"Music does good things to people - it's one of those art forms everyone enjoys," says Alien Ant Farm frontman Dryden Mitchell. "It's magical when we play our stuff for fans and they light up. We take our music very seriously, but we're also a very tongue-in-cheek group. We want to keep that enjoyment going. Everything with us is a pun or a half-way joke, even if we're the only ones in on it."
Singer-songwriter Mitchell, guitarist Terry Corso, bassist Tye Zamora and drummer Mike Cosgrove demonstrate their playful-yet-purposeful brand of music on ANThology (released March 6, 2001, on New Noize/DreamWorks Records). The band's major-label debut was produced by Jay Baumgardner, whose credits include Papa Roach, Orgy, Slipknot and Coal Chamber. Corso calls the disc "new, emotional, romantic yet totally metal."
Thematically, Mitchell draws on relationships, fantasy and remembrances of things past, frequently using his songs as therapy. He reveals: "This was the first time I've ever gotten chills from my own music because it hit so close to home. Many of the songs were written during a breakup. Writing them was better than me chasing someone around who didn't wanna be chased."
Comments Cosgrove: "No matter what Dryden's writing about, the lyrics are always sharp and witty. They can also take on different shades; when he sings them one way they mean one thing, and when he sings them another way, they can mean something else. We try to reflect that sonically with dynamics. Especially live, we try to keep the texture of the sound varied. At times it's low, almost quiet, but then it becomes noisy and ferocious."
Alien Ant Farm's personal and musical give-and-take began to gel in 1996 in Riverside, Calif., where the members' appetites for music were whetted at an early age. One of Mitchell's first inspirations was his father, a guitarist: "People would always ask my dad to play during family gatherings," he recalls. "Seeing how he changed the mood of the room made me want to do the same thing." Though Mitchell started out on guitar (check his chops on "Death Day"), friends prodded him to tune up his vocal chords. He lists The Beatles, Frank Zappa, Tracy Chapman and Edie Brickell as influences. His admiration for these artists came to bear as he developed his own style singing for pre-Ant Farm bands.
As for Corso, his mother kept him well supplied with KISS albums during his childhood. He later enrolled in a band workshop program sponsored by a local music store that enabled him to pursue his budding interest in drums, songwriting and especially guitar. This was a springboard to playing in bands, including one with Cosgrove. Corso says of his musical intake: "I like everything from hip-hop and folk to punk and heavy metal. I'm a huge fan of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, and I love Jeff Buckley because he's helped me through many a breakup."
Bassist Zamora's first instrument was also the guitar. His parents were into disco, and he remembers listening to numerous '70s superbands and imitating their styles. He confesses to becoming an accomplished air guitarist imitating the licks of Boston, Queen and Steely Dan. He segued to bass when the likes of Stanley Clarke and Primus roused his interest. Zamora, too, honed his skills with Cosgrove, in a Primus cover band, in addition to other outfits. Among his many musical interests is a second career as an R&B songsmith.
Cosgrove taught himself to play drums as a kid and only began taking lessons in his teenage years. He says his family was a motivating factor in his current direction: "My whole family was into music. My grandpa played jazz trumpet, and going to the record store with my grandma was like going to the toy store." He cites Metallica, Guns N' Roses, Twisted Sister and Michael Jackson as some of his early favorites, with his tastes now leaning toward Sting, Sade, Seal, Weezer - and Michael Jackson, still a constant on his CD player. Cosgrove's previous band situations engendered a fierce dedication to the skins. "I'd rather be sitting on a street corner banging on a bucket," he declares, "than working at even the best nine-to-five office job."
Eventually, Mitchell, Corso, Zamora and Cosgrove gravitated toward each other. "Individually, we were trying to figure out who were the best players in the area," Mitchell recollects. "We kind of identified each other and started cheating on the bands we were playing with at the time, getting together after practices. We played our first show in 1996 on my birthday and have been together ever since."
Corso is credited with their unique name: "I was daydreaming at my dull desk job with my feet up, and I thought to myself, 'Wouldn't it be cool if the human species were placed on earth and cultivated by alien intelligence?' Maybe the aliens added us to an atmosphere that was suitable for us, and they've been watching us develop and colonize, kind of like what a kid does with an ant farm, where the aliens are the kids and humans are the ants." Notable almost from the beginning for their live shows, Alien Ant Farm gigged steadily throughout the western United States and Europe, playing on the Continent for huge festival audiences. Zamora describes their shows as "very intense, chaotic and free-form," adding: "People get it right away. We've done shows for eight people and 8,000 people and have gone equally crazy for both. We don't use gimmicks or props - it's just straight-up energy. We want everyone to be entertained."
It wasn't long before a few adventurous radio programmers heard the buzz surrounding Alien Ant Farm and the group found their songs added to some rock specialty shows. Greatest Hits, the band's cheekily named debut album (released on their own Chick Music Records), emerged in 1999, garnering the title of "Best Independent Album" at the L.A. Music Awards.
AAF was the first signing to Papa Roach's New Noize label (which is administered in conjunction with DreamWorks Records). For both bands, this was more than a business arrangement. In fact, Alien Ant Farm and P-Roach share a camaraderie forged years ago when both were tearing it up on the Golden State club circuit. "Coming up with them was great," says Cosgrove. "They had a fan base in Northern California, and we had a fan base in Southern California, so we began swapping shows; we'd hook them up with gigs down here and they'd hook us up with gigs up there. There's a lot of mutual respect between us, and we've become good friends. We see the fire in them and they see the fire in us."
When Papa Roach began gaining prominence, they made sure their compadres had a shot at the limelight. Remembers Corso: "We'd always said, 'Whoever takes off first will help the other group up,' and that's the way it happened. They've been very vocal about us, which is priceless, and we can't thank them enough." P-Roach will take Alien Ant Farm on the road for an extensive outing in 2001.
Asked how their fans might feel about the Ant Farm's jump to the big leagues, Zamora says: "We're blue-collar musicians who've worked hard to get where we're at. We're not trying to be something we're not. This is real music coming from real people and it will always be that way for us." Echoes Cosgrove: "You can't pull anything over on the fans."
Part of what is real to Alien Ant Farm, and what has helped set them apart from other bands on the SoCal music scene, is their refusal to jump on any stylistic bandwagon. For instance, Zamora likens AAF's musical structures to those of '70s rock. "I remember when songs had a bed of music that created the mood, and the blanket on top was the guitar line," he says. "There was a constant movement that kept your mind busy, where you're locked into the sound and you can't let go. Our stuff strikes chords and tones that haven't been struck in a long time."
The quartet sees the chemistry sparking their rhythm section as another defining strength. Mitchell points out: "Tye and Mike are totally in tune with each other. They create that amazing foundation - sometimes I think the vocals and guitar are icing on the cake. Because those guys are so solid, we can keep it all very raw. We don't need to use a lot of effects. There's no distortion on the vocals. Everything isn't stacked to hell. We don't have to hide behind any of that stuff."
These uncompromising ideals extend to the band's personal interplay as well. Says Mitchell: "We're all friends and we're constantly joking around. We know each other's likes and dislikes, which makes for a good, strong unit. We have arguments, but there aren't any grudges anywhere. We have more important things to concentrate on - like our music."