Mastodon Interstellar Overdrive

Mastodon Interstellar Overdrive
Photo by Travis Shinn
The lumbering behemoth known as Once More 'Round the Sun is a relative anomaly in metal. Their musical linage and ability is nothing short of remarkable; their fan base has been largely respectful of their divergent and cerebral trajectory, multiplying with each output. Now as they release their sixth full-length, Once More 'Round the Sun, the band are burrowing deeper down the rabbit hole, further embracing '70s progressive rock archetypes alongside their characteristically complex, inconsistent rip-roaring rock numbers. From an aesthetic and lyrical perspective, the band has remained true to their authentic, cerebral, and complex roots, favouring lyrics and imagery close to their hearts. The result? Once More 'Round the Sun is comparable and equal to Blood Mountain (2006) and Crack the Skye (2009). To discuss if that means anything to the band, we chatted with drummer extraordinaire Brann Dailor, whose guitar following syncopation and otherworldly lyric writing defines the band.

Hello Brann, how are you doing? I'm tired.
You're tired? Oh. I'm tired to. I'm in Germany.

What are you doing there?
Playing with Metallica and Slayer at a big soccer stadium.

That's cool. Are you guys the opening band?
Ghost, and then us, then Slayer, then Metallica… We've done a lot with Metallica, we've done even more with Slayer. And with Ghost, we toured with Ghost in the States and Canada a couple of years with Opeth. We know everybody pretty well.

It's interesting. I've been following the band since 2002, and getting an interview with you guys for the show you played in Edmonton with Slayer, Lamb of God, Children of Bodom back in 2006, that was much easier. Now you're considered one of the most important metal bands in the world, on a huge label, and on the cover of tons of magazines. You guys are at a certain level few musicians could achieve. How would you compare your experience being a musician back in the early days versus 2014?
It doesn't really feel like much has changed. In 2004, I guess maybe… I don't know. It doesn't seem that much different. It just seems like more time has passed. The opening for Metallica thing is awesome as it is, but it doesn't change the show. It doesn't change the way we play; it doesn't really change, aside from more people being out in the audience. They are here to see Metallica, you know? We are trying to win some fans. The hope is, you play for 50,000 people, and ten percent of them come to see you the next time you come around because they enjoyed what they saw here, and would want to see that when we headline. That's the hope anyway. But I don't think that much has changed. Everyone is the same, we are the same people. It seems like it.

Fair enough. So your sixth studio album is coming out, titled Once More 'Round the Sun. What does a year in the life of Mastodon look like? Can you give some more insight into the title? It seems you guys have had hard lives; your subject matter is always introspective and seems particularly impacted by the death and pain of loved ones.
This one was particularly tough. It just manifested itself in the album, you know. I guess what I was speaking about, maybe in the past, the subject matter and things we draw from, we dug a little deeper in the past, whereas this is a bit more superficial. Not superficial in subject matter, but things were on, things had just happened. Things had just happened, and we were writing about them as they happened.

Your previous album, The Hunter, had the band struggling then too, given that the album was inspired by guitarist and vocalist Brent Hinds' brother, who passed away shortly before it was recorded.
Something always happens. Something always goes down and it informs the album, because obviously art doesn't happen in a vacuum. So you write about what is going on, usually. For me anyways. I think a lot of writers are writing lyrics, [saying] "What are we doing to write about? I'm going to write about this horror movie that I saw. Or get inspired by a news story," and that is what is informing their lyrical content. That's how it goes with a lot of heavy metal. You have a lot of guys digging into some crazy serial killer, or something like that. So I guess for us, we are just more personal with it. It just seems like I can't write about anything else, because there is something so formidable that is coming to the surface that is happening while we're speaking. If I try and even write about something else, it just doesn't work, it seems like. If I were to write about something else, I don't know it would be as good. It wouldn't hold the same weight, it wouldn't mean anything. I want the songs to have some kind of meaning. I want them to be there for a reason.

That's always struck me about Mastodon. The lyrics and artwork have such depth. With Crack the Skye being about astral projection and the passing of your sister Skye, and reading about the dreams that you had for the artwork done by Paul Romano for Remission and that iconic burning horse, it seems to be ever-present. However, what struck me about this album was not the content, but the musical execution of some songs. "Aunt Lisa" is about your aunt who passed away; it has this almost pop-like gang chorus, inspiring me to clap my hands. It's decidedly unique for Mastodon.
I don't see that as a pop song, personally. I would never in a million years think that is a pop song. The clean vocals, I see what you mean there, but with the robot vocals, and the screaming, and the odd time signature that are all around it. I guess when I think of pop music I think of Miley Cyrus or newer Michael Jackson, or new country, you know what I mean? So anyways, but I feel that is more of a progressive song, based on the structure of it. Not really having a proper chorus, and some of the time signatures, and the playing on it, the middle section is, well, it's all over the place. It has the weird, heavy riff over the end with the girls chanting over top of it. I look at it as being one of the crazier songs on the record, and out there, and my aunt Lisa with weird and crazy and kind of out there, and she would really like that song… You don't know Aunt Lisa. She was wild. She lived life to the fullest, and had the biggest personality in the room at all times. She walked in, you were just waiting to hear what she said next.

