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They were warned about the turtle. Down there at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, as the progressive metal band Mastodon prepared to perform a live set of mostly acoustic songs beside a magnificent indoor water tank filled with ocean life, they were told of a mean bastard of a sea turtle that would be watching.
The scowling creature had no friends and was known to push his way around the aquarium's gently swirling marine mosh pit of manta rays, whale sharks and 50 other sea species. He was kept in a separate tank from other turtles or he'd snap his lizard jaws in their direction and start fights. His name was Hank.
"They were telling us that he behaves badly," recalls Brann Dailor, Mastodon's drummer and vocalist. "He's a bad boy. He's a rebel, a loner."
The band had arrived to chill out and rock the place with a nine-song performance under soft lighting that was meant to turn the volume low but the feelings high with music that emphasized the subtleties and acoustic roots that have always been part of Mastodon. They set up right next to the tank's thick acrylic window, which stands 23-feet high and holds back more than 6.3 million gallons of marine water.
It was Mastodon's first concert since a Tennessee rock festival in October 2019. After the set, bassist-singer Troy Sanders was told of an incident during the show that he'd somehow missed. "The turtle apparently came belly up to the glass wall and had his turtle penis out during a song," he reports, then jokes, "Come to our show! You'll never know what to expect."
Another kind of surprise in the set was the debut of a new song, "Skeleton of Splendor," which appears in much louder form on the band's new album, Hushed and Grim, their first since the death of their longtime friend and manager Nick John. It's a song performed as a passionate but solemn duty, with Sanders singing about their goatee'd mentor and the lessons learned: "We live and breathe all your thousand words/Now you sleep we'll finish your work/To my detriment …"
Dailor then responds from behind the drum kit with a pained, defiant cry: "I forge ahead unscarred!" Hinds slides into a grieving solo, soaring into a kind of molten Pink Floyd guitar moment.
There was never any doubt that the new album would be about mourning the loss of John, who died at 48 from pancreatic cancer in the fall of 2018. The debt Mastodon feels toward their late manager runs deep. "Lyrically, it was obvious to us what our subject matter was going to be about, because that was too bold to ignore," Sanders says. "But we didn't really speak of it. It just became."
What it became, more exactly, is Mastodon's most epic, unfiltered and organic offering yet; their first-ever double album, encompassing some 90 minutes of music. If the depth of their emotions can be measured in the amount of material the band created, Hushed and Grim speaks volumes. But their emotions also impacted how the music was written, not just how much. "I feel like this is maybe our Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood," Dailor says. "We didn't care to self-edit as much as we normally would. We let things breathe a little bit more and let things happen really naturally instead of snip-ping things and getting to the point. It just felt right."
Mastodon were a decidedly underground metal act when Nick John signed up as their manager, intrigued by these four dudes making uncompromising heavy music with eccentric ideas. They had just finished recording Leviathan, a meditation on the novel Moby-Dick, and the first of an ongoing series of ambitious concept albums. Within a year of signing Mastodon in 2004, he took them from being an act playing clubs and basements to an internationally touring buzz band on the rise, playing Ozzfest and rolling through Europe with Slayer and Slipknot. He saw in them a band of collaborators who were following their own creative path, as comfortable on the heaviest metal festival stages as amid the palm trees and hipsters of Coachella.
Though John never traveled with them on the road, and would only fly out for select gigs, he was like the group's fifth member. He was their leading booster. "Nick was the biggest fan," says Hinds. "He liked our worst music. He was like, 'That's a great song!' I'm like, 'Uh, that's not good.'"
Nick was also a Zeppelin lifer, a total fanatic. His dog's name was Coda, after the post-breakup Zep album. His Instagram handle was @nickjzoso, with a nod to Jimmy Page's mysterious "Zoso" symbol.
"Nick lived music, and that was his childhood, his adulthood, his livelihood and everything in between," says Sanders. And even after his passing, Mastodon would be drawn into his mad Zeppelin obsessions one last time.
His wife, Colleen John, asked them to cover "Stairway to Heaven" at the funeral. Mastodon would be playing it in a church in front of their late friend's open casket. It was a terrifying idea — tackling one of the most famous epics of hard rock, and on one of the saddest occasions of their lives — but they agreed to do it.
