Abandon Jalopy & Blind Melon's Brad Smith: Death & Joy

By Jeb Wright

Brad Smith came to fame as a member of Blind Melon, a band named after a joke his father made about a Cheech & Chong movie. The band hit the big time with the hippy hit “No Rain” featuring the charismatic front man of the band Shannon Hoon. Just as things were riding high for Blind Melon, Hoon, a drug addict, died while on tour of a cocaine overdose.

Blind Melon left their mark on music, yet there were songs still left to sing. But without Hoon, it was apparent that what once was, would never be again. Smith went on to record with Unified Theory and then, formed a new band called Abandon Jalopy, essentially a side project for his songwriting.

Now, ten years later, Smith has resurfaced with a new album by Abandon Jalopy and is taking the indi route making the record available through mail order and even making it available on vinyl. The songs on the album contain rich deep textures and raw emotions making this one of the best indi albums on the market. In fact, Smith should have a go at finding a major label as one track, “Up Till Now” is so good that it should be a hit song.

In the interview that follows, Brad openly discusses his new album, his sad clown alter ego and the death of Shannon Hoon. This is a very open and honest interview with a sincere man, who just happens to be one hell of a songwriter.


 

Jeb: This album is impressive. You are doing this yourself so what is your game plan?

Brad: It is going to get out there really slow. I think a lot of people are going to discover this on their own, which, as an indi artist, is the only way I can do it. I can’t front run a giant release date and nobody really even cares about that stuff anymore, anyway. I am doing low numbers and making this as personal as I can. If I can sell two to five thousand copies then, in my mind, mission accomplished.

Jeb: “Up Till Now” is a hit song. I am serious, that should be on the radio.

Brad: A couple of other people have told me the same thing. There are a couple of independent radio stations that want to put that song on the air but, again, you’re in the situation where you are going to be spending five hundred bucks a week for a radio campaign. It may take off at radio and it may not. I am not really sure what to do, as I am doing this all on my own.

Capital Records handled the entire Blind Melon catalog and Universal handled the Unified Theory catalog. People do seem to like this record, though, so maybe going to radio is the next step. I am really glad you mentioned “Up Till Now” because I really like that one. I think that song has a really good sentiment.

Jeb: I get a ton of music to review and I tend to act like The Gong Show because there is only so much time in the day but halfway through your album I stopped and went and immediately put it on my iPod and I have been listening to this for weeks.

Brad: Right on! You really made my day. I am in the same boat because I am a producer and I get a lot of songs sent to me. I take special gratification knowing that I made your iPod.

Jeb: “Up Till Now,” explain the writing process on that song.

Brad: Initially, it was about finding comfort in someone for a crazy ass situation that you’ve been through. Everyone can say it is about their girlfriend, or their wife, and in a sense it is, but I started writing this during the Blind Melon Mach II stage. We were out on the road with this guy named Travis [Warren] singing and he was just a nightmare; he was such a handful. He totally stressed the band out. “Up Till Now” is really about all of the Blind Melon fans that stuck with me, and the band, through thick and thin. The song kind of turned into that when I wrote the bridge. Amid all of the trauma and the shit that was going on with the economy, the band, record sales and this Travis guy, when I got on stage, it all disappeared. That is what the song is really about.

Jeb: When did the idea come to you to make another Abandon Jalopy album?

Brad: That is a great question. The truth is that I’ve had tons of songs, ever since the first Blind Melon record. I’m always putting my songs on the backburner. I have never felt that I can sing my songs and get it across the right way, which is really the wrong way of thinking.

I had written songs like “No Rain” and Shannon [Hoon] knocked them out of the park. I never stepped out on my own. I decided that this time, I would step out on my own and sing these songs, as I was the only one who really knew what they were about. It wasn’t until a year and a half ago that I revved myself up to cut loose and give these songs my best effort. I am glad that I did. I have been getting great testimonials from both fans and music industry people. They have picked up on how sincere the record is and, in a way, it makes me wish I had done it earlier, but I don’t know if I would have been ready earlier. I am kind of a slow dude. It took me a long time to be confident enough to do this.

