A transplant from Mississippi, Brad busked "No Rain" on Venice Beach long before he formed Blind Melon in 1990 with Shannon Hoon, Rogers Stevens, Christopher Thorn and Glen Graham, and issued their classic self-titled debut in 1992, which spawned the aforementioned "No Rain." In 1995, while touring in support of their underrated sophomore effort, Soup, Hoon died of a drug overdose. The posthumous album Nico (named for Shannon's daughter) was released the following year, and the band split up soon after. In 2006, Blind Melon resumed with Travis Warren on vocals, releasing a new album, For My Friends, in 2008.
Blind Melon is now a part-time operation, as members tend to various side projects. Brad fronts his own band, Abandon Jalopy, co-owns Studio Wishbone (with Melon bandmate Christopher Thorn), and has written and/or produced material for other artists, including Anna Nalick.
I've spoken with Brad quite a few times over the years, including several interviews for my first-ever book, A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other: The Story Of Shannon Hoon And Blind Melon, which included new interviews with all of the surviving Blind Melon members, as well as those close to the band.
Here, Brad discusses Abandon Jalopy's latest release, Death & Joy, the current status of Blind Melon, upcoming Hoon-era projects, and the story behind "No Rain."
Brad Smith: "No Rain" came from when I first moved to California and I was playing songs on Venice Beach for change. I was having to come up with material during the week after my construction job, and then I would get my guitar and go down to the beach and open up a guitar case. I'd play on the Venice Beach boardwalk for change, for enough money to pay for parking and chicken teriyaki. That was my weekend.
And it was inspired by just how tough it was in LA. I had bouts of depression and the whole, "What am I doing out here? Am I going to go back to Mississippi? I'm never going back to Mississippi." I would just fight it and stick to my guns. Like, "I want to be a musician, I want to be out here in California. I don't want to go back home." I had nobody out here. There was no family, I didn't know a soul out here at first.
So the song is about not being able to get out of bed and find excuses to face the day when you have really, in a way, nothing. It was like rock bottom. I wasn't even on drugs or drinking. It was just tough. It was just a tough point in my life. And the cool thing about that song, I think a lot of people do interpret those lyrics properly and can connect with it on that level, where "I don't understand why I sleep all day and I start to complain that there's no rain." It's just a line about, I'd rather it be raining so I can justify myself by laying in the bed and not doing anything. But it's a sunny day, so go out and face it.
So that's where the lyric and the song was inspired from, is just having to write songs. Then being in the state of mind I was in and having to come up with material to go play down on the beach for change. I played that song on the beach for change for over a year before Shannon Hoon actually joined the band and really made that song a hit. I think that was a good song, and Shannon made it a great song.
Songfacts: What do you remember about filming the video, which has gone on to become a classic?
At the time we were doing "No Rain," it was like, "This is great." But I felt this way about all the other videos. So you just never know. Sam Bayer was a killer director and shot an amazingly beautiful video that had a storyline in it, and people connected with that bee girl. We brought the bee girl to life that was on the front of the album cover.
There was just something about the video. I felt like all the other videos we shot were good, but not as good as that Sam Bayer video. You know, hindsight's 20/20. That Sam Bayer video he made was really special, and I'm sure that's probably on his reels somewhere when he's going out there and tooting his commercial work or directing.
Songfacts: At one point after "No Rain" was a hit, there was a problem over the songwriting royalty cuts within the band. Can you explain how that happened and also how that got resolved before Shannon died?
Brad: Well, we posted on the record [Blind Melon's self-titled debut] that all songs are "written as one." And there's a certain purity in listing that on the record instead of dividing up in front of everybody who did what. But in our private little meetings and stuff, it did come down to people wanting to I guess protect their influence on the band and for their future and their families and so forth. So we had to go through the super rocky road of dividing up songwriting credits, which was something I really did not want to do. I like bands like, for instance, Live, who early on in their career just split everything. And even though someone didn't write anything on the record, since they were out in the band, touring the band, got signed in the band from Radioactive, everybody participated in equal shares of the songwriting.
I think that works for some bands, and it actually works for Blind Melon to an extent that we have that rule: if you bring something into the rehearsal hall, it might get destroyed. It might get magnified and glorified, but it also might get destroyed. In that way we do write the songs as one, as a unit, no matter where it spawns from.
