By Dave Pehling
LAS VEGAS (CBS SF) — Delivering an innovative style of heavy music that draws on elements of hardcore punk, ’70s progressive rock and sludgy ’90s metal, Atlanta-based foursome Mastodon has been making its unique style of pummeling hard rock for the better part of two decades.
Coming together when former members of noise-punk band Today is the Day Brann Dailor (drums) and Bill Kelliher (guitar) met Troy Sanders (bass) and Brent Hinds (guitar) at a High on Fire show in 2000, the musicians discovered they had a mutual interest in iconoclastic sludge-rock outfits Neurosis and Melvins as well as the twin-guitar classic rock of Thin Lizzy. Though the band originally had a singer, by the time the group issued its debut Lifesblood EP on Relapse Records in 2001, the band had trimmed down to its current quartet line-up.
Their first proper album Remission followed a year later, establishing Mastodon as a force to be reckoned with. Powered by the technically accomplished fury of Dailor (who plays like original Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo channeling jazz giant Elvin Jones) and featuring the labyrinthine riffs cooked by by Hinds and Kelliher, the group put out one of the most talked about metal albums of 2004 with their widely praised sophomore effort Leviathan. A conceptual recording that drew inspiration from Melville’s epic “Moby Dick” and Dailor’s avowed affection for progressive rock, the pulverizing album topped many year-end “best of” lists and is still hailed as a masterwork over a decade later.
The band would continue exploring concept albums on the next two recordings, branching out with a wider palette of sounds that embraced psychedelia on 2006’s epic Blood Mountain and its follow-up, the emotional 2009 opus Crack the Skye that found the band going even deeper. Inspired in part by the suicide of Dailor’s sister when she was only 14, the album unspooled an allegorical tale revolving around astral projection, Stephen Hawking’s wormhole theories, the exploration of the spirit world and the planned assassination of the mad monk Rasputin in Czarist Russia.
While Mastodon would depart from the concept album template for their next two efforts exploring a more traditional hard-rock sound — 2011’s The Hunter and Once More ‘Round the Sun in 2014 — the quartet’s latest salvo for Warner Bros. Records marks a return to using an album to tell a thematic story. A rumination on time and mortality that was heavily influenced by the battles with cancer being fought by several friends and family members — including Kelliher’s mother, who succumbed to the disease last year — the album follows the tale of the protagonist who has been sentenced to die in a malevolent desert by an evil sultan.
Emperor of Sand features some of Mastodon’s most intricate and pop-minded vocal performances yet, while still embracing the crushing riffs and complex time signatures that have become their signature. The effort became the band’s third Top 10 release in a row, placing high on several Billboard charts while marking Mastodon’s biggest international debut of the group’s career. CBS SF recently spoke with drummer Dailor in Atlanta during a break from touring ahead of the band’s upcoming headlining set that will close out this year’s edition of Psycho Las Vegas being held at the Hard Rock Hotel happening Aug. 18-21.
CBS SF: So I was looking at Mastodon’s upcoming itinerary and it seems like you guys will be coming to Las Vegas for a one-off show as opposed to the festival being part of your tour. Am I catching you at home?
Brann Dailor: I’m actually at the practice room. Bill and I are going over some old tunes, just getting back in the swing of things for Vegas.
CBS SF: I was going to talk to you last spring, but the interview ended up getting handed off to Troy due to you feeling ill and needing to save your voice for the first show. You sounded good at the SF show. Were you able to shake off the sickness?
Brann Dailor: Yeah I got sick for the very first show of that tour. That sucked! For the first three weeks of that whole tour I was battling this throat infection and bad cold that I picked up from I don’t know where. First day of the tour, first show for the new album and my throat is jacked up like you wouldn’t believe.
It was not fun. I mean, the tour was fun and everything, but it was just like…goddammit! [Laughs] It was just Murphy’s Law kicking in I guess. I wasn’t doing anything unhealthy. I was just existing and trying to be good and I got sick anyway. But I’m better now!
CBS SF: I thought you sounded better by the time you got to SF, but I guess it took some time to recover…
Brann Dailor: It took a while. It lingered for a long time. My throat was f–ked up for a while. And plus I was trying to sing through it every night and belt out these high notes. That wasn’t doing my throat any favors. Every night my throat was super angry! The next day, i paid for it. My throat was killing me. But the show must go on, as they say [laughs).
