By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — In the current landscape of modern pop music where hard rock barely registers a blip, launching a project as esoteric as a psychedelic prog-metal band singing sprawling, nautically themed epics about an ancient Seagull God King might seem foolhardy. But all it takes is one listen to the cinematic self-titled debut of all-star outfit Legend of the Seagullmen (released last month on Dine Alone Records) to realize the idea isn’t folly. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of creative, left field kick in the pants heavy music could use right now.
The brainchild of lead singer David “Doctor” Dryer and guitarist/singer Jimmy “The Admiral” Hayward (better known for directing the animated films Horton Hears a Who! and Free Birds as well as the live-action movie Jonah Hex), Legend of the Seagullmen includes the heavyweight talents of Tool drummer Danny Carey and Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds along with noted session bassist Peter Griffin (Zappa Plays Zappa, Dethklok, Steve Vai), keyboardist Chris “Mad Dog” DiGiovanni and guitarist Tim Dawson. The group started coming together after Hayward [who — full disclosure — I’ve known since shortly before he moved to San Francisco to work on Pixar’s Toy Story around 1994] became friends with Hinds and hired Mastodon to work on the soundtrack to Jonah Hex.
Hinds introduced Hayward to Dryer — who had already mapped out an intricate mythology surrounding the Seagull God King spanning eons — and the seed that would become the Legend of the Seagullmen began germinating as Hayward’s Hollywood Hills neighbor and longtime jamming buddy Carey and the other members joined the fold. With Hayward applying keen storytelling skills honed over his years of filmmaking, the pair put their heads together to conjure up the vivid characters and maritime themes that fill the album’s eight widescreen, over-the-top odes to the briny deep.
CBS SF recently spoke with Hayward and Dryer about the creative process behind crafting the band’s epic seafaring tales and the crew’s plans for the future ahead of Legend of the Seagullmen making their live hometown debut in Los Angeles at the Roxy next month.
CBS SF: First I wanted to dig a bit deeper into the genesis of Legend of the Seagullmen. I know how you guys came together through Brent and that Jimmy put together the first couple of songs that ended up getting leaked back in 2015 after you decide to collaborate in Legend of the Seagullmen concept. I also came across on IMDB entry about a short film you made with Brent back in 2011, Doctor…
David “Doctor” Dryer: Yeah, it was a 3-D film that we shot to use with live performance…
Jimmy Hayward: There was a period where Doctor was sort of formulating the master plan. And while he was doing that, he’s a filmmaker and an artist and was making all kinds of stuff. That film was about the Deep Sea Diver, which is why he approached me about doing a tune. And then as we developed the concept, we sort of moved to a different tone. Then as the band formed, we came up with bigger, crazier ideas.
Doctor came up and visited me when I was mixing a movie at Skywalker Ranch. He stayed with me and we rode bikes and drank beers and smoked cigars and plotted. That was a turning point for us, where we decided to take it to a different place.
David “Doctor” Dryer: Absolutely.
Jimmy Hayward: All things evolve, and Doctor went through an evolution [of the idea]. Where we’re at now with the band we have now and the partnership that he and I have now is a result of all that work that he did then.
CBS SF: So how the songwriting process worked? Did the two of you hash out the song concepts and lyrics first and then came up with the music? Or Jimmy, did you demo song ideas and then you and Doctor wrote lyrics?
Jimmy Hayward: There’s a really interesting partnership that we have that’s important to understand, and it evolved. There’s this lore and history that the Doctor has. Other than that one first tune, I would go make a demo and call it something and I’d have this grand vision for what the song was about.
I’d demo it and bring it to the Doctor, and he’d be like, “Yeah dude! That music is killer, but the song is about this.” And he’d pitch me a different idea and a different concept that sort of reoriented what the thematic component was going to be. Once he did that, I’d lean into it and we’d work on the songs from that perspective.
So I was writing and producing demos and then we’d shape them together based on this new concept and then we’d develop that together. But pretty much every time I’d bring a demo to him, I’d be like, “Dude! This is called ‘Colossal Hurler!’ or some dumb thing. And he’d say, “No dude. It’s ‘The Orca.'” and we’d find the tone that way.