I think things get more complicated when people start going outside of Blind Melon. Like I have solo projects and I've written stuff for film and television. I have to protect myself, and I think it's smart. It's important for writers to protect themselves and not discount what you do for the songwriting community. That's what's going to drive down the worth of music, is when people are just like, "Well, it doesn't matter if I get songwriting credit or not, I just want it on the film, or I just want it on the record." I think that's a very dangerous slippery slope, and you end up devaluing your own craft and your own art.
A lot of songwriters will tell you, "Oh, songwriting is easy. You just write a chord structure and you write a melody and put up some lyrics and you've got a song. Voila." But I've come to find out that most people cannot do that well. There's work involved. If everybody can't do it and you have the talent to do that, you need to protect your talent, and you need to take yourself more seriously. I'm having to tell myself that all the time. Because I just want to be "happy-go-lucky Brad." But at the end of the day, you have to protect yourself. You have to give your talents and worth more respect.
If I had a message to the songwriting community, it is to value yourself as much as possible.
Songfacts: With the song "Galaxie," you brought the song to the band with totally different lyrics and then Shannon wiped out those lyrics and rephrased it. I was always curious, as far as your original lyrics, what was the song originally about before Shannon changed the lyrics?
I think Shannon was inspired by my original lyric and went off on his own tangent and eventually just replaced all my lyrics, which is totally fine. Because his lyrics were better than the ones I had. Mine were kind of halfway worked out. Shannon kicked it across the finish line, which was awesome.
That was a little hard to swallow on the second record, because I had a lot more lyric input on the first record. But I had to swallow a little bit of my ego, pride, whatever, because Shannon was the singer of Blind Melon. And you can't really ask someone to sing your heart; you have to sing your own heart. And that's why I did a solo project.
But Shannon, I think, meant every word that he said on the Soup record, and that's why it's maybe even more critically acclaimed than our first record. Our first record sold many, many more units than our second record, but the second record had a lot more critical acclaim to it. People recognize it as the truth and pure. And I think that's the earmark of a great record.
Songfacts: How would you describe your personal relationship with Shannon?
Brad: At first it was really... when you're in your early twenties and drinking and smoking weed, how can you not have fun? Especially with someone like Shannon Hoon. It was really fun. I mean, that guy was such a dynamic, fun, warm personality. Everybody wanted to be around Shannon - girls and guys. He was magnetic. He was awesome.
After you spend two years on the road with him and see him go through somewhat destructive behavior and tearing himself down with drugs in excess and alcohol in excess, it becomes kind of a bummer. You get those things in any relationship with any family with a member going through the same thing. You start harboring some resentments, you feel like you can't communicate on an honest level. I think that's a part of just growing up, too. You grow so much between the age of 20 and your early thirties. People are like, "Oh, he's a man now, he's 21 years old. He's an adult." And especially in the rock & roll world, that is absolutely not true.
So Shannon and I went through growing pains like any other relationship and any other family member. I do consider him at this point very much a family member. In fact, his daughter, Nico, comes out and stays with us every year. Every spring break, she comes out to California and she comes in my studio and we hang out and we write a song. I get her to sing on stuff. I still am very much in contact with Shannon's daughter Nico.
But our relationship at the beginning was amazing, and just like you would expect. Toward the end, before he died, there were a lot of battles in there. We just happened to grow up and be adults and run a business, and at the same time stay in touch with our rock & roll freedom. So it was a weird, hard reality, to tell you the truth. I want it to always be shiny and new and inspired and light. But nothing ever stays that way forever.
Songfacts: And what is the current status of Blind Melon? Are there more plans for shows and possibly recordings?
Brad: Yeah. We just got back from Mexico. We played the Cumbre Tajin Rock Festival down in Mexico. It was near the Tajin Ruins, which is all these temples and stuff. There were 15,000 plus people in front of our stage when we played. We were main support for the Smashing Pumpkins. They were the headliners for that night, but I felt like we had the best time slot. We went on at like 10:50 and rocked the house until 12:00. And it was just killer. We had so much fun.
