Forming in 2000 in Atlanta, Georgia, after meeting at a High On Fire concert, Mastodon has become one of the most inventive and dynamic bands in contemporary metal. Boiling down elements of progressive stoner rock and sludge metal, with hazy flashes of psychedelica and hard thrashes of punk rock thrown in, their sound is a highly stylized cacophony that has garnered them high praise from both mainstream rock and underground metal crowds alike.
In this excerpt from their Fireside Chat with Harley Brown on Red Bull Radio, guitarist Bill Kelliher and bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders discuss the band’s diverse musical roots, the DIY grind of their early days of touring, making their own documentary and the experience of filming a cameo on Game of Thrones.
We just celebrated our 17th birthday as a band. I don’t have many friends outside of these three guys that I’ve had for 17 years, so I think we’ve outlasted most friendships and most marriages. Then again, we have a four-way man marriage. I’m proud of that.
I’d like to say we are a rock band, but we get pinned as a metal band because a lot of our roots that we agreed upon when starting a band were rooted in metal. We also love ’70s pop rock, punk rock, classic country rockabilly. The four of us became a band because we appreciated each other’s CD collections. The four of us connected on wanting to write music in the vein of Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden, the Melvins. This initial eclectic mix of musical influences amongst us lent itself to what I feel is a very unique chemistry as a band, where every song is not going to be a straight up rock song or metal song. It’s all going to rear its head. All of our influences make our band multi-dimensional. It’s tough to describe what we sound like, but I think we’re just a pretty cool rock band.
Today Is The Day
I grew up in the suburbs, and Rochester [New York] was the big city to me. When I moved there after high school a friend took me out, he’s like, “You gotta see this band Lethargy, they’re great.” Brann [Dailor] was playing drums. I thought they were a touring band from a different state, that’s how good they were. They lost one of their guitar players and I ended up playing with them for a few years. Brann and I weren’t that close. We’d go have drinks and stuff like that, and see each other at band practice. My now-wife moved to Atlanta to go back to school, so I left and said, “I’m going to go in search of more people to play with in a bigger city, bigger scene.”
We would play any basement, apartment, kitchen, boatshed, VHF hall, dive bar – anywhere that people would have us.
Brann and I kept in touch and he was like, “Hey, we’re going to get a band back together and we really want you to be here, record some new stuff. We’re going to take it seriously this time. We’re going to go on tour,” blah, blah, blah. I ended up moving back from Atlanta in ’97 to Rochester to play with the band again. It kind of fell through, nothing really had changed, and Brann had been asked to try out for a band called Today Is The Day. I was like, “Please take me with you. I need to be in a band that’s touring, and doing something with my life.” A few months later, he called me back, he had relocated to Massachusetts, and he said, “We need a bass player. You want to come try out?” I did and got the gig. We went on tour for most of that year, but a lot of the time, the late nights were spent together in Brann’s tiny studio in Clinton, Massachusetts, becoming very good friends because we were the only people in the whole small town. We became really close and watched a lot of Fargo, and started playing music together. The other guy from Today Is The Day had his own home to go back to so we were in the studio 24 hours a day. Eventually, when that band fell apart I said to Brann, “Why don’t you come with me to Atlanta? My girlfriend has a place there for us to live.”
I had met Brent [Hinds] when I’d gone to Atlanta to visit my girlfriend in between Today Is The Day tours. When Brann and I moved to Atlanta, we had the work ethic down and were starting to write songs together, so it was perfect timing that we met up with Brent and Troy. Their band was disbanding. They had a handle on touring in the Southeast, just from being in the various bands that they were in. Troy had a van, they had a bunch of songs left over from their band and we had a couple songs. We had interest from Relapse Records because of Today Is The Day. They wanted to hear the first thing that we recorded, and it’s pretty much all history.
Brann and I now live down the street from each other, and we write together a lot when it comes to putting songs together. I’ll write the riffs and he comes at it from a different direction. He’s a drummer, so he hears the beat in different places. We can give each other creative criticism without getting on each other’s nerves. I’d say we have a really good relationship.
Cold Pizza, Warm Beer
When we befriended Bill and Brann early in 2000, we had the idea to create this brand of heavy, bizarre, unique rock & roll. All four of us dedicated a lot of time and effort and energy to get in the van and take this music to anyone that would care to have us play. We would play any basement, apartment, kitchen, boatshed, VHF hall, dive bar – anywhere that people would have us. We played for cold pizza, warm beer, you name it. It was rewarding. Lifesblood EP was originally called Nine Song Demo, and that came together within maybe four or six weeks. We had these songs and we would burn them one by one at our home DVD duplicator. We’d go to Kinkos with all of our money and xerox the copies, and we’d get like 60 CDs. We’d hit the road and we’re cutting and pasting in the van on the way to the gig. It was nuts.
