Interview by Adrian Hextall / Live Photos (C) MindHex Media
With new album ‘A Wonderful Life’ receiving some seriously positive reviews, we spoke to founder and drummer Steve ‘Skinny’ Felton about new music, touring, new masks and a few changes to the line up which sees the band progress and enhance their sound further than ever before. Check out the video below for current single The Heresy:
AH: Sadly, it is always one or the other. Isn’t it?
Skinny: Yes. Everyone knows they needed Christ. They need something. Everyone is looking for answers. [laughter]
AH: And we never find them.
Skinny: No. I guess, as long as you are searching.
AH: That is true. Let me dive straight into some of the tracks on the album. I love the way it opens with some spoken Latin.
Skinny: Why not? [Smiles].
AH: The first thing you made me do is, “Well, I have got to find out what this means.” What a superb piece to open the album with. The wording there is something else.
Skinny: Thank you. That is all Dr. F, who came up with that. A lot of people do not realise Dr. F plays bass, live… and he is also an amazing songwriter. He does all the keyboards, even the last song, he did the majority of. He is just a great well-rounded writer, from guitar to keyboards, to bass, he could play drums and yes, he sings on this record as well.
He and I share a couple of lines in the song “Where the End Begins” towards the end of the album. How the whole choral thing came about was, there is a song in the album called “Pulse”… and towards the end of it, the choir comes in and originally that was done on keyboards.
Dr. F was really great. Right as I sat down, we were playing with that idea and we were really like, “Man, ask yourself through right here. It’s pretty cool. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have an actual choir?” and he said, “Well, I know some people. Let me do some digging.” And he was able to contact the Cleveland Chamber Choir.
They came in to do that part. After he had written out for them, he said, “Well, we got the budget, they are a little more expensive than we thought and we are going to have for a couple of hours, we only have this one part. Let us write some more.” So, he started turning me out to the whole entire idea of requiem [A Requiem for Tomorrow – the opening track].
How many composers have done it throughout history? They are obviously some of the bigger ones inspires Brahms and Mozart. He kind of explain to me the whole background of how that is done, where everyone shares these texts and puts them together musically on their own compositions. That would be a great idea, we could tie that together with the album. Very much looked at it and tied in between somewhere because the first song had kind of been put together already. We all love the line that J Mann [Jason “J Mann” Popson] had written called “A Requiem for Tomorrow”. So, we came across the whole idea of adding the choir in this requiem pieces, and kind of looking at the entire album as our requiem for humanity.
That is kind of how our vision is coordinated that together. They kind of explain a little bit of the background of why there is so much choir on there. And Dr. F was really cool when he put it together lyrically to make sure to keep out anything overly catholic or religious.
We want to keep it more of a secular work, let us say a sacred style work. We want to keep it really like a good doom and gloom in those requiem lyrics. When you break down that Latin man, all humanity will be judged. Then, you release it while there is pandemic going on here like, “Wait a minute. How the hell did that happen?” It is kind of crazy sometimes for us even to where we were like, we were working on this, writing this, and then how it relates to life, sometimes is just crazy. We say life imitated art, art imitated life, everyone said that for years. We like having everything open. We like writing everything, so it could be openly interpreted by the listeners.
AH: It stops you actually dictating to your listeners.
Skinny: Yes. I do not necessarily care for the point A to B, then B gets you to C. I kind of like to get my own journey of where or when. Well, I guess, it’s a little more artsy in the long-run. But yes, back to it, it is just crazy how as a listener, when I listen to the whole album now and think of lyrics like that and some of those chorale pieces with the plague and all of this happening all at the same time…
It is pretty cool how we can apply it to our current life and because we had no idea this was going to happen. [laughter]
AH: Has the timing of everything that has happened around the world almost managed to fit in with the way you would work in all of this? You did not need to be out on tour yet as that is presumably in the autumn?
Skinny: Yes. It is strange because we had a couple of one-off shows here in the States, but the major touring was set up for a two-week run in Europe for that kick off of the album release. It was more of the “Oh, shit” moment.
“How long is this going to go on.” and I am sure the rest of the world is saying the same thing. It was not so uprooting for us, it was just more of that uncertainty as, “Is this going to happen?” I remember seeing Wimbledon got cancelled and I was like, “Yes, we are definitely not going to make it.” [laughter]
The biggest problem was shooting that first video. Giant pain in the ass because everyone is quarantined and you cannot be more than six feet or twelve feet away from each other, whatever it was. So, when you go back and look at the scene in all video, other than a couple of clips of Stevie and Tommy or J Mann and Tommy, everyone is individual, no one was together. I shot everyone who came to the set separate. [Check out the video for Seen It All below].
Skinny: There was like, skeleton crew like six people from riggers to camera people, there are some of the full focus and some lighting and talent and that was it.
They’re barely in any makeup. They did a lot of their own makeup. Didn’t get help with a lot of other stuff, wardrobe, and things to that nature. It has been challenging especially to create with such a large band, we have got eight people now.