But we did talk on the plane about making some future recordings, and I think if we're going to do that and follow that path, we're probably going to have to get a label involved first. Capitol views us strictly as a catalogue act at this point. Shannon and that period of Blind Melon has come and gone. We're left with some great recordings, and I think they want to focus on that. But to record more Blind Melon stuff, we really need a label and someone to guide us and help us get a producer and things like that.
And I say "help," I mean, we could get lots of producers, but I don't know which one's the right producer for us. I know that I tried to produce some Blind Melon - Christopher and I produced that last Blind Melon record, For My Friends, and it was really tough. And I don't know that we came out with the greatest record. I mean, there were four or five great songs on there, but I want that outside ear... I want another Rick Parashar or an Andy Wallace or somebody like that. There's a guy named Mike Napolitano that lives in New Orleans who's great. And I'd like to work with somebody else to pull the band together and take some pressure off me so I can focus on songwriting and lyric writing and things like that.
Songfacts: Let's talk about your solo project, Abandon Jalopy.
Brad: Sure. After Blind Melon went on a hiatus in 2008 I went headlong into my solo project, Abandon Jalopy, and I started writing some material. At first I thought I was going to be doing co-writes for other people, but I ended up having like 20 or 30 songs that I thought were pretty good and would make a good record.
So I put out this record called Death & Joy on Valentine's Day last year. And in my mind it's been a wild success. I've really connected with a lot of people, a lot of core Blind Melon fans, a lot of people that actually had my first Abandon Jalopy record [2001's Mercy]. I'd like to take it to the next level, but it's funny, when it comes to my own solo project, I take it less seriously than other things. I'd rather work on other peoples' stuff, but at some point I have to face myself. So I decided to put out my own record.
Songfacts: Are there plans to do more Abandon Jalopy recordings in the future?
Songfacts: How would you say Death & Joy compares to Mercy?
Brad: I'd been recording and coming up with song ideas right after Shannon died. I wrote some songs and I kind of abandoned it. I went away from it and I came back to it; I produced some stuff in Seattle over a period of years. But I dropped out of music for a long time after Shannon died. I didn't even pick up a guitar for almost a year. But slowly ideas started coming around. I started working with other people on their stuff. Lo and behold, in 2001 I actually put out my first solo record, Mercy. That was like a cross between Neil Young and The Flaming Lips. It was really all over the place, but there are some gems on it. I go back and listen to it every once in a while and it holds up, for me, anyway. It really holds up.
Any Abandon Jalopy stuff is straight from the heart, so there was nothing like I was trying to write a single for radio. I was just trying to write stuff that was accessible and I tried to get a message across to the people that felt somewhat stranded after Shannon died.
On Death & Joy, the songs became more concise. They became more about family and love, and the end of our times - where does that leave us and how does that stimulate us as a population, as humans? How do we deal with that?
So Death & Joy probably isn't the greatest commercial title on the planet. But then again in my mind I was never writing for a commercial market. I was writing for myself. I've had a couple of record execs says, "Why did you name that record Death & Joy?" It's like, "Well, it was a title track on my record about my family and growing up in Mississippi, and so I thought it was a good title for a record." [Laughing]
Who am I? I'm just doing it for myself initially. But it turns out the songs are pretty good and people love them. They just wish I would have had a different marketing twist on it, I suppose.
Songfacts: How would you compare writing songs for Abandon Jalopy to when you write songs for Blind Melon?
Brad: It's actually pretty much quite the same. The main difference is that when you write a song, you try not to complete it all the way before you go into a Blind Melon rehearsal space. Hold it like a little baby canary for the owl to attack. You can't get too attached to it, because Blind Melon's going to take it into a different direction, or a direction you didn't expect. And sometimes that's good and sometimes that's bad. I think everybody in the band would say this - they would bring a song idea to Blind Melon that they thought was going to be amazing, and it just gets destroyed and dissected and parts become too long and too complex. It's not what you expected.
And other things - you bring in a chord progression and a lyric or a chorus idea and they're like, "Oh, that's great," and it develops into something magical. So you never know. The cool thing about any solo project, there's a very concise, almost like monovision. It's the way I hear music. Blind Melon is very much songwriting by committee to some extent, with the exception of things like "No Rain" and "Galaxie" and "Toes Across the Floor" and things that I brought into the band that were pretty much finished. It's a very democratic songwriting process, and you have to step beside yourself a little bit and check your opinions at the door. Otherwise you wouldn't be in a band, you'd write another solo record.
