Mastodon: A More Democratic Metal

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It’s a testament to Mastodon’s general bad-assery that guitarist Bill Kelliher is able to sound like a metal titan even while picking up his young son from elementary school.

“Harrison, hold Daddy’s hand!” Kelliher calls out in his deep, crushing voice, summoning the power of a less-creepy Darth Vader (Fitting since Kelliher is a Star Wars obsessive and even named his son after Harrison Ford).

Many Mastodon fans probably haven’t even heard the man speak—Kelliher is the band’s rhythm guitarist, holding down the fort with his detuned ballistic riffs, leaving the majority of the nutso prog-rock solos for his bandmate, vocalist/guitarist Brent Hinds. He’s the only member of the quartet who doesn’t sing (“except in the shower,” he says); instead, he lets his neck-breaking fretwork do his talking for him.

For his band’s fifth studio album, The Hunter, Kelliher and the gang have been in “gearing up” mode as of late, convening periodically at their Atlanta rehearsal space in preparation of their upcoming headlining tour and spot on Late Night with David Letterman, where they’ll bust out the hard-charging, no-frills Hunter highlight “Curl of the Burl” (which they’ve rehearsed over 100 times). The songs are slowly coming together from a musical standpoint, but busy schedules and family lives make it tough to be a metal god.

“It seems to be getting harder and harder to get all four of us to concentrate and get in one room for an hour or two,” Kelliher says, balancing his cell phone in one hand and his son’s palm in the other, as they walk to their car in the school parking lot. “We’re all just such busy people, and when you get older, and you have kids and responsibilities, it’s like, ‘When am I going to have time to practice anymore? I have to go pick my kids up and take them to soccer practice and birthday parties and all that shit that we miss when we’re on the road.’”

And when they’re not being dads and husbands and, you know, regular people, they have to wear the hat of road warriors, falling into the new-album-tour grind that drives some bands to the brink of destruction.

“When you are on a touring record cycle—and it seems like things are changing—it’s just this pattern of, ‘OK, this is your new record that’s out. You have to tour for like 13 months on it and play all those songs.’ And once you’re done, you take a little break and then you write a new record, and then you record that and do the same thing all over again. It gets a little stale, honestly. We [just finished] a European tour and only had like 40 minutes every night, so we had to play our heaviest, fastest songs that flow, so we’re playing songs from [2002 debut] Remission, from a little bit of everything. Every band has their ‘hits,’ I guess, that they have to play every night because the fans want to hear them, and for us, it’s like ‘Blood and Thunder,’ ‘Colony of Birchmen,’ ‘March of the Fire Ants.’ Kids want to hear those songs so badly, but for us to play them, for me personally, I can say this now because it’s like the 1,000th, 2000th time I’ve played ‘March of the Fire Ants,’ I’m just like, ‘God, we have to write some new material! We have to get some new blood flowing!’ The songs are great to listen to, but when you have to play it on-cue every night, it’s just good to write some new stuff and have some stuff to look forward to playing. It’s a challenge, you know?”

That recent European jaunt stunted their progress of figuring out how to play their new songs. The Hunter wasn’t exactly a thoroughly thought-out affair where they got all the parts memorized before they recorded. Their last effort—the super dark, sculpted, ’70s-leaning concept album Crack the Skye (which includes a loose narrative involving a galactic-traveling paraplegic, Rasputin, and drummer Brann Dailor’s late sister, Skye, who committed suicide at age 14)—found the band holing up in the studio with veteran rock boardsman Brendan O’Brien, crafting and refining a series of Hinds demos into a spacey, mind-altering suite. For The Hunter (dedicated in name to Hinds’ brother, who tragically passed away during a hunting excursion), Mastodon sought to do two things: utilize more input from everyone else in the band…and relax. As a result, the songs came more naturally; all members were encouraged to throw out any ideas, and the result was nearly two albums’ worth of super eclectic material, ranging from the bruising metal of “Curl” and the powerful “Black Tongue” to the whiplash prog of “Octopus Has No Friends” and “Thickening” to the goofy, lighter-waiving epic “Creature Lives,” which features an arena-styled chant and a spacious arrangement.

Making The Hunter was the opposite of the labored focus of Crack the Skye. Kelliher, for one, sought to make a “go out and punch your mom” record this time around, and that’s pretty much exactly what they’ve done. Songs for the album were written and demoed often live in the studio space (which Kelliher recently had built for the band in order to speed up and simplify their process). Some seeds of tracks were written on the road, during a 2010 tour with Alice in Chains—fooling around with guitars backstage, saving the results on cell phones and laptops. They embraced technology more, too—since the label sought to release “Black Tongue” as the album’s first single, Kelliher was forced to record his blaring solo in a French hotel room: plugging his guitar straight into his laptop and sending off the finished file to be mixed “during the 11th hour.”

