Mastodon's Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher Talk New Album, 'Emperor of Sand'

(Image credit: Jimmy Hubbard)

Time seems to be on Mastodon’s side. Together now for 17 years without a single blip in their lineup, the Atlanta-based alt-metal four-piece is still as tight personally as they are musically.

“It’s our job to stay together,” says singer-guitarist Brent Hinds. “And we’re not married to one another, so that makes it easier.”

He lets out a throaty laugh, then elaborates on the band’s lasting chemistry: “I think what helps the most is being adults and respecting each other’s personal space. Plus, we’ve got the same goal, which was to be in an awesome band that takes over the world. My bank account says we’re not quite there yet, but we’re working at it.”

Co-guitarist Bill Kelliher affirms that the task of staying together has been the band’s biggest shared goal since their first rehearsal.

“We all felt it right away,” he states. “We said, ‘That’s it. No one is allowed to quit unless we all quit.’ A lot of bands break up for silly reasons. One member decides to hang out with his wife, or he doesn’t want to be on tour so much, and then things fall apart. But we made that pact: No one can leave unless we all leave. That’s how we do it.”

The subject of time informs Mastodon’s eighth album, Emperor of Sand, on which the group (which also includes singer-bassist Troy Sanders and singer-drummer Brann Dailor) explores a narrative that tackles life’s ticking clock. Mortality was briefly addressed on 2011’s The Hunter (the title song was a tribute to Hinds’ brother, who was killed in a hunting accident), but here it’s the focal point, and once again, the band channeled real-life heartbreak (the cancer-related death of Kelliher’s mother last year, along with two recent cancer diagnoses within the Mastodon family) into art.

Responding to such tragedy, Dailor constructed a thread concerning a sultan wandering the desert who’s been handed a death sentence by the grim reaper, i.e. the “Emperor of Sand.” While it might not be labeled the feel-good record of the year, Emperor of Sand contains some of Mastodon’s most ambitious and musically rich performances yet.

Below, you can read an excerpt of our Mastodon interview from the May 2017 issue of Guitar World. For the complete story, plus a feature on Mastodon's pedalboards, pick up the new issue at newsstands or the Guitar World Online Store.

Brent, last year you told Guitar World that the new album would be a double, the first disc being one that you wrote and the other one written by the other guys. What led to it being a single disc?
BRENT HINDS The double album is coming. The records just aren’t going to come out at the same time because that’s the death of any band. This one’s Emperor of Sand, and then Cold Dark Place comes out on Record Store Day in June. I was just trying to play clever; that way I can get people to purchase two albums instead of one.

Speaking of albums, you guys are still big advocates of the full-length format. For a lot of artists, albums are going the way of the dodo bird.
HINDS Not with us, man. Not me. I’ve been making albums since I was 14 or 15, and I’m still making them at 43. There’s no way I could quit making albums. Even if they didn’t exist, I'd be that guy holding on and making them exist.

BILL KELLIHER We’re holding on to albums like the balding guy with the comb-over who’s clinging to his youth. [laughs] But it’s true: We’re all older guys, and we grew up listening to records and vinyl. You have these sessions where you sit down and grab your bong and put on your record. You don’t just listen to one song in the middle. You listen to side one from beginning to end, and then you flip the record over and listen to the other side. That’s what we’re all about.

Can you elaborate a bit on the concept of Emperor of Sand?
HINDS The concept means there’s only one certainty in life, and that certainty is we’re all gonna die.

KELLIHER For us, and for me certainly, each concept record comes from a personal place. When I first started writing this record, I got a phone call that my mom had a seizure. My dad passed away 20 years ago, so I always made sure I was super-close to my mom. The seizure happened right when we got back from touring. She was diagnosed with brain cancer—glioblastoma. I knew it was a death sentence, so I was thinking, How much time do we have?

HINDS These events in our lives kept unfolding. [Troy Sanders’ wife] Jez had breast cancer, Bill’s mom’s had brain cancer, and now Brann’s mom has lung cancer. These very horrific and unfortunate events unfold in your life kind of enter the music. When you sit around and discuss a concept record, it’s like you’re really having a conversation about your family.

So it all becomes a form of therapy…
KELLIHER I set up in my mom’s house to be with her, and I had my guitar. I would play and write—it was a distraction I needed. I built a studio in my home, and I got a drum set, so I started doing demos. I was just working away and trying to come up with riffs and stuff, trying to make the best record I could.

And then things started happening with Brann’s mom. He would come over and we’d have coffee, and it was like, “How’s your mom doing?” “You know, how’s your mom doing?” We would talk about life and death and what it really meant. We kind of put it all into a concept. Brann started talking about the “Emperor of Sand,” the one who controls your destiny. I was thinking of sand moving through the hourglass. My mom didn’t get to do all the things she wanted to do, so you know… You can’t waste your time. Don’t let it slip away from you.

On that note, Brendan O’Brien doesn’t waste time in the studio, does he?
KELLIHER No, he doesn’t. He works quickly and he has great ideas. We felt awesome about Crack the Skye. We loved it; it was great. We worked with some other guys—Nick Raskulinecz is so cool; he’s like a big cheerleader—but we were trilled to get with Brendan again.

HINDS We did this whole album in a month. I love that. Some guys take so long ’cause they smoke pot or they have ADHD or something.

KELLIHER Brendan turns a one-dimensional picture into a three-dimensional painting. You know what I mean? He makes the record sound like it has shading in the corners, and you can see around things. I can see these things flying by in my head. Brendan adds keyboards and Mellotrons. He gives things a soundtrack kind of feel.

Let’s get into some of the songs. Singling out riffs is kind of silly, because there’s so many great ones, but “Sultan’s Curse” is a real doozy.
And you know, I’ve had that riff hanging around for probably six years.

Six years? And it’s never wound up in a song until now?
KELLIHER It didn’t have any friends. It was just a lone wolf. So I had that riff, and then I had the last riff, and then I had the bridge. But it needed time to come together. The riff was fucking awesome, but I just couldn’t get the verses or the chorus. But you know, you can’t force things. Even if you have a sick riff, you need the rest. That one took time to take shape, but it turned into a great song to start the album with.

Brent, you’ve described “Show Yourself” as being “outside the box” for Mastodon. Why is that?
HINDS ’Cause it’s such a happy song. It’s simple and it gets right to the point. You don’t have to sit around waiting for something to happen. Other songs take you on more of a journey. This one…you’re kind of right there.

KELLIHER It’s more of an oasis in the middle of a dense forest of music. It’s like, “Okay, we’ve got a nice, straight-ahead rocker.” To me, that’s the cool thing about Mastodon: We don’t have to stick to anybody’s idea of what we should sound like. People try to tell us all day long, “You guys need to write another Remission!” But we play what feels fucking cool at the time.

For the complete story, plus a feature on Mastodon's pedalboards, pick up the new issue at newsstands or the Guitar World Online Store.

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Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.