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Dead Cross Guitarist Mike Crain Reflects on How Their Latest Album II “Saved His Life”


For guitarist Mike Crain, there were moments when Dead Cross’s newest offering II seemed like a distant reality. But through perseverance, pain, and agony, Crain aided in crafting a record that saved his life.

In the face of a harsh reality, including a pandemic, a singer on the rocks, and a cancer diagnosis that nearly killed him, life seemed pretty bleak for the versatile six-stringer. But an immense will to live, only rivaled by a love to create and consume music, pushed Crain back into the studio in the wake of debilitating cancer treatments.

While facing his mortality, Dead Cross’s axe-wielding hero elicited demonic sounds en route to a modern-day classic primed to follow up the group’s stout 2017 debut for the ages. Playing through sickness and pain, Crain stared death in its cold, stony face, gritted his teeth, and menacingly spat back vengeance and electrified heroics.

“So, for me, I wasn’t restless or nervous at all,” Crain recalled. “My mental state was either I get busy living, or I get busy dying. And making music with those guys is the best way I could think of to live and move forward.”

As fate would have it, just as Crain rose from the ashes, besting a deadly disease and preparing to embark on the next phase of his musical journey, the COVID-19 pandemic halted the album sessions. What’s more, Dead Cross’s vocalist Mike Patton fell into a period of emotional turmoil in the wake of isolation, further pushing II into a limbo-like state.

Like Crain, Patton emerged victorious, as did Dead Cross, and to say the results of music laid to tape are staggering would be an unmitigated understatement. And though a great many punk and metal records will fall through the cracks in listeners’ cache in 2022, it’s imperative that Dead Cross’s II is one that’s not missed.

Musicality aside, it isn’t often that a record’s backstory is perhaps more significant than the sum of its parts. Understanding the intense emotional and physical pain that Crain and Patton endured in gifting this music to the masses cannot be understated. For those reasons and more, II will forever be special, earning, if not demanding, its place in rock lore.

“As serious as this all sounds, and I just realized this, for me, this was all really fucking intense,” recollected Crain. “So, you’re asking me about this record, well, for me, the record was intense, and all I can do is tell it as it happened and tell it like it is for me.”

In the wake of an intense period of musical and personal reflection, guitarist Mike Crain settled in to recount the painstaking process of creating Dead Cross’s stunning sophomore effort, II.

What were some of the challenges Dead Cross faced following its self-titled debut?

After our European tour, we started assembling some of the material, writing, and rehearsing in 2018. Everyone’s in so many bands, so it’s challenging because we all have to be free. So, going into 2019, we were periodically writing, and I always have a lot of riffs, parts, and loose song structures, being that I have a studio and I’m a songwriter. So, I’ve always maintained a fairly healthy surplus of stuff to choose from, so it started there.

But at the end of 2019, I got diagnosed with cancer during the summertime, which put the brakes on everything for me. I started treatments at the beginning of October 2019, and they were brutal, so much so that they almost killed me. And during that process, towards the end, there was a minute when I didn’t think I was going to make it, but then I got to a place where I got fucking defiant. I was so mad at cancer, and that anger honestly forced me into living; it forced me to fight to stay alive. I was at this point where either I was gonna live, or I was gonna die, and I was like, “You know what? With everything I’ve fucking been through my lifetime, I’ll be fucking damned if I’m gonna let cancer kill me now.”

So, I was nearing the end of my treatments, and I got a hold of the other guys and said to them, “Listen, let’s book some studio time. I’m at the end of my treatments; let’s do it. Fuck it.” And they were all like, “Shit, man. Really? Are you sure?” And I was like, “Yes. Guys, I’ve never been surer of anything. I need to do this.” And then I got a hold of Greg Werkman at Ipecac and our producer Ross Robinson, and we assembled.

Once you were in the studio, how did your illness affect the sessions?

