- X marks the sports: The fun-loving guys of Mushroomhead show off their new gear.
For the past year and a half, Mushroomhead has held practices in an old warehouse in North Olmsted. The rehearsals are mini-concerts, performed without the usual makeup and costumes, before friends and fans. You know a band's big when even its rehearsals are crowded. For Mushroomhead, which has been playing sold-out shows in Cleveland since the mid-'90s, regional success has finally started to translate into national success.
XX, its first album to get national distribution, has sold over 30,000 copies -- an astonishing figure for an independent album. Released three months ago by New Jersey-based Eclipse Records, the album was the second-best selling record for the past two months at Hot Topic, a chain store that sells clothing and accessories at malls throughout the country. The band will soon be featured in underground metal magazines like Metaledge and Circus, and recently signed a deal that will place its T-shirts in Hot Topic stores as well. Mushroomhead's music has also been used on a Fox Sports show.
"I get 10 to 12 e-mails a day from kids asking to be part of the Mushroomhead street team," says the band's New York-based publicist, Veronique Cordiere. "They've got an underground thing going on."
On a multi-city tour with the veteran metal act W.A.S.P., Mushroomhead has played up and down the East Coast for the past month. And while its fans are young and W.A.S.P.'s are middle-aged, the pairing of shock-rock acts has been beneficial to both groups.
"I haven't looked that deeply into what Mushroomhead is doing, but anybody who is trying to set themselves up in that way is giving themselves a better opportunity to be heard," says W.A.S.P. singer Blackie Lawless. "Let's face it, you don't tiptoe into show business. You gotta walk in making a loud noise to get anybody to pay attention to you. We looked at a lot of bands that were out there and tried to find the most cohesive thing we could do. They're a newer version of theater, and we thought it would be pretty neat for the fans to see something like that. What they're doing is what we're doing. They want the heritage crowd that we bring, and we want the younger crowd that they bring."
But Mushroomhead singer J Mann admits that winning over the hard-drinking W.A.S.P. fans hasn't been easy.
"Their crowd usually hangs out at the bar while we play," he says. "The bands are so different. We think of the tour as preseason [football], because we want to go out there and take our lumps now."
When Mushroomhead formed in 1993, members didn't don masks because it was trendy; they did it because they all played in other bands and they wanted to keep their identities secret, so audiences wouldn't come to the shows with preconceptions. The group was originally supposed to be just a side-project, composed of all the guys "left hanging out after everyone else went home to the girlfriends." They'd get together after rehearsals at a shared practice space in West Cleveland. Initially, they recruited a dancer named Roxy, who would do a striptease while they played (she's since left the group for "personal reasons").
After self-releasing several albums and attracting a loyal following in Northeast Ohio, the band was approached in 1997 by Roadrunner Records, home to Sepultura and other hard-rock acts. Mushroomhead turned down Roadrunner's offer, and within a year, Roadrunner signed Slipknot, a band that wore masks that were surprisingly similar to Mushroomhead's. When a group of Mushroomhead fans started a near riot at a Slipknot show in Cleveland, the members of Slipknot blamed Mushroomhead, and a rivalry ensued. Slipknot lambasted Mushroomhead in interviews in national magazines. But Mann says he and the other members of Mushroomhead never said anything bad about Slipknot and didn't hold a grudge against the Iowa-based group. He maintains that the feud was the basis of a "misunderstanding" between the two acts and says that Slipknot actually invited Mushroomhead to see its performance at Blossom this summer.
"We've had diehard Slipknot fans come to the show, and they started liking our stuff more," says Mann. "We used to look similar -- we used to have a guy in a pig mask and a guy in a bondage mask. But Slipknot is a death-metal band, and we're not. And now we've changed our look, so that we have 'X' face masks and pilot flight suits. It's more of a military look."
Mann says Mushroomhead has all but signed a deal with a major record label. While he won't offer details, he says the group has several different offers from which to choose, and it's "just a matter of time" before it signs one of them. He adds that SMDC Records, the label he runs out of Cleveland, will likely remain independent.
"We could have signed three years ago, but the deal we were offered was shitty," he says. "So we kept doing things our own way. We've probably sold 50,000 albums on our own, in addition to what we've sold through Eclipse. Now the labels see that we've become successful on our own, and they want to be a part of it. Slipknot didn't ruin things for us. They just opened the door for us."
But if anyone knows dressing in costume can be a short-lived gimmick, it's Blackie Lawless. He's been doing it for some 17 years and has seen shock-rock bands come and go. For Mushroomhead to sell a million copies of its next record, whatever label it's on, it will have to overcome history -- at least, Lawless's version of shock-rock history.
"There's three bands that have been able to do it for the amount of time we've been doing it -- KISS, Alice Cooper, and ourselves," he says. "There's never been anybody else to survive it for that long. The reason being that they have the music to back it up. They were also intelligent enough, in the way they presented themselves, to try to make some sort of statement, whether it's political or whatever. I really do think that that's the secret to it."