INTERVIEW WITH STEVE “SKINNY” FELTON BY KELLEY SIMMS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY BLIND 7 PHOTOGRAPHY
Cleveland metal act Mushroomhead has been creating its brand of electro industrial/alt-metal for 27 years. On its eighth full-length album, A Wonderful Life released via Napalm Records and its first in six years, the masked horror metal icons have crafted a dark, macabre masterpiece.
The octet—featuring Steve Rauckhorst (clean vocals), Jason “J Mann” Popson (harsh and rapped vocals), Jackie LaPonza (female vocals), Ryan Farrell (bass, keyboards), Tom Shaffner (guitars), Rick Thomas (keyboards, samples), Steve “Skinny” Felton (drums, percussion, production), and Robbie Godsey (additional percussion)—has started a new chapter in its career.
Speaking with us during a recent phone interview, Felton talked about A Wonderful Life, the band’s new members, his drumming techniques, and their so-called feud with Slipknot.
The Coronavirus has put a damper on your touring plans, but were there any discussions between you and Napalm Records about considering a delay of the album release date?
Originally there was. I think everyone, not just everyone at Napalm or everyone in Mushroomhead, everyone around the world that was considering releasing something had to step back and do some second thoughts. As we mulled it over and went back and forth saying we’ll push it back two months, it just comes to the point where is this thing ever going to end? Say it does end and then everyone releases it all at the same time. Then it’s just this over-saturated, super flooded market that no one gives anything a chance. So, I just said, “Let’s stick to our schedule. Let’s not let this pandemic dictate our life and what’s going on.” Obviously, we can’t tour, but it doesn’t mean we can’t release the music that we created before this whole thing came out. On the flip side, maybe because everyone is being quarantined, staying at home, and there’s way more streaming going on, maybe people will give the album a little bit more of a chance where they can absorb it because they’ve got some time. They are at home and they will listen to the album and hopefully give it an honest shot.
On A Wonderful Life, Mushroomhead hasn’t abandoned any of the elements that you’re already known for. What was your mindset going into the writing and recording of this album since it had been six years since your last one?
It was very much “let’s do what we’ve always done and experiment,” especially with the new singers and a new guitar player. There was no wrong idea. We did a lot of experimenting and we kept in mind that we can experiment without alienating the fan base that we’ve created. It was just throw the kitchen sink at it and see what happens. And we were very fortunate with Mr. Rauckhorst and Ms. Jackie. Playing with their vocal styles together instead of just separate, we were able to find some things that we really weren’t necessarily looking for, like the harmonies that those two could do together or with their stacking and their layering and octaves, just doing things that other members that we had in the past did not have the ability to do. There was a whole new set of crayons to color with. So, it was very much let’s experiment and create, and everyone was very open-minded.
“THAT’S PART OF THE MUSHROOMHEAD SOUND—THE EXPERIMENTING. YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE THE NEXT SONG IS GOING TO TAKE YOU.”
Did getting new members change the dynamic or chemistry in any way? What does Steve and Jackie bring to the band?
If anything, it changes the dynamic, it makes it more dynamic. The chemistry and writing were really good. We didn’t have to really second guess anything. We stuck with our gut and went with the first thing that transpired. It felt right. With those guys, we were very fortunate because everyone was very open-minded to trying things out. So, we did a lot of experiments and a lot of just trying stuff that we had never done before, and I think it shows. There’s a really cool vibe that we’ve been able to maintain. I think that’s part of the Mushroomhead sound—the experimenting. You don’t know where the next song is going to take you. We wanted to make sure that it’s not the same album we’ve made before, although we’ve never really made that type of thing. But even from song to song there’s a lot of key changes. So, this album, it’s a journey. It takes you quite a few places and that is mainly part responsible because of those guys wanting to experiment and do different things. We were really fortunate this time around that everyone was willing to work and experiment and try.
Have you changed up the band’s masks and costumes for this album cycle?
Yeah, absolutely. Any member from album cycle to album cycle that’s still with us, their masks generally morph and change ever so slightly—these are characters. Obviously, with the new members, there’s a little bit of experimenting on imagery. You do a little bit of soul searching as far as how do we want this mask to convey the image of not only the person wearing it, but for the overall scene for the band Mushroomhead. A real good example is Steve Rauckhorst, our new singer. His mask, a lot of people say it’s very Greek or Roman statue. It gets a lot of comparisons to the movie Gladiator, the helmets. But what it actually is, is a reference very close to it. In Cleveland, downtown, there is what’s called the Carnegie Bridge, and on each side of it we have the Carnegie Bridge guardians. And that is actually what the inspiration is taken from. It’s a little tribute to the hometown for Steve’s mask. It’s not over obvious that we’re trying to do something like that. We wanted something very statuesque and very clean so when we did dirty it up it became something else.
