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Night of The Hunter: Guitar World Spends an Evening With Mastodon Guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher

Night of The Hunter: Guitar World Spends an Evening With Mastodon Guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher

It's 11 a.m. on the day after Halloween, in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles. The sun is shining and Guitar World is up bright and early (well, at least by rock-star standards) to meet with Mastodon at the Wiltern Theatre.

The Atlanta-based progressive sludge metallers are several dates into the touring cycle for The Hunter, their aggressive and unexpectedly hooky new record that marks the first time they haven't released a concept album since their 2002 debut, Remission.

We're here to catch up with guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher to find out what triggered their upbeat new direction and discover what really goes on backstage with the notoriously hard-rocking and hard-living band.

But at this hour, things are pretty quiet. The scene outside the historic art deco theater is anything but rocking: Pedestrians casually stroll by, people linger at the bus stop, and a security guard enjoys a long smoke break in front of the venue's gated doors. That is until a group of 10 teenagers, wearing black hoodies and clutching bags from McDonald's, turn the corner and form a line at the front door.

Mastodon may not be hitting the stage for another 10 hours, but these kids are already visibly excited, flashing big smiles and throwing devil horns. But before these fans are treated to any new live material, there's a lot of work to be done backstage- beginning with the load-in.

12 P.M. LOAD-IN

At exactly noon, the backstage entrance comes alive. The gear trucks roll up and the stage crew begins unloading case after case of equipment. The motley team of tattooed techs methodically begins to build out the stage setup for tonight's gig, with Kelliher and Hinds' stations taking shape at stage left and right, respectively.

After the gear is staged, Kelliher's tech (who inexplicably arrives wearing a crown of thorns) begins unpacking the road cases and showing off Kelliher's guitars, including his tobacco 1974 Les Paul Custom, 1982 Les Paul "Silverburst'' and new Gibson Dethklok "Thunder Horse" Explorer (the last of which Kelliher received from his friend, Metalocalypse creator Brendon Small).

Before long, Kelliher appears, looking unexpectedly well rested and focused, and joins his tech to begin dialing in his sound. ''We're just a week into the tour and I've got all this new gear," the guitarist says. "I'm using a new Mesa/Boogie Royal Atlantic head and a TC Electronic G-System, which is totally way too complicated for my brain. But I'm growing as a musician, and I should be able to use this stuff instead of having to dance all over my pedal board. So we've been really working on dialing in the right sound."

On the other side of the stage, Hinds' tech is working on one of the guitarist's custom Electrical Guitar Company aluminum-neck, acrylic-body Vs. The guitar is lying on a makeshift surgical table, with its electronic guts spilling out all over the place. The tech busts out the soldering iron and, before diving in, mentions Hinds was last seen hanging by the tour bus.

Outside, a visibly sleepy Brent Hinds is emerging from the bus like a groggy redheaded bear with a facial tattoo. "Ah, Guitar World ... When do we get our cover!" he says, as a big grin spreads across his face. "I have [Editor-In-Chief] Brad [Tolinski's] phone number. I should call and tell him to put us on the cover ... or I'll come pee on the bushes in his yard."

Without missing a beat, Hinds produces an iPhone and scrolls through photos of last night's Halloween antics. Like the final scene from The Hangover, he swipes through a gallery of debauched images, many of which feature Hinds dressed in orange face paint and wearing a huge Afro. He's also excited to speak about creating The Hunter,>, an experience he describes as "a lighter vibe, more fun and an all-around happier situation" than its predecessor, 2009's Crack the Skye.

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But he's got a few things to contend with first: he is starving, his chiropractor will be arriving soon, and he desperately needs to catch a few more hours of sleep on the bus.

It's no surprise that life on the road can run the gamut from exhilarating to tedious to downright taxing. At this point in their career, Mastodon have passed through each stage several times over. In the past few years they've crisscrossed the globe and gained serious industry cred and fan support, but they've also endured rough patches that included life-threatening injuries and the death of loved ones. As it turns out, those difficult times inspired them to break free from concept records and create one of their most visceral and upbeat records of their career.

The roots of The Hunter can be traced back to the intense circumstances surrounding the creation of their epic concept album Crack the Skye, and its subsequent tour. That album was heavy, both musically and conceptually. Hinds composed the album as he recuperated from serious head trauma he received in a fight, while the lyrics dealt, in part, with the suicide of drummer Brann Dailor's sister when she was 14.

Crack the Skye was brought to life each night through a series of vignettes that were projected behind the band and synchronized to the music. "It was a very intense thing to do," Hinds says. "Everything was on a click track, and there was no room for error at all. After a while that became really nerve wracking."

The stress also caught up with Kelliher in early 2010, when he experienced a flare-up of his acute pancreatitis (for which he was first hospitalized in November 2008) and required more treatment. "Crack the Skye came at a really dark period," Kelliher says. "First Brent was in the hospital, and then I was in the hospital. We were like, 'Shit, we're getting old and shit is breaking down!'" he says, laughing.

