by David Ciauro
Perhaps the Mayans were right after all. The End of Days must be upon us when we live in a world that finds the Atlanta-based metal band Mastodon’s latest album, The Hunter, debuting on Billboard’s top ten and the single “Curl of the Burl” being nominated for a Grammy. Drummer Brann Dailor was pleasantly baffled by the news, concluding that it’s an achievement not only for the band, but for the collective world of metalheads that are consistently on the outskirts of conformity: “I guess it’s one for us—the metalheads that are down in the basement…the bottom feeders.”
It’s a rare occasion indeed that the underground metal scene surfaces. On 2004’s Leviathan, Mastodon offered lyrics inspired by Herman Melville’s enduring classic, Moby-Dick. Seven years and three albums later, through personal tragedies and loss, the band has become the elusive and ferocious White Whale of legend, happily infringing on mainstream tastes and giving the public a glimpse of a metal force to be reckoned with.
MD: The Hunter debuted on Billboard’s top ten. What was your reaction to that?
Brann: My reaction was: why? [laughs]. It’s really nice and cool, but I can’t use it to validate anything. There are so many records that come out that are so fantastic and don’t get anywhere near the charts, so I don’t know how much stake I put in charts. Hopefully it’s a step in the right direction, and maybe it can be a gateway for some people to get into some different types of music.
MD: Mastodon’s chemistry is palpable. Looking back on the band’s beginnings, what was your initial reaction after the first few jams, and did you ever imagine that a little over a decade later you’d have an album that sounds like The Hunter?
Brann: You never really think about that stuff when you start a band. I didn’t think we had anything commercially viable at all, which was fine because that wasn’t what we were doing. I thought we had something special, though. That’s why we decided to hop in a van and travel around, making no money. But we were all excited to see what happened. I’m still excited to see what Brent [Hinds, vocals and guitar] or Bill [Kelliher, guitar] is going to come up with next as far as riffs and things to groove on. When the music becomes stagnant, that’s a sad day—when you realize you have nothing more to say musically. I don’t see us as a band that can exist in that way.
MD: The word progressive has been attached to Mastodon, and although there are certainly prog influences in your music, the term has a very literal meaning as well. With every album, the band is clearly moving forward, but in a zigzag fashion instead of a straight line.
Brann: I feel lucky to play with such unique players that don’t want to stand still as a band. We police ourselves in the way of quality but not in terms of what we write. We never say, “That riff’s too funky—we’re a metal band, so we can’t play that.” I imagine there are bands out there that throw away riffs because they don’t fit into their genre. But we don’t shy away from them; instead, we drive all the way down that street and explore those musical moments when they present themselves and take them as far as we can take them.
MD: One might argue that the reason you’ve gained such a devoted following is the fact that your fans are also excited about where the band is going to go next. Not being predictable has proven to be an asset.
Brann: I hope our true fans are expecting to see what we do next instead of hoping for an album that sounds exactly like Remission. We always take the music as it comes. Songs happen, riffs happen, and your tastes change as you get older. Life goes by and things just become different. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, and you don’t know what the next song is going to be.
So, we’ll turn down a street like “Creature Lives” and go all the way to the end of it, instead of stopping in the middle and going, “What are we doing? This isn’t us. This sounds like something else, like a side-project song—this can’t be a Mastodon song.” Our mindset is that Mastodon is what we decide to put on an album. We like surprises, and we like to surprise ourselves.
MD: That’s a very honest approach.
Brann: Well, we have to fall in love with a song before we can put it out. A bunch of fans are really into Remission, which is a crazy and brutally heavy record. But [if we made that type of record again] and our souls weren’t into it, they won’t like what they hear because we didn’t mean it. We meant it in 2001, and now we mean The Hunter—this is what we mean now.
If you’re honest with yourself and honest with your music, which you should be, then the people who do fall in love with it are going to [do so] for the right reasons, the same reasons that you did, and it’s going to create this very real [connection].
