Shawn Smith of Brad

by Greg Prato

You can never judge the quality of music simply by the amount of copies an album sells, or how high the chart placement. Case in point, the first two exceptional albums by the Seattle-based alt-funk-rockers, Brad. Looked at by some as merely a side project of Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard, over the course of five albums thus far, the band has succeeded in finding their own musical voice, and have certainly carved their own niche.

The original Brad line-up saw singer/pianist Shawn Smith, bassist Jeremy Toback, and drummer Regan Hagar join Mr. Gossard for a pair of albums - 1993's Shame and 1997's Interiors - both of which were reissued on CD and vinyl in 2013 via Razor and Tie. And while both albums didn't exactly skyrocket to the top of the charts at the time of release, Brad turned out to be one of the few groups to merge funk and rock without sounding like a Red Hot Chili Peppers rip-off; something Smith says is because Brad is influenced by Prince, whereas the Peppers and their seedlings seemed more enthralled by P-Funk.

I recall purchasing Brad's debut upon release. I was expecting something more Pearl Jam-sounding, and was quite surprised with the album's funky sounds and piano ballads - which I soon grew to fancy. Having interviewed Smith several years ago for my book, Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, it was great to chat with him once more about a variety of topics, including the first two cult classic Brad releases, songwriting, the Prince influence, and the stories behind several Brad tunes.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): I just found out that Brad has reissued the first two albums. How did that whole thing come about?

Shawn Smith: Well, we got them back from Sony, which is pretty rare. And just when we did the deal to put out the latest Brad record, the company that did it was interested in releasing our back catalogue, so that's how that came about.

Songfacts: Are they remastered, and do they include extra tracks?

Shawn: I think the biggest thing is that they are out on vinyl. There was a little bit of vinyl available I think in Europe, so you had to buy the import. But the biggest thing was vinyl. We didn't have that much extra stuff. The record was really well done and well mastered, so we chose not to redo it, because it was done - it was already at such a high quality, so that would have been just redundant. I don't even know if it would have helped... I'm not doing a great job of being a salesman. [Laughing]

The packaging is different - we used some old pictures that we found. It seems like it had more to do with getting it on vinyl and just getting it back out there so maybe some new people could find it.

Songfacts: As far as the songwriting in Brad, how would you compare how the songwriting was with those first two albums compared to what it is today in the band?

Shawn: I don't think it's a whole lot different. The first record was different because my skill set wasn't where it is now and Stone was already good at his job as a producer. So we spent three days just working on some stuff, and we went out and recorded them. Then I learned how to write better, so that maybe made it more complicated.

But it's really not that much different. Stone brings in something and I bring in something, and sometimes I have the whole thing worked out and we replay it, or Stone brings the whole thing in and I sing his melodies. It's pretty much the same.

Me and Stone are the writers, generally.

Songfacts: And are there also times when you and Stone will sit down and collaborate on a piece of music?

The members of Pearl Jam have always remained busy - even when PJ is off the road or not in the studio. In addition to Brad, there have been quite a few side bands, the most famous of the bunch being Temple of the Dog and Mad Season - the former a tribute to Mother Love Bone's Andrew Wood (and featuring PJ's Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, and Mike McCready, plus Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron... who would later join PJ) and the latter featuring the late Layne Staley on vocals, as well as McCready on guitar. Other PJ side bands have included the Rockfords (McCready), Three Fish (Ament), and Tres Mts. (Ament), while Ament, Gossard, and Vedder have also released solo albums over the years, to boot. Phew!
Shawn: Not really. I'm a little bit difficult to collaborate with because I kind of can't. I need to work my chords out myself. It's hard for me if someone's sitting there talking to me about it. We're still working through that, and we're almost 50! And Stone's still like, "Why can't you and I just sit down and write?" And I'm just like, "Well, I don't work that well that way. I need a little space to figure out my chords and what I'm doing." I don't play on some high level, either, so I have to get my shit down so I know what I'm doing.

