The last time we spoke to this month’s cover star, Mastodon was putting the final touches on its latest studio album, Emperor of Sand. Since then the group has been romping across North America in support of the release, including a current run with Primus and upcoming dates with Dinosaur Jr. No, those aren’t typical tour partners for a metal band. But anyone who knows Mastodon also knows that they haven’t risen to the top of the rock heap by following the heavy metal handbook. Taking a short and much-deserved respite in Florida before heading off to Australia for the Download festival, their self-professed “outsider” drummer fills us in on these and other unpredicted events.
Call them metal, call them hard rock, call them prog…. One thing’s for sure, none of those labels do the Atlanta-based band Mastodon justice. Mastodon are welcome interlopers who, after nearly twenty years, have morphed and blossomed into makers of a sound that is truly their own.
Drummer Brann Dailor is an integral part of this equation, bringing an atypical style of drumming to heavy music. Instead of using the bombastic low-end assault commonly associated with many forms of heavy drumming, Dailor employs a dynamic approach, relying more on a constant stream of ghost notes and fluidity in his hands to drive the band.
Mastodon’s debut album, 2002’s Remission, was a brutal onslaught of feverish instrumental intensity and guttural screams, with Dailor filling much of the space with blistering single strokes and hairtas. Since then the band has made massive creative leaps. While they’ve continually explored space, groove, and vocal melody, the men of Mastodon—Dailor, singer/bassist Troy Sanders, rhythm guitarist Bill Kelliher, and singer/lead guitarist Brent Hinds—have never strayed from their natural tendencies to deliver the unexpected, and always via fierce musicianship.
And to be sure, nearly every Mastodon song features some surprising twist. This strategy can be risky, especially for a group like theirs that’s risen through the ranks of metaldom, where the fear of alienating fans is often front-of-mind. But for Mastodon it’s all about the here and now. It’s a worldview that’s made them heroes in the metal community and earned them respect outside the genre, including words of praise from the members of Queens of the Stone Age, Foo Fighters, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Rush, Tool, Dethklok, and Primus. And this past year their appeal has proven even more far-reaching than that. Since 2007 the group had been nominated for a Grammy award four times, and this year brought their first win, for the song “Sultan’s Curse” from the critically acclaimed Emperor of Sand.
Could it be that the world has finally figured out what to make of Mastodon?
MD: Where do you feel Mastodon falls in the realm of heavy metal?
Brann: We’re an outsider band because we’re really not rooted in any particular scene. We probably shouldn’t be as popular as we are. We’re kind of a gray-area band that floats between genres, and we’re weird just being ourselves.
Heavy metal isn’t really well represented at the Grammys, because they lump together all the subgenres of heavy music. It’s a pretty healthy genre. So many bands have sprouted off of that main Black Sabbath tree, and [there are] so many talented musicians and incredible drummers.
Nobody I know is writing music to win a Grammy, especially not in heavy metal. If anyone in metal is—they’re not doing it right! It’s not like the Olympics, where athletes have a specific goal of winning the gold. It just comes down to writing riffs, having fun, and putting everything you have emotionally into it.
MD: Mastodon maintains genuineness because your roots aren’t firmly planted in one sound. You seem more interested in what’s happening at the present time, which speaks to how the band has continued to evolve.
Brann: We get bored of ourselves, and we like so many styles of music that we never want to give up an opportunity to represent one of those styles, whether it be Mahavishnu Orchestra or George Jones. We’re not handcuffing ourselves to one style. If we like it, we go with it. We don’t try to overanalyze and consider what fans might say or how they’d react, so we keep blinders on in that regard—if you don’t do that, you sacrifice the honesty in your music.
For a lot of heavy metal fans—and I was like this too when I was younger—it’s very important for the band you like to always be heavy. Heavy is just the place where we started as kids. The gang I belonged to in high school all had the long hair and jean jackets and worshipped Metallica, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest. But as I got older, I embraced different kinds of music and wanted to incorporate that into whatever I was doing musically. For example, when I met Troy and Brent, they liked all this old country music that I was never exposed to as a kid. Growing up in upstate New York, I was firmly planted in the no country music at all, ever mindset, and what I did hear of it back then just didn’t do anything for me. Now it makes sense to me and I like it.
