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Shinedown’s Barry Kerch talks Jacksonville, rock festivals, the demons that inspired their new album and more

The band headlines 98 Rockfest on Friday in Tampa.

There was a time in the lifespan of Shinedown when Barry Kerch wasn't all that keen on festivals.

"Backstage for the bands has gotten a lot better," he said by phone before Shinedown was set to play a biker festival in Arizona. "It used to be an extremely dirty thing, and you're like, 'Aw, enough of festivals, because it's day three and they still haven't changed out the port-o-potties. You can imagine the nightmare."

Things have changed, though, and not just because Shinedown has grown from a baby band into a headliner. Over the next two seeks, they'll play near the top of the bill at three huge rock festivals in their home state: Friday's 98 Rockfest in Tampa (click here), Saturday's WJRR Earthday Birthday in Orlando (click here), and next weekend's Fort Rock Festival in Fort Lauderdale, with Ozzy Osbourne, Godsmack, Five Finger Death Punch and more (click here).

"It's just great for rock music that there are so many of these festivals, and they all do very well," Kerch said. "Whether you're the first band on for the day or the last band on for the day, people are there and having a good time."

It's especially gratifying for Shinedown to be headlining 98 Rockfest, which this year is celebrating its 10th anniversary. They've played the fest three times prior — including a memorable 2012 gig when the power cut out mid-set — and said it "holds a special place for us, because that's where we got our start, as one of the baby bands opening those stages."

Adding an extra dash of excitement is that the show comes two weeks before Shinedown releases its sixth album, ATTENTION ATTENTION, an concept album built around singer Brent Smith's struggles with depression and addiction. It's sonically ambitious, with strings and choirs adding theatrical layers to Shinedown's traditional grungy sound. The inspirational Get Up, to name one example, swells from a soulful piano ballad into an enormous, Olympic stadium-sized anthem about perseverance through the darkness.

"It's about us, the four of us, and what we went through over the past three years," Kerch said. "At the same time, it's onto a character. The character walks into a room at the beginning of the record, sits down, and pretty much has a come-to-Jesus with him- or herself, because they're going through hell, whether it's addiction or depression or that kind of thing. You have all those emotions that are entwined that each one of us in the band has dealt with over the years.

"Once you have those issues, they're always there. That little devil's sitting on your shoulder going, 'You know, it'd be easy if you go and do this again. But you have to fight it every day. That's what the record goes through."

It's probably not a coincidence that Shinedown's most personal and cohesive album was also its first produced within the band. Bassist Eric Bass, who had manned the board for a few songs for the band since joining in 2009, produced and mixed all of ATTENTION ATTENTION.

"He was able to separate himself as a band member and then put himself into the producer's seat and go, 'Okay, this is the vision; this is what we're going to do,'" Kerch said. "Because we have such a great relationship, it was easier for him to pull stuff out of us, even though sometimes it's a pressure keg in the studio. He knew our strengths and weaknesses, and we could really delve into that."

It's a further evolution from Shinedown's Florida roots, which didn't always show the way they did for Jacksonville forebears like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band. Whatever Southern-rock stigma Shinedown had no longer "overshadows the band — if anything, it helps the band.

"And we're proud to be where we're from. Jacksonville's a great music place, and it can be very underrated at times. People don't realize how many artists have come out of here, excluding ourselves. … Even if we're not a Southern rock band per se, we are Southerners that are in a rock band. So I think it's a badge of honor."

While Kerch, who grew up in Panama City, still lives in Jacksonville, the rest of the band has spread out. Bass lives in his hometown of Charleston, S.C.; guitarist Zach Myers, his hometown of Memphis. Smith splits his time in different cities, Kerch said, "because he's that kind of guy. He's kind of a nomad. He still has that one simple black suitcase that he's always lived out of."

All the more reason Shinedown's three impending Florida festival dates will feel special.

"I'm glad to see any rock fest do well," Kerch said. "As long as rock 'n' roll is doing well, that keeps me happy and keeps the hope alive."

— Jay Cridlin

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