Over the past three decades, the state of Georgia has achieved worldwide recognition as a fertile breeding ground for musicians of nearly all stripes. Artists such as TLC, Usher, Outkast and T.I. established the ATL as the nation’s new urban music mecca. Sugarland, Zac Brown and Jason Aldean have made the Peach State the hottest HQ for country music this side of Nashville. Athens has produced rockers ranging from R.E.M. and the B-52s to Widespread Panic and Drive-By Truckers, while Atlanta’s alternative scene has thrived thanks to acts such as Deerhunter, the Black Lips, Manchester Orchestra and the Coathangers.
But, outside of an occasional breakthrough act such as Sevendust, Georgia has never had much of a heavy metal scene to speak of (although Savannah has recently been doing its part to alter that perception). And so the masterful quartet known as Mastodon—bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders, guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds, guitarist Bill Kelliher and drummer Brann Dailor—essentially had to create their own scene, touring relentlessly and building up a grassroots following the old-fashioned way, eventually emerging as one of the most critically acclaimed metal bands in the world.
Fuel my fire
The band’s origins can be traced back to 1993, when Sanders’ band Knuckle was playing a gig at The Nick in Birmingham, Ala. Hinds was one of the few audience members in attendance, and the two musicians bonded after the show over a mutual appreciation of bands such as The Melvins, Neurosis and Thin Lizzy.
“Brent said he was interested in being in a band,” Sanders says of their initial meeting. “Nothing much was going on for him in Birmingham, but two hours east there was a lot of music going on in Atlanta. He said he had 100 songs written, and I said I’d love to jam with him. A week later, he knocked on my door in Atlanta. He was living in his van, and he said, ‘Let’s get started!’”
At around the same time Hinds and Sanders began working together in the metal band Four Hour Fogger, Bill Kelliher and Brann Dailor were joining forces—first in the Rochester-based mathcore band Lethargy, and later in Nashville noise-rock band Today Is The Day. The fates of these two duos eventually intersected seven years later, when they met at an Atlanta concert by influential stoner metal band High On Fire and became fast friends.
“They said they had just moved down to Atlanta to find a better outlet to start something new and fresh, because they felt stagnant,” Sanders recalls. “We could feel that those guys were a team, and they could tell that Brent and I were a team. We shared a lot of music in common. There was mutual respect for each other right from the get-go. Within a couple of days we were down at a practice space making noise together. The planets had aligned.”
Although Kelliher has been quoted as saying that Hinds showed up for their first rehearsal “so wasted he couldn’t play,” Sanders insists that the quartet knew right from the start that their sludgy, psychedelic sound was something special, unlike any of the bands they’d been in before. Despite describing their first jam as just “making noise together,” Sanders remembers them making long-term musical plans immediately afterwards.
“We went over to Bill’s apartment and sat down and started thinking about band names without even having a riff or a song put together yet,” he admits with a laugh. “Three weeks later I was on Book Your Own F—in’ Life (a DIY website for the punk and hardcore community) and I had booked us a 2-week basement, VFW hall and warehouse tour from Atlanta to Canada and back. It just felt like we all had the same intentions of what music we wanted to create, and we all knew that we needed to get out there and bring that music to the people. And all of this was realized before we had a song under our belt.”
Ride like the wind
It was quite likely this cart-before-the-horse strategy that helped Mastodon to break free from the mire in which many other hard rock and heavy metal bands in Atlanta got stuck. With no local metal scene to speak of (and the Internet still a developing phenomenon), the band became valiant road warriors right from the get-go, knowing that no radio stations, record labels or booking agents were likely to come knocking on their doors.
“With our type of music, we knew we had to get out there and do the work ourselves, and we were into that. It’s very rare,” he reflects, “because it’s hard to find three other guys that are willing to be married to you. It’s hard enough to make one marriage work, much less a four-way marriage. I’ve seen some of the greatest bands in the world not go anywhere because one guy couldn’t tour because he’s in school, has two children and a job. I’ve seen bands not reach their potential because of that and I understand it. But I also realize it’s very special that the four of us had that common desire to travel and get it done ourselves.”
The band’s touring schedule in the early days was relentless, built on a philosophy of being willing to play anywhere that was willing to have them, whether in Atlanta or across North America. They would often play shows where the bartenders and sound guys were their only audience. Signing with respected label Relapse Records (home to influential bands such as Brutal Truth, Exhumed and Voivod) certainly served to elevate their profile on the national metal scene, with a corollary increase in followers. By the time their second album was released in 2004, Mastodon had already played in excess of 500 shows.
“Literally, we would be happy to play and break even, or lose money,” Sanders says of the band’s approach. “It didn’t matter at the time for us. We just felt that we had a unique chemistry among the four of us and we knew we had the potential to write creative music. We always intended on paying our dues and never expected anything at all to land in our lap.”
