As an oft-vociferous supporter of Isla Vista, California-born Alternative/Hard Rock wunderkinds Ugly Kid Joe, I've frequently found myself entirely enraptured by their earliest efforts (i.e. the As Ugly As They Want To Be EP and their full-length debut America's Least Wanted). Although many felt that the group's proverbial fifteen minutes of fame expired the moment the quasi-novelty hit “Everything About You” and it's accompanying Julia Sweeney-fueled video ceased to have an impact on the charts and airwaves, both Menace To Sobriety (1995) and the woefully-underrated Motel California (1996) hinted at the veritable wealth of creativity that still coursed through their collective veins. Now, two curiously-long decades later, the newly-rejuvenated group has at last returned with the release of the their 'highly-anticipated' resurgence Uglier Than They Used Ta Be (2015).
Todd: What was the main motivation behind Ugly Kid Joe finally re-uniting? Who were the primary instigators?
Whitfield: “It was (drummer) Shannon Larkin and (guitarist) Dave Fortman. They were being creative, making an album together. They were shooting the shit and realized that not only was it a possibility, but if everybody would agree, it would be an absolute certainty, because we could do it all in house, particularly with having Dave Fortman Producing. ...This band is his home, but can you imagine the skill set he's obtained during the last fifteen years? Imagine him coming home and celebrating with all the tools he has in his shed and then unleashing his songwriting and own creativity with it. It was just perfect. A little late, but better late than never.”
Todd: Taking into consideration the limitations of Dave and Shannon, who else is now involved with the group? Was it difficult for you to find the proper people to serve as touring members? It must have been a tough choice.
Whitfield: “The core of the group is the '95 line up. That's the best version of the band. That, of course, includes Shannon Larkin, Dave Fortman, (guitarist) Klaus Eichstadt, (bassist) Cordell Crockett and myself. We recorded an EP called Stairway To Hell with that line up, but that line up can't go on tour. For instance, Shannon Larkin is also in a band called Godsmack, so he cannot come on tour. And Dave Fortman is a Producer and he's got a lot different life responsibilities that don't include getting to go on tour that much, though he will pop out every now and then. That said, enter (ex-Sevendust and Snot guitarist) Sonny Mayo. He was actually Engineering half of Stairway To Hell in LA. As he was doing it, I realized that I could see the chess board and I was like 'Holy shit, there he is'. It was a funny moment. I was like 'Hey Sonny, you should probably start learning the new songs because you're going on tour.' And then, of course, Sonny brought us (drummer) Zac Morris. Zac Morris is this young buck. He's just an incredible, thundering drummer. The track he just put on Uglier Than They Used Ta Be was his first actual first actual drum track he'd ever tracked that he could show his parents and his friends. What I liked about this process is that it's ego-less, so you can imagine the synergy that we have with just with the five of us. If you throw two more of us in there, you've got seven of us. We like to call that the seven headed monster. It brought out a lot of talent in one room and that's what the album sounds like. It was a really draining process in the sense that we did twenty one days in a row, working thirteen to fourteen hour days. That's how much Dave Fortman had to work with us, so we went in there and did it. We didn't have time to fuck around. You had to throw songs up that you thought might be great and then when they weren't, you had to let go of them. You had to turn songs that they thought weren't that good into something great. You had to water those so they can grow into a heavy metal flower, ya know? So it's all been really therapeutic for me, because I love singing songs and touring and now I have that opportunity again. And, of course, to do it with the familiarity of all these characters. We know each other but we know each other best when we're being creative.”
Todd: In hindsight, what was the overall mentality of the group when recording America's Least Wanted (1992)?
Whitfield: “We'd just come off the As Ugly As They Wanna Be (1991) EP and we were on a total wave. That was with the MTV generation and MTV had our back. We were disposable heroes for sure, but it felt great. We were young and nothing had become ugly as far as drinking and substance abuse. All of that stuff was still funny and awesome. ...We basically got to go party around the world. We would get off a plane in Australia and go play the Hordern Pavilion to five thousand people. That was our lives. Wherever we went, the music would proceed us. I thought that it was extreme, so it was a lot to deal with. It was overwhelming because there was so much success at that level, but it was such a great experience. We certainly did everything that you should at that age.”
