Although Mushroomhead has had many lineup changes over their career, this most recent rendition is easily the most crucial shift as founding vocalist Jeffrey 'Nothing' Hatrix and keyboardist Tom 'Shmotz' Schmitz departed along with vocalist Waylon Reavis who had been present in the past three LPs and guitarist Tommy Church from the last record. In their absence, we see the addition of Steve Rauckhorst and Jackie LaPonza doing clean vocals and Tommy 'Tankx' Shaffner on guitar. Rounding up the lineup with Jason 'J Mann' Popson (vocals) Ryan 'Dr. F' Farrell (bass, keyboards), Rick 'St1tch' Thomas (turntables, samples, percussion, keyboards), Steve 'Skinny' Felton (drums), and Robbie 'Roberto Diablo' Godsey (percussion, keyboards), the band just dropped their eighth studio album titled A Wonderful Life via Napalm Records.
Prior to release, we spoke to Skinny about the new lineup, record, plans on creating a mini-film, and more. Check out the interview below.
I just want to start off by saying I’m really excited about this new album and I want to dive into some questions about it, but before we go there… how are things with you and the rest of the band in regards to coronavirus and quarantine?
Well, thank you for asking. We’re all doing good and are healthy and being careful. It’s definitely weird times being a band, especially just as we’re about to release a new album. We had shows cancelled and there’s a lot of aspects that have been more difficult to do while social distancing. Like we recently filmed the music video for “The Heresy” and everything had to be planned out differently from building the sets to recording. It’s been difficult and different, but it has given us time to work on other aspects of the band and has us even more excited to get back on the road once we can.
Despite the chaos we’re seeing in our society this year, the new Mushroomhead album has a pretty optimistic title. Would you say A Wonderful Life holds maybe a bit more optimism in it than past records as the album name hints at or could you delve into what the title means to you?
We were tossing around a lot of album titles and that’s the one that stuck. There’s lots of ways you can view our music and in a way, some of it has optimism. Listening to the tracks on this new record, there’s some that are more uplifting, but at the same time, there’s still a lot of the darkness that we’ve always had in our albums. A Wonderful Life was brought up as a title and I feel that it best represents the style and mindset we explored with our current lineup and in the writing and recording process for this record.
Yeah, I definitely feel that the material on this record is not just a rehash of previous records, but more-so the next step for the band. I am curious as to when the writing for this material actually began because the timeline gets a little unclear. There was talks of originally entering the studio in 2016, but that was prior to the departure of Jeff and Tommy Church I believe. Did that original intent of entering the studio in 2016 happen or was it pushed back until the addition of your new vocalist and guitarist?
So all that was scrapped, except for a couple pieces that Dr. F and I had written that we decided were pretty strong. So yeah, a couple tunes back from that original session did carry over, but a majority of that was scrapped when those guys bailed. Having Stevie [Rauckhorst] and Jackie [LaPonza] this time changed things. We decided to change some keys and structure songs differently, so there was a lot of experimenting going on. A majority of the writing took place in December of 2018 to January of 2020. A lot of the writing was done on the road and even tracking was done on the bus like Stevie’s vocals for “The Flood” were recorded on the tour bus. When we were in London, we got to go to Abbey Road a couple times and do a bunch of vocals. Vocals for “The Heresy” and “Pulse” were tracked there. A big portion of our time between 2016 and 2020 was spent on re-branding and focused on getting into the scene in Europe. Our main goal was focusing on the record, but also touring and re-establishing ourselves in Europe and the UK.
Yeah, a focus on rebranding definitely makes sense after losing one of your founding vocalists.
Yeah, we felt we needed to take a fresh approach to this eighth album. You never want to make the same album over and over again, which Mushroomhead never has. In fact, we’ve never have had the same lineup from album to album. Every single album, there was at least one member change. It’s like a new box of crayons, a whole bunch of fresh colors you can experiment with. And that’s what we did with Stevie and Jackie on this album. They have so much ability to harmonize together.
Well let’s talk more about your new members, specifically Rauckhorst and Tommy Shaffner. Gimme the lay down on these fellas. How did you meet and how did they mesh into the new album’s writing process?
