Emperor of Riffs
For almost 20 years, Atlanta, Georgia quartet Mastodon has reigned as one of the most celebrated and popular acts in modern metal. Mixing shades of Southern rock with sludge and progressive metal, their trademark blend has yielded one classic record after another, including this year’s Emperor of Sand. For rhythm guitarist Bill Kelliher, the album provided a necessary creative outlet to express personal hardships and philosophical quandaries.
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Hey, Bill. How’s it going?
Not too bad. Hanging out in Pittsburg.
The tour’s going well so far?
Yeah, it’s going great. We played at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York last night. It was amazing.
Awesome. I just missed you guys at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia. So, the new record, Emperor of Sand, was partially inspired by your mother, who passed away from a brain tumor last September. To what extent does her passing still impact you as you play and discuss the record?
I mean, even if this record had nothing to do with her, I’d still be thinking about her, obviously. It’s still pretty fresh. You know, playing a lot of these songs every night is a constant reminder of every word and idea and note that I play. When I was writing it, a lot of the time I was with her and I was by her bedside. It definitely brings back the memories.
I imagine so. I remember reading an interview about how “Roots Remain” is especially meaningful in that regard. Emperor of Sand is also your first proper narrative album in almost a decade, since 2009’s Crack the Skye. What was it like going back to that approach?
I feel really good about it because I feel like we do our best work when we have some kind of thematic story to go by. The storytelling of the album and how it all ties in. It makes it a solid record all around.
We branched out with The Hunter. It was a different time for us and there were different things going on. We weren’t all in the same room at the same time, so to speak. It was one of those things like, “Hey, we need to get a record out.” We had a big concept for that but we didn’t want to throw it on at the end. Like, write the record and then say, “Oh, here’s the concept” to tie it in. We’re a little deeper than that. We need to live and breathe the concept as we’re writing so it’s steeped in there. So it’s real, you know?
This record was extremely steeped in reality and sorrow and depression. People getting sick and the unknown and wondering how much time people have left. What do you do if you’re handed a death sentence and you only have so much time to live? I guess we just thought about writing about something else because it was surrounding us every day.
It was all we talked about as a band; Brann and I wrote the majority of the stuff and he’d come over to my house and we’d have coffee and talk about our moms. Like, “How’s your mom doing today?” “Well, she’s not well. She’s in the ICU. How’s your mom?” “Well, she’s having radiation or chemotherapy.” Every day was like that, and it kind of rubbed off on the lyrics and the mood of what I was writing.
That seems almost unavoidable.
When I’m writing, I tend to go for evil chord progressions and make it deep and dark anyway, but this seemed to shine a light into that darkness. Like, “Here’s the path.” I could see it more clearly. Maybe that’s because I was trying to keep myself distracted from what was really happening to my mom. I really dove in head first and came out with a lot of riffs and songs and ideas than I needed. It’s a concept and I just feel like the album sounds the best when there’s a concept that’s truly intertwined with our real lives.
I agree. I mean, my two favorite Mastodon records are Crack the Skye and Blood Mountain. They just flow so seamlessly.
You also worked with Crack the Skye producer Brendan O’Brien again. Was this a conscious attempt to go back to the spacey prog rock style of that album?
I think that there’s a reason for each producer that we use. It’s kind of about how all of our lives line up, and with Brendan, we knew what a great experience it was recording with him before. All the little nick-nacks and tools that he has, like analog keyboards and synthesizers. He just has an ear for the extreme ambiance that we were looking for.
With Crack the Skye, it was negative space we were using. With this one, I still think it’d be great if we didn’t use him, but it wouldn’t be the same. We knew that it would be an epic album, and we knew that he could do it. He brings a certain dimension to the music; we’ll give him guitars, bass, drums and vocals and then he moves in and adds keyboards and these weird sounds. These floating objects in the background that add to the ambiance and give the record—like if it’s a drawing of an apple on a table, he adds the shadows that make it a three-dimensional thing.
That’s a great way to put it. I know what you mean.
I couldn’t be happier that we used him. He sees our vision and he’s so easy to work with. When we tell him the sound we’re looking for, if he doesn’t have it, no one does. He’s got a lot of tools—old amps, pedals, and guitars. You name it; we could easily find a satisfactory sound. If I wanted an old Vox amp sound with a broken record tone, he’d bring out a pedal for it. Even when we’d use two or three guitars in a song to add layers and make each part of the chorus different from the verse.
There are a lot of cool tricks that he knows that other producers might not know. He’d encourage us to mix up so many different sounds and details. He’s really a detail-oriented guy.
Yeah, it takes several listens to really uncover all of the touches he puts in. Now that it’s been out for a couple months, I wonder how much you let critical and fan reactions affect you and dictate the direction you go in?
Never. I try not to read too much into what people write—because opinions are like assholes: everybody’s got one—so it’s like we make the music that we think sounds good enough for us and makes us happy. If you happen to like our music, then you can come to our concerts and enjoy the music or buy our CDs. Once you start writing for what you think the fans are going to like, you sell out because you’re trying to appease everybody. We’re not trying to do that at all except for ourselves. I think our fans understand that.