So, we started tracking in December 2019. Tracking was rough because I was sick; I was incredibly sick and in a ton of pain. But being with those guys in the studio was everything I needed to heal, so I leaned into that process, got off all the pain meds, and let the chemo and everything run its course and get out of my system. And man, honestly, making this record saved my life; this record, and my dogs, they saved my life. But anyway, we finished tracking in January 2020, and the way Dead Cross does it is we make all the music first, get a good rough mix going, and then we handed it off to Mike Patton.

Mike also went through difficulties during the recording of II, right? Did those issues alter the sessions at all?

For sure. So, Patton was more involved in this record than the first one. And some of the material he’d already heard and gave us his two cents on, like maybe we would add a key change or extend the chorus, things of that nature. But once we dialed in the music, we sent it off to him around January or February 2020. And then I went on tour with my other Ipacac band, the Cunts. We went out with the Melvins in March of 2020, and as we know, that’s when everything changed due to COVID, and along with that, the record’s progress went on hold.

It was during that time that Patton’s issues started to come to the surface, and as he’s talked about before, he started to suffer during the pandemic due to isolation. Additionally, whatever underlying things Patton had going on, all of that emerged during the pandemic too. So, after that happened, all the vocals got pushed off even further. Honestly, this is when I had a moment, and I think we all felt this way; there was this moment we weren’t sure if this record was gonna ever see the light of day. So much time passed, and we didn’t think it was gonna happen, but then out of nowhere, Patton fuckin’ delivered, man. He started knocking vocals out and sending us mixes and takes. Once we had those, the final mixing was fast, and we had it done and mastered in about two weeks. All the art was finished quickly, and that was it.

Dead Cross Guitarist Mike Crain Reflects on How Their Latest Album II “Saved His Life”
All images courtesy of Speakeasy PR/Image credit: Becky Gigilio

You mentioned that, at one point, you felt this record wouldn’t be finished. What was the turning point in your mind?

Well, towards the end of my cancer treatments when I talked to Mike, Dave, Justin, Greg, and Ross, and we collectively decided to book studio time and get on it. That was a turning point. When everyone was on board 100%, that changed everything, the other turning point was when Patton came out of what he was going through and delivered the vocals. We always had faith in him, but we just didn’t know when or if this record would be a priority over his health.

This record seems to feature more extended and dynamic compositions. Would you say that the struggles you collectively faced catered to that approach?

I know what you mean; it’s definitely more emotional. There are more parts, and I think we’re trying to say more on this record than on the first. The first record we wrote on the fly, and there wasn’t a lot of thought that went into those songs. There wasn’t a lot of preparation, and a lot of them weren’t as personal. But the songs on this record are way more personal, at least for me. And I’m sure for Patton as well, considering that we both almost died making it. And Justin [Pearson] and Dave [Lombardo] don’t do anything half-assed. Those guys are all in or all out.

Early on, Dead Cross was saddled with the “supergroup” label. Do you feel ready to shake that?

Well, I don’t know. Honestly, I always thought when people labeled Dead Cross as a supergroup; I felt like it was a little ridiculous. I mean, it’s a compliment, but I don’t consider myself super at anything. [Laughs]. I play guitar to keep from killing myself; that’s why I make music. I don’t give a fuck about anything else other than making rad songs with rad people. That’s it.

As varied as the members of Dead Cross are, how do you balance your collective interests to form a cohesive sound?

As a guitarist, I just try to play to the best of my ability. That doesn’t mean it’s good; it doesn’t mean anything other than that’s just how I feel in that moment. As a band, everyone’s been doing this for so long, and I feel like Mike Patton, Justin Pearson, and Dave Lombardo are going to do what they do and be otherworldly. Patton is an insane vocalist, and those other two guys are legends on their instruments. Justin Pearson has such a unique sound that is hard to replicate, and he’s original as hell. I don’t know, though; I’ve never thought about us as having a particular sound; I think bands are just a collection of people’s energy, and specific energies and skillsets blend well with others. Certain bands are fucking incredible, and then some bands suck. It either works, or it doesn’t, and in our case, it works.

How do you best measure your influence on the band?

