Mastodon, one of the most successful metal bands in recent memory, is getting ready for a tour with Swedish metal icons Opeth as part of the Heritage Hunter Tour, one that is sure to make true the dreams of many a prog dude. It’s a worthy pairing, being that both groups have been enjoying their greatest commercial success over the past few years, and the fact that each band’s newest album has marked a significant creative shift in their catalogue.
With their newest album, Heritage, Opeth left behind their trademark death bellows in favor of all clean vocals and less formulaic songs with a vintage sound and an ambiguous atmosphere. Mastodon made a 180-degree turn from 2009’s progressive rock classic, Crack The Skye, with 2011’s concise riff-rocker, The Hunter.
The Aquarian Weekly got the chance to spend a few good minutes on the phone with drummer Brann Dailor to get his perspective on the band’s evolution. He discussed Mastodon’s ongoing commitment to improving their vocal chops, how he prepares for touring and some of his favorite songs to play live (longtime Mastodon fans will not be disappointed). Plus, where as recently as November, guitarist Bill Kelliher told the Aquarian he was too immersed in The Hunter to think about what the band would do next, Dailor says that now the band getting ready to plan their next album and may begin work on demos as soon as this summer. The conversation is below.
How are you preparing for this upcoming tour with Opeth?
Same way as always, just get in the room and work out whatever stuff we’re going to do in the set. You know, blast through it, get it comfortable. Now I come down early and play for a while just to get my stamina back up. I’ve taken a couple weeks off from playing.
But I need those two weeks, usually, after we get done with a long tour… I get run down, you know?
You’ve been playing headlining tours for so long now, is stamina that big of an issue?
Yeah, absolutely. Well, if I’m taking two or three weeks off, yeah, it is an issue. It’d be like if you run five miles every day, and then you don’t run for three weeks, and then you try to run five miles. You’d feel it. After the first mile, you’d be like, “Oh shit! Oh man, I’m not in shape.”
I need to come down. I need about a week of constant—about an hour and a half of playing drums nonstop. [Onstage] my band doesn’t do much talking, and I don’t like awkward silence, so I’ll just start the next song. It’s a lot of drumming and it’s a lot of notes and it’s a lot of thinking and it’s a lot of playing, and it’s very physical. And it’s solid all the way through, so it’s not like I get much of a rest back there and I need to be in shape when I do it.
The drum parts on Hunter don’t seem to be as complex as on previous albums, but I’m not a drummer, so is that how you see it as well?
Yeah, they’re not as busy. The whole record is less complex, so I didn’t want to fill it up with drumming. It wouldn’t make much sense to make the drumming super technical over. I would, sort of, be ruining the songs that way. So yeah, I’ve just got to serve the song. I really always have, but I don’t think I come across that way to most people.
But it’s not like I laid back because I was being lazy. It’s more like I was trying to make more of those moments, sort of, happen and work the way that they were supposed to, and the way that I heard them and the way the band felt them as we were writing. So it’s less intense, but then, I’m singing a lot as well, so that adds another aspect or ability to it.
Was it difficult to become a singing drummer?
Sort of, but not really. It just took me coming down here and working on it, which I don’t have a problem doing. It just took some work and some practice, and that’s fine with me.
Vocal harmonies have become such a big part of the Mastodon sound over the last few albums, what lead you guys to explore that?
I don’t know. I don’t really remember the point where that happens. I think it was on Blood Mountain probably. And then with Crack The Skye, it was all over the place. I think Brendan [O’Brien, producer] was really pushing us to do more of that stuff. Then with The Hunter, there’s a lot of double-singing going on. There’s a lot of Brent and Troy or me and Troy at the same time. It’s fun, and we’ve been getting a lot better at it live.
The last touring cycle, we watched a lot of footage and felt that it was kind of improving. It’s always a work in progress. None of us are the best singers, we try, but it’s getting there.
That’s a good attitude to have.
Has the band worked at all with an instructor, or is it more like the band trying to figure it out for yourselves?
A little bit of both. There’s been some instruction and then lots of practicing live and practicing in the practice space, just figuring [out] what sounds best. Examining the takes or watching video of it. It’s a whole bunch of not being satisfied and wanted to get better at it, you know?
You put out Hunter a little faster than Crack The Skye, are you going to put out the next one in a year or two, like you did with The Hunter, or are you going to wait a little bit longer, like with Crack The Skye?
No, I’m excited to put out another record. I think after this tour, after the next 12 weeks, we’ll take a breather and start laying down some new demos for new stuff. I think the quicker, the better these days.
