Mastodon: From Basement Shows to No. 1 Albums | Revolver

Mastodon: From Basement Shows to No. 1 Albums

Far from instilling rock-star egos, their journey has brought them a deeper awareness of how human frailty can be a source of strength
mastodon 2017 HUBBARD, Jimmy Hubbard
Mastodon, (from left) Troy Sanders, Brann Dailor, Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds, 2017
photograph by Jimmy Hubbard

On a brutally hot and humid Atlanta afternoon in the summer of 2004, Revolver is conducting its first-ever interview with the members of Mastodon. 

Over cold beers and hot quesadillas at Elmyr, a grungy Mexican joint in the city's Little Five Points area, drummer/vocalist Brann Dailor, guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds, guitarist Bill Kelliher and bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders regale their interrogator with gritty and hilarious tales of their four-plus years of existence, and the hundreds of gigs they've already played while touring the U.S. in a cramped van they've affectionately dubbed "The Fart Box."

The four men speak frankly of the challenges that come with having an old-school metal sensibility in a nu-metal world. They reveal their dream to one day travel the globe with an all-midget road crew. And finally, they explain how Leviathan, their forthcoming (and utterly mind-blowing) second full-length, explores the parallels between their against-all-odds quest for musical success and Captain Ahab's obsessive hunt for the white whale in Moby Dick, Herman Melville's classic 19th century whaling novel.

"Captain Ahab kind of reminds me of us, potentially going down with our ship, going down with that whale," says Dailor. "I mean, playing heavy metal is a completely unstable profession, and it will probably not work out for us. We'll probably not be rich and famous rock stars, or anything like that."

Mastodon, Brann Dailor
Mastodon, (from left) Troy Sanders, Brent Hinds, Brann Dailor and Bill Kelliher
courtesy of Brann Dailor

Flash forward to the summer of 2017, and one would have to say that, however improbably, playing heavy metal actually has worked out for Mastodon. As rock stars, they may not be as rich or as famous as, say, Metallica (and that "all-midget road crew" thing never really came to pass), but Mastodon have gradually established themselves over the years as arguably the most important metal band of their generation, thanks to blisteringly intense live shows and an uncompromising run of albums that has seen them continually expand upon the creative and conceptual template forged by Leviathan.

Rather than go down with the ship, the original foursome of Dailor, Hinds, Kelliher and Sanders has not only managed to stay proudly afloat, but also achieved a certain low-key pop-cultural ubiquity in the process. Mastodon have been nominated for three Grammy Awards in the Best Metal Performance category, had craft beers named after the band and its songs by various microbreweries, and appeared as Wildlings on HBO's wildly popular Game of Thrones. And for a week this past April, Emperor of Sand — their seventh and latest album — literally outsold every other record in the United States.

"It's still hard for me to believe," laughs Kelliher, shortly before the band is scheduled to headline the second main stage at Spain's Download Madrid festival. The day Emperor of Sand hit No. 1 on Billboard's Top Album Sales chart, the guitarist remembers, his Facebook page was suddenly flooded with congratulatory posts from friends and family. Confused, he phoned the band's manager for clarification.

"I was like, 'So, what does this mean? We sold the most CDs the week our record came out?'" Kelliher recalls. "And he's like, 'Yeah!' And I'm like, '... in metal?' And he's like, 'No.' 'In metal and rock?' 'No — across the fucking board! You sold more than Drake or Ed Sheeran!' I was like, 'Wow! How can that be?'"

To Kelliher, it doesn't seem that long ago that he and Dailor "moved to Atlanta kind of blindly" in January 2000 from Rochester, New York, where they'd played together for several years in Lethargy, a technical death-metal band. Additionally bonded by a year-long stint of touring and recording with Massachusetts- based noise-rock outfit Today Is the Day, Kelliher and Dailor were determined to form a new band of their own that would be, in Kelliher's words, "something semi-experimental, but not 100 percent teched-out math rock like Lethargy was. I wanted it to be heavy, and show a lot of influence of things like Melvins, Neurosis, punk rock and hard rock."

