Near Death, Euphoria, Astral Projection: Inside Mastodon's 'Crack the Skye' | Revolver

Near Death, Euphoria, Astral Projection: Inside Mastodon's 'Crack the Skye'

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger — how Atlanta's finest returned from the brink
mastodon 2009 HUBBARD, Jimmy Hubbard
Mastodon, 2009
photograph by Jimmy Hubbard

This story was originally published in 2009.

Brent Hinds never saw it coming. Mastodon's guitarist, co-vocalist, and main songwriter was in Las Vegas in front of the Mandalay Bay casinos when he suffered the blow that nearly ended his life.

He had just attended an MTV Music Video Awards after-party, where he hung out and drank with members of Motörhead, Queens of the Stone Age, and Foo Fighters. As Hinds walked down the sidewalk wasted and elated, System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadjian and Wu-Tang Clan entourage member Rev. William Hudson trailed close behind. According to Hinds, when he removed his wet T-shirt and triumphantly swung it over his head, he accidentally thwacked Hudson. The rapper punched Hinds in the face as hard as he could, and the singer-songwriter's nose exploded, his head smacking the concrete.

"Shavo said it sounded like someone had hit a homerun," Hinds says from a photo studio dressing room in the heart of Atlanta, 15 months after the September 2007 incident. "I went into convulsions and seized out. Blood was coming out my ears and mouth. My brain basically hemorrhaged and I was holding the fuckin' Grim Reaper's hand."

Hinds isn't exaggerating. Doctors at the hospital called his closest family members to tell them there was a good chance he wouldn't survive, and they rushed to Vegas to be by his side. After three days in a coma, however, Hinds hazily came to, scanned the room, and saw his mom, stepmom, brother, and girlfriend. "I had no idea what was going on," he explains. "I opened my mouth to ask them what they were all doing there and I just projectile vomited water, blood, and alcohol on everyone. It looked like sangria going everywhere."

Even after Hinds was discharged from the hospital, he was bedridden for a month. For eight more months he suffered such severe vertigo that going from a lying-down to a standing position caused worse bed spins than a fifth of Jack. With his head still ringing from brain damage, Hinds sat in bed and wrote riff after riff on acoustic guitar. While he's always been prolific, being a temporary invalid made him even more productive, and he found inspiration in both the visions in his head and the buzz in his brain.

"The head trauma left me with this sensation of euphoria and I love the way euphoria feels," Hinds says. "I think the euphoric feeling and the dizziness actually accentuated the way I was approaching a lot of the arpeggiated type of music that I was writing. I wanted to see if I could mimic the way I was feeling through my playing. That euphoria lasted for eight months, and when it went away, I actually kind of missed it."

Mastodon's fourth full-length album, Crack the Skye, is the direct byproduct of Hinds' brush with death and his epic rebound since, as well as a more indirect result of his bandmates' various trials and travails. As if to prove that what doesn't kill you does indeed make you stronger, the disc is also Mastodon's most musically accomplished recording, a momentous feat considering the strength and quality of 2004's epic Leviathan and 2006's gargantuan major-label debut, Blood Mountain. Simultaneously the band's most surreal and coherent release, the album shuttles between doom metal, prog rock, and psychedelia, all perfectly complementing drummer Brann Dailor's phantasmagoric lyrics about out-of-body travel, Greek mythology, quantum mechanics, the occult, and Czarist Russia.

On one level, Crack the Skye is all about escapism, yet it's also Mastodon's most personal and intimate album, one that reflects the life trauma of its creators and their will to survive. "When we were working on this album, we all felt very fortunate to still be able to make music," says vocalist-bassist Troy Sanders. "We said to ourselves, Let's make this the most sincere, most memorable thing we've ever done. Let's treat this record like it's the last one we'll ever make and let all of our deep emotions spill forth. Let's not be ashamed to tap into some deeper, darker areas than we've ever explored and make this as direct a representation of our souls as possible."

