The New Guitar Gods: Mastodon
Mastodon buds Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher discuss the reefer madness and riffin' magic that helped them scale the heights of Blood Mountain, the group's killer new conceptual prog-metal masterpiece.
Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson can’t have all the fun. Somewhere, there’s a buddy-movie script just waiting for the likes of Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher. Mastodon’s coguitarists (Hinds also shares vocal duties with bassist Troy Sanders) are screenwriter’s dream of contrasting styles: Hinds’ languid southern locution calls to mind the beguiling demeanor of the aging hang-about Wooderson, Mathew McConaughey’s slacker-stoner hero from Dazed and Confused, while Kelliher, with his deep, stentorian voice and serious mien, is the “mature” member of the group, a devoted family man, perpetually concerned about finances and quick to point out that Mastodon is “a business, not a hobby.” “Yeah, it’s a business,” Hinds counters breezily, “but that ain’t gonna spoil my good times. The day this shit ceases to be cool is the day I’m checking out.” To which Kelliher chuckles—a rare occurrence—and adds: “That isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Sure, it’s a business, but it’s one we’re extremely passionate about. People can tell when your music is fake, and nothing about Mastodon is fake.” Kelliher, cordial and blessed with the sangfroid of a dentist, is a custom-made foil for the expansive Hinds. Egoless to a fault, he’s perfectly content to lay back and let Hinds get in the best verbal zinger or cop the craziest solo. “I don’t mind if Brent gets the glory,” he says. “We’re a team. I’d rather pass him the ball and watch him score a touchdown. As long as we win, that’s all that matters.” Winning has been in the cards for Mastodon since the group formed in Atlanta in 2002, when Kelliher and drummer Brann Dailor, former members of Lethargy and Today Is the Day, met up with Hinds and Sanders at a High On Fire concert. “The four of us got together and we could tell we were kindred spirits,” says Hinds. “I knew were we capable of making some killer music. It was gut instinc, and my gut is always right.” Mastodon’s first release, 2001’s EP Lifesblood, was a promising debut, but it was 2002’s Remission that made metal fans stand up and take notice. A whirlwind of complex, progressive rock, full of hardcore punk-meets-death-metal guitars and mind-bending lyrics, it put bands like Killswitch Engage and the Dillinger Escape Plan on notice that their party had officially been crashed. And then came the coup d’etat: Leviathan, released in 2004, a hallucinogenic piscine concept album loosely based on Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. Between the dystopian waters theme, the split-second tempo changes that veered effortlessly from post-hardcore thrash to southern boogie, the battering-ram assault, the guitar playing that defied any rule that got in the way, it was an unqualified triumph, completing Mastodon’s alchemic transmigration from good band to great band. The only question was: What would they do next? Ask Brent Hinds to discuss the inspiration for the Mastodon’s new album, Blood Mountain (their first for Warner Bros.; the band recently left Relapse Records), and his answer is succinct: “Killer weed.” Weed, indeed. To fully appreciate the synapse-altering punch of Blood Mountain, packs of the stuff should come shrink-wrapped in all copies of the CD, a marketing idea Hinds would undoubtedly approve with great enthusiasm. A wild-and-wooly peripatetic tale of unspeakable horrors (including encounters with man-eating tree people and other such mutants), Blood Mountain is a breathtaking thrill ride, the likes of which people will be analyzing for years. Storywise, the album zigs and zags into some unexpected corners (when you’re dealing with subject matter this whacked, what else would you expect?), which only adds to its myriad pleasures. Finally, a record that just won’t behave! Who would’ve thought it still possible? Musically, the album is pulverizing, and its utter relentlessness grips you tighter with each cut. But there are surprises at every turn: by deftly mixing a heavy patina of prog and punk (with a tasty dose of country-fried chicken pickin’) into their songs, the band steers clear of the predictable structures redolent of so many extreme metal bands. The guitars, of course, add major tonnage. Hinds puts in a shattering, star-turning performance; his hypersonic, byzantine riffs will quickly become the new lingua franca of the guitar community. And Kelliher, in the less flashy role of supporting player, provides rock-solid counterpoint to Hinds’ whiz banging. Together, they help to make Mastodon a genre-transcending band, one which is fast becoming a subculture unto itself. Having just survived the Unholy Alliance Tour, which included headliners Slayer, plus Lamb of God, Children of Bodom and Thine Eyes Bleed, Hinds and Kelliher are bracing themselves for the release of Blood Mountain.
