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The Screaming Life: An Interview With Brad’s Shawn Smith

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As a band, BRAD has been making records for 20 years, however they are on the eve of releasing only their 5th album. While drummer Ragan Hagar and singer Shawn Smith have been with the band since the beginning, it’s BRAD’s guitarist that is the most to blame for such a meager album count. His name is Stone Gossard and he plays in another band from Seattle called Pearl Jam (you may have heard of them). The other BRAD members have obligations to other groups, too—Shawn Smith to Pigeonhed/Satchel/his solo work, Ragan Hagar to Satchel, and David Lowe to playing with such artists as David Sylvain —however they have pulled together once again to record United We Stand, the band’s first album of new material since 2003‘s Welcome to Discovery Park (in 2010, BRAD released Best Friends? although it was actually recorded in 2003.)

BRAD’s debut, Shame, was released in 1993 to much critical chatter. Commonly considered a classic, Shame was even recently listed in The MOJO Collection: The Greatest Albums of All Time. In its simplest sense, BRAD is a group of buddies who get together occasionally and make records. It’s just that this particular group contains talents like Smith and Gossard. The friendships that are at the core of BRAD have never been more evident than on their newest release.

It does BRAD an incredible disservice to assume that its music has anything to do with the era in which it was born. The much-maligned grunge of the early ‘90s has about as little to do with BRAD as the late eighties synth dominance had to U2 while it made The Joshua Tree. BRAD is not even a little grungy. Though rooted in rock, the songs on United We Stand (as on their other records) confidently embrace a great expanse of styles (Soul/Pop/R&B/House): while “Needle & Thread” is a laid back rocker, “The Last Bastion”  is bombastic. The first single, “A Reason To Be In My Skin,” features Gossard “doing my best Edge impression.” In fact, both “Reason To Be In My Skin” and “Diamond Blues” were recorded live together as a band with no overdubs. “We’re okay with mistakes and flubs,” Ragan Hagar says. “A lot of bands will scrub that stuff out. We tend not to.” “The Only Way” is as good of a song as you’ll hear on any album this year. It’s the perfect combination of all that makes BRAD such an emotionally affecting band. Gossard calls it “one of our most BRAD-y songs. It’s an organic approach to writing pop songs that highlights the incredible vulnerability Shawn has in his voice.” It’s a classic– Smith is mesmerizing, able to seamlessly sound both melancholy and elated—and it’s the cornerstone track to an album chalk full of brilliance.

Shawn Smith is a singular talent. While Stone Gossard is the big name in the band, United We Stand is all about Smith. “Early on, I decided that I needed to sing about positive things because I was going to have to be out there and sing to people and I wanted to be positive,” Smith says. “Plus,” he adds, “it’s hard to conjure up anger when making music: Making music is my favorite thing to do.” Gossard agrees: “Shawn is one of the least cynical lead singers that you can imagine. He has a real passion for creative, optimistic and spiritual identity.”  Largely under-appreciated to this point, Smith’s career is impossible to define as his various projects support the claim that he is one of the most maddening chameleons in music today. His refusal to assign himself to one particular style spits in the face of an industry that necessitates labeling musicians as a means of mass marketing them. With that said, United We Stand should go a long way to getting him to the forefront – a talent as towering as his should be enjoyed by as large an audience as possible.

Stereo Embers was lucky enough to have a sit down with Mr. Smith to discuss the new album, the history of BRAD, and his impersonating Prince:

SEM: BRAD took nearly a year recording United We Stand, which is unusual for this band. Do you think taking your time on this record paid off?

Shawn Smith: Well, I think the main thing for me was I was allowed to stretch out and basically write as much as I wanted with complete freedom. Not that I didn’t have freedom in the past, it’s just that this go round I was working alone most of the time. The band actually didn’t spend much time together as a whole, with kids, Regan’s job and our new bass players’ many other commitments it made it impossible to lock down for 8 hours a day 6 days a week as a band like we have in the past. Stone and Regan might come in during the day and cut a few things, then I would come in at night and throw some vocals down and then have the rest of the evening to write and record new tracks. Personally I had the time of my life–I love to record alone without outside input other than an engineer so I was in a bit of a dream scenario. Bottom line the time allowed us to stretch and grow and prune and tweak and choose and change our minds until the very last day before it was sent to mastering.  I’ve never enjoyed making a record so much.