And he does the same thing. When he has a song, I don't change anything. And he kind of wants me to stick to whatever he wants. Sometimes vice versa. But I'll bring in general chords, changes, and then we play them. People get to make up their parts.

Songfacts: When it comes to songwriting, what instrument would you say that you write on? Would you say it's primarily piano or have you written songs on guitar, as well?

Shawn: It's generally both. I write almost equally on a guitar or on the piano. Definitely a little more piano heavy. But I get caught in reps, too, so I need other people to bring some music in. Otherwise I start writing the same song over and over.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?

Shawn: Well, Prince and Stevie Wonder. Joe Perry and Steven Tyler. Prince is kind of the rock in the center of it all. That's where I really learned. That's who I was focusing on when I was learning how to write songs. So everything I learned as a songwriter in terms of structure I kind of got from Prince, because he writes in a very specific way, you know, verse/chorus/verse/chorus, he has these things. Or he has a song where it's all a verse and then the outro's a chorus. So it's just like three minutes of verse, just kind of continuous.

My roots are in Prince, because when I was really learning, that's who I was paying attention to.

Songfacts: I remember there was a rumor I heard once about Prince, I don't know if this is true or not, that the only music he listens to is his own music.

For the most part, it has taken Brad extended periods to follow up their studio albums. As a result, Mr. Smith has worked with such other bands as the very Brad-sounding Satchel and the electro-dance-like Pigeonhed, while also issuing quite a few solo albums. Several of his solo tunes have been heard in various television programs, including The Sopranos, ER, and Queer as Folk.
Shawn: I've heard that. I've said that before myself, because I tend to listen to either my oldies from my high school years or younger, or I'm listening to myself all the time. I'm always working on stuff, so my favorite stuff to listen to... is me. But I think Prince does the same thing. I remember the interview.

Songfacts: Also I remember when I interviewed you for the book Grunge is Dead; you mentioned that Andrew Wood was also a big songwriting influence.

Shawn: Yeah. On some weird level, Andy was really into Prince, too. More than just Andy, I was around Mother Love Bone. I shared a rehearsal space - me and Regan shared a space with Love Bone in their formative first year. I would just sit at the other end and watch them try out new songs and rehearse. I even sat through a whole day session where they did all their new demos.

I sat in the control room with Jack Endino and Andy was singing in the booth, and I just sat in a corner. It's just off the chart how much I learned from that. It was like going to "rock master school" to just sit in the room and watch songs be created.

There was one song called "Gentle Groove." Are you familiar with Love Bone that much?

Songfacts: Yes.

Shawn: So "Gentle Groove," I had a 4-track and a little reverb unit. Andy lived across the street from me, and sometimes he would call me over to bring over my 4-track, because he had a song or something. So I recorded him doing the first version of "Gentle Groove." That was cool. And then I got to see a soundcheck a little while later, the full version with the band, with Love Bone. And it was just mind blowing. To see something go from a little acoustic song on my 4-track and then transferred into a band with two Marshall stacks, it was just a huge songwriting moment, where it's like, "Oh, that's what happens." You can have the little, teeny thing, and then you can put it in a band and make magic just explode.

I didn't go to college, but I have these master teachings that I witnessed, and that's one of them.

Songfacts: With especially Andrew, I always wondered what he would have gone on to do if he lived, as far as songs and stuff, if he would have stayed with Mother Love Bone or gone solo.

Shawn: Well, I was just talking to Regan about that yesterday. He was really wanting to do a solo album, and he was getting ready to do that, and Love Bone was really sort of stalled. The energy had kind of stopped, there weren't new songs. I was just telling Regan yesterday that he would have been like Bowie: he would have gone on to make really amazing music outside of that band. I think he would have left.

He was a leader in his previous group, and suddenly he was in a group with other people that were leaders, and he was treated like a kid because of his substance abuse problems. He was kind of treated like a little kid, and he was really a big, powerful man. And what people don't know is that he was an amazing bass player. So he was going to go somewhere else, I think.

