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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

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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