Songwriter Interviews

Mitts of Madball

by Greg Prato

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"Are they hardcore or are they metal?"

This is a question that has been thrown Madball's way for some time now, and it's understandable, as singer Freddy Cricien has serious hardcore roots (long-time Agnostic Front leader Roger Miret is his older half-brother), while their guitarist, Mitts, was a major metalhead back in the day. This latter fact I can personally confirm, as I was a classmate of Mitts in high school when he was a longhaired, denim jacket-wearing gentleman who helped steer me away from lame metal and towards more interesting, heavy sounds. Even then, he was championing such hardcore acts as the Cro-Mags and the Bad Brains.

Originally formed in 1988, Madball has seen quite a few line-up changes over the years - Cricien is the lone original member, followed by bassist Hoya Roc who has been a member since 1993; Mitts joined in 2001, and drummer Mike Justian signed on in 2011.

The band continues to offer up hard-hitting releases (Legacy, Infiltrate the System, Empire) and tour the world.

Mitts (real name: Brian Daniels) chatted with us about the first bands bold enough to merge hardcore and metal, the stories behind several Madball anthems, and how songwriting works within the quartet.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): What is Madball currently up to?

Mitts: We're writing for a new record right now. We've got three or four songs. As a hardcore band, our songs are fairly short compared to metal - they're not like seven, eight minute songs. Our songs are generally between two and three minutes, so we usually go for in the 12 to 15 song range for a record. We like to have at least 30 minutes.

Records nowadays are shorter than they used to be, but we still don't want to go under 30. So, 12, 13, 14, 15 songs will get us to a little over half hour. That's what we usually shoot for.

Songfacts: You could always use Reign in Blood as the benchmark for a 30-minute long recording.

Mitts: There you go. If we've got to stick a little thunder and lightning in there.

Songfacts: Do you have any idea when the album may be coming out?

Mitts: Yeah. It's looking like it's going to be early 2014 release. We had hoped to get it out in 2013, but it's gone a little slower than what we usually work at.

Songfacts: In 2013, Madball played some pretty cool places like Russia. How was that?

Mitts: It was good. We hadn't been to Russia since 2008, so this is our first time back there and that's what, five years almost? And it was excellent. Not too many bands get there, so those people really appreciate it when you do come. The shows are pretty crazy.

Songfacts: How would you compare Russian audiences to US audiences?
We followed up with Mitts about some of the strangest things he's seen from the stage. He's witnessed:

"Kid with skateboard helmet, with a GoPro camera taped to it, stage diving and crowd surfing."

"Show in Moscow with a soldier in the mosh pit, in full dress uniform (including the big Russian army hat)."

"We played Exit Fest in Serbia, and the stage that was across from us had fireworks go off."

"With Full Force Open Air festival in Germany, 2006, our set was during the semi-final game of the World Cup between Germany and Argentina. The festival promoters had a huge video screen on the side of the main stage, so the audience was watching the game, while watching us. Right at the moment we kicked into one of our bigger "mosh" or "dance" parts, Germany won the game with a save by their keeper in the shootout. 25,000 people erupted at once, in sync with our song. Major chills."
Mitts: For us the Russian audience is crazy. There's a little bit of vodka being drunk by some of the crowd, but they're really enthusiastic. They go nuts singing the lyrics back at you.

They do a little bit of a different mosh dance style than American kids. It's a little more "freestyle." [Laughing] That's the nice way to say it. In the States, dancing is a lot more violent. Russia still has the push-mosh thing going on.

Songfacts: How does the songwriting work in the band? Is it you that comes up with an idea or is it Freddy, or do you guys collaborate?

Mitts: It's basically between my bass player, Hoya, and myself. We'll come up with riffs and song ideas. If it's not just one riff, we'll have one or two riffs that go together and that'll be a piece. When we get those, we'll bring it into the rehearsal room and we'll start to work on it as a band.

