Early on a cold November night, former Mushroomhead singer Jason Popson rolls into his ex-band's fortified compound, insulated in a black hat and a puffy black jacket. His return isn't a big deal. The real news is that he might stay. Even if he never again works with Mushroomhead - the masked kings of Cleveland metal, the city's top-selling hard-rock act of the last decade - Cleveland's most magnetic metal frontman in recent memory is about to step back into the spotlight.
When Popson left Mushroomhead after a decade, his departure left a void that hasn't quite been filled. Mushroomhead fans still show up at concerts painted as Popson looked when he took the stage as "J Mann" - white face, black eyes, like the bastard spawn of two Kiss members. Popson left in 2004, but he was never gone from the North Royalton industrial shop that serves as the group's headquarters. He and members of Mushroomhead continued collaborating in (216), a metal band that just reconvened for a series of shows. More concerts and a record might be on the way.
After four years on the sidelines, Popson will mark his return to performing by reconvening three more of his bands next weekend. On Friday, December 12, he'll headline Peabody's with the Alter Boys, a surprisingly sincere lounge-rock octet. The next night he'll be back at Peabody's with groundbreaking rap-rock band Unified Culture. And that Sunday, the hardcore commando squad State of Conviction will headline Parma's Jigsaw.
These are groups the singer led before and after he toured the world with Mushroomhead, where he barked like a dog about to break its chain. At these shows, he'll croon. He'll rage. He'll rhyme. The one thing he won't do is sound like the Mushroomhead Guy. Popson says he's just having some fun with old friends who are town for the holidays.
"These opportunities only come by once in a while," says Popson. "Let's make the most of them."
But tonight, Popson is at the Filthy Hands studio to prepare for another heavy-duty weekend, three nights of gigs with (216), in Geneva, Columbus and Pittsburgh. By the time he arrives, Mushroomhead captain/producer/drummer Steve "Skinny" Felton is already zoned, staring at his computer, searching for old (216) sound files. A California label has offered to release the group's recordings nationally for the first time. The players are ostensibly here to talk about the deal. Four hours later, they won't have talked about it much. Little wonder the band's second album has been stalled for two years.
When Popson steps into the studio, the singer and drummer exchange greetings, and the air gets thicker for a moment. Popson, 37, and Felton, 38, exchange small talk as their vibes find harmony, like two brothers who haven't seen each other since last Thanksgiving.
"The thing with Steve and I is, we don't talk that often," explains Popson. "But when we do, it's like not a day has passed. Maybe it takes a while to get there, but we get into a groove. Maybe it is like a family - it's not always perfect, but it's there."
The (216) reunion just fell into place. In late October, an opening band dropped off Mushroomhead's annual fall tour. The band was in Cleveland for a DVD signing and Popson jumped on the bus. Nightly, he joined three Mushroomhead members to open shows as (216). For the Mushroomhead set, Popson returned briefly to perform favorites like "Sun Doesn't Rise." "The solidarity was there," says Felton. "[(216)] is fun. It's definitely got a fire going in me now."
The last-minute (216) slots were unannounced; for the fans, it was a Christmas present for Halloween. In the pit, Mushroom-heads went nuts, surprising the band by shouting along with every word of songs from the band's 10-year-old self-titled CD.
"They were loving it," says Felton of Popson's unannounced return. "Jaws to the floor. [After] they were like, 'Dude, that was fuckin' awesome! Can I meet J. Mann? Can I meet J. Mann? That's all I heard. Like, dude, he's just a regular guy - buy him a drink."
A week later, Popson lights a Marlboro red in his Lakewood house. It's a neat rental with hardwood floors, immaculately ordered shelves of books (Hunter S. Thompson, pimp-turned novelist Iceberg Slim, painter Jean-Michel Basquiat) and CDs (AC/DC to Tom Waits). With a Star Wars documentary playing in background, Popson tilts a Bud Light and reflects on life before J. Popson was J Mann.
Back when it was still somewhat taboo to date outside your own ethnic group, his parents were a fiery mix of two rival cultures, his mother Irish, his father Sicilian. ("It's probably why I'm conflicted," says Popson.) They divorced when he was 3, and Popson was raised by his mom. Popson doesn't recall seeing his dad again until he was 9. "Kiss and Star Wars was my world," recalls Popson. "It was beyond music and a movie. It was a culture unto itself. When I saw [Star Wars] in the theater, I was just obsessed."
His first Kiss experience wasn't the music, but a pack of trading cards at the local drug store: "I opened it up, saw Gene Simmons spitting blood and fire. I thought, 'This is some shit.' That visual appeal definitely played a role in Mushroomhead, what a rock show could be."
