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Mastodon: “We write our guitar parts separately then show them to each other. We’re not a jam band – we’re more like choreographed acrobatics”

[L-R] Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds of Mastodon
(Image credit: Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)

Over the past two-decades-plus, Mastodon have established themselves as one of the best post-2000 progressive, psychedelic metal bands. Born with an equal love of Melvins, Metallica, Rush and Neurosis, the Atlanta-based quartet have blown minds with their bleak, angular rhythms, abrupt tempo changes, meandering atmospherics and psychotronic imagery. 

And, like the best prog-rockers, Mastodon have crafted multifaceted concept albums that have journeyed through haunting fantasy and sci-fi scenes. They based 2004’s Leviathan on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. 

Two years later, Blood Mountain addressed the plight of a man stranded in a mountain range inhabited by terrifying creatures. In 2009, they wrote Crack the Skye about the cosmic visions of a comatose mind-traveler. 

And in 2017 they crafted Emperor of Sand around the story of a doomed man fleeing a death sentence in the scorching desert.

“When I do music, I do this thing to escape – pull a Houdini on myself and try not to think about things that are negative as fuck,” says lead guitarist and vocalist Brent Hinds, from behind the wheel of a car he’s driving to the airport to pick up his girlfriend. 

“I hate thinking about the horrible things that are going on in the world, and I hate knowing that they’re going on. So we’ve just created another space as an escape for ourselves and our fans.” 

On one level, that’s true. Mastodon’s music is complex and challenging, meandering through an escapist realm of sludgy riffs and atmospheric passages. The band’s eighth studio release, Hushed and Grim, Mastodon’s first double album, is both otherworldly and visceral. It’s also the group’s most musically diverse release to date. 

There are tumbling, trenchant metal cuts (Pain with an Anchor), expansive blues-embellished epics (The Beast), tribal and haunting soundscapes (Dagger), bereaved keyboard-laden songs (Skeleton of Splendor) and angsty, poppy numbers (Teardrinker). 

Yet, as much of a sonic journey as the band’s albums have been, Mastodon’s music has frequently stemmed from pain, helplessness and loss. Crack the Skye surfaced from mental images Hinds had after an assault in 2007 that left him in a coma and close to death; the record also addressed the tragic overdose of drummer Brann Dailor’s sister Skye. 

The title track of 2011’s The Hunter is an homage to Hinds’ brother, Brad, who died of a heart attack in 2010 while hunting. Mastodon’s 2017 record Emperor of Sand confronted the hopelessness and fear of mortality that was driven home after bassist and vocalist Troy Sanders’ wife was stricken with cancer (she has been in remission for years) and guitarist Bill Kelliher’s mother died of the disease. 

In a big way, Mastodon is the elephant in the room. We gravitate toward the sadness of life and write about it, and our fans gravitate toward that

Bill Kelliher

Tragically, the time Kelliher spent writing Hushed and Grim was also filled with misfortune and pain. Between the time the band finished Emperor of Sand and started working on the new album, their longtime manager Nick John died of pancreatic cancer, tour manager Bob Dallas passed away from an undisclosed illness and Kelliher’s wife was stricken with a rare disease (amyloidosis) and had to undergo intensive treatment. 

“I’ve realized that everything we do is from the heart, and a lot of it all stems from real pain and emotion from the death of loved ones and the sickness of friends and family, Kelliher says. 

“For some reason, we’ve been pulling our best stuff out of the most depressing emotional wreckage that happens in everyone’s lives. But I feel like our fans can connect with that.

“Everyone can connect with pain and suffering and losing someone. In a big way, Mastodon is the elephant in the room. We gravitate toward the sadness of life and write about it, and our fans gravitate toward that. And I think being able to relate to the kind of real-life sadness in our music gives them comfort.” 

Mastodon

(Image credit: Clay Patrick McBride)

The band’s deft combination of genuine melancholy and cathartic fantasy make Mastodon’s music too authentic and emotionally expressive to ever sound life self-indulgent prog-rock. 

