Catching Up With… Mastodon

Music Features

Brann Dailor and his Mastodon brethren have had their tatooted arms full lately: After playing the main stage of this summer’s biggest heavy-metal tour, the Rockstar Energy Mayhem Fest, work culminated on the band’s fourth full-length album. Set to drop in January 2009, the as-yet untitled LP will likely follow the band’s modern prog-metal classics, 2004’s Leviathan and 2006’s Grammy-nominated Blood Mountain, as one of the year’s most anticipated hard rock releases.

Paste recently discussed the new album’s progress with Dailor, Mastodon’s unleashed-octopus of a drummer, who remained fairly tight-lipped but offered a few hints as to the direction of the new material.

Paste: How’s the recording process going so far?
Dailor: It’s going great. The studio is less than a mile away from my house. It couldn’t be in a more convenient location. This is a new relationship with our new producer Brendan O’Brien and engineer Nick Padilla. They’re just awesome. They are total pros and they get what we want to accomplish. They’re just making us sound huge and making it sound great.

Paste: What was the reasoning behind changing to a new producer after working with Matt Bayles for the first three Mastodon albums? What did the band find particularly attractive about O’Brien’s?
Dailor: We were at a point that a lot of bands find themselves in. We’ve only done records with Matt Bayles in the past, and he’s awesome, but at some point you want to see what else is going on out there. We wanted to shake things up a little bit. I equate it to dating the same girl all through high school and then once you get to college, you want to play the field. We found Brendan and he happened to live and work in Atlanta, where we live. We wanted to find someone that was here for recording because, to be honest, being out in Seattle for an extended stay at Motel 6 is not the best way to keep everyone in the best mood. It makes everyone a little bit ornery.

We were totally prepared to fly somewhere and do that, but we ended up seeing Bruce Springsteen and we’re friends with Max Weinberg and his son. Max was like, “Yeah we’re working with Brendan O’Brien today on a track.” O’Brien’s studio less than a mile away from my house. Max said he was really awesome and that we should check him out, so we did. We listened to a bunch of stuff that he had done, like [Pearl Jam’s] Vitalogy record, and the new Bruce Springsteen album [Magic] that he did. He just seems to make bands sound like who they are. He brings out the personality instead of putting his sound on it. He’s not coloring it in a way that he would do it. He’s just taking a snapshot of the bands he’s worked with. Everything sounds organic on those records, and you can picture the actual band laying it all out in the studio.

Paste: You played some new material during your Bonnaroo set. Tell me a little bit about that performance– did it turn out well, in your eyes, as far as audience reception?
Dailor: The first one we played, called “Divinations,” we screwed up on. We went through the chorus too early at the end. It didn’t totally fall apart, but it was on the cusp or precipice of disaster. The second song was “Oblivion” and the third was “Ghost of Karillah.” That was fun. I think it was bold of us to play three brand new songs. I think it went pretty well for the most part.

Paste: “Ghost of Karillah” has popped up [in live shows] before. Do you think that might be the single for the new album, or are you still deciding?
Dailor: I’m not sure. I think all of them are a bit too long to be singles, but we’re going to have to pick something. That’s not up to me, that’s up to the label. It’s basically like making a movie and somebody decides how Warner Bros. wants to market it with a three-minute preview. It’s not up to us, really. I want it to be up to us, because it’s like picking your favorite kid. With us, it’s kind of a battle because we always feel that you can’t just hear one song that represents the whole record– where one song might be simple and streamlined, another song might be abstract and totally crazy. I think people know that about us at this point.

Paste: Online, fans have been swarming about the possibility that the new record’s theme will be about Czarist Russia. Can you either confirm or deny that at this point?
Dailor: The Czarist Russia thing is a really small part of the grand story. We wrote a huge story and the Rasputin Czar thing is a small portion. We came out with a T-Shirt design that has Rasputin’s face and Mastodon written in his beard and everyone went, “It’s about Rasputin! Everything off the new record!” That’s cool. I’m happy to let everyone think that and then when the record comes it will be something they didn’t expect.

Paste: Is the elemental theme the band has pursued on previous going to continue with the new record? Is wind up next?
Dailor: It’s not going to be wind. There are a lot of elements out there. Many different cultures and religions have their own versions beyond the basic four elements. There are more interesting ones out there. I guess we didn’t want to be too predictable and do air but we’re going to have to do it sometime. I always felt I didn’t want to do air just yet because it’s the end of something and I don’t want any of this to end. Maybe when we are running out of ideas we’ll do it.

Paste: Can you say what the element is now?
Dailor: I’d rather not. The record’s not going to be out until probably early 2009 so I’d like to keep it under wraps for now. I’m sure somebody will guess it. It’s not that big of a deal. I don’t know why I’m keeping it a big secret.

Paste: I’ve noticed in interviews that you’re apt to liken Mastodon’s musical process in the studio to cooking. What are some of your favorite foods to cook?
Dailor: I’m a big fan of the grill. Grilling pork and steaks is great. I really like making Latino chicken and rice. I really like making a pot roast for like six hours. I also like a French pot roast with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and a nice bottle of wine. I make a lot of comfort food, like meatloaf. I really like cooking for friends. Everybody comes over almost every Sunday and we watch documentaries and we cook out for 10-12 people. I made enchiladas this last Sunday with green chiles and Tapatio sauce. When it comes time to make a new record, it’s a really stressful time and you want everything to be totally perfect. You’re constantly rearranging stuff, so its nice to have something to escape to for a bit.

