was just absolutely blown away by that!

KNAC.COM: That’s exactly what you want, right? I mean, that’s the kind of impact you look for.
SMITH: Oh yeah, it just blew me away. Not to mention there’s 6-- well, there’s 7 now --7 people in the US that have Shinedown’s logo tattooed on them, and that in itself is very crazy! I’m like, “You know it doesn’t come off, right?” [Laughs] But they’re like, “I don’t ever want it to come off.” One kid in Youngstown, OH has Brad’s signature tattooed on his chest because Brad inspires him. We just have some die-hard fans.

KNAC.COM: That’s gotta be so humbling and kinda just pull you back.
SMITH: It’s very…sometimes it’s brought me to tears before, because it’s emotional.

KNAC.COM: It’s your life’s work.
SMITH: You feel such a connection with them, and you really feel like they understood what you were trying to do. So it’s a special thing.

KNAC.COM: Now where did you guys come up with the name Shinedown?
SMITH: The name actually came from a painting at Brad’s house. A mutual friend of mine and his painted him a picture for his new house. We were trying to get the name for the band, and one day I was looking at the painting set in the corner of the wall and I was like, “You know what man? If you would hang a light on this painting where it would shine down, it would look awesome!” And then the next day Brad came in and said, “What about Shining Down?” Later we shortened it to Shinedown. But when I look back at it, it really supports what this band is -- I mean, it’s like the Yin and the Yang: sometimes you Shine and sometimes you’re Down.

KNAC.COM: Ok, I know it’s early to be asking, but are you having any thoughts towards a new album yet, any direction?
SMITH: From what we know, the label is going to release two more singles that they feel strongly about. And one of the things if they do well is they give you freedom. If the album sells more, it gives you the freedom to tour longer. Not to mention we want to go to Canada and hopefully Europe. So, I’m probably not gonna be able to give you a real answer for a real album. The best I could say is probably not until the middle of next year, something like that.

KNAC.COM: I’m sure you wanna savor this anyway.
SMITH: This album’s not done by any means, man. I hope it has a lot more legs -- I wanna see it grow more. You know, the band worked so hard -- I have some of the most amazing musicians with me and they’re all my brothers and I love ‘em; we were definitely meant to be with one another, and you know, we all just worked really hard on this album.

KNAC.COM: Do you have any old material that was maybe written before hand that you might be looking to incorporate in a later release?
SMITH: Yeah, there’s a few songs. There’s about 4 that weren’t used [on the album]. Altogether there’s probably about 25 songs that weren’t used, but there’s definitely about 4 that will go on the next record. They’ll have to be re-cut, but I definitely feel there’s 4 of ‘em out of those 25 that are going to make it.

KNAC.COM: My two favorites on the album are “Lost In The Crowd” and “Burning Bright” -- I think both are brilliant songs. What was your inspiration for each of those?
SMITH: “Burning Bright” is just about understanding that sometimes people have really… it was just a song that dealt with how everyday life can really just-- all the people you see in the relationships that you go through, sometimes in this world -- the whole world just seems like it’s coming down on you. That’s where the song came about with, ‘The more the light shines through me I pretend to close my eyes. The more the dark consumes me I pretend I’m burning bright.’ And you know, I talk about some other issues, like when the bridge comes and it says, ‘There’s nothing ever wrong, but nothing’s ever right, such a cruel contradiction. I know I crossed the line, it’s not easy to define. I’m born to indecision.’ It’s just about how sometimes you feel like you can’t do anything right or you’re not good enough, and the whole thing is about sometimes you have to just close your eyes and try to get as much energy and as much strength and as much confidence as you can and just go after whatever it is you need to go after. “Lost In The Crowd” was written about somebody… it’s about-- if you’ve ever known somebody in your life that you knew they were in trouble, more like on the substance abuse side. You knew they were in trouble and you knew they were really going down a very bad road, and you wanted to help them so bad and you tried to so much, and you tried to love them and care for them and support them and help them, but they never really-- the substance had already consumed them and they didn’t want your help. So you kinda lost them. There’s where it comes up ‘I found you in your corner, I pulled you out of the clouds. You left in such a hurry, your face got lost in the crowd.’ So it’s just about losing somebody that you tried to help.

KNAC.COM: Yeah, I’ve got a brother in prison for distribution, so that really strikes home there.
SMITH: It’s tough man, it’s tough.

