When you’re pushing nearly twenty years into any career, things can get stagnant or repetitive. This is especially true for musicians, and creatives as as whole, who want to better themselves and their projects, but can sometimes fall victim to sticking to what they’re good at/what got them popular. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, as it all comes down to personal taste with music being entirely subjective — but, at the same time, when you see a band constantly evolving and pushing their sound forward, it’s a refreshing thing to see. That’s precisely where Shinedown comes in, having just released arguably their most eclectic release to date, ATTENTION ATTENTION, last year.
To be more specific, the record came out on May 4th, 2018, which is of course “Star Wars Day” to most, including Shinedown’s Brent Smith. When talking to me about the release of ATTENTION ATTENTION, Smith recants the day that the record came out: they were headlining Carolina Rebellion and as they closed with “DEVIL,” he made a proclamation. “We brought a bunch of what we call 350-footers, a big firework display, and we ended with the song ‘DEVIL,’ which is the first single from ATTENTION ATTENTION, and I declared to 40,000 people that we are going to share May 4th with Star Wars, because May 4 is now forever National ATTENTION ATTENTION day,” he tells me. It’s only fitting, then, that this piece is going live today with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker coming out today.
If you ask Smith, though, about the amount of time already passed since the record came out, he doesn’t feel like it’s necessarily flown by. It’s quite a surprise to me, as I figured with as busy as their touring schedule has been — they just wrapped played their last show of 2019, their 237th since ATTENTION ATTENTION dropped — but he explains otherwise. “I know that each year, it seems that people, especially this time of the year — it was funny, the other day, a friend of mine from back home, I was catching up with him on a couple of things, and he mentioned just using holiday language, and I’ll be honest with you man, I took a deep breath and told him on the phone, ‘Holy crap, I didn’t even realize it was December,'” Smith humorously shares. He goes on to explain that while Shinedown has been on tour in support of the record, they set out many goals and things they wanted to accomplish — most of which they have done. But with that, they’ve been laser focused on their goals and taking the moments in — this doesn’t mean time flies, but some things go unnoticed. “The year’s not necessarily gone by fast, we’ve done so much that we’re trying to take it in. I think a lot of times you don’t recall what you accomplished, so we’ve all kind of, the band and the crew and management and the label, we’ve really tried to stay very on point with each other and in the moment in regards to all of the moments,” Smith explains.
With ATTENTION ATTENTION, Shinedown have not only made a record that further pushes their sound, but has continued their run of dominance in the rock world. To date, they’ve garnered 14 #1 singles on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Charts (most recently being “MONSTERS” off of ATTENTION ATTENTION), while all 26 singles they’ve released as a band have charted in the top five of that same chart. It’s quite a run, one that undoubtedly makes them one of the more successful rock acts of their time. But, interestingly enough, this kind of success is one that even translates over to their live shows incredibly well, also.
Sometimes when you go to watch a band live, you see audience reception favor their older songs and when that band plays new songs live, the audience sort of tunes them out waiting for their older songs to pop back up in the setlist. Other times, there are bands that can play almost exclusively newer songs, and no one leaves the show complaining. Having just seen Shinedown at Inkcarceration over the summer, I can attest that Shinedown fits under the latter umbrella. When I bring this up to Smith, pondering how it is as a creative person to see your new work so well received, he’s quick to mention that it doesn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated. He recalls the aforementioned performance at Carolina Rebellion the day ATTENTION ATTENTION dropped, explaining that “‘HUMAN RADIO’ had been out from the grat track [and] obviously ‘DEVIL’ had been working at the radio for about two and a half months at that point. We actually played quite a bit of new songs that day, and it was very unique because it was almost as if the audience already knew the new material. It wasn’t anything that we took for granted.”
It’s such a gratifying thing for Smith an Shinedown to see that reception live, because they put a lot of hard work into ATTENTION ATTENTION. Smith explains that they always work hard on their records, but “this was a record that we did in house,” which gives them a little more leeway to do things strictly their way. In fact, Shinedown’s multi-talented bassist Eric Bass did the engineering, producing (with Smith), mixing, and a lot of the work to bring ATTENTION ATTENTION to life. When explaining the overall process, Smith tells me that he wants to give a lot of credit to their record label, Atlantic Records, for allowing them to do things this way and just let them be themselves. “A lot of times when a band says they’re gonna self-produce their album, the label will be terrified because they think you’re going to go in there and build a space ship and like turn into a prog band, and that’s not what we did,” he shares. “At the end of the day it’s still built around the melody, it’s built around the song and the authenticity, and also, we used the best of our ability to give the world the best art that we can and the best songs that we can.”
