It's been three years since Mastodon's last studio album, The Hunter, propelled the band into the Top 10 on the Billboard 200 for the first time. The album landed on Rolling Stone's 50 Best Albums of 2011 list and spawned Mastodon's second career GRAMMY nomination, with "Curl Of The Burl" receiving a 2011 nod for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance.
Given this success, plus their standing as one of metal's top acts, expectations seem high for Mastodon's sixth studio album, Once More 'Round The Sun. With 11 tracks featuring explosive grooves, meaty riffs, dynamic arrangements, and deep lyrical content, the quartet have proven they are more than up to the task. Produced by Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Rush), Once More … even finds Mastodon — drummer/vocalist Brann Dailor, guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds, guitarist Bill Kelliher, and bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders — expanding upon their progressive palette, with inspired songwriting and musicianship that may garner a legion of new fans.
In an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview, Kelliher and Dailor opened up about the band's career trajectory, the more emotional highpoints on the new album, their dream GRAMMY collaboration, and how Stars Wars figures into touring.
Is there one artist whose career trajectory you really admire and you'd like to see Mastodon follow a similar path?
Kelliher: There are a lot of people out there, bands like the Melvins, they're not a huge band by any means, but they've been able to just keep putting out records for the past 30 years and all their records are great. There are one or two that are too artsy for me, but they're pretty hard rocking. I really look up to them, [Melvins guitarist] King Buzzo is a friend of mine. And they're like, "We're just gonna do this, we don't have to answer to anybody. We are just gonna go out there and put out whatever the hell is on our mind that we're feeling." As an artist, that's how I feel we are. We get a lot of s*** from people who are like, "'Curl Of The Burl,' what the f*** is that? That's you guys selling out." No, we wrote a couple of riffs and thought, "That sounds cool, let's record it." And at the moment we liked it. And people are like, "Remission was your best record." Then go f***ing listen to Remission, I don't really care because I am not that person anymore. I've moved on. We are living, breathing human beings that keep evolving and writing the kind of music that we want to write and longevity is really the key to being happy for me. And the diehard fans are the ones who are gonna love the new record. Every record has a little different element to it, that’s just because that might be the key to longevity, us trying to be like the Melvins, we're putting out a record that we feel makes us happy. We're not thinking, "Hey, what are the fans gonna like? Let's put out a record for the fans." Cause once you start doing that you're gonna let down everybody.
What were a few of the key riffs or lyrics where you realized that was the direction this album would go?
Kelliher: With this album there was a lot of stuff that was more verse, chorus, verse — very structured rock and roll songs, which is fine. As long as it still has a Mastodon element in there, it can't be too far away from our home base. But we just kept going, we kept writing songs and things started falling into place. A lot of times a lot of bands might push themselves into an uncomfortable spot and be like, "Hey, the song's not crazy enough, it doesn't have enough riffs in it." But we don't really do that much anymore, we're more concentrated on the melody, the hooks, the stuff that really draws you in and sounds like a good rock song. … And I found that's harder than writing some crazy prog rock song. Sometimes it's harder to just arrange five riffs in an order that seems seamless and they're meant to be.
What are one or two of the great classic rock hooks that come to mind?
Kelliher: "Black Dog," [by] Led Zeppelin, is a very awesome rock hook. "Paranoid," [by] Black Sabbath, [Ozzy Osbourne's] "Crazy Train," those are definitive riffs.
Was there anything thematically that emerged lyrically on this album?
Kelliher: Yeah, there's a lot of pain, death, life, rebirth, and close calls, let's put it that way. That's what the lyrics are loosely based on, without getting into too much detail, but just going through the past year was a really rough one for everybody. A lot of things changed, a lot of things happened, a lot of crazy f***ed up things that are very personal, but the four of us know exactly what happened. And it's only within the band so all of that came into the lyrics. I remember when I was driving back from the studio in Nashville back to Atlanta and I hadn't really listened to all the songs as a whole yet and the lyrics had been put down for the song "Tread Lightly," which is the opening song, a song that Brann [Dailor] and I wrote. Brann's mom had been in an accident. They still don't know exactly what happened to her, but they found her in a pool of blood, she had some brain damage, she'd banged her head really bad and he had gone straight from the studio to the hospital up in New York to be by her side, she wasn't awake or lucid at all. And I was driving home, I put the CD on, I was listening and the lyrics to that song, "Open up your eyes/Take a deep breath and return to life," and as I was singing along to it, it was only the second or third time I'd really listened to it. I just started getting teary because I was thinking, "Man, that's Brann talking to his mom." And I started tearing up and this wave of emotion started coming over me, like, "Man, this is f***ing really deep." I got goose bumps, I'm getting them now just thinking about how he's telling his mom, "Look for the light and come out of this f***ing hell that you're in right now."
On a lighter note, what is the craziest thing that you've put in a rider?
Kelliher: The craziest thing was I started putting Star Wars figures in the box when we were in Europe just to see if the promoter would bring them and they did.
What was your favorite GRAMMY moment and why?
Dailor: My favorite GRAMMY moment was telling my granny we had been nominated, she was so thrilled. It's not possible for her to make it to a concert, so this is the best way for her to be proud of my music career.
Is there one GRAMMY nomination that would mean the most to you?
Dailor: I feel that any and all nominations carry the same weight, they're all a huge honor.
Who would be your dream GRAMMY collaborators?
Dailor: I'd love to collaborate with ZZ Top. We covered "Just Got Paid" a few years ago and I'd love to jam that tune with all of us together.
(Steve Baltin has written about music for Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, MOJO, Chicago Tribune, AOL, LA Weekly, Philadelphia Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and dozens more publications.)