Paste: Where are you at this point in the recording process?
Dailor: We have about 33 minutes of music done so far. We have one pretty long epic song that’s going to take some more time. We want to do some things to it that make it really special. It’s got a lot of twists and turns and it’s a really crazy song, so we want everything to work from start to finish. When you create that kind of song, you got to find some way to shoehorn some vocals in there. It’s all kind of trial and error.

Paste: Are any distinct musical touchstones emerging on the new release?
Dailor: No, not really. I feel, with this record, that it has a lot more of a groove. To be honest, I don’t know where any of this really comes from. Obviously your influences come out of you when you’re playing, but really I feel the recording is just an invisible force that channels all of us. We just try to be as emotive as possible with it. There have to be moments in the song that are excited or intense, so that is what we look for, no matter what. We know when it’s right. To overanalyze it kind of debunks the process. I don’t know where it comes from and I don’t have that much control over it. The minute you start identifying those things and try to recreate them unnaturally– that’s when you start losing it. We try not to do that. Things just reveal themselves and you have to trust that that’s going to happen. You can’t force it. That’s why we’re taking as much time as we want on this record, because luckily we’re in a place where we can, and that’s the way that art should be. I’m waiting for the day that the well runs dry, but luckily for us it hasn’t.

Paste: Yeah, the band definitely relayed to the public that you felt rushed during the production of the last album.
Dailor: Blood Mountain got a little rough, I think. It depends on the songs and what you want to do. If you just want to bash out a bunch of songs that only require a little bit, then that’s a little easier. When you start getting into layering, then the song gets ignored. You try to keep it as simple as possible, but if you have the time to put all the bells and whistles on it, that’s great.

Paste: Do you plan on working with [illustrator] Paul Romano again?
Dailor: Yeah, we’re pretty tight with him and he’s done all the [album] art for us so far.

Paste: How does [the band’s] relationship [with him, as an artist] work out during the gestation of a new album?
Dailor: We start working with him from the early demo stages. I get on the phone with Paul and start talking to him about the certain art direction that we want to go with. Then we start getting him lyrics and music real early on. He’s doing preliminary sketches as we speak. It’s a long process. He’s pretty much involved from the ground up when new ideas come along.

Paste: Mastodon is often presented as a gateway drug of sorts for non-metal fans. What is one of the main misconceptions the general public holds about metal?
Dailor: The main misconception is that heavy metal music is for cave men. I think there are a lot of smart people that play that type of music. A lot of musical genres have bands with varying I.Q. levels. There’s a lot of heavy music out there that, over the past 15 years, has been one of the key genres of music that have tried to push playing your instrument. Jazz and the progressive movement in heavy metal are really valid. There are some players out there that can basically play jazz. Some of the best musicians of the world are playing heavy music right now, without schooling. Hopefully we’re part of that.

Paste: You’ve said before that you don’t necessarily follow contemporary metal, but I was wondering if you agree with the criticisms levied at modern metal bands that are little too cloistered and self-referential? Do you think metal as a genre has a tendency to do that?
Dailor: There’s a place for everything, I think. Everything is exactly where it’s supposed to be and everyone is doing exactly what they need to be doing. Everyone fulfills some kind of need, even if that’s just your own. I think if the people that are playing the music are having fun, and the people that are listening to it are touched by it, then it doesn’t matter what anyone is playing really.

Paste: You’re mostly known for your drumming, but you sang a long time ago for your hometown band in Rochester, N.Y. Have you ever wanted to sing again?
Dailor: I’ve always been able to sing, but I never wanted to be a singer. For this band, Covenant, I sang for six months. I played my first song as a singer at a roller skate rink when I was 13 years old. I kind of got pushed into it because I was playing drums for the band originally and I wanted to play drums. We were doing Metallica covers and stuff like that, and then our guitar player turned born-again Christian, and there was this Christian band that was influencing him. They ended up influencing the rest of us because they said we could play gigs by opening up for them, since they had a big following. I was young and professional and went along with it. I got railroaded into singing because I could. I was fucking shit nervous when I got up there, and I hated it. It was the worst. I felt like douche bag standing there with a microphone. I really wanted to be onstage and play music. I had been playing drums since I was four. I have a decent ear for how vocals should go. I’ve been writing a lot of lyrics. Brent [Hinds, Mastodon’s guitarist/singer] and I, or Troy [Sanders, Mastodon’s bassist], work pretty closely on the cadence of the vocals. Obviously, with heavier music, there’s a real percussive quality to singing. You’re basically singing another rhythm on top of the what’s going on.

Paste: On Blood Mountain, the band took some interesting turns and chances, as far as singing more songs and having a cleaner sound. Are you continuing that trend? The songs you played at Bonnaroo seemed to run contrary to that aesthetic.
Dailor: Those songs on Blood Mountain just kind of happened, and for this record they just kind of happened. We’re not trying to be heavier or lighter. We’re not going for any predetermined thing, and once we get hour’s worth of what we want, that’s what the record is going to be. As long the four of us love it. Every single second on the record so far is exactly the way that we want it to be. We couldn’t be happier and we think feel it’s the best stuff we’ve ever done. If you don’t have that feeling and you’re playing music then that’s not good. Something’s broken and needs to be fixed or you just need to stop. Things happen in the music industry, though. Bands play for so long that they become reliant on making music as their source of income– even if the candle went out a long time ago, they have to find ways that they can get work. We’re not at that stage, thankfully… To be honest, I feel like this new one is song-oriented. We’re trying to write actual songs instead of just going crazy. Blood Mountain got real experimental and weird; now we’re just concentrating on the riffs. You can have all the technical talent that you want, or be the best player, but nobody is going to remember it. I just want to make a record that has some really memorable songs on it that will last a long time.

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