“When I’m Doing Music, That’s When I’m Really Myself…” Read Shawn Smith’s Final-Ever Interview With Kerrang!
Earlier this month, the world lost one of music’s finest voices: Shawn Smith, the singer who made his name with Brad, Satchel and Pigeonhed.
In remembering the Seattle musician following his tragic passing, we dug into the Kerrang! archives to bring to light our final-ever interview with Shawn, from 2015. At the time, the singer-songwriter was returning to the UK for a stunning solo tour, and we met a man still very much carrying the torch for his beloved ‘Seattle Sound’.
An abridged version of our fascinating and career-spanning chat with Shawn can be read below…
Robert Plant. Bruce Dickinson. Mike Patton. Chris Cornell. Shawn Smith. Maynard James Keenan. Eddie Vedder. Rob Halford. If you think that Shawn Smith sticks out in that list of stunning vocalists, then think again. For well over 20 years now his remarkable voice has been turning heads.
Afghan Whigs singer Greg Dulli labelled Shawn “Seattle’s Best-Kept Secret” – not bad considering the calibre of talent nurtured in the Pacific Northwest’s most fertile hotspot. Similarly, Mojo magazine declared him to be “one of the greatest Rock Vocalists of all time.” Perhaps most tellingly, Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard was so taken aback by Shawn’s talent that he formed a new band – Brad – with him, emphatically telling K! in the ’90s that, “Everyone needs to hear him.”
There have been no shortages of opportunities to do so. Whether as a solo artist or singer of alt.rock luminaries Brad, Satchel and Pigeonhed, he is one of the key figures in the history of ‘the Seattle Sound’. Shawn was present in the early days, watching Mother Love Bone pave the way for grunge’s most commercially successful bands – it was, after all, the untimely death of their singer Andrew Wood that led to the formation of Pearl Jam. Shawn was there to see the labels circle like vultures for bands to sign. Shawn was there when they left. And to this day, Shawn continues to carry the torch for Seattle, never once throwing in the towel.
You may even be aware of his songs without knowing it. His music has soundtracked many TV shows, most notably the Sopranos. In fact, Long Term Parking – featuring not one but two of his songs played in crucial, heart-breaking moments – was hailed by Empire magazine as ‘The Best Sopranos Episode Of All Time’.
So it all begs the question: why is Shawn Smith still a ‘secret’?
In 2012 it seemed like he was firmly back on the map as Brad released their brilliant fifth album United We Stand, and embarked upon their first-ever UK tour to rapturous reception. Since then… he’s been quiet. Too quiet. With news of his upcoming solo tour in April and May, it’s time to catch up with one of rock’s most elusive (and disarmingly honest) geniuses and find out what’s next…
It’s been a while since we saw you on our shores, Shawn. What have you been up to?
“Honestly, I’m in a little bit of a no man’s land. I’m not sure what I’m doing. The last couple of years I’ve just put out solo records on Bandcamp and trying to figure out what I’m doing and how to make a living and all of that kind of stuff. I feel like some things are starting. I just got an email saying, ‘Do you want to tour?’ and I said, ‘Yeah!’ (Laughs) I think this tour is a building block. I don’t really exist in the States.”
What makes you say that?
“Like, there’s no magazine that wants to talk me. I just don’t have the profile there, I can’t afford to tour in the States because no-one comes! But over [in the UK], and in Europe, it’s just a completely different story. I’ve been struggling in the last year or so, financially, to the point of almost breakdown. I’m coming out of that and seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.”
Is that to do with finding a way to make a living?
“I’ve been fortunate to not have to have a regular job since about ’92. I never got rich or anything but I made enough from TV and things like that. But it’s just sort of… I’m 50… what am I going to do? This is what I learned how to do (laughs)! I mean, the only other jobs I’ve ever had are door guy and delivering pizzas, you know what I’m saying?”
Speaking of one of your current jobs specifically, then, Brad played the UK for the first time ever in 2012. It seemed to be an emotional experience for you to finally come over and play.
“It was life-changing. It was everything I’d worked for. It was that kind of tour, that type of crowd. I suppose, in America, we had some good tours, but I was younger and I wasn’t all there. I didn’t quite know what I was doing. To be 48 years old and on some level feeling like things are over and to come over here and have things so off the chart all the way through – the show in Milan I just shut my eyes in the middle of the song, I couldn’t believe it was really happening. It’s almost like that’s the way the story needed to go. Had we come over all those times, 15 years ago, there would never have been those three weeks in February. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.”