Hinds and Kelliher are gifted guitarists, but neither is driven by a desire to show off. Their playing is more of an unveiling of their personalities. Hinds can be socially awkward and gets verbally tongue-tied, so he expresses himself through his multi-textural, variegated playing. And Kelliher is a chill dude who vents frustration and anger through artistic riffs and sheer volume. 

Though both players are unique and capable of reaching stratospheric heights, they don’t play for themselves. They play for the songs, and if that means deferring to their bandmates’ ideas, they have enough confidence in their musical and compositional skills to step down and let someone else shine. 

This is especially true for Kelliher, who has become Mastodon’s primary songwriter but who often gets overlooked since he’s not one of the band’s three singers (Hinds, Sanders and Dailor). 

We wrote at home because we were bored and there wasn’t much going on because we were in lockdown. So you’re stuck at home all the time with yourself and your thoughts. So this was more of an internal exploration for me

Brent Hinds

“Brent’s the quote-unquote lead guitarist, and he sings, so of course he gets all the attention,” says Kelliher with a shrug. “And he’s a wild man, which makes him, even more, the center of attention. So I mean, whatever. I don’t mind standing in the back and not getting all the accolades. It’s fine with me. Everyone in my band knows who does what, and I’m totally cool with my role. And I love what we do.” 

A few days before Mastodon’s first dates to support Hushed and Grim, Hinds and Kelliher openly discuss the effects of writing in Covid-mandated isolation, their reservations about making a double album, the way their notably different guitar styles mesh – and the creative inspiration of suffering.

The songs on Hushed and Grim are eclectic and developed, ranging from rumbling and riffy to serene and almost delicate. Did you make an effort to create an album more sonically diverse than those on Emperor of Sand? 

Hinds: “Nah, man. I just like to do lots of things. I play in different bands aside from Mastodon and they’re all different. I never want to repeat myself, so I wasn’t thinking of that last album at all when we did this. 

“For this record, we wrote at home because we were bored and there wasn’t much going on because we were in lockdown. So you’re stuck at home all the time with yourself and your thoughts. So this was more of an internal exploration for me. 

“You look inward to the inward journey, and I would play so much guitar that it would just sweat blood and guitar all day long and I would come up with all sorts of different stuff, and it all found its place here and there.”

Kelliher: “I’m always playing and writing anyway. I’ve got volumes of voice notes and Pro Tools sessions of me just riffing out. When we got off the Emperor of Sand touring cycle two years ago, I was almost welcoming Covid because it was like, ‘Okay, well, now we have a bunch of time off and we don’t have anything on the horizon. It’s time to take a well-needed rest from all the touring on the last record and write the next record.’

“And we were well prepared. We already had skeletons for a lot of the songs. And I was totally cool with going into my studio in my basement and trying all kinds of stuff to make some new songs. So, I wrote a bunch of the new album and Troy wrote some songs, which was a first, and Brent wrote two.”

Unless you progress and try things differently each time, what‘s the point?

Bill Kelliher

Did you start writing with the intent of putting out a double album? 

Kelliher: “We wrote about 25 songs, but 10 weren’t completely finished. So we went in with the 15 that were closest to being done. We were going to record 12 and use 10 for the record. We planned to do a rough demo of everything and pick out which 12 were the best. But we wound up recording all 15. We’ve never been a double-album kind of band. 

“We’ve always joked that doing a double album is a curse, and how you don’t want to do a double album or else your band is going to fall apart. But unless you progress and try things differently each time, what‘s the point? 

“And I just felt like every song is fucking awesome. At one point we thought of putting 10 songs on the album and doing a five-song EP later, but the songs all sounded like they needed to be together. They were in the same vibe and they’re all related, like brothers and sisters. So we just said, ‘No, we can just split up the family. Let’s do a double album.’”

