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.