Bad to the bone

by John Vomhof

We’re big Michael Jackson fans,” explained Mike Cosgrove, speaking over the phone earlier this month for his band Alien Ant Farm. “I’m sure you can understand. He was like our Britney Spears or something.”

That appreciation for Jackson’s music has helped Alien Ant Farm make it to where they are today: among rock’s most-promising new bands.

The Riverside, California quartet, consisting of drummer Cosgrove, singer-songwriter Dryden Mitchell, guitarist Terry Corso and bassist Tye Zamora, blends hard-rock guitar riffs, geek-rock precision and dark lyrics, but with cheerful twists. The results are a sound that is fun and lighthearted, but still emotionally and instrumentally heavy. Yet the band’s Jackson-guided pop influence can clearly be heard on songs like “Movies” and “Summer,” and is made obvious by their cover of Jackson’s 1988 hit “Smooth Criminal.”

The band’s cover garnered immediate and widespread popularity for their ANThology release. The song popped up on the American Pie 2 soundtrack and rapidly climbed to the top of the modern rock charts. Amazing, as Alien Ant Farm’s “Smooth Criminal” actually started when the guys were just “goofing around.”

One night during a show, the group played a couple bars of it impromptu between songs. The crowd loved it and so did the band’s members.

“The next day I just went and bought the Bad tape-and it was a cassette, because we were pretty poor,” said Cosgrove. “I went out and bought it, figured out the lyrics and we all got together and did everything…arranged it slightly different, but just pretty much did it and it was cool.”

The band knew they had stumbled upon a hit, but the extent of the song’s success still came as a surprise.

“We didn’t think it would be this crazy. We knew that people would listen to that and get that, so we kind of wanted to hold out on it, but it just got away from us.”

The video, which followed shortly thereafter, also proved to be one of the year’s most best. “We all got together with [director Marc] Klasfeld and just said, ‘Hey, let’s do a Michael Jackson video,'” said Cosgrove.

The video incorporates numerous Jackson references, including a chimp, a sequined white glove and a kid dancing the moonwalk. Cosgrove added that “if you’re going to do a Michael Jackson song, why not do a Michael Jackson video? He does good videos, too, you know?”

The band even sent a copy of the video to Jackson for his approval prior to its release, “to be respectable and more pay tribute and homage to him than try to rib him or anything like that.”

Apparently, Jackson likes the Alien Ant Farm remake. “We’ve heard from his people, because I guess he’s too rich to talk for himself anymore,” says Cosgrove. “He pretty much just said, ‘Hey, I like the song. You guys did a good job.'”

The song has seen scaled-back airplay recently, however, in the wake of the terror attacks of Sept. 11. The group does not necessarily agree with the reasoning, but they sympathize with it. “If anybody is affected or can’t bear to hear that song on during these times, then I would say go ahead and take it off. But I don’t think anybody’s that weak,” says Cosgrove. “It’s a little overboard, but at the same time, we’ve never experienced anything so terrible, so how do you know what’s right and what to do? I simply think we’re just going overboard, trying to take too many measures.”

Alien Ant Farm plays Saturday at The Quest (110 N. 5th St., Mpls. 612-338-3383). Pressure 4-5 and The Apex Theory open. 5 p.m. $12. All-Ages.