I was surprised when I heard you were putting out The Hunter. It seemed so soon.
Yeah, we were surprised it came together so quickly, but it was a much simpler of a record by necessity. Crack The Skye was really involved and there were a lot of really stressful moments in the practice space writing it. We couldn’t really do that this time around. There was too much [happening] on the outside, so we just had to keep it simple. It was like a mirror image of what was going on in everyone’s life.
Looking at Crack The Skye and The Hunter, they’re so different, even in terms of the track lengths. When writing, do you keep in mind how long you want the tracks to run?
To me, it’s like a knee-jerk reaction to what Crack The Skye was. We just wanted to do something different. We’d been playing Crack The Skye for a couple years solid and just wanted to change it up, just wanted to have more fun with it. [The songs on The Hunter] are shorter bursts of energy, and we just had to be satisfied with a simpler version of ourselves and not dig too deep beyond the original idea. And we just did that because it was more fun and interesting to us. It’s like seeing us with what we first grooved on [when we were kids].
I haven’t seen you since The Hunter came out, so I’m wondering if you’re still playing songs from, like, Leviathan or some of the other Relapse releases, like Remission and Call Of The Mastodon?
Yeah, for sure. We always try to put a couple songs from each record in there to, sort of, even it out amongst all the songs from The Hunter. We do as many songs from The Hunter as we can, then we put two or three songs from each record in the mix.
So you’re not tired of those songs?
I’m not. Some guys in the band may be tired of them, but I love the crowd’s reaction. It just doesn’t bother me; I don’t feel that way about it. I feel like I’m lucky to be in a band where people care about your back catalogue and want to hear those songs. And I totally recognize the fact that there are kids that bought Leviathan, like, two weeks ago. And when they come to the show, they want to see a mixed bag, you know?
Of course, I like the new stuff. The new stuff is fresher and maybe more fun to play because we haven’t played it that much, but we play a lot of stuff off the new record. I realize that the kids pay the money. I feel like the albums are for us. The albums are to be self-indulgent. But when it comes to putting on a show for people who paid money, I feel like I want to try as hard as possible to make everybody feel happy.
Every band gets accused of all kinds of terrible things when they put out an album that sounds different, but do you feel like fans coming to see you now, after The Hunter and Crack The Skye, are aware of the Relapse-era stuff?
There are less people that know what the songs from Remission are, but we’ve sort of set it up that way. We’ve lost some fans along the way, but we can’t be concerned with that aspect of it. You can’t chase what you think people want to hear, you just have to stick to your guns and hope for the best. That’s when the band started, and I know there’s a lot of people out there that wanted us to stay that Remission band or that Leviathan band. There’s just way too much music that we all dig that we want to put in there. So it’s gonna keep happening. We’re always looking for something different, something fresh and something new. This is our path. They’re free to follow us and they’re free to not follow us.
That’s what I like so much about that fact that you’re about to tour with Opeth. Both your new albums came out in the fall and both were way different from anything you’ve done previously. Also, it’s a lot of prog fans’ dreams that you would tour together. What made this happen?
We’ve always wanted to tour together. We’re very like-minded bands, I think. This tour is all about the planets aligning. You know, when that Alice In Chains, Deftones tour came together with the three of our bands, it was like, “How the fuck did we do that?” So with Opeth and Ghost it’s the same thing. We were finally able to put it together and make it work. I think it’s the perfect bill and I’m really excited to get on with it, get it going. I think it will be a hell of a night for fans of this genre of music. I think it’ll be action-packed and almost too much music.
Did it have anything to do with the big shifts in direction both bands took?
I don’t think so. We’ve been wanting to get together for a long time. Since before Blood Mountain, for us. We’ve played some festivals together and just felt like we were of the same ilk, so we’ve always wanted to hook up and do something. Like I said, it didn’t work out until now.
I’m looking forward to it. What is your favorite song to play live?
Oh man, I don’t know. I like them all, pretty much. I like the ones where I’m working the hardest, obviously. So I like the older stuff a little bit, songs where I’m really playing drums. Like, “March Of The Fire Ants” is a lot of hard work, “Crusher Destroyer.” I like playing “Black Tongue” a lot, though, cause the audience really likes to sing along to it. I like the songs that get the biggest reaction from the crowd. I like “Blood And Thunder,” “Black Tongue,” stuff like that.
Mastodon will play with Opeth and Ghost at The Electric Factory in Philly on April 9, The Dome at Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, CT, on April 10 and Roseland Ballroom in NYC on April 11. For more information, go to mastodonrocks.com.