Nobody ever writes an entire song in Madball on their own. Basically, we take a couple of riffs and we piece it together. Once we get it in the room, then the four of us work out the kinks and pitch in ideas on the arrangement and structure of it. And as we're doing that, Freddy, my singer, he'll make a lot of arrangement calls, because he's starting to imagine what he's going to sing over it. And so he'll say, "No, this verse had go to be longer," or "This is where we'll stick a chorus. Let's put a little intro piece here, because I've got an idea for this or that." He definitely has a strong input as far as arrangement.

And our drummer, Mike, he's going to try to come up with different drum patterns. Generally the drummer in this band, whoever it may be over the years, has a lot of input as far as what they're playing over these riffs. I'll have an idea for how I think a drum part should go along with one of my riffs, but he's the one that's going to interpret that. And same thing with Hoya. Hoya will sit there and be like, "No, the beat's gotta be more like this or more like that." And he'll specify.

But at the end of the day, one of us comes up with a riff or a couple of riffs and then we take it into the room and we all hammer it out.

Songfacts: Have you ever written a song for Madball on an instrument other than guitar?

Mitts: It's an interesting thing, we have a record called Infiltrate the System from 2007. There was a song we were working on where we were in the room together and we were kind of stumped - we were just looking for inspiration. My singer looked over at our drummer, and was like, "Yo, kick a beat. Play a beat right now. Just play any beat that comes to your head." He started playing a rhythm, and then we started punching out a riff over it.

But it started from the drums out, and that was definitely a unique approach. We never did that before. The song came out cool. It's not my favorite song that we ever did, but it's not the worst. It's a good solid track.

Songfacts: What was the name of that song?

Mitts: That song was called "Revolt."

And as far as writing on other instruments, my bass player, Hoya, when he writes, he writes on guitar. He doesn't write on the bass. Sometimes when we're in the rehearsal room he'll take a guitar and then both me and him will be playing guitar trying to just jam out a riff and come up with stuff.

My singer has written songs, as well, where he's picked up a guitar and kind of strummed out some ideas to me, and then I transpose it. He also will sing riffs to me when he has an idea.

The last thing we put out in 2012 was an EP called the Rebellion EP, and he's got a song on it called "My Blood" where he wrote almost the entire track. I had some input, but he sent it to me as voice memos on his phone - just singing the riffs to me of how he thought he wanted it to go. Then I mocked up a demo on my computer of me playing guitar to it. I basically interpreted what he was singing.

So we come at it from different angles. Those are the different ways we come up with stuff.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?

Mitts: Favorite songwriters... well, I grew up listening to metal first, and then I got into hardcore as well. But the first bands that I really followed were like Iron Maiden. So with Iron Maiden, you have Steve Harris, who writes a tremendous amount of their music and lyrics, as well. So I would definitely say Steve Harris. And then Metallica was a huge band in my influences. James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich are the main songwriters with that band. They pretty much sit in a room together and hammer that stuff out, and then the band ends up coming in around them.

As for hardcore, a cool influence songwriting-wise was Suicidal Tendencies. Their first record was very punk, so people considered them a punk band back then. And then their second and third records started to get way more metallic. And I think it's their third album, How Will I Laugh, is when they got this guy Mike Clark into the band, and he brought all this metal riffing into Suicidal Tendencies. He wrote a ton of songs that really changed the direction of that band. That was cool to see how someone's songwriting can really influence change in a band. To bring in a new guy and take a different angle to it. They are such a legendary band now, but I think people forget sometimes that they started out as this little skater-punk band, and at the time a lot of people criticized them for sounding a lot more metal.

Back then there was that whole crossover thing going on where a lot of bands that had started as punk moved into more metal sounds. Bands like DRI, even Agnostic Front from New York, was way more raw on their earlier records. Then as they progressed they became a lot more metal sounding.

The whole sound of New York hardcore in the mid-'80s started to move towards metal guitars and metal riffing, and it kind of blurred the line between metal and hardcore. Nowadays hardcore is so metallic that when people ask me, "What does your band sound like?" If it's somebody that I know isn't familiar with the genres, I'll tell them, "You'd think we're a heavy metal band." We're kind of like heavy metal, but we don't have the poofy hair and we don't sing about the devil, shit like that. I think hardcore is almost like street heavy metal. That's the way I describe it.

Songfacts: When did you start going to hardcore shows? Back in the '80s, right?

