If there’s one thing 33-year-old Los Angeles musician Brandon Mendenhall doesn’t want, it’s your sympathy. Mendenhall, originally from Illinois, was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that affects the muscles, movement, speech, coordination and balance.
“The cerebral palsy causes my muscles to not function properly. I have motor coordination difficulties — it affects my speech, the movement in my left hand and the way I walk,” Mendenhall says during a recent phone interview.
“The biggest misconception a lot of people have about people with disabilities is that we aren’t capable and they need to feel sorry for us,” he continues. “I think a lot of people feel so bad they don’t even want to talk to us or approach us.”
Mendenhall is the guitarist and main songwriter for The Mendenhall Experiment, a band whose mission, he says, is to remove the social stigma that comes with having a disability. The Mendenhall Experiment began in 2008 and currently features Mendenhall, lead guitarist Michael Lira, Michael's brother Bruce Lira on drums, vocalist Mario Valadez and bassist Nate Stockton.
“This band is about trying to change that initial perception when you meet someone with a disability, so you don’t automatically assume they are not capable of doing something or being a good person or a good friend or even able to function in life,” Mendenhall explains.
“I took all that negativity
Growing up with cerebral palsy was far from easy, and Mendenhall faced a plethora of hardships, including a family that didn't always support his dream of being a musician. “Growing up, everyone told me that I couldn't do this or that, that my body was not cut out for this,” he says. His grandparents raised him and his grandfather was adamantly against his dreams of being a musician, discouraging him from even trying.
Understandably, this left a young Mendenhall angry and hurt, but he used these emotions as motivators. “I took all that negativity, pain and anger and turned it into inspiration, to fire my passions of music and guitar playing.”
Mendenhall says that he was drawn to music from a young age, dealing with the emotional ups and downs of being a teenager, along with the physical limitations his body faced due to his condition. He gravitated early toward metal. “Of course I was into the heavier bands, like the Big Four: Megedeth, Anthrax, Metallica and Slayer. But for me, the 'Big Three' were Korn, Pantera and Nine Inch Nails. It was just something about those three bands — their use of guitar tuning, dissonance, chords and the emotion in their music — [that] I could really relate to. I used their music as emotional therapy to overcome my disability and still love them to this day.”
At age 19, Mendenhall got his first guitar and it changed his life. He began to slowly rehabilitate his paralyzed left hand and got formal guitar lessons — but after 14 months, he decided to go down his own path as a musician. “I did research and read about open tunings and drop tuning, and I realized that I can use those formats to maneuver around my disability as a guitar player and songwriter,” he said. “For me, songwriting and the arrangement is the most important part of music.”
The Mendenhall Experiment recently released their self-titled debut EP to much critical acclaim, and have thus far shared stages with and opened for acts including P.O.D., Alien Ant Farm and Kill Devil Hill. They even played the Rocklahoma festival in May.
The six-song EP features guest appearances from Danny Lohner, formerly of Nine Inch Nails and A Perfect Circle, and Munky from Korn. “Munky is a personal guitar hero of mine since I was a teenager,” Mendenhall says, “and seeing them perform all these times, I was fortunate enough to get to meet him and maintain a friendship with him over the years.”
There is a documentary about Mendenhall's life story in the works called Mind Over Matter, slated for release in 2018, and plans for a tour to support the band's debut album. “Nothing is 100 percent yet, so I can’t really say, but there will be extensive touring this summer,” he says.
With a condition that puts such physical limits on the body, Mendenhall has a secret for maintaining his optimistic attitude and drive to succeed. “I believe in the law of attraction in the universe,” he says. “Putting out positive brings you positive things in this life in return, and I feel like my story is a true testament to that.”
Mendenhall hopes people will enjoy his band’s music, a mixture of hard rock and catchy, melodic heavy metal. But just as important, he hopes The Mendenhall Experiement will raise awareness for people with disabilities. He invites anyone with a disability to come to the shows, promising they will get VIP treatment. “People with disabilities are just that — we’re people. We’re oftentimes just as capable if not more capable of doing things [as] people who aren’t disabled.”
He sums up The Mendenhall Experiment's message: “Never give up and keep going, because you only fail if you give up. So don’t ever stop, keep pushing. It will be a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs, but if you keep at it long enough, good things will happen for you.”