Todd: Was the group ready for the tidal wave of success that came with America's Least Wanted? I remember the group being so over-exposed. It must have been overwhelming to have experienced that at a very tender age.
Whitfield: “I don't think you're ever ready for anything like that. I don't think anyone is really ready for failure or success. Are you ready if your coffee tastes shitty today? I don't think you could ever be ready for that journey. I think it was a lot. I'm pleased that everybody's still alive. We weren't ready. You couldn't be ready. It came with so much of our dreams coming true. It was really, really weird. ...Imagine the macro form of all your childhood dreams and teenage dreams suddenly manifesting themselves. You're on tour with fucking Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and Ozzy, playing big fucking shows, right? And then there's all the stuff that comes with that. All the fun parts of music, right? But equal to that was the business construct. The vulture-esque part of the music industry existed on a much high tier, particularly in the early '90's. That was a weird experience for me because I didn't know how to separate church and state. It just felt like one weird overwhelming force. Now, as I sit talking to you in San Francisco, California as a forty seven year old man with a lot of experiences under my belt, I can separate everything. We just went on tour in the U.K. and it sold out. The album is doing great in Europe. It entered number nine in the U.K. charts. I'm managing the band now so I can do everything from hiring and firing a bus company or a tour manager or a bus company. I can, at the drop of a dime, put each hat on. I didn't have that capability as a younger version of me. So, when you ask 'Were you ready for the success of America's Least Wanted?, the answer is 'No you couldn't have been ready.' You just couldn't. It came with really high experiences. Some of them were great and some of them were very dark. ...It was just like a roller coaster.”
Todd: Did it eventually reach a point where the rigors of the industry as a whole simply became too much to bear? What ultimately happened when the group ceased to exist? Was there a situation where it all 'died down'?
Whitfield: “Actually, it did. By then, I was creating snowboard tours because I felt like I was getting robbed of life experiences. It was December '96, and then we were going to all these remote mountains in Austria, Italy and Switzerland. We would barter music for snowboard tickets, lodging, food and beers. ...We would call these snowboard tours and it was totally fun. After that, in late December '96, I had gone to India to ride Enfield motorcycles with a friend. I had no idea that the band was going to end. ...I called Klaus and I said 'Hey man, you should come to India. It's amazing.' And he was over it. He's my best friend from childhood, so when he said 'Hey man, I'm over it. I don't want to do it anymore'... I respect that. I think it's kind of courageous of him to even say that. If he doesn't want to do it and it's our band, then I don't want to do it either, so that was that. Right then and there, I go 'Okay, cool. I guess that's it.' I'll tell you this my friend, nothing ends well. At least that was a really exciting life experience, so it didn't sting as much until I got back to the United States. When I came back in May of '97, I came back to California. I came back to the United States after quite a journey and then I felt it. I was like 'Holy shit!' because if you're a singer, you're a singer. If you don't have a band and you're not singing, part of your identity is gone. You're like 'Fuck!' You have a tool set, but you're not using it. It's maddening. We didn't want it, which is why we broke up. ...The ending of anything is weird, including a band.”
Todd: Once the group officially broke, did you initially have bigger successes in certain territories like the U.S.?
Whitfield: “No. We broke around the world pretty much equally. Australia was massive for us and Indonesia was massive for us, but it was like black market in the sense that no one bought records. They just stole them. But it was massive. And then, of course, Europe and the UK, particularly the U.K. We go back and we play the U.K. and it's absurd. There's such a great energy in the room every time we play there. But the whole world broke at once. I remember Australia being so massive when we got there. I was like 'Holy shit! This is for real.'”
Todd: Once the writing and recording processes for Menace To Sobriety (1995) had officially begun, how much outside pressure was there from your label and management to replicate the success of America's Least Wanted?
