If the Marine Corps made rock stars, they’d be like Brent Smith. Hair shorn at the sides, heavily inked biceps that are the size of beer kegs, black ‘Anti-Hero’ trucker cap, permanently attached Ray-Bans, he’s the definitive bro-rock poster boy.
“I did an hour and ten minutes in the gym this morning,” the Shinedown frontman says proudly, as he strides across a photo studio in central London. “I have to keep myself on a certain level, I have to stay focused, and everyone helps me do that.”
This drill-hall attitude is mirrored in his band’s own approach. Since they formed in the early noughties, Shinedown have chased success relentlessly. The US four-piece’s bullish-but-glossy hard rock and impassioned, specifically American “You can take over the world” mindset has helped earn them two Top Ten albums in the US (2008’s The Sound Of Madness and 2012’s Amaryllis). While there’s a vulnerability beneath the surface of their arena-sized anthems, you have to dig deep for it.
Their new album, Threat To Survival, doesn’t ease up on the aggro. While it’s undeniably slick and melodic, it’s the work of a band who spent 21 solid months on the road before they entered the studio to make it. Unsurprisingly, the workload took its toll on the band – exhaustion set in, people missed their families, Smith developed painful nodules on his vocal chords. Where their previous record brimmed with positivity – ‘What part of living says you gotta die?’ sang Smith on 2012 single Adrenaline – Threat To Survival is more brutal, musically and lyrically.
“Amaryllis was a very upbeat record with a lot of hope,” says guitarist Zach Myers, as he and Smith settle down on a small, bright red sofa. “This one is darker. After years of touring, the sun isn’t always shining out of your ass.”
“Coming from Amaryllis, that over-positive terminology gets really old,” adds Smith, rolling his eyes (or at least he seems to – it’s hard to be sure what he’s doing behind those Ray-Bans). “That whole, ‘It’s all rainbows and puppy dogs!’ outlook. It’s just not always true.”
Shinedown date from a pre-YouTube, pre-social media era. They’re part of the last generation of bands who broke big without the help of relentless online hype or viral campaigns (or much in the way of mainstream media coverage for that matter). They did it the old fashioned way: hard graft and earnest, impassioned tunes.
“The one thing we have been able to do consciously is play live, a lot,” Smith tells us, when we meet at London’s Holborn Studios. “And we don’t make records real quick, we take care over it.”
But it hasn’t been a smooth path. During the band’s early years, Smith’s addiction to cocaine and OxyContin – the latter a heavy-duty painkiller usually prescribed to cancer patients – pushed the band to the edge. He successfully quit both after he began to struggle with live shows, only to replace drugs with another addition – alcohol and sugar. By 2011, he weighed a hefty 220lbs.
It took an appearance on daytime TV show The View, in which the female host mockingly compared him to Meat Loaf, to snap him out of it. With encouragement from his bandmates, he stopped drinking, began eating healthily and purchased a workout DVD by ‘fitness motivator’ Shaun T, titled Insanity. As the name suggests, the workout was punishing and relentless, but for Smith – who was handed boxing gloves at the age of 10 by his father, who told him, “I don’t ever want it to come to this, but you need to learn how to fight” – something clicked. He lost 70lbs, and even introduced the Insanity workout to the rest of the band. These days they all do workouts together – in dressing rooms or spare backstage spaces, for up to an hour at a time.
“What he [Shaun T] does is terrifying,” says Myers. “But if we didn’t do it, halfway through the show someone would pass out. We do two workouts a day: the show and Insanity.”
“We all get older, but we still perform a very physical show,” Smith says. “If we weren’t in shape, we wouldn’t be able to do the show we put together. I’m in better shape now than I was in my twenties.”
On stage, standing on a raised dais, Smith cuts a striking, almost militaristic figure. You get the feeling it doesn’t take much for him or his bandmates to get into character.
Myers thinks for a minute. “We only put on a character in the sense that we have to become these very, not cocky, but…”
“Confident,” Smith cuts in. “Cos if you’re not confident, you’re in the wrong business.”
They’re certainly not hiding their light under a bushel. Smith doesn’t even blush when he sings his own band’s praises. “We’re known for being, and we consider ourselves to be, a very good live band. Quite frankly because we work hard at it. People come to see something larger than life, and we give it to them.”
For all the swagger and bulletproof self-belief, there is another, more vulnerable side to Shinedown that’s not so obvious. There’s clearly an emotional connection between Smith and their audience, thanks to his confessional lyrics. And while Smith and Myers knock back suggestions that Shinedown are a ‘Christian band’, their religious beliefs and the idea of family play a central role in what they do. Theirs isn’t a world of groupies and promiscuity. Myers, drummer Barry Kerch and aptly named bassist Eric Bass are all married, and while Smith is single, he has a seven-year-old son. The responsibilities of fatherhood have, he says, been crucial when it comes to coping with his addiction issues – ensuring his “survival”.