It’s funny because Stevie and Tommy have been in the Cleveland music scene for maybe twenty years now, so they’re friends and family. If you look back at the Vol. 1 DVD, they were on our crew, touring the world with us. They’ve been in a lot of side projects. Stevie is a monster bass player, so Tommy Shafner and him did bass and guitar for Jmann’s side project Pitch Black Forecast with Gene Hoglan. They have been with us in the studio and shows forever, so it was a very smooth transition having them officially join the band. Everyone was very open and honest and just willing to collaborate. In the end result, you end up with an album that was pretty diverse.
Was there a direction you gave Rauckhorst being he was filling some pretty big shoes. To me, I hear the occasional similarity in his voice with Jeff’s, but I also hear a lot more clean melodies and a Faith No More influence too on some pieces.
Sure, I hear that influence too. Stevie’s been a big fan of Mushroomhead and Faith No More growing up in the 90’s. He’s a talented bass player, so he understands music theory very well. It never was a “I want you to sound like this guy” situation. I understand there are similarities, but I think those come out naturally from his influences. He was good at delivering vocal hooks and the whole writing process was very experimental and open to collaboration.
Looking at the tracklisting, there are four bonus tracks, which I thought were also surprisingly solid. Can you discuss those songs and why they were deemed bonus tracks?
Yeah, those were really strong pieces and we felt really good about them, but when you’re on a timeline and budget, schedules sometimes override the art. Those songs were so close, so we handed them to Matt to mix them. One of them is called “Another Ghost” and it has a really good guitar riff. I just love that track. Including those four songs was more for the diehard fans that have been hanging in there for the past five years and haven’t heard any new material. Once we put everything together, we felt it played out well. It’s about seventy-one minutes altogether, so it’s a long album, but I truly think there’s something there for everyone.
We also see your returning to work with Matt Wallace to produce the album. Can you delve into that choice to get him board and if it brought back any nostalgia to working with him on your 2003 LP?
It was a lot of fun and we were very fortunate to have our schedules work out. This time around, it was a little different with Matt compared to when we worked with him on the XIII album, which was a pretty big record for us. Matt goes for these big giant arena sounds and it’s a blessing to have someone come in with fresh ears. As a producer and drummer and artist, I know I can’t wear all the hats, so to have a professional like him on board was great. We weren’t able to go out to LA to mix it with him, instead we would send mixes back and forth daily. I think it came out great, despite the distance making it a bit difficult. We also were just finishing the mastering with Howie Weinberg at his place in California, the day they shut down because of coronavirus. We talked about pushing the album release back, but with everything so certain, we’d likely be still pushing it back, so we just stuck to the plan.
Speaking of production, there’s some interesting noises and soundscapes on this album. For example, the choir included in the opener song "A Requiem for Tomorrow" and other moments as well. Was that choir inclusion from Matt Wallace or where did they come from?
The choir stuff is really interesting and we even ended up concluding the album with it too. There’s a song also called “Pulse,” which has a big choir section in the end of that song. Originally, that was done on a keyboard, so I was talking with Dr. F about having that part by a real choir. He has a classical background, so we got the Cleveland Chamber Choir to come out to our studio. There were sixteen of them in there and we were writing more material with them in the two hour session that we had. It inspired us towards to look into the idea of classical composers and requiems. A lot of composers have done requiems like Mozart and Brahms. We started putting music together and that lead to “A Requiem for Tomorrow.” The choir became kind of a recurring theme in the album. Just having the choir come in for one track turned into something way more inspiring than expected. Again, everything was very much open to experimenting and collaborating and doing things we’ve never done. I think our fans have come to expect the unexpected. With all the lineup changes and mask changes, the one thing we’ve kept constant is change.
So now that you have a full new album written and recorded, I’m sure you’re itching to get back on stage and play it? I think we’re waiting until next year, but what songs off A Wonderful Life are high priority to perform live for you?
There’s a few for sure. We like the big, doom-y material like “The Heresy.” We talk about that one production-wise and you can just imagine the smoke machines making it big and dramatic. Obviously the first single, “Seen It All” is good and upbeat. It’s in your face and anthemic. I think a lot of the songs have memorable lyrics. Everything is really hooky and catchy, even if it’s dark and creepy too. There’s another track called “I am the One,” which has a lot of energy. I see that one as a live track along with “Madness Within.” We’ve never played any of this stuff live, so we’re dying to.