Mitts: Yeah. The first things I was listening to that were going away from metal was SOD and DRI. Now I would look at those bands as crossover, but was considering them to be hardcore. And then a buddy of mine that moved out from New York City, he came from the city out to where you and me went to school, and he's like, "No, no, that's not hardcore. Check this out." And he gave me Agnostic Front records and the Cro-Mags. And that's when I got into hardcore.

So the first hardcore show I saw I think was Agnostic Front in 1987 at CBGB's on a Sunday matinee.

Songfacts: And how would you describe the scene at the time? I remember at the time you had pretty long hair.

Mitts: I'm proud of the fact that I never jumped on a bandwagon. I had long hair because I was a metalhead to start with, but I got into all this hardcore and I felt that it would be a little silly if all of a sudden I shaved my head and started wearing combat boots like everybody else. I would go to the shows looking the way I looked. I looked like a big goofball! You remember me with the long hair - I had Black Sabbath long hair, it wasn't feathered, definitely never had a mullet. You can back me up on that. I never had a mullet! I grew my hair in one long shot.

Songfacts: I always thought of your look as kind of "Cliff Burton" back then.

Mitts: Cool. That's a compliment. Cliff Burton or Ozzy or any of that moptop thing going on. But yeah, I was going to shows and I'd be the one guy there with long hair, and I'm sure some people were hostile towards me. But I also remember a couple of skinheads coming up to me at shows being like, "Yeah, you're cool, man. You go to all these shows and you just look like yourself." So I got a couple of compliments, as well.

Songfacts: Very cool. You touched upon this a little bit, but to the best of your knowledge, who would you say are some of the first bands that truly merged hardcore with heavy metal?

Mitts: I think Agnostic Front, the Cro-Mags. In those early records by those bands, you can start to see the development. On the first Agnostic Front record you can hear that late '70s punk sound and that early '80s sound that started to become hardcore. Bands like the Circle Jerks and the Dead Kennedys and the Bad Brains were merging that speed with the punk. Punk was the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, but then hardcore started just making it a little louder, a little heavier, and a little more aggressive.

And then you had the New York sound - I think New York pioneered what still lasts as hardcore today. They started to add more metal into it, more right hand riffing, more palm muting riffing as opposed to just, "dadadadadadadada." That was punk, that open strumming.

You listen to records like the first Cro-Mags record, The Age of Quarrel, there's a lot of right hand chugging, like metallic kind of riffs. Same thing with Agnostic Front. Their second record, Cause for Alarm, all of a sudden you start to hear really fast picking, a lot of dissident guitar patterns and stuff like that. So those are the bands that really started to pioneer that.

You look at hardcore today, and 90 percent of hardcore bands that are around today doing well, still have that metal edge to them.

Songfacts: That's true.

Mitts: There's H20, there's Ignite from California that are still melody-based hardcore, but most of the bands that are out nowadays are metal based.

Songfacts: And you could say the Bad Brains albums, like I Against I and also Quickness are certainly albums that merge punk with metal at the time.

Mitts: Definitely. But that's the thing about the Bad Brains, is they were mixing in so many influences. And they weren't metal guys. I'm fascinated by how the hell they came up with that sound, because they still to this day have a unique sound that nobody could copy. There's bands out there that took influence from them over the years. The Cro-Mags, as well. You hear a lot of Bad Brains influences on that first Cro-Mags record. I know Living Colour felt a little Bad Brains vibe, and then they went on to write big, huge rock songs that were radio hits.

But the Bad Brains, there's metal in there, there's rock in there, there's jazz in there, there's funk in there, there's so many different influences in their sound from what they started as, which was like Ramones-style punk: big, open chords, just crazy shit. And then those guys all have these crazy reggae chops, so when they play these reggae songs of their own, it's amazing. Definitely a versatile band.

Songfacts: Yeah. I agree. Let's talk about some of your songs and the stories behind them. Let's start with "Infiltrate the System."

Mitts: That was in 2007. The majority of the riffs on that are Hoya's riffs - he wrote the bulk of that song. The chorus part I wrote, but it's basically just a variation off of his main riffing.