Whitfield: “Zero. We actually played those cards really, really well. Because we had some much success with America's Least Wanted, I was all 'Fuck it. Now we can do whatever we want'. We blew so much money making that record. We rented a mansion in Santa Ana and we had to go back to A&M's studios. We spent like seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars making that record. But I'll tell you this, the label didn't hear one song of that record until it was done. That was us wanting to make a heavy record. ...At that point, I didn't give a fuck and I don't think I've ever really given a fuck, but nevertheless, we wanted to really concentrate. We had Larkin then and we could just fucking go. We made a fucking heavy, bad ass record. There was zero pressure. While we we're definitely pigeon holed with “Everything About You” and “Cats In The Cradle” singles (from America's Least Wanted), which is fair. And if that's all you know about us, then that's fair to assess us by those two songs. But, with that being said, we were a heavy band and we had Larkin now. Of course, like any good rock-and-roller would, we were like 'Let's go make a fucking heavy record.', so we did and it's a bad ass album.”
Todd: At this point in your careers, what are your feelings regarding the group's Motel California (1996) period?
Whitfield: “That's a great question. I talked to people on our last tour that told me it's their favorite record. It's my least favorite record because it reminds me of the end. It reminds me of when I could feel the wind out of the sails. It reminds me of when everything was going to shit. ...But there was also some hope. In the end, we had left a major label, made our own label and we all felt that it was really close to becoming something. It was a weird moment where we either could go forward or just cash in our chips. Motel California does not remind me of happy times, but in hindsight, there's some cool songs on there. And why I bring up the fact that it's some of our fan's favorite record is because it's so interesting to me because it reminds me of the end, right? And for other people, it's a soundtrack to their teenage years that they love. ...Perspective can be very interesting things.”
Todd: How did the media, MTV in particular, respond to the release of Motel California? Were they 'interested'?
Whitfield: “While it's fair to say that we'd already had our heyday with MTV, we wouldn't have minded them playing a video. So we come up with this title Motel California and then, for whatever reason, we're not their little darling band anymore. But they do take our album title and make a place on the beach called Motel California. A lot of shit like that was happening. We'd have really good ideas that we're like 'Okay, we're still here', but then we would get cherry picked. I guess that's cool in it's own right, but shit like that was frustrating.”
Todd: Once Ugly Kid Joe officially disbanded, you were briefly involved with both the groups Life Of Agony and Medication. Which was first? Is it true that your time with Life Of Agony led to the creation of Medication?
Whitfield: “I joined Life Of Agony first. I had gotten a call from (Anthrax guitarist) Scott Ian and he said 'What the fuck are you doing?' and I was like 'I'm sitting here in Santa Barbara' and he goes 'You should be in this band. Have you ever heard of this band?' ...He's like 'Go get it and go listen to it and then call me back'. I went out and got a copy of River Runs Red (1993) and I was like 'Oh, that sounds killer.' I flew to New York, tried out for them, which was a really odd pairing, but it was great. I was in the band and kinda pitched in for (original Life Of Agony vocalist) Keith Caputo for a year. I didn't sing on a record, but I went on tour with the band for a year and connected with them. I acknowledged the East Coast mentality. It was a really important and pivotal moment in my singing career because I didn't know if I was just limited to Ugly Kid Joe. I didn't know if there was other vocal realities within me. And, of course, when I was mirroring Keith Caputo's vocals, I was like 'Oh my God! I can hear it. I can sing it.' I was like 'If I can hear it, I can do it. And then, to go prove myself in a hardcore reality, particularly in Europe, that was really healthy for me. That was a great band for me to be in for a year. And then we did Ozzfest '98 on the second stage with cool bands like Incubus, Snot and System Of A Down. That's when I met (former Soulfly guitarist) Logan Mader and we started hanging out. And then I got ousted from Life Of Agony and he was out of Soulfly, so we moved to Hollywood, California and we made the band Medication. We worked on that band for a couple years. We made an EP and a full length record. The EP in particular with (Stone Sour drummer) Roy Mayorga is fantastic. There's something special about that EP. That band almost got off the tarmac. It was really close and then, of course, we forgot to fuel it or the wheels were flat, so hat was that. Then I went back home to see my nieces grow up. They were babies at that point and I was staying at my sister's home. I thought that was it. I thought that was it for me and music. I thought it was over one hundred percent. I was like 'Fuck, what do I do now?' And then in late 2006, I got a call from Shannon Larkin to come join Another Animal. He was like 'Can you come sing on a record?' I'd never met those guys and didn't know any of them except for Shannon. I flew to Boston and in three weeks, we made the Another Animal record, which is fantastic. It's a bad ass fucking record. I toured with that band in 2007, opening for Alter Bridge in the U.S., but it fizzled out so we put Ugly Kid Joe back together and now we are here talking on our phones.”