I really don’t know. [Laughs]. I just write all the riffs I can, and then I do my best to assemble them in a way that makes sense and keeps the listener engaged. Sometimes it works better than others, and sometimes we need Ross Robinson to help guide that process. Sometimes Dave guides the process, sometimes Justin, and sometimes Patton. But I do my best to have as much material as possible for these guys to be stoked on. That’s how I see my role in Dead Cross.

The first track I wanted to hit on is “Heart Reformer,” which seems like an outlier.

I remember when we were writing, I wrote some of those parts, and Ross helped us form a full song. From there, it became cohesive, but overall, when I think of that song, it’s just a lot of fun. That’s the best way I can describe it. That song is just fun to play, and toward the end of the track, there’s this part where the whole song falls apart, like a breakdown, and then it goes into an outro, which is slightly different than many of the other songs. Lyrically, I would have to read the lyrics to form an opinion, but musically, it is just a fun song to mosh to; that’s what I was going for. That was really it. There wasn’t much more to it, and there wasn’t a lot of forethought into it. But I will say you’re right, it’s a bit different than other songs on the album, and that’s because it’s fun by design.

Dead Cross Guitarist Mike Crain Reflects on How Their Latest Album II “Saved His Life”
All images courtesy of Speakeasy PR/Image credit: Becky Gigilio

How about “Christian Missile Crisis?”

So, with that one, when I wrote that riff, I had a classic punk/thrash type of thing in my head. It’s a song where when I was writing it and trying to come up with the chorus, Ross weighed in and gave me some ideas. We were putting it together, and Ross came out of the tracking room one day and said, “Let’s play with the chorus and give Patton a bigger canvas to paint with vocally,” so we made some changes. And this is one where it also has an extended outro, so I guess that was something I was going for on this record. [Laughs].

But there’s a story with the title “Christian Missile Crisis.” So, that was a title I came up with back in 1998 for a post-punk band I was going to do with Justin. But as history has shown, that band never happened because I was too fucked up on drugs. And so, because of the state I was in, we axed the band, and all we had was just a potential name for a band that never went anywhere. [Laughs]. So, I’m glad that the name got recycled and used for the song because I was holding onto it for a long time. And it’s another one where I can’t speak to the lyrics; I’d have to listen closely to form an opinion. But musically, again, there wasn’t a lot of forethought into that one either; the parts work together. I wish I had something more profound to say, but it’s just one where the parts work super well together.

The last one I wanted to hit on was “Imposter Syndrome.” What are your recollections?

So, that one was special to me. I like Patton’s vocals on that song. Honestly, man, that song is fucking incredible. It’s just an emotional song for me because I remember playing the song and being really sick and in pain. I was so sick and in so much fucking pain, but I wasn’t miserable because I was happy to be playing guitar. So, there’s a lot of emotion in this song, at least from me, and I feel like Patton picked up on that.

With a lot of music, it’s about how you interpret the lyrics and the sounds and listening to it, to me, Patton’s vocals feel incredibly deep. It feels like he knew what I was going through, and it also sounds like he was very aware of what he was going through with his demons as well. The song is emotional for me. I don’t know what it is. I wish I could articulate it better for you, but it’s just a song that cuts deeply into me, all the way down to my soul. I’m not the best music critic because it’s much easier to play and create than to discuss and dissect.

Given what you endured, when you look back on this record, what sort of meaning will it hold?

This record is the record that saved my life. This record helped me beat cancer, and I hope this record helps other people overcome whatever they’re going through. I hope this record helps other people overcome hardships in their lives or at least inspires them. I mean, that’s what punk, metal, thrash, goth, and music, in general, have done for me throughout my life. Life isn’t always easy, but music makes it a whole hell of a lot better.

What are you looking forward to most as you move forward, Mike?

Playing guitar and smiling. Honestly, man, that’s it. I want to keep it as simple as possible. Truthfully, you can boil it down to being creative and happy. That’s all you can ask for. And honestly, just another day alive – let’s be even more real – that’s not guaranteed. That’s one thing that was made very clear to me during cancer – you’re not promised tomorrow. Nobody is promised another day alive on this earth, not anybody. So, it’s good to talk about this and to remember not to take things for granted.

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