Hinds: “I would prefer this more just to be an album instead of a double album. I would have cut some stuff out, but whatever. It is what it is. We’ve got all this time on our hands and Troy broke his songwriting cherry on this and wrote four really nice songs that showed a lot of growth and pushed the boundaries into a double album.”

Brent, how do your songs differ from Bill's? 

Hinds: “A lot of times my stuff is really long. I like to sprawl out in a song. I think living in the city and being cramped around people causes these unconscious decisions for my songwriting. The only case scenario that I have to really spread out is in a song. Having the kind of sound I have, when I play and get into it, I get kinda lost, and before I know it 13 or 15 minutes have passed.”

You have a rockabilly side project (Fiend Without a Face) and you’re a big fan of country music. Do you think you bring those influences into Mastodon? 

Hinds: “I’m not a metal guitarist. Sometimes I stumble upon a metal riff and I’ve been influenced by [post metal] bands like Isis. I get it where I can fit it, but I’m an oddball when it comes to the metal scene. I love country. My favorite country singer/songwriter is Johnny Paycheck and my favorite guitar-playing country artist is Jerry Reed. 

I always loved the Ramones and bands that wrote a sick riff and then they’d go away from it before they’d bring it back around again. That’s been my formula for a while

Bill Kelliher

“So I try to incorporate some country licks here and there. And sometimes I’m clever enough to find out where they can go in a tasteful manner. I had been working on the first riff of Peace and Tranquility for a while because it was a departure outside of what I normally write. 

“I was listening to Animals As Leaders and I got inspired by them to write that first bit. And then all the other stuff fell into place after I had my medicine.”

Bill, have you always been a metal player? 

Kelliher: “I don’t know. I grew up on a lot of punk rock, and when I’m writing songs, I usually take the punk or garage rock formula – verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, solo, end. 

“I always loved the Ramones and bands that wrote a sick riff and then they’d go away from it before they’d bring it back around again. That’s been my formula for a while. With this new record, I did delve into some new territory. 

Sickle and Peace has some Stanley Jordan-type guitar playing. It was almost an accident. I was playing in that style and Brann went, ‘What is that?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know. I’m just messing around.’ He said, ‘That sounded cool,’ and he started humming what I had been playing, and then I wrote it from that.”

Do you and Brann frequently work on songs together? 

Kelliher: “We work really well together. When he and I get together down in my studio at my house, I feel like I shine because he brings out the best riffs in me. Just like with Emperor of Sand, we spent a lot of time building the foundation of Hushed and Grim

“I’d start playing something and a lot of times, if I got stuck, he’d start humming something that would go with what I did, and the two parts would fit together really well.”

Can you write with the whole band or is it easier to work when it’s just you and Brann? 

Kelliher: “It was really hard to do that because of Covid, but it’s tough when you get all four guys in the room and we try to agree on one thing. For me, the writing process is a lot easier when I get together with Brann and we just spitball ideas and say, ‘This is cool for now as a placeholder. Maybe we’ll change something later.’ 

I never just write one song all at once. Everything happens in pieces. I’ll write a song or a riff and then another riff

Bill Kelliher

“And then later I’ll put everything under a microscope and over-analyze every riff and every part of the song and change things that need to be changed. But that’s what makes it great.”

Do you work on a song until it’s done and then move onto the next one? 

Kelliher: “I never just write one song all at once. Everything happens in pieces. I’ll write a song or a riff and then another riff. And then sometimes the song has to go on the back burner for a couple months until I can come up with something that jives with what I’ve already done.”

Did you mess around with a bunch of different gear? 

Kelliher: “There were a couple main guitars that I favored a lot. I used my ESP Sparrowhawk a lot. And I used my Friedman Butterslax [100-watt, three-channel amplifier head] and a Marshall JCM800. 

“And we used old-school analog pedals. I had a Friedman BE-OD Deluxe [overdrive] and an MXR Sugar Drive pedal I really like.”

