Don’t tell Bill Kelliher that his band, Mastodon, is cool and trendy.
“I hear that, and I think of those guys the Darkness, who were hip for like 10 minutes,” said the guitarist of metal’s buzzing but surprisingly classic new kingpins, adding an emphatic, “Yuck!”
Indeed, the Darkness - they of the cheeky spandex costumes and shrieky male vocals (circa 2003) - might well be the poster children for what can go wrong when a metal band is deemed cool by Rolling Stone and Spin magazines or asked to perform on the big music fests and late-night talk shows.
Unlike the defunct British band, though, Mastodon isn’t laced in irony or trying too hard. There isn’t anything remotely hip about the fearsome-sounding foursome. They’re 30-something guys from the blue-collar rock scene of Atlanta who dress in T-shirts, love sci-fi and are wayyyy into metal.
“We’d like to think we’re cool, hip guys, but probably not,” Kelliher laughed. “I think whatever respect we’re getting now, it comes from our hard work on the road and, of course, the music.”
Ah, the music. Metal fans young and old have suffered through a bit of a drought in recent years. Most of the hard-rock bands that made waves were goth-inspired black-eyeliner bands, whiny emo groups or gimmicky, growling thrash bands with surprisingly little bite.
Mastodon, on the other hand, is steeped in the cult-loved sounds of metal’s pre-hair band era of the early-‘80s. Its songs range from thrashy, fist-pumping rockers to more complex, climax-filled epics, all based around wall-punching rhythms, monstrous riffs and dueling guitar leads. It’s classic-sounding, for sure, but never too retro or nostalgic.
“We all grew up on early Metallica, (Iron) Maiden, Slayer, (Judas) Priest, and I think AC/DC and (Led) Zeppelin come through pretty strong in our music, too,” Kelliher said.
“It’s a good time to bring some of that back - hopefully in a new way, though. We don’t mind being called a `prog-rock’ band, because that means `progressive,’ you know, taking the music forward. I think you see that with bands like Tool, the Mars Volta, the Deftones and hopefully us.”
Mastodon’s latest album, “Blood Mountain” - which debuted on the Billboard chart at No. 32 in September (a high spot for an underground metal band) - definitely deserves the prog-rock tag. Still as heavy as an army assault vehicle, the new songs are more loaded with arty flourishes like dramatic time-changes, stormy finishes and the occasional acoustic guitar bits.
All the more proggy, “Blood Mountain” is something of a concept album, as was the group’s Moby Dick-derived previous CD, “Leviathan.” This one is loaded with fantastical lyrics and Dungeons & Dragons-like titles such as “Circle of the Cysquatch,” “Crystal Skull” and “Colony of Birchmen.” The latter tune recently earned a Grammy Award nomination for best metal performance, despite the fact that most Grammy voters wouldn’t know a Birchman from a Cysquatch.
So, um, does the band sit around getting stoned to write its songs, or what?
“No, they’re all true stories,” Kelliher said with a laugh, but then his tone turned surprisingly weighty.
“We write the music first and the lyrics come second, but we’re pretty serious about them. We want the songs to be metaphors and capture some kind of deep and heavy struggle, to reflect the music. In this case, they’re are all about this journey up a mountain, and all the things that happen along the way.”
The mountain could be a metaphor for Mastodon’s own ascent.
The quartet formed in 2000, when Kelliher and drummer Brann Dailor left another band, Today Is the Day, and hooked up with bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders and guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds. They joined the Relapse Records roster with 2001’s debut EP, “Lifesblood,” and put out two more albums on the respected metal label, each earning high praise from metal mags like Kerrang! and Revolver. That led the band to high-profile opening slots for Slayer, Slipknot and Tool during the past two years.
The buzz eventually got strong enough to earn Mastodon a major-label record deal with Warner Bros./Reprise - a signing that sent shockwaves through the underground metal world. Kelliher shrugged off fans’ concerns that the band sold out.
“`Blood Mountain’ would be the exact same record it was, no matter what label put it out, except it probably wouldn’t sound as good as it does because we’d have had less time in the studio,” he said. He admitted, though, that the band members themselves were concerned about signing on the dotted line.
“We made it clear to Warner Bros. that we’re not a pop-rock band or a group of 19-year-olds who got together to be a supergroup and write hits for the radio. Their response was always that they want Mastodon, nothing else.”