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Mutoid Man’s Stephen Brodsky and Nick Cageao: Prog Punk Alchemists

Nick Cageao, Ben Koller, and Stephen Brodsky (left to right) command the stage at The Sinclair in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 10, 2014.

How the band transformed the vapor trails of metal, pop, space music, and classic rock into sonic gold for their first album, Bleeder.

For metal and hardcore fans of a certain age, the exploits of a handful of bands that proliferated in and around Boston in the early aughts remains a high water mark for creativity in contemporary heavy music.

Of those groups, Converge and Cave In truly led the pack, crafting fearlessly unique sounds that fused metal’s instrumental athletics with hardcore’s energy, while never shying from mercurial dynamic shifts, noisy atmospherics, melodic flourishes, and copious stabs of jagged dissonance—all notions that went against the grain of heavy music at the time. Cave In also grew into penning damn good songs, full of hooks that displayed a songwriting sensibility far removed from the bash-and-thrash of their peers. Although both outfits remain active and have continued to make potent recordings, Converge’s 2001 Jane Doe and Cave In’s 1998 debut album, Until Your Heart Stops , are seminal metalcore.

Vocalist, songwriter, and guitarist Stephen Brodsky, the ringleader of Cave In and a former member of Converge, is an underacknowledged legend. His knack for pairing smart lyrics and lightning-strike intensity shines through Cave In’s discography like the headlamp of an oncoming locomotive. Brodsky, who now lives in Brooklyn, is a compulsive creator. In 2013, when things slowed down significantly for Cave In, he drafted his friend, Converge drum hero Ben Koller, to form Mutoid Man and craft the band’s debut EP, Helium Head .

Dynamic bassist Nick Cageao, formerly of Brooklyn-based power thrashers Bröhammer, was added shortly after Helium Head was released, and what began as a simple outlet for Brodsky’s restless energies caught the attention of Sargent House Records, who signed the group and gave Mutoid Man the opportunity to up the ante with a full-length album .

“Everything I play sounds maybe a little more complex than it really is.”–Stephen Brodsky

Now, 20 years after Cave In played their first gig, Brodsky and Mutoid Man have released the 10-song Bleeder. The turbulent riff feast is dusted with unexpected melodies informed by ’60s and ’70s proto-metal, filtered through the sensibilities of players raised on ’80s thrash, then spiked and polished by the trio’s modernist musical instincts into a gleaming spire of prog-punk mayhem. Clocking in at just 29 minutes, Bleeder is an exercise in succinct, functional freneticism that thrashes, shreds, and incinerates.

As Brodsky and Cageao prepared for a European assault in support of the album, Premier Guitar caught up with the string-stranglers to find out what makes Bleeder tick, to learn about the band’s recording process, and to glean the secret to avoiding the creative plateaus that come with a career as storied as Brodsky’s.

Do Mutoid Man’s songs start with a riff?
Yeah, that’s been the basis from the beginning. Helium Head was just Ben and I trying out riffs in the rehearsal space. We didn’t have a bass player at the time, so I used a weird tuning that dropped the lowest string down far enough to make it feel like there was some extra low end in the room. That tuning shapes our writing because it’s so unique. I come up with riffs I like and then Ben suggests things like “flip it around backwards, take out a beat, and throw an accent in here, ” and it becomes a challenging and fun exercise that takes all of us out of our comfort zones and also happens to yield songs we dig.

Could you detail the tuning the band uses and how it helps shape the riffs?
Brodsky: We tune to standard, but a half-step down, and then the lowest string is dropped down to an A#. It’s A#–G#–C#–F#–A#–D#. It’s cool because you can play riffs that would work in standard, but what would be just a power chord now has an extra low octave to it, which really changes the whole texture.

I think I first noticed a similar tuning in the song “Prison Sex” by Tool, and I remember that song really jumped out at me. When I heard that song, I thought, “That’s got to be a bass,” but it turned out to be a guitar with a low B string. I think Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” and some other songs on Badmotorfinger are also in that tuning [B–A–D–G–B–E].

