Mushok riffs on sports, band tension
Staind's version of the "Baseball Tonight" theme might have lost to Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker in an ESPN.com poll, but its new album is a clear-cut winner.
The seventh studio album from the Springfield, Mass., band is its heaviest since "Dysfunction," the 1999 major label debut that resonated with the influence of Pantera and Alice in Chains. "Staind" is a powerful, angry record, and the hardest to make, says guitarist Mike Mushok. The mounting tension of the sessions resulted in the departure of drummer Jon Wysocki earlier this year, leaving co-founding members Mushok, singer Aaron Lewis and bassist Johnny April.
Mushok, an avid Boston sports fan, called The Life by phone from the dressing room, shortly before an AT&T Concert Series appearance at the 2011 Alaska State Fair, nearly 5,000 miles from Fenway Park, although he had the Red Sox game streaming on his laptop.
The Life: Was the Patriots and Celtics reaching the playoffs, and the Bruins marching to a Stanley Cup, a distraction throughout the recording of the new album?
Mushok: [Laughs] It definitely played a part, for sure. I went to that [AFC playoff] game in Foxborough, where they lost to the Jets. It was brutal. I mean, it wasn't as bad as 18-1 in '07, but it was up there.
The Life: Are you constantly aware of what's happening with your teams? In the studio, do you have the TV on?
Mushok: You know, the funny thing is that we don't. Our studio doesn't have a TV. You know what I have, though, and I use, is I have a Slingbox on my laptop. So, I watch TV from the house. I'll put that on with no volume.
Actually, when the Patriots blew out the Jets in that [regular-season game] -- what was it, 45-3? -- we were writing the record. I was like, "We're calling this early tonight. I'm going home to watch this game." [Laughs] There are times you gotta do what you gotta do.
The Life: So, it's fair to say you're a Boston sports fan who constantly checks scores, listens to sports radio, the whole nine yards.
Mushok: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I'm here in Alaska, in our dressing room with my laptop, with the Red Sox on -- they're losing right now -- so, yeah.
The Life: Do games inadvertently affect the music, in that adrenaline from watching a classic win, or disappointment over a loss, triggers emotion that feeds into what you create?
Mushok: You know, I don't know. It's funny, though, 'cause this record was really tough to make, talking about emotions and ups and downs, and things of that nature. It was a really hard one to make.
I don't know if it does or not. Maybe in some way, but I kind of think that a lot of it's really already written, and it's just a matter of tracking it and making the best song you can.
The Life: Is the progression from idea to finished song much different when you're writing for, say, ESPN, compared to writing something for Staind?
Mushok: Well, when we did the ["Baseball Tonight"] theme, it was really just an interpretation of something that was already there. So, yeah, in that sense [it] was different. There was some creativity to it, but when I'm writing a song for Staind, I always feel my job is to come up with something that Aaron's going to want to sing over -- something that's a catchy guitar riff that people are going to want to listen to, something that's going to catch your ear, musically.
I've actually done some stuff for movies lately. I wrote a song to a trailer recently, and it was really something I wanted to try and do. I'm actually really happy with the way it came out.
They wanted a hard rock kind of vibe, with a little bit of electronic sound to it. They had some music they sent along with [the trailer], to kind of give an idea. We kind of did [musical] changes where that music did, and changes where it seemed like they wanted them, and just kind of wrote around the trailer.
The Life: Coming up with ideas, are you starting to think of things for different potential use -- segregate ideas as better for Staind, or something you can apply to film ...
Mushok: There's definitely some kinds of music I come up with that I think, oh, that could create a mood, and I could see it in a movie or something. But there's no reason why, if Aaron heard it and loved it, and wanted to sing over it, we couldn't use it as a song.
I just kind of look at what I do as writing music, and I write a lot of music. Up until recently, it was all only for the band. But there are just so many other ideas I haven't used -- you know, Aaron's doing his solo thing, it's like, well, I have all these other ideas, I guess I should try to pursue them elsewhere. [Laughs] So, you know, doing that a little bit more and seeing what else is out there and available.
The Life: What was your starting point for the "Baseball Tonight" theme song? Like you said, it's an established piece of music, so where do you start?
Mushok: I kind of learned the melody and added some solo parts between it, and learned the rhythm and chord changes that were there. I play a baritone guitar, which is a low-tuned guitar, so I came up with a version of the rhythm and put the melody, and built over that -- added a solo over it and some other guitar parts -- just kind of built it up from there.
The Life: How long of a process was that?
Mushok: It took longer than we expected! [Laughs] It was probably about two days to do it.
The Life: How long did you think it was going to take?
