When you look up Mastodon, you will find that it is an extinct species of elephants that lived 12,000 years ago. They were a particularly American beast, mammoth in size flexing behind muscle. Of course, this Mastodon is not what I am writing about. If you search for Mastodon (Band), you will find a very different American beast, equal in its mammoth muscle, only this time they are flexing a more auditor muscle that has its roots back to the earliest forms of heavy metal. Mastodon is a band that with five albums in just over a decade transcended their metal roots to become a global-near-mainstream-juggernaut. Their most recent album, The Hunter, debuted in the Billboard top ten without the aid of a Samsung contract.
On the eve of the celebration of American independence, I sat down backstage at the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival with drummer, lyricist and vocalist Brann Dailor to discuss music, film, elephant men, and pizza.
SSG: Mastodon is band with a number of redheads. From one redhead to another did you ever suffer ginger persecution?
BD: No. I was a towhead. I was born platinum blonde, growing facial hair I noticed a red beard, but never had to deal with that.
SSG: I read something that struck me odd recently and that was an association with Discordance Axis.
BD: I never played with Discordance Axis. It is a kind of internet rumor. It’s a fabrication, it was always Dave Witte. Dave Witte is one of my good friends, he’s probably the reason I am sitting here.
SSG: How do you think that came about, I mean it has been repeated in a lot of magazines/press clips?
BD: I know, it is fucking weird…
SSG: That is fucked…
BD: Someone printed in Wikipedia, and I’m like, “nope”, been to their shows… and people just took it and put it in articles. Dave is one of my oldest friends, he played in Human Remains and if you are talking about where I come from musically; one of my first serious bands was a band called Lethargy out of Rochester, NY and our sort of sister band was Human Remains who was on Relapse. Their music was from outerspace.
SSG: So were the bands you were playing with in that area around the mid-to-late 90s more in line with math-rock? Bands like Party of Helicopters crowd, math oriented punk?
BD: I don’t know Party of Helicopters as much. Everybody liked Cynic, Human Remains, Times Up, Gore Guts, Cannibal Corpse, a lot of death metal bands, but super-technical death metal bands. Especially after Athiest and Cynic. But we were coming more from the Cynic, Bucket Head, John Laswell, Mr. Bungle.
SSG: A little stranger while technical…
BD: Yeah. More of that than the math stuff. Stuff like crazy grindcore, and then the Japanese stuff started coming in like Melt Banana, also Melvins and the Am Rep stuff, that was all part of our musical language as far as the early 90s was concerned. Before that it was all Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest.
SSG: So you were coming at things as a hesher as a kid and not a punk perspective?
BD: Yeah as a metal head. I mean punk was acceptable because we had a pretty small scene so the punks and the thrash metal kids had to stick together.
SSG: With that in mind how do you approach tie-ins, I know you have done a lot of video game tie-ins and now “Monsters U”?
BD: We just say yay or nay. We usually say yay. I mean it is contrary to what people think. It isn’t a huge payday or anything. It’s an interesting thing to be a part of. It all adds up as far as you can’t continually preach to the choir, so anywhere you can get in and infiltrate that mainstream sun, I feel we should take that opportunity. If someone hears us, and they are a kid it could lead to them finding bands like Neurosis, Melvins, and things that I feel have more substantial weight.
SSG: So the buy-off is the potential to loose some hardline fans to expose people to a world they never would have discovered otherwise?
BD: Yeah. Well “Monsters U” used “Iceland” which is a pretty brutal song, it’s for a gag in the movie and I think it was good. No one got rich off it. I know deep inside that it wasn’t for money, so what else would it be for?
SSG: Well it’s not like you are even the first, Motorhead has a song in the Spongebob movie.
BD: I bet Lemmy didn’t get rich from it either…
SSG: As Mastodon has matured, the vocal arrangements have become more layered and complex. How have you approached vocals?
BD: I approach them percussively. See where they lay over top, and if something fits, it works. It is something we have strived to get better at. I wasn’t that great of a singer but we try really hard. The vocal arrangements do not come first, we just have to see where they fit in. We have the music beds all figured out, an then we start shoe-horning where vocals fit in.
SSG: I guess that eliminates the “what comes first, the riff” or the lyric” conversation?
BD: The riff comes first. A lot of times, whoever has an idea sings the idea. For the last few records I guess I started writing a lot of lyrics, and we kind write as much as possible and then we scale them down basically.
SSG: So when you have guest vocalists do you have them write their own lyrics?
BD: Scott Kelly (Neurosis) writes his own lyrics. I wrote Neil’s part for “Blood and Thunder” (Neil Fallon of Clutch) because I had something fully realized that I was pretty married to. I could just hear his voice doing it so I pretty much wrote it with his voice in mind. That part may have been a little counterintuitive to where he was feeling it should be. In my head I was like, “No it has to be like this”, so I was really adamant about it. In hindsight maybe I should have let him do his thing so it could have been all him, but I guess I was a little stubborn.
