Aesthetically perhaps the kind of men you might cross the street to avoid, Atlanta foursome Mastodon aren’t the aggressive, confrontational individuals that one might have thought them to be upon the release of their debut album ‘Remission’.
While their 2002 breakthrough was brashly direct in its brutality, over the years the band’s sound has expanded, introducing prog-rock elements to an already intoxicating brew. Now, with fourth album ‘Crack The Skye’, they find themselves in a unique position: more popular than ever, but currently playing the sort of music that, at times, is more reminiscent of your dad’s Yes records than any modern metal.
It seems the wrong way around: typically a band refines its sound to embrace a wider audience, not layer it so that so many constituent pieces are at work, simultaneously, that the effect can be absolutely dizzying. Yet this is what ‘Crack The Skye’ is all about: adventurous musicianship honed over years of hard practise. That, and astral travel, obviously – see, conceptually all of Mastodon’s records are rich in depth, ripe for investigation by those seeking more than just a stiff neck in the morning after so much head-banging.
But even if you just appreciate the quartet at the most basic level – i.e. you rock out to their wares, perhaps while they’re supporting Metallica (which they are right now – check MySpace for listings) – you’ll still have a whale of a time. Appropriately so, given the subject matter for second LP ‘Leviathan’: Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.
Clash sits down with vocalist and guitarist Brent Hinds (he of tattooed face and infectious smile) and fellow guitarist Bill Kelliher (awesome moustache and steady banter; the band is completed by bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders and drummer Brann Dailor) for a chat about Mastodon’s latest album – reviewed HERE – and, basically, just to shoot the shit for a while. See, this writer is quite the fan…
I’ve been listening back to ‘Remission’ a fair bit over the last few days – does it feel like the blink of an eye ago that you were making that record?
Bill: Well, that was the beginning of our career, but it really doesn’t feel that long ago.
Brent: We’ve actually been talking about going out and playing the entire ‘Remission’ album. We were discussing it when we were in the car for three hours, because your Tube was shut down. (Nb. This interview was conducted during the recent London Underground strike.)
Yeah, sorry – it’s not the best time for promo. But listening back to ‘Remission’…
Bill: … It’s a lot more brutal.
It is. And it’s funny how, as you’ve diversified, your popularity has grown. I’d have thought the typical major label deal would see these tangents reined in. I mean, the scope of textures and layers on ‘Crack The Skye’ is huge…
Bill: Well, we had a lot more time in the studio this time, and we’re pretty experienced when it comes to that now. We had nearly a full year to demo the material, and really think about what we wanted to do with it, rather than it being: boom, bam, you’ve two months off to go and write and record a record. Do it, and then go on tour again – that’s how it was for eight or nine years. But now it’s a totally different beast. And working with Brendan (O’Brien – the band used the Rage Against The Machine, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Incubus producer on ‘Crack The Skye’ after three albums alongside Matt Bayles) was like a whole new world. We worked at home in Atlanta, which meant we could sleep in our own beds at night, and he was right on the same page as us from the start. He knew exactly what we were going for – that sort of old, prog-rock analogue sound – and he knew all the references we’d drop in: “Oh, you want this old Mellotron sound from this Yes record?”
Brent: We were like, “Wait, you have a Mellotron!?”.
Bill: We had so much at our disposal – he had, like, literally hundreds of guitars. We were just really ready to record this record, whereas in the past we always felt we needed more time.
Well I guess there were greater time constraints before.
Bill: Definitely. But, y’know, we did need to do all of this touring to get to this stage. You live and learn, and now we know we need that time to rest and relax, to go our separate ways for a bit when we’re off tour, to get the most out of recording.
Brent: But we also need the time on the road, around other people, picking up inspiration and learning from how others play. We’re always looking at how other guitarists are playing, and seeing how we can take those passages and apply them to the structure of our own sound.
Are you quite magpie-like, then? “Oooh, shiny, I want it…”
Brent: I’m a leech. If you’re doing something in front of me, I’ve already ripped it off. And if I don’t get what you’re doing, then I’ll just make up something around what I saw you doing – it’ll sound completely different, but you’ll have inspired me to move my fingers in a way I never have before.
Is the physicality of your performances just as important as the music you’re actually playing? By which I mean that need to push your fingers into shapes they’re uncomfortable in…
Brent: Well, it doesn’t matter how physically hard it is – it’s more about how physically cool it is. And, if it feels awkward, that’s what you want – you want to feel comfortable with that awkwardness.
Bill: To constantly play the same style over and over, without learning from anyone, that’s just boring. It’s great to make an awkward note, to make yourself work that it harder.