Todd: Overall, how well has Uglier Than They Used Ta Be been received? Are you happy with all the response?
Whitfield: “There seems like to be a buzz in America. North America is the top market for all bands like Ugly Kid Joe, but it's just brutal. That being said, if we could manifest a good buzz for this record, which it seems like we're doing, we could get a cool offer for an opening slot of a bigger band and make it make sense. we could go fucking tour in North America. That's the dream. We haven't done it in nineteen years, so we'd love to do it again, but the right moment has to show itself. So, hopefully. My mom says that you create your own luck. And how would you do that? That would be by taking action. But what actions have we done? We've made a fucking great record, we've toured and gotten a good buzz going on within Europe. So hopefully, and I say that with crossed fingers and baited breath, hopefully we can get a serious North America tour going on. Hopefully.”
Todd: Who were the 'main' songwriters on Uglier Than They Used Ta Be? Was it different than previous efforts?
Whitfield: “Well, the As Ugly As They Wanna Be EP, Dave Fortman wasn't here, so with the EP America's Least Wanted, Klaus Eichstadt was the primary song writer. On Menace To Sobriety, Klaus didn't write much of anything. On this new record, the primary song writers are myself, Klaus, and Dave Fortman. It's kind of a mix and match situation. ...Let me be honest; I don't really think we write the songs. I think they come through us. We're conduits. When you're writing a piece, are you really doing it or are you just facilitating it? That's what we do. It's a big creative organism. ...On the album, the primary writers were Klaus, myself and Dave Fortman.”
Todd: Historically, what have you done to keep your voice in shape? With the grittiness and vibrato, there must be a lot to take into consideration. Is there a series of processes you use to warm up and warm down your voice?
Whitfield: “Sleep. And don't stress out. That's it, really If you want to stay strong you've got to sleep, try to live in the moment and don't stress out. Stress is the one thing that's going to get you, your voice, your heart or your lungs. Sonny Mayo like to quote me because one time we were eating Indian food and I wasn't saying it to be a smart ass, I said 'Look man, I don't warm up, I show up.' He always likes to quote that. There are these vocalists like (Scorpions frontman) Klaus Meine or (Alter Bridge/Slash frontman) Myles Kennedy or (Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell that have these really fantastic voices that they have to warm up. They're masters of their instrument. I don't know what I'm doing, never have, and probably never will. I just try to mirror what turns me on or inspires me and turn it into my own thing. Obviously, I'm a singer so it's the lightest and the heaviest of instruments. Between the end of Ugly Kid Joe and the beginning of the second coming of Ugly Kid Joe, all those different bands I did were super important for me to have a more rounded control of my vocals. You know what I mean? All the singing in different keys... When we did Uglier Than They Used Ta Be, I wasn't scared at all. I was really, really excited to work and to have Dave beat me into the ground over and over again.”
Uglier Than They Used Ta Be (2015)
Stairway To Hell (EP) (2012)
Motel California (1996)
Menace To Sobriety (1995)
America's Least Wanted (1992)
As Ugly As They Wanna Be (EP) (1991)
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