When I tell Brann Dailor I'm conducting our phone interview from a couch in an air-conditioned living room, flanked by my two dogs and cat, he groans in envy. "Don't say that to me," he half-jokes. "I'm in Austria! I'm at a festival, and it's way too hot. But I'm fine. I did this to myself."
As drummer, lyricist, co-singer and occasional riff-writer for Mastodon—whose grueling tour schedule has them booked until February 2018—Dailor doesn't have a lot of downtime. So it's somewhat shocking that the musician has found the space in his schedule to cook up a killer side-project.
The roots of Arcadea can be traced back to around three years ago, when Dailor linked up with Zruda guitarist Core Atoms, who was also Dailor's former bandmate in wacky prog-funk act Gaylord. Atoms had been demoing songs for an outlandish sci-fi concept album based around the futuristic tones of his microKorg synth, and Dailor signed on to play drums. Ever the workaholic, Dailor soon expanded his role to singing, writing vocal melodies, generating synth ideas and even recruiting his wife, Tiger! Tiger! bassist Susanne Gibboney, as a guest vocalist on one track.
After adding Withered guitarist Raheem Amlani as a second synth player, the trio whittled away on the material that would eventually become Arcadea: 11 tracks of spiraling psych-metal that sounds a lot like Mastodon binging on Seventies kraut-rock and Nineties electronica.
Dailor spoke to Revolver about his synth vacation, the physical demands of a Mastodon show and why taking a break "sounds boring."
REVOLVER The most recent Mastodon tours have been pretty grueling for you. Not only are you drumming at your usual level of insanity, but you're also singing much more — and in a higher register than ever. You also got sick awhile back on tour. How have you been holding up lately?
BRANN DAILOR I'm better now. Just trying to take all my vitamins and be good and everything. But it's hard to maintain. For me, with all the high singing, I have to be in perfect condition to be able to pull it off. Last tour, I woke up on the first day of the show with a fucking sore throat and a wicked head cold. It was terrible. I just did the best I could. I'd go out and apologize to the crowd after the show. But there's enough other singing going on that it wasn't too bad. We cut a couple songs [from the setlist] and gave me a few days [to rest], and it got better as time went on. But I'm feeling good at the moment.
You've known Core Atoms for a long time and played with him back in the Nineties before you both moved from Rochester, New York to Atlanta. I know one of the things that struck you about him was his left-handed, upside-down guitar playing — was it a tone thing because of how the strings were oriented?
That's what I liked about it. Gaylord's bass player, Jeff [Steverson] was crazy too. I thought they were super talented, and it was different from what I was doing at the time. I was in a really technical, math-y band called Lethargy that was, like, Mr. Bungle death-metal. Gaylord were playing weird funk, also influenced by Mr. Bungle. We had all this different music wrapped up in this one really bizarre package. Core's guitar playing was just different, and that's what I always look for: something artistic and weird. I've been lucky enough to play with some really out-there guitar players, and he's definitely one. Just because of the way he taught himself how to play guitar, power chords sound weird. Every chord he strums sounds different from everything else. That was a huge part of why I wanted to play with him in the first place.
You guys should reissue those Gaylord albums. They're pretty hard to find these days.
[laughs] We've never talked about it. That's never really come up. Maybe. We'll have to talk about that. You never think anybody wants to hear anything, so you never really talk about it. I don't know, maybe you're right. Maybe there are people who want to hear it.
I'm sure there are diehard Mastodon people who'd want to hear it. You should think about it.
The Arcadea album originated from a handful of songs Core Atoms wrote on a microKorg. Did you think at first that this was going to be a Gaylord project, or was it clearly something new?
I knew it was brand new. I was excited because he's an interesting player with an interesting take on music. I've known him for so long, and we have been friends forever. He's always someone I desire to do something with, but not necessarily Gaylord. It was the perfect opportunity to play with him again because he had these three or four songs finished and was like, "Check 'em out!" I didn't have to get too deep into it with my involvement because, honestly, Mastodon takes up a lot of my time. I didn't have to be as intense about it. With Mastodon, I want it to be perfect. I want Arcadea to be great, too, but if there's an opportunity to do something musical that's really cool but have someone else doing the majority of the work, I'm all about it. I don't have the time to devote to another project that's going to take up a lot of my time. I was more than happy to hand over the reigns and then come in, play drums and chime in with vocal ideas and stuff. I got more involved as time went on. After about three years of going in the studio here and there, we had enough for a full album, so it was like, "Might as well just put this thing out!"
When you started the project, you must have made it clear to the other guys early on that this would be a gradual thing. Did they ever get antsy, though, when it started getting close to three years?