Songfacts: How has your songwriting changed over the years?
Brad: I'd like to think it got a little more crafty and seasoned, but I'm not so sure. I'm a self taught musician. I never gave music theory and music schooling much credence. That's probably a bad thing in some instances. I don't read music from a staff, but the good thing that comes from not being a learned musician is that you're free to really follow your heart and tell stories. That's what songwriting is.
I don't know that I'm a great musician. I think I'm a good songwriter and I'm really good at telling my story. But I don't know that I'm a great musician as that word goes. So that being said, I think I've progressed as a songwriter as much as my life experience will allow me to grow. If I'm not inspired by things around me, I'm not going to write very good songs.
When you're young, you're inspired on a daily basis. It's like the first time I saw the West Coast ocean was when I was almost 20 years old, and it just blew my mind that people live out here in California and they're a bunch of freaks running around in their underwear on the beach. It's just, "Whoa! This is crazy! I love this!" And Venice Beach, I was really inspired by that.
As you get older, you find other things that inspire you, including family and love and elderly people within your family dying and then really focusing on their story. You get it from different places. But you have to be inspired or your songs are not going to be good. I don't know if they've gotten better, I don't know if they've gotten worse. I'm just writing them for me, I suppose.
Songfacts: Are there themes that show up in your songs over and over?
Brad: That's a really good question. I've always had this bittersweet take on things. Like "No Rain," for instance, was a song I wrote, and it's just kind of a jaunty little happy halfway island beat. It sounds like "Don't Worry, Be Happy," but it's actually about depression and not being able to get out of bed. And people take lyric phrases from that song and turn it into something positive for their life, how they interpret it, which is awesome. Because it is supposed to be interpreted that way to some extent.
But it came from a darker place. A lot of my songs come from a darker place. And if you just met me walking down the street, you'd say, "Oh, you're such a happy guy, Brad. Why the dark songs?" I'm like, "I don't know." For me, it just has more meaning if you can get inside someone's soul and identify with them on a heavier level and try to connect with them on that level. Because when you're sad and you're down, you're the most vulnerable, and you feel the most alone.
I don't know why a lot of my songs have that kind of bittersweet connection. Maybe because I want to be connected, I want people to know about how I really feel in my heart. Not everything is doom and gloom for me, but I definitely have that little thread in my music. I have the song "My Only Heaven," and a song called "Death & Joy," and a song called "Instead." On the first record there's a song called "Blowin' My Mind," and they're all based around things like Shannon dying and my grandmother getting older. I don't know why I do that, but I just do. I connect with that stuff. That stuff inspires me. I want to feel connected to the world, and that's the kind of stuff I write about.
Songfacts: Who are some songwriters that you admire that people may be surprised at?
Brad: It's funny you ask that, because I'm going to give you an unexpected answer coming from a songwriter that's in the band Blind Melon. Some people might get one of my favorite songwriters and some people will be like, "Really? I can't believe you like that guy."
But I think Paul Simon is a genius. I think his chord structures are amazing, his lyrics are amazing. I like his angles lyrically - he comes from so many different perspectives. It's not always about love and a girl. It could be about anything. Like "The Boxer." Wow. That's just a killer song. He paints great pictures with music.
I'll never be as good as him in terms of technical skill. I think the guy went to Berklee [Simon is a trustee at Berklee College of Music]. I'll never be that good on a technical level, but it's something that inspires me. I pull a lot from him.
And then I like Jane's Addiction and Perry Farrell. That guy writes some monster songs. Some of it's riff based, but I like his lyric content, and he's just awesome.
There's some recent stuff that I've connected with. I like Band of Horses a lot. I think they write some really, really good stuff. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, that guy Alex [Ebert] writes some great, great songs.
And then I like old traditional bluegrass. I can't even name one writer from the bluegrass era, but some of them are standards these days. I like that kind of homey, front porch type of strumming music that everybody can connect to.