Putting the sound of ATTENTION ATTENTION aside, another part of what makes the record so unique, is that it follows a concept/story-line across it’s entirety, detailing an individual going through their emotional journey and facing their struggles, ultimately coming out on the other side stronger than before. Writing personal songs is certainly nothing new to the band, but this concept record, story-line driving record is a first for Shinedown. The idea to make the record this one came to be after Smith and Bass had written “GET UP” — which was the third song written after “MONSTERS” and “BLACK SOUL,” but until “GET UP,” there was going to be no theme. “The reality was [that] Eric had this piano part and he’d been playing it quite a bit, and we had been going back and forth between different pieces of music and finally one day I said, ‘Play me this again, you keep playing this part, let me hear it,'” Smith tells me. He proceeds to explain to me his process for writing lyrics and hooks for songs, which is something he doesn’t spend too much time with. This isn’t to say he doesn’t put effort into it, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. “A lot of times with me, if I don’t get the message quickly to know what I’m going to write about, I’ll move along. Same thing with like the next morning I can’t remember the hook, then I won’t write it. If I can’t remember it the next morning, then it doesn’t have the staying power with me,” he highlights.
Once Smith left the studio from hearing the piano part to what would result in “GET UP,” he didn’t return to the studio for eleven days. When he returned, he had the lyrics and everything ready in his head, and they recorded a vocal track for the song. The very next day, Bass had the mix done and the two played it back twice, upon which Bass recognized that Smith had written the song about him and his battles with clinical depression. Smith tells me, “It’s something he can’t always control [and] he doesn’t mean anything by it, but some days are just really, really tough. The reality is that he’s not trying to get sympathy and he’ snot trying to get people to feel awkward around him.”
While it was originally inspired by Bass, Smith tells me that the song represents something much more than just battling clinical depression; instead, it represents not being afraid of your failures in life. Smith is a firm believer in that people are never defined by their failures, and failing is never the end of the world. He believes it to be quite the opposite, in that you’re going to be defined by that relentlessly and never giving up. So because of that, “GET UP” served as the catalyst to the idea behind putting together ATTENTION ATTENTION in such a way that told a coherent story front to back. At the end of the day, Smith wants everyone to know that while the record is inspired by their own personal struggles and events, the songs are not strictly talking about those certain things, people, or places. “The reality is that the whole record is built around — it doesn’t matter whether you’re younger, or older, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, it doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is, it doesn’t matter what your religion is, because we’re all on an even playing field. The record is about everybody,” he tells me. “Once we wrote [‘GET UP’], it kind of gave us the roadmap for what became ATTENTION ATTENTION.”
Aside from “GET UP,” another deeply personal track on ATTENTION ATTENTION is “MONSTERS,” which Smith has previously stated in a track-by-track breakdown that it is about his own battles with alcoholism and substance abuse. But, like the rest of the record, “MONSTERS” is not simply a song about his own monsters, so to speak, there’s room for the listener to apply their own story to the track. In the aforementioned track-by-track breakdown, he actually explains that “MONSTERS” is “about a lot of different situations that people get put in because they have things in their mind that – for whatever reason – they used to sabotage themselves.”
I ask Smith if it was hard for Shinedown to write songs that are so deeply personal to the, but yet are open enough that they can fit the story of the album and allow listeners to apply their own experiences to it. “I don’t necessarily know if it was hard,” he answers,” but I know that it was necessary. I know that we had to shrink each other down to the core of who we are and not take it so personally, but be very aware that we were going to go all in from an emotional standpoint into this album.” They’ve all worked together for so longing Shinedown that they know how to work together, how to operate, when to push and when not to push — when a song is done and it’s time to move on. This allows them to get into these dark, emotional headspace to write songs and get pulled out of it when the time comes.
When talking to Smith about the record, it’s so incredibly insightful because it comes through in his voice and delivery just how much ATTENTION ATTENTION means to him. While he’s explaining the story, he highlights “DEVIL” as dropping he listener right at the beginning of their journey, in the worst place possible mentally. He also highlights the last-track on the record, “BRILLIANT,” which serves as the finale for the album — but not necessarily the story and journey. It’s an uplifting track that is one that inspires, and Smith has a specific visual representation of whats in his head when he thinks of “BRILLIANT.” “I just picture a lot of times, I just see all these kids and all these different people from all over the world just coming over a mountain and just charging life, if you will, just going for it,” he tells me. “So you weathered this difficult storm from a psychological and spiritual and emotional and physical place in a lot of ways, to come out the other side.”