Mastodon

(Image credit: Jimmy Hubbard)

Hinds: “I just use what I got – Gibson Flying V, Les Paul, SG and my signature V. And I got Marshall JMPs and my Diezel 12-gauge [cabinets]. My friend let me borrow his '50s Fender tiny 30-watt combo amps, and I played most of the guitar solos on those. 

“We had two of them slaved together, which sounded cool. And I used some KHDK pedals, but I came out with my own pedal company, Dirty B Hinds, and I’m using the Mastodrive and all these pedals I’m designing with my friends.”

As guitarists, you two have such different playing styles, which is part of why the music sounds so innovative. Is it ever hard to figure out who should play what? 

Hinds: “We just play what we write. For this album, I didn’t go for sheer aggression because I don’t think I stumbled across too many heavy metal riffs that were really angry. Bill is the master of the metal riffs and he provides the heavy. 

We each do our parts separately and then show them to each other ’cause we’re not a jam band. We’re more like choreographed acrobatics

Brent Hinds

“But heavy stuff comes from the heart, and when you’re all tuned down to D and are running through a fucking Marshall stack, all of a sudden everything’s heavy, even though your point might be to bring on some melancholy shit or some really delicate stuff. 

“It’s all about the tonality of the instrument sometimes. So we each do our parts separately and then show them to each other ’cause we’re not a jam band. We’re more like choreographed acrobatics.”

Kelliher: “Normally I’ll write the rhythm and the harmonies ’cause I’m really into harmonies. And if it’s my song, I’ll write the lead and I’ll tell Brent, ‘Hey, this is what I did for that. Can you play it?’ Nine times out of 10, he’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ 

“But once in a while, he’ll hear something in what I’m showing him and he’ll come up with his own interpretation. And sometimes he’ll do something that will totally surprise me. Like, I’ll put a bridge in there and I assume he’ll play a solo over that. Then he’ll come in the next day and play his part and when I come back in, I’m blown away when I listen back because he put the solo somewhere entirely different, like over a midsection, which I thought would be instrumental. 

“I’ll be like, ‘Whoa, wow! I wouldn’t have put it there, but that’s cool. That sounds killer.’ When it works, it’s a very cool thing to hear because it shines a whole new ray of light on the song.”

Bill Kelliher

(Image credit: Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)

Brent, is it exciting for you to see what Bill does with your songs? 

Hinds: “I don’t know. I mean, sometimes you get up on the horse and you can ride pretty well. Then other times the horse is faster and it’s hard to stay there. You’ve just got to keep yourself in practice and keep trying to ride it until you get something you like.”

Kelliher: “When Brent writes stuff – and I’ve told him this before – it’s like he’s writing as if he was the only guitar player in the band because it’s just wild. So I’m trying to learn it and trying to play it over and over. I’m like, ‘Dude, this is really hard.’ 

“He’ll go, ‘Oh no, it’s not hard. Your stuff is hard.’ I’m like, ‘Well, your stuff is hard because it’s almost like you’re playing a guitar solo the whole time.’”

Brent and I play the same parts in different ways. I’ll try to lock into what he’s doing and do something underneath it that makes the part more interesting. That usually works out well

Bill Kelliher

Do you discuss how you can complement his unorthodox playing? 

Kelliher: “It’s very hard for him to teach me stuff and tell me what he’s doing. He doesn’t have any patience for sitting down and showing me what to do. When he plays, I have to video record his exact finger positions on my phone. And then I’ll learn it.”

“But it changes a lot, too. I’ll work really hard and learn something one way and then by the next practice he’s changed it, which he can do. It’s his riff until we record it.”

What if you can’t figure out what he’s doing? 

Kelliher: “That happens a lot. There’s a song on [2006’s] Blood Mountain, Capillarian Crest, and when it gets to the midsection he’s playing completely crazy stuff. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not even going to try to play that because I’m going to give myself an aneurysm if I try to learn it.’ 