MD: Mastodon albums have always been dense in terms of the number of notes and new ideas presented in a song. The early records like Remission were an earful. As the band has matured and progressed, the records have become even denser, but in a more considered and layered way. It can take several listens in order to fully grasp and appreciate what you’re hearing.
Brann: Yeah, I understand that. I’ve definitely had that reaction when I’ve listened to some old prog or fusion records. For me, it’s always been about playing busy, but over the years I’ve toned it down in certain places because to my ears now that’s what feels right. I know that as a listener some music may seem crazy, but when you’re the one creating it, it doesn’t seem that way. We’ve been playing together for so long now that none of it sounds crazy.
Puzzling It All Together
MD: Has a main idea for a song ever ended up being less central to the composition as the song evolved?
Brann: “Ember City” off of Once More ’Round the Sun has a riff in the middle that we jammed for a long time, thinking it was going to be the meat of the song, but it ended up being this short bridge. Sometimes what you think will be a focal point ends up as a momentary thing.
MD: Your latest single, “Toe to Toes,” which also appears on the Cold Dark Place EP, has great transitions and unexpected tempo shifts.
Brann: “Toe to Toes” took a full day of getting frustrated and working through the parts until it made sense. There are a bunch of riffs and feels in that tune.
I always enjoyed the puzzle of writing music, especially in the realm of prog. You can get weird with it and present something with a lot of parts that shouldn’t naturally make sense together, but you can use the drums to help fuse parts. Some songs defy the odds of parts going together, but it’s up to you to figure out how to make contrasting parts and feels go together and somehow sound natural. It might be jarring for some people. Not everyone likes to be surprised when listening to music. They want steady beats. They don’t want to think, Wait, what’s happening now? [laughs] But I like the jarring discomfort in my music. I like simplicity as well, but I suppose as a player and a listener I like a challenge. I like to have to get to know a song’s twists and turns.
MD: “Steambreather” from Emperor of Sand and “Blue Walsh” from Cold Dark Place both have deep pocket grooves. As the band has progressively focused on vocal melodies, has singing changed how you think about your parts?
Brann: We choose who sings based on the sound of our voices, and whether Troy, Brent, or my voice will sound best for the part. The times when I’m singing tend to call for more straightforward drum parts. There’s a song on Once More ’Round the Sun called “Aunt Lisa” that was really complicated for me to sing, so live I had to dial down some of the fills so I could sing it.
MD: How long did it take you to track Emperor of Sand?
Brann: It took me about four days, once we got the drum sounds. By the time we get into the studio, I’ve been playing these songs for so long, and I’ve put in the time to really know my parts. I go in and try to record like I’m playing a set. I pride myself on being able to play my parts start to finish, so I get as many versions as I can of me playing the full song. I don’t like to rely on ProTools to comp parts. Though it does afford you some freedom while recording to go for it once in a while, instead of worrying about playing it safe because you want to make it to the end of the song without messing up.
MD: Going back to what you said earlier, it makes you appreciate all those old prog and fusion records even more knowing that was all recorded to tape.
Brann: Yeah, right. Man up! Those guys were crushing it, playing the craziest stuff, and they weren’t editing anything. Makes me think, Do it, Dailor! [laughs]
Love You Live
MD: I’ve seen every tour since Blood Mountain, and the front-of-house mix sounds better than ever. Unless my ears were deceiving me, I was hearing some percussive elements like tambourines. Do you have a trigger on your snare to layer sounds?
Brann: Yes and no. I don’t use triggers, but I really wanted to include the tambourine and some of the percussive elements I’d done in the studio because they were pretty prominent in the mix. Instead of using triggers or bringing a keyboard player on tour, we brought Bill’s sampler pedal. We won’t ever use the sampler for vocals or guitars, it’s just for keyboard parts or percussion parts. There weren’t enough percussion or keyboard parts to warrant bringing more people on tour with us right now. If we do get even more fusion/prog-influenced down the road and get more keyboard stuff going on, we may have to bring someone else on board.
Most of the keyboard work on Emperor of Sand was played by one of us or [producer] Brendan O’Brien. We wanted to bring those noises with us on the road, so I play to a click for those songs, and we sample those elements. We have our high moral standard of never trying to fool the audience with fake vocals being run, though. I think that’s pretty obvious at certain points with us. [laughs] We’re not the greatest singers. If our vocals were super pristine, people would know we’re up to some funny business.
