Mastodon on Timelessness, Loss and Transcending Heavy Metal

Atlanta band Mastodon make albums that traffic in whole universes.

The vast scope of any given Mastodon record builds self-contained worlds of heady metaphor and myth specific enough to induce visuals, but vague enough to mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Over 17 years they’ve devoted an album each to exploring the four classical elements of air, water, fire and earth, recorded a tribute to singer Brent Hinds’ late brother and looked at death in the abstract.

More impressive still, they’ve managed to stay intact for all these years, thanks to good, old-fashioned hard work.

Crafting songs that live in other realms infused Mastodon with the ability to sound both timeless and immediately relevant (the word “timeless” in this case is best understood in its literal definition: work that literally exists outside of time). That might explain how a band as heavy as Mastodon finds themselves recording a song for Monsters University and soundtracking the seething rage that underscores the sub-prime mortgage housing crisis in The Big Short. Their “White Walker” contribution to the second Game of Thrones mixtape, meanwhile, was a no-brainer.

Perform for long enough and eventually a legacy presents itself. On Mastodon’s new album, Emperor of Sand, the band look that legacy in the eyes by doling out sludge and sheen in equal measure, making the most of famed producer Brendan O’Brien’s past successes with bands like Stone Temple Pilots (“Steambreather”) while getting straight-up primal on the pummeling “Scorpion Breath.”

While the band started writing in guitarist Bill Kelliher’s new basement studio, Kelliher’s mother was diagnosed with brain cancer last May, and sessions were shaped around Kelliher heading to Rochester to spend time with her before she passed in September. Acknowledging that writing provided distraction and catharsis for Kelliher, drummer Brann Dailor eventually helped whip up an appropriately rock ‘n’ roll narrative that seamlessly ties Emperor’s lyrical themes together:

“A Sultan in the desert hands down a death sentence to this guy. He’s running from that. He gets lost, and the sun is zapping all of his energy akin to radiation. So, he’s trying to telepathically communicate with these African and Native American tribes to get rain to pour down and kill it.”

I spoke with Bill Kelliher and bassist Troy Sanders about timelessness, spectacle and loss.

From Left: Bill Kelliher and Troy Sanders of Mastodon. Emily Assiran for Observer

So which Fashion Week shows are you guys going to?

Troy Sanders: The Earl Grey Tea Fashion Week, it’s in London/New York.

Bill Kelliher: Teen Beast.

Troy: Teen Scream, Teen Dream. All the Coreys are gonna be there.

Bill: How many Coreys can there be?

Troy: I don’t know!

You guys are really cool.

Troy: You’re lying. Now we’re starting off on the wrong foot.

Bill: Why’re you lying to us like that?

I was thinking about your appetite for myth in your work, every bit of information gathering feels apocalyptic in scale—

Troy: Fake news!

Does mythology give you any perspective or solace on the state of the world right now? 

Troy: I enjoy an appetite for myth, you worded it perfectly. Billy, you have an insatiable appetite for myth.

Bill: And an appetite for destruction, too.

Troy: I was thinking about appetite/aperitif and where that goes, then I started going down all the letters of the alphabet.

Bill: It’s pretty doom and gloomy out there in the world today, just seems to be getting worse. But uh, I don’t know…you know there’s a lot of predictions by the ancient Incans and Mayans, some come true. The Mayan Calendar…

Troy: Yeah, I bought a calendar last year. We enjoy mythology and creating our own stories, so that’s pretty cool.

Bill: We try not to really talk about stuff that’s happening, politics and the state of the world today, because we try to make our music timeless. Some bands get real political, it’s aged.

For instance, Dead Kennedys, who I love, they’re one of my favorite bands, but you know. There’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off!,” “California Über Alles” where they talk about Governor Jerry Brown, Ronald Reagan. It’s kinda aged, and that’s O.K. because that’s the kind of music it is, but, you know, stuff for us…we relate more to stuff that’s personal, happening inside of our own…we’re kind of in a bubble with our band.

