Four years ago, Staind singer Aaron Lewis was covering songs by Korn and Limp Bizkit.
Now he hangs out with them and calls them part of his extended family.
"We're all friends, we all look out for each other," Lewis, 27, said of his new peers in the community of hard-rocking, hip-hop-influenced bands, in which he also includes Orgy. "I think it's a great thing that these bands are actually friends and not on some big ego competition trip."
Not bad for a guy who listened to folk rock by Gordon Lightfoot while growing up and was on his way into the family business before he made a detour into hard rock.
Lewis and his bandmates in Staind guitarist Mike Mushok, bassist Johnny April and drummer Jon Wysocki released their major-label debut, Dysfunction, in March.
The album, which has sold 75,000 copies, according to Elektra Records, doesn't share the heavy hip-hop influence of the band's new pals. Staind's aggressive sound mixes the industrial crunch of Tool with the morose, heavy rock of Seattle grunge-rockers Alice in Chains.
Staind formed in Springfield, Mass., in early 1995, shortly after Lewis returned home from a stint at the Atlanta School of Jewelry Technology, where he was studying to go into his family's goldsmithing business.
Staind covered such grunge and metal acts as Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine and White Zombie before writing their own material and eventually self-releasing their 1996 debut, Tormented.
"We got on a bill with Limp Bizkit just a couple months before Thanksgiving of 1997," Lewis said. "And [Limp Bizkit singer] Fred [Durst] wasn't happy when he saw [the album's cover]. He told us we were all f---ing wack and that he thought we were f---ing devil worshippers."
Durst seemingly got over the album cover's image of a bloody Bible impaled on a knife and checked out the group's show.
"For some reason, he stood side-stage the whole show and at the end of the set he had [changed his mind] and all of a sudden was talking about getting us signed," Lewis said. "I was surprised by it, and at the same time I was like, 'Yeah, whatever' " (RealAudio excerpt of interview).
Though skeptical at first, Lewis said he began to believe when Durst invited Staind to his Jacksonville, Fla., home a month later to record some material.
"Everything that Fred said would happen has happened," an ecstatic Lewis said last week from the Atlanta stop of the current Limp Bizkit tour, which features rap-rocker Kid Rock and Staind as openers. "I'm looking at our tour bus and I'm waiting to play with Bizkit in front of 5,000 people."
Durst also hooked up Staind with producer Terry Date (Limp Bizkit, Buckcherry, the Deftones), one of the hottest hard-rock producers of the past decade. "Fred brought them to me and I immediately thought Aaron's voice was pretty undeniable," Date, 42, said.
With Durst, author of the rap-rock hit "Nookie" (RealAudio excerpt), already having done most of the preproduction work, Date said his only challenge was to capture the explosive live feel of the band and help bring out both their melodic and hard sensibilities.
"Musical styles rotate and cycle through," Date said of the preponderance of popular groups currently using both new-wave melody and '80s hard rock as touchstones. "And there's a couple of ingredients: First you need bands with original ideas, and the second thing is boredom with what's been going on. There's a new generation of kids that want their own music, not what their older brother was listening to, and when you get bands like Staind and Korn, it gives people their own identity."
Lewis' dark but melodic vocals and deeply personal lyrics hold the group's heavy pop songs together. The soft-spoken singer said he had a troubled childhood, and songs such as the brooding rock ballad "Just Go" (RealAudio excerpt), the album's first single, sketch dark events that have colored his life.
"Such a cancer on the face of everything that's beautiful," Lewis croons through gritted teeth and a crunching, Alice in Chains-like guitar line. "I feel so dirty/ I'm kind of tragic/ I'm kind of insecure/ But I know that I'm the only one that can fix whatever's wrong I'm sure."
Durst directed the video for the song, which shows a troubled young woman leaping from an apartment ledge into a swimming pool.
"All the lyrics are about me," Lewis said of the dark words he often improvised in the studio. "That's why it's called Dysfunction. It's just a list of all the f---ed-up sh-- I've gone through in life."
Among the personal travails Lewis dissects in songs such as "Suffocate," "Me" and the album's next single, "Mudshovel" (RealAudio excerpt), are sexual abuse and learning that his mother never loved his father.
Even with intense therapy and the emotional release of venting his traumas on CD, Lewis said he has no problem calling up those emotions during shows.
"I just do it for 35 minutes every night and go on with the rest of my day," he said. "It keeps me on an even keel. I get all my frustrations and aggressions out onstage and get my peace and tranquility from fishing during the day."