Jeb: Tell me about “Black Cloud.”

Brad: That song has a bit of poetic license as the song is about not having a choice for someone like me, who is a musician. I could not get away from this if I tried. In some ways that is good and in some ways it is not. I am like a glorified street musician. I didn’t go to Julliard or Berklee. I write from the heart and I have begged, borrowed or stolen every songwriting trick that I’ve ever learned.

The song is about running with an unhealthy crowd and getting into unhealthy social situations but not having any way to get away from it. I have lost a lot of friends to that and I’ve lost my lead singer to drugs. It was directly from being on the road, being in a band and being a hell raiser your entire life; you can’t really get away from it. I can’t imagine doing anything else. There is a lyric in that song that really sums up how I feel. I say, “I’ve got a crater upside my mind and I don’t want to change.”

Jeb: Being a creative artist is emotionally tough. I have found that if you try to do things from the heart, then the stuff that you write about can tend to be depressing.

Brad: The message is a little dark but I think the message in “No Rain” was dark. It was a hippie kind of Caribbean type song with dark lyrics.

Jeb: Blind Melon was not an easy ride. After Shannon, it never was the same.

Brad: We gave it our best shot with that Travis guy. It was a situation where the original members of the band were going, “What the fuck are we doing dealing with this guy? This is not how it was supposed to work out on paper.” Blind Melon has always been tough. It is almost like the band has been cursed.

Jeb: You have a good voice and other guys in the band can sing so why didn’t you all just handle the vocals when you got back together?

Brad: That is a really good question but the truth is that I could not do the songs the justice that Shannon could. He was a force. Psychologically, it would have been very tough for me to do and physically, being able to pull it off, I wouldn’t have been able to do it as well as Shannon. I didn’t want to step out there and clearly be second fiddle in trying to fill someone’s shoes like his.

I can sing my own songs with conviction and make it translate but I can’t do it with Blind Melon songs.

Jeb: Let’s talk about “Dragonfly.” What a trippy song.

Brad: That is a weird one, right? I get locked into these modes and I don’t even know where I am getting these sounds. I had a critic say that I was rapping. He said I was doing a southern rap thing, and he was right, I was. I have never thought of myself as a rap artist. I think the cadence of the song came from more of a hillbilly perspective than a rap perspective. Remember Schoolhouse Rock? I kind of had that think going on when I did “Dragonfly.”


The song is clearly about leaving Mississippi and feeling like a free spirit. The song is about leaving your hometown with ten dollars in your pocket and enough gas to get to California. The song is about realizing that the area where you grew up is not where you’re going to spend the rest of your life. The artists I know are always from somewhere else; they’re never from where they grew up. The song is about being a free spirit but still having an affinity for your roots.

Jeb: The music really changes throughout the tune.

Brad: I was really into Gospel music for a while and I think some of that might have made it into the song. I really tried to make the music sound like Mississippi sounds.

Jeb: Tell me about the title track, “Death and Joy.”

Brad: The song is about little places in your life that are very special to you, even though they are not laced with elation or joy. It is all the little small parts of your life that mean so much. It is those moments that were so special to you but you can’t really explain them.

Jeb: Do you still get insecure that you’re opening your soul to the whole world?

Brad: There is some insecurity there but, let’s face it, I wasn’t making a pop record. This record may end up being somewhat accessible but to me, this is American Folk Rock. It is the person stripped down to the core and not everyone is going to like it. This is for the people who like it. I don’t really know how to answer that. I was somewhat insecure but I knew I was being honest. What are you going to do? People will either like it or they won’t like it. I had to talk myself into it in a way.

Jeb: Tell me about “Won’t Be the Same.”