We love our fans to death—if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be here—but we’d be doing them a disservice if we tried to make music for them. Each one will hear something different, so you’d be chasing your tail doing that. Or listening to critics. I don’t give a shit; it’s their job to be critical about everything. Today, Facebook is your platform to stand out a soap box and tell people how shitty their band is. Everyone is a critic at home, sitting behind their computer and typing a bunch of stuff about a band they don’t like.
It seems like that, yeah.
What I don’t understand is, who the fuck has time to go on a band’s page that they don’t like and write shit about them? Don’t you have anything better to do with your life? There ARE plenty of bands out there that I don’t like but I’d never go on their websiteS and badmouth them. I just don’t get it; maybe it’s because I’m older. I have too much respect for the little amount of time that we have on this planet. I wouldn’t waste it with something petty like that. I mean, what do they care about what I think?
I’m glad to hear you say that. It always sucks when you go against the popular opinion in a review and then the internet gets angry. It’s just one opinion. Why does it really matter?
It’s hard for me to even read reviews because I’d rather hear it or see it for myself. Maybe I’ll like it even if this other person doesn’t. When I read our reviews, I’ll see a nice review but I don’t take it very seriously. These are people who like the band and like the record and put in a good review. It’s still just their opinion. I try to be humble and do what I think sounds the best for us.
We’ve been doing the right thing because we’ve been a band for over 17 years and we’re still going strong. I’m not going to change how I write music. I mean, I can’t; I write it from the heart. When I’m feeling a certain way, I’ll write a riff and if everyone else likes it, we’ll record it and let other people buy it.
Exactly. Mastodon is also known for eccentric special editions; in this case, the deluxe set of Emperor of Sand comes with a vinyl jacket for fans to color in with Mastodon colored pencils. Where did that idea come from, and do you think that a tongue-in-cheek vibe is a part of the Mastodon persona?
Yeah, you have to think of new and interesting things to help sell your product because people just don’t buy records anymore, for one thing. Also, yeah, we’re kind of silly dudes and we like to come up with goofy ideas for artwork and videos and shit like that. There are also a lot of crazy collectors out there who kill for this kind of stuff. They love any kind of variant, and it’d be kind of boring if we just did one version of every CD. People like the chase of trying to find a specific colored vinyl or the one misprint.
I’m one of those people, too; I like to collect toys that are labeled wrong. I don’t know why; it’s like a crazy disease. We like to chase after the things that are hard to find.
I’m like that as well, to a certain extent. Going back to the LP, you’ve released three singles so far: “Show Yourself”, “Sultan’s Curse”, and “Andromeda”. Why were these three chosen? Was it the label’s decision?
Obviously, “Show Yourself” is a very poppy and catchy song, so the label wanted to use that as a single. I was very against putting it out first; I didn’t want people to hear it and get turned off. It doesn’t fully represent the album. So “Sultan’s Curse” came out first as just a song you could hear, and then “Show Yourself” was the single. If I had my way, that wouldn’t be the single.
The record company doesn’t bother us about anything ever, so if they wanted to put it out, we couldn’t really argue. It’s doing great on radio, so it’s hard to bitch about it. I just didn’t want people to hear it first and think that we’ve changed drastically. To us, it’s a more simplistic side, like an oasis in a desert of proggy riffs and a million notes going on. It’s like a little break for a bit before going back into the deep, dark craziness.
I can see that.
It’s like a remission, the calm before the storm. The disease has gone away for a bit but it’s getting ready to rear its ugly head again.
This one, like the last two LPs, have had more poppy moments than what came before them, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s just a new style in the midst of your others. It still sounds like Mastodon, of course.
That’s the thing: we’re always changing but we have to still sound like ourselves.
What went into conceiving and shooting the video for “Show Yourself”? It’s very creative and funny. Do you think that having a music video is still an essential part of the process?
I don’t know; I mean, it seems like so many people watch YouTube and they want to see the behind-the-scenes stuff and they want to see the videos. I don’t know if videos really help that much, as far as record sales, but they might make people laugh or think, Okay, I’ll give these guys a second chance. They seem to have a good sense of humor. They’re not as serious as I once thought.
It’s like a flashlight into our lives, and an outlet for another form of expression. We’re a serious band and we have serious content and all that, but when it comes down to the video, that’s when we can be sillier and more outrageous.
That definitely shows. Something I always ask musicians is: if you could play with any musicians—live or in the studio—who would you pick?
Wow, I don’t know. That’s a tough one. It wouldn’t be The Grateful Dead. I can tell you who it wouldn’t be [laughs]. Maybe if that band KARP (Kill All Redneck Pricks) was still around, I’d want to play with them.
That’s a great name. I’ve never heard of them, but I’ll look them up. Thanks for taking some time to speak with me, Bill. It was great.
No problem. Take it easy.