The cover art for Mastodon's seventh full-length album Emperor of Sand is traditionally "metal." There's a toothy skeleton creature with shriveled brown arms holding a scepter and a fur-lined cloth with spikes. The beast is decked out in armor and regal military garb. He wears a Viking helmet on his head and stands in a parched desert in front of an apocalyptic wall of flame. For drummer Brann Dailor, who commissioned the art, the painting from surrealist Medusawolf (Alan Brown) represents more than an iconic, heavy image.
"I feel like what you're looking at on the cover is cancer manifested in some kind of humanesque form," he says. "It's something that kills without consequence, and doesn't even know that it's wrong to infect people with disease."
Sadly, it's a vivid illustration of art imitating life. Three out of the four members of Mastodon were directly affected by the disease while making Emperor of Sand. Dailor's mom has been undergoing chemotherapy for a while, guitarist Bill Kelliher's mom died of a brain tumor while the band was making the record and bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders had to miss early writing sessions while his wife received treatment for breast cancer (she seems to be recovering well).
The sadness, anger and periodic disruptions could have been disastrous to the band's creativity, but the musicians were able to use their music as a coping mechanism, an escape valve from their daily medical-related frustrations.
In the end, they created a galvanic and musically adventurous concept album that's reminiscent of their 2009 prog-metal epic Crack the Skye, but colored with more of the melodic straight- ahead rock elements of their last two releases, 2011's The Hunter and 2014's Once More 'Round the Sun. With production by Brendan O'Brien (who also worked on Crack the Skye), Emperor of Sand is dark, fiery, experimental, and cathartic. "It's proggy and psychedelic, but super heavy at the same time," Dailor says.
WHAT IS EMPEROR OF SAND ABOUT?
BRANN DAILOR The Emperor of Sand is kind of like the Grim Reaper. Of course, sand represents time. When the sand in the hourglass is gone, your life is over. And no one knows how much time they've got left. In the story, the protagonist gets handed down a death sentence from a diabolical sultan. He escapes into the desert to find some kind of sanctuary, but he gets lost and walks through this vast desert for days, and the sun is absolutely crushing him. I tied the sun into radiation.
IT SEEMS LIKE THERE ARE METAPHORS ABOUT CANCER THROUGHOUT THE ALBUM.
It's what we were all dealing with and we used lyrics to get our experiences across without being too literal. So as this protagonist is stumbling through the desert he tries to telepathically communicate with tribes throughout the world that have rain rituals and dances. He thinks that if he can bring rain it will stop him from dying from dehydration. And the different tribes with the different rituals represent the different forms of treatment that you can receive for cancer. Along the way, he meets these crystalline beings that invite him in. But they have ulterior motives. They represent the snake oil salesmen, the people that say they can cure you but have no power. They just take advantage of you for your money. Finally, the sultan's men capture him and lead him into a tent, but he's so far gone he's hallucinating that he's going into a tent with the sultan's daughters, who are going to bathe him. He fantasizes about this scenario that's not happening while he's being killed by the Sultan's men. But in death he assumes the shape of the Jaguar, which is what the Mayan shamans become when they're going to go into another dimension to fight disease and illness.
HOW DID YOU MAKE THE MUSIC WORK WITH THE STORYLINE?
We had "Sultan's Curse." That was the first song we finished. I was getting such good visuals from it of the desert, and I just started to see the story coming together cinematically. I put together an outline right away, but I didn't finish the story until we were in the studio tracking the album.
WAS IT DIFFICULT TO CONCENTRATE CONSIDERING EVERYTHING THAT WAS GOING ON?
I don't think so. What are you going to do? When you have someone in your life that's one of the closest people to you and they're really sick and you're far away it's just frustrating. You want to be able to wave this magic wand and make everything all better. But that's just not how it works. You can't do that. The best thing to do, really, instead of sitting in a room and watching them be sick, is to continue doing what you do best and continue on with what makes that person proud of you, especially if that person's a parent. Bill's mom was always the proud parent of the guitar playing son, so the best thing we could do was to go down to Bill's basement and just start jamming and compiling riffs.
WHEN YOU WEREN'T WRITING, DID YOU TALK ABOUT WHAT WAS GOING ON WITH YOUR LOVED ONES OR DID YOU KEEP EVERYTHING PRIVATE?
Bill and I would get together in the mornings. He lives about a block and a half away from me, so I'd just walk over there and we'd sit and have a cup of coffee and talk about the various states of illness of both of our moms. We'd tell each other what the doctors were saying. I think that was helpful. But my mom's been ill for most of my life and most of her life, unfortunately. But she's a total trooper. She's been in and out of the hospital, she's been pronounced dead four or five times. It's been an ongoing thing. But she gets up every day and gets in her wheelchair and figures out what she's going to do. She goes across the street to the movies. She's just in a lot of pain all the time and it's not the best life, but she puts on a smile and gets through it.
DID BILL CHANNEL HIS PAIN INTO THE MUSIC?
He did a lot of writing this time. I wrote a lot of Once More 'Round the Sun with Brent [Hinds, guitarist]. With this one it was a lot of me and Bill sitting in Bill's basement. Troy was very busy with his wife. We talked to him and said, "Hey, listen, we're gonna start." The holidays were over. It was January. I was starting to get antsy. I don't have side projects, I just have this Mastodon thing and I start to feel kind of like a loser after a while if I'm not doing band stuff.
EMPEROR OF SAND IS A DIVERSE RECORD. THERE ARE SUPER HEAVY SONGS LIKE "PRECIOUS STONES" AND "SCORPION BREATH," MID-PACED MELODIC TRACKS SUCH AS "SULTAN'S CURSE" AND "CLANDESTINY" — AND THEN YOU'VE GOT "SHOW YOURSELF," WHICH IS ALMOST A POP SONG.
I kind of was not wanting to even put "Show Yourself" in there at first. I was not really into it. I liked it, but I thought it was too catchy and too easy. But then when I saw the scope of everything I realized there was a lot of density on the record. Every song had six or eight working parts, so "Show Yourself" is like a nice breather from the rest of it. And for me in the story, it fit in the mania of our protagonist. I could picture him half-naked, delusional and dirty from the sand, just splashing around in a puddle that wasn't really there.