How Korn Changed My Life
After Brandon Mendenhall was born with cerebral palsy, doctors told him his paralysed left hand meant he’d never be able to play a musical instrument. That same day his grandfather cut the strings on the six-year-old’s favourite guitar, and his dreams of becoming a rockstar were crushed.
Life was tough for Brandon – not only were his family disapproving of his passion to make music, but he grew up in a trailer park and was regularly bullied because of his condition (which affects his left foot, hand and eye, plus his speech).
Then he discovered Korn… He immediately felt connected to the Bakersfield nu-metallers, who were outsiders themselves, and later learned that guitarist Munky (aka James Shaffer) had lost a finger in an accident, yet was still able to shred. It inspired him to do the impossible: rehabilitate his paralysed-left hand and find his own way to play.
Brandon is now the guitarist in his own band – The Mendenhall Experiment – and his inspiring story is told in Mind Over Matter, a documentary by former Korn videographer Sébastien Paquet, which comes out today (January 25) and features interviews with the members of Korn.
We got 35-year-old Brandon on the phone from his Los Angeles home to find how Munky and co. not only changed his life, but saved it…
When did you first hear Korn, Brandon?
“I was about 11 when I discovered that first record [the 1994 self-titled]. An older friend of mine was playing it as he was installing a car stereo, and I convinced him to let me borrow it and take it home. It changed everything. Once I heard that record a whole new world opened (laughs). I’d never heard a band like that – they had the slow heavy riffs like Slayer and the hip-hop influences, all mixed together, and Jonathan [Davis, frontman] was singing about stuff I could relate to from my troubled childhood. It was just everything I needed at that time.”
You’re pictured wearing plenty of Korn shirts in the documentary – how many did you own?
“I don’t think my teacher was exaggerating when he said I had a different Korn T-shirt for each day of the week. Because in ‘98/’99 they were putting out new shirts almost every week. At least my family were supportive of that (laughs)! They supported me buying the merch and going to the shows. They just didn’t want me playing live music in their house.”
And how did you come across the story about Munky losing his finger?
“I think I read it in a magazine. I ran over to my grandmother, and said, ‘Look! This guy cut his finger off and he’s opening for Megadeth… there’s no reason why I can’t play the guitar. Yeah, my hand’s messed up, but I never cut a finger off (laughs)!’ She was reluctant at first; it took me a couple of weeks to get her to lend me a thousand dollars to buy my first seven-string. I think the kicker was I found a deal on it, and she’s a sucker for a great deal (laughs).”
Tell us about when you met the band for the first time in 2001…
“I was waiting around before a show at a venue in Illinois. I’ve got a giant Korn tattoo across my shoulder blades, so I would just go and hang out outside the venue with my shirt off. As they rode into the venue they saw my tattoo from the bus and they sent the roadie out to come find me. He grabbed me, took me backstage and threw me in a room with just Munky and Head [guitarist Brian Welch] and I was just completely star struck. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. I had to take five minutes to walk out of the room and compose myself and then go back in and talk to them. I just wanted to tell them: ‘Thank you!’ and how much I appreciated what they do, and how much they’ve helped me through my disability, growing up in a trailer park, and all that kinda stuff. I remember we took pictures, and Head asked me about my guitar playing. I was telling him about my disability, and he was like, ‘So, can you shred?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah man, I do alright. I’m finding my way around it.’ And Munky said some words of encouragement, like ‘keep at it’ and they gave me tickets to their next show in St Louis.”
In 2006 you gave Munky a signed Steve Vai guitar which he used on that whole tour to play a solo he wrote inspired by you. The night you gave him the gift, guys had a chat that made you turned your life around. How did it go down?
“I was like, ‘I’m having a really hard time, nothing’s really lining up for me music wise…’ and he could tell I was on drugs at the time. I didn’t tell him directly, but he got it. I was like, ‘I can’t find a band to play with, and I’m at the end of my rope and I wanna give up.’ And that’s when he told me two things: 1) That I needed to clean my act up and get focused. Which I did after that. 2) He was like, ‘If you can’t find guys to play with you, or a band to join, then just do it yourself, make your own band based around your limitations, and find people to play with you that way.’ And that was how my band The Mendenhall Experiment came to be.”
You guys ended up spending a day in the studio writing a song with Munky. How would 15-year-old you have reacted if you’d told him that would happen one day?
“I would have been like, ‘What? You’re out of your mind (laughs)!’ Leading up to that session I was terrified ‘cause he’s sold 35 million records worldwide, and worked with all these giant producers, and has all this songwriting knowledge, and here I am, barely having my first record out. There I was at the starting point and he’s already won the Olympics (laughs). So it was a lot of nervousness and fear going into it, but once we got going, the vibe was super-cool, and the day was a smash success!”
How did that session come about?
“Sébastien [the director] and I approached Munky about doing an interview and he came back and said, ‘Why don’t we just go in the studio and take one of Brandon’s songs and fully produce it and I’ll play on it.’ It was his idea! Sebastian and I were looking at each other with our mouths open like, ‘Is this real? Is this happening?’ I was like, ‘You want me to go in the studio and do what with Munky?!’”
And what’s the best advice he’s given you?
“To just find my own way! And obviously not give up. My favourite piece of advice he’s given me in recent months was about playing live shows. I said, ‘How do you get over making mistakes when you’re playing live?’ And he said, ‘Just keep going. That moment has already passed, so don’t worry about the mistake and just keep going.’ That piece of advice has been so valuable to my live performance, because I don’t get in my head anymore about the little mistakes I make.”
So you’re in regular contact?
“Yeah, we communicate pretty regularly via email and I keep him updated as to what’s going on with me. When big things happen I know I can always go to him for advice or guidance, and he’s been there for me for the past 11 years. It’s really something!”
Now you’ve ticked ‘get in the studio with a Korn legend’ off your band’s bucket list, what’s next?
“Obviously I wanna tour the world, and I wanna continue to make great albums. But I still have the dream of getting platinum record success, and maybe a Grammy (laughs)! But outside of my own personal accolades, I just want this film to inspire as many people as possible, and be a tool for the younger generation of disabled kids and the people that deal with them.”
What message do you want to give people who have cerebral palsy?
“The number one message to take away from this film is: if you wanna do something in life, then go do it. And you can do it, but you have to work for it, nobody’s gonna hand it to you. And if you can’t find one way to do something, find another way. There’s always another way… that’s what I did. If I’d have kept down the same path that I was on with my guitar playing, and not found an alternate route, I don’t think I’d have been successful. But because I found my own way, and blazed my own trail, so to speak, look at me now! I’m a successful touring musician, living my life’s dream!”
Where would you be now if it wasn’t for Korn?
“Oh man, I owe everything to Korn. And particularly Munky and Head. Those guys have stepped up to help me out personally and professionally, like no other. And without Korn in my life, you wouldn’t be talking to me now, that’s for sure. I don’t think I’d be doing music on this level.”
You’re an inspiration Brandon! Is there anything you’d like to add?
“The one thing about this whole situation, is to have the guys from Korn come forward and say that they’re super proud of me and my accomplishments is so awesome, because I never got that from my grandfather or my grandparents. So to have my heroes come forward and say, ‘We’re really proud of you!’ There’s no amount of money in the world that could buy that. And the other thing to take away from my story: the movie is about showing society, if I can get over my disability, why can’t you? If I’m the one living with it, and I don’t have a problem with it? Why do you?”
Mind Over Matter is out now on all major digital platforms.
Words: Jennyfer J. Walker