Mastodon’s Brann Dailor

As you read this, Mastodon’s brand-new album is dropping all over the world. As usual, fans will get exactly what they expect—plus a little something new.

Story by David Ciauro
Photos by Jimmy Hubbard
Mastodon’s discography follows a linear pattern, where each release moves into new sonic territory, making it a time capsule of sorts. Although this approach has earned the group a loyal and diverse following, it’s a challenge to accurately explain a record before fans get a dose of it, even for drummer Brann Dailor. “Being so inside since its inception, I don’t know if it benefits anybody to hear my perspective,” Dailor says regarding the mercurial metal band’s seventh studio album, Emperor of Sand. “One of the reasons sound is so powerful is because each person perceives it differently.”Dailor does gamely offer some hints, saying that the new material is deep and conceptual, with songs that contain a balance of hooks and expansive bridges. Helping to render the music once again is producer Brendan O’Brien, who last worked with the band on its highly regarded 2009 release, Crack the Skye, also a dense concept album. “We typically have a wall of sound, but on this particular album we were looking for some breathers,” Dailor explains. “We were in that realm of ‘Brendan O’Brien’s heavily decorated Christmas tree,’ where you can barely see the branches because of all the ornaments.”

As opposed to earlier efforts, this time the group had a majority of the vocal ideas ready before recording. Historically the music has come first for Mastodon, and lyrics—another of Dailor’s main responsibilities in the group—get shoehorned into the barrage of riffs. “Lyrics don’t come as easy as drumming does for me,” Dailor says. “After my drum tracks are done, it takes me the rest of the recording process to figure out what I want to say without being a complete and total cheeseball.”

While the subject matter of Mastodon’s music has been more personal since Crack the Skye, the band uses uniquely imaginative metaphors to tell its stories. The action in this album’s narrative takes place in the desert, where the protagonist has been handed down a death sentence from a sultan in the Sudan. “It’s all a metaphor,” Dailor explains, “for going through cancer—surviving and succumbing to the disease. We’ve had a lot of cancer close to the band over the past couple of years. Lyrically, we knew everyone was going to want us to talk about that. But instead of making it too literal, we made a story to kind of go along with it.”

Before he puts pen to paper, though, Dailor gets a sense of how he wants his drums to sound based on the vibe of the songs, and he prepares a selection of snare drums from his impressive collection to suit each track. “I sent an email [to the other band members] with a link to a clip of ‘Barracuda’ by Heart, to use as a jumping-off point,” Brann says. “A lot drier, up front, and natural.” Though he’s been a faithful Tama endorser for many years, Dailor admits that the hoarder in him comes out in his approach to snare drums. “I’ll play Tama snares all day long, but you’re not going to not have a ’70s Black Beauty in your arsenal,” he chuckles.

Mastodon hits the road this month with support from Eagles of Death Metal and Russian Circles.

Brann Dailor endorses Tama drums, Meinl cymbals, Vater sticks, and Evans heads.