What was the writing process for Bleeder like?
We were all living in different places and sent riffs to each other on our cell phones until we had a good collection of ideas. When it was getting close to the time when we had to go in to track, we went to a friend’s studio space in Long Island City and did a few weekends there trying to group things together and bang out full songs from the riffs. Things are often done unconventionally in this band. “Bridgeburner” is a good example: Steve sent me a clip from the video game Tiger-Heli and asked me to write a part that sounded like it, and that riff became that song.

So songwriting is much more collaborative than fans might assume?
Brodsky: Oh, very much so! Ben even wrote the main riff in “Scavengers”—that noodley upper-register guitar part. It’s all over the place with how we write things, and that’s really the magic of it. There’s never a loss of ideas between all three of us.

Cageao: It was cool to really do it as a proper three piece. Steve’s an unbelievable songwriter and I would have been happy to just play things that he wrote for us, but it was really cool that he’s into working so closely and interactively.

Stephen, there’s a thread of classic rock laced into what you do that has always set your playing apart from most other contemporary heavy metal guitarists. Tell us a bit about where you’re coming from.
Brodsky: I’m a ’70s child, man! That had a lot to do with how my ear for music was shaped. Even down to the cover art I prefer, that period had a major influence. I got to flip through my dad’s records at a really young age. No one talks about the Cars Panorama album, but the back cover of that record, with those dudes in a circular formation playing the weirdest looking guitars ever, was just so bizarre, and seeing it as a young kid really stuck with me.

Everything I play sounds maybe a little more complex than it really is, and I like it that way because, ultimately, what makes or breaks putting a guitar part into a repertoire that I’m going to play over and over again in a band context, is whether or not it’s fun to play, and if it feels good to my hands. If it doesn’t, I really have to be coaxed into doing it, which is something we call “leveling up” in Mutoid Man.

“The first album I got, when I was learning to play bass, was Fragile by Yes, which my dad gave me,” says Nick Cageao. “The real game-changer was discovering Billy Sheehan, who blew my mind.” Photo by Nick Sayers

What players have influenced you the most, and was there any music that influenced you when the band was writing Bleeder ?
Brodsky: For Bleeder —and I know there’s no guitar player in this band—Lightning Bolt’s bassist really pushes things to a level that I aspire to, and that band definitely had an impact. Their energy was really influential.

Dave Knudson from Botch has been really important. I was fortunate that I got to see Botch play several times before they called it a day, and it was everything you hear on the records and more. For a one-guitar-player band, Dave could do stuff live that was more than what I’ve seen bands with three guitarists do.

It’s also a melting pot of thrash metal players that I love. Anthrax is from New York and I feel like there’s some of that soul being filtered into Mutoid Man. As an artist, you have to be relaxed with the idea that what you’re doing is built upon years and years of research someone did before you. Be an alchemist and mix some good shit together—even if it’s coming out of something that’s already established.

Steve Brodsky’s Gear

1970s Gibson S-1 (humbucker in bridge position)
1993 Gibson Les Paul Studio

Boss TU-2
Boss OS-2 OverDrive/Distortion
Boss BF-2B Bass Flanger
Boss PN-2 Tremolo/Pan
Boss DD-6 Digital Delay
Boss PS-3 Pitch Shifter/Delay (two on pedalboard)
Akai E2 Headrush Looper

1970s Sunn Model T
Sunn reissue 4x12 cabs w/Celestion G12T-75 speakers

Strings and Picks
Ernie Ball Skinny Top Heavy Bottom (.010-.052)
Tortex 1.0 mm

Nick Cageao’s Gear

’80s Aria ZZB Custom
First Act Custom

’70s Sound City X188
’80s Marshall 4x12
No-name 2x15 cab

Boss TU-2
MXR M80 D.I.+ preamp
MXR M85 Bass Distortion
Fairfield Circuitry Four Eyes Crossover Fuzz
Moog Expression Pedal
Fuzzrocious Pedals Custom A/B/Y Splitter

Strings and Picks
D’Addario EXL160BT (.050-.120)
Tortex Jazz .55 mm

Who would you cite as influential, Nick?
Cageao: The first album I got as a kid, when I was learning to play the bass, was Fragile by Yes, which my dad gave me. Yes was also my first show when I was 6, so Chris Squire was an extremely important influence. Then I got into Les Claypool, who was really captivating to me when I was younger. I also got really nerdy with guys like Victor Wooten, Stanley Clarke, Larry Graham, and it all eventually came back to guys like James Jamerson, whose influence probably doesn’t show too much in my playing, but was important.

