Zach Myers of Shinedown Talks New Duo Project Smith & Myers, Memphis Blues, R.E.M., & Guitars (INTERVIEW)

For Zach Myers and Brent Smith of Shinedown, doing a duo project was a very natural thing. But making an album came somewhat out of the blue when vocalist Smith blurted out one night at a concert that he and guitarist Myers were going to record some songs together. Catching Myers by surprise, the idea quickly took shape and a year later they were laying tracks down for the first Smith & Myers album. Ultimately culminating as two volumes of rearranged covers and inspirational originals, the twenty songs have been a hit with fans. 

Toned down sonically and re-expressed to highlight the words, Smith & Myers have made Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” into a yearning ballad, “Losing My Religion” into an acoustic guitar hymn, and Neil Young’s fiery anthem “Rockin’ In The Free World” into a soothing balm for a chaotic world. Add in the confessional “Bad At Love” and the electronically hip “One More Time” and these albums are perfect for music lovers of any age.

And that is what Shinedown has always been about: writing songs that connect to all humans. And the numbers have only verified this. They’ve sold over ten million albums worldwide and when it comes to streaming they’ve hit over four billion. Billboard hailed them #1 on their Greatest Of All Time Mainstream Rock Artists chart. And that doesn’t even come close to what it’s like experiencing all that music live. The band is such a force of nature, it’s an eye-opening spectacle to just sit back and watch the fans willingly succumb to their magic, their energy, their honesty. 

Myers, a Memphis blues kid who found his home in a rock band, joined Shinedown on tour around 2005 and began recording with them on 2008’s The Sound Of Madness, the band’s third studio album. With their tour starting up as we speak, and a new album on the horizon, I spoke with Myers about his project with Smith, the songs it inspired, his insight into Shinedown’s catalog and his early love of the blues.

The Shinedown tour starts in a few days. What can we expect? [It kicked off August 5th in Iowa]

I think you can expect the Shinedown show, which is of course things blowing up and setting on fire and explosions. But you can also expect a few guys who haven’t gotten to play onstage together in almost two years, you know. So I think there’s going to be a lot of fire and a lot of energy and a lot of excitement to be back up there together.

Are you going to incorporate some of these Smith & Myers songs?

There will never be a Smith & Myers song played at a Shinedown show. I think that you’ve got to separate church and state a little bit when it comes to that. I will obviously play Shinedown songs at Smith & Myers shows but I don’t know if Barry [Kerch, drummer] and Eric Bass want to get up there and play “Bad At Love” at a Shinedown show. I don’t think they would be too enthused about that, personally.

How long after Brent made that spur-of-the-moment announcement did you actually start working on the songs for the Smith & Myers album?

I think he made that in like January of 2019 and we started working on it in February 2020. We had to finish up everything we had to do with Shinedown. Then last year we started making the record and writing songs pre-pandemic and last year was going to be a strictly Smith & Myers year. It was going to be a year where we only did that and toured Smith & Myers and did only those things. Then what happened, happened. We got to get a little bit of touring in, we got to play some drive-in shows and this year we got to do a couple more outdoor shows, and some of them felt a little normal. Then later in the fall we may do another tour.

How were these songs different?

I think as songwriters you kind of write what you write. I think the best thing about Smith & Myers was the fact that there had never been an original song written for that. So it’s almost like you’re a new artist: your sound can be anything you want it to be. I mean, Brent’s voice is going to be Brent’s voice and he’s going to sound like Brent Smith of Shinedown and I’m going to sound like Zach Myers of Shinedown. But we really got to create our own kind of what we sound like. With Shinedown, yeah, of course, we make a new record every single time. We make all of our records sound different. It may be a highway but maybe there are more lanes and we can kind of cruise in and out of lanes. But with Smith & Myers, it was an open road, you could do anything you wanted. And that was kind of the beauty of it. There is no drummer, there is no bass player so we can really just create what we want to create and not be withholding to any kind of genre of music, which I thought was a lot of fun.