If they are saying we can only have groups of ten, we cannot do a whole lot.
AH: No. Yet, as you watch the video though, you would not think it has been done for that reason. It kind of just flows very naturally from one to the other, does not it? As if it were meant to always be filmed that way.
Skinny: Thank you. I did all the editing on that one myself, so I am with you there. I was pretty adamant about making it flow.
As an audio engineer and editor, and as a video engineer and editor, I am constantly talking about pacing and the flow of things. It does not need the best movement and how they go together, so yes, I was very aware of cutting this together, and trying not to make it look boring with one person all of the time.
AH: [laughter] Worth the effort for sure. Now, of course, this comes on the back of effectively, a five, well, almost six years gap since the last album. Does it feel like it’s been that long?
Skinny: Honestly, no. There was just a lot of touring, a lot of showing down in between there. So, 2015 was the last time we release anything new which would have been the “Game of Thrones” track we did for the “Catch the Throne” mixtape.
That was the last, like newest, fresh piece that we had done and we still do that one live, that one came out great. With the other one feat. Jackie heavy in the chorus and it is just a really cool dynamic piece. It works out live. I love playing that song. But yes, a lot of shit went down and a couple of members split, actually four members in four years. Some got replaced some did not. [laughter] The last years were pretty much take in refocusing the band in what it is that we were going to do. One thing I was saying about the line changes, a lot of people do not realize is that, we just had our eight album, and now, one album consecutively has ever had the same lineup. Every single album changed.
AH: Maybe that is how you manage to evolve your sound every time because there is always a new flavor to it.
Skinny: New people are willing to experiment, and then the old people are wanting to experiment more with the new people and saying, “Well, we do not know what it is going to sound like. We’ve never tried something like that. Let us give it a go,” and three days later we are like, “Man, we are all crazy. Put it back to normal,” or “Hey, we are really on to something.” So, it lands to a lot of the experimenting, and yes, with the new people, it stays fresh.
AH: It does. I mean, in terms of the fresh sort of sounds that you have got on there, listening to what it is like now having say Jackie on there, the likes of say, “Pulse” and “Carry On”, for example, that is a new feel for you completely. It has got such harmonies on there that you just melt when listening to it.
Skinny: Yes. There’s definitely, God bless her and Stevie too, they stack really well together, they layer their octaves. It is something we really were not able to do before. Let us face it, the other guys just did not have the ability to harmonise like that.
Man, once we started doing it, we are like, “That needs to be everywhere.” Needs to be with it in everything, or it just won’t work.” But when you do those harmony in the right spot, you can get the hair to stand up on the back of your neck and it’s like, “That’s what we were missing and that’s what we needed.” And you know what? It is very much one of the elements that kept us really excited and on the edge of our seats to keep creating.
“Carry On” is a great one. That one, a lot of experimenting in that one too. We did not really see it coming out that way because a lot of people were like “Well, that is very radio for you.” I mean, that’s a nice way to say it’s kind of commercial or whatever [laughter] but we were going for that. We were just literally say, “Oh, what if we try this part here or what if we stack that with Stevie and Jackie right there?” That one, kind of again, it wrote itself, we had a little bit of outside help with one of our friends, Craig Martini. He was in Five Studio one day and I was playing with some of the material and, “Man, that tracks got some potential. I would love to come in and sit with you guys and work on that.” He is a really great vocal arranger and writer, so he has got a credit on that as well. Another really good friend, Bill Corechi, he did a lot of mixing on our other albums and recording with us throughout the time. He kind of set it on that one too and got to just gave the nod of approval and was like, “Man, that is really, really cool. I like what you guys are doing,” Because it is a fresh approach on an old band. I like to say, “Have you heard the new Mushroomhead?” They put out another album, and this is the new Mushroomhead, like it is completely new.
It has all the old elements but it is truly a fresh approach on an older band.
It is that type of thing to where it’s like we say, all types of Star Wars and Mortal Combat. Mortal Combat, they put out the new one, every character’s looks cool, they brought old characters back, they are introducing new ones. And the same thing with Star Wars, even if you did not like the last one, you like the one before that, or you like the spin outside projects of it. It is just launch everything when you have eight albums, you have characters to work with. It more of, it truly becomes entertainment storytelling.
[Check out our review from the London Show the last time Mushroomhead played in the UK]
AH: Definitely. Those characters that you mentioned as well, the ones that resonate with the fans, it is like having Jackie as a full-time member of the band now. I mean, that is going to really resonate with the fans that have enjoyed watching to sing live with you.
Skinny: Yes, absolutely towards, “Hey, they got a whole character now, I can play that character the entire time.”
It truly does. At the end of the day, it all comes down to a little bit of entertainment. As long as we keep ourselves entertained with it, we hope that it resonates truly throughout the record and it does not sound forced or contrived that people can relate to it, honestly.
AH: Absolutely. Interestingly, the look and feel as well of the band, Jackie has kept out of a mask. She’s in makeup.