Bill Kelliher HUBBARD, Jimmy Hubbard
Bill Kelliher, in the studio for 'Blood Mountain,' 2006
photograph by Jimmy Hubbard

Three weeks after landing in Atlanta, Kelliher and Dailor attended a High on Fire show in someone's basement; as fate would have it, that someone turned out to be Brent Hinds, guitarist of Atlanta's Four Hour Fogger, a band which also included Troy Sanders on bass. The four musicians immediately hit it off, bonding over their shared love of Melvins, Neurosis and Thin Lizzy, and soon Mastodon was formed. The band functioned for a while as a quintet, with Eric Saner on lead vocals — he appeared on the band's original nine-song demo, which would be excerpted for 2001's Lifesblood EP and later be re-released in its entirety as Call of the Mastodon — but soon slimmed down to a quartet. "We were like, 'None of us are singers, so let's just grunt and growl where we think it's necessary,'" Kelliher laughs.

Though Kelliher is fond of Remission, the band's first full-length — released by Relapse in 2002 — he sees it as a "black-and-white" and "primordial" document compared to Leviathan. "I think Leviathan really turned a lot of heads because of the implication that, 'Maybe these guys read books, and maybe they think outside the box, and are not just a bunch of dumb metalheads. They've got a bunch of cool art, and concepts and ideas that are outside of your typical metal band.'" Mastodon weren't your typical metal band — and the critical and commercial success of Leviathan led to a contract with Warner Bros., allowing them to leave "The Fart Box" behind in favor of buses and airplanes. The band's work ethic further intensified, both on tour and in the studio, as exemplified by its next two sprawling masterpieces, 2006's Blood Mountain and 2009's Crack the Skye. But the incessant workload took its toll, not least on Kelliher's body: He was hospitalized for pancreatitis in 2008, and then again in 2010, leading to the cancellation of a European tour.

"The road will always be there, but your liver and pancreas will not," Kelliher laughs. "But it was also like, 'Let's take a break, so we don't burn out.' It seemed evident that we all needed to go home and be with our families, and remember that we're human beings." While the rest of the band will be flying directly home following Download Madrid, Kelliher will head to Madagascar for a fishing vacation with his wife and kids. A devoted family man, Kelliher says he typically works harder at home than he does on the road. "My wife picks up the slack when I'm on tour," he explains. "So when I come home, it's like, 'Here you go!' The kids keep me busy from the moment they get up to the time they go to bed."

Also occupying Kelliher's time these past few years has been the construction of both a home recording studio (the songs for 2014's Once More 'Round the Sun and Emperor of Sand were all demo'd there) and Ember City, a multi-unit rehearsal space in Atlanta where Mastodon and other local bands can practice. "We were getting kicked out of our old rehearsal room — the entire building was being sold — so we really needed to find our own home," he explains. "And since so many other spaces have closed around here, we thought we should build something that other musicians in our community could use, too."

It was during Ember City's construction that Kelliher's mother was diagnosed with brain cancer, a development that would profoundly affect both his life and the music of Emperor of Sand. "I was traveling back and forth every week to see her, take care of her, put her into hospice, and eventually she passed away," he recalls. "Meanwhile, I was dealing with all the red tape on the rehearsal building, writing a majority of Emperor of Sand in my home studio and trying to be a dad — there were many hats being worn. But I felt like all the pressure of that stuff happening helped me focus on getting those riffs out that had been stuck inside me for years. I think without all that stuff going on, it might not be the same record."

Though Kelliher thinks it might be nice to "get to a point where we could retire, or at least take a nice chunk of time off and regroup," he doesn't see a need for that any time soon. "I think we've got a lot more left in us," he says. "With our band, we've got so many sides to the die — we've got so many elements, so many personalities, and we're not afraid to show it. We're human, and we each just try to pour those crazy emotional roller coaster rides into our songwriting. And not in a cheesy way," he adds with a laugh. "It's still fucking metal, and it still fucking rocks!"

Brent Hinds HUBBARD, Jimmy Hubbard
Brent Hinds, circa 2009
photograph by Jimmy Hubbard

The first time the four members of Mastodon ever got together for a jam, Brent Hinds showed up too drunk to play his guitar. Though the band quickly moved past that particular faux pas, the incident did establish a certain precedent for unpredictability on Hinds' part, and he's continued to display a decided flair for wild-card behavior ever since.

Sometimes, Hinds' hell-raising has manifested itself in humorous ways, like the time he showed up to the 2015 Grammy Awards dressed in a full Los Angeles Dodgers road uniform, only to get bounced from the event by security after emptying the entire contents of his backpack (including money, weed and underwear) all over the floor. Other times, as with the drunken poolside shenanigans at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards that ultimately led to his hospitalization with a brain hemorrhage, it's bordered on tragic.

