Hearts Alive: An Interview with Mastodon

[10 July 2014]

By Phil Mason

This time last year, I wrote an article for PopMatters examining the negative reactions of certain members of the EDM community to Daft Punk’s supposedly retrograde, Chic-obsessed, Random Access Memories.

That piece—before it meandered off into “disco as the last bastion of high modernism” la-la land—took as it’s starting point the way notions of “authenticity” still dominate discourses around popular music. That try as we might, even after the internet and Spotify and everything, we still can’t quite orientate ourselves culturally without lingering notions of canon, anachronism, and correctness.

With that in mind, it amused me mightily to witness another skirmish in the apparently never-ending culture war this past weekend, when Metallica rocked up (pun intended) to fill the Saturday headline slot at this year’s Glastonbury festival. This time the band in question—at least prior to the gig, which was a triumph—had managed to offend not one but two sets of quite remarkably touchy, and seemingly diametrically-opposed, cultural consumers.

In the first instance, this meant a section of Glasto stalwarts, who had convinced themselves that the performance would be an affront to the true spirit of the festival. (Something which found singularly peculiar expression in the 10,000-like Facebook page petitioning for them to be removed from the bill due to James Hetfield’s “support of bear-hunting.”)

Then, there were the “true” metal fans, who saw this as the final act in Metallica’s selling of its soul to achieve a wider audience—great sections of which of course wouldn’t even recognize Cliff Burton if his ghost turned up in their kitchen to groove on “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”.

The reason I bring this up, is that, with a tedious inevitability, you can see the same criticism that has followed Metallica since “The Black Album” starting to creep in regarding Atlanta sludge behemoths Mastodon. However, unlike the former (whose studio work has sucked for years, although not due to a move towards “populism”) they really don’t deserve it, as borne out by their new album Once More ‘Round the Sun.

The story of Mastodon’s supposed embrace of the mainstream begins with their 2011 album The Hunter, which featured several stylistic swerves following the massively proggy Crack the Skye.

Having apparently worn themselves out touring that album (see below), The Hunter represented a first for the band due to its lack of a central unifying (high)-concept. No great white whales; no monocular Sasquatches; no astral travel or reverse-engineered metempsychosis. It also marked a turn towards—listenability isn’t quite the word—with shorter songs, more clean singing and probably the biggest choruses of the band’s career. (As exemplified by breakthrough hit “Curl of the Burl”).

Once More ‘Round the Sun continues in roughly the same vein, mixing big-chorus radio-friendly numbers such as “High Road”, with Neurosis-esque grind (“Diamond in the Witch House”) and even apparent nods to Faith No More (“Aunt Lisa”). Sure enough, certain reviewers (looking at you, Angry Metal Guy) have seen it as conclusive evidence that the band have compromised their own vision, almost as if it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I spoke to bassist and co-vocalist Troy Sanders during the band’s European tour, and am happy to report that he really couldn’t give any less of a crap about whether people think they’ve sold-out or not. (Probably unlike Metallica, who at one point, circa the St Anger album, were starting to look like one of the most neurotic outfits in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.)

He also explained why, at least for the moment, they’ve ditched the grand metaphors and started to look for inspiration in the every-day—“The people we meet and the food we eat.” 

* * *

Mastodon is a band that’s always evolved from one record to the next. What’s different about Once More ‘Round the Sun following The Hunter? 

We’ve progressed with this record in the same way that we’ve done with the others, certainly. It’s the next slab of music in line with the natural journey of Mastodon—the path that we’re carving.

Which means?

It’s difficult to say, because we never plan it out in advance. When we finish a touring cycle, we convene in our rehearsal space in Atlanta [rather wonderfully known as the Thunderbox]—which we did in March last year—and get to work on ideas.

Nothing is ever spoken of beforehand, in terms of length or catchiness or anything. It’s very authentic in the sense that we write what we’re feeling in that moment. Whatever comes through our heart and blood, into our fingers and out of our amps.

I read that the reason you chose shorter-form, catchier, tracks on The Hunter is that you were all exhausted after having to play the Crack the Skye songs every night ...