The title of Brad's debut album, Shame, was actually supposed to be their band name. But as legend has it, the name had been copyrighted by another band. Instead of shelving it entirely, they shifted it to the album's moniker, while naming their band after the first name of the gentleman who refused to budge with the "Shame" name... Brad.
I just think Bowie. He would have just become something really grand. And not just a singer in a rock band. Not just Steven Tyler or something. I love Steven Tyler, but he would have gone on to be something much more different than that. Because Steven Tyler really can't go and do a solo album without Aerosmith. But Andy was something else. He was the whole package.

Songfacts: I agree. When I interviewed Soundgarden's Kim Thayil for another book of mine [A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other: The Story of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon], he said that Shannon Hoon from the band Blind Melon reminded him also of Andy Wood. I don't know if you ever see that correlation between the two.

Shawn: Well, there was a correlation in spirit. My son's mother was close to Shannon, and that's what she always said. They were really free spirits. Andy was something else, though. But I think that's where the similarity is. And I had a chance to meet Shannon. He was a big fan of the first Brad album. And I had gotten to know Christopher Thorn and Brad Smith, because they were living in Seattle. On the tour shortly before he died, I got to meet him. He was a nice guy. But it was the spirit.

Songfacts: I'll name some songs, and I'd like you to talk about some of your memories of writing or recording recording them. So if you want to start with the song "Buttercup."

Shawn: Well, it was the beginning of the band. Regan and I had our band, Satchel, which wasn't named that yet [Satchel would go on to issue several albums of their own over the years, the best of the bunch being 1994's EDC].

It was early summer of '92. We had a rehearsal space, and Stone came down and we had a jam. And one of the jams was "Buttercup," pretty vocal.

On my end it's "Purple Rain," with like one different chord. We recorded it - we had a little DAT tape running. I took the cassette of that home and sang the chorus and kind of messed around with the verse. It was that song that made Stone go, "Dude, let's the three of us go in the studio in the fall after I'm done with Pearl Jam stuff."

We did three days of writing before we went to record and worked on it more. It was the first take of the first day in the studio, and that's the version that we used. It's the live vocal.

The vocal's improvised, except the chorus. That's why some of the words are muffled. They don't say anything, really, except "absjurhh."

But it was the first take, the first day, and I remember just thinking, "This is going to be an album." We were going in to just spend 17 days. The plan was to just record some songs. We did that, and Stone was in a headspace where he was really confident and he didn't beat it to death. He just went, "That's it. Let's move on." And I think that was huge. Because he could have said, "Hey, dude, can you work on your lyrics," and all that. And he didn't. He was in a place where he just went, "That's it." And that whole session was like that. I was allowed to just sing nonsense if that's what worked.

Because I scat. Nowadays I work out my shit, but if I would have sat down and tried to work it out, it would have gotten stale. There was just something about the freedom that was proved to be magical.

Songfacts: I see. And what about the song "20th Century"? I think Stone said that the drums are a loop on that song.

Shawn: Yeah.

Songfacts: What sticks out about that song?

Shawn: I think the riff was really cool. Stone just wanted to experiment with a loop. Some drummers aren't, you know, clocks. They move around. And "20th Century," that riff needed something super consistent like a loop would give you.

So we were just experimenting. Sometimes it feels like kind of half a song, because when we play it live, it just kind of dies. But on the record it sounded cool. The riff was really interesting and different to me.

Songfacts: I think one of the most underrated Brad riffs is the song "Sweet Al George."

Shawn: Yeah. That's a monster, I think. That's open G tuning. One of my favorites.

Songfacts: Was that a riff that Stone came up with or did you come up with that?

Shawn: That's a Stone riff.

Songfacts: And what about "The Day Brings"?

Shawn: Well, when we were doing Interiors, we were doing it where I'm at right now, which is Stone's studio in Seattle here [Studio Litho]. I was allowed to sleep in the basement, so everyone would go home and they'd turn on the alarm and I would stay in and mess around and work on songs or try to write. So I wrote that one evening and then left a note on the board and said, "Hey, when I wake up I've got something really good I want to do." And it was that one.