We all just stayed in touch. They all knew I was going to leave, and it was gonna be awhile before things happened. It was going to be a lot of waiting. But they have their other bands, too, and they're busy doing other things. And even when I'm home, I can't dedicate that much time to this. When I'm home, I need to be home. I can't be constantly working on something else musically. I need to be as close to 100 percent with my wife as I possibly can. Because I'm gone all the time. I make promises to people, like, "I'm gonna be gone, but when I get back, I'm back."
Your approach was similar to Mastodon's: stockpiling riffs and beats, then gradually working on vocal melodies, then lyrics at the end. At any point, did you ever come up with a great riff or hook and then think to yourself, "Damn, I wish I could save that for Mastodon"?
No, I didn't cross-pollinate like that. I don't think I had anything. If I had something for Mastodon, I would just have it for Mastodon, ya know? I didn't feel like it was taking away from it at all. The things I gave musically would be stuff specifically for Arcadea that I wrote on a keyboard. I have a microKorg at my house, too.
I didn't realize you played keyboards.
I don't really. But with some of those synthesizers, it's easy to build a simple riff.
Mastodon is a guitar band, obviously. Arcadea is distinctly a keyboard band. At the same time, both are very heavy, just from different perspectives. Did you find it refreshing to approach that vibe from a new angle?
That was kind of the point. If I was ever going to be involved in something else, I wanted it to be different from Mastodon. But I also can't escape myself, and my own drumming – that's kind of who I am, and where I feel comfortable is with the Mastodon stuff. I didn't go too far out of my comfort zone. I'd like to in the future, though — do something I'm not comfortable doing and get comfortable with it. That would be a cool experiment. I don't really see that much difference when it came down to the end. It basically sounds like me with guitar riffs played on keyboards.
Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher is famously not a fan of using prominent keyboards. Did you feel like this gave you license to indulge a bit, kick out the synth jams?
I don't ever feel like I need to get anything out of my system, but I like synth-based music, and that's a big part of my musical catalog at home: Seventies French electronic stuff, in the realm of Arcadea. Not techno, but electronic music when synthesizers were sort of a new thing and people were playing them alongside a regular band — replacing guitars with synth because it was exciting, like Brian Eno, Stevie Wonder with Fulfillingness' First Finale and Talking Book, when he was experimenting with crazy ARPs and Moogs. Some of my favorite stuff from the bigger prog groups out there, like Genesis, are the synth moments. I wanted to make an album that sounded like those moments.
The lyrical concept of the Arcadea album is pretty wild. It's set five billion years in the future, after a collision of galaxies creates a new order of planets. In Mastodon, you usually handle most of the lyrics and concepts. But the Arcadea storyline was mainly Core Atoms' idea. Was it weird not being involved?
That's kind of Core's foray into the prog-osphere of the concept album, and he wanted to be in charge of that. I was more than willing because writing lyrics is hard! It's one of the hardest parts of my job: trying to come up with cool lyrics. It takes forever. I was like, "I can't write lyrics for this stuff. Come on, man!" He had the whole thing worked out in his head, where he wanted it to go.
These days, we're constantly bombarded with headlines about Trump scandals and the world falling apart. I feel like there's more utility for fantasy-based conceptual stuff than ever before.
Yeah, yeah. Right, rather than trying to be so literal. I agree.
Your wife sings on "Neptune Moons." How did she get involved?
I don't know. It's not like we needed a female voice on that song. I wanted to involve her, and I thought it would be cool. I like her voice and thought it fit well with the song. It added a little bit of variety to it.
There's a reference on that track to "Cosmik Debris." Are you guys Frank Zappa fans?
Oh, of course. Every band I'm in — the Mastodon guys are huge Zappa fans, and I'm a huge Zappa fan.
Favorite Zappa album?
Ahh, Hot Rats [Zappa's 1969, jazz-fusion-styled solo LP].
You just announced a fall tour with Mastodon that stretches until late October. What's the band's game plan for after that?
Well, I'm in Europe right now, and then we come home, we do the U.S. dates, and we'll probably go to Europe again and headline. And when we get done with that, we'll probably go to Australia, Japan, maybe South America, and the rest of the world, basically, before we come back around maybe do another U.S. run at some point. Basically we're booked up through February of next year. So yeah, good to be gainfully employed. We're booked pretty solid, which is good, man.
Meanwhile, the Mastodon guys can't seem to stop with the side projects: Brent Hinds has Giraffe Tongue Orchestra; Troy Sanders has Gone Is Gone. Do you think you'll ever just straight-up take a break and not make music? Or is that boring?
Nah, that sounds boring to me. I don't know what I'd do with myself. I get anxious, you know? I need to be working on something musical or I don't feel … good. I don't feel good. I feel sickly. I just don't feel emotionally OK with taking a break.
Mastodon always hauls around this gigantic riff bag, so you have material there whenever you need it. Are you still constantly stockpiling riffs?
Yeah, totally. I always have riffs and song ideas and art ideas going on in my head. It's always constantly moving and changing, and you snatch it up when it's ready.