“RHYTHMICALLY, WITH THE PERCUSSION IT CREATES MORE OPENNESS FOR THOSE TONES TO BE BIG WHEN THOSE GUYS ROCK”
How did you approach your drumming technique for A Wonderful Life?
As far as fills and double bass, I have a real hard time separating myself as a producer and as a drummer. I start as a drummer usually and I lay down as much as I can—where I want fills and a blast double bass here and there just to keep the energy. I want to play, play, play. Then as the song develops, I realize that I’m overplaying. And then as a producer, I’m like, “All right, get rid of that fill, get rid of those double patterns right there that are clouding up the mix.” On this album, I really focused as a producer on playing drums to make more space for the guitars and get the vocals to lay in there and be huge. Some of the slower tempo stuff and some of those sounds I played less notes. Rhythmically, with the percussion it creates more openness for those tones to be big when those guys rock and pull out that low B and those big open chords.
You’ve produced every Mushroomhead album to date. What were you going for sound wise on this one?
I love to experiment and just see where these ideas take us. I want to establish a big wall of sound. So, to do that I found really quickly that less is more. It was, “Who do we put in front? Is it vocals, lead guitar, kick drum?” I tend to like drums loud, but on this particular album it’s the vocals that carry this stuff. In the mentality of producing and even in the mixes going for the end result, I was like, “What do most listeners do?” If you weren’t a musician, what is it that you focus on when you hear a song? And most people focus on that vocal. Every now and again they’ll do a little air guitar or maybe a drum fill. But we went for building the sound around the vocalists, so they could be larger than life. We wanted them sound like they were sitting in your lap.
“WE PRESENT THIS WHOLE ALBUM, A WONDERFUL LIFE, AS OUR ‘REQUIEM FOR HUMANITY.’”
There’s a lot of Latin sung choir passages on this album. How did these come about?
That whole thing came about in the requiem theme, and that’s from Ryan Farrell, our bass player and keyboard player. That was his whole thing. There’s a song called “Pulse,” I believe it’s track number six, and toward the end of the song, there’s a choir part that comes in. We had done it with a keyboard originally, and then we thought the keyboards were a little weak. They make killer keyboard sounds, but nothing beats a real choir. Ryan’s got a professional classical degree and background, so he knows quite a few people in the Cleveland scene. And this was January, so there was no pandemic going around. So, he reached out to the Cleveland Chamber Choir to sing this portion of the song “Pulse.” He put that together, wrote it all out for them, and scheduled them to come in. We recorded them here at our studio. There were 16 of them, and as we were setting up to do that, the weekend before we’re doing all this, we’re doing all this work and only getting them in here for like 30 or 40 seconds. So, we said, “What if we get a little bit more?” We just wanted to find the stuff that fit the mood of the album, which is, “Where all humanity will be judged,” very doom and gloom. Ryan wrote some requiem pieces, and we liked it so much that it ended up bookending the album. It really tied the whole thing together. We present this whole album, A Wonderful Life, as our “requiem for humanity.” It’s just ironic that it happened at the time of a pandemic.
With the unofficial feud between Mushroomhead and Slipknot that has existed for years, did the music media and fans hype it up more than it actually is?
Absolutely. We were being pursued by Roadrunner Records at the same time. To me, it’s obvious they were looking for a theatrical act that had another element besides just heavy metal, and we were shopped by one of the same guys over at Roadrunner. There was a lot of coincidental things that happened around the same time. Some band members took it real personally, even some of my attitude toward the late 90s/early 2000s came into play, and it just happened at the same time. But yes, it was very fan and media hyped. I always compare it to the legend of Bigfoot. The whole thing is just silly if you really look at it. God bless those guys, look at what they did. They’re the biggest metal band in the world. They’re obviously kick ass with great players and cool songs, just brutal shit. Wearing a mask is one of my favorite things to do. I love that element of a band with masks that looks cool. Obviously, there’s a lot of similarities, but personally, especially now, it’s 20 years old at this point. It’s just silly. There were similarities—the number of members, some of the masks were similar. We have more similarities with those guys probably personally than they know. When you really boil it down, like all the shit that we’ve been through, we formed a few years before them, but we never sounded anything alike. I’ve never gotten that comparison, ever.
“IT WAS VERY FAN AND MEDIA HYPED. I ALWAYS COMPARE IT TO THE LEGEND OF BIGFOOT. THE WHOLE THING IS JUST SILLY IF YOU REALLY LOOK AT IT.”
Mushroomhead has been around for 27 years. What keeps you motivated, and what are your plans once this pandemic hopefully subsides soon?
The original plan was just trying to re-establish ourselves in Europe. That was the last couple of years, getting over there on our own pretty hardcore. And that led into doing a deal with Napalm Records as well. So, we were right on point as far as trying to re-establish ourselves. And then obviously with the new members, that gave us a whole new lease on life, too. This is a whole brand new chapter and a whole new world of Mushroomhead.