How’s your relationship with Stone evolved over the years? He seems to have been a huge Shawn Smith advocate…
“I think we’ve learned a lot from each other. He’s a brilliant writer and player. From the minute I first saw him play I thought, ‘That guy’s pretty good!’ I first saw him [playing in] Mother Love Bone. Early. Very early. I just recently sang on three of his songs that he’s putting out as singles. It’s his stuff, I just copy his vocals. I’m not sure when people will here it – hopefully soon. I’m pretty excited about a couple of them. They’re really good. Really rocking.”
Speaking of collaboration, why do you think you’ve been known for being in lots of bands rather than just a solo artist?
“I started as a solo artist and in 1989 I had done a deal with Columbia and realised how much I didn’t know about everything – I’d never been in a band and so I made a decision when that didn’t work out that at the soonest opportunity I would join a band and learn. That’s how Satchel started. I did that for six months and it was terrible – we were terrible. We hadn’t become Satchel then. We did three months and then I’d go to Steve Fisk’s and work on the first Pigeonhed album. And that was like recording school or song-writing school. Then we did the first Brad record [1992’s Shame] – which was like three weeks starting from scratch, making a whole record. Gossard was producing. I learned so much from that. And then Satchel started working again, I’d really learned how to write songs better for a band. It helped. They’re teachers.”
You’ve made lots of records, but what was the transformative moment for you as a songwriter? Hey Jude is the first song you heard, but what was the first song you wrote?
“Well, I’d done a lot of stuff. I even tried my hand at rap one time in the 1980s, the ‘hip to the hop’ old rap. It was a lot of fun. But the first solo song… I bought a four-track in 1987 when I was about 21 and I had a drum machine and I made a song called That’s The Way Of The World. I still remember what it went like.”
What did it feel like when you’d got that first song?
“I have this thing where it’ll be like, ‘This didn’t exist when I got up in the morning.’ I still have that with the studio! I still find that to be fascinating.”
What has the process of songwriting as Shawn Smith The Artist taught yourself about Shawn Smith The Person?
“That I know how to do something good!”
Seriously, do you learn anything about yourself when you listen back?
“I don’t know. I listen to myself a lot. I enjoy listening to what I’m working on and going back to hear stuff. I don’t know what it teaches me about myself other than… whatever self-hatred I have, or feeling down about myself, there’s this thing that I do really well. And, um… does that teach me anything?”
It sounds like it might give you some confidence…
“When I’m doing music, when I’m doing songs or singing, that’s when I’m really myself, you know? I’m confident. I really know what I’m doing. It’s my job that I learned how to do, I feel, pretty well. I think I neglected a lot of other things in life being sort of so focussed on one thing. And, er, but… I don’t know. I don’t know what it teaches me (laughs).”
Greg Dulli once called you “Seattle’s Best-Kept Secret” – do you feel like you need to change that?
“Greg Dulli always had a certain drive to be successful in a way that I didn’t have. I had more of the drive to make the music and record the songs and make that vision happen but I never had that drive to work the career, to be on the phone yelling at managers. It’s real easy for me to be content being at home…”
Fortunately you’ve had people help get your name out there, too. In particular, how did your songs come to feature multiple times on The Sopranos?
“[Sopranos creator] David Chase picked Battle Flag by Pigoenhed to be in the outro to the second episode – and that was pretty exciting – because it was just Tony beating a guy! And then David Chase did an interview on the radio in the States and he mentioned me on it on the air and said he liked my stuff because he didn’t understand what I was saying (laughs)!”
Er… Was that a nice thing to say?
“Yeah, ‘hallelujah to the sixteen loyal benz’ – that doesn’t mean anything! That is gibberish! I was just improvising. Anyway, for Season 3, one of the producers reached out. I sent him a bunch of stuff – I’ve got a song in the second episode of the third season. I had my all family ready to watch that. Then, I sent my Shield Of Thorns record to the producer and he took two off it [Leaving California and Wrapped In My Memory]! I got the call, like, a week before it aired. They put those songs in last minute! They paid really well too so that was pretty exciting. They told me how much I was going to get and asked if it was ok and I was like (makes surprised face). I didn’t know where it was going to be [in the episode] so three days later after doing the deal I teared up a little bit.”
Did you feel a career profile explosion after having millions of people hear your song?