Maybe I shouldn't have called it a pop song…
Yeah, you're in big trouble for that!

Let me clarify — it just seemed there were elements in that song that seem unlike you guys. In "Aunt Lisa," you have your pals in the Coathangers chat singing "HEY, HO, LET'S FUCKING GO. HEY HO, LET'S GET UP AND FUCKING GO." It's just a strange diversion to include.
That just makes it a different thing then. It's just weird. At the end, we just feel like, it's the end of the song, and it couldn't get any weirder, so we took the Coathangers singing that weird Ramones chant over it, and it just got weirder. So we like that. It's like a little surprise. We like surprises. We like to surprise ourselves, and we like to surprise the audience, whether they like it or not. They go "ugh, I don't like that surprise." But we like it. It's bizarre.

To me, you guys are a modern metal, progressive band. On a strange diversion, the album cover is remarkably similar to the one on Mountain's Twin Peaks (1974), and the band I'm thinking of comparing you guys to is Budgie. It's odd, because you mentioned that tour you did with Opeth, and they are certainly moving down a similar trajectory as Mastodon, as in allowing and celebrating those '70s prog influences. I'm curious about your thoughts on that. With the integrations you guys are having, it seems you have the same spirit as '70s prog bands. Left field stuff, that sometimes makes people scratch their heads.
That's what we are shooting for. We sort of have to completely abandon all hope of the classic "making it," you know? It's because we've gotten pretty far just by sticking to our guns and doing what we want. It feels like we are a band that slipped through the cracks, almost, we shouldn't be as popular as we are. We aren't that popular, but we are more popular than any of us ever imagined. So, that's awesome.

So, that is the music that we like. That's the archetype we shoot for. The free spirit of the '70s prog bands. They did whatever they wanted. But not that alone, there are so many other things that have happened since prog rock, like punk rock. There is that attitude that we put in there as well. We like to combine all that stuff. We aren't solely shooting for just being progressive, we also want to be raw, and just ourselves. Blocking out the world and just being ourselves and just really concentrate on what we like. We can't do anything else. It's impossible to gauge what you think someone is going to like: it's a dangerous and slippery slope. When you start going down that road of, "I think they want to hear this" and you don't know. And then if you don't like it, and they don't like it, you're totally fucked. You might as well make what you like, stick to your guns. Even if it means you make something that everybody else doesn't like. As long as you like it, you're fine.

Speaking of that, I read that infamous Rolling Stone interview with you and Brent where you said you wanted people to talk about Mastodon in the same breath as "David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye." Those are odd choices for a metal band, but it also speaks to those artists' trajectories — several have made music that really upset their fan base at the time of release. They are non-linear artists, it seems Mastodon is also non-linear.
I'm not sure how people see us. I guess everyone sees us differently. It's up to the ages; it's up to the world. There is a very small pocket of people that know who the hell we are, but I think we've maintained our…. [Pause]. We've done what we've wanted to do. We've done what we've wanted every time we put a record out, and I think we've released a significant body of work. It's a whole lot of interesting music that keeps moving and changing and doing different stuff. As far as putting out record that frustrates people, yeah, we do that. That's one. [Laughs] I know Peter Gabriel and David Bowie release albums and their fans are often divided because they take a big step away from whatever they just had behind them, because they are changing and evolving and doing different stuff. There is not really much we can to control it. There are just the four of us, we each have a divining rod, and we go wherever it tells us. Whenever it starts tugging, we just go that way.

Well, let me ask about the thing that IS consistent. Once again, you've utilized Scott Kelly, who sings and plays guitar for Neurosis. This is his fifth album contribution in a row, following his howling on "Aqua Dementia," "Crystal Skull," "Crack the Skye," and "Spectrelight." On the press release, the band describes the song as focusing on "the fragility of responsibility." Why did you want him on that song?
Well, he picked the song. He gravitated to that more. He basically said, "I love this track, I'm feeling it, I can kill this one." So we said "have at it, go kill it" and he did. We just love Scott, his voice, and at this point… Every time we approach it, [we say] "Do you have time to do this," he is a super busy guy. "Do you like this?" You know, you never know, he might be like "I'm not feeling it this time around." Luckily, he came back and he was, I'm kind of always waiting anxiously, to hear if he is gravitating towards any of it. You're waiting for that moment he says "maybe next time" but it hasn't happened since Leviathan (2004).

He is always a welcome addition. We like to have him there. He is a good friend, a mentor, and Neurosis has always been a band we up to, as a barometer [of] how to conduct yourself in the world of music and remain true to the art form the music is, and to yourself, and to operate in the business of it. It's not easy all the time to maintain the mystique of the band, you know? There are a few bands that are good examples that you can do it, and not completely sell out, and Neurosis is one of those examples. The Melvins. Tool. Bands that have been extremely successful, but they haven't made fools of themselves.