SSG: When you are working on vocals is it organic. Like when you are cutting back on the lyrics are you making the edits before you lay down the tracks, or are you making the edits as you track it?
BD: Well you look at it and think this is too many words, this is too jumbled, how do we cut this back and keep it the same? It kind of depends on timing. A lot of times big chunks get taken out.
SSG: I am sure there are things as a “journalist” I am supposed to ask, about a new album and how far along you are. But I always feel awkward asking, and even more awkward reading canned responses, to such a question. So I guess I can ask is it a more present concern than say six months ago?
BD: Yeah, it is… At this point in time it is a lot of riffs and then there are some full songs, but there’s not a lot of lyrics yet. There’s some direction as far as storyline. There is a ribbon that threads all the way through. It isn’t a continuous concept, it won’t use continuity like Crack the Skye. It’s a lot of work to get all that to line up when you are not writing the lyrics first. With this we are figuring out the order of the songs on the album first then writing the lyrics and just judge based on the music.
SSG: Do you spend a lot of time demoing it?
BD: We demo it, but you just don’t know what song is going to be until it is fully realized in a studio. All these new things come up. You want that. So you gotta just let things happen, and when they are right they are right.
SSG: Do you think people should expect a shift in sound?
BD: Always, we’re looking for that for ourselves. That’s what makes it exciting. I don’t want to be some place I all ready was musically. We can harkens back and that is fine, but there needs to be something in there that throws us for a loop, and throws the listener for a loop.
SSG: Are you writing on the road?
BD: Yeah a little bit, I think Brent (Hinds) was writing a bunch of riffs lately.
SSG: What’s with the “Elephant Man” references? I mean, were you big Mel Brooks fans as kids?
BD: (Laughs) I am a big Mel Brooks fan, yeah. Do you know he took drum lessons from Buddy Rich?
SSG: No I had no idea! Was that during the “Sid Caeser Show”?
BD: Before. I just learned that. Right when he came back from WWII. The real question is “Elephant Man”. I saw the David Lynch film when I was a kid. The movie with John Hurt and I was just blown away by it. I think it was one of the first movies that emotionally hooked me in. When I got a little older I bought a book, “True History of the Elephant Man”, and read that pretty quickly, really burned through it right at the beginning of the band.
SSG: So the film was the nexus of the fascination?
BD: Yeah. I dug deeper than got more into it. When I went to the UK for the first time I visited the Royal London Hospital Museum where they have an Elephant Man exhibit. They have this hat, the burlap sack covering he wore with the hole cut out of it. It was just so incredible to be there and see it and try to imagine what John Merrick was going through. Or anyone else going through it, there are still people who live like that. There comes a point where there is a question you got as yourself, “would I be able to overlook this persons looks and how they are,” and I just think he was an amazing person to be able to live through that kind of attention.
SSG: How did the collaboration with Fiest come about?
BD: We met in person, we watched her play on Jools Holland, which is an amazing show. After meeting we immediately said, we should do something… We should cover each other’s songs. And then it happened, but I don’t know how. It seems like one of those pipe dream kind of deals like, “Hey let’s do this” and it never happens. But luckily we kept talking about it, and we had a good reason. We are all into Record Store Day and keeping record stores around so we had a real concrete reason to tie it to.
SSG: Did the Record Store Day release idea come first, or did you approach it with the Fiest collaboration?
BD: We thought the Fiest thing was the coolest thing we could do at that moment. Collaborating in two worlds that normally wouldn’t meet up. It’s always nice when do different independent artists meet up, it pushes the idea that there is no real idea of genre. Different genres don’t really exist, its all the same notes, you get the same feeling that you get from Stevie Wonder, that you get from Mozart, that you get from metal.
SSG: Do you think that critics tend to fit Mastodon into a genre to make it easier on themselves as writers?
BD: Yeah. It makes it easier on themselves. It makes easier for people to click off and become part of a separate crew. I think that is important for people, but as a musicians we tend to think of the music as universal. Since we are playing music we have everything in common. For example I’d have everything in common with the drummer for David Bowie, the guitar player from Mahavishnu Orchestra.
SSG: Then how did you self-identify when the band was first starting?
BD: Well were obviously rooted in metal and that’s what we were told. We really didn’t have to explain it much. We were coming out on Relapse Records, and it is obvious where the people from Relapse are coming from and the publications that were speaking to us were pretty strictly metal.
SSG: Do you get free pizza in Portland?
BD: Yeah of course… We better.
This interview originally ran July 2013 on SSG Music.