Thu, 17 Jul 2008 04:50:42
The Viper Room's a dark place. Even in the middle of the day the famous Sunset Strip rock club isn't bright whatsoever. Its cavernous feel creates a sense of claustrophobia, but with people packed inside, there's also a strange warmth. Given that welcoming darkness, it makes sense that Staind are playing an afternoon acoustic set here. The Massachusetts hard rock band has always straddled the line between raw, metal catharsis and soaring, pop melody. Staind have explored pain, heartache and despair more intimately than most of their contemporaries, and it’s because they've lived it. An entrancing, five-song acoustic set of old and new material proved that.
However, the band's sixth offering The Illusion of Progress, solidifies that notion even further. Illusion sees the band take their sound to the next level, incorporating a blues guitar sensibility and even a little prog-rock instrumental virtuosity. Of course, Aaron Lewis still ruminates on loneliness with a poetic melancholy, but there's also a glimmer of hope. That hope is apparent on "Believe" and "Tangled Up In You," both debuted acoustically on the Viper Room's dark, cramped stage. It's no illusion how good these new songs are; Staind have made some modern rock gems. Guitarist Mike Mushok remains one of the band's driving musical forces. His creative playing helped shape a personal sound that transformed the humble Western, MA quartet into a multi-platinum sensation.
He's in Cleveland right now, and as usual, he's in a good mood. He laughs, "I just went to the Indians game last night. I got to see them beat The Rays. I was really happy about that. I was actually a Yankees fan for two days this week. I wanted them to beat The Rays too. The Red Sox have got to get back in first place!" Favorable baseball scores aside, Mushok’s got a lot to be psyched about. Illusion is Staind’s most musically-accomplished record to date, and a lot of that has to do with his experimental guitar playing and songwriting. While on the road with 3 Doors Down and Hinder, Mushok took some time to discuss this progress with us.
The Illusion of Progress definitely shows blues and prog-rock influences. Would you say that's the case?
Yeah, for sure. I used to solo a lot, and then I got away from it. I got sick of soloing. It's coming back a little bit for us, because some of the songs definitely seemed to call for it. Some of the tracks are bluesier. I felt like I was just playing what's appropriate for the song, and I'm pretty happy with the way it came out.
The album feels like an evolution, but at the same time it maintains the identity you established with Tormented back in 1996.
Right, I definitely think that. I've been saying that the first single, "Believe," is definitely the most Staind-sounding song that there is. That's the most familiar track. There are some others on there, but I definitely think that some of the new songs are quite a departure from what we normally do. Aaron's voice is so distinct. You're going to know it's him right away. We've developed a sound over the years. As far as guitar goes, there's one big change. On all of the other records, I pretty much exclusively played a baritone guitar, which is a lower-tuned instrument. I didn't use that as much on this record. There are a lot of standard-tuned songs. I just got sick of playing a standard guitar, and I wanted to try something different. So I picked up a baritone. Now, I decided to play a standard guitar again to switch things up a bit once more.
Some of the album has a classic rock sound too. Are you using any vintage amps or equipment to get those tones?
Yeah, we used a lot of that stuff. We used vintage Marshall and Vox amps as well as Les Pauls, Telecasters and Stratocasters. I'm with PRS guitars nowadays. They make great-sounding guitars, and I used their stuff on a bunch of the new songs. It's kind of all over the place. If it was a $200 brand new guitar that sounded right for the part, that's what I’d use. It was really about finding what felt right for that part in the song. We would labor over trying to get what we felt was the right tone for the right part. Sometimes we'd spend hours doing that. I've said this before, "You spend hours doing that, and it takes you 20 minutes to record what you're actually trying to put down" [Laughs]. You spend all day working on getting it to be right, and the actual time is only 30 seconds of music. That's part of the process of making a record. I like to think that it shows in the end, once you get finished.
Staind's always delved into dark subjects, but the sound's still inviting and melodic. It feels like you've perfected that balance on the new material.
Thank you very much. I actually think that's one of the things we aimed for. We’ve always been perceived as this depressing band. It would be nice to maybe shed some of that now. We're just a rock band, and we try to write the best songs that we can.
“We’ve always been perceived as this depressing band. It would be nice to maybe shed some of that now.”
You guys have always been about good songs at the end of the day.
That's really what it is. That's why I'm so happy with this record. I definitely think it's the most musical album that we've done so far.
Beyond switching up guitars and amps, do you feel like the creative process was different from previous efforts?
Not really, it all just starts with us getting together. We all have different ideas, and we sort through them and see what we like and what we're going to pursue. In probably about two or three weeks, we had a dozen tunes written that all pretty much made the record. In the same sense, Jon and Johnny are amazing. Jon does his drums in, like, three days, and Johnny does his bass in, like, a day and a half. The next five months are Aaron and I working on guitars and vocal parts. We're trying to build up on the foundation that those guys do such a good job of putting down. We're focused on making a song. That's how it's always been.
It was great working with [producer] Johnny K, because he was the only one involved. When I was doing my guitar parts, it was just he and I. He engineered the record. He did everything that needed to be done with the guitars. There really was no outside banter. It was just us working on the songs. It was a good environment. He was in Mass for a long time, probably from November through May. He was with us through the whole thing. Aaron has this guest house. They call it a barn, but it's like one big room. Johnny K brought in all his gear, and we set it up in what used to be the bedroom. We recorded drums and wrote the songs there. Aaron did his guitar and vocals there, and Johnny did his bass there. I did all of my guitar stuff at our rehearsal space where we did the last record. Johnny basically had two studios going at the same time. We even split the days, so Aaron would sing in the morning, and I'd do guitars at night or vice versa. If you're singing, you can only sing for so long, so you've got to get good performances. He was great as far as doing that. That was cool for me, because Aaron's house is really far from where I live, and driving up there is kind of a drag. The rehearsal space is closer and we've recorded there before, so we were able to do it again.
You've channeled classic rock boundlessness on the new stuff, and it seems like anything goes.
I think that's something I've always wanted the band to be able to do. I don't want anyone to listen to the record and go, "Oh, that's from 1999." It's hopefully good music that you can listen to ten years from now, and go, "That's just a good song." With the overall sound of the record, I feel like we were going for a more classic sound that hopefully 15 years from now, someone will want to listen to and appreciate it for the music that's there.
"Believe" especially stands out in that way. It's got an orchestral quality to it.
There was a lot of time spent definitely building up these songs with overdubs and melodic parts. We've always done that, but not really to the extent that we did on this record. I'm definitely proud of the way that it came out.
Where did the record's title come from?
That came from Aaron and Johnny talking when we were working on the songs. It goes back to one of the things that I described. You can spend all day getting tones for 15 seconds of music, but there's an illusion of progress. You think you did it, but you really didn't do anything with a whole day [Laughs]. That's my take on it. I know from hearing Aaron talk about it, that concept can be applied to a lot of the songs. I think that's why Aaron felt it was a very appropriate for the title of the record.
The interplay between you and Aaron feels more powerful than ever. You have that classic singer-guitar player mystique down. There's a really cool chemistry there.
I definitely know for a fact that he makes what I write better. There's no question about it. I'll come up with an idea and he gives me his input. Even if it's changing a chord here or there, it's cool. I’m making it so he can sing over it. That's always my goal—to write something that he can come up with a great melody over.
It's cool you're playing leads now too.
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