Mastodon: Valyrian Metal
In the world of metal, there’s no denying that progressive/sludge metal quartet Mastodon sit high upon the genre’s Iron Throne. On the cusp of their first ever Australian headlining tour, we spoke with drummer, vocalist and all-around killer dude Brann Dailor about recording their recent album Once More ‘Round The Sun, the never-ending issue of personal taste, and some obscure television show called Game Of Thrones.
Something I really like about your albums is that each new release has a different sound from the last but still feels like a Mastodon album. Is this evolution something that you consciously make or does it come naturally when writing the music?
I guess it’s a little bit of both; we get a little bit bored now and then. If we’re playing something we’ve already done we try to shy away from that. I guess we’re all looking for something new, but we don’t push too hard in any direction; we just let it come naturally. If something comes naturally and it sounds cool, we gravitate towards that, whatever that might be.
When playing live, do you find it jarring or difficult to go back to earlier stuff from Remission or Leviathan because of how different it is from what you’re currently doing?
Not at all; I don’t feel that way. I like the fact that we have such a variety of music because we’re such big fans of music, and we want that to be our thing. We want Mastodon to kind of quench all of the band’s music thirsts, because we’re into a ton of different music. We want to be able to float between genres and do whatever the hell we want because we can. When it comes to playing live I love being able to put together a cool set that touches on all of those aspects of our musical personalities and what you will. I love the old stuff – plus it gives me a good workout.
How have your fans reacted to this change in sound? Has there been any significant push-back to the newer sound that you’ve pursued?
Oh, yeah sure. Every album some people are pretty vocal that they don’t like the change or that they like this album better than that album, but that’s going to happen with any band. We don’t have that much control on what we’re doing; we can only control what we like. You can’t care too much about what the public is saying about you or the music you’re making. I always say that it either resonates with you or it doesn’t; there’s nothing I can do to force you to like something. I don’t even know why people like what they like; I have trouble figuring out why I like what I like. It’s pretty simple: you either like it or you don’t. I might not like something today that I’m going to like in 10 years. It’s kind of a mystery of why people like what they like. It’s a matter of time and place; maybe something happened to you and you found this album that does that thing for you. I feel like if we come from an honest place of writing music that we love, then that’s all we can control and that’s going to resonate with someone out there. And if it doesn’t resonate with anybody except the four of us, that’s fine as well. That’s all that I’m really capable of controlling. That’s what we concentrate on, that we try to make ourselves happy with the music that we’re writing and if those moments feel honest then that’s going to translate to somebody. If people don’t like it, they don’t like it – there’s nothing I can do about it; I did my best.
Once More ‘Round The Sun is an interesting album in that it isn’t a concept album, but there’s definitely recurring themes that run through each song. Could you tell me a bit about that?
Whether or not it’s super planned out, every album seems to be this running narrative of whatever is happening in the lives of the band members. We really don’t know anything else and we tend to gravitate towards our own personal life experiences when it comes to writing lyrics. Some things had happened right when we were about to start writing lyrics – my mum got sick, some people passed away. We had some big, epic life moments and they were undeniable when making their way into the subject matter, because they were so fresh and right there in front of us. It’s hard to ignore those things. That’s what was popping out at me when writing lyrics, and I think it was the same for the other guys too. It’s hard to have these big life moments and not write about them, for the sake of trying to write about a piece of literature you’ve read or news story about a serial killer or something. If you’re searching for something to write about you don’t have to look to far, especially if you’ve had some epic life tragedy it works its way in. I imagine every single person that’s written music, their own personal tragedies make it into their music and lyrics almost every single time, and maybe they don’t talk about it.
I guess you could say your music serves as a sense of personal catharsis or therapy to the world that you’re experiencing at the time?
Yeah, I guess so but I don’t know if it’s therapy. If I’m writing lyrics and something terrible happened that day, it’s hard for me to ignore it because that’s the only thing that I’m thinking about. If the music is evoking that sort of spirit, it gets written about.
How was the creation process like for this album compared to your previous ones, both writing and recording-wise?