CBS SF: When I spoke with Troy earlier this year, he mentioned that the concept for Blood in the Sand emerged as you wrote the songs vs having an idea as the foundation to shape album. I know it was partly from everyone’s experiences being touched by the scourge of cancer in one way or another. Was this the first time you didn’t come to the band with a basic idea or story outline for the concept?
Brann Dailor: It’s always sort of like a vibe thing. I might have a couple of ideas in the back of my head, and if it fits, then I pursue it. Like with Leviathan, the Moby-Dick thing, I had that idea percolating for a while. We didn’t have any music or anything, but I thought it could be cool and might work visually and aesthetics-wise. So when that music started to happen and things started to come together, I thought more about it and started to try to match things up.
And the same thing happened with this record. Bill and myself and the band were starting to lay down the foundation for what the album was going to be; just naked riffs, basically. Just riffs with some drum beats here and there to tie things together. You know, ‘Hey, I’ve got these three riffs that are friends.’ And the vibe just kind of spawned the desert idea.
I kind of thought it sounded like that for some reason. And from there, it just comes down to sitting and meditating on it and just thinking about it. And then tying it into what everyone was going through personally, because I knew that everyone was going to want to write from that standpoint. It’s just an evolution of ideas. It’s a quick evolution, taking place during about an eight-month period. So relatively quick.
Everything kind of converges. I imagine like this ’40s cartoon train kind of bouncing around on the tracks and everything exploding off of it so it looks like it’s all about to fall apart, but then at the last second, it comes together. So all the ideas are just sort of floating around in the air and it’s always in danger of falling apart, and at the last second in the studio, everything goes – SHOUNK! – and we all celebrate.
CBS SF: You always seem to come up with some interesting percussion bits beyond the usual insane drumming that sometimes take some deep listening to get. Just this morning, I heard a little bit of triangle on “Steambreather” that I hadn’t noticed before, and there’s the Hammerchord on “Clandestiny,” which at first I thought was a hammer dulcimer, but Troy explained what it was when we talked…
Brann Dailor: It’s similar, but it takes less skill to play it. It’s like a hammer dulcimer that does the hammering for you.
CBS SF: So are these things you find at the studios you’re recording at or are collecting instruments with an eye towards using them on future albums?
Brann Dailor: I do have a huge box full of all sorts of bells and whistles since we started recording albums. I think it was Blood Mountain that we started putting little doodads and things here and there. And then we worked with Brendan O’Brien on Crack the Skye and he had a whole bucket of things and wanted to do a lot of percussion. I always thought that was awesome and super fun and added another element to it.
He was really good at growing songs and add that’s a part of it. You add little things here and there and, they’re almost unnoticeable, but the song changes somehow. I really like that. It adds another layer. I love that.
CBS SF: To me, there’s a subtlety to it that sometimes can get lost in heavy music, but those things really broaden the palette that the band has…
Brann Dailor: It also helps the groove. If we’ve got a serious groove going on, it definitely helps to lock it in even further.
CBS SF: Troy mentioned that you came up with the idea for the “Show Yourself” video with its grim reaper take on Glengary Glen Ross. Between that and the concepts you’ve come up with for videos or albums, I was wondering if you thought about branching out into writing either a book or script?
Brann Dailor: Not really, to be honest. Every little idea that I have goes into Mastodon. I have things written down at the moment, but I’m sort of saving them. And I have a bunch of video ideas. I’ve come up with a lot of the band’s videos for “The Motherlode,” “Show Yourself,” “Blood and Thunder,” and “The High Road,” and the “Curl of the Burl” video. I’ve done a bunch of them.
So I’ve always got ideas kicking around. I’d love to do an animated Heavy Metal-style looking film. I’d love for that to be the next Mastodon venture, like some sort of cool Alamo Drafthouse project. That’s a goal of mine and a goal of Mastodon. To do The Wall or Tommy and be super ambitious and write out a really insane treatment. Troy and I were actually going back and forth with ideas just a few weeks ago about how to sort of tie in the concepts of every one of our albums into a really cool animated movie.
We have so many cool animators and we live in Atlanta, which is home to Cartoon Network and Turner Broadcasting and we have a lot of friends who work there. And there’s our friend Skinner and a bunch of other artists who we could make a massive collaborative artistic movie with and then supply the soundtrack for it. We could have that be the next Mastodon album. That would be a dream come true. I don’t know if it will be the next one, but some time in the future, that’s a big hope. Maybe I’m thinking too far ahead or maybe my eyes are bigger than my stomach [laughs], but that’s something I’d love to see happen.