After taking some time off to rest, Mastodon headed back out on the fall 2010 Blackdiamondskye tour with Alice in Chains and Deftones, an experience that would be crucial to the direction of The Hunter. "Alice in Chains are really great, positive guys," Kelliher says. "Going on tour with them really lifted our spirits. Everyone in our band was in a good mood. It was like our batteries were recharged, which helped us change some things up for this record and reinvent ourselves a bit. Like, 'Hey, we don't have to be the band that just writes concept albums."'

"During that tour, no one got fucked up," Hinds says. "Well, except the guys in the Deftones. Instead of going, 'Let's get totally wasted,' we were playing guitar all day, so we were a lot more productive. Bill would be backstage with his recording setup, and when he left I'd just take over."

Free from excessive partying, and no longer bound to an overall musical theme or narrative, the guitarists adopted a new, productive routine in which they worked on tracks independently and followed them through to the recording process. "Brent and I weren't getting together and writing," Kelliher says. "It was more like Brent wrote some stuff with Brann, and I wrote some stuff with Brann. In fact I didn't even play on some of the album, and the same with him."

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Hinds adds, "On that Alice in Chains tour I'd constantly be messing around playing stuff backstage. Brann would just follow me around with an iPhone and record it. So later we dumped all that stuff out of his phone and I relearned it all and made them into songs. That's how, like, 85 percent of my stuff was written on this album."

It was also during those Jive dates that Mastodon started to notice how the audience's reaction changed in response to the somber, cerebral Crack the Skye set and the in-your-face back-catalogue tracks they used for encores. "It was almost like everyone was in a trance listening to the music and watching the movie," Kelliher says. "Then, at the end of the set, we'd play our old songs, like 'Blood and Thunder,' and everyone would go fucking crazy. We really wanted to bring back that old Mastodon energy with this record. And as it happened, the stuff we were writing was happier, and more exciting, too. It was like we hit 'restart.' It was a breath of fresh air."

3 P.M. SOUNDCHECK

The Wiltern's stage is now fully stocked with an array of Marshall, Mesa/Boogie and Diezel heads, Marshall and Orange cabs and assorted pedal boards. The techs have just finished the preliminary rig testing, and Hinds, Kelliher, Dailor and singer/bassist Troy Sanders make their way to the stage to run through soundcheck. They immediately rip into the The Hunter's first single, "Black Tongue."

Penned by Kelliher, the three-and-a-half-minute song sounds even burlier live as its Clydesdale-sized riffs gallop into the tasty harmonized solo break. The song's conclusion also marks the end of soundcheck for Hinds, who quickly removes his Electrical Guitar Company V and walks offstage. The rest of the guys stick around to isolate their parts and fine-tune their setups.

After sound check, Kelliher retreats to one of the Wiltern's basement rooms, which is lined with tables full of no-frills tour staples, including cold cuts, canned tuna, mixed nuts, ice cream and instant noodles. Between sips of coffee, he reveals how working on songs without Hinds required that he step up his lead playing on tracks like the massive riff workout "All the Heavy Lifting'' and hard-hitting "Spectrelight" (which also features guest vocals from Neurosis' Scott Kelly).

"I had to do all the harmonies myself. And since I'm not much of a lead player, I thought a lot about note choice," Kelliher says. "Like rather than just playing a third, fifth or seventh up, I wanted to mix in all those to give things a really sick Iron Maiden feel."

But it was the track "Black Tongue" that really put Kelliher's soloing skills to the test. After tracking nearly all of the record, the band headed out on a short European tour while producer Mike Elizondo worked on the final mixes. The strategy was that Elizondo would send his mixes to the band, and Mastodon would review them and have one week when they returned to add any overdubs and missing solos. But their label had other plans.

"I'm in my hotel in France and Warner Bros. calls to say they want 'Black Tongue' to be the single and it's gonna come out tomorrow," Kelliher says with a laugh. "So I pulled up Pro Tools on my laptop and spent the next five hours recording takes. It was just me in the room, hitting 'record' and doing takes, over and over. I finally got it, added the harmony, bounced it down and sent it back to Mike Elizondo. Then by 4 A.M. he had sent me back the final track."

The Hunter reflects not only the band members' growing self-sufficiency but also their newfound ability to self-edit. "We first learned that less is more from working with [producer] Brendan [O'Brien, on Crack the Skye]," Kelliher says. "He would point out that our little shifts in speed and tempo were just going right over people's heads and actually ruining the groove. We wanted The Hunter to really groove, so we took a lot of Brendan's suggestions to heart. And Mike Elizondo was the same way. He was really patient but also not afraid to say, 'No, don't use that, that's no good.' "

To his surprise, Kelliher found that this process of restraint strengthened Mastodon's songs and broadened their appeal. "We started to hold back, and people that wouldn't normally listen to heavy-ass guitar music really took notice," he says. "While we weren't doing it on purpose, it has really expanded our fan base. And it's awesome to see."