Brent: It’s never that difficult, honestly. I’ve never learned other peoples’ music, because I just didn’t have the patience, but now I’m going to try to learn, on guitar, one of Stevie Wonder’s keyboard solos from 1974. It’s one with a talk-box. I heard it, and I thought: “I need to be able to play that on guitar”. So, as soon as I get home, I’m on that.
Do you never, like, stop when you’re off tour? Y’know, give music a rest for a week or two?
Brent: (Laughs) No! When I get ‘free’ time, I use it playing in my other bands.
But it’s not like you’ve any time off for a while anyway – you’re on tour ‘til September, is that right?
Bill: Yep, I think we get September off, and then we’re through ‘til Christmas.
Brent: We’re doing a tour with Dethklok and High On Fire all through the US.
Dethklok is the cartoon metal band, right? …Trail of Dead had a horrible time touring with them.
Brent: Really? Why? We played a show with them and it was amazing, in Montreal.
I think it was more the places they played – university campuses and stuff. The guys that actually play are all super-slick session musicians, basically, right?
Bill: Frank Zappa’s guitar player is in the band.
Brent: I am dying to go on tour with them – I’ll learn so much.
Bill: We’ve been on the road for like eight or nine years – I don’t think we’ve ever really turned down a tour – so to be at this stage now, and have these opportunities, seems quite natural. We’ve toured with Iron Maiden, and we’ve played with Slayer a bunch of times, and now we’re out with Metallica – it doesn’t get much bigger than that in our world. ‘Tallica is kind of like the top of the line.
What does the 12 year old in each of you make of touring with Metallica? I bet you were pretty nervous the first time you met them…
Brent: Aww, man, they’re super-cool guys, and so mellow.
Bill: There were moments, though. Metallica hit me at the right moment, when I was in a transient state from punk to metal, because I didn’t really like metal. But to me Metallica were never really metal – they were like classical music played on guitars, like Mozart with fuckin’ guitars. They made me change my whole outlook on playing guitar, and when I saw James Hetfield I was like: “I wanna be like that dude”. When I saw the back cover of ‘Master Of Puppets’, with them stood in front of an audience of, like, thousands of people, that was when realised: “That is what I wanna do”.
Brent: “I wanna stand there!”
Bill: I wanted to grow long hair and rock heavy, awesome music.
And now you’re playing with them!
Bill: And now we’re playing with them… When I first met James, I admit I was a bit like that kid – but I had to try to act cool. Like: “Hey, man, thanks for making me learn to play guitar”.
I’m sure after a few minutes in their company it was clear that they’re just ordinary guys. Well, pretty much.
Brent: Of course, and they’re super nice. Taking to them is just like talking to you – they’re super-awesome people, who like to do the same things that we do.
Bill: We now get kids coming up to us, and their hands are all shaking, but we’re like: “Dude, we’re just normal people, like you”. It can be weird, and it can feel uncomfortable sometimes – they’re in my shoes when I was their age. I try to be cool, like: “Yo, what’s up man? Have a drink, relax!”
Brent: You’ve got to let them know you’re real, and not be a fuckin’ asshole.
But there must be nights where you don’t want to hang and say hi to the kids, where you just want to head back to the bus for whatever reason…
Brent: Of course.
Bill: That’s why we do things like go into HMVs and sign stuff, and meet all these kids at one time. That way it’s real quick, but kids take it the wrong way if we don’t want to sign anything, or speak to them for a long time; they’re like: “What a dick, man”. But they don’t understand that we do this every day, and when someone’s up on a pedestal…
Brent: When I met Chris Cornell, he was a douche bag, so ever since then I don’t like Chris Cornell…
So you don’t listen to Soundgarden anymore?
Brent: Oh, no, I love Soundgarden. I could listen to them all day long. I’d listen to them right now if I could put them on – I love them, they’re one of my favourite bands of all time. I just wanted to say hello to Chris, because he was such an idol of mine, but he was just, like: “No”. I met Jimmy Page too, and I was like: “Can I please just shake your hand?” And he just said no. I’m like: “Y’know what? Fuck you, dude. I just lost so much respect for you, you don’t even know…”
It’s not like he was across a room, and you were shouting at him?
Brent: No, he was right there, like as close as you are. I just said: “Hey man, can I please have some of that magic? I just wanna shake your hand”. But he was just (dismissive): “No”.
Bill: That’s why you’ve got to be cool with these kids, because you can crush their entire image of you. They put you on this huge pedestal, and you’ve got to stress that it’s not because you’re too good for them, but you simply don’t have the time.