KNAC.COM: Yeah, it’s a rough feeling seeing them and having to watch it and not being able to do anything about it.
SMITH: Yeah, I’ve had a lot of… to be honest with you, man, myself and a lot of my friends have all gone through it. I’ve lost a lot of friends to it, unfortunately.

KNAC.COM: It’s definitely a shame. Alright, if you could play with any one band, old or new, just your top fantasy, who would you pick and why?
SMITH: Oh man, I would fuckin’ LOVE for Soundgarden to get back together, just those guys and play with them. But I would take Audioslave, because I love Chris Cornell. So right now, yeah, that would be… I would dig that.

KNAC.COM: Do you have any cool stories from the tour? Any funny things that stand out that…
SMITH: Oh man, uh… jeez. I don’t know about funny stories, I mean every fuckin’ day is funny! [Laughs] Some of the coolest shit I’ve seen is like the tattoo stuff; but we were in Seattle and there was this kid… we were playing with Jerry Cantrell and Billy Duffy from The Cult and doing this thing for a station up there. And there [were] about 3,000 people there, and it was inside this venue and there was this kid who was in a wheelchair -- they had him in the front row, and he couldn’t see because the stage was so high. So during Jerry’s set they lifted his wheelchair and the crowd held this kid up for like 5 songs!

SMITH: It was just so-- it was awesome. I was just like, ‘WOW!’ I mean that was the last thing that I saw that I was just like, ‘Holy Shit!’

KNAC.COM: Damn, how cool is that?
SMITH: Yeah, it was really cool.

KNAC.COM: I didn’t even find out about this until I got the interview and was doing some research: You guys did a live version of [Lynyrd Skynyrd’s] “Simple Man” for a radio station recently, and that seems to be going over pretty well.
SMITH: Yeah, we cut it in Orlando and there is actually talk about stripping it onto the record. But yeah, it was not a planned thing. We were at WAAF with Mistress Carrie and she was like, “You gotta play a cover, play a cover for us” and we were like, “We don’t do covers.” And she says, “You gotta do something”… and it’s funny ‘cause Jasin and I learned it like only 2-3 days before that because it’s my favorite Skynyrd song. She put us on the spot and we did it, and it ended up being the most requested song in WAAF history. It was streamed and downloaded off of their site over 526,000 times! I think now it’s up to something like 800,000. So it very much… and we went from selling like 60 records a week in Boston to selling like 500 a week. So it was a massive thing, and the label has not ignored it. But they’re still working “45” and we’re especially trying to work it.

KNAC.COM: And the next single coming out is going to be “Burning Bright,” right?
SMITH: It’s between “Burning Bright” and --believe it or not -- “Simple Man.” So they’re trying to figure out which one. I’m just like, “Don’t end it with a ballad, please!” You gotta end it with a rocker.

KNAC.COM: “45” displays that side of you well enough…
SMITH: Yeah. I personally would like to end the run with “In Memory” or “Better Version” -- just me personally. But I think I know the strength of “Burning Bright” and also they talked about “Lost in the Crowd.”

KNAC.COM: Well there’s so many on there that would just go over so well… “No More Love”…
SMITH: Yeah, I just-- you know what, at the end of the day you never know what’s going to go over. I mean, I never in a million years would have imagined what happened in Boston happened. People just like what they like at the times when they like it. You might have written something that you think is just amazing, and you throw it out there and people don’t get it. I mean, it happens every day man. You just have to keep grinding. So we’ll see what happens.

KNAC.COM: If you stay true to the music you can’t go wrong.
SMITH: Yeah, you just gotta be honest about it with yourself.

KNAC.COM: Cool -- well, that’s about the end of the list.
SMITH: Cool man, it’s been a pleasure talking to ya. I look forward to seeing you up there in Washington. Thank you so much for the support, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day and talking with me, man --I appreciate it.

KNAC.COM: I wish you guys the best of luck, man -- I hope the ride keeps going.
SMITH: Excellent. As soon as we get to Washington we’ll be looking forward to seeing you!

KNAC.COM: Looking forward to it.
SMITH: Alright, take it easy.

Be sure to check out Shinedown's official website: Shinedown.com.

Also, be sure to check out Brian Davis' review of Shinedown's Leave a Whisper.

Click here to join Shinedown's mailing list.

(Photos from Shinedown.com/ Sean Phipps - Stage Sight Photography)

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