The ending has a funny vibe to it - it has a breakdown part at the end. We had it written, everything up to that part, and we were rehearsing it, but we didn't have an end part for it. We were stuck on it, and finally I went home and I wrote an end part to it and demoed it and played it for the guys.

I liked it, and my singer liked it even to the point where he wrote some lyrics over it. I even have somewhere - not that it will ever see the light of day - but I have a version of it where you hear an alternate ending. My bass player, he didn't like it, so it kind of motivated him - if he didn't put something on there, then it was going to stick, and I know he didn't like it. He ended up going home and coming in one day and being, "All right, try this." He put this ending on it that's the ending you hear now, and nobody can complain because that's the way the song finished, and it fits great now. At the time I was like, "Oh, that's very different." But that's what we ended up going with and that's how the song is today.

Songfacts: What about the song "The Beast"?

Mitts: That's another Hoya riff. We actually had a little influence from Matt Henderson on that. Matt Henderson was the original guitar player before me with Madball. He made some suggestions when we were writing that song. In the middle part, the faster part, we had the verse riff and we had kind of the chorus riff, and we were like, "Okay, where do we go now from this?" And that was where Matt made a couple of suggestions. He didn't necessarily write actual riffs, but I think he kind of suggested, "Okay, we can go into a fast part there."

Yeah, Matt has written little bits and pieces for the band over the years. Since I've joined the band it's been me and Hoya basically coming up with the riffs. But every now and again there's a couple of songs over the course of the last three or four records that Matty's had some input on.

Songfacts: From a songwriting standpoint, what would you say is your favorite Madball album from front to back?

Mitts: I would have to say two records from before I joined the band and from when I've been in the band. My favorite record from before I joined the band is the record Hold It Down. The recording of it had amazing power to it, and the songwriting, just the whole vibe of it. It's got a ton of groove, it's got brutal aggression. It's the epitome to me of what Madball's about.

As a fan of the band before I joined it, what always set them apart from other bands was the groove. Madball is a hardcore band, but at the same time my singer and my bass player both grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop and a lot of old school rap and stuff like that. So those guys have a rhythm. Their natural rhythm isn't stiff like a lot of people. I grew up on metal, so my whole rhythm style is stiffer than that. Those guys have got a lot more groove in what comes out of them, so you hear that in Madball.

I think Hold It Down is the epitome of that. There's so much groove on that record without sounding weak. You could try to be a funk band, or some of these metal bands that try to put funk in, in the early '90s.

Songfacts: I remember.

Mitts: In the early '90s, I remember seeing an advertisement for Exodus. This was when you had Faith No More and Fishbone and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were getting really big. You had a lot of that funk-rock stuff going on in the mainstream, and you definitely could tell that there was a band out there that tried to say, "Okay, guys, we've got to change it up, because we've got to stick with the times," just to try to adapt to what was going on around them. And I remember Exodus putting a record out, and the critic review quote at the bottom of it was, "Exodus explore their funkier side." And it just made me laugh, because Exodus is a legendary thrash band. They have no place having a funkier side - to this day. I don't even know what their record was. I'd have to look up their discography and see what record came out at that time and then go back and listen to it. It was at a time that they had fallen off my radar, but I just remember seeing that. [Mitts further explores this subject in a book that I interviewed him for, The Faith No More & Mr. Bungle Companion].

And then as far as the Madball record, since I've been in the band, the record I'm the most proud of is Legacy. That was the first record that I did with the band, the first full length. We had done an EP before that, but Legacy was the first full record we did, and it was the most balanced record.

It's got a little bit of every style we've got: there are some groovy songs on there, there's some just straightforward punchy thrashy kind of metal-influenced songs. A little bit of every angle on the band is on that record. I think it's the most well balanced record that we ever did since I've been in the band.

And that was the record where I had to learn how to write a Madball song, or a Madball riff, I should say. I wasn't going to come into Madball and start trying to write my own songs. I was always trying to keep in tradition of the band and the sound of the band. So anything I've ever written for Madball has been my attempt to interpret what Matt Henderson had written for the band before I was in it, and what he and Hoya both put together. So Legacy is the one I'm most proud of.

January 20, 2014.
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