"That's a song that usually is a complete no-no," says Sanders. "Rock bands don't cover that song, but that was completely for Nick."
At the service, the song's lyrics were printed on the back of the memorial card so that mourners could sing along. But they didn't, and mostly just cried during the performance. Dailor took the lead vocal. "It was tough, but I got through it," he says.
Like the others, Hinds had heard that song virtually his whole life, and he'd played it during high school. The technical side of it was no problem at all, and he built his own adaptation of the legendary Jimmy Page solo. "But it wasn't easy seeing my guitar through the tears," Hinds recalls.
In the crowd was another musician mourning his lost manager: Gojira's Joe Duplantier. He recorded Mastodon's performance on his phone and later played it back for them. The band recognized it as something special that should be released in some form, so they soon recorded a studio version of the cover. They printed vinyl copies with John's smiling face on the artwork as a special Record Store Day release to benefit pancreatic cancer research.
Once again, Dailor took the Robert Plant vocal. "I put a cucumber down in my pants," he says, stepping into the Golden God position.
Inevitably, the Zeppelin exercise was a trial run for what would later become, almost inevitably, a nearly album-long tribute to John: Hushed and Grim. Longtime followers of Mastodon will be the least surprised of anyone, knowing the Georgia quartet's ongoing tradition of music inspired by the tragedies around them. It's been a source of comfort and identification for fans going through their own losses, understanding that emotions within their songs come from a genuine place of humanity.
Early on for the band, the death of Dailor's sister Skye at age 14 from suicide was a recurring theme for the drummer-songwriter. And when Hinds' brother was killed in a hunting accident, it led to 2011's The Hunter. There was more death, close calls and medical emergencies behind subsequent albums, including the cancer diagnosis of Sanders' wife as they went in to make 2017's acclaimed Emperor of Sand.
"It's true that tragedy always breeds some really deep emotional connection to the music," says Kelliher, whose mother died during the making of Emperor of Sand. "There was a point in the early days of recording this new record where Nick was the only thing on my mind. I was just writing a lot of sad stuff. And I was like, 'Nick wouldn't want that. He wouldn't want everything to be totally sappy and sad.'
"True art comes out of pain, and tragedy is a form of pain. When something terrible happens, it kind of shocks you into realizing that you're mortal and life is a gift and you just get deep about stuff."
Music has helped Kelliher through hard times before, he says. The guitarist points to the Deftones' 1997 album Around the Fur as an important record in his life. "It was in the Nineties, but I was going through some shit," he says. "It was one of those 'What am I doing with my life' kind of things. And I remember I'd come home from work and always put that record on to rock out. Something about it always made me feel good because of the emotional notes and the screaming and the pain — you can feel that these guys are going through some shit, man."
The first steps to making Hushed and Grim began as most of Mastodon's albums do, with the four members individually sketching out ideas for riffs, sounds and concepts. Kelliher regularly went down into his small basement studio and started creating guitar parts. "I always want to be ahead of the game," he says, "and show up to practice and be like, 'I've got this, I've got that,' and just have numerous ideas and whatnot."
The band was far along in the writing process and demoing up the new songs when tragedy hit the entire planet: the COVID-19 virus, which has killed more than 4 million worldwide to date. Mastodon were in the studio on Friday, March 13, 2020, when the news alerts began to come in.
"It was like, 'Major League Baseball, canceled.' 'Disneyland is going to close on Monday.' And 'Major League Soccer is now suspended,'" Sanders recalls. "We're like, what the hell is going on?"
Everything stopped, as it did for the rest of the music world. Mastodon still had some dates left on the Emperor of Sand touring cycle. As the reality of the pandemic became clearer, all hopes of returning to the road faded away. The shows would eventually be cancelled.
For Dailor, it led to him taking his first real break from Mastodon in two decades. He stopped playing drums for a time and stepped back from his daily music habit. Dailor then began making visual art regularly for the first time since he was a teenager: He started drawing clowns.