Uncharacteristically, Hinds admits that he’s a tad nervous. “I’m no chick, obviously, but I think I know what it feels like to be pregnant. At least I don’t have to shit a basketball!”
GUITAR WORLD On Leviathan you plunged the ocean depths, and now you’re climbing Blood Mountain. You guys could write for National Geographic.
BRENT HINDS [laughs] They couldn’t deal with our extreme adventures. This album came about in an odd sort of way. Originally, we had some really lame titles floating around, but one day I smoked some killer weed and came up with Blood Mountain. Brann really liked the title, so he made up this crazy concept of us trying to reach the fucking ultimate peak. It’s the flipside of Leviathan, where we were writing about Captain Ahab trying to conquer Moby Dick. Anything that’s about struggle appeals to us.
BILL KELLIHER The album is a metaphor, to me at least, about signing with a major label. It’s like, now we’ve gotta start busting our asses and climb this huge entity, this mountain that is Warner Bros. The struggle is just beginning.
HINDS But most people go through struggles, so we’re no different. Hell, for some people, just taking a shit is a struggle. That probably wouldn’t make for a very interesting album, though.
GW That depends on who’s making the record. If it were Britney Spears, I would say that could be a very interesting record.
HINDS [laughs] Yeah, right. No doubt about that!
GW Did you have any misgivings about moving from an indie label to a major?
HINDS It has its downsides: the label wants to hear demos, they want to give you their ideas. But it’s still better than getting poked in the eye with a sharp stick.
KELLIHER For me, the decision was easy. I’m 35 years old, I’ve got a wife and kid, and another kid on the way; I can’t be fartin’ around. Relapse was great, but we outgrew them. Even in this day of the internet, you have to have CDs in stores, and Warner Bros. can get CDs in places that Relapse can’t.
HINDS We were straight up with Warner when we signed with them. We told them that under no circumstances are we a radio band; we’re an album band. And Warner was cool: “You guys just do what you do; we’ll figure out how to sell it.” It’s like, fuck yeah to that.
GW I want to go back to Leviathan for a second. In certain books on the occult and black magic, evil is depicted in the form of the Baphomet, a goat’s head within an inverted pentagram. The Hebrew characters at each point of the star’s five points spell “Leviathan.” As you know, Satanists make use of the symbol of the inverted pentagram.
HINDS Absolutely. In all those old writings, the Leviathan is the hugest, gnarliest, fucking underwater-dwelling creature around. You’d have to be an idiot to mess with that. So yeah, the pentagram spells out “Leviathan,” that’s right. [pause] So…what are you asking us: are we a bunch of Satanists?
GW Yeah, basically.
HINDS Hell no. I have no beef with Satanists, but only ’cause I don’t believe in their shit. There’s no flaming-hot devil dude who’s going to poke you in the ass with a pitchfork, man. That’s such bullshit. On the other hand, if we were Satanists, we’d be the best Satanists in the world, ’cause we don’t do anything halfway. [laughs]
GW I just want to be clear, though: you were aware of the origins of the Leviathan when you wrote that record?
KELLIHER Yes and no. More after the fact. We just liked the Moby Dick story and the search for the epic sea creature.
HINDS I don’t necessarily want people to listen to our songs thinking “Satan.” If they do, that’s fine, but I’d rather they think about the crazy tales we weave, the songs about nutty mountain men and colonies of weird tree people and shit. G W Run through the story of Blood Mountain.
HINDS Basically, it’s us parked in a boat at the bottom of a mountain, and our goal is to climb up and try to place a crystal skull at the altar, which then gives us the ability to travel to different solar systems and beyond. It gets pretty far out there.