Troy: We’re a bubble band.

But being in a bubble has its purposes, too. Bill, you built this new studio and it became operational right around the same time you had a lot of heavy shit going on in your life to deal with, and insofar as a press release can tell me anything I suppose, it became a gathering place for you guys and a catalyst for this new record.

Bill: Yeah, I think me, as a person…not that I put up walls, you know, so to speak, but I feel like I’ve been let down so many times in other ventures or whatever. Let’s do everything in-house, let’s make our own names for ourselves, for who we are. Let’s do it all [and] not have to rely on anyone, so let’s build our own practice space, you know what I mean? Let’s get our own recording studio, stuff that I know I can do.

We’ve been kind of homeless, moved out, pushed out of our buildings that we were practicing in for years. Atlanta’s growing so much that they’re starting to buy up all the properties, and where we were at the time rehearsing got bought up, we moved to another place, that place got bought up, moved to another place. And it was like, let’s see if we can get our own place and build our own home base there, do all our demoing and make our own little bubble, for lack of a better word.

Troy: The moral of the story is, if you want it done right, you do it yourself.

Bill: Yeah.

From left: Troy Sanders and Bill Kelliher of Mastodon. Emily Assiran for Observer

I know time is a manifestation of both a physical dude, the emperor, on this record, but also explored in the context of your mother’s illness. I’m wondering about Sandman, the lord of dreams and my favorite Neil Gaiman story, who weaves in and out of different times and even has the ability to be literally timeless—to stop time. By the end of this recording experience, did any of that power over time manifest in any supernatural ways that you can speak to?

Bill: I just kinda take away from it [that] your time on this planet is limited, and no one’s gonna live forever. You gotta make it now, do it now. Don’t put it off, don’t waste your time. In my personal experience with my mom, there were a lot of things she didn’t get to experience that I did. I travel a lot with the band, I get to see a lot of different countries, meet different people. I always wanted that for my mom, and I always told myself I’m gonna take her one of these times to Europe. And I didn’t do that. I regret it now, of course, because now she’s gone.

But I try to take away a positive outlook about living and dying. You’re only here for a certain amount of time, and if there’s something you wanna do, if you believe in it, don’t put it off, just do it. Or try to do it, at least. That’s kind of how I felt with buying the building and building it from the ground up. Now we have a place that we can rehearse that’s all ours. Nobody can ever take that away from us, and other people can enjoy it as well.

We wrote this record. I’m so proud of it, it sounds fuckin’ amazing, and we did it ourselves. We made it happen, and after 17 years, we’re still here, we still have jobs, we’re still relevant, people will come to our gigs. Our fans have real emotional ties to our music, and I can tell the anticipation—people wanna hear it, they wanna hear what we’re doin’, and there’s not a better feeling in the world than being in this position of writing music that came from the soul, came from the heart, came from a real place.

And it’s kinda like medicine for the masses to fans of your band. No drug can take you higher than that—when you’re playing onstage and people are looking up at you, singing along, having a good time with a smile on their face. It’s as simple as that.

Troy: The moral of the story is, don’t waste your time, don’t let it slip away from you.

You also turn that realization of legacy and living in the moment back on the band, too. You talk about looking back at those 17 years, and I wonder at what point mortality and loss are channeled into this looking back. How do you look back at those years, at those records, as a legacy, and what do you come away with after?

Troy: Somebody asked me this morning, of the eight records we’ve done, what was my favorite one. And I look at it as a whole because I’m really proud of my bandmates. We’ve got these eight records that have carved this unique path of rock ‘n’ roll on our own, and we’ve made it work, and we’ve had this relationship intact for that long. That’s hard to do. I think gratitude is the word.