Mushok: I thought we could probably knock it out … I was hoping we could knock it out in a day, but it definitely ended up taking a little bit longer than that. After we did that, I had to send somebody to play drums on it, then it was mixed, so it probably ended up being a good three days with everything being done.
The Life: Your version held steady for the first three weeks of online voting, before Travis Barker edged it out. Which of the other versions caught your attention?
Mushok: You know, I haven't listened to all of them, but I'm pissed that I lost to Travis Barker! [Laughs] He's drums, come on! [Laughs]
The Life: You're not too far from the main ESPN facility in Connecticut. Are you a frequent visitor?
Mushok: Not that frequent, but I have been there a couple of times to meet with [the music director] over there. Honestly, it's probably 20 minutes from me, from where I live. It's just this huge compound, you know? And it's funny because I have ESPN on all the time, especially when we're on the road, and it's in my backyard.
The Life: Bronson Arroyo became a friend of yours when he played for the Red Sox. Honestly, how bad was the heartbreak when your Fenway ticket connection got traded to Cincinnati in 2006?
Mushok: [Laughs] Bronson called me today, actually. Yeah, that was a tough one. [Laughs] I just felt bad for him. I know that when he made that deal with the Sox, it was kind of a handshake deal -- you know, you don't trade me. That was the year the Sox seemed to think they had too much pitching, and we all know how that turned out. We also know how the slugger Wily Mo Pena turned out, who they got for Bronson.
He's doing all right in Cincinnati, and he likes it there. But it was more tough just because I like the guy, and I know he loved playing in Boston. It's funny, the few guys I know that have played in Boston talk about how much they loved it. [Kevin] Millar's another one. I mean, he was on the Orioles, coming to throw out the first pitch for Game 1 of the ALCS! [Laughs]
The Life: Being a fan yourself, you're obviously very aware that the fans, and the Boston sports media, can be brutal on players not accustomed to the scrutiny.
Mushok: For sure. There are guys that just can't adapt.
The Life: It can be a very vulnerable position. Did you recognize any parallels, in having cameras document what were very tense sessions for this new album, concluding with Jon [Wysocki] leaving the band?
Mushok: No, I mean, we were just so wrapped up in what we were doing, and how difficult the process ended up being, that I never even thought of that. But you're absolutely right, there are definitely guys that have come into Boston and just can't [cope]. One of the best [examples] was [Edgar] Renteria when they got him. I remember watching when he was in St. Louis, I thought he was really good … not so much here. [Laughs]
The Life: But in a situation like yours, you're able to control it. Was there ever any thought while [filming] that maybe this is something you don't want the world to see?
Mushok: When we started, and we went down that road, we were just going to let it [happen] and pursue it. I mean, look, I'm not going to tell you that there weren't times I said, "You know what, shut the camera off because there's no reason to get this." It's not everything, but the DVD that comes with [the album], it's pretty harsh and pretty truthful as to what the process was, and how difficult it was.
The Life: What made recording the new album, to quote you, "miserable"?
Mushok: Well, a lot of things. You mentioned Jon. Coming in, I don't think we were all on the same page. I think we had different motivations, and we never really got on the same page. Figuring out how to handle that, and what to do with it, after being in a band with somebody for 16, 17 years, just not an easy decision to make. And not a fun one to make. It took a long time to really figure out how it was going to be handled. So, that was tough.
Aaron putting out a [solo] record, when we're trying to make a record, extremely difficult, along with just a lot of other things -- even personally that didn't even have to do with the record -- kind of in conjunction with all these other things. It just seemed to all pile up and hit at once. There were a lot of days where it just felt like you couldn't catch a break. Whatever was going to go wrong, did.
The Life: Did that affect the heaviness of the music? Is the heaviness a direct effect of everything going on, or was it a conscious direction from the start?
Mushok: It was definitely a conscious direction from the start. I've heard Aaron say that definitely did come out in the lyrics and the vocals, and how they were sung. Most of the music was written right at the onset of where things started to get difficult. The music was pretty much put together back in early January, for the most part. I'm not going to say things didn't change, because they did. But the majority of it was kind of put together by then.
The Life: For a lot of people, music is solace; or it's an expression of joy, a positive thing. One would assume it's the same for the people creating it, that it strengthens or empowers you. What happens when that thing also causes you to be miserable?
Mushok: I think you see it on the DVD. And I'm not even sure at the end, because I stopped watching the cuts of it, because it's a little too much for me. There was a time when Johnny was playing me some of the stuff back -- Johnny K, the producer -- and I just didn't want to listen to it. I had had it; I had reached the end. I was like, I don't even want to listen to what we have, let's just finish the guitar parts I gotta do -- and this is really at the very end of it.