I don't want to get so weird that people can't really identify what it is. Like Björk, for instance. I have no idea what she's talking about half the time. Maybe she's too smart for me. I do enjoy her music, but I just don't understand a lot of the lyrics. So, hey, I'm a little more blue collar than Björk, I suppose.
Songfacts: Looking back at the Blind Melon albums, it lists the entire band as songwriters for the songs. But I remember when I've spoken to you in the past, there are certain songs that you brought to the band. So besides "No Rain," "Galaxie," and "Toes Across the Floor," what are some other songs that you brought to Blind Melon?
Brad: Well, early on, before Shannon was even with the band, I wrote a song with Rogers [Stevens] called "Soul One," and that ended up being on the Nico record and there's going to be a version coming out on the new vinyl that Blind Melon's about to release from some lost tapes that we got from the Capitol vault.
There's a song called "Deserted" on the first Blind Melon record that I brought in. I wrote that right before we left California and went to North Carolina. But, you know, the cool thing about Blind Melon is I didn't write a lot of songs when I was in Blind Melon. The stuff that I did write made it into the band, but the cool thing about having a great band and having Shannon and Glen [Graham] and Rogers and Christopher is that you can be a little bit lazy. [Laughing] It's like we picked up each other's slack all over that record.
So "Deserted," was it finished 100%? No, it was finished like 90%. But the band kicked it across the finish line. And that's the great thing about being in a great band, is that you're not stressed about it. You know it's going to be okay. If you come up with something that's halfway cool, it's going to great, hopefully.
Songfacts: And what was the story behind "Soul One"?
Brad: I moved out to LA with this girl who was really into the new age movement, the Age of Aquarius or whatever that stuff is, with like crystals and tie dyes and hemp bracelets on the beach - just a free spirit type of girl. She came very much from that type of spirituality, and she would always tell me, "It's like we're soul mates. We're soul mates, we're going to be together forever," and all kind of stuff like that. I didn't really buy it. I did feel a connection with her and I was in love with her at one point, but I think she was just too crazy for me. And "Soul One" is a little bit like that. The bridge gives some kind of resolution, it's like, "I thought she was, I thought she was my soul one." We broke up and we went on our separate roads. So that's where that song came from, from me.
But looking back on it, I think she was right. I think you're soul mates with a lot of people. Because I reflect back on that first relationship even in my current marriage and how much I learned from that first relationship and things like that. So in a weird way she's still with me. So I guess we were soul ones.
So "Soul One" kind of was inspired by an ex girlfriend who was into the new age philosophy.
Here was the original article that announced the project which Greg wrote for Rolling Stone.
Brad: The status is we have all those home movies. We don't know what the story is exactly. The film has gotten pulled in a couple of different directions in the editing booth in terms of what kind of story to tell. I'm of the mind that we should tell a story that has little to do with Blind Melon and more about Shannon, since it's Shannon's perspective pretty much the whole way, with the video camera and his commentary. You write a movie around this journey from this kid from Indiana that ran away from home and ran away from trouble in Lafayette, Indiana, ran out to California and joined a hippie southern jam band that called themselves Blind Melon. He's got all of that stuff documented, all the way from our first meetings all the way up until him in a hotel room after touring for two years straight, talking to the camera.
I think you write a story. I would very much like to see a movie that was about Shannon, what was going on inside of Shannon's head. And the band becomes somewhat incidental, where it's not a Blind Melon story, it's a Shannon Hoon story. I think that's how he was intending that stuff to begin with.
But there are some other ideas and some other slants on the movie that people want to take, and I have to respect that, so who knows. In the year 2025, maybe we'll have our movie together!
Songfacts: Something that I've always appreciated, you and the other Blind Melon guys have always said very nice things about the book I did four years ago, A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other, do you think that the book would make a good film with actors portraying the story?
Brad: I do. I think that story that you painted with the book is compelling. You have a bunch of different perspectives on the same story that happened. I would very much like to pull from your book, because of my movie idea. You've got pretty much the script right there where we could whittle stuff down and make a concise script. You have to have some conjecture in terms of what was exactly going on inside of Shannon's head, but you base it around a lot of those interviews and transcriptions from your book and you have someone write a narrative, and you get a professional PR guy to help with that film. And then maybe you do some dramatic reenactments. That could be kind of cool, too.