The real game-changer was discovering Billy Sheehan, who blew my mind. The way he kept up with Steve Vai on the song “Shyboy” by David Lee Roth really fucked me up.

Stephen, tell me about your signature pedal with Main Ace FX.
Brodsky: James [Granuzzo] of Main Ace hit me up and thought I’d really dig some of his pedals. I was really into one fuzz in particular. He had a schematic for a tremolo pedal he had been working on, and I had never seen a combination fuzz and tremolo pedal, so he whipped it up for me and we named it the Shell Shock. James even got permission from [illustrator] John Santos to use some of his artwork from the Helium Head record!

It’s a rad pedal! It’s got this very laser-like precision to it that works really well for a lot of things. We used it for just about everything on the [ Bleeder ] song “Deadlock.”

There are a lot of octave effects on the record, and a lot of dive-bombs. What were you using for those sounds?
Brodsky: I’m having this love affair with the Boss PS-3 Super Shifter. One thing about playing with a whammy bar is that I really can’t stand constantly going out of tune. For a singer, it’s just about the absolute worst thing you could have to deal with. Those pedals are great because I can avoid using a whammy-equipped guitar. But they are also a rad creative tool.

You and Converge guitarist and producer Kurt Ballou have a long history of working together. What did he bring to Bleeder in the studio?
Brodsky: This record wouldn’t have been as good without Kurt’s involvement. We went in with a lot of room for improvement in the songs, and having him suggest things and dial in such great sounds was super helpful. There was a degree of uncertainty and—honestly—a bit of panic in making this record because we didn’t have everything written when we went in and only had nine days to do everything .

Cageao: There were a few times when I didn’t have a proper bass part written yet and would essentially mirror whatever lick Steve was playing, and Kurt would just push the door open to the live room, stare me down, and say, “Dude: Michael Anthony.” And that advice would immediately fix things. “Beast” is a perfect example of that situation, and it’s obviously a total Michael Anthony bass line!

“Guitar players are the laziest musicians on the planet,” says Mutoid Man auteur Stephen Brodsky. “We won’t adjust if we don’t have to, but going into a new record I really had to step up my game.” Photo by Nick Sayers

Did you use your own gear on the album or the treasure trove of amps at Kurt’s GodCity studio in Salem, Massachusetts?
Brodsky: I brought in my Sunn Model T head, which we used on a lot of overdubs, but it’s a really dark sounding amp and we wanted something a little brighter and more present for the core tracks. It was really fun going through the various amps we had at our disposal there, and most of them sounded great, but it wasn’t until the very end of the process that Kurt goes, “I’ve got something else we could try,” and came back into the live room wheeling this absolute mutant of an amplifier, which turned out to be a Gibson Titan from the ’60s.

The Gibson wound up being perfect for the recording because we tracked things live and the amp itself didn’t resonate many bass frequencies in the room, which was great because we had it running in addition to Nick’s massive bass rig, which forced us to really lock-in together and almost track as a single instrument.

The solo at the end of “1000 Mile Stare” is really wild sounding. What exactly are we hearing there?
Brodsky: That’s actually a DigiTech Space Station. There’s a setting on it that sounds like when you hit the stop button on a turntable, and I randomized the pedal movement back-and-forth in a somewhat rhythmic way. I feel like the randomness of the pedal’s shifting is really what makes that solo sound entertaining.