Brent: Also, you shake their hand and then you’ve got to shake hands with all these kids behind them. You have a photo, and everyone wants a photo. I always say that I’ll come down after the show and meet everyone and bro’ down, and it’ll be the biggest party ever.
Bill: But I get freaked out, like claustrophobic, when there are too many people around me. So, I’m not leaving because I think I’m too good for you; I’ve just got to get out of there. You get bombarded by kids sometimes, and I can’t do that – I’m not that guy. I try to be, but some fans are really scary, and crazy, and they freak me out.
Has this happened since the release of (third album) ‘Blood Mountain’, as that was your first major label record?
Bill: Things jumped, quickly, and with this record it’s jumped again. Being with Warner Bros., there’s such a great team – from management to booking agents – it’s been such a huge jump for us.
Brent: When I heard this new record back for the first time, I knew that things were going to start getting larger – it just sounded more accessible to me.
You say that, but it is more adventurous, compositionally.
Bill: Well, we’re getting better at what we do.
When you approach each new record, do you see challenging yourselves as a necessity?
Brent: You want to set a mood for yourself, a vibe, and kinda have a goal in mind of what you’re really after.
Bill: You basically want to write a record that’s better than the last one, and the last thing you want to do is repeat yourself. I know there are bands that do that – like The Ramones, and Slayer…
But that’s sort of their ‘thing’, y’know?
Bill: Precisely, and if Slayer did what we did, Slayer fans would be like: “What the fuck is this? This is weird”. Their songs need to be heavy and fast, and there are certain things about them that appear on every record. For us, out of maybe a thousand kids there might be one who says: “Maaan, I can’t believe you’ve got keyboards on your record”. Like, one person. I was… well, not worried, but I did expect some backlash with this album, but I also thought we’d gain so many new fans, as there’s so much in this record to grab hold of.
Brent: There’s more music going on – and music is what we’re doing, and selling, so that’s a good thing. It’s more bang for your buck!
Something that’s remained prominent across your records is that no one member really dominates proceedings. It’s not like one of you has a track that they own with a solo, or a particular drum passage, or the vocals are highest in the mix. The balance between the four of you has always been perfect.
Bill: We did have a singer at the beginning, a fifth member, but then Troy and Brent took over.
Brent: He just quit, and it was like: “Alright, thanks…” I was already singing in a band before that, so I was like: “Cool, whatever, I’ll sing”.
Bill: Troy said that he wanted the vocals to be like a fifth musical instrument – not that here’s the music, and here’s the vocals.
Brent: That’d be like a pop record.
It’s not even just about the mix – it’s like there’s no ego trying to take centre stage.
Brent: I understand what you’re saying, and I think that comes from everything sounding like a solo all of the time – everyone is being featured all of the time. We’re all equals, and there’s nobody who’s in charge – we’re all in charge. It’s premeditated that way, and before we even started this we knew we didn’t really want a frontman, as such.
Were you friends before the band came together?
Brent: No, not really; not the four of us together. I didn’t know Bill, really. I met Bill, like, for about five minutes before we were in a band together.
Bill: Brann and I had been in bands back in New York since ’93, and we became good friends when we joined a band called Today Is The Day. We spent a year living in a room this big (it should be noted that the room we’re in isn’t exactly massive), and going on tour. Then we became inseparable.
Brent: Troy and I were the same way. We were best friends before.
Bill: Brent was a Today Is The Day fan, and I met him when I came to Atlanta to see my wife, as she’s from there.
Brent: I was like: “Holy shit! You play in Today Is The Day? I’ve gotta shake your hand…”
Bill: I remember hanging with you at a party, just drinking beer and talking about bands. Then you were like: “We should jam together”. I needed to get out of the band, so I was like: “I will totally jam with you”.
Brent: Once he saw me play he knew he could play with me, and once I saw him play I knew the same. And once we got along…
You can’t manufacture that sort of natural chemistry.
Brent: Exactly. I play in other bands, where there is chemistry, but it’s a very functional chemistry. It’s not the same.
Bill: We’re smart enough to know we’ve got something really good going on, so if something’s not working we talk it out.
Brent: We’re not dysfunctional at all – there are millions of things that could happen when you’re together as much as we are, but nothing really does because we know that it can.
Bill: That’s all this band is about: chemistry, and everyone bringing their share to the table. Everyone has their position, and we get along and keep that chemistry flowing. When it dies, the band will die.
Mastodon’s latest album ‘Crack The Skye’ is out now – read the Clash review HERE. The band plays the Sonisphere Festival at Knebworth on August 1-2, alongside Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, Machinehead and Linkin Park. More dates available at their official website.