Continuing on the topic of setlist selection, there’s been so many lineup changes over the years. Do you feel there are any songs that are in a way off limits to perform with your current lineup? For example, is it fair to assume songs from Savior Sorrow and Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children won’t be played considering Waylon and Jeff were the main vocalists on those records and are no longer in the band?
It’s funny you say that because we have a working list of songs we want to play. We try to change it up or make fresh versions of old songs by changing the keyboards, adding electronics, or bumping the tempo. Since you mentioned Savior Sorrow, we’ve been working on a live version of “Save Us” with Jackie and Stevie. Not that we like to relive the past, but there’s some great songs in our older lineups. I’m not going to downplay any of our past catalog. We busted our asses and I think we made some great tunes, so nothing is off limits for us. “Simple Survival” keeps coming up on the list too. Savior Sorrow is a pretty underrated album. I think it got shunned because J Mann left and Waylon came in, so I think it got overlooked. One of my favorite tracks on there that we used to play live is called “Erase the Doubt.”
You’ve been drumming with Mushroomhead since ‘93, nearly 30 years now, before I was even born. I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of shit, met many people, travelled and toured all over the world, etc. Are there any moments over the decades that really stand out in your memory with the band as most notable or impactful?
Well 1992 is actually when I started, but our first show was in 1993. There’s a shit load that come to mind. Earlier I mentioned “The Heresy,” which we got to record at Abbey Road. That’s a pretty heavy duty highlight of my career. We played London the same night that we tracked vocals there. Every time I hear that song, I’m right back to sitting in that control room. It was actually Studio B where they did [Pink Floyd's] Dark Side of the Moon. One of the highlights of touring and playing live would be in 2014 at Soundwave Australia. It was just amazing and Green Day was the headliner. I remember the last night in Perth, we got to go watch them. Before they started, the PA performed “We are the Champions” [by Queen] and everyone sang along, which made the hair on the back of my neck stood up. It felt like the entire world was singing the song. It was so cool.
On the other hand, is there anything still on the bucket list for your music career and the band that you’d still like to achieve?
Yeah, you know being that we’re a visual band, we’re really into doing videos and working with film and cinematography. Right now, since there’s no touring, we’re thinking about doing videos. But also, we’ve been brainstorming about making a mini-movie. Depending on how much downtime we have, we’re going to be continue storyboarding and screenwriting. We have a lot of inspiration from Rob Zombie and not just horror movie style, but as a producer from music to film. The dude has his shit together and it’s very inspiring. We’ve always wanted to do something like this, so now is probably the time. There’s definitely more bucket list stuff and it’s all creative. We excel from our addiction to the creation and the general love for the craft itself, whether it is music or film. We like to think of Mushroomhead more as Mortal Kombat and Star Wars than a heavy metal band. You can have characters come and go. You can redress them. As long as it gets better every time. The graphics are better, the costumes are better, the songs are better. That’s about it right now; we’re going to get heavy into film.
Can you maybe get more in-depth of what the idea of the film is it so far? I assume it will be different than your previous documentary videos released.
Yeah, somewhere between Pan’s Labyrinth and Mortal Kombat. It’s very dark and fantasy-like. You can get the idea of where we’re headed if you watch the video for “The Heresy.” We do all that stuff in house too. The filming, lighting, editing, etc.
On the topic of visuals and horror, things are up in the air as far as this year’s Halloween. I know some of your members have been involved in a local haunted house.
Yeah, he opened one up last year or the year before here in Ohio. He’s really into it. I love the horror movies and haunts too, but St1tch really excels in set design. He designs the sets for our music videos as well as multiple haunted houses. He’s a dark and evil dude, so it works. They have the security room that you can watch all the people getting scared, so sometimes I’ll pop in there and watch and it’s great.
And again, things currently are very uncertain when we’ll return back to "normal," but do you have any plans as far as touring or music videos or anything of that sorts for the end of this year and 2021?
We typically book shows six to nine months out, so everything we had for summer of this year has been postponed to 2021. We were planning to tour Europe and that got moved. As far as Halloween shows, it’s not looking too good. We have high hopes that the whole world will come out of this positively and be like the roaring 20’s. So for now, we’re hopeful and going to keep busy and make art in the meantime. I’m really, really looking forward to getting back on the road. We haven’t played these new tunes yet so, it’ll be so refreshing. After twenty seven years of playing live, you want some new material to play live. Like I’ve been playing “43” for so long, so I can’t wait to add these new songs to our set.