[Note: Read the first few paragraphs as you would Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. In other words, as if you are the “you.”]
You’ve just returned home from your junior year abroad, where you spent two crazy semesters at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, learning how to drink Guinness and eat kebabs. You’re sprawled out on the couch in your parents’ living room, waiting to go in for the nightshift at the local martini bar, where you’ve been bar-backing for the past few weeks. The money’s decent, and it’s a pretty great gig all around, mainly because your bartender-boss continually gets you high and fills you up with booze and breakfast after your shift ends at 6 a.m. You regularly return home drunk and stoned to find your parents reading the paper at the kitchen table, daintily sipping coffee, hoping you can make it up to your bedroom before passing out cold or to the upstairs bathroom before vomiting everywhere in a shower of half-digested scrambled eggs and Grand Marnier (or as the barkeep refers to it, “Grandma”).
On that couch, you’re flipping through the TV channels—which you’ve taken to doing incessantly, a nervous tick, possibly—and you finally land on MTV’s Total Request Live, where that fiveheaded dope, Carson Daly, is introducing the latest piece of way-too-saccharine pop as if the shit were James Brown on the T.A.M.I. Show.
“We wanted to do something obscure, kind of like ‘Why would they pick this song?’ but we didn’t want it so opposite of what we are as a rock band that it was just odd. And this one seemed to just fit.”
But wait, this video is different. Your ears perk up like a dog hearing the rumble of thunder miles away. The little white letters on the lower right corner of the screen tell you that this band is called Alien Ant Farm, and the track is from their 2001 album ANThology. The video is fucking mint! It’s a bunch of white, skateboard bros doing a nü-metal cover of the Michael Jackson classic “Smooth Criminal.” There’s a little kid with a white medical mask on, moonwalking down the sidewalk! There’s a trio of little Asian girls cheering for the band! Which is performing in a boxing ring in somebody’s backyard, the bassist’s big, ugly guitar—which has, like, 10 strings instead of four—shooting little shocks of energy, their shave-pated lead singer the spitting image of a guy that tried to pick a fight with you the other night at the bar.
There’s also a chick in a bikini wearing a werewolf mask a la the “Thriller” video. And how about the line of rednecks in lawn chairs grabbing their crotches? Then the lead singer inexplicably appears on screen in a tight blue leather jacket like MJ’s red one, with a monkey in a diaper on his lap. Then the music abruptly stops, the singer jumps on top of a car, grabs his pills and the windows explode. When the sidewalk starts lighting up like “Billie Jean,” you realize that you’ve just found your new summer jam. Fucking bros doing a Michael Jackson cover! Holy shit, man!
Luckily, Alien Ant Farm is still around and playing “Smooth Criminal”—along with a bunch of other cool tunes—live. Along the way, the Riverside, California four-piece was nominated for a Grammy and an AMA. And they’ve got a new album, Always and Forever, coming out later this fall on Executive Music, plus a just-released single, ‘Homage,’ available here. We caught up with still-shave-pated lead singer, Dryden Mitchell, backstage in New York City, to talk about the cover track that made his crew famous.
So tell me about the new music you guys have planned for 2014. You have a new album dropping?
Well, we’re playing just a couple songs on this tour. We’d rather have the record be out before we’re really playing these songs that people aren’t even familiar with.
We like that you’re headlining your own tour. How’d that come about?
Well, it was time to go out, and we just threw it together. We’ve done our share of 311 tours or jumping on with Linkin Park or Hoobastank. It seems like nowadays you have to have some kind of package to bring people in. It’s hard, you know? And it causes anxiety … just like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s only 50 people out there in some podunk town where it didn’t get properly promoted.’ Whatever the case, you’ve just got to go out and do the best you can.
We can imagine it’s a completely new landscape nowadays.
Yeah, for sure. Some promoters are like, ‘Oh, we Facebooked the show!’ Unless you’re paying, no one’s seeing that.
This is a first for the Oral Hit-story series, in that you guys weren’t the primary songwriter of ‘Smooth Criminal.’ Did you grow up fans of Michael Jackson?
Yeah, the first concert I ever went to was at Dodger Stadium, and it was Michael and his brothers on the Victory Tour. I mean, I was a huge fan.
What drew you to that specific song?
It just seemed to have a rock feel [to it]. You know, it felt natural. We wanted to do something obscure, kind of like ‘Why would they pick this song?’ but we didn’t want it so opposite of what we are as a rock band that it was just odd. And this one seemed to just fit.
The other big single off Greatest Hits was comparatively restrained.
Do you remember where you were when you decided to put it to tape?
Well, we kind of did a record before our big record called Greatest Hits. I remember [the album] getting written up and getting crap for it. Like, ‘First these guys do Greatest Hits and then they do ANThology! Who do they think they are?’ And I’m like, if you’re that dense, you shouldn’t even be writing articles, you know what I mean? But anyways, we had put [‘Smooth Criminal’]* on that first Greatest Hits record, and we just knew. We played the riff at a show, and kind of got a response.
It wasn’t originally the single for ANThology, right?
No, ‘Movies’ was the single before, and it did quite well, and then ‘Smooth Criminal’ eclipsed it. And then ‘Movies’ organically became a single again. It was like a single twice. It did very well for us. But ‘Smooth Criminal’ was just a different animal.
It strikes me that this song is sung in an extremely high register. Does it hurt your vocal cords to sing it still?
I don’t do the high bits. I mean, on the recording I did some of the higher bits, but I’m not going to shred my stuff out every night.
Did all the proceeds earned from the single go directly to Neverland?
[pauses] I don’t know. I have no idea what happened with that money. It could be giraffe food. It could be cock rings for little toddlers. I have no clue what happened to that. It could be the wine he served to those little kids. Whatever.
Do you ever get sick of playing the song?
No. I don’t. There was maybe a time, years ago, that I felt in some weird way we were above that or something, but we’re not. It’s a good cover and it’s a good song. I embrace it now.
The video is pretty hilarious. Where did the concept for paying homage to other MJ videos come from?
Well, just plain and simply from him! What else are you gonna say? Like, you’re going to make this bombastic kind of song, and we wanted it to be something to look at. You know, and the video is a spectacle, for sure.
Michael Jackson is sadly no longer with us. Did you guys ever get a chance to meet him?
Yeah, he dug the song, and he dug the video. We knew we didn’t want to, like, piss him off in any way. It wasn’t like a job of any kind. We wanted to make sure that he knew this was something that was done from the heart.
What is your second favorite Michael Jackson song?
Well, ‘Smooth Criminal’ isn’t even my first! So …
*The band actually called it ‘Slick Thief’ on the record, probably to avoid a lawsuit.
**Liberian Girl is, in fact, on Bad.
Lead photo: Dimitry Mac