CBS SF: I talked about this a bit in the review I wrote, how Legend of the Seagullmen is a concept, but it’s not just a concept record. It’s a band concept with all this mythology behind it and a huge timeline — 400,000 years into the past and the future — that gets introduced on the record. So when you were working on the album, did you already find yourself mapping things out for songs that would come later? I guess I’m wondering how big picture you have to go before narrowing it the ideas down to the songs that made up the record?
David “Doctor” Dryer: Originally, we set out to do more of a film project. When I first got serious with Jimmy, there was a moment after we first met when we connected over westerns. I’m a huge fan of old westerns and he was directing Jonah Hex and had this huge library of old westerns, so we hit it off over that.
One night we were at a bar and I came up with an idea for the Deep Sea Diver and I was like, “How do you feel about the idea of writing a nautical western?” And he said, “Come to my house right now!!” [Laughs] It happened instantly.
Jimmy Hayward: We’re the E.T. and Elliot of nautical westerns. “Ouuuuch!”
David “Doctor” Dryer: After that, we were coming up with ideas for episodes, but then we realized these songs were massive…
Jimmy Hayward: The cinematic thing was always there. It was always based on lore and stories and these bigger ideas. I think cinematically, we forged a friendship around that one idea, When he pitched me that idea, I wrote that tune and started doing the vocals, I was like, “Get over here!” And we just got down. That was the inciting incident for the whole thing.
David “Doctor” Dryer: Absolutely.
CBS SF: So are you bringing a basic sketch of the song to the band and then fleshing it out together in the studio?
Jimmy Hayward: I think it’s more than that sometimes. Because by the time we bring it in, we’ve worked on it. I think with a lot of the demos, I’ll have a pretty clear idea of what we want to do musically. But then when I throw it at Doctor, he might say, “Maybe pull that out” or “What if we put in a big part here?” So we’ll get on that stuff and he starts formulating the thematic part of it.
Then we bring that demo in and we start tracking the other dudes and it takes another evolutionary step. Danny gets involved and puts his shape on it and it transforms again. Then we lean back and dig in deeper and add to that. All the dudes in the band — Mad Dog, Pete and everybody — add their parts. And Brent Hinds brings his heat to the thing and we’ll rebuild s–t around that. Everybody has their hooks in it, but it starts with the partnership of us.
David “Doctor” Dryer: And by design, when we’re writing these tunes, the interesting thing is we’re kind of writing things knowing, “Danny might do something like this here.” We never tell the guys what to do.
Jimmy Hayward: I’ve been playing with Danny for a long time. When I wrote the riff for “The Fogger,” I was like, “Danny’s going to f—ing slaughter this!” And as soon as he heard it, he said, “I know what to do with this.” But I remember when I brought him “Curse of the Red Tide,” he was like, “F–k!” But then he figured it out and the song gained complexity, and when we retrack it, we forge it all around the new ideas.
Like Doctor says, we know who we’re playing with. We know what we can tee Brent up for. Because we’ll already have hooks and catchy things in there, and Danny will augment those and create new ones. Then when Brent comes in, he’ll be like, “I want to solo over here, but I also want to go back over here.” And he’ll thread a melody through something that we didn’t think of at all. And Doctor will get a vocal component out of that. He usually has his vocal melodies really early, but Brent will drop that s–t in there…
David “Doctor” Dryer: That’s the beauty of the thing. With those guys, there’s no surprises…
Jimmy Hayward: But it’s all surprises! [laughs]
David “Doctor” Dryer: Yeah, it’s all surprises. [laughs] These guys bring something to the table that you can’t take up for your self. You’ll hear one thing in your head and all of a sudden they’ll do something totally different and you say, “Holy f–k! That just changed the whole direction of where we were going to go with this thing.” “Red Tide” was like that. It was originally meant to be a more straightforward, Thin Lizzy type ’70s rock thing. But then Danny added these poly rhythms, it just turned it into this whole other thing.