SEM: How has writing records with BRAD changed over the 20-year span of the band?

SS: It all depends on the moment, on the circumstances. If I look at the process that way we haven’t changed at all.

SEM: Are there any moments on the new album that you are particularly fond of?

SS: I am really fond of Stone’s outro lead on “Diamond Blues.” Other than that, I’m really fond of the whole thing.

SEM: What can you tell us about the rumored re-releases of BRAD’s first 4 albums?

SS: I really have no info on what those are going to be other than putting them out on vinyl, extra tracks and pictures, etc.  I’m noticing I say “really” a lot.

SEM: The ‘classic’ line-up of BRAD includes bassist Jeremy Toback (an extremely talented singer/songwriter in his own right). Can you tell us a bit about his involvement on BRAD’s first two albums?  Keith Lowe is now the bassist with the band. Can you fill us in on how he came to join BRAD?

SS: The first 2 records would not be what they are without Jeremy “I’m from LA” Toback. He was kind of a “pro” bass player with the skills that players from Los Angeles tend to have. There was no one that we knew in Seattle at the time that would have brought that flavor, which I think made the record stand out in a way it might not have with someone else. He was really straight as well and we all had fun teasing him quite a bit. I’m not sure how he felt about that but I think it was good for our dynamic at the time. Also, when we worked with him we still weren’t a real working band, it was recording so there wasn’t a ton of “we are a band” baggage, ego-wise, etc.

Our last bass player, Mike Berg could not leave his job to continue with us so we needed a new guy. Stone and I had both been working with Keith Lowe–one of my favorite players in the world–so asking him to come on board was a no brainer. Thankfully he said yes to our invitation.

SEM: How has your experience fronting your other projects informed how you go about participating in BRAD? Has your role changed in the 20 years BRAD has been making records?

SS: Creating songs, playing instruments, performing, it’s all a continuous life process for me. I just keep moving forward and bring what I’ve learned along the way into whatever I’m working on.  How has my role changed? On records past, Stone took on the producer role, especially our first record. This time he wasn’t around as much so I took on that role. Let’s put it this way, if people don’t like United We Stand and think the production is weak, the fault will rest heavily on my shoulders.

SEM: Has this band continually made stylistically unclassifiable records on purpose or has BRAD’s eclecticism come about much more organically?

SS: We are not a group that would ever enjoy doing anything on purpose stylistically. Quite frankly we don’t have the skills to be anything other than what we are: Deep House.

SEM: For BRAD, Pearl Jam’s shadow can looms pretty large. Recently, Stone Gossard said emphatically that BRAD is in no way a “side project”. Do you agree, considering the amount of projects that you continue to keep going yourself?

SS: As someone who doesn’t have a “main band” it’s never been about whether it’s a side project or not. It’s a band that I am in that makes records I’m proud of. I don’t believe in the word “side project”. Every band I’m in is a sovereign nation.

SEM: As far as I’m concerned, you are one of the finest singers of yours or any other generation. Can you give us a feel for a few of your own personal influences and more importantly, how they influence your music? (Even though this is one of the more predictable questions ever, can you humor us?)

SS: Well, in the early stages I was quite a good mimic. It’s like, I started out with my own voice, then I started sounding like, or trying to sound like, a bunch of others: Michael Jackson, Stevie, Prince. It got especially bad when I was going to see Mother Love Bone and Alice In Chains all the time. I picked up some bad habits that thankfully I had shaken off by the time I started making records in 1992. So by 1992, in my 27th year of this lifetime, I had found my own voice and never really looked back.  There’s that word “really” again…!

United We Stand is out now on Razor & Tie Records. Meanwhile, BRAD’s entire back catalogue is also being re-released on Razor & Tie starting later this year.