The record is so story driven that it has an important intro track and outro track: with the opening part you hear the protagonist walk into a room and just take a deep breath, and the ending of “BRILLIANT” follows as the person gets out of the chair, talks some tips and you hear Smith on the record conclude “until next time.” “It never really ends, your journey just — you start a new journey, but it never really ends, you just move forward.”
“BRILLIANT” is a little bit of new territory for the band, especially with it serving as the last track ATTENTION ATTENTION. Smith points out to me the the last few record had a mid-tempo song or ballad closeout those records, but this time the sound for the closing track is more anthemic, endearing, and exciting all at once. But, ending the record on that positive note is one that felt important to the band. “You realize that you’re never gonna be perfect, and you wouldn’t wanna be, because what’s the fun in that,” Smith ponders. On explaining the important behind ending the record with the powerful, uplifting “BRILLIANT,” he expands further on his thoughts: “You’re stronger than you think you are. you do have the power to take control of your life. It’s not gonna be easy, but it’s one thing at a time. If that statement where you start this record, it’s gonna get heavy, but you finish the finale with fine day to be brilliant. We want people to have hope,” Smith says.
He actually likens that sentiment to the overall message behind the name of their band, Shinedown. He explains that he gets asked this question pretty frequently, and while “that’s a longer story,” he sums it up accurately and effectively by telling me that, “The reason why it’s one word and it’s not separated is because it’s the ying and the yang. Everything good has a little bit of bad and everything bad has a little bit of good, and it’s all balance. Sometimes you shine, and sometimes you’re down. At the end of the day, you have to understand that the beautiful part of life is just that, it’s the journey.”
Shinedown operate in the mainstream rock corner of the music industry, which is a genre that is, really, still sort of opening up and adjusting to talking about this. For them, all of this really came to the forefront when they wrote their song “Bully” off of 2012’s Amaryllis, which is a fairly self-explanatory track. “People were like ‘Oh this is an epidemic and people need to be aware of this,’ and we were like, ‘It’s not an epidemic, and people have been aware of this for years, you’re just bringing it to the forefront,'” Smith tells me on the reception they received with “Bully.” This really removed the “line in the sand,” as he explains to me, which of course transitioned into writing songs more openly about their battles with depression, substance abuse, addictions, and so forth.
With ATTENTION ATTENTION, Shinedown really carry the torch for having these conversations in the rock community, and it’s an inspiring thing to see. A lot of it they believe can simply come down to communication, having a discussion and just being honest about it. The other part of this communication Smith believes, is really just getting back to the basics at times: face-to-face interactions. He doesn’t disparage technology or social media, in fact, he really appreciates it himself and thinks it can be a great tool. However, he believes there are times when that has hampered the ability to communicate face to face a bit, and that’s when you can really do some good when discussing such personal topics. “That’s one of the biggest things we want to try to curve with the younger generation,” Smith begins to explain, “We don’t want people to lose their humanity with each other. We don’t want people to lose their empathy for each other.”
“We’re not saying that you have to coddle people, but you don’t know what someone’s going through.” Smith tells me there have been a few times when he has seen a total stranger on the street, seemingly visibly struggling or just having a bad day, and he’s gone up to them to ask fi they’re okay, or if there’s anything he can do to help. He admits that this is “fucking terrifying” and “just one example” of the human connection and ability to show empathy, but finds that it can be quite beneficial. “I’ve done it in the way where I’ve noticed someone just needed someone to ask them if they’re okay, and that’s all they needed and it completely changed their day. You could potentially save somebody’s life just by asking them if they’re okay. It lets them know that they’re not alone,” Smith says.
At the end of the day, that’s what Shinedown really set out to say with ATTENTION ATTENTION. Through an up-and-down story, one that’s as much about their own personal struggles as it is the listeners, they want you to know that you are certainly never alone. “It’s a beautiful thing to witness the world embrace what mental health truly is and why it’s an important part of our lives, because we need to be able to take care of each other,” Smith concludes with me. “We’re all on this planet together and we need to learn how to take care of each other and how to respect one another.”