Jimmy Hayward: I think the organizing principle is it’s really organic. I’ll bring in a demo to Doctor and we’ll start talking about the form and the theme, and then we’ll bring in the other guys piece by piece. And by the time we’re done, it’s really organically evolved. I think it’s the reason why we took our time making the record as opposed to just being, “We’ve got a super group! Let’s get together and pee on this like over six weekends!” We took our time because we wanted to make whatever the hell we wanted. And so we let it evolve. The wheel got rounder as we went.
CBS SF: And I guess, Jimmy, you having your own studio allowed for this kind of tinkering and development, since it wasn’t like you had to worry about booking time somewhere. So you could work on things at your leisure?
Jimmy Hayward: Yeah, I have a studio and Danny has a studio and they’re a quarter mile apart. As friends, we’re studio rats anyway. We hang out it studios all the time. So we just make stuff when we’re together, which is always.
CBS SF: One thing that occurred to me was that Jimmy, you and Danny had been playing together socially for years before the whole band concept came together. Did you come up with any musical ideas together during that time that you decided you wanted to do something with and incorporated into the album?
Jimmy Hayward: No, not at all, because it all stems from my musical conversations with Doctor. That’s the way Danny always talks about it and I kind of learned that from him, which is everybody you play with, you have musical conversations with them. And that nurtures and feeds the other things that you make. I can honestly say that I can write things for and with and around him from that experience.
And also from working with Brent. I’ve played with Brent a lot and made stuff with him and come to understand what he’s doing. And he such an amazing unicorn as well. But honestly, we have hours of stuff recorded of just us jamming and nerding out and none of it is on this record. This is all new stuff that we made for this. It’s all inspired by the lore that Doctor brought to me. This is all that new conversation.
CBS SF: So everybody in the band except for Brent lives in LA, but from photos I’ve seen, he’s out there a lot. Were you sharing files as far as getting him familiar with the demos before he’d come out to record? Or was he around enough that the band was mostly working together in the same room?
Jimmy Hayward: We were all together a lot and and Brent’s here a lot. And when Brent’s here, we nerd out and do s–t. We recorded it in a studio setting, but we jammed on stuff and there are parts where we recorded together and parts where we didn’t. But everybody was always present for when we recorded.
We didn’t do much sending files around or sharing over the Internet. It was all analog amps, in the mics, in the same board in the same place with all the same dudes. And we were pretty adamant about that. The great thing about Brent is he just drops in so easily and picks it up. And him and Doctor have had a dialog about this project for a very long time.
David “Doctor” Dryer: Absolutely. We’ve known each other for a number of years. We met when we were about 20 in Atlanta. We’ve always been trying to work together. I’ve watched him go from his early bands that used to open for this performance art band that I had. It all started with a didgeridoo. We had a didgeridoo guy in our band and he [Brent] just showed up with dreadlocks and was like, “I want to play didgeridoo!” and started hogging my microphone. I was like, “Hey bro, back off my mic!”
Then his next band was really good. It wasn’t metal. It was this band Four Hour Fogger that was him and Troy [Sanders, later Mastodon’s bassist] and a couple other guys from Atlanta. And then immediately after that he came with Fiend Without a Face, this kind of rockabilly thing he had in the ’90s. I remember my mind was just blown. I was thinking, “This dude is next level!”
Jimmy Hayward: Not from the didgeridoo…
David “Doctor” Dryer: [laughs] No, not from the didgeridoo. But we go way back. This was all way before Mastodon. There was this whole local scene in Atlanta where all the bands would jam together. And we were super homies. Best of buds and roommates even…
CBS SF: I know “Mad Dog” DiGiovanni from back around when Jimmy met him in the ’90s and knew he was playing drums and involved in bands in SF, but I had no idea about his keyboard skills. Was he some classical piano prodigy as a kid and I just didn’t know it? What’s the story behind his involvement in Legend of the Seagullmen?
Jimmy Hayward: He was playing in a bunch of bands in SF. He would play four nights a week. He was in a goth band where he played analog synth and set up sequencers. Then the next day he’d play drums in this band Smoke Daddies and then the next night he’s playing punk rock drums in Retardo Montalban. So he was playing music all the time. He’s a ripping piano player and a ripping drummer. He’s a really good musician.