It became his morning ritual, rising at 8 a.m. to draw a clown every day for 101 consecutive days. The colorful artwork was an extension of a genuine lifelong obsession. Dailor already had a room dedicated to clowns in his house, with framed images of clowns collected from around the world, clown masks and wigs, a clown chandelier made to order, a regal portrait of Donald Trump as the Clown in Chief.
He texted a picture of his daily clown to a mailing list of friends and family, ignoring any clown phobias. His friend Jon Theodore, drummer for Queens of the Stone Age, was not amused at all. "He's super-afraid of clowns, and I started sending them to him," recalls Dailor. "He was like, 'Seriously, stop.' And I can't stop. I won't stop."
The drawings showed the clowns in everyday situations and fantastical ones: sitting on the beach, falling in love, rising in the tractor beam of a flying saucer. There was a clown funeral, another clown crossing a finish line. Theodore eventually started to come around. "Man, this is really kind of helping me," he told Dailor.
The clowns also helped Dailor get through the long season of sickness and death unfolding around the world, and to face the unknown of what was to come. It centered him for anywhere from three to eight hours every day. "That was a super-commitment," says Dailor, who teamed with Revolver to publish a book of his drawings, Brann Dailor's 101 Clowns of the Coronavirus. "I didn't miss one day."
With time, Mastodon reconvened and began to see the opened-ended shutdown as an opportunity to create without limits. There were no deadlines to consider, no appointments to make. The band rededicated themselves to their next album.
Making that possible was Mastodon's new work-space in Atlanta, West End Sound Studio, built a few years ago and run by Kelliher and engineer Tom Tapley (a key collaborator on Crack the Skye and Emperor of Sand). "It was always my dream to record Mastodon in my own studio," says Kelliher.
On past albums, Mastodon has recorded in other cities, sometimes as far away as Los Angeles and Seattle. When doing overdubs in L.A., the band would inevitably remember a guitar or effects pedal that was needed and out of reach. Even when a city was within driving distance, there were issues, as when they began recording Once More 'Round the Sun in Nashville at the end of 2013. Kelliher remembers bringing every-thing they had there: "We loaded up Brent's pickup truck with, like, 30 guitars and amps and just made trip after trip bringing all that stuff there. It was the middle of winter and it was a pain in the butt."
At West End Sound, Hinds lives close enough to ride his bike there. And Sanders, who had relocated with his family to Florida six years ago, took up residence in a trailer parked at the studio. It was like his own permanent festival accommodation and made for a leisurely existence he calls "trailer life."
Sanders was less involved in writing on Emperor but this time was inspired to fully contribute to creating the songs, with trips back to the Gulf of Mexico adding up on his odometer. "I literally put 30,000 miles on my truck just driving to band practice and back in the year 2020 to write and record this new Mastodon record," Sanders says. "I've never been more literally driven to do a record in my life. I was so attached and involved with all the songwriting and all the riffs and all the lyrics, everything about it."
For the recording sessions, Mastodon brought in producer David Bottrill, who has worked with major artists for decades, from Tool and King Crimson to Peter Gabriel. His hands-on approach was welcome all around.
"This guy did Peter Gabriel's stuff," Hinds enthuses. "I'm going to listen to what he's gonna say."
Most of the band tends to work regular daylight hours, beginning around 10 a.m. and ending by mid-afternoon, but Hinds felt like his solos were better later at night. Tapley, who lives about 45 minutes away, was often recruited to be his co-pilot as the hours dragged on.
"He had to sleep there a couple of times because of my stupid ass," recalls Hinds. "A couple times we stayed up to 2 or 3 [a.m.] and that's when we got the best takes — because we started cracking beers at around 11 p.m. and people were putting their guards down and not being super uptight and regimenting and being real serious about stuff. All we're doing is playing a guitar solo here, guys."
Tracking would take surprising turns during sessions. One song Hinds brought in was "The Beast," which emerges from layers of twangy guitar-slinging with a bluesy riff and the guitarist's voice: "Out of my mind/Pictures of past lives/Trapped in a memory …"
After Dailor's rapid-fire beats, Hinds knew he wanted Sanders to sing the middle section, hoping to get some of the bassist's usual deep metal growl. Sanders gave him some piercing, razor-sharp raging instead. "I wanted him to sing real low, but Troy went in there singing high," Hinds says, "and it sounds way better than it could have ever sounded with the big bellowing Troy voice."