Emperor of Sand
With this new record that we’ve got coming out, Emperor of Sand, when we were writing lyrics together it was very obvious that we were reflecting on our current states of mind. We were going through a lot of dark stuff as four individuals with family members, so it was a lot of similar agendas and ideas being written down as far as subject matter. When we’d pieced it all together, Brann took that and was able to make this puzzle of a storyline and lyrics and have them be not so literal. It allows it to be open to many interpretations to the listener. It takes all of us to contribute to certain degrees, to get the music and the sounds and the tones and the layers, but as far as taking it to the next level of storytelling, our Brann really takes that and hones in and spends way too many hours pulling his hair out, trying to get something that’s great. That’s one of the many things he’s really good at.
The Workhorse Chronicles
At first I didn’t understand why Relapse wanted to do this documentary on our band. I didn’t think we were worthy of that or had achieved anything to deserve any type of documentary to be on a DVD with packaging. In hindsight, looking back it was a really cool moment with Remission, then jumping into constant world touring, which led up to our Leviathan record and then Workhorse Chronicles.
I haven’t watched it in a long time. It’s hard for me to watch myself on film, especially when I was such a goofball then, but when it came out I was like, “Wow, it’s really showing people our souls, who we really are.” We’re not this big, huge machine of a band that make tons of money. It was like, “No, these dudes are real people. They’re just like a bunch of brothers drinking together and starting the van and putting all the equipment in there and driving to the next gig. Normal dudes.” When I was a kid and I would see Aerosmith or Van Halen or something, I’d put them on a giant pedestal where they’re these gods. I get that all the time, “What are you doing here, man? Aren’t you from Mastodon?” I’m like, “Well, yeah. I’m grocery shopping. I live right there. I have to...” “Oh, you don’t have people do that for you?” It’s like, “No. I’ve got kids to take to school. We’re just normal dudes.” With that DVD, you could kind of see that. I’m glad that we documented it.
Growing up and being inspired by heavy music, both Bill and myself, we put Slayer and Metallica on that pedestal of amazingness, and they still are. Being able to tour extensively with both Slayer and Metallica now, you realize that what they do is fantastic and they are dedicated as anyone. They’re humans. It’s a real thrill to be able to share the stage with people that taught us how to play in our teenage years with the bedroom door locked, learning all their records, to be able to share the lifestyle with them. Hanging out with them just being normal people, that’s just all the more refreshing and humbling.
Dr. Dre and PB&J
We worked with Mike Elizondo on The Hunter and he’s known as Dr. Dre’s bass player. On the surface, it’s like, “Well, that’s not going to work.” But it’s like, “Hold up. Just wait, think about that for ten seconds. This could be great.” Turns out that he, like most people who enjoy music, loves all types of music, and understands more than just one thing. Working with him on The Hunter was fantastic. Having a fifth member who we like as a person and respect as an engineer and as a producer is really important to us, because that fifth ear and that fifth vote can really come into play.
When we first started, we were like, “Here’s seven riffs in a row. Where do they go?”
With this new record, Emperor of Sand, we got Brendan O’Brien again who we worked with on Crack The Skye. We love and respect all of his work. He’s done AC/DC and Bruce Springsteen and a Bob Dylan record and all the Pearl Jam albums. Fantastic dude; an incredible ear and musician. In my opinion, it’s the subtle things that make the biggest impact. One day in the studio he brought 12 different loaves of bread, 12 jars of different types of peanut butter and 12 flavors of jelly, and said, “Guys, we’re having a smorgasbord of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.” People are like, “What’s he like? Is he serious? Does he get angry?” No, he took a 45 minute break and went and got a dozen loaves of bread. Moments like that are great.
When we first started, we were like, “Here’s seven riffs in a row. Where do they go?” Now we’re trying to be a little more intellectual about, “What is this riff? Is this riff a verse? Is it a chorus? Is it a bridge?” That’s what Brendan taught us when we did Crack The Skye. We’d bring it to Brendan and he was like, “Wow. What’s that riff?” “I don’t know. That’s just musical ear candy.” He’s like, “You don’t need that in the song.” “OK.” “You want to get to the chorus quicker. Don’t bore us. Get to the chorus.” He shrinks it up and makes it more of a package where it hits harder and makes more sense, rather than some crazy technical guitar part with no soul.
Game of Thrones
I don’t really like a lot of stuff on TV, but Game of Thrones keeps me on the edge of my seat every episode, so when we got asked to do it we just jumped at the opportunity. I have a whole new respect for the acting world now, because you stand around for eight, nine hours in the cold. They film the whole time, but it gets cut down to about ten seconds. There’s hundreds of thousands of dollars being used to make these scenes. It’s tedious work, but it’s super cool and fun, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. When we did it, we happened to be filming in Belfast, and just about every dude had a big beard, tattoos and long hair. They all came up to us like, “Hey. You guys are from Mastodon. We’re going to come see your show tomorrow night,” because we were playing the next night. We ended up making a lot of friends and it was funny because we’re standing in the middle of the scene, there’s thousands of these dudes, and about half of them are coming to the gig and they fans. They looked alike – they all looked the same, like metal heads.
They’re our people. It basically looks like the drunk people at the end of a Mastodon concert.