So he and I were in New York working together, we started playing music together a lot. When we were on location making a movie, I had started working on this project with Doctor. I really wanted to do pure analog synth and Danny’s a huge analog synth nerd. He has a massive collection. Those are his old ’60s Moogs on our record.
Mad Dog was hanging with me and he started jamming on the s–t. I played the stuff for Doctor and he was like, “That s–t is f–king righteous!” So the whole sci-fi, analog synth component stemmed from that. He’s a ripper. I’m glad it doesn’t go unnoticed.
CBS SF: The visual aspects of the band — from the photos in the gatefold of the record to the look you guys presented onstage at the live debut in Oakland – is obviously a big component. Given both your backgrounds in film, you must have something in the works as far as videos?
Jimmy Hayward: Yes, we do. Doctor and I both share an affinity for that. He’s done a lot of production design over the years and obviously I’m a filmmaker. From the very beginning, we connected deeply on the visual ideas. We don’t have a lot of band photos of us standing front of a spray-painted wall. Everything we did for the album we did with photo shoots and composites.
Doctor and his brother and myself all get super involved in visual stuff. Doctor’s brother Frank is a genius graphic designer and Doctor’s right-hand man in the design game. He did our record cover and we all had a hand in it. So we didn’t go to the record label’s art director guy. All the images we make are ours and we’re very stoked on that.
David “Doctor” Dryer: The idea of having a band that is multi-faceted and using all the different media has always appealed to me, and Jimmy as well. Even Danny going back to Green Jello…
Jimmy Hayward: Doctor comes from an art rock background. He and his brother had an art rock band in Atlanta. But we’re not doing absurd stuff. We’re doing serious stuff.
David “Doctor” Dryer: Exactly. We’ve had the chance to see other bands and figure out what we don’t want to do. Being able to pick and choose what you like about something and combine it all together. I feel like that’s what the Seagullmen do.
Jimmy Hayward: Like Danny Carey says, “We make movies. We make music. We like to make stuff.” We make awesome s–t that we love and we hope that the fans dig it too.
CBS SF: So do you have videos that are in the can, or are you still in the process of making them?
Jimmy Hayward: We’re midway through pre-production on something fantastic that we’re really excited about, but we don’t want to blow it. We want it to be a big surprise. One of the things about this band is that we’re all busy doing a lot of stuff. Everybody has a lot of crazy s–t going on. But we’ve always taken a lot of time and attention to do this. We’ve been really heavily involved in it.
So when it comes to that, we haven’t really followed a traditional format in terms of getting s–t done. But we have a lot of ideas that we’re working on, including one thing that we have storyboarded that we’re prepping to shoot right now that we’re really excited about.
CBS SF: The live debut of the band opening for Primus in Oakland on New Year’s Eve was fantastic and got a great crowd response, even without Brent on board and Larry LaLonde from Primus filling in on guitar. With Mastodon and Primus hitting the road together from May through July, was there any thought to Legend of the Seagullmen joining up the tour? What are the live plans for the band?
Jimmy Hayward: First of all, obviously Primus and Mastodon are all very close friends of ours. As much as we would have loved to have done that tour, by the time we were fixing to put our album out and getting ready to roll, that tour was already booked. A lot of these tours get booked way in advance. They’ve got great support bands on it. One of our labelmates are going out with them [psych band Jjuujjuu], they’re rad. But we’re planning on playing some shows. We’re working all that stuff out right now, trying to manage all the schedules, but we’re definitely doing it.
CBS SF: The album serves as an introduction to the Legend of the Seagullmen, both the band and the legend itself. This is really just the first chapter. So are you already diving into work on the next album? How far ahead are you mapping things out as far the storyline?
Jimmy Hayward: I’ve got three things to say. One, we have only begun to scratch the surface of Doctor’s crazy depth of lore. Two, Danny Carey always says, “Hey man, we’re not going to run out of stories. It’s a deep ocean.” And three, we’ve written a ton of stuff. We’ve got a whole bunch of demos we’re working through. Doctor and I were just working on a tune the other night. I’ve gotten a bunch of stuff to DC [Danny Carey] to start cooking. We’re well on our way to starting work on the next record.
Legend of the Seagullmen play the Roxy in Los Angeles on Saturday, April 14, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $29,50