I’m so far removed from the mindset of ever wanting a band to put out the same album over and over again. I grew up with awesome parents and grandparents that listened to so many different types of music, so I don’t know what it feels like to only enjoy one type of music. I’ve gone through phases were I’d only listen to a certain band or kind of music, but it’s always been spread out. I can’t imagine going through life only listening to death metal.
Plus, this is what I do for a living, so I owe it to music and to my instrument to be well-versed in many different types of playing—drum-wise and in general, having a back catalog in my brain of the roots of different musical styles. All the musicians I’ve met have had a wide spectrum of taste.
MD: Has the band ever worried about alienating your fan base by going too far?
Brann: Well, you get a good thing going and you don’t want to mess it up. This is your livelihood. This is how you make money and feed your family, so it’s dangerous to go out on a limb because you don’t know if you’ll alienate the fans that have created that livelihood for you. But I think we set ourselves up to be the band that will go out on a limb, and people wonder what the next record is going to sound like.
MD: Crack the Skye was intense and deeply emotional in terms of content, and thus had a serious weight to the material. The Hunter overall has a much lighter tone, yet it was still written in the wake of tragedy. How did the vibe of the songs wind up sounding triumphant this time around?
Brann: Since the tragic moments were so fresh, instead of wallowing in them, the music and riffs on The Hunter are actually the band’s way of getting through the muck that was dragging us down. The band almost came to a halt—there was a lot of shit that went down.
We did the BlackDiamondSkye tour, which was refreshing to do. We got to play with some bands that have dealt with some serious stuff—members passing away, or with Chi [Cheng, Deftones bassist] being in a coma. The fact that we finished the record was a feat in itself; it was not an easy one to make. To have the music on this record be our way of spitting in the face of the demons that were trying to drag the band down is a success. It sounds triumphant in a way of, “Let’s get far away from all the shit.”
MD: Like a catharsis?
Brann: It really wasn’t cathartic, so much as it was a “f*** you” to the obstacles and our way of saying that Mastodon will exist. We had to do it! Now that it’s done, we love the way it sounds and think it’s pretty awesome.
MD: Considering all that was going on, it’s incredible that there are thirteen songs on The Hunter, plus two bonus tracks.
Brann: The practice space is a place I would go to hide from the shit, and I just hoped that people would show up to write.
MD: Did the songs come together quickly?
Brann: Yeah. “Curl of the Burl” was written in like twenty minutes. Brent came in and we started jamming. We had two riffs linked up; I had a riff from a previous song that we threw in, and it all worked perfectly. We didn’t write the bridge until the day we recorded it at Sound City.
They came together quickly, buy it wasn’t necessarily for time constraints so much as it was just letting the songs remain instinctual—these little four-minute pieces. Leviathan was written that way too—very instinctual. We could have sat with each song and beat each other up about inserting math-metal sections, but we didn’t.
MD: Was it easy for the band to just let the songs be?
Brann: I was worried about it, because there was so much going on behind the scenes that I was nervous that the songs weren’t good. [Producer] Mike Elizondo was very supportive. He was like, “Dude, the stuff is awesome. I don’t know what you’re worried about. I would tell you if I thought the songs weren’t there. Let’s just get it recorded.”
MD: With the songwriting being more straightforward, relatively speaking, did you feel the need to pull back on your playing?
Brann: I don’t analyze it too much. It’s just a taste and feel thing for me, and I want to do my part to bring each song to life. When I play by myself, I start with more groove-oriented stuff. Then I start adding fills, playing over the bar, playing past the measures, and all that stuff. That’s fun, but the point is to make the song build and make the transitions work—make the crescendos happen in the right places and know when to lock in with the guitar instead of the bass or vice versa. I try to never let my ego get in the way of a good song, but I also never want to dumb down my playing to the point where I lose myself. Call it what you want—overplaying or whatever. There are plenty of drummers in the world who play the simple straight-up thing, but that’s not what we do. We’re Mastodon, and to my ears and the ears of the other guys in the band, all the notes and beats are in the right place. I think in the years to come, people will listen back and hear that we had something different going on.
Photo by Cindy Frey.