Perhaps the most striking difference between Crack the Skye and the band's back catalog is the vocals. While Sanders and Hinds used to roar like their idols in Neurosis, most of the new songs are driven by strong vocal melodies and harmonies. "Screaming hurts my throat like a fuckin' sonofabitch from hell, so I actually never wanted to scream," explains Hinds. "It's just that the music we were playing was so heavy when we first got together, there was no way you could sing over it. But we're not kids anymore and we've matured musically."

"On this record we really wanted to create vocals patterns that would be more memorable in the long run," adds Sanders. "We were trying to tap into our influences like Yes, King Crimson, Thin Lizzy, Melvins, and Frank Zappa."

With 15 songs written and demoed, Mastodon entered Atlanta's Southern Tracks studio in June 2008 with veteran producer Brendan O'Brien (Rage Against the Machine, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots), and spent a month recording the eight best tunes. "We worked with Matt Bayles on our first three records because he was a good friend and has a good ear," Sanders says. "But Brendan is great at helping out with musical patterns and vocal approaches. Working with him was crucial for making the kind of record we wanted to make."

But while all four Mastodonians agree the sessions at Southern Tracks were smooth and enjoyable, the same can't be said for their personal lives, which seemed to be collapsing around them. Before the album was finished, guitarist Bill Kelliher had contracted pneumonia, his aunt died, and his wife was hit by a car. Also, Dailor's mom got evicted and her husband died, and Hinds' girlfriend was severely beaten in front of the couple's house.

"All of this fucked-up stuff was a reminder that life's short, man," Kelliher says. "Shit happens and we need to do things to the best of our ability while we're still here because you never know what's gonna be tomorrow."

Dailor has had more reminders of this than anybody. He grew up in Rochester, New York, in what he calls an "abusive, drug-dealing family." His mom had suffered severe rheumatoid arthritis since she was 19 and his stepfather was usually drunk. Lacking proper parenting, Dailor and his late sister, Skye (who is referenced in the title of the new album), bonded together for support. But when Skye developed severe chronic fatigue syndrome, which causes mental and physical exhaustion in an otherwise healthy patient, life at home became unbearable.

"It was really depressing," Dailor recalls, sitting on the bed in his guest bedroom surrounded by black-velvet paintings of Elvis, Iron Maiden's Eddie mascot, and, uh, JonBenet Ramsey. "No one understood her illness and everyone thought she was faking it. Doctors would sit with her and chastise her, saying, 'How dare you make your sick mother push you around in a wheelchair.'"

Often, Dailor spent all night at the home of 45-year-old neighbor who let local teens crash and do drugs. It was there that Dailor, tripping on acid, found out from his grandfather that Skye had overdosed on pills. "I was 15 and she was 14, and it was a pivotal moment in my life that I'm only just now starting to talk about," the drummer confesses, gazing off. "After it happened, I kept taking acid and doing bunches of drugs and it was evil. It was like it was constantly raining. My stepfather bailed. He couldn't take it. So it was just me and my mom." He pauses, as if unsure whether he's revealing too much, then continues.

"I remember when it hit the two week mark [after Skye's death], I got really fucked up on acid and went to the cemetery and was trying to dig down into her grave to get in there. Then I came home and went into my mom's room and she was rocking back and forth on the bed. She went into a mental hospital soon after. I was feeling suicidal because my mom was gone, so I went into the mental hospital as well for a few weeks, and they kind of righted me."