“During the process of writing, I really questioned whether I was a good dad,” Smith admits. “I am very fortunate to be able to do this for a living, but it is a job. As a result I wasn’t around my son as much, and it weighed on me; a lot of times I’d look at myself in the mirror when we were about to go to sessions, and say to myself: ‘I could just stop right now, and get on a plane and go see him.’ But I knew I had deadlines. It was something I struggled with on this new record.”
A hint of Smith’s native Tennessee accent appears in his voice as he speaks. These days, he’s based in California while his son lives in Florida (where the band were formed). While Smith and his son’s mother are separated, they remain friends. Though it hasn’t always been easy – the drugs were a mountain to get past.
“When I was young I just didn’t care,” Smith concedes. “But parenthood changes your priorities; you have real responsibilities. I had to stop. I didn’t go into a programme, I didn’t go into a counselling situation…”
“He did it by himself,” Myers interrupts. “I’ve never seen someone with that much willpower to go: ‘I’m gonna finish this for me and for my band, and my son.’”
“‘I’m no good to him dead,” Smith continues. “Honestly, I don’t talk about it unless it’s brought up. I don’t bring it up myself. Some people need to talk about it every day, because that keeps them sober. I’m just not like that. I tell people: ‘I’m sober today. I didn’t do drugs today. I didn’t drink today.’ I don’t know what the hell I’ll do tomorrow. The thing for me is not talking about it, and living my life. I’m lucky enough that my son is such a huge focus for me, he’s the first thing I think about when I go on stage.”
Still, the double whammy of alcohol and OxyContin addiction isn’t something you abandon lightly. While Smith is steadily on the wagon now, the risk that he might one day tumble off remains in the background.
“I’m one of the luckiest people in the world, cos there have been times when I really shouldn’t have made it out,” he says quietly. “But I did. But still, I know that I’m a drug addict and an alcoholic, and I will be till the day I die. You don’t get to say: ‘I’m not an addict any more’.”
Smith’s demons are part of his band’s success: his failings lend weight to his confessional lyrics and undercut the whiff of macho-ness that sometimes surrounds Shinedown. And for all the chest-beating bravado – and it does sometimes get a bit silly, not least when Smith says “When it’s the witching hour and it’s time for us to go on stage, we’re coming for your ass” – there’s a noticeable humility at play. “In America right now, the world owes everyone everything, and that’s not the way we were raised and it’s not the way our country was founded,” says Myers at one point. “No one owes us anything.”
Nor are the band fazed by the apparent idea that rock is struggling. Not for Shinedown the ‘challenges’ of selling a million records or shifting tickets by the truckload. “The biggest challenges are the ones we give to ourselves,” adds Smith. “We don’t subscribe to anyone who says, ‘You play a genre of music that’s obsolete right now,’ because rock’n’roll is not a genre of music – not to us. Rock’n’roll is a way of life. If people wanna be disrespectful to our style of music that’s their prerogative, but frankly we don’t care,” he says, assuredly. “From where we stand, rock’n’roll is doing just fine.”
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
Five big-in-America bands who haven’t quite cracked the UK yet.
Unabashed disciples of Cobain and Cantrell, the South African noiseniks were an easy fit for the post-millennial US rock landscape. A run of early singles – Fine Again, Broken, Remedy – set out their stall, and their last four albums cracked the Billboard Top 10, but frontman Shaun Morgan is still gunning for a British invasion: “I really hope we can make up for lost time. Our old label was so concerned with America that the rest of the world got overlooked.”
3 Doors Down
The Mississippi alt.rockers might be able to walk unmolested down Oxford Street, but there’s no doubting their commercial clout on home turf. With debut album The Better Life notching up six-times platinum sales, and 2005’s Seventeen Days and 2008’s 3 Doors Down both topping the US charts, it’s fair to say the ambivalence of a few limeys probably doesn’t keep Brad Arnold and co awake at night.
Three Days Grace
They’ve been *Billboard *mainstays since 2006’s One-X – and can boast six million sales in an era when no fucker buys records – yet the British remain curiously resistant to these Canadian post-grungers. When the band squeezed into London’s Electric Ballroom last year, it was their first UK gig in a decade.
Active since 1996 – and nine albums out of the blocks – you can’t help feeling that if the Memphis metallers were going to break the glass ceiling in Britain, it would have happened already. Perhaps Saliva are just too American, as evidenced by their habit of contributing tracks to WWE wrestling.
Despite legal wrangles with his former bandmates and an agonising mystery illness, Benjamin Burnley’s resurrected rockers topped the US chart in June with fifth album Dark Before Dawn. Yet stadium-sized success in the UK still eludes them, perhaps due to the singer’s fear of flying. “We’ve been talking about that recently,” Burnley noted of his inability to tour beyond the States. “I’m definitely on board to take a boat.”