Mudvayne's astonishing rise this year owes a lot to MTV, which made a hit out of the video for the band's single "Dig." But the group's real debt is to teenagers hungry for bands who want to restore ritual and makeup to metal. Mudvayne's members (besides McDonough, there are Ryknow, Gurrg and Kud, whose real names are, respectively, Ryan Martinie, Greg Tribett and Chad Gray) are gravely serious about their sound and look. And somehow, their hilariously self-important emphasis on personal mythology (the group's members have fomented a backstory on Web discussion boards but will not spell it out to fans), grease paint and bombast has yielded sales and a following.
"The one thing I've always said even before we got our single out was that I never made anti-MTV or anti-radio statements," McDonough says. "If we are able to maintain our sincerity and integrity as artists, then the point isn't to stay an underground band. I expected we'd do all right. Our type of music inspires a certain amount of fanaticism."
That music type is a hybrid of speed metal and more technically advanced (and emotionally limp) forms of same. McDonough calls Mudvayne's product "math rock." He told an interviewer this year that the band's playing recalls "an '80s European kind of metal." Just who was asking for such a relapse is unclear; for most, the final countdown ended circa 1989. But Mudvayne's label, Epic, has labored mightily to turn the band's agonizing algebra proofs into a New-Math formula for commercial success.
So efficient is the publicity machinery behind Mudvayne that McDonough and Martinie have been profiled, respectively, in Modern Drummer and Bass Player magazines despite the inability of either to form an original musical thought. ("I've never seen myself as all that great of a drummer," McDonough protested to Modern Drummer in June of this year.) And the group's name (and Web-site address) is featured prominently on NASCAR driver Tommy Farrell III's modified car. (Farrell is not required to wear clown makeup while racing the car.)
"Extreme sports and heavy music, the passion and adrenaline in both, are what that's all about," McDonough explains. "The opportunity became available to our product manager. But anything like dolls, no way. I'm uncomfortable marketing to little kids."
The bigger kids who packed Ozzfest this year make up the core of Mudvayne's burgeoning fanbase. Performing on blacktop under a blistering summer sun isn't McDonough's first choice when playing live, but he says the effect on the crowd is the same there or elsewhere, regardless of venue or attendance. "It's not a club atmosphere," he admits. "It's way too much parking lot. But at bigger shows with more room for the stage set, some of the intimacy lost is worth the cost for fans to enjoy the shows. After you hit about 3,000 people, it's hard to tell if there are 15,000 more out there. Most of the time, it's the same kind of people, the same hundred people right up front only ten feet from the stage. The vibe is not that different. But I'm still shocked to see kids at shows who know all the words to the songs."
McDonough writes most of those words. Like Metallica's Lars Ulrich, McDonough has made his drummer's throne the de facto ruling -- or at least publicity -- headquarters for his band. He insists his is not a dictatorship, noting, for example, that he has delegated merchandising authority to Gray. "We all have our own areas we're autonomous in," McDonough explains. "We all trust in the roles we have found ourselves in. I can't be a control freak. It's more important and healthy for me to trust."
But McDonough's musical reign is as strict as his tempo. The drummer has referred to himself as a mathematician behind the kit, a player who relies on a self-devised system to control each song from his place on the riser. One reason Mudvayne's cover of the Police's "King of Pain" hasn't seen daylight yet is that McDonough insists he can't focus his skills on anyone else's material. "Right now, I could sit down and play our whole set by myself," he told Modern Drummer. "I find if I give myself too much room to move in my playing, I get loose and go off on tangents."
Looseness, then, isn't one of Mudvayne's virtues. McDonough writes his fills, scripting every second of backbeat to songs such as "Internal Primates Forever," which turns a double-kick-drum part into a jackhammer so mechanical it becomes a distraction. L.D. 50 is lousy with similarly look-at-me moments, many of them McDonough's, yet the music, which plays like a Metallica before-and-after-major-label primer (too fast, too slow), just churns groovelessly.
"Gurgg and I are the most consistent in our playing," McDonough says. Consistency comes up often with the drummer when the subject is Mudvayne's music, especially as it is interpreted live. "We all have to pay attention to each other," he reports. "When the bass player fucks around, there have been times I've said, 'Dude, you can't fucking do that, because I can't keep it together.'
"As a drummer, I'm just now beginning to realize some of the tools I have, the use of numbers and the systemic things," McDonough adds. "I don't want to betray our sense of what the band is and has become stylistically, but I am wanting to go more minimal. I appreciate the ambiguity of art, and I'd like to capture that. Each of us plays a specific instrument, but as far as how we act and perceive each other, we're an artistic commune."
Which might explain all that mud. The group's photos all but drip the stuff. "The label wants us to be visual," McDonough says. "Our visual identity is important, but we're constantly changing. It's unfortunate to have one photo shoot or one video, because three months later, we don't look like that at all." For instance, Kud's twin-rope goatee is gone now; the singer complained it choked him in his sleep. Wimp.
But does the band's stage look paint it into a corner from which only a Mudvayne Unmasked disc can pluck them? "As we get bigger and resources become more available, we'll look for things outside the makeup that are still visual," McDonough says. "We enjoy the makeup. It's fun, and when we first started doing it, nobody gave a fuck about Mudvayne anyway." He was more openly savvy with Billboard in April 2001: "I really had no idea what a powerful marketing tool [the makeup] would turn out to be. I'm not so naïve now."
That just leaves Mudvayne's fans.