Mastodon: Russian Revolution

Originally published in Guitar World, May 2009

In need of a sonic transformation, Mastodon broke with their longtime
producer and teamed up with hit-maker Brendan O'Brien. The result is Crack the Skye, an intense concept record involving near-death experiences, astral travel and Russian mystics. Guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher give Guitar World a look behind the curtain.

Of all the adjectives one could use to describe Mastodon’s epic new album, Crack the Skye, “relaxing” probably wouldn’t be one of them. But that is exactly how guitarist Brent Hinds describes his band’s latest effort.

“This album is more mellow than our previous ones,” Hinds says. “It’s a good album to relax to.”

He’s exaggerating, of course. While the album’s overall tempo may be slightly slower, the melodies more harmonious and the tonal palette more varied, Crack the Skye overflows with intense drama from beginning to end. Centered on the theme of ether, telling tales of death, astral travel, and entry and exit from the spiritual realm, this ambitious effort explores obscure topics like the Russian Khlysty religious cult, Czar Nicholas II, the numerous attempts to assassinate Rasputin, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. At the same time, the lyrics offer a poignant tribute to drummer/vocalist Brann Dailor’s deceased sister Skye, who committed suicide at the age of 14 when Brann was only 15. This certainly isn’t the kind of album you’d put on while cracking open a bottle of chardonnay and grilling salmon steaks in your backyard.

“Every song has its own story and is a piece of art on its own,” says guitarist Bill Kelliher. “The album is a whole package, like a novel or a film. We try to do each record like that, instead of just putting out a bunch of songs. It’s part of a bigger picture.”

Crack the Skye’s instrumental tracks match the intensity and heaviness of its lyrical content. Hinds and Kelliher laid down multiple layers of complex rhythmic guitar textures punctuated by evolving circular triplet-note patterns, bludgeoning riffs that shift time signatures as quickly and smoothly as a Bentley Azure’s automatic transmission, and classic-inspired solos that sound as if they traveled through time back to the Seventies. Dailor’s drums and Troy Sanders’ bass lines keep the music rooted in terra firma, allowing the six-string specialists to explore the outer reaches of the sonic atmosphere.

Although Mastodon made their previous three albums with producer/engineer Matt Bayles, they felt it was necessary to break the mold and work with a new producer to help them reach the new heights to which they aspired. Several of their first choices weren’t available, but as luck would have it the best match turned up right in the backyard of their hometown of Atlanta. Brendan O’Brien agreed to produce the album after he completed work on AC/DC’s Black Ice, which enabled the band to work at O’Brien’s Atlanta base, Southern Tracks Recording, without leaving behind the comforts of home. It also gave the guitarists unlimited access to O’Brien’s impressive guitar, amp and effect pedal collection, which Hinds and Kelliher gleefully took advantage of.

Rehearsing for the band’s upcoming headline tour, Mastodon now face the challenge of duplicating Crack the Skye’s complex arrangements and sonic landscapes on the road. The stage production promises to be as ambitious as the album, featuring an onslaught of visuals and lights and even the accompaniment of a guest keyboardist.

“We have a rigorous schedule ahead of us,” Hinds says. “We’re in the final days of the third trimester with this album. We’ll give birth to the album and then it will take a few months before we think about having sex with each other and creating another baby. Everything is lined up to be mega, mega big for us. We’ve got the music and we’re all in good health and spirits. We’re going to go out there one more time and try to take over the world.”

GUITAR WORLD You’ve each had a couple of near-death experiences in the time since the last Mastodon record. Brent, you suffered a severe head injury in an altercation in Las Vegas, and Bill, you were admitted to the hospital in England last November with strange symptoms. Did those episodes have any effect on you or on the making of Crack the Skye?

BRENT HINDS It didn’t really change anything.

BILL KELLIHER I think that Brent’s incident chilled him out a bit. He was pretty messed up for a while after that, and he basically stayed at home a lot, resting and writing songs on his acoustic guitar. When you get a second chance like that it makes you think twice about a lot of things in life. He could have been killed.

HINDS It might have slowed me down a little bit—a very little bit. Not much.

KELLIHER In my situation, the doctors told me that if I hadn’t made it to the hospital when I did, I could have died within the next couple of days. I got really sick. I thought it would just go away in a couple of days, but it kept getting worse. I couldn’t eat, pee or shit, and I was hallucinating. My whole body was shutting down, and I had no idea what was going on. That incident made me think how precious life can be. Everyone is here for a reason. Mine is to be a dad and to be a musician that writes good music that people can get into. It was a life-changing experience. I can’t drink any more, and that was always a big part of my life being in a rock band, touring and partying too much. It helped me become more focused in life. I’ve really concentrated on my playing.

GW You’ve described Crack the Skye as the What was different about making this album?

KELLIHER All of the planets aligned when we made this record. We initially had a couple of different producers in mind, and Brendan O’Brien wasn’t one of them. All of the other guys fell through and our best option became Brendan, who also happens to be based here in Atlanta where we live.