We have a great sound guy named Rob Lightner. We’ve gone through a lot of front-of-house people, and when you find one that’s super talented, you need to do everything in your power to hold on to them. Rob’s always trying to get better too. He cares deeply about his job and about the band. Between Rob and our front-of-house light guy, Mike Howe, who runs all the visuals, they’re a dream team. They’re always working together to make a better show. It’s integral for a band to have people like that working with them to present the best live show possible. I always defer to Rob when it comes to my drum selection too. He loves drums and loves toms to be really loud and crystal clear in the mix. When I finally settled on the Tama Bubinga Birch drums, he told me I could never get rid of them because they sounded so good.
MD: Your kit sounded fantastic: lots of clarity, but still a very natural tone.
Brann: I’ve always taken a more ’70s rock approach to drumming as far as sound and style. Marshall stacks began to take over, but all the drummers still had their left foot and snare hand rooted in jazz and big band. Guys like Billy Cobham were at the helm, playing with tons of raw power, but still having a jazz sensibility, playing over the bar and adding cool fills. Then there’s people like Ginger Baker and Bill Ward, who were obviously at the start of hard rock and heavy metal, so they couldn’t have had any influences in a genre that hadn’t been created yet. They were creating the sound and style that became the genre.
Emperor of Sound
MD: Your drums always sound natural in the studio too, which is counter to current trends in drum production in heavier music. What gear did you use to get your sounds for Emperor of Sand?
Brann: I mentioned last time we spoke that Heart’s “Barracuda” was the inspiration for my drum sound on Emperor of Sand, and for The Hunter it was Duke by Genesis. For every album there’s usually a sound I hear that’s what I want to go for. But I never want to go full-on vintage and try to truly replicate old sounds; I simply want to give the producers and engineers a focal point for the drum aesthetic of the album. [This time] I wanted it to be punchy and up in the mix, but still natural.
For the recording I used a Frankenstein kit. I love Tama, but when I get into the studio, there’s usually nothing I won’t use to try to obtain the best sound for the record. Especially when you’re working with someone like Brendan, who’s not at all concerned with endorsements. His philosophy is, This process isn’t going to go well if you’re only going to let me use the gear you use live. He knows what gear is going to work best from a recording standpoint, so I defer to him because that’s his area of expertise. Plus, I’m into doing that. It’s exciting to go in to the studio and play around with all this gear. I own twenty or more snare drums that I never play live, so I want to get a chance to try them out in the studio.
The primary snare on Emperor of Sand was a 6.5×14 Dunnett Classic Titanium. I also used a Dunnett 2N snare—I believe on “Show Yourself”—but we tried a bunch of different snares and recorded a few songs, and we seemed to come back to the Titanium almost every time. The toms were Fibes maple drums from ’91 or ’92, which I used on Crack the Skye. Brendan specifically asked me to bring those along. And we used a Tama Bubinga Birch floor tom, as well as old Gretsch and Slingerland kick drums, I believe both from the early ’70s.
The cymbals were all Meinls. I used the Benny Greb Sand ride for a lot of the songs, my Ghost ride for a couple songs, and a lot of Byzance Vintage models as well. The darker, sandy stuff really seemed to work well for the vibe of these songs.
Of Setlists and Speed Trials
MD: Will you be playing anything from Cold Dark Place on the next leg of the tour?
Brann: We’ll do “Toe to Toes” for sure—we’ve got that pretty well worked up at the moment. We’ve got a lot of songs now. I think we’ve written over a hundred songs as a band. We’ve been trying to have more of them in our [sets], and on the Primus tour we’re hoping to have two different sets so we can switch songs out. We’ve done tours where we’ll add a song or take one out, but this tour is two solid months, so in order to keep everyone sane, we need to change it up.
MD: When you have such a deep catalogue to choose from, how much planning is required in regards to letting your front-of-house crew know what’s coming, since you do have three lead vocalists and a ton of song-specific visuals?
Brann: The lighting guy has every song programmed, so we can’t just start calling audibles on stage like we’re Bob Dylan or something. The videos aren’t a hundred percent synced up, because I don’t play to a click for every song, but we’re pretty consistent every night.
MD: Do you ever listen back to shows to compare the songs that are to a click against those that aren’t?