That was so fun, because I would sleep and I would hear people start to work upstairs. That was just the greatest. They don't let me sleep here anymore, but anyway...

After years of break-ups and close calls with other bands, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament finally went on to fame and fortune as members of Pearl Jam when their 1991 album, Ten, became a massive worldwide hit. With "Alive," "Even Flow," and "Jeremy" conquering radio and MTV, PJ played a show-stealing early afternoon set as part of Lollapalooza (back in the days when it was still a "traveling roadshow") in the summer of 1992. Instead of taking a well-deserved rest once Lolla wrapped up, Gossard went right to work with his Brad buds on the Shame album.
Songfacts: Looking back at the recording of those first Brad albums, what stands out as far as what was going on in your life at the time or just like band relations? What do you remember looking back on those two albums?

Shawn: Well, the first one was just pure freedom. Stone was just writing - he was super happy that he'd just succeeded. So after the first Lollapalooza and Pearl Jam they did it. Whatever he'd been trying to do with his other bands, he did it. He was really happy and none of the turmoil that came later had happened yet.

He just was really happy and we had really good Turkish hash. [Laughing] So the first album was just amazing. And he was producing, so we were just having a good time, he and Regan and I.

We'd brought in this bass player, Jeremy [Toback], who was from LA, and he was really straight and he didn't like cussing and stuff, so we teased the hell out of him - it was just fun.

It can't be repeated. It was one of those times when nobody had kids, nobody had any responsibilities at all. It was just great.

Interiors, I was more uptight the whole time. The thing about the first record, also, is we weren't on a label, so there were no A&R people, there was no one telling us anything. We were just having fun. By the second record, we were on Epic and there was an A&R person that Stone was always talking to, and there was a producer, who was great, I loved him [Nick DiDia co-produced with the band]. But for me, I like to be in charge, and I like to create. When you have a producer, he's kind of running the show and a lot of times I'm just sitting on the couch. It wasn't super fun. But the end result I loved.

Songfacts: I always thought those first two Brad albums are some of the most underrated rock albums of all time.

Shawn: Thanks.

Songfacts: And what is Brad up to currently? You mentioned earlier that you're working on some new material.

Shawn: Yeah. We did this tour in February in Europe, and it just went fantastic. Then Stone had Pearl Jam so we didn't do anything. He had a baby coming and stuff.

I'm always in and out of this band. My energy leaves, and I want to do other stuff. Something kind of opened up just a few days ago. I had some days in the studio for myself and I invited all the Brad guys down here. Stone couldn't make it because his baby arrived yesterday, but we have a side guitar player named Kathy Moore who's fantastic. So we cut a couple new tracks yesterday that I'm really excited about. So it's back on, I guess. Still in the band.

Songfacts: So would you say that this is going to be for a brand new Brad album, or are you just taking it song by song and see where it goes?

Shawn: Well, it might be a brand new Brad album, but I'm itching to just put out a single. I'm so excited about the songs - if I have to wait a year for an album to come out, I might lose it. But it would be exciting to turn a single around. Like, maybe make some vinyl and turn it around in a month or two. That would be fun. So we'll see.

Songfacts: Especially in this day and age with iTunes, you could just put out a single.

Shawn: Yeah. I just can't handle this waiting. I like to get stuff out. You know in the old days where they would cut something and it would be on the radio within a week? That's what I want. I want it out.

Songfacts: Like when Neil Young wrote the song "Ohio," which was about the Kent State shootings, and that was put out I think within just weeks of the actual event.

Shawn: Yeah. And lyrically, I'm kind of writing about the Syria crap, and it's like, you know, I don't know, we'll see. It might just come out. You might just see it. It might be available in four days, because my solo stuff I've just been putting out. I've been putting it out digitally on BandCamp. But I don't know, Stone's a little more traditional. You have to really get him to look at things differently than the old major label way. But he's changing.

January 22, 2014
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