How do you keep growing as a player this deep into your career? You mentioned recently taking lessons with Peter Murphy and Black Sugar Transmission guitarist Andee Blacksugar.
Brodsky: Yeah, that was huge! I felt like I didn’t want to repeat myself anymore and wanted to get new tricks to spin my brain in new directions. Guitar players are the laziest musicians on the planet, and we won’t adjust if we don’t have to, but I felt that, going into writing a new record, I really had to step up my game. I’d like to do the same for whatever comes next. The lessons were really helpful. Now that’s gotten me into a rhythm of searching online for random nerdy guitar videos, and it’s great! Even the smallest thing or extra nuance that you learn can usually be applied to several different parts of your playing.

Was there anything you learned from the lessons that applied to your playing in Mutoid Man?
Brodsky: I ran through a bunch of different modes—stuff I could hear that I was familiar with, but could never name by ear before—and then explored challenging ways of playing those modes. It brought me back to the basics and I got a better understanding of why a lot of the early thrash stuff and metal that I love sounds the way it does. There’s this rudimentary element involved in a lot of that stuff—especially early Megadeth and Metallica records. All of those guys were just on the cusp of having honed their chops, and there is a classical, almost music-school element to a lot of those riffs.

Tell me about those ’80s Aria basses you use, Nick.
Cageao: I use Aria ZZB Customs, which is kind of a vamp on a Gibson Explorer shape with a wacky paint job, and the pickups on them are really, really cool. They’re essentially a split-coil P-bass pickup in a humbucker housing. I use the bridge pickup a lot for recording to get a middy growl, but live I run both to take up more low-end space. It’s a medium-scale bass with 24 frets and the neck is thin like a guitar’s, which is awesome for me because I’m all over the place.

I had an actual Gibson Explorer bass when they weren’t super expensive, and I unfortunately had to sell it to pay for hospital bills. The very next day I got a really great paying job doing sound somewhere and I went back to the store and tried to buy it back, but they had already sold it. I was so, so bummed. So I was looking up Explorer basses on eBay and my main Aria was the first one I found. It was $199, and I thought, “If it’s a piece of crap, whatever, it’s cheap.” I got it, had it set up, and I really haven’t used any other basses since, despite buying plenty more. It rips, it’s easy to play, and it’s got a sound that meshes nicely with Steve’s sound without sacrificing my low end.

YouTube It

Like Stephen Brodsky’s earlier band Cave In, Mutoid Man blends sharply honed metal riffery and polished songcraft, displayed throughout this performance of Bleeder’s “Bridgeburner” at GodCity studio in Salem, Massachusetts, where the album was recorded. There’s a strong hook in Brodsky’s vocal melody and the tune’s backbone guitar riff, which kicks in at 0:28—and his solo, which begins at 2:23, is gloriously old-school thrash.

You play through a pretty serious mountain of amps live. What are you running?
Cageao: I use a ’70s Sound City X188 as the core of my sound. That is insanely loud and cuts through everything, and for my lead-oriented style, works really well. I run that through an ’80s Marshall 4x12 bass cab. The second head that I use is an Ampeg V-4B, which I sometimes swap out for a Peavey Mark IV, and use strictly for clean low end through a 2x15 cab. The pairing gives me this ripping, distorted, more guitar-oriented sound from the Sound City and a nice full clean bass sound from the Ampeg. Honestly, they both sound terrible alone, but they work perfectly for me together.

Steve, you’ve always seemed to favor vintage gear. How did you get into using older stuff?
Brodsky: The less knobs the better! I’ve had this Sunn Model T for years and it’s rarely let me down. I really prefer the sound of old-school natural amp distortion blended with an overdrive pedal. I’ve always wanted to get the sound from Slayer’s Reign in Blood . There’s a factor of nostalgia to it as well. There’s something robotic and almost toy-like about Boss pedals, with them all coming in the same enclosure, and growing up with that was very endearing. I spent hours at music stores just looking into the glass wishing I could own every one of them.

A big part of my sound—and I know it’s unorthodox—is a distortion pedal placed last in the chain. I tend to think that effects on their own sound really cold and cheesy, but if you mash everything into a distortion pedal, it works much better for me. I like the sound of a delayed signal being cooked and burned on the way back out! It’s really worth experimenting, because each piece of gear has its own soul and its own behavior depending on where it’s placed in a signal chain. Get creative!