New Band’s Introduction Is ‘Smooth’
Marilyn Manson did it with the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” Limp Bizkit with George Michael’s “Faith” and Orgy with New Order’s “Blue Monday.” It can be easier to hit it big with a familiar tune than with an unknown original, but that path provides its own challenges. After all, the material that comes afterward has even more to live up to, and you run the risk of being classified a novelty.
With the success of its pumped-up version of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” Alien Ant Farm finds itself in just that situation. The Riverside quartet’s DreamWorks debut album, “Anthology,” has sold more than a million copies thanks to the buoyant hit and its accompanying video, which includes references to the King of Pop’s classic clips.
But this is no novelty act. The rest of the record is filled with emotive cuts about love and heartbreak.
There were no plans to release “Criminal” as a single until New York station WXRK-FM (known as K-ROCK started spinning it for fun. Almost immediately the phone requests started rolling in, and other stations picked it up.
“We didn’t know what to think at first,” says singer Dryden Mitchell, who will front the band Saturday on the opening day of the KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas. “We didn’t necessarily want to break on a cover song. We just went with it, though, hoping that it would be more of a blessing than a disaster.”
Before this, the members of Alien Ant Farm were a bunch of average Joes working nowhere jobs in the Inland Empire and playing in various bands. Mitchell, bassist Tye Zamora, guitarist Terence Corso and drummer Mike Cosgrove started jamming together in ’96, and it wasn’t long before they quit their other projects to focus on the melodic, guitar-driven rock they made so well together.
They moved from local shows to L.A. gigs at venues such as the Coconut Teaszer, where they acquired a residency and made industry contacts with the help of booking director Len Fagen.
“They had wonderful songs and great charisma,” says Fagen, who once showcased such unknowns as Weezer and the Wallflowers at the Sunset Strip rock spot. “Not many bands can play aggressive music with that kind of finesse.”
Alien Ant Farm eventually started traveling to Northern California and became friendly with the band Papa Roach. Roach signed to DreamWorks in 1999 and Alien Ant Farm followed, via Roach’s affiliated label, Newnoize.
“Anthology” came out in spring of this year, and the catchy breakup song “Movies” was just breaching the Top 20 when “Smooth Criminal” exploded.
“It’s such a political thing sometimes it scares me,” Mitchell says. “A lot of program directors felt that ‘Movies’ was a big hit that got yanked a wee bit too early. Now that there’s some familiarity with the band, they want to try it again. You don’t argue with radio.”
So the band has decided to give “Movies” a second chance, complete with another colorful video spoof, this one featuring characters from “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Karate Kid,” “Ghostbusters” and “Edward Scissorhands.”
Of all their accomplishments, the biggest might be making it cool for metalheads to like Michael Jackson. Despite the wacky video, they insist their version was no tongue-in-cheek parody.
“A lot of bands who do covers say, ‘Oh, we put our own spin on it,’ but I think that’s a cop-out because they can’t do it the original way,” Mitchell says. “We tried to emulate the song as much as we could. We love Michael Jackson’s music.”
Still, when you cover one of the most eccentric performers in history and have a zany persona and band name, people may not always take you seriously. Mitchell hopes the rest of their music will correct that, insisting, “Behind the little dumb things, there’s actually some depth to this band.”
Alien Ant Farm plays Saturday at the KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas, Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 6:15 p.m. Sold out. (818) 622-4440.