CBS SF: My next question was going to be if you’d had any thoughts about adapting one of Mastodon’s albums to the screen, so you’ve already answered that. I’m not sure how you could do it with live action, but the animated idea has some intriguing possibilities…
Brann Dailor: You could do a little bit of both. We could do live action and animation. We could make Roger Rabbit Part 2 or something like that [laughs]…
CBS SF: I remember the first time we spoke, you talked about being in Slayer guitarist Kerry King’s pool and saying if you could have told teenage you that was going to happen that you wouldn’t have believed it. I was wondering if you’ve had any similar experiences since as far as connecting with a hero from your youth that has blown your mind?
Brann Dailor: Absolutely! All the time. It’s been really incredible, the last 20 years of being on the road and meeting your heroes. Having a friendship with Lars Ulrich is a crazy thing, you know what I mean? To be able to hang with him and text back and for with him is really cool. He’s just a great guy and all the Metallica guys are really cool.
That’s another one where I had posters of those guys on my wall as a kid and all the metalheads at my school united under the Metallica flag. So that’s amazing. I walked into the Hard Rock Cafe in Copenhagen because we have a good friend who’s the manager there and every time we’re in Copenhagan we go and see him. One time I walked in and Nicko McBrain from Iron Maiden sitting was at the bar and said, ‘Hey Brann! What’s up? Want a drink?”
Just the fact that Nicko knows my name and offered me a drink is insane. The first album I ever bought was Piece of Mind when I was like seven years old and it quickly made the rest of my very small record collection obsolete. To be able to become sort of friendly with those guys — we’re not besties; they’re not coming over for a barbeque any time soon I don’t think. But to see Nicko and have him know my name is definitely one of the coolest things ever. That’s definitely worth a fifteen-year-old head explosion I would say.
CBS SF: You mentioned that you and Bill were working out some older songs at your practice space. Do you have anything special planned for Psycho Las Vegas?
Brann Dailor: I’m not 100 percent sure. We really like that set list we’ve been playing. We all really dig on it; it’s got a lot of good songs. We’ll probably throw in a couple of different ones and try to switch out a couple. But it will probably be pretty similar I think, just because the new album is still pretty fresh and we’re still wanting to play a bunch of that stuff. But we’ll get some oldies in there; some moldy oldies!
I’m just excited to be part of that whole festival. That line-up is insane! I’m coming in on Thursday just to get ready for all of it. I’m super excited to see King Diamond. They’re one of my favorite bands of all time. I was probably 13 or 14 when I discovered Mercyful Fate and King Diamond. Abigail is another album that kind of made every other record in my collection obsolete.
I didn’t listen to anything else for I don’t know how long and just got really into the story. I think King Diamond is one of the main reasons I wanted to make concept albums. Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and King Diamond’s Them and Abigail are albums that really inspired me. They’re so all immersive and I felt like I got so much more out of them just from there being a narrative to the whole album that tied it all together. I said to myself, ‘When I grow up and get into a rock band, I’m going to try to do something similar.’
And talking to King Diamond, he cited The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway as well as something that made him want to dip his toes into storytelling with his music. Full circle! I hope to hook up and hang out with those guys when we’re there. And I’ll definitely see the Neurosis guys and the Gojira guys and all the other bands bands that we’re friends with that are going to be at the festival. It’s going to be one big party! We play Sunday night, the last band standing, so I gotta be good for that whole weekend
CBS SF: I went to the festival last year and it is definitely an Iditarod. I was there four days and just collapsed when I got home the following Monday. Is there anybody else you’re especially excited to see?
Brann Dailor: I’m excited to see Swans. I haven’t seen them and really like them. They play right before us on Sunday. I’ll probably just be sitting with my drum pad in a chair at the side of the stage warming up during their set. And isn’t Sleep playing? I’ve looked at the schedule many times just to remind myself how many awesome bands are playing. I can’t think of a band I don’t want to see! I’ll be there front and center for just about all of it.
It’s like it’s our scene, you know? It’s something that’s been building for a really long time. We’ve got decades of people who have been making really intelligent, artistic, forward thinking heavy and experimental music and it’s all culminating in Las Vegas of all places. That’s f–king fantastic! I’m super excited to be a part of it and all the guys in the band are really stoked on it. We can’t wait to get there and start hanging out with all our friends and and watching some incredible performances.
Mastodon close Psycho Las Vegas at the Hard Rock Hotel on Sunday, Aug. 20. For more information on the festival, visit www.vivapsycho.com