“And then I got to the point where he was doing something really complicated and I went, ‘Okay, I’m never going to play something exactly like you because we’re different kinds of guitar players.’ So we play the same parts in different ways. I’ll try to lock into what he’s doing and do something underneath it that makes the part more interesting. That usually works out well.”

Your longtime manager – and your tour manager – died between the release of Emperor of Sand and the completion of Hushed and Grim. And Bill, you said your wife was diagnosed with a rare disease. Mastodon have been through so much loss and pain over the years. Does the music help you get through it? 

Kelliher: “When I’m writing songs, I’m thinking about those people and dredging up the emotions I feel from missing them. That comes from a real place, and people know that and they can feel that and connect to it. 

“I recently got a message from a guy who said, ‘I lost my wife to cancer two years ago. She loved your music, and thank you for all that you do and for your music.’ It’s fucking sad, but we’re a real band and we write songs about real subject matter. And it seems like every record gets deeper into that world.”

You visit that world, for sure, but the music seems like it takes the listener to another place that’s almost otherworldly and majestic, so the melancholy that’s in the music and the messages about mortality resound in an epic way. 

Kelliher: “I agree, and I just feel that with every year that passes and the more writing that we do, the better we get at it and the more we’re able to show that range of emotion. And now we can go from this crazy riff into the super-sad riff, or an evil, evil riff and it all works. 

I discovered that you need to be anxious and fucking deal with it and that keeps you on your toes and motivated to keep doing shit. Now I try to feed off the anxiety and play guitar

Brent Hinds

“That’s a natural evolution that comes from being together so long. It’s funny because there are fans out there that go, ‘Oh, [2002’s] Remission is your best album,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, okay. I’m glad you like it, but I was just learning how to write a song back then. We were just spitballing. Now, we know what we’re doing.’

“I’ll try a riff and right away I’ll know, ‘Nah, it doesn’t work for us.’ That’s why Brann and I write so much together because we can actually spitball with each other and go somewhere without spinning our wheels.”

Hinds: “It’s not just sadness. I mean, there’s hurt and anger that have afflicted us through our lives. And the only way we can deal with it is to have these songs that go out to our fallen brothers and sisters and are dedicated to our friendship with the people that aren’t lucky enough to still be here with us. 

“But, for me, I think there’s a lot of anxiety in there, too. I feel like the road is dangerous and home is not, but we usually have to tour all the time. I used to have constant anxiety about getting in a bus accident or a plane crash. And then big crowds of people give me anxiety. 

“So I’ve lived with anxiety for 20 years and I was hooked on [the anxiety Benzodiazepine] Xanax for 15 years and I had to wean myself off of it a little bit at a time ‘cause it was compromising my breathing. 

“Of course, I was partying on it and it’s really bad to do that. I was never prescribed things so I was buying from people on the streets all the time. One time I couldn’t get it and I had two seizures. 

“So, I finally weaned myself off. It took years, but recently I discovered that you need to be anxious and fucking deal with it and that keeps you on your toes and motivated to keep doing shit. Now I try to feed off the anxiety and play guitar.”

Brent Hinds

(Image credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Bill, can you talk about what happened with your wife, who is in remission from her condition? 

Kelliher: “It was crazy. She was getting tired all the time and her heart was beating out of control. Then, in the middle of the night she wakes me up and she goes, ‘I think I’m having a heart attack.’ 

“She was going into AFib (Atrial Fibrillation) [which often causes palpitations, shortness of breath and fatigue]. We took her to the emergency room. The doctors gave her some medicine to slow her heart back down. Then they X-rayed her heart and saw her heart walls are really thick and there was some protein buildup that turned out to be amyloidosis, which is this crazy, rare disease that has a high mortality rate. 

“We looked it up online and saw that patients have an average of six months to live from the moment of diagnosis. And we were like, ‘You’re fucking kidding me!’ She’s 48. She’s normal. She eats very healthy and takes care of herself. So what the fuck? We went through the Mayo Clinic and she did chemotherapy for a year, which was fucking horrible.”