HINDS We wanted to work with Rich Costey [The Mars Volta, Rage Against the Machine], but he wasn’t available. Working with Brendan here in Atlanta had its advantages. It’s great to be able to go home and sleep in your own bed when you’re done for the day. If you don’t have to be at the studio you can go home and hang out at your own house. Brendan is killer to work with. He brought a lot of spontaneity, comedy, laughs, talent and ideas. His ideas were pretty much the same as mine. Every time he suggested something, it was always what I was thinking we should do.

KELLIHER My neighbor, who is a good friend of mine, works at Southern Tracks Recording, and he has always been trying to get me to go to there. It’s one of the greatest rock studios in the southeast United States. It’s a really expensive studio, so I was really surprised to find out that we were going to be working there with Brendan O’Brien. I thought he only worked with bands that are much bigger than us. He’s recorded Bruce Springsteen, and he had just finished AC/DC’s last album. I always thought of him as a stripped-down rock producer. We did a lot with what we had, and it still came out sounding like a big, sonic record.

GW How did you prepare to make this album?

HINDS This time we already had the record written and had done preproduction on it before we started working with Brendan. We were more than ready.

KELLIHER We were very well prepared for this record. I have Pro Tools on my laptop, so I started messing around with that. I recorded some ideas really early on, and I invited everybody over to my house to play into the computer. I brought my laptop to our practice space and plugged some mics into it to capture some drums. From that I moved on to a Tascam digital eight-track recorder with a built-in CD burner, which was more portable and easier to take to our rehearsal space and plug more mics into. We did preproduction on that every day from noon until 5 p.m., hammering out as many riffs as we could and trying to hook stuff together. We were really hard on ourselves. We played things over and over and kept rearranging things until it sounded like a song. We ended up writing about 15 songs, and the best of those ended up on the record.

Before we met up with Brendan we went into a studio here in Atlanta to record some demos. We pretended like we were making the record that week, so we went in and did the best that we could. We even did some guitar overdubs, added some keyboards and experimented with some vocal ideas. The songs really started coming together. When we hooked up with Brendan, he came down to our rehearsal space and we played all of our songs for him. He produced the songs from there, giving us his ideas and impressions of what we needed to do. He told us that he was going to be really brutal on our music. He said that if we weren’t 100 percent sure about a part, just take it out. We took his advice for the most part. By the time we went into the studio we knew exactly what we wanted to do. About the only things that changed were some vocal parts, but that’s mainly because vocals always come last in our recording process.

GW Many of the songs have intricate vocal harmonies.

KELLIHER That’s my favorite part of music. I always love to hear vocal and guitar harmonies. That’s a big part of my musical background. I love music like Weezer and the Beach Boys, and I’m excited that we’ve now gotten to the stage where we can do that.

GW It sounds like you did a lot of experimenting with guitar tones on this record.

KELLIHER Definitely. Brendan had so many different guitars, amps, effects and pedals that we used to do a lot of layering and create different guitar sounds. From day one it was an amazing recording experience. He had a rack of 25 guitars in the studio, and we just randomly picked things up. He’d grab a guitar and go, “Try this for that part.” He knew what each guitar was going to sound like and how it would fit in.

HINDS Getting to use Brendan’s gear was the most fun part of making this album. We had a blast trying all of these different guitar tones and exploring the world of vintage amps. We have some really good tones on this album. It’s a textured, tangible sound that you can almost reach out and touch. We used a lot of smaller amps, which actually allow you to hear the guitar better. I really liked this cool old “Plexi” Marshall that Brendan has. I played his six-string banjo on the beginning of “Divinations.” We always throw that country nutmeg in there whenever we can. I used a different amp and a different guitar on everything whenever I could. That helped define the different chapters of the CD. I love the organ tracks that Brendan put on the record. That’s my favorite part of the album.

KELLIHER Brendan had an old Telecaster that I used on a couple of clean, but gritty, parts on the record. A lot of those parts aren’t totally predominant, but they’re mixed in there. I played a Danelectro baritone on the middle part of “Ghost of Karelia.” I used an open tuning, which allowed the open strings to ring out and made the part easier to play. We used the Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail reverb pedal extensively on the record, some tremolo and octave pedals like the Electro-Harmonix POG and a really old Leslie speaker cabinet that has a really Zeppelin-y sound on a few songs. I played this 12-string electric that has the smallest neck—it was so tiny that I could wrap my whole hand around it twice. I used it on this really intricate clean part in the middle of “Oblivion” and ended up muting half the notes I was trying to play. I told Brendan, “I don’t know if it’s me or if this guitar is really small.” He said, “No, it’s really small. On a neck like that you aren’t supposed to hit all the notes anyway.”

HINDS We just scratched the surface of all of the cool stuff that Brendan has. I used Teles, Strats, Flying Vs and Les Pauls. I also played a 1968 SG that I’ve had for a really long time and have just started taking on the road. It kind of makes me nervous to play it, but when you’ve gotta have it, you’ve gotta have it. Guitars are made for destroying. I’m a firm believer in that.