With the help of his favorite music — KISS, Maiden, Metallica — Dailor learned to cope with his loss and started obsessively playing drums. Soon, he joined Lethargy and later Today Is the Day, both of which also featured Kelliher. "If music hadn't been there for me, I probably just would have just taken heavy drugs and booze for the rest of my life," Dailor shrugs. "But the music became most important to me, so I pushed the drugs and booze aside. Now my wife and house are important as well, so I fucking make sure to keep the other stuff in check at all times."For Dailor, writing the lyrics for Crack the Skye was definitely therapeutic; the record contains veiled images from his childhood and references to Skye's death. But the album is hardly autobiographical. The plot involves a man who loses the use of his arms and legs after his mother is killed in front of him, so he projects himself out of his body and travels through the universe. When he flies too close to the sun, the umbilical cord separating him from the spiritual world burns off, and he's unable to go back home. While floating around like a dead satellite, he gets sucked into a wormhole and winds up in the 1800s in Czarist Russia. Fortunately, he bumps into some spirits who sympathize with his plight and concoct a way for him to get back home. They know that the "Mad Monk," Grigori Rasputin, is about to be murdered, so they communicate with members of occult group the Khlysty during one of their séances and come up with a plan to trap the lost astral projector inside Rasputin's body before his assassination so that the slain leader's spirit can guide the dude back to his own body and cure his affliction. And Dailor claims he no longer trips balls.

With the first round of formal interviews and the photo shoot completed, it's time to eat. Since there are too many people and not enough cars, we decide to reconvene in 30 minutes at Rathbun's, an award-winning steakhouse owned by Kevin Rathbun, who, along with his brother Kent, defeated Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. Ironically, the place used to be the warehouse where Mastodon practiced back before they signed to Reprise. Each band member heads off, and Revolver hops into Hinds' 1970 rusty, pale blue Ford pickup, which he alternately calls the "Blue Sled" and the "Snotbucket." "When you're working construction like I used to do, you get so dirty that when you get in the car, you don't even try to keep it clean," he explains. "You inhale so much dust, your nose is always stuffed, so you just hold one nostril and blow a wad of snot onto the side of the car and keep driving."

During our drive, we discuss Hinds' numerous other bands, including Fiend Without a Face, the Blood Vessels, All Night Drug Flying Wolves, and West End Motel. When we pass a local prison, Hinds talks about his various run-ins with the law, then, without provocation, he again reflects on the sucker punch that followed the MTV Music Awards.

"Man, that fucker had rings on his finger and he broke my nose so bad I had to wait eight months until the vertigo stopped so I could go back into the hospital under anesthesia and have them re-break my nose again so I could breathe."

As the Blue Sled gags and rolls to a halt—the first of two times it stalls today — Hinds becomes more agitated. "When anybody pisses me off nowadays, all I do is start thinking of this guy and hurt the next person twice as bad. Any time anyone gets in my face now, I'm just like, Dude, uh-uh. I'm not getting destroyed again. I'm looking around me going, Where's your friend? Where's your fuckin' friend that's gonna hit me out of nowhere? I'm really paranoid, and it's made me a much better fighter."

Over the years, various folks have learned the hard way not to mess with Hinds. In 1997, a journalist trashed a Fiend Without a Face show, writing, "It would have been much better if the band had replaced the pantyhose on their faces [which the group always wears onstage] with garbage bags and suffocated themselves to death," according to Hinds. Three days later, the rocker confronted the writer.

"I walked up to him with the review in my hand and I said, 'Hey, man. Did you write this?' And he goes, 'Yeah, so what?' So I went, 'Man, why don't you say you didn't like the music instead of saying you want us to suffocate and die?' And he goes, 'Why don't you go fuck your mother.' I head-butted him so hard it split his forehead to his nose like a vagina. I was already on probation for a bar fight I got into down in Athens. And I had marijuana and cocaine on me when the cops apprehended me, so I went to jail for a little while. But it was worth it."

In September 2008, Hinds got into a more public altercation with R&B garage rocker Arish "King" Khan. The guitarist was attending a benefit for BJ Womack, a local musician who had just been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Before King Khan's set, Khan asked Hinds if he would step onstage during the band's last song, grab Khan's guitar, and play a ripping solo. Only, there was something Khan didn't tell him.