Tonight, however, Hinds' legendary wild streak is nowhere in evidence. After a successful run of European festival dates, he's clearly happy to be back home in Atlanta with his new wife Raisa, whom he married in May. Relaxing on his living room couch, glass of red wine in his hand and his dog Dingus curled up at his side, the guitarist seems unusually content and reflective.

"It went by really fast," he says of Mastodon's 17-plus years together. "I just blinked, and now here we are!" Born with a natural knack for making music, Hinds is the kind of picker who can grab any stringed instrument, no matter how unfamiliar, and within minutes sound like he's been playing it all his life. A few years back, he bought a 1954 Sho-Bud 13-string pedal steel guitar, complete with knee and foot-benders; it's the kind of instrument that can take years to master, but Hinds quickly turned it into a psychedelic dream machine, putting it to good use on tracks featured on the band's new Cold Dark Place EP. "I was dying to use that and go in a more David Gilmour, Floyd-y type of direction for a little bit — kind of melancholy and psychedelic," he explains. "It's kinda easy. You just use your ear when you're going for the note."

As Hinds remembers it, there was a similar degree of ease to the formation of Mastodon. "It came together pretty fucking effortlessly," he says. "That's why we did it, and that's why we continue to do it — we wouldn't do it if it were something that was hard to do. It does itself, it seems like!"

Back in 2004, when Revolver first met Hinds, the guitarist's pad was cluttered with vintage beer signs, wooden tiki statues (some of them carved by Hinds himself) and a wide array of classic horror movie posters and memorabilia. Though his current pre-WWII bungalow is more spacious than his previous digs, it's still basically filled with the same stuff — only now there's more of it, and the posters are actually framed.

"I was already 'eccentric' back then, you know what I mean?" he chuckles. "I'm not gonna go out and buy new décor. I'm just going to add to the memories, I guess. I was pretty much the same dude I am now when we first formed the band — we all were already

the people we were gonna become. I was 26. I'd already backpacked in Europe by myself. I'd hopped freight trains all over the United States, busking and being a total jackass and doing some fucking hoboing. It kind of built my character ...

"I don't really see us as being at any kind of different level from where we were back then, really," he continues. "It's been a slow, organic growth to ... maybe the middle? Not the top!" He laughs. "We're still playing the same festivals, just playing a bit later. It still sounds the same onstage. I'm still struggling with the people that do monitors for us. But it's a little more rewarding at this point. We don't have to share hotel rooms any more — you get a little more privacy this way. Everything else stays the same, though. We still fly economy, still have to go through the hustle and bustle."

And then there are the occasional fun perks that come with being in a major band, like being asked to make a cameo appearance on your favorite TV show. In 2015, Game of Thrones showrunner D.B. Weiss, a huge Mastodon fan, invited the band to Iceland, where Hinds, Dailor and Kelliher spent a long but memorable day playing members of the Wildlings clan.

"It's neat being behind the scenes, and seeing how all the smoke and mirrors goes down," says Hinds. "But it didn't ruin it for me. I love the show too much. We were just honored to be a part of it, you know? I didn't get to get killed, but Brann did. And when you get killed, you have to get killed from 57 different angles, from 7 A.M. to 7 P.M. It's pretty exhausting — to do one of the tiniest scenes in the whole entire bit took us a whole day.

"That appearance boosted our popularity a little bit," Hinds continues. "People are like, 'That dude's in this band, but he's also in Game of Thrones — I have to get my picture taken with him!'" He takes another sip of wine, and smiles. "But I've also gotten, "I'm a Game of Thrones fan — Mastodon, not so much!'"

Brann Dailor's Atlanta home is a lot like you'd imagine the inside of his brain to be: Neat, organized, whimsical (the chandeliers over the dining room table look like blue-tentacled sea monsters) and filled with books, black velvet paintings, clown art and, of course, music.

"It makes me happy when people come up and say, 'Thank you, your music helped get me through a really tough time,'" he says, during an afternoon interview in his airy and sun-lit living room. "I know that music can do that, because it's done it for me. When I was a little kid, I'd get frustrated about something, and my mom would say, 'Go play your drums.' And that would always help. I would always feel a million times better when I would hit my drums, sweat and just play ...

