Interview with Bill Kelliher from Mastodon: Natural Selection

Long before their rise from underground acclaim to near-mainstream stardom since leaving Relapse Records in favor of Warner Bros. in 2006, Grammy-nominated Atlanta, GA-based progressive sludge metal road dogs Mastodon have built up and obliterated niche after cozy niche.

With their final Relapse release, 2004’s nautical thrash milestone Leviathan, Mastodon condensed their furious grindcore and Southern sludge metal influences into a relentless voyage of dissonant riffing and erratic percussion. It’s as extreme as it is memorable and as influential as it is jaw dropping, but still perplexing—offensive even—to those uninitiated to the metal palate.

Not content, however, with further exploring the Leviathan path, the band forged on to the decidedly more accessible Blood Mountain in 2006, for which they gained their Grammy nod. Blood Mountain saw the initiation of a more overtly progressive side to the band, with more complex instrumental harmonies and the earnest introduction of guitarist Brent Hinds to the vocal fold, joining bassist Troy Sanders, the voice of previous efforts Leviathan, Remission (2002) and the initial EPs, now compiled into the Call Of The Mastodon LP.

In 2009, Crack The Skye’s thorough embrace of prog and psychedelia blew minds as the band’s deepest, most compelling and philosophical work to date. With several lengthy and musically diverse tracks, the band added three-part harmonies to their sound (with drummer Brann Dailor providing the new voice) along with a complex album concept as they embraced the ‘70s hard rockers that their career has come to mirror so much. Just like Led Zeppelin, Rush or Pink Floyd change(d) their sound every time out, Mastodon recast their aesthetic on each new offering.

It’s no different with The Hunter, on which the quartet has shed the grand concept albums in favor of straightforward, heavy riff rock, and this time with more upbeat vibrations.

Below, guitarist Bill Kelliher talks about the birth of The Hunter, the band’s steady and significant rise to the top of their class and the future of the beast.

Hunter has more of a rock and roll vibe to Crack The Skye, which has more of a psychedelic way about it. Did you guys discuss the direction before going into the studio?

No, not really. We just threw a bunch of riffs together and that’s how it came out, really. Pretty simple. I think the record just represents a place in time where the band was and where we are. I think it reflects the mood of the band and how we’re in a good place and everybody’s happy. This is kind of a more upbeat feel to the writing of the songs. It’s like a snapshot of where everybody’s at with Mastodon. For us, I think we wanted to go back to basics but kinda revisit some of the things about Mastodon that made the fans move, like at the shows.

We concentrated on upbeat riffs, not so much negative space. Like, with Crack The Skye, that was a very serious record. And I don’t think it was depressing but it had some serious overtones about loss and life. We just didn’t want to go down that path again. Like, let’s do something totally different. Let’s not write a concept record. Let’s just have fun and write some music that’s got a little more groove to it, something that people can grab onto.

To me, it’s like short bursts of energy are all these songs. Instead of writing these 15-minute opuses with these huge, grandiose movements like “The Czar” and “Last Baron” [from Crack The Skye] we kinda shortened it down and trimmed off all the fat. Let’s just get to the point, get in and get out. So, I guess if it came off as being more rock, I think that’s because a little bit more groove is going on.

Mastodon could really do anything with this next album. I don’t think your fans have any idea of what to expect. You could get heavy again or even do a jam album; you’ve given yourselves unlimited options. Have you thought about post-Hunter?

No, not really. I don’t think we’ve really thought that far ahead. This record is so fresh. We just kinda roll with it. But yeah, I’m pretty focused on what we’re doing now and get all this stuff together to convey it live. I think what we’re trying to do on this tour is—you know, I bring my ProTools session with me—we’re just gonna try and write the next record, or at least some of it, while we’re out here on the road.

It’s really just people noodling around on guitars and coming up with ideas. I’ll start taping them or we’ll start taping them on our phones. Just put ‘em all in a big pile when we come home and start listening back to what kind of frame of mind we were in, what kind of riffs we were writing and string it all into a song. See what riffs wanna be friends with other riffs, and that’s kinda what we did with The Hunter.

That’s kinda what we did with the Alice In Chains tour. We had amps backstage so we’d just sit there and bang on amps all day and bang on guitars, just start recording riffs. A lot of The Hunter just came out of that. There’s a lot of downtime when you’re doing a headlining tour, besides waking up and doing interviews and meet-and-greets and stuff like that. Having a new record out, there’s many hours to kind of sit around with a guitar and write some new stuff. I haven’t really thought about the direction that band will go, but I definitely have a lot more songs in me that didn’t make it onto The Hunter that I’m gonna try to work out while we’re out here.

Was writing on tour a possibility before you started working on The Hunter or is it a new luxury that you’re enjoying?

I’ve always said that it’s hard to write on tour. I mean, there is a lot of stuff going on and it’s not like you’re not alone in a room with your guitar all day. But as the band gets bigger and we play bigger venues and there’s bigger rooms and there’s more space backstage, with the addition of ProTools on my computer, it’s getting easier definitely to capture any kind of ideas and music that we have. So yeah, it is getting easier for sure. You gotta kind of make time to do it, too. You can’t just expect the riff gods to come when summoned. You have to work on it.

How far does that process go back in the history of the band? Have you been writing on the road from the beginning?

Well, yeah. Back in the very beginning none of us even had cell phones. I remember Brann would call his house and leave messages on his answering machine at home—he would leave riffs. We all kinda did stuff like that. I do a lot of that. I’ll just go grab my phone and just start humming riffs into it. My kids make fun of me like, “Daddy, what are you doing? Why are you singing into the phone?” One of my kids actually started singing into my wife’s phone [sings example]. So that’s her ringtone now—him making fun of me by singing into her phone (laughs).

I don’t know, if you’ve got an idea and you’re pretty sure it’s something that’s good—with me, riffs come and go so quickly in my head; I’ll forget something that I just wrote in a second so I’ve gotta put it down somewhere and save it for later.

We do a lot of that on the road. We have an over-abundance of riffs and telephone messages and all that stuff. We’re definitely not short on any songwriting abilities.

What’s your favorite riff on the new album?

Favorite riff? There’s two of them but probably in “Spectrelight,” towards the end there’s an Iron Maiden-like harmony part that I wrote [sings example]—that part and then the part after that. It’s pretty cool. When it gets to that part in the set, it’s really rockin’, and if we do it right, it always sounds really good and it transfers well live. It’s a real meat and potatoes kinda riff.

You guys got nominated for a Grammy for Blood Mountain. Is that something you’ve thought about on subsequent releases?

Not really but definitely when we got nominated for a Grammy, I was very surprised. I was like, “Wow, little-old-us, nominated for a Grammy?” When I took my wife to the Grammys she was just head over heels because they treat you like fucking royalty.

Since we got nominated a couple years ago, now I think about it. Yeah, I’d like to get nominated again and go. It was fun and a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Just to be nominated is awesome because it’s kinda like a beauty pageant: Because even if you don’t win, at least you’re in the running; someone picked you ‘cause you’re beautiful. I look at it like that.

Mastodon will perform at Terminal 5 in NYC on Nov. 19 and at the Trocadero in Philly on Nov. 20. For more information, go to