Dryden Mitchell of
Alien Ant Farm,
The TVD Interview

You may not know it, but you’re probably already an Alien Ant Farm fan. Their 2001 cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” was a runaway success and catapulted the little-known band from Riverside, CA to stardom in the blink of an eye.

Dryden Mitchell, AAF’s original vocalist, recently sat down with The Vinyl District to discuss a range of topics including his start in music, the band’s recent cover of Wham’s “Everything She Wants,” and his newfound passion for koi fish. 

How did you get started in music?

Probably just watching my dad. He was my first influence, kind of a one-man band—a piano bar style musician. I’d watch him and was always intrigued by the way he could immediately change the vibe of a room. Whether it be a family gathering or a party, he could easily break the monotony and get things moving, changing the overall mood of the group through his music. I thought it was powerful how he could take control of any situation in a positive way and just thought that was really cool.

What was it like performing on stage for the very first time?

While my dad seemed comfortable in his own skin, I think I was extremely neurotic, self-conscious, and a bit terrified the first time I performed on stage. In hindsight, it was kind of fun to be terrified. I don’t know what I was so scared of, but a few times early on I just felt like maybe I didn’t want to do this. I loved playing music, but I didn’t know if I wanted to play in front of strangers. It was kind of weird, but obviously through experience, I got over those hurdles and really began enjoying being in front of others performing music that I loved.

Thinking back to your high school days, who were your favorite bands at that time?

I remember really loving semi-eclectic music. You know, anyone from Joni Mitchell to Sade to Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, even Björk. And then came along a band called Primus and I was like, “Whoa, what is this?” Their music was way interesting and something I never experienced before. Then I heard Nirvana for the very first time. They just had an urgency to their music. I can’t even explain hearing Gish by The Smashing Pumpkins. It was so regal, so important, so silky.

Was there one particular band or artist that influenced you?

Edie Brickell might just be my end-all be-all. I just felt so connected to her first record, Shooting Rubber Bands at the Stars. I’ve always kind of admired female singers (as you might be able to tell) and she was at the top of my list for sure. Maybe it’s the range she had; those big high notes were so effortless. I’ve tried to emulate those higher pitches to some degree, but they sound so much cooler coming from a woman.

Help our readers understand how Alien Ant Farm got started.

I don’t really know. I was friends with Terry, Tye, and Mike, but we weren’t in a band together. So, we just thought, you know, who would we pick if we were to start a band locally. Who would be the drummer, the bassist, the guitarist, and of course the lead singer? At the end of the discussion, we were the four guys that we came up with! We already had a solid friendship and there was a coolness in the whole thing because I wasn’t from the from the heavier side of music and they were. It was exciting for me to jump in with these guys.

Then we started writing. It was a little more intricate, heavier music in the beginning and we began experimenting along the way. After three or four songs, I think “Movies” was probably like the fourth song we ever wrote, and I just thought it was special, sounding cooler than anything I had ever done (and I think they would agree). We then said, “You know what, let’s just write a kick ass rock and roll love song.” And once we did that, I felt like we were sure to get a record deal. Heck, when you are young and naive, you have all these visions of grandeur, but I really had faith we’d make it. And I think everyone (meaning the four of us) thought that that we really had a better chance succeeding being together then us trying to do this with other people. That’s how it all started.

Were you surprised at the success of your cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”?

I wasn’t really. I don’t say this in a cocky way, but I knew when we were recording it that it was going to be special. I remember just looking around once the bones of it were laid down and felt like this one was somehow going to be epic. We legitimately liked Michael Jackson and just wanted to pay the best homage possible. And when we were finished with it, it sounded so good. More importantly, It sounded like our own song.

On the flip side, what I was surprised with was how big “Smooth Criminal” actually became. I never imagined that it was going to sell millions of records. I literally had it in my head that it might sell a hundred thousand records if that and we’d be happy. And then that fricking thing hit 5 million records worldwide, you know? More amazing was that this was a true cover song and not one of our originals.

How did the band decide that was the track to cover?

We didn’t want to do a cover of a band from our genre or our time. That’s just seemed silly. After recording a few different songs that were considered “oddities,” we ultimately decided to cover Michael Jackson. Again, we loved his work and wanted to pay homage to his legacy. However, we didn’t want to pick one of his hits like “Thriller,” “Beat It,” or “Billy Jean”. Those would be too obvious and were monsters. Instead, we went with “Smooth Criminal” after Terry and Tye started jamming those amazing riffs. After listening for just a few moments, I was like, “That’s the fricking jam!”

Speaking of covers, you recently released a cover of Wham’s “Everything She Wants.” Tell us about it?