"I don't even know who I am without those drums, without that ability to go do that. If you took my arms and legs away, I'd figure out another way to drum, because I play drums with my teeth all the time." He demonstrates by clicking his teeth rhythmically. "My wife'll be like, 'Are you playing drums with your teeth?'" He laughs. "And I'm like, 'Yeah!'"

While Dailor literally drives Mastodon's music from the drum stool, he's also often been the one steering the band into new artistic territory. It was his idea to take the concept-album route with Leviathan — he still has the beat-up paperback copy of Moby Dick that inspired that particular venture — and he broadened the band's emotional scope by making Crack the Skye an homage to his late sister, who took her own life in her early teens.

"When we went in deep with Crack the Skye, I was listening to the music that Brent was coming up with, and it was just conjuring up that time in my life," he explains. "So I put it in there, came out with it and told people about it — and that opened up a dialogue with our fans, and I liked that. People always look for the meaning of life, and there is none. We're just animals, we're just here. But I might as well try to help out while I am here, and make someone's existence a little easier. And that's a by-product that I didn't see ...

"For me," he continues, "every single faction of my life is represented inside of Mastodon, whether it be my personal struggles and tragedies as a human being, or any kind of art I see, or any traveling I do. Like, if I go inside the Great Pyramid at Giza, that ends up in the lyrics. I travel to the Nazca Lines of Peru, or Easter Island, and it ends up in the lyrics somewhere. And that was one of the main things with the guys in the beginning — the fact that we all wanted to travel and see the world, and we all wanted Mastodon to be what was going to take us there."

Still, Dailor recalls a time in Mastodon's early days where he briefly wavered from the mission. "I almost left, due to a chick," he admits. "There was a girl in Denmark that I'd met when we were over there with Today Is the Day, and she was not wanting to be in Atlanta — she wanted to be in New York. I put the guys through not the best time over that, I think. We had just formed, and in a very short period of time, we'd come up with the nine songs that were going to be on the demo. And a couple of days before we went into the studio, I let everybody know that I was gonna jet. I remember talking to Bill, and him saying to me, 'I don't think you really ever gave it a chance.'

"But luckily, we had that studio time booked, though hanging over all of it was the fact that I might split. So there we were at LedBelly Studios, about an hour north of here, and we were drinking and partying together and listening back to everything, and it just clicked in my head: 'I can't leave this. I can't do it! This is too awesome, and I love this music too much. It sounds like a different version of heavy metal — it sounds like a new thing!'

"That was like a defining moment for me," he continues. "Hearing that music recorded was really what did it — that, and the camaraderie of all of us being so excited about it, and knowing what that friendship could be. I was really falling in love with Mastodon, and what we could accomplish, musically. So I told the guys that night that I was not leaving. I firmly planted my feet inside of Mastodon, and was just like, 'All systems go!' And I feel like that's where we've been ever since."

As stoked as he is about the band's subsequent commercial success, Dailor says that being able to re-experience that original moment of musical epiphany has been the sweetest reward.

"Selling a lot of records, the Game of Thrones experience, filling up a large building with fans that we've successfully connected with — that's something where I go, 'Thank you, Mastodon!' Thank you, Brent and Bill and Troy and me, for our hard work and perseverance and love for all things Mastodon. We keep doing it and pushing it, and cool things happen as a result.

"But the best thing is at the end of each recording, when I'm having that feeling I had with the first demo, being so excited and having a real emotional connection to the piece of art that we've just created together. That bonding moment, that spiritual moment, and the music doing that evocative thing to you that music does: that feeling that bubbles up inside, whether it's to Mozart's Requiem or Slayer's Reign in Blood or Stevie Wonder's Innervisions or David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust. That's the feeling that I'm looking for in music, and that's the feeling that everyone's looking for in music, and my true moments of success are when I've created something with those guys that really evokes that same feeling." 

Troy Sanders 2016 HUBBARD, Jimmy Hubbard
Troy Sanders, in the studio for 'Emperor of Sand,' 2016
photograph by Jimmy Hubbard

"I don't usually get into deep conversations at 10 in the morning over scrambled eggs," grins Troy Sanders, as we wait for our breakfast order at a crab shack near a small beach on Florida's Gulf Coast. "But hey, let's do it!"

