Write On: Mastodon

On their Moby-Dick masterpiece, ‘Leviathan’…

Ten years ago, before they went entirely supernova, Atlanta metal titans Mastodon released ‘Leviathan’, an album inspired by Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick – a commercial failure on publication, but today considered an American literary classic.

In keeping with Clash’s current American Dream theme, the band’s drummer and lyricist Brann Dailor recalls how they came to create a monster of their own, based on the legendary white whale.

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‘Seabeast’, from the album ‘Leviathan’ (2004)

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“I read the book as a kid. It didn’t connect with me when I was a teenager, but somehow stayed in the back of my head. We wanted to do an album based in water, somehow, so we needed a theme to anchor it.

“I got married in Hawaii in 2003, and had a 30-hour trip to meet the other guys in England, to start a tour. In the airport, I picked up a copy of Moby-Dick, and read about three-quarters of it on the journey. By the time I got to England, it’d sparked up the idea. I had my pitch ready, to tell the guys what we should do.

“There are several similarities between our personal lives and events of the book, so there were parallels to draw from it. And, just a few pages in, Melville refers to the sperm whale as the ‘salt-sea mastodon’, so I thought that was the sign that we should do it. And the word I saw the most in the book was ‘leviathan’. It kept coming back to me, so it seemed like the perfect title.

“I don’t think we did the book any kind of justice – it was just a vehicle for the album. And we didn’t set any homework! It was just a great way to set the basic concept, and have the band write whatever we wanted from it. The album is about us, being away from home for long periods of time, searching for something that might not be there.

“Back in those days, we definitely equated ourselves to being nasty sailors out to sea – not eating properly, drinking way too much and just sweating and grunting the whole way through for the love of adventure, the love of art, and the love of our obsession. It’s a book about obsession, and I felt like we were obsessed with Mastodon and trying to get out there and spread the word.

“It is a very self-indulgent record. All of it, and it always is. But what other people think doesn’t come into play. It’s just a thing between me and my three friends, who play the music. I don’t think about if someone’s going to get something or not. The people that do get it, it’ll mean that much more for them. But I love the record – I think it’s really cool, and it got a big push at the time. We did the right thing, at the right time.

“I think when Moby-Dick came out it sold about 100 copies, and that was it. And now it’s hailed as one of the greatest American novels of all time. It’s sad. Melville was such a talented guy, and he didn’t get the praise he deserved. And it makes you think: who in the present day are we overlooking that’s going to get that praise when they pass on?”

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‘High Road’, from the album ‘Once More ‘Round The Sun’ (2014)

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As told to Mischa Pearlman

Mastodon’s new album, ‘Once More ‘Round The Sun’, is released by Reprise on June 24th. It’s reviewed in issue 96 of Clash magazine, from where this article is also taken. Buy a copy here

Mastodon online. See them live at this year’s Sonisphere, July 4th-6th

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