Again, with Shinedown, you’ve got things you got to kind of stick to. We don’t ever make the same record twice but at the same time we’re not going to make a dance record, you know what I mean (laughs). I think with this, it was like, wow, this can be any genre. And also, I think lyrically, we approached it differently. Ten out of ten times, I don’t think Brent is going to write “Bad At Love” for a Shinedown song. I think that’s a little too on-the-nose with no ambiguity, you know what I mean. “Bad At Love” is about Brent, that’s what the song is about, so I don’t know if he would have done that with Shinedown. And we got to write about some other situations. But Shinedown is usually pretty personal. We don’t usually write songs about other people or other situations. It’s all about something that one of us has gone through.

What is something you did not want to infiltrate into these two volumes of songs, especially with the original songs?

I don’t think anything. We’re never going to be a political band on paper. We’re individuals who have our own beliefs but I do think it was maybe the most social commentary we’ve ever made in songs. A song like “Not Mad Enough” is obviously being about George Floyd and his death. But making everything political of the kind of day and age and era that we’re in is so weird to me, where you can’t just look at a piece of video and go, hey, there’s wrong and there’s right and this is wrong. Period. I think we felt we needed to write about that. You have a song like “Weight Of It All,” which is obviously about kids being held in cages at the borders separated from their families, about people wanting to come here for a better life, and things like that. So I think social commentary-wise, it was a lot that we’ve never tackled before. We’ve never really done that. But I don’t think we really steered away from anything.

Which of these songs took the longest to get like you wanted to reinterpret them?

As far as the covers go, the complete changing up of something like “Rebel Yell” was really cool and different. This is a big heavy rock song, so how do we slow it down and then maybe fade it into that. That was a lot of fun to do. “Losing My Religion” was one of my favorite ones, and still one of my favorite covers we did. I think maybe the hardest song to write of the originals might have been, I don’t know, it could have been either “GBL GBD” or “One More Time.” “One More Time” had a little bit more rhythm and felt a little more like it could have been a Shinedown song and we were kind of on the fence about it, does it sound TOO much like our other thing?

What were the main guitars you used to record these songs?

The main acoustics were a 1958 Martin D-18, a PRS 25th anniversary acoustic and then a couple of Gibsons. The electrics were a 1958 335, a Strat and a Fender Jaguar.

Do you prefer vintage over newer models?

Not really. I like guitars. In the studio, I have a lot of both. I have a lot of vintage stuff. In the studio, it really depends but I like to go with what the song calls for. If it needs something modern, then we’ll use something modern. But I have a lot of them and Dave Bassett, our producer, has a lot of them, and honestly, I don’t get to use them live because I have a deal with PRS and I have a signature model that does really well so I’d rather use my guitar live. But in the studio, that’s when I kind of get to branch out and play some of my other guitars.

When you first started learning to play guitar, what was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of?

I have very small hands so I couldn’t really play chords when I started. That’s kind of how I learned to be a lead guitar player. I could play solo-type stuff but I couldn’t chords so that’s kind of where I learned from.

I understand that you’re from Memphis and that you were a blues kid. Was it lyrics, vocals or the guitar sound that first attracted you to the blues?

It was very much the guitar. Lyrics I got into later but not too long after. I’ve always been a huge fan of lyric writing. My two favorite songwriters of all-time are probably John Prine and Jackson Browne. So I really got into songwriting probably around fifteen, sixteen, but guitar for me was right around thirteen when I really started hearing what the guitar could do and things like that. So yeah, it was always guitar first, then vocals and then songwriting.

Is there one particular song that epitomizes the blues to you?

Something like “The Thrill Is Gone” by BB King is good because it’s not typical, what you would call a 1-4-5 blues that would be played. There’s a couple of different chord variations in there which I really like. But something like “Born Under A Bad Sign” by Albert King and then “Going Down” by Freddie King. You know, Freddie King, BB King, Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, that was what I wanted, that’s everything I wanted to sound like. That’s what I wanted to do.

Did people like Son House or the Reverend Gary Davis, who were very minimalistic, have any influence on you?