The towering bassist has called Florida his home for two years now, a move partly motivated by the growing crackhead population of his Atlanta neighborhood, which made it unsafe for his young son to play in the yard. The relocation turned out to be a prescient one: Jeza, Sanders' wife, was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after they'd moved into their new house, and the natural beauty and mellow vibes of their tiny beach community turned out to be the per- fect setting for her treatment and eventual recovery.

"In Atlanta, we lived seven miles from our practice space, and I was there all the time," Sanders recalls. "So now it's like, I've gotta drive seven hours to band practice? Shit ... but OK. Everyone else is in Atlanta, so it's up to me to get there, and I refuse to be the weak link in the band. So we'll rehearse for a couple of days before tour, do the set three or four days in a row.

Bottom line is, whatever it takes — whatever it takes to make myself happy, for my family to be in a healthy and happy situation, and to be able to continue to stampede around the world on the Mastodon horse."

Sanders says the only time he's ever doubted his capacity to do the latter was in the immediate wake of Jeza's diagnosis. "That was a whole new world that I entered, and I needed to question myself about where my priorities lie, and how can I balance it out," he explains. "I wondered if this was going to work out, if we were going to be able to survive this? Am I gonna be a single parent? Am I going to need to take care of someone long-term? Cancer was a new world to me ...

"So yes, there was a period where I was questioning my ability to still be in this band that I loved. Fortunately, we were able to sort it out, and I was able to continue. But that's the only time I felt that this might not work. It was horrible to have to cancel a European tour because of it, but it also felt good to know that, if I cannot go to Europe with my band- mates, they're not gonna go without me."

A private person by nature, Sanders admits he felt uneasy about making his wife's health issues public. "When we had to cancel the tour, it was a whirlwind up in my brain. I was like, 'Do we have to give an excuse? Because I don't feel comfortable sharing this with anyone outside of my immediate family.' It took my wife to get me out of this particular shell. She was like, 'What's going on right now with us is bigger than you. You need to realize that you're going to bring awareness to thousands and thousands of people if you just say something.'

"So I wrote a letter cancelling the tour, and there have been people around the world who have told me it inspired them to go get looked at, just because people can be stubborn and not want to worry about their health in their thirties or forties or fifties. And then, as we were writing Emperor of Sand, it was like, 'We should write about this — it's super-relatable. Everyone on earth can understand.' After Crack the Skye, we realized that it's OK to be relatable, and human. This is how us four adult men are dealing with our anger and our confusion and our grief, and we're channeling it through this art that we call Mastodon. Hopefully, out of the darkness, we're creating something that will shed a positive light as an end result."

As proud as he is of Mastodon's music, Sanders says he's even prouder of the four-way brotherhood that's remained intact for over 17 years. "Just like any relationship, you're always going to have these bumps in the road," he says with a shrug. "But to overcome them and realize that you're part of something bigger than yourself is extremely special. All four of us started the band, and it still takes all four of us to be this band. Through all the bumps — through all the 'Why are you being a dick?' 'I don't know, I'm sorry, I was drunk!' — the vision and sincerity has prevailed, times 10. Even with all the straws on our back, we're a strong fucking camel!"

Sanders credits that collective strength to the "slow and steady ascent" that the band has made over the course of its career to date. "Nothing was ever flat-out given to us," he says. "Our first few years, it was just us in the van. And half the van was gear and the other half was the four of us, and we were sleeping on any floor that would have us. But there was no complaining, no 'Guys, I can't do this!' We knew that we all wanted it, individually, but we also knew we all owed it to each other to give this thing a proper shot. Everything was taken in stride, with gratitude and pride.

"I wish I could give my bandmates trophies, because they all deserve them," he continues. "Brann is such a gifted and talented musician, and also a humble and very inspiring human. Bill is just so driven and passionate, and his level of perseverance is unmatched. And Brent is an absolute and incredibly special person — I've definitely spent more time with Brent than anyone in my lifetime. I love them all dearly, you know? Every single day of my life, I'm in love with Mastodon!"

And, Sanders assures us, we can expect the love affair to continue. "We recognized that there was something special about this band on the first day," he says, "and it makes me proud how that special feeling developed into an incredible journey. And it warms my heart, knowing that the journey is not over, that we have more things to accomplish together, and more magic to make on stages around the world."