Mastodon's Brann Dailor on Ditching the Concept Album and Assembling the Most Kick-Ass Metal Tour of the Fall
Cindy Frey Mastodon (with Brann Dailor in the shopping cart): coming soon to a dented car near you.
The Atlanta, GA-based prog-metal heroes of Mastodon have been pushing the boundaries of heavy music since coming together after the members first met at High On Fire show in 1999. Matching the punishing riff architecture of guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher with the propulsive rhythms of volcanic drummer Brann Dailor and bassist Troy Sanders, Mastodon became a rising force on the underground scene with the ferociously complex metal of 2001 EP Lifesblood and the following year's debut full-length, Remission. The band went on to develop a dauntingly complex sound with a trio of ambitious concept albums -- the Moby Dick-inspired Leviathan in 2004, followed by the surreal epics Blood Mountain and Crack the Skye -- that offered expansive vistas of psychedelic metal without sacrificing the band's characteristic moments of Slayer-level intensity.
All Shook Down spoke with drummer and principle lyricist Dailor about the creative processes behind the band's latest effort, The Hunter, and how the group picked current tour mates Dillinger Escape Plan and Red Fang for the cream-of-the-crop metal bill that comes to the Warfield on Thursday, Nov. 3.
The Hunter is the first non-concept album since Remission. When we spoke back in 2006 about making Blood Mountain, you talked about having a storyline helped focus your lyric writing the band's songwriting by providing structure. Was not worrying about a concept this time around liberating? Did it present other challenges as far as songwriting, or was it an open palette?
It was an open palette. I had a whole heady story that was written up, and even I was not 100 percent into it and kind of questioning "Should we do this again?" I guess the person who came out and said it was Brent. He was like, "Do we have to do that again?" And I was like, "No, absolutely not. I'm glad you said that." I guess going into it we hadn't really discussed the theme thing yet, but I just felt like I was going to get a head start. I thought, "Okay, this is what is expected of me. I need to come up with some crazy-ass story."
So I started doing that and came up with something that was really cool, but at the same time trying to put together the story with the album and doing all that is a pretty stressful thing. And writing a Mastodon album is a stressful thing as well. To get in there every day, plugging it out and trying to figure out ways to shoehorn these mathematical equations and riffs in there. Which is fun if everything on the outside in regular everyday life is just peachy -- then there's no problem with going into the practice space every day and slugging it out in that whole rollercoaster ride that is writing a Mastodon record.
This time around, there were a lot of stressful things happening in certain band members' lives outside of the practice space. So we kind of all recognized that, and when we started getting together to write music, we didn't want that place to be another stressful environment. So we really just started coming up with riffs and stringing them together and putting them doing in the little studio that we have and moving on and not putting these really intricate bells and whistles on everything.
I guess it was a little more freeing, you know? On songs like "Blasteroid" or "Dry Bone Valley" -- where the Mastodon of a few years ago would not have been satisfied with something so simple -- this time around, that was what was satisfying: the simplicity of it. And the fact that we weren't going to have to make that into a really stressful thing to get through. The fact that we were content with the way things were right off the bat and didn't feel the need to work the songs to death and find those mathematical equations inside and make it more difficult to play. We let it be simple and felt like that was the direction we needed to go in.
So it wasn't a matter of editing yourself down to what people have kind of come to expect with a Mastodon epic? It kind of fell naturally into more concise, straightforward songwriting?
Yeah, it really did. It sort of happened. And it's unfair for us to deny what we want to do, because of the fact that we recognize we have musical constraints that are preconceived and put there by fans or anybody else but ourselves. So what we need to do is be completely honest in the room and just follow the musical road before us. You can talk all day long about what you set out to do and what you want the album to sound like, but once it starts rolling it sort of takes on a life of its own. If you're to deny those moments, you're not really being true to whatever the song is going to come out to be. You start going down a road and you like what's happening and you're like, "But this doesn't sound like Mastodon, so we can't play it." No, the four of us are playing it, so it is Mastodon. It doesn't matter.
Well, being true to yourselves has not served you poorly so far. This album has some of your most accessible vocal melodies ever, but at the same time it's just as tough as anything you've done. Sometimes within the same song, like on "Blasteroids," where you've got a hooky vocal melody balanced out by Brent screaming absolutely insane stuff for the chorus.
Yeah, I love how those two things play against each other. It's perfect. I remember Troy being kind of on the fence on the [sings] "Whoa-ohh" because it's so bubblegum almost. But then it goes into the "I wanna drink some fucking blood!" part, their two polar opposites in a two-minute-and-30-second song.