"I was soloing away, and he turns around and gets a 16-ounce Pabst Blue Ribbon off his amp and pours it on my head," says Hinds. "So after the song, I smashed the guitar on the ground, then I went and found the guy and I said, 'You made me fightin' mad. You made me so mad I wanna punch you in the face.' And he goes, 'Whatever man, get over it.' I hit him so hard he's got a cleft lip for the rest of his life."

Khan didn't press charges, but his manager was quoted at the time, saying that Khan poured the beer on Hinds because Hinds was "fucking around with Arish's guitar."

One reason that the guys in Mastodon no longer ever come to blows with each other is that all of the band members have learned over time how not to push each other's buttons, particularly Hinds'.

"He's like a smart homeless guy or a mad scientist, but he's mostly mad," says Sanders.

"He's kind of a loose cannon," agrees Kelliher. "Sometimes he's the nicest guy on earth, other times he's…a little volatile. You just gotta know him and be careful of what you say around him. I just kind of stay away sometimes. But he's Brent. He lives for the moment and doesn't really think about the future."

For Kelliher, who has a wife and two young kids, planning for the future comes with being a dad. That means no heavy drugs. But the guitarist never considered his heavy social drinking to be a problem until Mastodon were on tour in England with Slayer in early November 2008 — long after Crack the Skye was completed — and he received a life-threatening warning sign that's forced him to completely lay off the demon drink, possibly for good.

Mastodon had played a show in Cardiff, Wales, and were in the middle of a 15-hour bus ride to Edinburgh, Scotland when, at 3 a.m., Kelliher doubled over in stomach pain, which got worse as the bus neared the venue. When they arrived in Edinburgh, he was in agony and went to a clinic, where a doctor told him he had gastroenteritis and gave him some pills. Hours after swallowing the medication, Kelliher didn't feel any better, and he had started sweating and hallucinating. "It felt like someone was jabbing hot knives into my stomach," he says, incidentally just 30 minutes after eating most of a small fillet mignon and some corn at Rathbun's — one of the largest meals he's been able to digest since the incident. "When I tried to drink water, I felt like I was drowning because I couldn't get enough air inside me at the same time, because one of my organs had swollen up really bad."

When they reached London, Kelliher stopped in at the Royal London Hospital hoping to be examined and released. Instead, doctors checked him into a room, ordered a battery of tests, and hooked him up to an IV drip and a catheter. As it turned out, his body was going into shock, and if he hadn't reached the hospital when he did, he could have died. Still, the day after he was admitted, his blood sugar level was alarmingly high, and it soon became clear that he couldn't continue to tour. With Kelliher's consent, Mastodon decided to finish the Slayer dates without him while doctors continued to try to figure out exactly what was wrong with the guitarist.

They thought he might have diabetes, then they discovered an infected blister around his pancreas. He was diagnosed with an acute but common abdominal ailment. After two-and-a-half weeks of antibiotics and bed rest, the doctors reluctantly discharged him.

Kelliher hasn't touched any alcohol since the ordeal and doesn't plan to anytime soon. "The doctors in London told me that if I drink again, I'll go through that super-surge of my stomach being shocked to death with hot pokers all over again," he says, wincing at the thought. "And if I keep it up, they said eventually I'll have to wear a colostomy bag. My doctor here said I could probably have a glass of wine without a problem, but for me, I can't have a glass of wine. I need 10."

But while the guitarist has given up drinking, one thing he doesn't plan on giving up anytime soon is playing in Mastodon. It's a commitment that all the band members share, and one that has been made only stronger by all of their recent ordeals. And nothing exemplifies their tenacity to create — or their ability to overcome hardship — better than Crack the Skye.

"Every note we play and every breath we sing is extremely real and totally spiritual," says Sanders with the gravity of a man who's seen his bandmates on the brink. "We're not writing anything for any false reasons. Mastodon is our religion, and we plan on creating music until the day we die."