KELLIHER Plus, there’s this part where this guy—not one of us—gets covered in an avalanche, and he starts seeing the aurora borealis [the northern lights]. Then he gets frostbite and starts seeing God, and God tells him it’s okay to eat his own flesh…
GW Which is frostbitten.
KELLIHER Well, yeah. I didn’t say it was easy. This is a hardcore story.
GW That it is. It’s very nonlinear and abstract, almost impressionistic.
HINDS Totally. When you’re writing about Leviathans and Sasquatches and Cysquatches, there’s no way you can follow an ordinary path.
GW What exactly is a Cysquatch?
HINDS It’s this crazy-ass mythological beast we created, kind of like a Cyclops and a Sasquatch combined. Imagine something like that coming at you. Shit, you’d be fucked!
GW But with one eye in the middle of his head, he wouldn’t have very good peripheral vision.
HINDS Dude, he’s mythological. He’s got other powers.
GW What kind of weed are you smoking to get these ideas?
HINDS [laughs] I keep myself medicated properly. I like to indulge in the psychedelias and the marijuanas quite often. And mushrooms… alcohol…and cigarettes, too. It really helps the writing process. [laughs]
KELLIHER I leave the lyric writing to the other guys. I help shape their ideas. But their lyrics are pretty vivid, so I let them do their thing.
GW Now, Brent, how much of the singing are you doing on this record?
HINDS I sing about half the songs, and Troy sings the rest. There are times we sing together, too. I’m singing much more than I did on Leviathan.
GW Vocally, what goals did you set for yourself?
HINDS To sound as good as possible without having to resort to pitch-altering tricks and bullshit. All I do is take a few shots of whiskey and let ’er rip.
GW You have such an intense vocal style. What do you do to save your voice on the road? Or am I right to assume that you don’t do anything?
HINDS You assume correctly. [laughs] I smoke a lot of pot and cigarettes, drink a lot of booze. I don’t do anything different on the road that I don’t do the rest of the time. I’ve been on the road for five years, screaming and yelling my head off, and my voice has never given out on me once. After a show, I’ll go out till three, four in the morning, laughing and smoking. And I’m 32 years old, too. The throat muscles are mature.
GW The guitar playing on this record is incredible. On the song “The Wolf Is Loose,” the solo really jumps out. Is that double tracked?
HINDS Yeah, but not the whole thing. I recorded the solo and then doubled certain parts that I wanted to accentuate. It makes it sound weirder.
KELLIHER Brent does all the solos in the studio. Live, I try to recreate the harmonies and the response parts that are on the record. He’s usually focusing on singing onstage, so that’s when I pick up the slack.
GW Overall, there’s a fullness to the production that was lacking on Leviathan.
HINDS That’s what having extra time and money can do for you. I know everybody thinks they can make records at home these days, but you can’t beat working in a kick-ass studio like Litho [Stone Gossard’s studio in Seattle]. You can hear the difference. GW Recording is a funny thing: the second the sound leaves your amplifier, it’s mutable; it ceases to be the original sound you started with. How accurately do you feel your guitar sounds were captured on Blood Mountain?
KELLIHER Very. I know what you mean, though. It’s weird when you hear your guitar played back in the control room and you think, Wow, that sounds kind of thin. But then you hear the record mixed and your guitar sounds 10 times as ballsy as you thought it would.
HINDS Matt Bayles, our producer, bought these $5,000 ribbon mics just to record the guitar tracks. I recorded my parts with a Marshall 1978 JMP Mark II Lead Series 100-watt head through a Marshall 4x12 cabinet with 75-watt Celestion speakers. That’s the balls, man. And one of my buddies, John Spears, made me a pedal called the Mastortion. The Mastortion is so powerful that I have to tape the tone and volume controls to a certain setting, ’cause if they move ever so slightly it’ll blow my head apart. Not my actual head, but my amplifier head. [laughs] Well, it could probably blow my real head up, too.
GW Wow. What’s in the Mastortion?
HINDS I have no idea. I just said to John, “Make it so it’ll blow my head up,” because your head only sounds good when it’s about to explode. I’ve already blown my head up three times with it: once in the studio and twice live. It’s the best pedal I’ve ever had.
