Mushroomhead, an experimental metal band from Cleveland, Ohio, is known as much for the unsettling masks that its members wear in concerts as for making genre-bending music.
Ahead of the act's show at the Roxy Theatre, drummer Steve "Skinny" Felton spoke to Westword about the Evil Dead tribute video "We Are the Truth," routinely integrating new bandmembers between albums, perfecting live performances, and the special commentary on the group's new DVD, Volume III.
Westword: I watched "We Are the Truth," and it’s creepy as shit.
Skinny: Thank you! We had a blast making that one.
What inspired you to make that particular video?
It’s a full-blown tribute to the Evil Dead franchise. As you can imagine, the Mush Men are well versed in horror movies, so when time came to doing another video, we were just throwing ideas out there. I said that we should do an Evil Dead tribute, and people kind of perked up, like, "Hmm...what would it take to do an Evil Dead tribute?" And we started running with it: “Well, a location, then a cabin, get some props to make it match, have the singers play the actors that find the book and turn on each other, then we just do cutaways to bandmembers in costume, and then just tell the story.” We thought it’d be so easy, man. It took a hell of a long time; I think it took more time to edit it than it did to shoot it.
There were a solid four days of shooting, then three more days, then almost a year later another day of close-ups, things like that. It came out really good. It looks as fun as it was to make, for sure.
And you guys were the filmmakers?
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Correct. All the way through. We hired quite a few people to help us. They’re all Cleveland friends of ours — artists, collaborators that we’ve worked with before. We just got the best and brightest of our abilities to do some makeup and masks, lighting, cinematography, set design. I’d say 60 to 80 percent of it was the band, but we reached out to some people to try to push it over the top, to make it look as cinematic as possible.
We wanted to make Hollywood in Cleveland, and we got kind of close. Not too shabby [laughs]. I love how it turned out. Everything looks really wet, the editing is really fast, which is a tribute to the Evil Dead stuff, and that one really hit the mark. I’m proud of that one.
Do you always shoot your own videos at this point in your career?
I’d say probably 60 to 80 percent of them, yes, we do. On this entire one? Yeah, yeah. One hundred percent, our hands were in all of it, as far as the entire DVD [goes]. Another director by the name of Abe Robinson did "QWERTY" and "Out of My Mind." We all did those together. It was collaborative, but we gave up the director’s seat on those. He’s also a hell of a still photographer.
Why do you think you’re so drawn to being so involved in the filmmaking aspect?
It’s just part of the inspiration of growing up and getting dunked into this culture, if you will. Everything in this band is inspired by horror movies, sci-fi movies, video games, and obviously a lot of different styles of music: metal, EDM, ’90s techno. There’s just a lot of variety in our inspiration. It’s not just one style of entertainment that inspires us; it’s more of a collective subculture that has been created from movies, music, video games, where it all grew together.
What’s been the biggest change since you began shooting your own music videos?
Learning, shutting up, trying to be patient with the talent we have on set. Being a bit more efficient when you have thirty on stage or on the set, keeping focus where it needs to be. I think that’s very challenging for anyone that’s going to wear a producer or director hat.
I have so much respect for people that make these movies that take years and years and years. It’s a different world, but it’s really not too different from producing music with bands, because you’re working with a lot of artists, a lot of talent, people that are a different breed and see the world their own way.
To meet artists on that level, bring a bit more out of them, more than they might have even thought that they had – I think that that’s one of the challenges. Stepping into the director’s seat is more than just saying "action," you know? It’s on camera. You’re spending a lot of money to make it look right. Communicating with the talent is definitely a hell of a job. My hat’s off to anyone that is a director or wants to try.
What has the response been to the release of Volume III?
You know, it’s so far, so good. It’s only been a couple weeks, and everyone that sees it has said they love the way it looks or the way it flows. It’s different than the last two DVDs. The other two were more like Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power video: video, then funny backstage stuff, video, backstage stuff.
This one is well-rounded; it’s got something for everyone. I think my favorite part about it is the commentary. We got [touring bandmate] Jackie LaPonza's nieces, who are three and six, to do the commentary on a few of the videos. Sometimes they’re talking about the videos; sometimes they’re not. The stuff that they say... [laughs]. The mind of a child is perfect.