When my mom was dying in hospice I was by her bedside with my laptop and a guitar. I was overdubbing a lot of the stuff in the Emperor of Sand demos

Bill Kelliher

This happened while you were writing and recording Hushed and Grim

Kelliher: “Yes, and there’s nothing you can do except watch your wife suffer and try to soothe her. In the back of my mind, I was always thinking, ‘Fuck, man, if don’t know what I’ll do if I lose her. I’d be completely lost in this existence without her. How am I gonna raise my kids without my wife around?’ 

“But she had the chemo and now she’s doing really well. But you just never know how life can sneak up on you. You think you’re healthy one minute and the next minute you’ve got this crazy rare disease. And now, every little ache or pain – or if she gets tired – we’re like, ‘Oh man, is the disease coming back?’ And that’s fuckin’ scary.”

How were you able to focus and create when your wife was ill? Was it cathartic to work when she was resting?

Kelliher: “I think it has become that way. When my mom was dying in hospice I was by her bedside with my laptop and a guitar. I was overdubbing a lot of the stuff in the Emperor of Sand demos. And this time, I was just on this writing binge. I don’t know if it was cathartic because I was still extremely sad that she was so sick, but it brought out this fire in me to write and write and write.”

Brendan O’Brien produced your last album, Emperor of Sand, as well as Crack the Skye. This time, you worked with David Bottrill, who has produced albums for Tool and Peter Gabriel. 

Hinds: “We’re really good friends with the Tool guys. We told them we were looking for a producer and they worked with him before and had a great experience. They were like, ‘This guy is the man!’ 

Kelliher: “Honestly, we were pretty happy with the way Crack the Skye turned out and Emperor of Sand, so we were ready to work with Brendan O’Brien again. He’s a great guy and a great producer. 

“But Warner Bros. wanted us to talk to some other people who wanted to work with us. Dave Bottrill was one of them, and he was very proactive. We got on a Zoom call with him and immediately he was like, ‘All right, I’ve listened to all your demos and I’ve got some ideas.’ 

We tend to go fast a lot. We don’t really know how to slow down. So David helped us out with that

“He had a million notes and specific suggestions for every song. That impressed us. And he’s a very intelligent guy, very pleasant to work with, and he knew how to circumvent any problems in a way that would keep everybody happy, which is what we needed.”

Were there any particular talents or techniques that David used to make Hushed and Grim better? 

Kelliher: “There were a couple songs where David had this idea of playing five guitar tracks of the same thing, but adjusting the tuning from A-440 to 442, 445, 446. Every one of them was just a little bit out of tune and created this wall of clean guitar with this natural chorus effect on it. That was very cool. 

Hinds: “We tend to go fast a lot. We don’t really know how to slow down. So David helped us out with that. Also, there were times when a song would be really long and it would be in the same key for too long. So he would suggest changing keys and doing more of a classic turnaround – go into another two chords to get back to your starting chord. It was very intelligent stuff. 

“When it was all over with, I was definitely... Dave is a new friend of mine now. I love Brendan to death, but I’m glad we went with someone else to get a different perspective on the music. I’m glad I can call David a friend, too.”

Jon Wiederhorn

Jon is an author, journalist, and podcaster who recently wrote and hosted the first 12-episode season of the acclaimed Backstaged: The Devil in Metal, an exclusive from Diversion Podcasts/iHeart. He is also the primary author of the popular Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal and the sole author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legends. In addition, he co-wrote I'm the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax (with Scott Ian), Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen (with Al Jourgensen), and My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory (with Roger Miret). Wiederhorn has worked on staff as an associate editor for Rolling Stone, Executive Editor of Guitar Magazine, and senior writer for MTV News. His work has also appeared in Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Yahoo.com, Revolver, Inked, Loudwire.com and other publications and websites.