That’s correct. We’re extremely proud of Crack the Skye, but it was the most difficult record musically that we’d ever been involved with—a lot of the songs were very hard to learn and very hard to play.

After we’d toured it for two years, we were ready to set aside those type of songs and go with something that was a little more freeing; a little more therapeutic to play in terms of concentrated energy. The Hunter was definitely a reaction to that.

Given some hard-core metal fans’ apparent aversion to change, has there been any pushback since that particular shift in direction? Is there a danger that you could end up being regarded in the same way as Metallica by the people that liked you originally?

You know, we don’t ever create songs to purposely try and please anyone. We feel that if the music is made with sincerity, it’ll come across to everyone—new fans, and those that have listened to us for a long time.

We’re not straying off of a path to a point where our older fans wouldn’t appreciate what we’re doing now, I don’t think. It’s completely authentic music from our hearts. That’s the proper way to create art—it stems from a very selfish place.

Thinking of something like “The Motherload”, some of the choruses are huge this time around ...

Yeah. All of our favorite songs either have a guitar melody or vocal hook that really captures you or brings you in, and maybe we were trying to reflect that. If we can find a big chorus that fits with the honesty of the riff, then we’re very open to the idea of making these massive hooks. We want choruses to be big and bad-ass.

What songs are you thinking of in particular?

Shit ... it can be anything from the Go-Go’s to Metallica. Any guitar lick on the first Boston album. To be honest, everything influences us, from classical music to the last amazing mountain we just witnessed on our travels.

Thinking of that, can you talk about the lyrical themes on the record? I like the fact that it seems like a concept album without a concept—just about ordinary things.

The lyrical content reflects the last three or four years of our lives—just the current state of everyone’s existence. I wouldn’t call it a concept album, just a reflection of what’s going on with us.

That’s what the title’s about—another year to write a bunch of new songs and tour with my friends. Another year to try and be a better person—a better husband, father and band-mate.
If you asked my band-mates about what it means to them, you’d probably get another three different answers. 

You’re quoted in the publicity as saying that you’re just trying to be men. What does that mean?

That stems from our friend Jada Pinkett Smith. She once gave us a compliment where she said “Ya’ll play some grown man shit.” That phrase has kind of stuck for the last ten years. It sums things up perfectly. As the band gets bigger and better, we’re trying to maintain that same attitude as people. We’re continuing to ascend the mountain—this is the next step, the next cycle.

There’s a mountain? What’s at the top?

That would be the ultimate climax, wouldn’t it? Perhaps it would be best if we never reached it—that we just continued to strive to get there.

I’m enjoying that a song about Brann’s Aunt Lisa is probably the weirdest thing on the album. It suggests that anything can be metal.

Yes indeed. That song has an energy that reflects her completely—she had one of the most outgoing personalities of anyone I’ve ever met; the stuff that legends are made of. It needed to be the most rockin’, because that what she embodied – everything that is rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s probably the oddest you’ve sounded since “Circle of Cysquatch” or “Bladecatcher” on Blood Mountain.

Yeah ... [said with some satisfaction] We like to throw a curveball sometimes, at our listeners and at ourselves. We want you to tilt your head and go “What?” kind of like a puzzled dog. We welcome those moments.

I’d like to imagine that “Hey ho, let’s fucking go” [the chanted refrain provided by The Coathangers] was a saying of hers ...

Yep. There you go.

Why did you choose the song “Chimes at Midnight” to reference Leviathan? [Troy growls “hearts alive” halfway through].

It’s probably the heaviest moment on the album, and it reminded us of the energy that we captured all those years ago when we made that record. It just seemed like the right thing to do. That kind of indicates another circle I think—ten years has come around quick. Ten times around the sun.

Philip Mason is a journalist, cultural critic, occasional musician and all-round good guy. He resides in lovely Brighton on the south coast of the UK. Follow him on Twitter - PhilipM@WellKnownGun


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/183351-hearts-alive-an-interview-with-mastodon/