Oh yeah, and Hubert Sumlin was huge to me. Robert Johnson, I always used to say I couldn’t listen to Robert Johnson at night with the lights off cause it was one of the scariest things I ever heard. I got into Son House a little later but for me Hubert Sumlin, Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson, the old kind of guys who were just him and a guitar, that was stuff that I really enjoyed a lot. There’s something about just a person with a guitar and a vocal that they can fill up the whole space of sound. It’s quite an accomplishment, I think.

You had mentioned, “Losing My Religion.” What is the meaning in that song for you?

For me, now that I know what it’s about, it’s obviously about, or I feel like it’s about Michael Stipe coming out of the closet, in his own way. But that’s the thing about songs and that’s why I kind of don’t like telling people what our songs are about. To me, it’s a song about just realizing that maybe you’re this different person than everybody thought you were yet you still have to portray this image of yourself. And again, that’s why I kind of don’t like to tell a lot of people what our songs are about, because I don’t want to listen to a John Prine song that I feel is this crazy story about a life that maybe people were married and they got divorced or whatever and then meet John Prine and he tells me it’s about a refrigerator. I don’t need to know what songs are about. I make up what they are about. I get that not everyone is creative and they’re going to take it for face value or what it’s worth or want to know what it’s about. But for me, the fun in music is YOU make it what it’s about.

Saying that, what song in your catalog has changed the most from it’s original meaning, at least to you?

“Shed Some Light” is my favorite Shinedown song and it’s on a record, Us & Them, that doesn’t get a lot of songs played from it necessarily live. But that song has changed drastically for me over the years in it’s meaning and what it’s about. Of course I know what that song is about, it’s about Brent and his father and his grandfather, but to me I’ve found that it’s about me. I’ve found it’s about the things I’ve gone through and in every facet of my life that song has come with me in some sort of change or way and that’s what I really dig about it.

And which song in the catalog took the longest to get right in the studio?

Honestly, “Human Radio” off Attention Attention. I can’t tell you how many variations of it that it had; it had a lot. But other than that, there’s been some on this new record that I obviously can’t talk about yet.

When will we get this new record?

When you get it (laughs). The day it comes out is when you’ll get it (laughs). Honestly, I don’t think you’ll see a record in 2021. Will it be ready to come out in 2021? Sure. Will we put it out? Probably not.

When it comes to Shinedown, the numbers are staggering – the albums sold, the streaming numbers, the #1’s. Why do the fans seem to really connect to this band?

I think it’s because we’re honest. I’d like to believe it’s because we connect with them in a way, we’re one of them, we’re still fans of music, we love music, we love playing music, we love writing music, and I think the music we write somehow resonates with people. I think they connect to it and they get something from it that we get from writing it. I think that’s the main thing. As I’ve always said, writing music to me is kind of what keeps me from losing my mind, and Brent always says the same thing. It’s like we write music because it’s cheaper than going to therapy, and it’s true. 

But people always ask, all these bands that came up with you, none of those bands are around anymore. And I’m like, well, we didn’t come out and write a bunch of party songs, we didn’t write songs about doing drugs, we didn’t write songs about banging chicks. That’s not our MO. I don’t want to be remembered as that. I want to be remembered as a person who whatever song we wrote about, at one point in their lives can carry on with them when they are a father or a mother or another point in their lives. It’s making songs that can last through all the transitions and tribulations of life. I think that’s kind of the way to go, you know.

And your audience consists of young and old

We always say eight to eighty, and that’s even a little bit of a miss cause we see kids younger than eight at our shows. We want to be a multi-generational band that maybe the grandpa has a different meaning to a song like “Unity” than the son has or the grandson has. Maybe “45” means something to somebody else than it does to these other people in the family. My favorite thing is seeing three generations of people at our shows and that to me, when we got the Billboard thing and we got the most #1’s in the history of the active rock chart, I said, our band doesn’t take things like this very seriously and I’ll appreciate it today but at the same time it’s kind of like walking around with Monopoly money. It’s cool to have in your pocket and it feels good but at the end of the day if you’re not doing anything with it, it’s fake money. So for us it’s about the next thing, the next challenge, and I’m really happy to be in a band like that, where there is no resting, no saying, “Hey man, we did it! Let’s cruise for a minute, play some casinos, play some state fairs, make a paycheck and go home.” That’s never been who we are and I think the second that is who we are, I think all four of us would quit.