We don’t really talk about it, it’s just what comes out – it’s real simple. There’ll be a riff and something needs to be sung over the top of it, and we’ll audition a few different things. Whatever guides us to the top, that’s what gets picked. We’ll have a couple of things to sing over it and you’ll listen back to it and think, “This doesn’t do it for me”. There’s things like “The Motherload” where it’s the first thing that popped up and it was really obvious that that’s what it had to be; it really couldn’t be anything else. It definitely wasn’t like, “Hey, let’s do some late ‘70s, early ‘80s style big choruses”. You just get some riffs that need to be sung over, so you start singing and that’s what comes out.
This recent album has the cleanest vocals of anything you’ve released before. Are harsher unclean vocals something of the past for you guys?
When we started we really didn’t have a singer, and we still don’t really have a singer. If you know anybody… I don’t really listen to much screamy music. I listen to Neurosis, but none of the guys in the band really listen to scream-orientated music – I guess we sort of just ended up in a screamy kind of band. We’re just really into Neurosis, basically – Neurosis, Melvins, Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden and stuff. I mean, I listen to Genesis and Stevie Wonder. Nobody in the band listens to anything that’s crazy screamy, so it’s not something we dig too much. As far as death metal goes I like old school stuff, like Obituary, Death and stuff like that. I feel like Mastodon isn’t coming from that place anymore – but I’m not going to rule it out. I’m more of a fan of the scream-sing, like Troy’s voice [Sanders, vocals and bass]. He’s got that raspy mixture of the two, where it’s yelling but there’s melody involved. I like that better, personally. If you can find a killer vocal melody, I prefer that to out-and-out screaming.
While you’ve moved away from screaming, your drumming has maintained an incredible level of aggression. Where do you channel this intensity from? As a side to that, you’ve been providing more and more vocals on each Mastodon album, and feature on a majority of ‘Round The Sun’s tracks. Does your singing come from the same place inside you as your drumming?
I don’t know. With drumming I’m just trying to fit into what’s going on, what I feel like the song wants to be and help it get there. I want to capture the intensity of John Coltrane-style jazz but in the heavy metal, hard rock format. That was the beginning, the thought behind where I wanted to be with drumming. Over the last few records it’s been a little different: a whole new challenge to play slower stuff, not so busy, more laid-back and let the song be what it needs to be. With my vocals, again, I just try to fit them in. We all sort of audition for the vocals as well and say, “Well, what about this?” We all get on the mic and try to chip in, and see what we can do. I definitely try to sit down to play and sing it first, because I don’t want to commit to anything that I can’t physically pull off live. I guess they come from the same place, I don’t know! [Laughs].
You guys just released a track called “White Walker” for the new Game Of Thrones mixtape as well. How did recording this song come about? Did you guys approach HBO or did they come to you?
Brent [Hinds, vocals, guitar] met one of the writers and some of the cast at Sonisphere Festival. They hooked up and talked, and I guess the writer is a big Mastodon and metal fan, so we kept in touch. We got together and said, “We should do a song for their mixtape because they’re going to put a new one out”. Last year they did one that’s all hip hop, but this year they wanted to include some metal bands. So we said yes, because we’re huge fans of Game Of Thrones, we watch it on tour together. We jumped at the opportunity to do that. We were coming home from the last tour and I came up with the melody – I pretty much had the whole song mapped out in my head, I put all the lyrics into my phone in my notes and hummed it into my recorder. Then when we got home from touring I recorded a version of it with just me singing a cappella, which I sent around to all of the guys. They thought it was cool, so we all got together, jammed it once and got into the studio to record it. I wanted it to be real simple, almost a campfire vibe. I wanted it to be different, because it’s this one-off thing – it’s not an album – so that kind of gives us carte blanche to do what we want. Not to say that we don’t do what we want usually, it just gives us an opportunity to explore a little bit and see what else we can do.
Check out Mastodon’s Game Of Thrones track “White Walker” plus their Australian tour dates below.
Mastodon Tour Dates
Fri Mar 27th – Festival Hall, Melbourne (AA)
Sat Mar 28th – Big Top @ Luna Park, Sydney (AA)
Sun Mar 29th – Eatons Hill Hotel, Brisbane (AA)