Inspired by Kiss, Popson would spend his adult life emulating Gene Simmons. But he spent his youth looking for Han Solo.
Popson says he took to Han Solo, "Immediately. I didn't think Luke was cool. Han Solo was cool as shit. He had the badass ship. Plus, I grew up without a dad. I had a stepfather I didn't get along with. So, like, [I would think] if I could have anybody as my dad, who would it be? Han Solo. Like, lying in bed, [imagining] Han Solo is going to pull up and take me away." In high school, Popson played basketball and football, and locker rooms were where he first heard thrash bands like Metallica and Slayer. Metal lead Popson to old-school hardcore. As metal and punk waned, he discovered hip-hop, which at that time was almost exclusively a black-culture phenomenon. Even without live guitars, hip-hop stuck a chord. "It reminded me of hardcore," says Popson. "The rebelliousness, the way people conveyed their frustration and anger."
He also liked the wordiness of rap, its hands-on poetry and immediate visceral impact. He did well in English, took journalism classes and considered attending Cleveland State University to study writing after graduating from Cuyahoga Heights High School in 1990. But while bussing tables at the Independence Chi-Chi's, he met dishwasher Vic Novak, who played drums for Parma metal band Terror. Popson started hanging around the band, which also dabbled in funk, groove and rhythm. He didn't play an instrument, but recalls "bullshitting" his way into the singer slot in a new side project, Unified Culture. True to its name, it mixed rap and rock - still a somewhat controversial proposition at the time. In 1991, Mann recorded his first demo with Unified Culture. Some people liked it. Some didn't know what to make of it.
"You were either thrash metal or hair metal," recalls Popson. "And we were playing a lot of funk and hip-hop. It was so hard to get gigs. You're always the outcast. But I think it was a character builder."
Over the next 15 years, he cultivated a crossover career. He would record for punk stronghold Victory Records with In Cold Blood, a hardcore band featuring the instrumental players from Cleveland hardcore legends Integrity. He collaborated with rap king Bizzy Bone in the Mushroomhead side project 10,000 Cadillacs. Early on, after documenting the Cleveland hardcore scene with his Dog Collar 'zine, he dove into the scene with State of Conviction, his first group with a core of longtime collaborators, including Mike Martini.
"He had a good vision of politics and a forward-thinking view of society," says Martini. "Even as a teenager. Most kids are thinking of ways to pick up chicks. He was always thinking of ways to save the world. He's a fun guy to hang out with - the conversation is always good. It's something in depth about music or the way the world is going.
Unified Culture practiced at Level 5, a practice and studio space, then at W. 91st Street and Detroit Avenue, that incubated numerous heavy-music projects. All Popson's bandmates had girlfriends. After rehearsals, they'd scatter and he'd be left alone, wanting to make more music. Practicing across the hall was Hatrix, an A-list metal band featuring singer Jeff Hatrix and Steve "Skinny" Felton. They were working on something new. Mushroomhead would grow into an eight-man crew of masked marauders. They toured the globe. They signed to the world's biggest record company. And they probably provided a visual template for multi-platinum metal heroes Slipknot. But the group started as a Hatrix side project, with drummer Steve Felton cooking up some loops and beats inspired by hip-hop. "Everything was neat and fun," says Felton, recalling the early days. "J and I just got along. I'd hear him bumpin' Tupac or whatever. And we'd hang out after everybody split."
Mushroomhead sprouted. First, Felton had the name. Then he had some concussive beats. Singer Jeff Hatrix stepped into a role that would become Mushroomhead co-frontman "Jeffrey Nothing." Felton started assembling the band from other Hatrix players and friends, including Unified Culture guitarist JJ. Still, something was missing. In fall 1992, Popson joined and Felton's nickname for him - as in "Hey, J-Man!" - became his stage name, J Mann.
The new band would jam until 5 a.m., building a hybrid of hip-hop, metal, electronic music, techno, digital hardcore, funk and fury. They played their first concert on October 23, 1993, staging a firestorm of a show at Kamm's Corners metal club Flash Gordon's. To this day, Mushroomhead shows are among the few local events that feel like capital-C concerts. "I think he was the ringleader of the circus," recalls Schnauzer drummer Jim Konya, who has shared the stage and released records with Popson. "A lot of people see him as, 'I'm this bad joker guy and this is my crew, a menagerie of maniacs.' You want to become something else when you go to a show and he's the conduit to it."