Skinny: Yes. We are still experimenting and that is one thing with Mushroomhead, we change our masks constantly. You will see us live wearing something different that you never have seen us wear before. God bless, she’s such a sport with it too. We are playing around with all kinds of looks with her constantly.
She is really, really way too pretty to cover up with a mask, I say it all the time. There’s something really cool about – the makeup just convey so much more imagery, especially on “Heresy”. You will see that it lies on the makeup and we are trying a couple of other looks with her too. Do not be surprised when you see her completely changed, almost normal, and then very, I do not want to give it away, but pretty evil sometimes.
AH: Last time we saw you over here in the UK, you had been recording at Abbey road. Is that all of the album that was recorded there or just a few particular elements?
Skinny: There’s a few elements, it is mostly vocals. We did a lot of piano work and we ended up keeping the piano stuff separate. It will probably end up on the next record, actually [laughter]. We’ve already heard it.
They are kind of written that like, I will save those pieces. What you will end up hearing, we did some covers over at Abbey road too. And it is more acoustic and vocal stuff. Most of the things were piano, acoustic guitar or vocals. We did not bother setting up anything electric or drums because we did not have that kind of time. Every time we track over there, we had chose that exact same night to re-run, very, very tight time schedule to being able to go there. But just being there itself, it’s an amazing experience, sitting and working in the same room, as the dark side of the moon and just being able to walk through all the other rooms, it is really cool and nostalgic. But the end of “Pulse”, I believe is one of Stevie’s vocals that we kept from Abbey.
A lot of the “Heresy” is Jackie’s vocals tracked at Abbey’s as well. J Mann in the “Heresy’s” track, there’s few little pieces everywhere, but a lot of the Heresy was done at Abbey for sure.
AH: Very nice. That is a buzz for you if nothing else to know that is part now of your history as well.
Skinny: Absolutely. I still like when I look at the pictures or check out some of the tracks then I listen to the sixty-seven microphone that they were singing in. We were always like, “I wondered who else is singing on that microphone.” [laughter]
AH: The vocal mix this time because you have got three very different styles with your three vocalists, Stevie, Jackie, and J Mann as well, was it more difficult to write this time? Because it is a very different approach for you in terms of the way the three vocalists work together.
Skinny: It was a little easier this time than it was last time. Maybe it was easier to say because we went through so many vocalists in trying to shoehorn everyone to get their own stage time so to speak. The last LP, “The Righteous and The Butterfly” was very difficult to try to work in four singers all the time. This one, it really was not. It was what ideas, “best idea always wins” kind of thing. [laughter] Which was just felt honest and not contrived and it was not, “All right, his part, her part, his part then back to hers.” It was more of the evolving of it, letting it grow organically, that is why you will hear, like in the “Heresy” again, for example, Stevie is only in the choruses backing her up sometimes. Like doing the layers of an octave and a harmony.
Then, she will be really heavy in the couple of songs, then other songs, there is a song called “Madness Within”, and she only does these little whispers in the small little bridge thing. It is very “Lacuna Coil” or something for a minute. But this one, this one kind of I’ve seen all time that kind of wrote itself. Everyone was very cooperative and on the same page. I think it was a lot easier. It is a lot more honest. I have a hard time to listening to “The Righteous and The Butterfly” still. I hear all the shoehorning so to speak.
There is a lot of coulda, shoulda, woulda, when I listen to that album. This one, I took almost eight weeks off and I did not listen to it for six weeks almost, seven, somewhere in there. Then, we start to build in some of the set the other day, and I put it on in the background and a lot of things that still bother me, do not bother me anymore. I think it is a pretty cool – listen, it is a hell of a journey all the way through from start to finish.
AH: And that start to finish is well. I mean, you’ve not only given us an album but you are throwing in an additional four extra tracks, so we are up to seventeen tracks on this.
Skinny: Yes, it is the longest one we have ever done. It is a little over seventy minutes.
The mentality there was it has been five years since we release something and all of our die-hard fans that were still here, we would just want to show them that we are working. These are the things that we thought we’re really close that just did not make the album. We do not really do a whole lot of bonus material. We have not done a whole album bonus material in the past. It had been such a long time in between albums, we figured it would be great to show the world what else we were up to, and plus the one extra choir piece sounds like, “We’ve got to include that song because it’s just so awesome.” It’s still great every time I listen to it and we check all that here in our studio as well.
That is the one thing we’re like, “We do not need a whole album, doom and gloom.” But everything that we’re kind of focusing now because we are trying to get on a better schedule release in an album every two years versus take, four or six. Obviously, shit happens, you cannot predict when people are just going to blindly get off and leave or they decided they do not want to do this anymore and change their lifestyle. It happens, so you cannot be ready for everything. The world come at you fast, so you got to be ready. Obviously, this whole COVID thing has shown everyone that real quick!
A Wonderful Life is out now and can be purchased through all of the usual outlets: