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Skinny looks offended. One question, and already I've been too intrusive. I dared ask, What is your real name?

I follow that up with How old are you? After a painstaking silence, Skinny, drummer in the area band Mushroomhead, answers, "Almost 28, but please don't print that." He makes me feel guiltier than if I were Barbara Walters grilling Christopher Reeve on the dangers of horseback riding.

Skinny's not trying to be difficult; he's just protective of the band's mysterious image. Ever since Mushroomhead first erupted onto the Cleveland music scene in 1995, the group has built a large, cult-like following unrivaled by any local band since Michael Stanley. Mushroomhead consistently sells out the Cleveland Agora, and devoted fans recently followed the nine-member band to a gig in Manhattan. But fans have never seen their faces; their real names appear nowhere on their albums.

"Nobody knows who we really are because we'd rather people have us be who they want us to be," Skinny says. "It's not like some long-haired fucking dude up there. It's a unity thing. We don't want to become like Marilyn Manson or Trent Reznor, where all the focus is on one guy."

After much prodding, the drummer reveals his marital status (he's happily hitched to a photographer). Nobody calls him Steve (his real name). His only hobbies are collecting comic books, playing video games, and getting high. He's currently into PJ Harvey, Bjsrk, and the techno band Lamb. He smokes three packs of cigarettes a day because of stress. No matter how hard he works for the band's record label, he always has to go back to his day job at the machine shop. He spends most of his off time producing the rap group 10,000 Cadillacs and the speed-metal band 216. He rarely socializes.

Skinny, sporting jeans, black T-shirt, boots, long blond dreadlocks, and sensitive green eyes, doesn't even want people to know the city where Mushroomhead members live, saying only that all nine live in the Cleveland area, and that it takes them "twenty minutes to get to any titty bar."

Skinny also wants to keep his race a secret, since 10,000 Cadillacs is a rap project.

"I don't wanna get stereotyped as Vanilla Ice-white boys doing rap," he explains.

Skinny is even leery about explaining how Mushroomhead got its name, saying only, "It had to be."

One thing Skinny is comfortable talking about is the music, which has been described as a cross between Pantera and Faith No More. But Mushroomhead, which once opened for Beavis and Butt-head favorite Gwar, is best known for its performance art, a bizarre stage show where anything can and does happen.

While scantily clad male/female performance-dance duo Roxy and Bronson simulate sex onstage, Mushroomhead band members--all wearing elaborate masks and costumes--wail mostly original tunes as well as purposefully cheesy electronic covers of songs such as Technotronic's "Pump Up the Jam." At the Agora's Halloween show, the band members played with real pumpkins on their heads and camouflage outfits. Vocalist Jeffrey Nothing's signature look is a wedding dress and devil mask.

Mushroomhead's other members are Dinner and J.J. Righteous on guitar, Shmotz on keyboards, and Pig Benis on bass.

"Most of us grew up together," Skinny says. "We were like little vandals together. We're all old-school metal dudes."

J Mann, who writes many of the lyrics, is the philosopher of the group.
"No one can make sense of us," says J Mann, after noting for the second time that today was the 64th birthday of Charles Manson. "It's like a masquerade party. It makes you very impulsive and sincere, and sincerity is the most important thing in the music. No lines are drawn. This band is fuckin' do whatever. I don't mean that in a diabolistic way, but in a pure way. Like life is too short, so live."

It's Friday, November 21; the band is performing at the Flying Machine in blue-collar Lorain. More than 400 people show up to pay a $10 door charge to see the band's show. J Mann and Skinny, wearing street clothes, show up hours early to mingle anonymously with the crowd. An eclectic crowd sports Mushroomhead T-shirts and sweatshirts. Others show up in pink hair or Renaissance-period clothing or feather boas with Gothic get-ups.

The band is slated to start playing at 11:30 p.m. At nearly 12:30, there's no sign of Mushroomhead. When The Muppet Show theme song plays on the loudspeakers, the fans know what's coming. The curtain lowers and J Mann screeches, "What time is it?" When someone in the audience says, "12:20," the vocalist yells back, "We play by our own fucking rules!" After noting that the bar is next door to a trailer park, J Mann says, "Let's hear it for all the white trash out there!" The music starts, the crowd cheers, young boys start moshing.

Mushroomhead enjoys peddling sex. Skinny recalls the time Roxy, the female half of the dance duo, got thrown out of an Akron club during a show. "We had Roxy in front of a big white movie screen with a projector behind her, and she was really blowing Bronson. They got yanked offstage and we finished without them. Now a lot of people come up to us and say, 'Can you introduce me to Roxy? What's Roxy's phone number?'"

J Mann, who works at an upscale restaurant during the day, has a wide vocal range. He can sound like "Puff Daddy with a cold" one minute and Satan the next. He is far less inhibited than Skinny about talking about what makes him tick, freely talking about his love for pornographic movies. "Ginger Lynn was the first porn star I ever masturbated to," he says. "Don't get me wrong, I still had a thing for Blondie and Stevie Nicks, but I didn't know what to do with it then."

J Mann admits that the band's shock value has contributed to its popularity, but he says much of Mushroomhead's fan base is made up of people who appreciate the band's intellectual side.

"It all goes back to the music and the lyrics," he says. "You're in a closet, but at the same time you're on top of the Empire State Building. It's the most alone you can feel, yet you're telling them your deepest secret. You can't tell your best friend, yet you're telling 2,000 people. I try to write in riddles. Keep it as vague as possible. A lot of people come up to me and say, 'That is my life.'"

J Mann, who says his favorite authors are Proust, William Burroughs, and Hunter S. Thompson, gets to be less intellectual as the rapper for 10,000 Cadillacs. "All I write about is Cadillacs and pimps," he says, adding, "For some white kids, we got soul."

Skinny says it doesn't bother him that mainstream success is not likely in Mushroomhead's future, even though the band's merchandise and shows are hot locally.

"We don't do this to make money, not to be big," he says. "We just love playing music. That's the whole idea behind the mask. We were sick of all the glory hounds. This is our way at getting back at them.

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