Guitar World

August 2001

By Alan di Perna

Photography by Michael Sexton


"I started crying. It was amazing. I never thought that would happen."  Thick-necked and spiky-haired, Mike Mushok doesn't look like much of a weep­er. But when Staind's latest album, Break the Cycle, entered Billboard's Top 200 chart at number one, the guitarist found himself blubbering like a beauty contest winner.

"We found out how well the album had done the first day it was released," he recalls. "People at the label started throwing around these ridiculous num­bers. We just said, 'Let's see what happens in a week.'"

What happened was that Break the Cycle sold an awe-inspiring 716,000 copies, the second highest first-week sales of any album so far this year. A bruis­ing quartet out of Springfield, Massachusetts, Staind can roar and rage with the best of the nu-metal pack. But what vaulted them out of the Modern Rock/Mainstream Rock ghetto and landed them atop the Billboard charts was the acoustic guitar-driven ballad "It's Been Awhile." The track finds Staind singer Aaron Lewis ruminating on past pain, self-loathing and addiction, own­ing up to his significant other and saying, "I'm sorry."

"It's Been Awhile" comes on the heels of another acoustic-based number-one hit for Staind, Lewis' live rendition of "Outside" from the 1999 Family Val­ues tour CD. But wait. Where have we heard this story before? Ferocious met­al band breaks into the pop mainstream with a heart-on-its-sleeve slow song? Could this be a new incarnation of that Eighties metal mainstay, the power bal­lad? Mushok seems appalled at the suggestion.

"I don't think so. They're not love songs. 'It's Been Awhile' just touches a lot of people. I'm real proud of the way it turned out."

Other songs on Break the Cycle also find Lewis moving beyond anger. Rather than throwing teenage hate tantrums, he seems to be reflecting on the quiet desperation of adult life. Some songs hint that the 29-year-old singer is slightly uncomfortable with his role as spokesman for alienated adolescents. "Waste" deals with a real-life incident where Lewis was confronted by the mother of a young Staind fan who had committed suicide, the distraught woman looking to the singer for "answers only she should know."

Then there's the fact that—unlike many of his nu-metal brethren—Lewis can do more than just scream. He can actually carry a tune, conveying his angst in an expressive, grunge-inflected baritone. All of which helps build a case for Break the Cycle as the harbinger of a new phase in nu-metal—a move beyond the pissed off histrionics and misappropriated gangsta outrage of acts like Limp Bizkit, Slipknot, Korn and their innumerable imitators. Still hard edged, but more–dare we say it?—mature. 

"All we set out to do when we wrote this record was to focus on melody," says Mushok. "Not only in the vocals but in the music also. What I try to do in coming up with the songs and parts is to make a melodic background for Aaron to do what he does best."

Melody wasn't quite as high on the agenda when Staind first started rehearsing in the basement at the home of Mushok's parents. "When this band started in 1995, Springfield was the home of the tribute band," says the guitarist. "We got together, wrote some orig­inal tunes and decided we wanted to play out. "But the only way to do that was to do other people's songs too. So we did. We tried to play heavier stuff–Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, a lot of Rage Against the Machine, Korn and Deftones. But we always played our original songs too."

It was around this time that Mushok discovered he likes his guitars tuned low and alternately. "It came from being bored with playing a regularly tuned guitar or a dropped-D guitar," he says. "I saw the guys in Korn were using a seven-string. And I remembered Steve Vai used to play one too. I thought it was cool, but I didn't have a seven-string at the time. Plus I have pretty small hands. So I figured I'd take the high string off my guitar and add a low B string. And with that, I start­ed playing around with different tunings, try­ing to come up with interesting chord voicings. If a chord sounded nice to me, I would try to put a progression together and base a song on that. I started out as a very schooled player. But now I can't even tell you what key any of our songs are in. I don't know the chords that I'm playing."

Although he's flirted with a few different brands of baritone guitars, including ones built by L.A. luthier Ralph Novax, Mushok's main passion is for low-slung Ibanezes: "I have an old Ibanez Artist from the early Eighties. And that was what I had chosen for the B tuning I use. I use a .75 gauge bass string for the low B. There's a custom bridge and nut. Even the tuning peg has to be drilled out so a .75 gauge string can go through it."

Staind's 1996 self-released first album, Tormented, sold only a few thousand copies. But it took the band to the next stage of its career. Well, actually, it was many of the same stages, but at least Staind didn't have to play covers anymore. "We had built up enough of a following playing covers and originals that we would still sell out the same clubs just play­ing our own music," says Mushok.

Tormented is also notable for having aroused the moral indignation of Fred Durst. The album cover's images of a Bible impaled on a dagger and Barbie crucified upside down were too much for the man whose fame rests on his ability to say "fuck" more times than anyone else. But once Durst heard Staind play live, he found it in his heart to forgive them their blas­phemy. He took the band members under his wing, inviting them down to his Jacksonville, Florida, head­quarters for a little A&R-ing. It was Durst who encouraged Staind to make greater use of the more melodic aspects of Lewis' voice. Prior to this, the Staind vocalist had been doing more screaming. No mean screamer himself, Durst heard Lewis and realized, "Hey this guy can really sing."

"In my mind that was the wis­dom that we took away after work­ing with Fred in Jacksonville," says Mushok. "We went back to Spring­field and wrote 'Just Go,' 'Home,' 'Me' and some of the other songs from the Dysfunction record [1999]. I think it was at that point that we started to become more dynamic too. That was another thing we walked away with after working with Fred that first time."

Durst produced Staind's major-label debut, the aforementioned Dysfunction, which became a major chart success thanks, in part, to the hit single "Mudshovel." But in making Break the Cycle, the band moved out of Durst's shadow a little bit, opting instead to work with producer Josh Abraham.