Bill: I mean it’s a legacy, really. We’re extremely lucky, but at the same time, it’s just proof to me that hard work pays off. We didn’t just become this band. We traveled for years making barely enough money to put gas in our van, and we didn’t care. We were just like, “This is fun, this is awesome. I love drivin’, gettin’ to the gig, setting up our stuff and playin’.” Here it is, 17 years later. I don’t regret anything.

It seems like after Blood Mountain came out and your resources increased a little, as the support and the infrastructure around promoting increased, it was still super important to you to keep that proximity with each other.

Bill: We reached the point in our band where we couldn’t manage it on our own anymore, we had a manger come in and say, “Hey, I wanna manage your band.” Then Warner Bros. came along and said, “Hey, we don’t wanna change your band; we want you to join our family.” We needed that. Everything fell into place for us really well, and we’re really appreciative of everyone along the way who helped, who was there. I feel like I’m speaking like we’ve broken up or something, but we’re still moving.

Troy: Yeah, it’s a marriage.

Bill: We’re still married!

Bill Kelliher and Troy Sanders. Emily Assiran for Observer

People have said that the last four records are very elemental in terms of their themes. And I was thinking about that listening to Emperor of Sand because the elements are all evoked in different places, and you interact with them. The sun takes the place of radiation rays, the rain toward the end takes the place of the cleansing or the healing. Is that something you’re conscious of while writing? How do you get on an elemental level in the creative process? How do you channel that?

Troy: “Elemental”, is that like “elementary”? [Laughs]

Bill: “Elementral”.

Troy: I never graduated Elementral School.

Bill: Well, we use a lot of metaphors in our lyrics to make it more accessible for more people to be able to interpret it in their own way, you know what I mean? But obviously with sand…the way I interpret it is, the Emperor of Sand is the one who is controlling your destiny, your life. Your life is in his hands, the sand is your time inside of an hourglass, and when you flip it over, every second counts. It’s going.

As far as the sun as radiation, I think those things just came in later. Brann’s really the brains behind that. He sees the vision and he puts all those little details together. But we had the desert idea maybe even a year ago, before the concept.

Troy: Yeah, the overall themes that run throughout, they kind of reveal themselves as we’re creating. But the first batch of demos that I heard from Bill’s writing went over to Brann’s house, and we started working on vocal patterns like, “What does this music remind you of? Let’s figure that out first.”

We were both like, “It feels like we’re in the desert and we’re running from something,” and that’s where it began. That was page one.

The two genres you most get lumped into are prog and metal, both of which sort of fail to do you guys justice.

Bill: I agree.

Troy: Prog metal, is that “pretal”? Is “pretal” a word?

And they’re both known to embrace pageantry, too. Spectacle. But you guys never went full Gwar.

Bill: We’ve always just kinda been a simple band, you know what I mean? Just four dudes playin’ their instruments onstage. And now people don’t buy CDs, people still collect vinyl, which is cool, but you gotta sell it somehow. I think with our next tour, we’ve gotta do something with our stage show. Add some more pizzazz, you know what I mean?

But we’re not a prop band, we don’t have Stonehenge in the back like Spinal Tap or anything. It’s kind of goofy, you know. But as far as lighting and setting the mood, we’d rather let the music do the talking. But this day and age, you want people to come to your gig and go, “That was awesome, that was a great show.” Like Tool, for example, even without the music, just watching the video screens is trippy.

So you’re open to spectacle, but you don’t want it to define anything.

Troy: No, I think we’ve always been music first and foremost.

Bill: But it’s always cool to have some cool video wall when it calls for it. And I think we’re at that stage. All of that stuff is expensive, it’s not just like, “O.K., we’re just gonna do this one night.” You have to do it every single night on the whole tour, you know, all 30 dates or whatever. It’s something you’ve gotta plan for and figure out. But we’re gonna have some new surprises on the tour.

Troy: Like a pregnancy.

Mastadon plays Hammerstein Ballroom with Eagles of Death Metal on May 11

Mastodon on Timelessness, Loss and Transcending Heavy Metal