Catching up with Alien Ant Farm, unlikely distractions during a week of doomscrolling
Earlier this week, Twitter user @plvnetmimi shared a link to the music video for the nü-metal band Alien Ant Farm’s 2001 cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” The Riverside, Calif., foursome’s lone hit, a novelty that rose to No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the alternative chart, followed in the Vans-clad footsteps of Limp Bizkit’s 1997 take on George Michael’s “Faith” — dude-bro guitar riffage butching up ‘80s soul-pop.
The tweet’s caption — “back when life was great” — and the video’s innocent, backyard-party energy struck a chord among users doomscrolling through news about Supreme Court verdicts and mass casualty events, racking up 220,000 likes and triggering nostalgic online reveries for the Bush-era days of MTV’s “Total Request Live” and rock’s last real hurrah on the pop charts.
Following its platinum major-label debut “Anthology” (get it?), Alien Ant Farm went on to release three more studio albums, most recently 2015’s “Always and Forever.” We caught up by phone with 46-year-old singer Dryden Mitchell, at his home in Riverside, about the original decision to cover MJ, its impact on the band’s career and the weirdness of going viral in 2022.
Alien Ant Farm’s cover of “Smooth Criminal,” for better or worse, became the defining song of your career. What sparked the idea to record it?
Mitchell: I felt like it was kind of a flex, doing a cover that you wouldn’t expect to hear. It was a hit for him, but not one of his massive hits. [It peaked at No. 7 on the Hot 100.]
We had a handful of covers. We did a version of “Smooth Operator” by Sade, but it just didn’t have that feel of being a big rock song. Everyone was like, “This is badass, but it’s ‘Smooth Operator.’” It wasn’t the one. “Smooth Criminal” lent itself to rock.
Were there any worries about how it would be received?
We were pretty young and cocky. We didn’t really care.
From intimate clubs to picturesque outdoor theaters to state-of-the-art arenas and stadiums, there’s no better place to see live music than SoCal.
The video is still so much fun to watch. The band is performing in a boxing ring on a lawn, you’re all doing the anti-gravity tilt from the original “Smooth Criminal” video, a kid is dancing in an MJ-like surgical mask, there’s a monkey in your lap. It’s a lot!
If I remember correctly, either MTV or our label DreamWorks was trying to connect us with some soundtrack for the WWE. … Although [the song] didn’t tie into wrestling at all, that’s where the ring came in.
When you asked if we had any reservations of how it would be received, the only person we were mindful of was Michael Jackson himself. We were kind of worried. We sent the video to MJ to get his nod of approval. And he commented back that he didn’t really dig the kid with the mask. I think MJ wore that mask because of all of his failed surgeries. We were like, “Oh s—, maybe we should remove it.” We were already on tour. But a few weeks later, the director of the video [Marc Klasfeld] went to the same street, got a bunch of the extras together and reshot the dancing kid without the mask. We went through quite a bit of money and bulls— to make sure that we were appeasing Michael Jackson. We sent it back to him a few weeks later with the kid with no mask and he said, “You know what? I like it better with the mask!”
What were the early 2000s like for you?
It’s so cliché to say simpler times, but it was. Everything was clicking. We were like the last of those platinum bands, you know what I mean? That was some big s— when it was going down. We were just rip-roaring through the world, flying everywhere and doing what we love. We were so cocky. I didn’t have any thoughts of my 46-year-old [self] back then. I’m a dad now!
Why do you think the video had a viral moment this week?
I don’t know … Twitter’s fine and dandy, but we’re here to just do what we do. If something bigger comes along than just a Twitter trend, we’re ready for it, and I’m stoked.
How did the cover impact the band’s career?
The impact was massive. The song was everywhere. In the “American Pie 2” movie. At sporting events. I heard it on KROQ just yesterday!
For about 10 minutes back when, I had a chip on my shoulder about it: “We’re a better band than just this song.” There was a season when I didn’t want to play it. Then I thought, “Dude, the fans that are coming to your show want to hear the song. You’re being a baby. Embrace it.” So I did. It’s such a fun party song, like the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right.”
The band’s last album came out in 2015. Are you guys done?
COVID messed things up for a lot of people, including us, but we’re finishing up a new album. We actually did another cover. We did the Wham! song “Everything She Wants.” It came out great. I’m a huge Wham! fan from back when I was 9. This time I thought, “How will this be perceived?” And I was like, “Dude, just sing it.” It sounds cool. It sounds heavy. We made it pretty chunky.
I don’t know if we can blow up another time on a cover. I’m sure there will be a lot of negative comments, like, “Wow, this band has two hits and neither song is their own.” I don’t give a f—. I’d take it.
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