Brad: That song is about Shannon. I am going to have at least one song on every album that is about Shannon. I have to tell you that even now, I will sit behind a microphone and I will be writing lyrics and I remember the days when Shannon was alive and sitting behind a microphone and busting out my songs. I knew when I was writing those songs that Shannon was going to knock them out of the park and I couldn’t wait to hear him sing my songs.

I still have those feelings but now the feelings are more about being pissed. I think, “I can’t believe that fucker did that.” I go through phases of being sad and disturbed by it and then, I don’t know how to explain this, I get almost a humorous slant to it where I go, “We are living a cliché. My singer died and here I am.” I go through periods where I get really mad and I’m like, “That dude fucked so much shit up” and then the next day I get up and think, “Man, I really miss him.” “Won’t Be the Same” is about how much I miss him.

It’s been almost fifteen years; I was 26 or 27 when he died. It was just brutal. It is weird how time goes. I could talk very freely about Shannon a few years ago but it is hard now. It has gotten really hard since his daughter has grown up. She actually sang background vocals with me on my album.

I am more emotional when I talk about Shannon now, because he is missing out on all the good stuff. He wouldn’t be trying to fight the man anymore and he would not have been all pissed off. He would have been 43 now and he could have relaxed a bit. He would have been cranking out killer solo albums – the band would have broken up but he would have been making killer music.

Jeb: It is hard to accept that someone you care about is gone. They don’t get to live life anymore. I can’t imagine the emotions of working with his daughter.

Brad: It is more emotional looking back on it than it was when we were doing it. She is a great girl. Nico is a really dynamic person. She is at the age now where she can ask me something about her dad and I feel that I can talk candidly about it. She is sixteen and I can tell her about her dad and how he made you feel like the most important person in the room, how he was funny in interviews and how you wanted to hang out with him because he was so much fun. He wanted to stay at the party and hang out longer than anybody and you wanted to hang with him.

When she put the background vocals on, the music sounded instantly better. I don’t know if it is the Hoon touch or what, but it really did sound better. We sang one afternoon for a couple of hours and that was it. I went back and listened and she just sounded great.

Jeb: “Willing” ends the album with some emotion.

Brad: It is the deepest track in every way. When people get into a band then they end up getting into the B side more than the A side. There is only one verse to the song and there are two choruses but it is a heavy song. It is about the dichotomy of Religion. I wrote that song for Machine Gun Preacher. I knew the editor for that movie and they were looking for songs, so I sent that to them. It was actually in the movie at one point but people like Chris Cornell can come along and bump your song pretty easily. I gave it my best effort and I stand by that song, so I decided to put it on my solo album instead of letting it die on a hard drive somewhere.

Jeb: Tell me about the album artwork. The front and back have a girl in the fields and skipping down the path. On the inside you have the sad clown thing going on. Is there some correlation?

Brad: No, it doesn’t connect; the two do not interact with each other.

I have a friend who told me to get organized with the artwork to the album. He said, “Brad, there is not one picture of you in this artwork.” I was okay with that as Led Zeppelin didn’t always have pictures of themselves, either. It was not a big deal to me. He kept saying that there had to be a picture of me. The vaudeville clown thing is the kind of concept that I wanted to do around the song “Death and Joy.” There is like this sad clown talking about how beautiful life is, but how it is all going to end one day; that is a little bit of my alter ego.

The front cover is my daughter. They were supposed to be test shots. We spent a day going up into the Hollywood Hills and doing these tests shots so a real photographer could come in and shoot my album cover. I am using the shots I took because we had such a great day.

Jeb: Do you have any regrets where Blind Melon is concerned or have you come to peace with it?

Brad: I have to be at peace with it as there is no changing it. There are some regrets, you know. I went through a phase where I blamed myself for Shannon’s death – everybody in the band went through that. We were all fans of his – I know that sounds funny, but it’s true. We were band members, bros and equals in some regards, but I wanted to hang out with him, raise hell with him and party with him. I really was a fan of Shannon Hoon. Some people, like Shannon, have no off switch. I beat myself up about that and I blamed myself but the truth is that we were all raising hell.