GW Do you remember which track you were recording when you blew your head up?
HINDS “Colony of Birchmen.” I was powering the Mastortion, and then ka-boom! Out went the lights.
GW On the song “Crystal Skull,” it’s as if the band transcends thrash metal and creates its own genre: prog-thrash.
KELLIHER Prog-thrash. I like that. Yeah, that song’s pretty teched-out. It definitely took a few weeks to work out all the parts.
HINDS A lot of prog can be too proggy, and it’s like, “Well, that was cool for a second, and now the balls went away.” It’s like the players are overly impressed with themselves; they lack the spirit you need to really move people.
GW Growing up, what prog bands did you like?
KELLIHER The usual suspects: Rush, Pink Floyd…
HINDS Pink Floyd, for sure. Not a lot of prog bands have improved on what those guys have done.
GW Let me posit something: You guys definitely have prog elements to your sound, and yet you’re exciting and valid—you’re cool. Why do you think you’re cooler than a band like, say, Dream Theater?
HINDS Because we don’t have a little Chinese girl playing bass! [laughs]
HINDS And they dress all gay, too. I mean, look at them: they wear those cheesy leather pants. The lead singer especially: he’s got that really gay thing going on with his hair. Plus, he sings like a fucking opera singer and shit. Their hair, their clothes, their music… They’re gay.
GW Now, wait a second. Are you calling Dream Theater a Brokeback band? Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
HINDS No, I don’t mean “gay” like that. I just mean…gay. [laughs]
KELLIHER I think what might make us “cool” and them “uncool” is the lack of egos in our band. We don’t try to show off our amazing versatility every second.
GW Even so, Mastodon are very precise players. The songs “Capillarian Crest” and “Siberian Divide” contain solos that are so fast and circular in nature, they become a blur. They sound like tape loops. Several times, I had to check my CD player to make sure it wasn’t skipping.
KELLIHER That’s Brent doing his chicken pickin’. We were watching him work that stuff out, and we were floored. When he plays like that, I have to figure out simple, rudimentary notes that work underneath but still sound cool.
HINDS I’m from Alabama, so I first learned to play on a banjo. Those parts are all my banjo fingerpicking licks. It’s sort of my signature style.
GW Are you doing straight fingerpicking or hybrid picking?
HINDS Oh, I use a pick and my fingers, so it’s hybrid picking. It’s pretty hard to do. I know some awesome players, and they can’t fingerpick or hybrid pick for shit. You just have to be born that way.
GW Do the two of you ever feel competitive with each other?
HINDS Naw, man. We’re a band. I mean, yeah, I want to blow the guys away with some awesome shit, but I never do it in an egotistical way.
KELLIHER We try to mesh. Basically, Brent will just smoke some weed and come up with his parts, and I’ll try to come up with the underpinning.
GW Tell me about the song “Sleeping Giant.” It has a very strong Zeppelin vibe, especially in the languid beginning, which reminds me a lot of “No Quarter.”
HINDS Zeppelin was a fucking big deal, to me, at least. I wrote the music for that song, so I could definitely feel the Zep influence coming through; it’s in the whole song, really, not just the opening.
GW There’s another part that comes in during the intro, a very nice echoey call-andresponse kind of riff.
KELLIHER That’s me, actually. I was thinking of what the Edge might do. I always loved how he used the echo on “New Year’s Day,” so I ripped him off a little.
HINDS You know how you can tell when a song is good? When the chicks like it. I was hanging out with my girlfriends and serenading them with “Sleeping Giant,” hoping for some lovin’. It worked, too.
GW God bless you, man. The song “Pendulous Skin” is also very Zeppelin-y, especially the picking technique in the solo. It reminded me of “Heartbreaker.”
HINDS Yeah, I was going for Led Zeppelin with a little Pink Floyd, but I probably put too much Zeppelin in there.
GW Who plays that beautiful fingerpicked intro to “Bladecatcher”?
HINDS Me again. I played that on my Gibson Custom Flying V. I love that intro. When you write something like that, you’ve earned your right to be proud.
GW When do you generally work out your solos. During writing, preproduction or recording?
