"I want to try to figure out a way to be supportive of the human spirit. It's an amazing thing to have the gift of being able to play music. It's not my job, it's my honor." -Brent Smith, Shinedown
After touring for 23 months and playing more than 400 shows, you'd think the four members of Shinedown want to rest. They did. For about two weeks.
Then it was back into the studio to start work on US AND THEM, the hard rocking Jacksonville, Fla., band's second album and the follow-up to 2002's platinum debut LEAVE A WHISPER. "We took two weeks off and then went right back into the studio and we basically wrote every song from scratch and recorded it, and here we are now with a new album," says frontman Brent Smith.
That should tell you exactly what you need to know about Shinedown. Smith and his bandmates -- guitarist Jasin Todd, bassist Brad Stewart and drummer Barry Kerch -- don't want to do anything but rock. Writing, recording and touring go beyond trite terms like "passion" and "commitment" and are, in fact, a reason for being for each of the musicians as people. They have a lot to say and a lot to play, so it should be no surprise that they only needed enough time to do the laundry and maybe catch a little extra sleep before the desire to make more music brought them back together.
Then again, LEAVE A WHISPER was the kind of album that would energize any band. It was one of those ubiquitous, won't-go-away records, spawning radio hits such as "Fly From the Inside," the controversial social commentary "45" and a remake of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man," which was a crowd-pleasing nod to their sweet home Florida roots. Shinedown wound up topping SoundScan's Alternative New Artist chart and also hit the Top 5 on Billboard's Heatseekers ranking of new and developing artists. Four singles off LEAVE A WHISPER hit top 5 on the Rock radio charts, making the album a veritable "Greatist Hits" package by today's standards.
But it was on tour that Shinedown really established itself in the wake of LEAVE A WHISPER's release. The tireless group shared stages with Van Halen, 3 Doors Down, Tantric, Saliva and Life of Agony during its run on the road. And it was there that Smith says Shinedown recognized just what kind of band it was.
"On our first record, we didn't really know who we were," the singer explains. "We were just four individuals who came together and were in the studio for two years and had never played live together. When we got in a room together it was extremely powerful and just extremely passionate. And when we did that on stage, we just became this...machine. We became the band we wanted to be."
Shinedown also became a band people wanted to hear during that time, and Smith thinks he knows the reason for that. "I said this from day one; if I had to describe the band in one word, it would be honest. There's no sugar-coating anything. We deal with the issues in the songs head-on. We talk about the things we go through in life and we make them very up-front. We've tapped into something that's extremely unique, with the human spirit as a guide." That was the force that guided the songs for US AND THEM as Shinedown started working on the sophomore album in June of 2005 in Jacksonville and Orlando, Fla. Working from a completely blank page, the group wrote 23 songs, recorded 17 and chose 12 for the final version of the album.
The growth is obvious from the heart-starting bass roll of the first single, "Save Me," through the crashing end of the stomping rocker "Heroes." It's evident what those 23 months on the road did for Shinedown; the performances on US AND THEM are taut and muscular, with soaring dynamics that make each song a keep-your-hands-inside-the-car kind of thrill ride. Tracks such as "Beyond the Sun," "I Dare You" and "Some Day" start gently and carefully swell to anthemic proportions. "Your Majesty" drives with stuttering urgency, while the trippy "Lady So Divine" (think about a similar L-S-D title by the Beatles to understand what it's about) is highlighted by an epic guitar break by Todd.
"I think we made one of the biggest-sounding records in the world," Smith says, and he doesn't spare in crediting producer Tony Battaglia, another Florida denizen, for that sonic achievement.
"He's amazing; his vision and his musical sensibility are incredible," Smith says. "His drive and his passion is incredible. The man's take on music is so simple it's almost elementary. He treats the music like a child, almost."
Smith can relate to that, of course; he refers to his songs as "my children" and puts a kind of nurturing care into the way he crafts them.
"When I wake up in the morning," he explains, "I say 'I hope today I don't fall short of genius.' People will ask me 'What does that mean,' and it's just that I want to try and figure out a way to be supportive of the human spirit. It's an amazing thing to have the gift of being able to play music. It's not my job, it's my honor."
And while conventional wisdom dictates that you have your whole life to write your first album and just weeks to write the second, Smith begs to differ. "I had more to talk about on the second record than I did on the first record," he notes. And though they were written back at home, Smith says many of US AND THEM's songs came from the road and were inspired by Shinedown's travels, whether it was ruminations about his own state of being or reflections about the people and stories he encountered during the band's travels.
"I wanted to talk about what I saw," Smith explains. "There are so many songs about fans and the people I talked to, and their lives and their relationships. They're just the most incredible people in the world, but they have so many serious, serious problems to deal with. I wanted to talk about those things. In a way I feel like I took what they couldn't talk about and hopefully I wrote down what they felt, and when the album comes out and they hear the songs they'll be able to look at themselves and say 'He said everything that I wanted to say.' "
That, he adds, is why Shinedown decided to call the album US AND THEM. "It's a dedication to our fans," Smith says, "a thank-you to them for the support, everything they've given us and for being there from day one. It's US AND THEM."
The songs aren't just about Smith and Shinedown's fans, however. Bassist Stewart's firefighter brother, meanwhile, provided a third-party inspiration for "I Dare You," while "Heroes" is Smith's tribute to "badasses" throughout history. But "Save Me" poured directly from Smith's own head and heart.
"At the time when I got off the road I wasn't necessarily in the most positive situation," he confesses. "I dealt with a lot of problems. I'm not really talking about drugs and substances; I talking about all the demons that you hide in your closet, the things you have to go through in life. And it's more of a cry for help; it's basically saying 'You know what? I'm a strong person. I can deal with a lot, but at this very moment I need someone to help me. I'm having a hard time being a strong person.' "
For those moments, however, Smith knows he has the backing of his band, whether it's in a general sense or something like Stewart diving in to help the singer overcome a bit of writer's block with the musical idea for "I Dare You." Shinedown's brightest feature is that this is a band, one in which four musicians combine to form a single identity that knits their diverse individual personalities into a seamless force that's greater than the proverbial sum total of its parts.
"We're all different, and somehow we make a match," Smith agrees. "Nobody's singled out as the superstar or 'This guy' or 'That guy.' It's about a unity, a brotherhood, and about sharing what we've all been through and being able to take it to the stage."
Which, by the way, is where Shinedown will be taking it, again, as the new album reaches the US AND THEM that it's all about.