"We really wanted to write the record ourselves and see what we could do," says Mushok. "But it really wasn't a move away. Fred came down to the studio at the end. He had some suggestions. It was kind of like the father figure going, 'You know, you guys are good.'"

An inveterate workaholic, Mushok got Staind busy on Break the Cycle just a week after they group finished touring behind Dysfunction. "I had all these song ideas from being on the road," he explains. "I always carry a little cassette recorder with me. On the tour bus, after a show, I would climb into my bunk with a guitar and a head­phone amp and just play. Whenever I came up with anything I liked, I'd take the head­phones off and put them around the con­denser mic on this little tape recorder. A lot of songs on this album came from listening back to those tapes. Like the song 'Can't Believe.' I was listening back to a tape one day and heard that little clean guitar riff. I didn't even remember playing or recording it. I had to go back and relearn it. And with­in a half hour I had the whole song written. "So once I started working on these song ideas, the floodgates opened. I started to get overwhelmed because I had so many ideas going on. I felt like, 'I need to share this with the band. We need to start putting this togeth­er and making sure that everybody's happy with these arrangements.'"

Like "Outside" before it, "It's Been Awhile" grew out of a melody and chord pro­gression that Lewis had developed on acoustic guitar. "It didn't have the bridge section that's there now," Mushok recalls. "We put that together when we arranged the song as a band. I got a little carried away with guitar parts in the studio, actually. Beside the acoustic guitar track, there's two distinct oth­er rhythm tracks doing completely opposite things. Then there's this single-note thing going through the verses and this octave fig­ure in the chorus and bridge."

Given the nature of the material, Mushok found himself developing more clean tones for Break the Cycle than he had for Dysfunction. "Josh and I spent a lot of time on the tones," he says. "We were really happy with the clean tone out of a Deizel amplifier I've been using, which also has an amazing distorted tone. It's a four-channel amp made in Germany I'd heard about, and Wes Borland from Limp Bizkit was nice enough to lend me his to use on the record, 'cause we couldn't get one of our own. They take months to get. I also used a Marshall JCM 800 head modified by a guy named Mike Morin out of L.A. I have two 800 heads of my own, and I ended up giving him both of them and having him do the mod on them. That's how good it is. There's also a head that he made himself that I used on the album. We used a lot of different guitars too. A lot of those clean tones were done with a Danelectro baritone guitar. Like the song 'Take It' – that heavy breakdown part in the bridge section."

The album also offers up a palette of flanged guitar sounds – a direction Mushok first hinted at on "Mudshovel," from Dysfunction. "Actually, there are no effects at all on 'Mudshovel'," he says. That flanging sound is just a sliding harmonic between the first and second fret, up to the fourth and fifth fret, back and forth. And underneath that I did an EBow thing that's a harmonic type of note. But on this new album, Josh had a huge box of ped­als. I'm not a real big pedal guy, but I know we ended up using one of those old-school ADA flangers, a lot of Ibanez pedals and some old MXR stuff."

But the flanging on "Open Your Eyes," Mushok adds, was from a Pro Tools plug in. "That song was the last one that got finished, down in Miami, right before Christmas. Originally, the music for the vers­es in that song was completely dif­ferent. I liked it, but I wasn't sure if it was right. And Aaron never sang anything over it that was really definitive. One day, when Aaron was out of the studio having lunch, I had Josh put the song up and I basi­cally rewrote the music to the bass line and drums that were already there. Actually, we ended up doctoring the bass line a little bit in Pro Tools. One of the notes didn't fit, so we had to cut it up. And while we were in Pro Tools, we put that flanged sound on it."

While Break the Cycle was sitting on top of the Billboard Top 200, Staind was patient­ly working its way through an American tour that included clubs and midsize venues as well as the occasional stadium. "It's all good," says Mushok stoically.

But hasn't anything changed for the band since Break the Cycle hit the top?

"Well, we're playing later in the day at these radio shows," the guitarist laughs. "But yeah, it has gotten different. It's a little more intense now. The response is pretty amazing."


GUITAR WORLD Is metal currently in a good space?

MIKE MUSHOK Yeah, I think it's great. People talk about this resurgence of rock. But to me, rock never went away. I think the media and corporate America try to put a twist on things. Everybody's trying to say what the next big thing is. But it's ridiculous to say rock is the next big thing when rock was always there.

GW Describe your personal agenda as a player.

MUSHOK My personal agenda is to write good songs and to grow as a musician and songwriter. For me, the guitar isn't what it used to be. When I was younger I would practice all the time and work on my chops. Now when I play it's more to write music rather than to work on my technique.

GW Name one classic and one contemporary player that have great guitar tones.

MUSHOK The classic guy would be Eddie Van Halen. Major guitar player, major guitar tone. Up until the 1984 album, anyway. As for contemporary players, Adam Jones from Tool has a great tone.

GW Who was your primary guitar inspiration?

MUSHOK Tony McAlpine. I took lessons from him before I joined Staind. The guy changed my life. He really made me look at the guitar differently. I'd been playing for a long time before I met him, but afterward I became completely obsessed with the guitar to the point where my mother would say, "Put down that guitar, get out of this house and go do something."

GW What would you say is your personal best recorded performance? "

MUSHOK I'm really happy with "Fade," from Break the Cycle. There are a lot of cool things going on, from the flanged-out harmonics in the background to the strummed clean chords to the octave thing that's going on in the chorus. And I love the dynamics—the huge chorus, then just a strummed, shim­mering chord. It breaks down to almost nothing. And the way it comes out of the bridge—what Aaron [Lewis] did, vocally, going into that last chorus. The first time I heard that, I got goose bumps.




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