Mastodon makes it clear that metal isn’t extinct

by Brian McCollum

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

23 November 2011


DETROIT — It’s not the sort of band you find floating around the Top 10 much anymore.

But Mastodon, the Atlanta rock quartet with the searing metal riffs and creatively ambitious aim, has managed to carve out the sort of career in 2011 that would have been right at home in 1981.

The band is still riding high on its fifth album, “The Hunter,” which debuted at No. 10 in Billboard alongside such acts as Lady Antebellum and Adele.

It’s the latest quirky triumph for a group that has enjoyed plenty of them in recent years. Having made its name in the trenches of the early ‘00s metal scene thanks to killer chops and extravagant concept albums, Mastodon began drawing raves from cliques not traditionally enamored of cerebral prog-metal: skinny-jeaned hipsters, stylish indie rockers, even the mainstream pop press.

By the time 2006 rolled along, the four-piece had a major-label deal, a regular spot on critics’ best-of lists and a full-fledged career as it carried the metal torch.

For drummer Brann Dailor — whose frenetic Keith Moon-meets-Billy Cobham style is a Mastodon signature — the ride from underground to mainstream has been a wild one.

As a metal musician, “I figured there was an opportunity to have sort of a career. Like, you could tour bars for a little while and sustain a living from it somewhat — an extremely modest living,” he says. “But there’s no way I ever really thought that any music I play would be commercially viable in any way, shape or form. I never even gave it a second thought.”

The amiable Dailor, who’s also one of the band’s lyricists and vocalists, spoke with the Detroit Free Press.

Q: You know, this isn’t a normal spot for an unabashed metal band these days — coverage in Entertainment Weekly, artists like Feist wanting to collaborate with you, fans of all stripes checking in.

A: I’m happy that we can be mixed into the pie and still be true to the artistic side of it, and not have to make any sort of compromises to be in there. Because let’s face it, the money is in hip-hop, country and pop music. We’re happy to be able to be in that mix doing what we do.

But I couldn’t tell you anything as to the why. I’m too close to it to see what that is.

Although we’re based in hard rock and heavy metal, all the different influences from the different members rear their heads, especially with our new stuff. It’s catchy.

Q: That seems to be everyone’s go-to tag for the new album: that it’s “accessible.”

A: That’s just what was turning us on at the moment, musically. It’s hard for us to go mentally beyond the four of us falling in love with those songs. We worked really hard to make sure to make everything perfect, and that takes a lot of effort.

Playing something and knowing it’s wrong — because you’re making something accessible or hope to get on the radio or make money or be famous — that doesn’t exist for us. The only thing that matters is that we’re making music we really love — the satisfaction of creating something from nothing and wanting to listen to it over and over again.

Q: So what was the mind-set going in?

A: We wanted to have fun in the rehearsal space. The previous record (“Crack the Skye”) had been stressful to make and stressful to play live. You’re going out to play it, like, “Oh, God.” So we wanted to shed the lofty concepts, flip everything upside down and be satisfied with simple riffs. We wanted a stripped-down version of ourselves. * We wanted to be satisfied with the simplicity of the songs, not go around in circles.

“Crack the Skye” was satisfying to us: “We’re making this incredible thing, it’s really difficult to play, and we’re getting through it.” The first time we got through it without (screwing) up we were like, “Yes!” But getting to that point was stressful, and we didn’t want that this time.

It was a necessity that we make the practice space a lighter place to go … and I think that comes out. A song like “Octopus Has No Friends” — it’s a very triumphant sound.

Q: How does your drumming play into that? How do you see your evolution over the years?

A: I’ve been moving toward more groove-oriented stuff being in the forefront. But my drumming is almost secondary. I get through that and then I have all this writing to get my hands dirty with, getting the vocals in shape, working with Troy (Sanders) and Brent (Hinds) to hone in on best harmonies. Drumming is my first instrument, so it’s almost second nature.

But I’m really proud of my work on “The Hunter.” I feel like I was able to do some cool complex stuff, put some cool fills in there, and I’m more proud of my sound on this record than I had been before.

Q: Your approach seems a bit unorthodox: It sounds as if you’re playing as much to the guitars as you are locking in with the bass.

A: In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when I was a kid in the basement playing drums, lots of guitar players would get dropped off at my house to jam. I knew that I was supposed to be hooking up with the bass, but I was always playing with just guitar players, so I would follow their patterns, trying to mimic what they were doing. And then in the early ‘90s, a lot of technical metal was really popular with the people I was hanging out with. Mr. Bungle and bands like that — technical, wacky, avant-garde music with a lot of guitar work going on. Whatever my style is, that’s where it came from.

Q: What sorts of choices did the band make as you crafted the set list for this tour?

A: Building a set list is like putting an album together. The way it flows is very important. And we have three different (guitar) tunings in our set, so they have to be linked up in that fashion. I think it’s important to bust out two new songs to start out the night, then you start digging into some older stuff. …

When we make records, we make them for us. And if we write from the heart, making sure it comes from a place that’s real, then that’s going to shine through. People will fall in love with the songs for reasons we did.

But a show — that’s for the fans. When you put a set list together, you’re putting it together for the fans. They paid money to see a show, to hear songs they want to hear, and we have a good idea of what those songs are. So it’s an hour and a half of music, no talking, no BS.

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