The Shannon Hoon tapes and your book, that would be killer.
Songfacts: I'm always hoping that one day a director or a screenwriter will get in contact with me and say that they dug the book and think it would make a good film.
Brad: Yeah. I agree. Get that sucker funded, man! I'll play... let's see, what would my role be? I'm 44 now, so would be my role in the movie? I would have to be like the janitor or something. But I'll be in the movie, I'm your guy!
Songfacts: Perhaps you can portray Hale Milgrim, the gentleman who signed the band to Capitol?
Brad: Oh, yeah, I could play Hale Milgrim! I'd have to gain some weight and lose some hair, but I could do that. Wear tie dyed T-shirts all the time. He was the president of Capitol Records and he wore tie dyed T-shirts to work. He was awesome. Hale Milgrim at Capitol Records was our champion. He really believed in the band. He didn't give up on us, especially when the record sales weren't going well. They were pumping tons of money into us in terms of marketing, trying to get people to see what they saw in us. If I got to play Hale, I would be honored. He was the bomb.
Songfacts: You mentioned that there is a release forthcoming that includes "Soul One." What release is that?
Brad: Oh, yeah. I probably should talk about that. I just got through mixing some Sound City recordings that we did with David Briggs. David Briggs was the producer of Neil Young's After the Gold Rush. Our A&R person, I think it was Tim Devine at Capitol Records, said, "I've got just the producer for you guys. His name is David Briggs," and all he had to say was Neil Young and we were like, "We're in. Let's do this."
So we went to Sound City, which was his favorite studio out here in the valley. Did you see the Sound City film that just came out that Dave Grohl did?
Songfacts: Yes, I did.
Brad: Okay. It's that studio. I wish Blind Melon was in that film. We should have been in connection with that camp a little bit more, because we had tons of video from Shannon's tapes, as well. Going into Sound City and seeing this rundown kind of old school studio with a Neve console and a tape machine.
Anyway, we went into Sound City around that same time, I think right before Rage Against the Machine was in there, and we did an EP called The Sippin' Time Sessions. What was on there? "Seed To a Tree," a song called "Mother," which did not make the first record. A song called "Soul One," which did not make the first record. "Dear Ol' Dad," "Tones of Home." Five songs.
So I knew those tapes existed. We finished that EP, but it did not turn out well, just because David Briggs was out of his mind. That guy is old school. He was way too rock & roll for us. He was way too rock & roll for himself at some point, because the mixes were terrible. They were just swamped in reverb, way too much reverb. You're like, "Wow! It sounded like Pink Floyd The Wall, but with more reverb." It was out of control. It was too swampy. And the band canned it. We made a marketing decision with our managers, who said, "You want to come out with a full-length record. Your stuff is too good. You don't need to build it with an EP. You signed to a major label, you need to come out with a full record." So we canned that. That was 20 years ago.
About a year ago I was talking to our catalogue person at Capitol, and I said, "Hey, you know what? Is there a way that you can bake the tapes after so many years, because the oxide will just rub off on the tape machine. Can you make ProTools files and send them to me? I want to mix those things and maybe we'll make something of it." And it turned out that the mixes and the tracks themselves were so good that we're going to release a double record of long play albums. Sides one, two, and three are going to be the first record remastered for vinyl, and then side four is going to be the five songs from Sound City, which were the very first Blind Melon recordings that were recorded professionally on two inch tape. I had a blast mixing that stuff - I can solo Shannon's vocal. There were three takes on there, and three designated tracks on the two inch tape, so I got to solo each track and go through each vocal and compile the best vocals of Shannon. And it was really, really fun to hear Glen and Rogers and Christopher play. It was just awesome.
That allegedly is coming out at the end of April. They say that, and I don't know if they meant that's when they're going to shop it to record stores in terms of how many units they're going to buy. But the initial production is going to be 2,000 units of this special edition vinyl. And there's going to be a CD to follow, but they're going to come out with the vinyl version first.
Greg Prato first spoke with Brad for the book A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other: The Story Of Shannon Hoon And Blind Melon.
Info about Blind Melon - facebook.com/blindmelonband
photo (1), Chris Smith
April 18, 2013
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