KELLIHER Brent played most of the acoustic guitar parts on the record. I have a First Act nine-string electric guitar, which has a double cutaway and weighs about 20 or 30 pounds. It’s the heaviest guitar I’ve ever played. The high strings are doubled up so it produces a chorus effect. I used that on a couple of songs.

GW It sounds like you used an EBow on “The Czar.”

HINDS I can space out on the EBow for hours. That’s the thing about working with Brendan. I was just sitting there fucking around with the EBow, and Brendan recorded it and used it without my knowing about it. He put it on the song, and when I heard it I said, “What is that? That sounds awesome!” He said, “Remember when you were playing EBow that day? I was recording it.” I was like, “Wow, I’m never going to be able to do that live. Thanks a lot.” It’s going to be a really big challenge to play the new material live.

GW Since you write songs on acoustic guitar, I would think that you’ve already worked out the basic structure for playing the songs live.

HINDS Exactly. I already know the skeleton of the song because it started out as a skeleton to begin with. I don’t write anything on electric guitar. I don’t have an electric guitar in my house because it’s too loud and there’s too much shit to fuck with—the amp, cord, and guitar. I have a Martin D-15 lying around, and I’ll just pick it up and see what happens. I never have any intentions of writing anything. It just comes to me.

GW Have you made any additions to your live rig to duplicate all the new sounds on Crack the Skye?

KELLIHER I’m still using the same gear. I still have a Marshall JCM800 reissue head and a Kerry King head. I have a tremolo pedal with a tube built into it that I’m trying to use on a lot more stuff. I’d like to get a Leslie or something that emulates one.

HINDS I have a 1972 silverface Fender Twin. I took the two 100-watt speakers out and replaced them with two 200-watt 12-inch bass Celestions that are more like woofers than tweeters. Underneath that I have two 300-watt 15-inch Celestions in a Fender silverface cabinet. All of that is running with a 1976 Marshall JMP MKII Lead 100-watt head, which is slaved with a Marshall Vintage Modern into two 4x12 cabinets loaded with 75-watt Celestion speakers. It’s pretty amazing. I run it all through my digital delay, which pongs the sound through all the different speakers. It’s really spacey and psychedelic when you stand in front of it. The Twin has that Stooges tone. The way it breaks up naturally is a badass sound. No one makes a pedal that sounds like that.

KELLIHER I just got a nice white 2008 Explorer. My first Gibson guitar was exactly the same—a 1992 Explorer—but it got stolen along with a Les Paul Studio I had. A couple of years later I found it at the House of Guitars in Rochester, New York, and they gave it back to me. It was kind of beat up from being on the streets for a while. I ended up trading it for a Marshall head. I’ve always wanted to get another white Explorer. I just bought a 1981 E/2 [a.k.a. Explorer II] with a tobacco sunburst finish, white binding and gold hardware. It’s the most beautiful and most awesome-sounding playing guitar I’ve ever had. It just crushes and plays so smooth. I put some Seymour Duncan Distortion pickups in it like I put in all of my guitars, and it barks like a rabid dog. It’s my main ax now. I also got an Artist RD with a Silverburst finish. It’s one of only 400 made. I’m trying to break that guitar in right now. I’m not used to playing brand-new guitars. I took out the Dirty Fingers pickups that were in it.

GW Each Mastodon record has focused on a specific element: fire, water, earth and now sky, space or ether. Was that the band’s plan from the beginning?

HINDS You need to have a theme to work with. If you don’t you lose direction. Once you have your topic you can start your research.

KELLIHER When we wrote our first album, Remission, there just happened to be a lot of fire elements to the lyrics. When the idea for Leviathan came around we had a water theme going. Then we came up with the idea for Blood Mountain and we were stuck with the earth theme. It’s kind of like the origin of earth and the band: it had a fiery beginning, and then water cooled the fire. Then the mountains rose up and the band was on solid ground. Now we’re getting trippy and into outer space and out-of-body experiences.

GW Astral projection, Rasputin, the Russian Khlysty religious cult and the Tibetan Book of the Dead are not your typical subject matter. Where did you learn about these subjects?

KELLIHER Brann took a trip to Russia about two years ago while we were on a break. He sucks in a lot of influences on his travels. On the past couple of records he’s stepped up to the plate when it comes to writing lyrics. He had to come up with these themes, and his trip to Russia had a lot to do with it.

HINDS Brann is a waterfall of knowledge. His brain just flows with really cool ideas. He’s always very curious, and he has a resourceful mind. I’m more concerned with the musical side of the band, so I write a lot of the guitar parts. Brann is the more educated side of the band so he writes more of the lyrics. I come up with titles and write lyrics probably 3/8ths of the time.

KELLIHER Brann also has a deeper connection with the record. His sister Skye committed suicide when she was 14. He had a crazy life when he was growing up, and this album helped him bring some closure to his situation by bringing it out in the open. It’s about out-of-body experiences, people coming back from the dead and not dying. We don’t like to write about politics, religion or familiar subjects, like our girlfriends, so we have to think a lot harder about the topics we write about. Our lyrics are getting deeper as the band progresses.

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