HINDS I come up with the concepts during the writing and I fine tune the solos in the studio. That’s where the real fun is. Doing all that doubling, making everything sound all weird.
GW How complete are the actual songs when you take them into the studio? Do you work them out entirely, or do you leave room for surprises?
KELLIHER We rehearse the shit out of the songs, but we still leave room for surprises and spontaneity. It’s a skill we’re still trying to refine.
HINDS To me, a song is never finished. As good as it might be, it can always be better.
GW Do the two of you get together and play guitar without the rest of the band?
HINDS Hell yeah. I love sitting down with Bill and playing acoustics. He’ll come over my house, have some dinner, then we’ll break out the booze or weed, and we’ll jam on acoustics.
KELLIHER People are always surprised to learn that we write our stuff on acoustics. They think that stuff as heavy as ours can only be written on electrics. Not true.
HINDS Even when I’m home alone, there’s nothing better than smoking some weed and playing an acoustic. I get all tripped out and write some heavy-duty stuff. And I know if it sounds good on an acoustic it’s gonna sound better on an electric, ’cause an electric is gonna make it 10 million times louder.
GW Let me ask you a general question about the kind of music you play: How do you know when you’ve achieved maximum heaviosity?
HINDS No way of knowing, I guess. [laughs] No, wait. I know when something’s too heavy in a bad way: when it sounds like death metal; when the vocals are like [cups his hands and growls], “Rrrrraaaagggggh!” That shit’s just wrong.
KELLIHER We never really got together and said, “Let’s be as heavy as possible.” But from the minute we started playing together, it was obvious that we were heavy. It comes naturally, though.
HINDS Having toured with Slayer a couple times, I can tell you this: nobody in the world out-Slayers Slayer in the heavy department. They’re the heaviest machine I’ve ever witnessed. But we still go up there and we bring the people an avalanche. Our sound is like a giant mudslide. It’s like big fucking fiery boulders raining down on you. Nothing better than that.
GW During a show, have you ever played the wrong riff in the wrong song?
HINDS Are you kidding me? I’m always playing the wrong shit! [laughs] Look man, we don’t write three-chord songs. The way I see it, I don’t wanna fall asleep onstage. If I’ve gotta play this shit 300 times on tour, I may as well make it as hard and impossible as I can. But that can cause anxiety, and anxiety can be very uncomfortable, as I’m sure you know. Before we go on, I sometimes have panic attacks, because I’m so scared that I’ll fuck up a new song or whatever. But as soon as I kick that song in the ass, man, it’s like, talk about being proud of yourself. Then the fun is flowin’ like wine.
KELLIHER I’ve lost track of my playing live, I admit it. Our songs are very intricate. Sometimes I find myself looking at my hand on my fretboard and I’m like, Wrong position. This is bad.
GW Who were your musical influences growing up?
HINDS Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa…people like King Buzzo from the Melvins.
GW It doesn’t surprise me that you’re into the Melvins. There are traces of metal-punk in your music that, at times, recall the Melvins.
HINDS All four of us love the Melvins, and Neurosis, too.
KELLIHER The Melvins rule. I grew up on them, the Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag…all the Bay Area punk bands. I’m probably the most versed on my punk rock.
GW Do you follow any practice regimens?
HINDS Well, the first thing I do is smoke some weed. As soon as I take that first hit of weed, I’ve gotta go get a guitar. After that, I’m off to the races, playing, working on my chops.
KELLIHER I’d like to take lessons one day. I’d love to learn the theory behind all the things we do. But we have such busy schedules right now, I have no idea how I’d fit that in.
GW Does the band sense how huge it could become? From all indications, there’s such a groundswell of support for Mastodon. I think you guys could really blow up in the next year.
HINDS I wouldn’t necessarily run away from that!
KELLIHER From where we sit, it’s hard to tell the forest for the trees. We get to ride around in a nice tour bus now, which we still have to pay for. And yeah, the shows are getting bigger and the crowds are getting wilder. There is a feeling that we could blow up and be a really big band, but we try not to focus on that.
HINDS We concentrate on the jobs we gotta do. After all, everybody’s gotta do something.