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Mushroomhead's J-Mann talks shop, band's future at Mayhem Festival

The band performs at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center.
The band performs at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center.
David Hens

If you’re one of those unfortunate souls still looking to Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly to provide you with the keys to the musical kingdom, the demented electro-industrial surge of Mushroomhead has most likely eluded you on your travels.

Mushroomhead performs at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center
David Hens

Because the under-the-radar Ohioans couldn’t care less about selling themselves to a mainstream whose understanding of metal has always been dubious at best, getting a handle on their vision and presence within the metal community has required a little more effort than modern listeners are used to.

But isn’t that how it should be? Shouldn’t the lifers be able to delineate themselves from the fly-by-night supporters based on how far they’re willing to go to connect with a band?

There’s something to be said for the mediums through which older generations came upon new music, because having anything, let alone music, spoon-fed to you from the unwashed hands of mass media serves as an immediate stake right through the heart of said product’s credibility.

The pride resulting from personal discovery can’t be understated, and that’s exactly how I feel about Mushroomhead now that I’ve had the opportunity to experience their live offering.

Don’t let comparisons to Slipknot confuse you.

If you remove the masks, the similarities wither away quicker than all things music-related on MTV. If that’s not enough, keep in mind that Mushroomhead was breathing fire into Cleveland’s Warehouse District long before Slipknot became a staple of the modern thrash scene, a reality often ignored by those trying to pit the two bands against each other.

I caught up with vocalist Jason Popson (a.k.a. J-Mann) recently during his free time on the 2014 Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival for a chat regarding the festival experience and how the band goes about conquering the Coldcock American Herbal Whiskey Stage in 30 minutes or less.

Never again should anyone consider heavy metal to be a young man’s game, because Popson and his bandmates are still crushing it as they break on through to their third decade of existence.

I’ve reached the point where I’m planning to track down a physical copy of their 1995 debut album to devour in an evening, so, while I’m doing that, check out what Popson had to say.

Question: How has the Mayhem experience been so far?

J-Mann: It’s been fantastic. It has a real family vibe to it, so all of the bands are clicking with each other as far as friendships go. It’s definitely opened my mind to a lot of band I might not normally listen to, and I think that’s the best thing it has to offer the audience. It covers a wide range of heavy music and a wide span in terms of ages. Us, Body Count, Cannibal Corpse and Korn. These bands have been around for 20 years, but there’s also young bands coming up like Emmure, Miss May I, and Upon a Burning Body. I think there’s a little something for everybody. There are no egos either, which is great. Everyone has an open mind and we all get along greatly.

Question: Because of the limited time slot on the side stages, what do you guys do to leave your mark on the audience?

J-Mann: Well obviously you try to come up with songs that have a little more adrenaline to them and stay upbeat, but that definitely focused us on putting the set together. Not only that, but we’re more of a theatrical band. Playing in the daytime is even weird for us, you know? It’s still something we’re embracing, because it’s nice to be forced to do something different. Sometimes it takes nature or a festival setting to force you out of your everyday routine. We’ve accepted that challenge and we’re doing well with it.

Question: Have you noticed any differences between the crowds depending on the city you’re in?

J-Mann: As far as this tour goes, I’ve seen some differences and a lot of them have to do with the weather. It seems like we’re having a hotter summer than normal, so the fans out West seemed more adapted to the heat. On the East coast, the crowds were definitely more drained by the heat. Syracuse was humid as hell, but we’re used to it. We just did Arizona and New Mexico, which were both very hot.

Question: How have crowds responded to both the new material and the fact that you’ve returned to the band following an extended absence?

J-Mann: The response has been phenomenal, actually. We were a little nervous about it at first, because we wondered if we should just play the standards or play stuff from the new record we’re really proud of. It’s going well. We play six songs in the set and two of them are from the new record.

Question: Do you find that touring relentlessly is the key to staying afloat given the decline in radio and record sales?

J-Mann: It helps our t-shirt sales the most, because the state of the music industry itself is a whole other discussion. Fortunately, we do still sell records, but the key is to make it interactive for the fan. They might already own the CD, but decide to pick up another copy to get signed at one of the many in-store appearances we make.

Question: Given the fact that metal fans tend to be fiercely loyal and will follow a band anywhere they’re willing to take them, do you guys cater to your core more than a general audience?

J-Mann: Establishing our core group of fans is important in terms of longevity, but the cool thing about this tour is that every band appears to transcend its core audience. We’ve all won fans over, so far.

Question: One thing I’ve always found interesting about Mushroomhead is the uniqueness of each member’s mask. How did the designs come about?

J-Mann: I think everyone tried to put a piece of their personality into their mask, especially now that we’ve switched designers to a guy named Jason Kisner, who’s phenomenal at taking an idea and sculpting it to your personality. He also does really well with the paint work, which I’ve noticed the most since the switch. I think it gives every guy more character and speaks to their inner person.

Question: Do you find that your live performance cements the band’s sound in ways that the studio can’t?

J-Mann: Yeah. I think we’re getting closer to tailoring our recordings sonically to fit our vision, but we’ve paid so much attention to the live show and to the look of the band for so long that we got there first. I think the records are finally catching up to that, because the new players have brought a lot to the process. It was also important to get back to the roots of the band and cover the whole history of our existence.

Question: What were your expectations when the band first started out?

J-Mann: I think the reason this band has had any success is that we had zero expectations. It was actually started as a side project, to be honest with you. Momentum took over and it became the full-time band, but it got to a point where it was a really humble and sincere release from our other projects. Other people needed a release in their lives and it transcended.

Question: Is touring still as much fun compared to the early days?

J-Mann: To be honest with you, I’ve just gotten back into it within the last year. I definitely like it a lot more. It’s one of those “grass is always greener” things, but, at the end of the day, it’s amazing to be out here when the band is hitting on all cylinders. It’s lightning in a bottle, really. A lot of people spend their whole lives chasing something like that, so we try not to take anything for granted.

Question: Did you feel that your time away from the band allowed you to decompress following all that had transpired in your personal life?

J-Mann: Absolutely. I think it also made me appreciate it more and realize how rare it is to have this in my life. The opportunities that this band provides are incredible, whether it’s touring nationally or making records. At the end of the day, I consider myself more of a writer than a singer, so I want to reach the most people with my words.

Question: Who are some of your influences as a songwriter?

J-Mann: Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Shane MacGowan. I think J.R. from Pig Destroyer is one of the most underrated lyricists ever and that’s just because you can’t understand what he’s saying on the record. You read that kid’s lyrics and it’s like Yeats. I mean, he’s a phenomenal poet. But going back to the early days, guys like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were huge, but Tom Waits is still the biggest influence for me.

Question: When the band first began, were there any others whom you tried to model yourself after?

J-Mann: We’re basically a metal band, but we also wanted to incorporate keyboards. Our biggest nod was to Faith No More, you know? We all loved Frank Zappa, Ice Cube, and the Beastie Boys along with other obscure things. We wanted to have an open playing field in the early ‘90s.

Question: What are your plans once Mayhem comes to a close?

J-Mann: We’re actually crossing styles again. We’re doing a tour with Insane Clown Posse, Three Six Mafia, and, I believe, Avatar, so half hard rock and half hip hop will make for a crazy, open-minded event. Otherwise, there’s going to be a lot of fist fights.

Be sure to catch Mushroomhead on the Coldcock American Herbal Whiskey Stage as part of the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival.

See http://rockstarmayhemfest.com/ for details.

Mushroomhead’s latest release, The Righteous & the Butterfly, is available now.

http://www.mushroomhead.com