Brann: Some nights the non-click songs may be a bit faster. Sometimes at the end of a tour, my tempo perception gets a bit off, and I’ll listen back and be shocked at how fast I played a song. Usually I’ll remember thinking that while we were playing it, it actually felt slow. It’s a strange mind thing that happens with drummers. I’m not sure it happens much with guitarists, but we drummers sometimes get speedy. The downside, of course, is that the songs tend to lose the pocket that needs to be there. But when you do something so repetitively, it can happen. It’s something that I’ve definitely improved at over time. When I was younger I’d blow through songs and just have no idea. But now I’ve calmed down and I’m more aware. When I feel like a song is slow, I’ll know that I’m likely fine and that the song is at a nice relaxed tempo.
MD: How did your synth-metal band Arcadea come about? You released your self-titled debut album last summer; do you plan on doing any live shows?
Brann: I did the album with my buddy Core [Atoms]. We grew up together in Rochester and played in the band Gaylord together. He moved to Atlanta eight or nine years ago, and about three years ago he told me he’d written some songs on a microKORG synthesizer but didn’t know what to do with them. I dug them and added my thing to them, and the album is what that sounds like. Mastodon is obviously my main focus, but I would love to do some Arcadea shows one day.
MD: You’ve also spent some of your downtime filling in for Fred Armisen on Late Night with Seth Meyers. How did that opportunity come about?
Brann: I’ve done that three times now. Fred is the drummer of the 8G Band, but he’s often off doing a multitude of projects, so they started getting fill-ins. I think they had Jon Theodore a couple of times; he may have been one of the first drummers to do it. One of the producers of the show, Eric Leiderman, started reaching out to some other drummers he dug, and it’s kind of become a thing.
I was pretty nervous to do it the first time, so I called Jon for some advice and he said that it’s so much fun. You go in to NBC each day around noon, meet in this small room with people in the band, and write five or six pieces of music that you’ll play on the show that night, which are for the walk-on segments when someone gets introduced by Seth. So when they write these pieces of music, they record them too, and they’ll play a little bit for you in your ears right before the guest is announced so you know what to play and you don’t have to worry about memorizing anything. Each piece is only about ten seconds long. The only tricky thing is the timing when the guest sits down. There’s a sweet spot where you want to end, which is about one second after they sit down. You don’t want to end before they sit, and you don’t want to still be at the beginning of a bar just as they sit so now they’re waiting for you to finish. That’s totally awkward. But you need to always end on the 1, and end with some form of fill, so you have to be very attentive.
MD: How do drums fit in to your life when you have downtime?
Brann: The longest I ever want to go [without playing] is about a week and a half. Then I get antsy and just need to play the drums. I don’t feel right. I get disjointed and depressed, and I don’t like that feeling. I’m in Florida right now, still celebrating from the Grammys. I play just about every day, even if it’s just on a pad. My kit is in my basement back home.
I’ll start each morning by grabbing some coffee and heading to the basement for a few hours. If I happen to have a long time until I have to be doing Mastodon stuff again, I simply try to learn stuff I can’t play, whether it be some jazz technique or a song I always wanted to learn how to play. With YouTube now, it’s great because there are so many incredible drummers giving free lessons, so I take advantage of that. There’s always something to learn.
I have different modes. Sometimes I’m working on some new technique, and that’s very focused. Other times I’m working on songs I have to learn [to record] or play live. Then there’s free-for-all time that has no boundaries, like a little kid that doesn’t have a band and doesn’t care about playing music more than just playing for the love of the drums. It’s important that I allow myself to go there once in a while too.
If I’m getting ready for a tour, it’s more about conditioning, and I’ll play for two or three hours straight as hard, fast, and heavy as I can so that my stamina is way past what I’ll ever need for a show. However, no matter how hard I try, I can never seem to bring the intensity level in my basement to that of a live show. There’s something about being in front of an audience.
MD: I’ve seen videos of you practicing in your rehearsal space both alone and with the band, and you’re able to play your parts rather quietly without losing your intensity. Is that an intentional part of your practice routine?
Brann: When I’m working on something that’s new to me, I always want to build toward something. So I start quiet and keep it like that for a long time. For example, I’ll work on quads or triplets and start really quietly until I can build these dynamic swells and be able to fully control them. Then when I get comfortable, I’ll start moving them around the kit. Those dynamic swells remind me of the ocean. I concentrate a lot on transitions and creating crescendos. In Mastodon, it’s up to me to bring all those riffs to life, and it’s up to me to create transitions and crescendos that allow the songs to move and work and pop where they need to.