We sat down and did commentary for almost every song, and it was just so boring to hear ourselves talk about our own work. If we didn’t direct, edit and do everything, then it may have been more interesting, but we weren’t interested anymore. We knew every aspect of it too much. The biggest thing was like “Did anyone find the hidden water bottle in the shot?”
They probably found the masks to be very interesting!
Oh, yeah! The names they come up with for certain characters based on how they see things — it's just so funny. No filter — it’s awesome. We walk around quoting their commentary all the time because it’s so damn funny. It’s my favorite part of the whole thing.
Why do you think there aren't many bands doing these sorts of DVDs very often? They are quite illuminating for fans.
I know that 80 or 90 percent of the bands aren’t DIY the way we are. I think a lot of the artists will look at it completely differently. They will look at it and want to be really seen by the world I guess, versus, "This is just how it is. No glory here." You’ll see Jackie without makeup on, almost straight out of bed. It's not always flattering material.
They say don’t meet your idols, and imagine meeting us without the masks and thinking, “That’s the guy?” [Laughs.] That’s how it is for us. We don’t really care. We don’t wear the masks all day long. We don’t go to the grocery store with them on. I think that’s part of it right there: to be able to separate yourself from the character and still maintain what it means to be an artist. A lot of these other bands, they gotta look the part when they go to the gas station. They still have to look like rock stars.
We get to take our masks off, put on regular clothes, and nobody knows who we are. The majority of people will not know who we are. I think that’s part of what separates us a little bit. We can turn it on and off and look at it from the entertainment side of it, rather than thinking, “Man I have to look like this for my entire life.” It’s gotta be tough for some artists. I can’t imagine how easy it is for Marilyn Manson to go to Best Buy! Someone’s going to stop him and say something.
How did you handle Jeffrey Nothing and Tommy Church leaving the band earlier this year?
Well, J. Mann came back, what, six years ago at this point? So he’s still an OG. Stitch was the first DJ/sample guy that we ever put in the band, and he’s been around since, what, 2000? So technically, he’s an OG as well.
But this has been a part of the evolution of Mushroomhead. Was it part of the grand plan to have a revolving door? No. But we do have an open-door policy here in the Mushroomhead camp, so everything’s cool. When you look back at that body of work, we did a hell of a lot of good work with some really talented people. Whether they’re with us now or not, the work will stand for itself.
I’m so glad that we did what we did with who we had when we did it, but part of the ever-changing of the guard, if you will, is part of the longevity and the evolution of Mushroomhead. We’re not making the same record each time, and part of that is because other people are contributing that weren’t there before.
If you look back, every single album has had a lineup change. Every single one of them. There haven’t been two albums in a row with the same lineup.
It’s basically baked into the band’s DNA.
Apparently! It’s not something we plan, but it’s like, "Alright, what’s next?" But it is part of the allure for me. I don’t like making the same record over and over. Working on new material, there’s a little bit of the unknown, and I really like that.
Which part of your band do you think has aged best since you started it in 1992?
I gotta say: stage show. There’s more production; there’s more of a cohesive flow to it. We try to make the set extra-special when we’re headlining. We try to keep the pacing going well, come out swinging, maybe take the tempo down a little bit, maybe bring it back, drop it down, and then come back and knock your socks off for the end.
Instead of just having a switch flipped to “ON” the entire time, we try to make the set more dynamic. I think that’s the biggest thing that we’ve cleaned up.
That would make sense. You’re seasoned veterans at this point!
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We’re trying, man, we’re trying. Each day we say, “Okay, what can we do better?” and then watch the tape of the live show, point out, “Hey we should do that more,” or, “No, don’t do that.”
I say it with the studio all the time: The good ones write themselves. It’s just honesty. You can tell when a band is trying, or it’s contrived, or the jumps are all choreographed, things of that nature. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and usually when it doesn’t work it’s because it’s contrived. They’re trying too hard. You can just tell it’s not natural.
Studying video of the night before really helps get your choreography down, but also to see how things happen naturally. It comes across. Anyone who really pays attention can tell, — but, really, it’s like anyone can recognize bad acting.