In 1998, heavyweight indie label Roadrunner offered Mushroomhead a shitty record deal. They passed. New Jersey upstart Eclipse Records offered a bigger piece of the action, and the band gave them XX, which was effectively a best-of from their popular self-released discs. It moved 75,000 copies in three months, and soon bigger labels were sniffing around. Co-frontman Jeffrey Nothing held his own, but Mann's warlike bark was the voice the fans could shout along to. Mushroomhead became a regional sensation, then took the show on the road, developing a national cult. "I don't think I intended [J Mann] to be a character, but it became one," explains Popson. "By being a masquerade thing, you get courage to do things you couldn't normally do. I think it's more an alter ego than a character." By all accounts, Popson stayed true to his punk roots and left the J Mann persona in the dressing room. Even after the band became a headliner, staying humble wasn't hard. The band split the money eight or more ways, and Popson worked as a cook at Chester's during the week.
"It never really got to your head, because you had to wake up and go to your job," recalls Popson. "In one sense, the band is doing well. But nothing really changed. It was weird; you'd have a waitress hand you something to sign for her son while you're cooking a steak."
Universal reissued XX with a fresh spit-polish. The band still prefer the original sound, but the new one eventually sold over 260,000 copies. With tour support, they took their evil circus all over the world.
"I would sit there and watch him start to paint his face," recalls Bill Korecky, Mushroomhead's longtime producer, who recorded several other Popson bands and toured as Mushroomhead's soundman. "Watching him work a big crowd was amazing, that transformation. He was one of the most accessible people because he was there to meet and greet kids, and loved it. He really understood the kids and their values and talked about what they wanted to hear."
2003's XIII album eventually moved over 200,000 copies. Songs on The Scorpion King and Freddy Meets Jason soundtracks scored the band gold records. Members of the group appeared on MTV2's Headbanger's Ball. "You want to do certain things as a band," says Popson. "Make a record, be in a video, be on TV. All these things were happening. We were ecstatic."
Still, XIII stalled well short of gold. Some blamed the music downloading sea change. Some blamed the post-9/11 recession. And musically, it wasn't a good time to be a niche band. Heavy metal was moving on. Groove was out. Denim and long hair were coming back. Popson rapped on songs like "Bwomp," but the band definitely wasn't rap-rock. Comic-book aesthetics and rap-rock looked like a wrap. Platinum groups had done more with less. By 2004, it was clear: Mushroomhead was not going to be the next Godsmack.
The band asked Universal for a release from their deal and the record company gladly accepted. The band's management dumped them. They switched booking agencies. The team was falling apart.
Felton was determined to move forward, full-speed ahead. That summer, the band received an offer to tour with Insane Clown Posse. It could have been either be a major break or a bust - ICP fans are a cult like no other. Then J got a call from his stepmother. Popson's estranged dad had throat cancer and there was no telling how long he'd last.
The band felt for him, but the show had to go on. Not doing the tour was not an option.
"[Mushroomhead] had to keep rolling, no matter what," explains Felton. "And the state of things, Mushroomhead wasn't doing so well. J just had personal stuff in his life he wanted to take priority. He made the decision to move on."
Mushroomhead moved on too, quickly recruiting another singer, Waylon Reavis from North Carolina. Neither the band nor Popson ever publicly discussed the split in much detail. "We stayed close," says Popson. "It was never weird. Maybe we didn't talk as much, but it wasn't like we weren't talking."
Popson says he just felt like reconciling with his dad was more important than ducking cans of Faygo hurled at him by rabid ICP fans. "I didn't want him to leave the earth and be all fucked up for the rest of my life," explains the singer. "It was something I had to do as a man."
Popson came from a talented bloodline. The singer's dad was athletic and artistic, but didn't pursue it; as the son of Sicilian immigrants, he just knew the work ethic: You find work and do the work. Art was play. A Navy veteran, the senior J. Popson was a mechanic, then a truck driver, then ran a shipping business. He was away a lot partly due to work, and partly because he was "a real selfish guy; he was self-absorbed."
Popson and his dad had a tenuous relationship throughout J's teens, and at 21, they had a falling out. In 2004, Popson had written his father off for good when his stepmother called with the bad news: Dad had the kind of cancer that wasn't going away. Suddenly, old grievances weren't a big deal. Popson started coming around again. He'd come over for dinner with his dad, stepmother, and younger half-brother and sister.
Smoking a Marlboro and welling up, Popson recalls the two-year reconciliation. Even after a tracheotomy, his dad kept working, driving a truck around the country. He'd call Popson from the road. In long one-on-one conversations, he apologized, talking the best he could over physical and emotional distances, through an amplified voice machine.
"Hearing him say he was sorry, but hearing him in that voice, sounding like a robot, over a cell phone, that stung," recalls Popson. "It was frustrating and heartbreaking. Almost every time he hung up, I'd cry." The Popsons let the grudges go. They had a couple of good Christmases together and then his dad was gone. Popson thinks the bonding time was worth losing Mushroomhead. Today he views his tattoo of the word "absentee" - inked in 2002 during a long stretch on the road away from his girlfriend - as a reminder, not a label.