MD: What did winning a Grammy mean for the band?
Brann: We’d been nominated three times prior, starting back in 2007 for “Colony of Birchmen” off our Blood Mountain album. That was a huge shock! At that point in time, the Grammys were the furthest thing from our minds. We were on tour in Europe with Tool, who’d also been nominated that year, when the first nomination was announced. I had the flu, so after we’d played our set, I went right back to our bus to sleep. I remember waking up to a hand reaching into my bunk clutching this little Nokia phone and saying, “Brann, it’s Rolling Stone—they want to get your reaction to being nominated for your first Grammy!” I think I said, “I’m really sick…but that’s cool!” That was certainly a thrilling moment for us as a band. We went to the awards that year, but we lost to Slayer.
I guess winning meant more to me than I thought, because this time, when they announced, “‘Sultan’s Curse’—Mastodon!” it was totally shocking. I can’t really explain the feeling. I knew the words they were saying, and it all sounded familiar, but it still took a moment to register. It seemed like an unattainable thing. It’s definitely turned into being about much more than winning for one song. That’s what gets nominated, one song. But the way we look at it is like, this is for twenty years of scraping and clawing our way through the metal scene to get to where we are today.
MD: The Grammy is symbolic of the journey. But you said at the beginning of this interview that receiving one was never the goal.
Brann: Our goal has always been the same: to make ourselves happy with the music we write and feed our primal need for honest artistic expression through music. We’ll always be excited about what we’ve accomplished, but also looking forward to what’s coming next. We want to be as thoughtful and inventive as we can, push ourselves as musicians and elevate our friendships, pay homage to our loved ones that have either fallen or can’t enjoy the fruits of life as they want to, and just try to write music that means the world to us and then share it with our fans.
Getting the Grammy was validation for all of our work over our career, and even for my grandparents and parents who were musicians before me. For me, it all hit too, because the awards ceremony was on my sister Skye’s birthday, and she passed away when she was fourteen. When I told my mom about the nomination and she found out the Grammys were on Skye’s birthday, she said, “Oh, you’re going to win!” I don’t really believe in that kind of stuff, but it made me think of her. Every tragedy that anyone in the band has ever faced has manifested itself in a Mastodon song or lyric. Our collective trials and tribulations are wrapped up in them, so winning that Grammy was a huge thing for everybody.
Mastodon is like a rose garden, and every song is a different rose that we’ve been caring for for twenty years. But for some reason this one rose, “Sultan’s Curse,” is the one that’s had the Grammy bestowed upon it. But that rose symbolizes all the roses in the garden. It’s for all the beautiful roses we grew together. The garden is still there, and there are new plants and bushes, and new buds that are appearing, and we’re going to continue to tend to those and make them as beautiful as possible and add them to the collection.
Black Light Beauties: Dailor’s Live Setup
MD: You just got a new tour kit, which looks insane. Tell us about what inspired its design.
Brann: Well, it’s obviously a Tama Bubinga Birch kit, or else Rob Lightner would have killed me. [laughs] The artwork is inspired by old blacklight posters from the ’70s. One tom has the grim reaper, another has a Medusa head with snakes, another has a wizard with a staff commanding a seven-headed hydra monster, and the next one has the kraken from Clash of the Titans riding a chopper. And the kick drum has giant cobras and skulls and a girl with Attila the Hun and a black panther. All the paint is blacklight sensitive, but it’s all on automotive sparkle flake as well; that surrounds the blacklight paint, so it looks like an old van or motorcycle tank from the ’70s. My drum riser will be surrounded by blacklights, so at certain points in the show I can turn them on and let the kit do its thing!
Drums: Tama Starclassic Bubinga Birch custom painted by famed San Francisco artist “Dirty” Donny Gillies
• 6.5×14 Starphonic snare
• 8×10 tom
• 9×12 tom
• 10×13 tom
• 16×16 floor tom
• 18×22 bass drum
• 15″ Pure Alloy hi-hats
• 18″ Byzance Vintage crash
• 20″ Byzance Jazz Medium Thin crash
• 22″ Byzance Jazz China ride
• 21″ Ghost ride
Hardware: Tama, including an Iron Cobra double pedal
Sticks: Vater American Hickory 5B wood-tip
Heads: Evans, including G2 Clear batters and G1 Clear resonants and an EQ4 bass drum batter