“It would have but I wasn’t on iTunes! I hadn’t even released the record. I was just sitting on all that stuff. Man, I had it out for free download on the website… Fuck! But if it would have been set up and I was on Sub Pop or something, I bet you it would have done something. But how do you know? It happened a week beforehand.”
The song Wrapped In My Memory is an important song in terms of the Seattle scene, too. You’ve previously said you felt Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood was beside you when you were writing it. Why did his memory come to you?
“I think I had the chorus words written. I was just sitting in the dark before we did another take and thought, ‘What is this about? What am I thinking about?’ and [Andrew Wood] just appeared. You know… I just felt like he arrived, like his presence was there. So the next take I was singing with him in mind.”
You were also involved in From The North – a band who brought Andrew’s unreleased lyrics to life. What was that like?
“That was an amazing experience. It was another thing just happened out of the blue. I got a text from his brother Kevin [Wood, Malfunkshun guitarist] saying, ‘I’m in the studio tomorrow and I have all these lyrics – do you want to come in?’ I get there and I thought they were going to be his lyrics and they turn out to be Andy’s lyrics from when he was a teenager. They were dated on the top – and we were the same age – so he was 14/15 and they were really deep! I was thinking, ‘When I was 14/15 my lyrics were just terrible, and here’s this kid who was just so grown up.’ And then I just banged them out. Very cool. I’m very proud of that.”
How often do you find your mind drifting back to those early days in Seattle?
“Do I think about it? Yeah, I think I do. I moved to Seattle in ’87 to live with my grandparents. There was no scene then. The only bands that had records out were Queensrÿche and Metal Church. I’d been there about six months and didn’t know anything about any of the bands – that’s how small it was. Bands only played on the Tuesday and Wednesday at one club, at another there’d maybe be a Friday show. Then one day I played Regan Hagar [Satchel/Malfunksion, drums] some of my four-track stuff and he said, ‘We gotta start a band – come out with me tonight and we’re going to watch Love Bone, this new band!’ And it was kind of like in Willy Wonka when they open up the candy room. It was like this door opened in Seattle that Regan opened and there was a whole scene of people my age playing hard rock that I really liked. I was really into Aerosmith and stuff. Love Bone just fit right in there.”
Did you have any inkling at those early shows that Seattle’s music scene would go on to become so special?
“It was special. But I don’t know what my inkling would have been, you see I’d been into music and all the bands I liked – Jane’s Addiction – things happened. I saw progression of how things happened. I sort of knew something was happening and Love Bone was getting courted shortly afterwards by all these labels. It was in the air. Things were happening with Alice In Chains, and then there was the Sub Pop side. I was in the middle of both. It was the Alice In Chains, Love Bone, Soundgarden camp and then Sub Pop, Mudhoney, those type of bands. Really two different worlds.”
Why do you think the whole era continues to appeal today? It’s not just nostalgia given new generations get into it… Why does it resonate?
“Hmm. It’s kind of like it was a coming together. Rock’n’roll hadn’t really been around that long and it was just kind of the flowering – the final flowering. You almost couldn’t really go any farther. It came out of the glam thing – which was really not that great – and just wiped it away. I guess it’s that cliché in Seattle where the artists were so isolated so they just started making up their own thing. And you know, from what I hear, a band like Black Flag would go through Seattle – and a lot of times band would skip it on tour because it’s out of the way – and you hear stories of when they played and changed all the kids. They all went to the show and it changed things. It was like The Ramones playing in London when The Clash guys and Sex Pistols guys were there.”
Frustratingly, people sometimes tend dwell on the past of some of those bands when so many – yourself included – are still out there recording brilliant music. What’s your take on the continued evolution of the Seattle scene?
“I don’t know why but the people up there in Seattle – the Soundgardens and Pearl Jams, Stone and myself – I don’t know why but it feels like we’re still making music the same way we did when we were young. The same sort of fresh, new riffs. Everyone’s still making fresh music to me for the same reasons – just trying to make a good song, a good riff.”
Going forward, then… What do you still want to do?
“Well, I just want to keep creating, working, recording – making records. I want to build up something over here more live and whatnot. I feel like I’m at a turning point – it’s moving in a new direction and I’m pretty excited. I have a tendency to sit around and wait for things to happen. I sat around and waited and this [tour] is happening.”
Finally, do you need to change to get where you want to go?
“Not really. I think some things are coming together where I can still just be myself. Like I said, I just don’t go chasing things. If someone comes to me with a good offer…”