"It was the right decision," says Popson. "I don't regret it. It was healing. This [was] one of my last chances to know another person that was the closest to what I'm like. I knew I was just like him. I had to take that opportunity to find out who I was before it was too late and to avoid those pitfalls. You learn what's important is bond, and family and blood. I felt like after what I went through with my dad, I could do anything." While Popson spent time with his dad, he continued building a life in music, mostly off stage. As his exit from Mushroomhead loomed, he was getting together a record company, Fractured Transmitter. His first release was by Meshuggah, Swedish kings of dizzying technical metal. Popson had toured with them during Mushroomhead downtime - not as a performer, but a merch salesman. The rest of Mushroomhead had laughed at him. "They said, 'What are you doing selling T-shirts? We sell more records than those guys,'" recalls Popson. "But it made me the connections."
Meshuggah's main label had wanted to release I, an 18-minute experimental EP. But they decided to make it the first release on their buddy J's label. "I was flattered beyond belief," says Popson. "I was honored and flattered and overwhelmed. That's when I realized maybe not everybody out there is in it for money or looking for the most lucrative deal. These guys stepped up and did it and trusted me with it."
The EP drew rave reviews from all over the metal world. Soon after Popson split with Mushroomhead, Fractured Transmitter was broadcasting steadily. Popson pushed Fractured Transmitter along like a sleek car with chronic engine problems. He developed a track record that was both modest and amazing, depending upon what corners of the musical world you monitor. For a tribute to stoner-rock legends the Melvins, he assembled an A list of underground heroes: High on Fire, Dillinger Escape Plan, Mastodon, Isis, CKY, Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Strapping Young Lad and Fear Factory. He balanced international names with releases by Northeast Ohio bands American Werewolves, Asleep and Disengage.
He also sang in a new band called the Alter Boys. The 2004 Exotic Sounds of the Alter Boys CD featured local friends in addition to guest spots by members of the Bloodhound Gang and Dog Fashion Disco, Jackass stars Bam Margera and Ryan Dunn and comedic actor David "Naked Trucker" Koechner (Anchorman, Saturday Night Live). The band played a handful of shows but didn't tour. The CD was good but attracted zero press. He seldom performed for the next four years.
This year, Popson returned to metal with Pitch Black Forecast. Once again he had local players, backed by a ringer: Gene Hoglan, a California native and one of the biggest names in metal drumming, who'd played with bands such as Testament and Dark Angel. Hoglan met Popson on the Meshuggah tour and knew him for weeks before he knew he was somebody. Popson had never mentioned his role in Mushroomhead. Hoglan just thought he was cool. Fractured Transmitter releases garnered varying notices. Meshuggah was by far the best-received and best-selling. Popson says that it moved around 20,000 copies, while the best of the rest moved closer to 2,000. As a label head, he still operated a lot like a musician, better at telling you about his music than actually getting it to you. He says the label both exceeded his expectations and feel short.
"I was really into everything we did," says Popson. "I was happy in the content, but I was disappointed with the way the market fell out. The business side was a disappointment. With the resources I had, I did everything I could. Everything would go into [making] the record. There was really [no money] left for promoting or advertising."
The Fractured Transmitter release schedule has slowed down. Popson says Pitch Black Forecast is halfway through their second record. The only other release on the drawing board is a rap record by Clevelander Jus Mic. "It's just a scary time to be a label," says Popson. "It's really heartbreaking to watch what's happening - the death of mom-and-pop stores, people not being into music as much, burning, downloads. This is not what I signed up for. You've got to put limits on things, even if they're your passion. Eventually, you need to move on to the second, third phase of your life."
After nearly 20 years, 14 albums and a dozen different projects, Popson finds himself staring down the dreaded age of 40. He has unfinished business on the art side of things.
If the (216) deal comes together, Mann could find himself riding with Mushroomhead much more often. Another joint tour would be a no-brainer. If that happens, it's not a stretch that he could be part of their next record, which Felton has penciled in for mid-2009. The Mushroomhead main man makes it clear that replacement singer Waylon's battle-braided head is not on the chopping block. But everyone might be better off if the next disc had a little touch of that J Mann magic.
"If I had my way, yeah," says Felton. "I believe it will. Maybe a whole EP with all three [singers] on it. Maybe a Use Your Illusion thing, two products at once."
Popson says he isn't gunning for his old job either. He won't promise he'll be involved with the band beyond an occasional guest appearance at a Cleveland show. But it feels good to be back at the Mushroomhead compound and on the tour bus.
Says Popson, "Let's just say I'm homesick."