You talked in an interview about the digital world and how later on we won’t have albums to go back to. Can you talk a little bit more about how you feel about that?

I mean, it’s the same way I feel about anything in the world-changing. Do I love it? No. Is that the way the world is going? Yeah. So we take the strides as they come. Do I wish that people still bought records and streaming would have never come along? Sure, possibly, but I don’t think that was ever going to happen. I think the way the world moves, people want instant gratification. I think social media changed that. I’m still an album guy. I didn’t get Apple Music until Brent 100% convinced me that I iTunes was going away (laughs). And it never did! (laughs). I was so mad. He said, New Year’s Day iTunes is going away. I may have been the last human on the streaming service. 

But I still bought albums on iTunes. If I liked one song, I was buying the album. Listen, sometimes that album sucked and I liked the one song. But you know what, I still bought the album because I’m such a believer. I don’t think Shinedown will ever be an EP or singles band. I believe an album is a picture of who that artist is at that time and I want to know who that artist is at that time if I take enough time to like them as an artist or a songwriter. 

I mean, I made fun of vinyl people in 2012 when it started coming back, like, are you kidding me? You have an iPod, you don’t need this! And then I bought a Jackson Browne record, it was a record I loved on iTunes and CD but it had songs that I would skip over. But then when I listened to it on vinyl, you can’t skip over songs, and I was like, oh, these songs that I was skipping over are really good songs.

Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

Wow, I’m going to say probably Kenny Wayne Shepherd and then maybe Elton John when I was like fifteen. I was playing a show at this festival called Crossroads and he was playing the Arena the next night and he had come to watch our show and I got to meet him. He said that I sounded great and told me to keep doing it. And listen, I’m still trying to live by both things.

What was the first song you obsessed over as a kid?

“What She’s Doing Now” by Garth Brooks. I think it’s a great song and then over the years being able to become friends with Garth was a crazy thing for me. I’ll tell you, when he does these stadium shows, he’ll do the soundcheck the night before. I’ve seen Garth twenty-three times and I’ve never heard him play that song except when I went to soundcheck a couple of years ago in Arizona. He comes over and says, “What do you want to hear?” And I said, “You’ve never played ‘What She’s Doing Now’” and he played it for me and I’ve got a video of it. So that song and “With Or Without You” by U2 are probably the two most impactful to me as a youth.

How do you think you have been an inspiration to Brent and him to you?

He was a father first but I think him watching me as a father has maybe helped him along a little bit. I think that watching him go through the struggles that he went through with drugs and other things has helped me not do those things. I think that me being a positive reinforcement in his life has helped him. I think his work ethic has helped me. There is nobody in this world I want to play music with other than that guy. I don’t want to stand next to anybody else. When you have a partnership like him and I do in two different bands, we butt heads and we do it a lot but I think it’s for the best and I think it helps creatively. But we don’t fight. 

You know, I’ll challenge him and he hasn’t had a lot of people do that in his life. I think our manager is one of them. I think me. He’s a very powerful human to be around. He’s got a big vibe and when you have a powerful aura like that and you have a powerful vibe, you’re going to get a lot of yes-men and I think people like our management people and me and some people at the label aren’t that and I think that really helps him. You could start getting surrounded by yes-men and you start thinking all your ideas are good and the best thing since sliced bread and that’s not really the way it works. I’ve learned the same thing about myself, thinking my idea was the best idea in the room and oftentimes it’s not. Same with him. But he’s the great leader and I can’t believe I get to be in two bands with him.

Portraits by Paris Visone & Sanjay Parikh; live photo by Leslie Michele Derrough

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