While all of us cope with the pandemic in different ways, Mastodon drummer and vocalist Brann Dailor used his sudden surfeit of downtime to give his relentless work ethic a breather. "I haven't hit pause on Mastodon in my mind for 20 years," he tells Revolver from his home in Georgia. "I start to panic if I'm not actively working on it. Even the arrangement of the songs keeps me up at night. I'm used to it at this point, but it's also maybe not that healthy of a thing personally. So when the shutdown happened, it really helped me stop for a second."
Unable to tour for the foreseeable future, Mastodon temporarily halted the writing process for their hotly anticipated follow-up to 2017's Emperor of Sand. Dailor started drawing clowns — one a day for 101 days — as a kind of art therapy, but more on that later. Next month, the band will unveil Medium Rarities, a collection of unreleased material, covers and live tracks to mark Mastodon's 20th anniversary. As of late June, Dailor and his bandmates are back at work on the new album, which he says will be a full-length tribute to their fallen manager and friend, Nick John, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2018.
HOW ARE YOU HOLDING UP ON PLANET VIRUS?
BRANN DAILOR I'm doing OK, I think. I'm in Georgia, as you know, so it's still a little bit wild here. Our cases are still going up at the moment, so I've just been trying to stay at my house. I go to the grocery store once a week, and then we've been going to the rehearsal studio again recently. We wear masks and we're being careful. After I get off the phone with you, I'm gonna head over there. Troy [Sanders, bass, vocals] is there right now working on vocals. We're demoing, basically. We hit pause, like everybody else, in mid-March and didn't tinker with it at all until about a month ago.
HOW MUCH MATERIAL DO YOU HAVE SO FAR?
We have too much material at the moment. We have enough for probably a couple of albums, so that's good. But also we need to focus now. We're at the point where we're ready to go in and do it for real, I think. We just started jamming the new stuff as if we were gonna go in and do it, so that's where we're at.
WILL YOU RECORD MORE THAN YOU NEED AND THEN CHERRY-PICK SONGS FOR THE NEW ALBUM, OR WILL YOU NARROW IT DOWN BEFOREHAND?
We'll narrow it down. We'll probably do 45 to 50 minutes of new stuff and pick the cream of the crop, the stuff we're all gravitating towards. There's gonna be some hard decisions because I think we're liking more than what we need for an album. And we don't wanna do a double album. It doesn't make sense to do that, currently. I don't know why, but I feel like those types of records can get kinda chubby. We want a svelte Mastodon album. [Laughs]
YOU'VE JUST PUT OUT "FALLEN TORCHES," WHICH WAS RECORDED LAST YEAR AND IS COMING OUT ON THE MEDIUM RARITIES COLLECTION. WOULD FANS BE WRONG TO TAKE THAT AS A PREVIEW OF THE NEW ALBUM?
Probably. I mean, it's ballpark-ish, I guess. [Laughs] It's so hard to describe to someone what something sounds like. I would never be able to describe "Fallen Torches" to someone before it came out, you know? I've always been bad at that. I don't know what the fuck to say, because it can be so misleading. It all comes down to what the person is able to derive from what you've said, you know? If I told you it sounds like mashed potatoes and gravy — Troy loves his food analogies — you might think it sounds more like grilled pork chop. [Laughs] The new stuff, to me, is all over the place. It just sounds like us. It sounds like a Mastodon record.
WHERE ARE YOU GUYS COMING FROM LYRICALLY ON THIS ONE?
As far as the subject matter is concerned, it's gonna be about Nick John after everything's said and done. Of course, it's going to be a fantastical representation to mask the true emotion of the situation, but it's probably going to be Nick John-centric because that was our guy and we lost him and he deserves nothing less than an album's worth of material that's centered around his passing. That was a huge blow to us. We lost one of our favorite human beings, and it just came out of nowhere. It really sucks. So that's what we're thinking about — plus all this shit that's happening now. It's the craziest time that we've experienced as human beings, so how are you not gonna reflect that in what you're creating artistically? It would be impossible to sidestep it. It's going to be about going insane in your fucking house.
IN THAT SENSE, I FEEL LIKE EVERYONE'S NEW ALBUM IS GONNA BE ABOUT THAT — AT LEAST TO A CERTAIN EXTENT.
Yeah. [Laughs] They're gonna try for it not to be obvious because it's the obvious thing — "We're not talking about the pandemic!" — but this thing is gonna be part of everybody's DNA. Everything that comes out in the next couple of years is going to be a reflection of this time period. It's just so weird. Our industry is going to be the last to come back, and that's unfortunate. I don't know what's gonna happen. Everything's OK at the moment, but that could change depending on how long it goes. So I'm just gonna be over here washing my hands.
YOU'VE BEEN COPING WITH THE PANDEMIC BY DRAWING CLOWNS — 101 OF THEM, TO BE EXACT.
After the pandemic hit, I drew a clown one day — and it made me happy. [Laughs] And then I decided I was going to draw 14 of them, because in the beginning they said everything was gonna be shut down for two weeks — 14 days — and then they'd get everything back up and running and everything would be all good. Remember that? [Laughs] That's what was proposed. So it got to be Day 12, and it became clear that that was not what was happening at all. And now we're still very much in it. But the daily clown helped me really get through it. I drew a clown a day and I sent them to my friends, figuring maybe they'd laugh or maybe they wouldn't. And to my surprise, a lot of them turned out really good. I was proud of them, and it made me feel like a kid again.
MEDIUM RARITIES CELEBRATES MASTODON'S 20TH ANNIVERSARY. CAN YOU BELIEVE IT'S BEEN 20 YEARS? DOES IT FEEL LIKE 40?
[Laughs] Yeah, it's pretty crazy to me. I remember being on my first European tour with Today Is the Day, and we were out there with Neurosis and Voivod. Both those bands had been around for, like, 10 or 15 years at that point, and I thought it was crazy that you could be in a band for that long. [Laughs] When we were in Seattle recording Leviathan, I went to the Melvins' 20th anniversary show, which I thought was an insane amount of time to be in a band. And now here I am. [Laughs] I'm in one of those bands.
But I'm super proud of everything we've done, of all the music and art we've produced, and that we're the same four idiots. [Laughs] Relationships are difficult, you know? Most bands that have been around this long don't have the same members. We spend a lot of time together on the road — not recently, of course — and a lot of drunken craziness has happened. And we've survived it.