Still, Sanders, a father of two, acknowledges that life on the road does present challenges for band members with families. “There are 99 pros and only one con [to being in a touring band]. That one con is the separation—having to be gone nine months of the year for me to make a living at what I love. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not so bad. I’ve always wanted to do this, and it’s a one-in-a-million shot. If that’s the one sacrifice I need to make to follow my dream and take care of my family, then it’s well worth it in the end. The separation is brutal, but at the same time I know there are 1,000 people who would want to be in my shoes, so I’m not going to complain. I’m going to focus on the 99 pros. Mastodon has been touring since the beginning, so this has been my life for the last decade.”
As much as touring helped to hone Mastodon’s chops and introduce them to new fans across the United States, it was their 1994 album Leviathan that is largely credited with breaking the band on an international scale. It was one of the most ambitious heavy metal albums ever recorded, with a central thematic concept loosely based on Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick, using Captain Ahab’s relentless pursuit of the legendary white whale as a metaphor for the band’s relentless pursuit of success in the music industry. Naturally, Sanders says that the concept came to them while on tour.
“We had a European tour, and our drummer Brann was in Hawaii for his honeymoon,” Sanders recalls. “He had three layovers—Hawaii to San Francisco, San Francisco to Atlanta, Atlanta to London, and then London to wherever in Germany, where the tour started. He was awake for that entire 24-hour span, and read the Moby Dick novel. He was exhausted from not sleeping and from all the travel. When he got to the part where the whale is referred to as a sea salt mastodon, it clicked.
“At the time,” Sanders continues, “we had gone through three white vans and we were out there in the world, 50 percent driven and 50 percent lunatics. It was like, ‘Look at all the great things we’re leaving behind and sacrificing, and for what?’ It was a direct parallel to the way Captain Ahab was. He was out there determined to get this whale, but he was out of his mind at the same time. We even called our van ‘The White Whale’ before this, and we were out there in the world trying to capture this thing that we knew is there, but we didn’t know if we’d ever get it. When Brann landed, he was like, ‘I got this crazy idea!’ It made sense. In the world of heavy rock music, if you write a concept album based on parallels to the novel Moby Dick, you’re really setting yourself up to get pummeled and ridiculed. We felt like that could be a bold and challenging move, but it mirrored our lives so perfectly that we just had to do it.”
The idea may have seemed insane from the point of conception, but the band’s inspired execution made Leviathan one of the most critically acclaimed heavy metal albums since Metallica’s seminal …And Justice For All. With a sound that veered from classically inspired arpeggios to bludgeoning thrash riffs, with Dailor’s hammer-of-the-gods drumming driving the turn-on-a-dime tempo changes, the record played out almost like a heavy metal opera of epic Wagnerian drama. The accolades poured in, with Kerrang! Magazine naming it the #1 album of 2004, Metal Hammer Magazine naming it #2, and National Public Radio eventually naming the song “Blood & Thunder” one of the most important recordings in what was “a phenomenal decade for metal.”
Leviathan had a huge impact on the band’s career trajectory: Their Unholy Alliance tour took them across North America and Europe alongside big-time metal icons such as Slayer and Slipknot, the song “Blood & Thunder” was used in a half-dozen video games (including Guitar Hero: Metallica), and Mastodon ultimately wound up getting signed by major label Warner Bros. But perhaps more importantly, the album forever changed the way the band functioned on a creative level, which has only seemed to make them a stronger, more cohesive unit over time.
“More than the success of the album,” Sanders says, “this idea of the Moby Dick story created an umbrella where all four of us could write lyrics regardless of who was going to wind up singing them. From a writing standpoint, all of us could chime in under this umbrella of the main theme. We thought, if [debut album] Remission was about fire and Leviathan was about water, why don’t we continue? We decided to do earth with Blood Mountain. Then we thought we needed to close the book of elemental chapters with Crack The Skye, which was about the element of ether and the dark matter that dominates the universe. That gave us a plethora of material to write about.”
Released in 2009, Crack The Skye took Mastodon’s artistic aspirations to new heights, centering around the out-of-body experience of a quadriplegic who learns astral projection and flies too close to the sun, burning the umbilical cord that connects him to his corporeal body and sending him soaring into oblivion. Along the way, the album tackled heady topics ranging from wormholes and physicist Stephen Hawking‘s theories to Russian madman Rasputin and the spiritual realm, confirming the veracity of Mastodon’s long-time tag as “thinking man’s metal.”