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6:30 P.M. DOORS OPEN

When the Wiltern's doors open at half-past six and the sold-out crowd begins streaming into the venue, it's clear that people have taken notice. Tonight's demographic of men and woman ranges in age from middle school to middle age. This mixed bag of Silver Lake hipsters, ragged heshers, indie-metal beardos, emo teens and hardcore kids becomes increasingly lively as the openers, Red Fang, followed by the incendiary Dillinger Escape Plan, burn through their sets.

As the night progresses, some fans get a little too excited, in the case of one guy who purchases a pair of ladies booty shorts- with "Asstodon" printed on the backside- and proceeds to drops his jeans and change into them right in the middle of the lobby.

Backstage, everyone's vibing up, too, and some are also shedding their pants. Brent Hinds is pacing around, incessantly fingerpicking a Yamaha semihollow electric. At one point he notices a bathroom in which hangs a poster of Frank Zappa sitting on a toilet, a classic portrait of the artist from 1967. Despite the heavy backstage traffic, the guitarist grabs our photographer, unabashedly drops his drawers and takes a seat under the Zappa print.

"I love Frank Zappa!" he says, with his pants around his ankles. "I basically only listen to him and country artists, like David Allen Coe and George Jones. I don't really listen to new music because I'm not done with all the old stuff yet."

Hinds' country-flavored runs and psycho chicken-pickin' licks have always been crucial to Mastodon's signature sound. An example of this can be heard on the new record in the syncopated hybrid picking on "Bedazzled Fingernails." Hinds also fronts a couple of side projects, Fiend without a Face and West End Motel, in which he explores a more traditional rockabilly and country sound. When asked how he divvies up the down-home licks, he shrugs.

"Well, there's no Brann Dailor and no Bill Kelliher, so it's easy for it to not turn into metal. [In Fiend Without a Face] I've got a stand-up bass, because I want to get that clean, rockabilly, surfish, country-type style. But when I show the Mastodon guys a part, we always take it in a completely different direction and morph it into metal."

Hinds eventually pulls up his pants and leads us to an adjoining room where he addresses one of the album's most impressive aspects: the vocals. Since their debut, Remission, Mastodon have been moving away from post-hardcore/sludge screams into a more melodic vocal delivery, shared by Sanders, Hinds and Dailor. And The Hunter is the group's most vocally ambitious effort yet.

"We shoulda been singing like this all along," Hinds says matter-of-factly. "I think we were scared to before. Plus, after a while you just get sick of screaming. It actually hurts to scream because there's no way to warm up for it."

The Hunter finds Hinds trying out some new soloing approaches as well, as heard in the wah solo in "Dry Bone Valley." "I've never used a wah on a solo before, so I thought it'd be cool to try it this time," he says. "I wanted to get that bubbling effect out of the envelope and then just nail you with the fast part. I really wanted to do a solo like if Slash stepped into the room. I feel like I captured that essence, too, with a Brent Hinds haze added on top."

Another powerhouse contribution by Hinds is the album's title track. This song, which builds from a simple riff doubled on acoustic and electric and grows into a transcendent solo, holds specific significance for the guitarist: he penned it as a dedication to his brother who died of a heart attack while hunting in December 2010.

"I wrote everything for this album after he died," Hinds says. "And it's weird, because even though the album was dedicated to my brother, everything about The Hunter was just happier: writing, playing and performing it. I just thought about how it was a good way to pay homage to him. It's really more of a celebration."

9 P.M. SHOWTIME

Mastodon retreat to the dressing room, where they finalize the night's set list and tend to last-minute chores, like autographing stacks of posters and meeting with buddies, guests and tourmates. Together for the first time since soundcheck, Hinds and Kelliher pose for a few photos and comment on what is certainly the album's most surprising track, "Creature Lives."

Written on keyboard by Dailor and fleshed out in the studio with the help of Sanders, this song begins with Dark Side of the Moon-style laughter and keyboard swells, and unfolds into a simple bass riff and rousing choral vocal harmonies. "I don't exactly know how I feel about that song," Kelliher says with a laugh. "When my wife heard it, she was like, 'Wait, is that you guys?'"

"I'm glad I wasn't in the studio the day they tracked it," Hinds adds. "I would have tried to put something more complex in it. But it works perfectly as it is. Plus, as soon as they said it was about the Creature from the Black Lagoon being rejected from society, I was like, 'Shit, that's amazing. I love it!' "

Fifteen minutes before Mastodon's 9:30 set time, management clears the dressing room and the guys make their final preparations. Kelliher and Hinds cycle through finger exercises on their guitars, Sanders runs through vocal warm-ups, and Dailor unremittingly beats his legs with his drumsticks. From the increasing volume of the ambient noise rising from the packed audience, it's clear that the crowd has waited long enough.

Mastodon make their way to the stage, and Kelliher pauses to relay one more anecdote. ''When I came to L.A. to record The Hunter, my mom called me," he says. "She was reading all the blogs and was telling me stuff like, [mimicking an older woman] 'It seems like your fans really want to hear the old Mastodon.' I explained that we were already writing stuff that was faster, quicker and bursting with energy. She was like, 'Well, that's good. Your fans are gonna love it.'"

Photo: Travis Shinn

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