From a pile of 20 complete song ideas, the band trimmed the final number to 15 tracks. About half were over six minutes long.
Bottrill pointed out that they had more than they needed for a normal Mastodon album and should make some hard choices on which of the 15 would become the final tracks. He told them: "We're really only obligated to do, like, nine or 10. Which ones are we going to do?"
For Mastodon the answer was obvious. There was no way they would abandon any of the songs that were already started, and they couldn't be saved for a later project. The band would have to finish all of them.
"They're like brothers," Kelliher says of the songs, which shared mood, atmosphere and themes specific to the moment. "We couldn't separate them."
Arrangements were made to extend Bottrill's time on the record, which was maybe easier than crossing the psychic leap to knowingly making a double album, with four shiny sides of vinyl. The very idea had been a kind of longtime joke within the band, and something to be avoided.
Dailor felt differently this time, though he expected continued resistance from the others. Instead, they quickly agreed. Maybe this, too, was inevitable. "If there are bands that people expect a double album from at some point in their career," says the drummer, "we're one of them."
Now dedicated to their supersized mission, and with the coronavirus still raging, Mastodon found themselves exploring new territory. The urgent track "Teardrinker" was originally sketched out on acoustic guitar by Dailor, and during the sessions two spaces were left open for a potential guitar solo. The idea was to pick one and discard the other. As a joke, Sanders suggested playing a bass solo in one spot. Mastodon had never had a bass solo before, and they all laughed.
"Well, the following day I went into the studio and I really honed in and I said, I'm going to do this," says Sanders, recalling a day of laying down his bass lick and later playing it for the band. "It was like, 'Holy shit, you went through with that!' I love having those special moments, even if it stems from me following through with a bad joke."
Sanders also brought in "Had It All," a song he calls "the closest thing that we've ever done to a power ballad." Even on the wide-ranging Hushed and Grim, it comes from left field, at one point even approaching that Peter Gabriel flavor. It's understated with an edge, but then there's a wild and frayed guitar solo from Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil.
On the same track is the first-ever appearance on a Mastodon album by Jody Sanders, Troy's mother, on French horn. That session was a long-awaited thank you for feeding his wide swath of creative impulses while growing up in Georgia. "From an early age, getting turned onto classical music and classic country all stemmed from her," the bassist says. "Mozart, Wagner, Beethoven, Willie Nelson, John Prine, Ray Price — those were synonymous to me."
Lyrically, things tended to come back to the loss of Nick John, but there were other traumas in the background. Dailor was facing the end of a relation-ship — and had relocated temporarily to a place he called "The Sadness Hole," where he kept working on music. While there, he wrote the riff for the anguished album-closing "Gigantium" on acoustic guitar.
Even so, spirits remained high within the band. "It's gone way beyond any therapy I could ever seek elsewhere," Sanders explains about the creative atmosphere and the payoff for all of them. "This band has created the bulk of my soul. I've spent half of my life in this band and I've seen more, experienced more with these three guys than I've done with anyone else on earth. I feel comfortable honing in and putting pen to paper when I feel something the most heartfelt."
With Hushed and Grim, Sanders says he's written the most lyrics he ever has for any Mastodon record. Part of that is because their manager's death caused him to feel "layers and layers of anger" that ultimately turned into gratitude for their 15 years together. "He reached out and found our band in 2004, like a mother bird to a baby and he just took us under his wing and that's where it all started."
The completed Hushed and Grim gallops into action from the first hurried moments of "Pain With an Anchor," amid a bruising rumble of beats that could be an engine revving into motion, followed by layers of guitar that build into a sweeping, dramatic sound-scape, and the lyrics: "Oh my dear/Look what we've done here/My greatest fear/A pain with an anchor/The taste of defeat."
It tells a true Mastodon story, that without the mighty @nickjzoso, they are like a ship that's lost its mooring and its anchor. They will have to face the bastard turtles of the world all by themselves.
"When you create art for yourself, and when every-thing that you do stems from a selfish place, that music is going to come across with no bullshit," says Sanders. "It doesn't mean that people are going to like your band any better. But you're going to see that we fucking mean it."