How Brandon Mendenhall overcame his cerebral palsy to make a metal record
Talking to Brandon Mendenhall about achieving his dream of recording music with his friends
"The Mendenhall Experiment is my literal experiment to see if I, 'the kid with cerebral palsy' from small-town Illinois could move to Los Angeles, survive, write a batch of songs, form a band, and then elevate that band to a national level of success in today’s music world."
That's Brandon Mendenhall, guitarist and mastermind behind the aforementioned Mendenhall Experiment, who overcame his disability to live out his dream as a guitar hero in Los Angeles.
Brandon Mendenhall who was born with cerebral palsy – a neurological condition that affects movement, coordination and balance – taught himself how to play guitar despite having limited movement in the left side of his body. Forming the band in 2008, he's just released his debut self-titled EP, which features A Perfect Circle alumni Danny Lohner and Munky from Korn.
"Korn fans find attachment to Jonathan’s lyrics, to the power of the music. They are able to connect with it. And Brandon is one of these people, and it’s helped him," Munky tells Metal Hammer.
"Since the first time I met him in 2000, he had this vision of him moving to Los Angeles and starting a career and forming a band and he’s doing it! Over the years, I have seen his speech improve, his career improve and his dreams come to life. I’m really proud of him. He is showing the world that nothing on his earth can hold him back from his dream."
We caught up with Brandon to find out more about his band, his life with cerebral palsy, and inspiring other young people with disabilities to pick up an instrument.
How did you discover heavy metal?
"My former neighbour and best friend would install car stereos when I was a kid and I would just hear different heavy music at random, which peaked my interest, so I started borrowing CDs from his collection. That's where I first discovered bands like Nine Inch Nails, Korn, Slayer, Metallica and Pantera who would ultimately inspire me to play guitar and make this my career."
How does your cerebral palsy affect your every day life?
"Every day is different to a degree, I never know how my body is going to react from day to day – my fatigue and energy levels vary affecting my sleep patterns and mental focus.
"My cerebral palsy affects my left side: my foot, my hand, my eye and my speech. My muscles are never fully at rest and my mind often wanders depending on my level of fatigue. I also have chronic pain in my left foot from the nine corrective surgeries I've had as a result of my condition. Sometimes it feels like I'm walking on glass and I also live with the reality that the next surgery could be right around the corner, contributing to my daily battle with anxiety and depression. All that being said, I do my best to live life with a positive attitude and continue to push my career forward while focusing on my strengths not weaknesses."
You taught yourself to play guitar with a paralysed hand, what was the process and what kept you going?
"Learning to play guitar was a struggle for me until I learned how to utilise drop tunings like drop D and drop C, allowing me to play 'flat' one or two finger barre chords. Once I got that down, I could focus on song-writing and arrangements, and less on the technical side of not being able to make the traditional chord shapes with my left hand. Things really started to progress from that point on. The thrill of playing live for thousands of people has always been my main driving factor to keep going and continue to push my boundaries. It's my goal to play all the big European open air festivals like the UK’s Download Festival someday soon."
Did you ever think you would play in a band?
"Playing in a band was always my goal from day one of picking up the instrument. Getting there was difficult, I quickly realised that joining an existing project because of the limitations of my left hand was a slim reality. No-one wanted to give me an audition or work around my challenges of my disability. I almost gave up until I confided in Munky and he told me the best thing I could do was to start my own project based around my abilities and forge my own path."
So how did the band form?
"The Mendenhall Experiment formed out of trial and error and a revolving door of musicians until we found 'the golden line-up' or myself, vocalist Mario Valadez, lead guitarist Mike Lira, drummer Bruce Lira, and bassist Nate Stockton who was born partially deaf and blind. It's a group of guys that share the same common goal with our music and promoting our message of disability awareness to the masses."
How did Munky and Danny Lohner get involved?
"Munky and Head have always been my two main guitar heroes that inspired me to play the instrument. Over the years, Munky and I have become friends and he became my mentor. So when the opportunity came about to work together on the song Prosthetic, I think it was an easy decision from both camps. Danny Lohner and I met and became friends via our manager and UFC watch parties hosted by some members of the LA rock scene. Once I got the guts to show Danny our music, he was happy to lend his talents to the album."
Do you feel like something of a role model or inspiration for kids with disabilities?
"I don't put myself on a pedestal like that, but I would hope that I am viewed as an inspiration and a role model to kids especially. Let’s face it, if you put a guitar in a child's hands, that kid could grow up to be the next Dimebag Darrell or Eddie Van Halen. Disability or not, no one knows until given the opportunity."
How important are people like yourself and your band in raising disability awareness?
"I feel the need to be the voice for change on how society views those with disabilities, and I hope this inspires others to follow, creating a much larger movement. We use our band and our music to raise disability awareness and to fight the common stereotype that people with disabilities are 'not capable'. Imagine what we could accomplish if more people joined our fight."
What else would you like to achieve with the band?
"We would like to tour with our heroes and see the world, while gaining national success, rocking huge festivals and waving the metal flag. The bigger we get, the more lives we can impact with our message, that's the endgame."
What advice do you have for other people with cerebral palsy who want to perform live music?
"Never give up. Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses. Practice, practice, practice. "Don't let other people's opinions of your disability limit you. Most importantly, have fun and enjoy the journey."
The Mendenhall Experiment's self-titled EP is out now, and available to download from iTunes.