We were all ill equipped with the seriousness of addiction and how to overcome it. We didn’t even know what addiction really was. We didn’t know it could really kill people. We were 23 years old traveling around in a van, smoking dope and raising hell; we were not very wise. We had seen a lot of the world, but we were not very wise.

George Clooney has a great quote about that hanging up in his house. It says, “Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn’t mean that you’re any smarter than when it reached down the bar.” I think Blind Melon fell into that category a little bit. Just because our voice reached around the world doesn’t mean that we had everything figured out.

Jeb: The video for “No Rain” was kind of a fluke. You had several songs released and none had made a big impact.

Brad: We were four to five singles deep into that album. We were getting geared up to make another album and this guy at Capital Records really championed “No Rain.” He said, “This is the song; this is a hit.” People were like, “It didn’t test well and it is not a good song to go to radio with. I think these guys need to do another album.” He went out there and championed the song to radio and then we made the video with the bee girl and, wallah, we hit. You just never know where it is going to come from.

Jeb: It must have been nuts after that.

Brad: In my mind, we were already pretty successful. We had sold around two hundred thousands copies traveling around in a van. We were really great live back then. I can say that now, looking back, with envy that I wish I could do it again.

We were a bunch of small town boys who moved to California and got a record deal. Everything on top of that was like a dream and a fantasy that came alive in front of our eyes.

Jeb: Very few people get to live that life that you did.

Brad: When ever my wife and I complain about anything that is going on in our lives, we have to stop and go, “Are we really going to complain? We’re the luckiest people on the planet. Seriously, are we going to start complaining now?”

Jeb: “No Rain” was the biggest hit you had but I loved the different styles on the album. One song was hippy the next funky, the next rock… it makes it fun music to listen to.

Brad: I can agree with you on that. It was not be design, I can promise you that; we didn’t know what we were going to get every time we walked into rehearsal, either. It just seemed whatever kind of mood we were in that day would determine what kind of music we were going to write that day. It didn’t hurt to have five different writers in the band. All of the doors were open all the time and that helped.

Jeb: Going back to Abandon Jalopy, would you like to take this album out on the road?

Brad: Hell yeah, I am planning to take this music out on the road. I am looking into different kinds of distribution right now, as the only way to get it right now is mail order. I want to get this in stores. I have a bunch of really promising avenues for that. I want to do some shows towards the end of the summer.

Jeb: Will you do it acoustically or with a full band?

Brad: If something catches at radio then I might go around to radio stations and play a radio show and then play an open mike night, initially. I really want a full band, though. I really need some volume to hide behind as there really is nothing like it. I have a band lined up with Jimmy Paxson, who played on most of the songs on my record and also plays with Stevie Nicks. We will then recruit Al Ortiz, who also plays with Stevie to play bass. They would even go out in the van and do some shows for me. I can get a really hotrod band together and it would be really badass. One way or another, we’re going to do it.

Jeb: Where would you fit in? Would you be a Jam Band or do festivals or open for someone?

Brad: That is a really good question. I have always imagined myself with Abandon Jalopy headlining smaller places, like maybe 200 seaters, maybe it will be full or maybe it will be only half full but that is what I see. I like the idea of building it all on my own. I would go out with somebody if they were really big and my music fit with them but I am really all about making this really personal. As funny as it sounds, I want to keep the numbers low at first and keep a lower profile but keep it as sincere as possible. I have already won, otherwise. I have won in life. I’ve already won the game of rock and roll, so why not just make it as sincere as possible from here on out and just count my blessings.

Jeb: Last one: What ever happened to the Bee Girl?

Brad: The last I heard she was living in Malibu surfing on the giant stardom that the video had afforded her. Just kidding, but I see her pop up at Halloween all over the country. Â@She is still going strong.

www.abandonjalopymusic.com