Sanders laughs when asked about said label, admitting his relief that I wasn’t asking if the band did hallucinogenics together. “I’m fine with that,” he says. “There’s always going to be some kind of tag put on you. Even I do it. Thinking man’s metal? That’s pretty good. We do feel that it’s a bit more intelligent, and we hope it’s something that people can really immerse themselves in. A lot of our songs, lyrics and stories are open to interpretation, but we do put a lot of time and effort into trying to shoehorn ourselves from the bulk of other heavy metal bands out there. We constantly try to carve our own unique path.”
River deep, mountain high
These days, carving that path is keeping the men of Mastodon busier than ever. In the past year alone, the band has released an instrumental soundtrack EP for the comic book-film adaptation of Jonah Hex at the request of director Jimmy Hayward; embarked upon the Blackdiamondskye (a combination of the latest album titles by the three bands involved) tour of North America with Alice In Chains and Deftones; and released a CD/DVD, Live At The Aragon, featuring a performance of Crack The Skye in its entirety. When we spoke to Sanders, the band was also neck-deep in the recording process of its forthcoming album, which had yet to be given a title at press time.
“We’re recording at Doppler Studios off of Piedmont Circle, which has been there forever. A lot of great records have been recorded there. As diehard music fans,” he confesses, “we love walking down the halls and seeing all those crazy platinum albums that were done there. It’s cool because we all still live in Atlanta, so we all get to go home every single night. If there are a handful of hours where we’re not needed, we can simply enjoy the comforts of our homes before we leave next week for a long adventure touring Europe.”
Where Blood Mountain was produced by Matt Bayles (best known for his work with grunge-rockers Soundgarden and Pearl Jam) and Crack The Skye was overseen by Brendan O’Brien (who’s produced 14 #1 albums for artists such as Stone Temple Pilots, Korn, Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against The Machine), for their fifth studio album the band selected Mike Elizondo to oversee the project. It’s an intriguing if confusing pairing, especially in light of the fact that Elizondo is best known for working with rap artists such as Dr. Dre, Eminem and 50 Cent, co-writing “The Real Slim Shady” and co-producing “In Da Club.” So what led one of modern metal’s most respected bands to work with one of hip-hop’s hugest hit-makers? Apparently, it all came down to Elizondo’s effort.
“Months ago, he knew we were working on a new record,” Sanders says of the producer, who also worked on Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine and Avenged Sevenfold’s Nightmare. “So he flew out to Atlanta from L.A. and had a brief meeting with us. He said, ‘I’m a big fan of your band. Here are some things I’ve done, and here are some things I can bring to the table if you choose me to work with you on your next record.’ We had this conversation over lunch, and he wanted to come down to our practice space and hear a couple of riffs we were working on. He was just a really cool, badass musician with a great ear. Basically, after meeting him we sunk right in on the friendship level, and we all had the same thoughts that everything he said could work for us. At that time, we hadn’t reached out to any producers, and he was the first and only one to make an effort to put his name in the pot. We liked the vibe, so we went with it.”
But the change in approach to production won’t be the only difference in Mastodon’s fifth studio album. Though the band was still in the process of composing their new songs at the time of our interview, Sanders hinted that the new album would not be conceptual in nature. In an interview with AOL’s Noisecreep, drummer Brann Dailor described their new material as less prog-rock influenced, more stripped-down and riff-oriented (“like a really super-heavy Led Zeppelin”), recalling the band’s work on Leviathan.
“It’s all still coming together,” Sanders admits, “as we are in the lyrical and vocal stages now. It might be about 10 days too early to tell for sure what direction the new songs are heading in. But these serious chapters, especially Crack The Skye, told a complete story. Those four chapters have kind of become its own book, and that book is closed now. This one is more like an exhalation—more of a celebratory record as opposed to something incredibly deep to us. It’s more like an open book.”
With nearly universal critical acclaim, ever-growing commercial success, an endless array of ideas and a seemingly strong “marriage” among four friends who’ve been working together anywhere from 11 to 18 years, the same could be said of Mastodon’s future. As our 40-minute conversation winds down and Sanders prepares to join the rest of the band at Doppler for yet another long day of recording, there are songs to be written and bags to be packed, as the band prepares for a tour that will take them across Europe (including the Sonisphere and Roskilde Festivals) before returning to the U.S. on July 30 for a one-off show in Seattle with the recently reunited Soundgarden, Queens of the Stone Age and Meat Puppets. According to Sanders, it’s just the beginning of what may be the band’s biggest road trip to date.
“I hope that we can travel and continue to play lands that we’ve yet to reach,” he says when asked of his goals for Mastodon. “We still want to play in Hawaii and Alaska. We haven’t made it to South Africa or China. Those are things that we’re hoping to tackle next year. Once you’re playing Turkey, Greece, Iceland and Croatia, the world feels so much bigger. Hopefully, we’ll have the brotherhood amongst us remain and continue to write music that collectively inspires us. Even to this day, we’re still ascending the mountain. We have yet to reach the peak.”