What it took was … I don't know if it was a few days, maybe a week, when I kind of put it away. I went back and listened to it after not doing anything with it for awhile. I was driving, and I put it in. It hit me that I thought it was really, really good. [Laughs] I didn't as we were finishing it. I really had a lot of doubts about a lot of things.
After being able to get away from it for a minute, and come back to it with a little bit more of a clear head and a better perspective, that was when I felt like we really accomplished what we set out to do. It turned out to be something I'm extremely proud of.
The Life: Was it the first time the band had recorded in remote locations?
Mushok: Pretty much. I mean, ultimately, we usually jam the ideas out and get the drums down as a band, and then kind of [work] separately. But it's not really that different. Even the last record was somewhat similar. But the way the songs ended up being put together, and the way the drums were done, was definitely very different.
But I've been doing guitars at our rehearsal spot for like, the last three records, just because it's convenient for me. We have it set up so I can do 'em there, and Aaron has his setup at his place, and that's how we've been doing it.
The Life: Does that give you a bit of space, that it's just you without having to face everything else going on right in front of you?
Mushok: Yeah, and I like the way I work with Johnny, the producer. He's not a guy that brings in a Pro Tools guy, an engineer, and all these other [people]. It's just him. There are no guitar techs; he'll take care of it, or we do it together. It's definitely a better -- for me, anyway -- working environment. There's not all these people around, and I like it better like that. We get a lot more done.
The Life: Do you have your name on the wait list for season tickets for all of the Boston teams?
Mushok: I don't, just because it's so hard for me to get there. And, I'll be honest with you, even with football -- I mean, don't get me wrong, I watch the Patriots top to bottom -- I love Sunday. I like watching all the pregame stuff. I like watching different games -- you know, NFL Ticket -- I'm kind of all over the place. So I have no problem sitting in my [home] theater and watching it there. [Laughs] It's cool to go to games, but football, I definitely like watching that at home.
The Life: Are you the type of musician who keeps his guitar close at hand on a Sunday, noodling while watching the games?
Mushok: Sometimes. Not always, but sometimes yes. I've written a couple of songs that way, just came up with an idea, then went and put it down. There are two that I remember: "Rainy Day Parade" on the last record, I wrote that riff watching a Red Sox game. And the "Chapter V" record, there's a song called "Devil," I came up with that one, too, watching -- I think it was a Red Sox game -- just sitting there, playing and watching the game.
The Life: The last album hinted at your shredding roots. This album now comes a little bit closer toward full circle with that. Is that a fair assessment?
Mushok: Yeah, for sure. Look, when the band started, it was something I always used to do. Like, if you saw Staind back in '95, I was soloing through every song. [Laughs] I kind of got tired of it. And I started playing these baritone guitars [with] lower tunings, and I really got away from it.
I had no problem getting away from it. I think I needed to, and I wanted to. With that, I kind of wanted to go back to it a little bit and explore it a little bit more, in our music at least, try and do it where we felt it was appropriate. Not every song [on the new album] has a solo, but there's a good majority of them that do, and it was fun to do.
The Life: The last album, the band really presented different directions that it could go, so it wouldn't continually be pigeonholed into what people expect.
Mushok: I definitely think the last record was a lot more of an experimental record, because there was a lot of different instrumentation. It felt like we tried a lot of different styles of music. I think being able to make the last record let us be able to make this record because it kind of got that out.
Aaron wanted the last record to be super heavy, and I wasn't really writing things like that. I kind of showed up with all these different styles and riffs, and he actually ended up liking them which, good thing. But that's what led to the last record kind of being like that.
The Life: A lot of people might assume it was actually Aaron's influence that led to those different styles on the last record. That's interesting that it was actually you.
Mushok: I kind of write stuff all over the place, you know what I mean? It wasn't like I was writing these heavy riffs [then]. I was writing stuff that was a little more musical, a little bit different, maybe a little bit bluesy on some of it. That's kind of how [that] record ended up turning out.
The Life: You'll be gearing up to tour the new album, so which butterflies are bigger, the moments before going onstage, or throwing out the first pitch before a Royals game at Kauffman Stadium?
Mushok: [Laughs] Definitely the pitch. The guitar playing thing, I've been doing that for a long time, so I don't really get many butterflies doing that. But, yeah, the pitch thing was fun. I was honored to be able to do that. For some reason, we had two days off in Kansas City, and there was a Thursday night and Friday night [game]. Yeah, it was cool.
The Life: Maybe that was your warm-up to someday do it at Fenway Park.
Mushok: If they ever asked, that would be awesome. For sure, I'd love to.
Roger Lotring is an author, freelance writer and radio show host based in Connecticut.