“Brent and I play in other bands,” says Kelliher, “and after Christmas of last year, we kind of took a break from each other and played in our other bands for a little bit. We got back together in February and March, and we didn’t get together too much, but we started throwing some ideas around. We kind of took turns—Brann and I would get together every day from noon until three, throwing around ideas and riffs, recording stuff here and there. We started digging stuff—we had a couple songs from around the Crack the Skye era that we hadn’t done anything with, and I had a couple riffs that I hadn’t put anywhere since the Blood Mountain days, so we just took all that stuff and threw it all at the wall to see what stuck, metaphorically. ‘Does this sound cool?’ ‘Does that go with that?’”

The whole process came together in only a month-and-a-half: pretty quick for any band with this much technical precision. And, at least at first, it was kind of scary.

“It seems like March, April is when all that stuff came together,” Kelliher continues. “Brann and I had written a bunch of songs together, and Brent and Brann had written a bunch of songs together, and then in May, it was like, ‘OK, we have to go in and record all this stuff now.’ I just really didn’t think we were ready. I was like, ‘I don’t know all these songs; I don’t know all of Brent’s parts!’ Normally I like to know everything inside and out before we go into studio, but we had the European tour coming up, and we said, ‘If we don’t do this before we go to Europe, we’re probably going to lose the momentum we have right now.’ It was a very spontaneous record; there was a lot of—I don’t want to say improv—but on my behalf, there was a lot of stuff that I just kinda wrote then and there in our studio or practice space. Some of those riffs were just a couple hours old when they got recorded. It was cool; I’d never really been under that pressure before to do that, and it came out really good.’

The Hunter also saw the band expanding their reach in other ways. While three of Mastodon’s last four releases had been attached to loose concepts, the quartet decided, eventually, not to tie themselves down to a specific idea this time around.

Crack the Skye was a very special album,” Kelliher says. “Brent had just come out of the hospital [the guitarist suffered a brain hemorrhage from a physical altercation with rapper Reverend William Burke following the 2007 VMAs]. He was relaxing and on the mend, and he had an acoustic guitar with him at all times, and the album reflected that. There were a lot of negative spaces on that album, and we spent months on that record. We didn’t have a date that it was due, and they just said, ‘Do whatever you guys think you can do,’ and we spent months and months in this rehearsal spot day after day, playing those songs inside and out all different ways, swapping parts out with other songs, and the result was amazing. It was a great record. But if we were going to go do all that over again just because we did it with Crack the Skye, that’s kind of defeating the purpose. We said, ‘Let’s just get back to writing a record for the sake of writing a record.’ Everybody was healthy; everybody was in a good place. There wasn’t any weirdness going on. I wanted this record be a little more about everybody rather than just one person.

“We had a concept; we had ideas, but it was just like, ‘Man, this is just so much extra baggage that I don’t think the record needs.’ We don’t want to be pigeonholed as this band where now we’re expected to make this grandiose record to come after Crack the Skye. Not that anyone’s really saying that, but I think everyone was thinking it: ‘How are they going to top that record?’ I didn’t want to think about all that stuff; I just wanted to write some cool riffs and write some songs that we can all get off on. Crack the Skye was such a dark, deep record, and playing it live every night from beginning to end was like, ‘We’re beating this thing into the ground, and we’re counting down the days left on the tour.’ We were putting on a whole production with the screen and the story that goes along with it, the visuals—I think we said, ‘Let’s not do that this time. Let’s not kill ourselves. Let’s write a record for fun and get people amped up, people jumping around. Play some stuff that’s more upbeat.”

Since they were in the mood to try out new ideas, the band shocked the entire music community by hooking up with producer Mike Elizondo, a veteran in the hip-hop and pop community who had previously produced artists like Eminem, Maroon 5, Rilo Kiley and Pink. It was Elizondo who actually sought out the band—he’d actually been reaching out for years, since the Blood Mountain days. While Brendan O’Brien had helped the band expand their sonic reach on Crack the Skye, introducing elements like vocal harmonies, clean singing, and (gulp) keyboards, Elizondo continued to help the band craft their best songs—except he was more open to trying any ideas that popped up along the journey.

“Brendan O’Brien, he’s more of a rock kind of guy, and I don’t think he really understood the songs I was writing at that time. He was kind of like, ‘I don’t really get that. It’s just a lot of screaming and heavy, too many drums going on.’ And that’s just one of the many facets of Mastodon, and we used to be more like that. We’re evolving organically, but Mike Elizondo, he got it all. It would be like, ‘Here’s a clean, pretty song,’ and he would be like, ‘OK, cool, let’s put it down.’ And then I’m like, ‘OK, here’s a super heavy, evil song with some crazy guitar-monies,’ and he was like, ‘OK, cool, let’s throw that down!’ And there was no, ‘Ehh, I don’t know if I think that should be on the record because it’s too heavy.’ With Brendan, he just wanted to focus more on Brent’s songs—that’s just the way it was. It was a great record, but with this one, we wanted to focus on the contributions of everybody just a little bit more.”

The Hunter certainly sounds like a new beginning. They’ve never sounded this weird, this wild, this nuts. They’ve also never sounded better.

“I think whatever we just did was great. It was kind of like we did the impossible,” Kelliher says. And they made it sound easy.