Yeah. It was the same kind of scenario as Michael Jackson where we didn’t want to go for the obvious hit. You know what I mean? Where it would have been “Careless Whisper” or “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” we just felt they may have been just a bit too cute to cover. When we heard “Everything She Wants,” we were thinking, “Wow, this is a beast of a song”. We could have gone the slow ballad route, but we just thought, “Let’s kind of like put some oxygen in it, beef it out a little bit, and chunk it up similar to “Smooth Criminal” without changing it too much. From that point it took on a life of its own.

There are also rumors that you all may be working on some new music and/or a new album. Any truth to this?

We just signed a record deal with the legendary Megaforce Records. They tend to represent heavier bands, but historically have worked with an eclectic mix of bands that I love (like Björk and Anthrax). Again, a super eclectic catalog. So, for us to be over there with them is amazing. We initially sent them four songs for our initial record and we’re basically close to halfway done with the remaining songs as we speak. We’re also sitting on a bunch of demos as well that we need to hash out, but with this pandemic in full effect, we stalled out a bit. Once things get back to some semblance of normalcy, we’re gonna wrap up our new album and push it out with Megaforce’s support. Until then, “Everything She Wants” is out there and it is doing extremely well.

With Covid-19 taking the world by storm in March, what’s your take on live music literally shutting down overnight?

Well, it sucks. We should be on tour right now, you know. So that’s obviously a bummer as that’s where we make a lot of our money, but it is what it is. However, this thing is scary. And then I have these feelings of like, “Are we overreacting to this whole thing?” Personally, I really don’t feel like we are, but that’s my opinion. It just sucks because we were so careful during that initial lockdown period and now we may be throwing it into to the wind. I’m a bit worried that collectively we may have jumped the gun and may have to extend this whole thing out even further, kind of like purgatory for all of us. Now I’m reading stories of Florida just getting jacked right now, Texas too. We may have never even gotten over the first wave and may have to revert back to it because we were all too quick to try and return to “normal.” With all the uncertainty, live shows in 2021 might drag into 2022. I don’t know. That’s my fear.

As our publication focuses on all-things vinyl, when you hear the world “vinyl,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Sliding Glass Doors (just kidding). In all seriousness, I remember the smell of vinyl albums that I probably stole from my dad. Simply intoxicating at that time in my life. The Beatles’ “White Album” was the first vinyl that I remember as a youngster. I recall putting it onto a record player when no one was around and saying to myself, “Whoa, who is this?” That fricking album got played probably 10, 20 times a day for the better part of a year. You know? It’s honestly my favorite album of all time and it introduced me to music at an incredibly early age.

Do you believe there is a difference in the sound of vinyl versus newer, digital formats?

I’m really not sure I can answer that. I have lots of friends that are like vinyl snobs (and I don’t mean it in a bad way). It’s just what they prefer, and I trust their opinion (many are sound engineers and the like). But for me, it’s been quite a while since I listened to vinyl. It would be interesting for me to give it that Pepsi Challenge now that I have a broader experience. I’ve got to believe there’s a difference and I’d like to explore it further to be able to answer that question.

Finally, a few quick-hit questions from our readers—do you have a favorite venue you like to play in the US or internationally?

The 9:30 Club in DC and The Barn at UC Riverside back in the day. Both are very sentimental to me. KOKO in Camden Town, London for sure!

Why was your debut album entitled, Greatest Hits?

We just thought it was kind of funny (tongue in cheek). You know, we didn’t have one hit when we released the album and initially thought that for most bands, their first record was their “greatest hits,” so why not go for it. Again, it was a joke but somehow it offended a lot of people. We loved it so much that our second album was called, Anthology!

What is your favorite movie of all-time?

Uncle Buck

If you could only have one album to listen to while lost on a desert Isle, what would it be?

Weezer’s Pinkerton—their 2nd album…

Do you have any hobbies outside of music?

I have dug out a pretty decent koi pond on our new property. We got some ducks and chickens and obviously some koi fish. We’re planning on getting some goats here pretty soon too. I just like taking care of my fish as it brings me lots of joy and helps me to chill out in these uncertain times.

In and Out or Whataburger?

In and Out for sure!

Who is the funniest member of AAF?

Everyone’s kind of witty. That said, I would probably say me. I’m always fishing for a laugh where the other guys are a little more chill.

Are you for or against the legalization of marijuana?

I just surprised my wife and brought her home a pen and cartridge instead of flowers. You can probably extrapolate my answer from that purchase.

Finally, the million dollar question—Michael Jackson or George Michael?

That’s weird. I don’t even want to answer that. I think George Michael is better singer, but Michael Jackson is Michael Jackson. Michael wins.

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PHOTO: JANSON BULPIN

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