Mastodon’s latest full-length record, Emperor of Sand, is a concept album exploring themes of mortality and how people’s lives are limited by time and illness.
Lyrically, the album tells the story of a man sentenced to die in the desert, his body withered and ravaged by the elements as his life dwindles down.
As Emperor of Sand was being written, the band members were dealing with mortality head-on in their personal lives, as the mothers of guitarist Bill Kelliher and drummer Brann Dailor, and wife of bassist Troy Sanders, all waged battles against cancer.
“It was the elephant in the room,” Kelliher said of the disease’s influence on Emperor of Sand.
Kelliher, whose mother passed away last year from a brain tumor, sat down with The Aquarian and explained the process of working on the album, which ultimately became a metaphor for the horrors of cancer, while writing and recording sessions served as a therapeutic distraction for band members dealing with loved ones suffering.
“As we were writing, we’re asking ourselves, ‘What’s this record going to be about?’ It became pretty obvious,” Kelliher said.
Emperor of Sand reunites the band with producer Brendan O’Brien, and carries a cinematic and varied feel. Standout moments include the riff-driven leadoff track “Sultan’s Curse” and the majestic “Roots Remain,” which features soaring vocals from Dailor and some molten lead guitar work by Brent Hinds.
Despite the mostly dark subject matter, the record also features “Show Yourself,” perhaps the band’s most straight-ahead, catchiest tune to date. Overall, Emperor of Sand adheres to the band’s patented prog-metal script with precision chops, while polishing rough-edged vocals into the best Mastodon singing ever.
During our conversation, Kelliher discussed Mastodon’s current U.S. tour with Eagles of Death Metal and Russian Circles, how he creates riffs, the band’s three-headed vocal attack, and other topics.
What are you most looking forward to on this U.S. tour?
I’m looking forward to playing these new songs live, for sure. I’m really excited to see how people are going to react. I know if I were a Mastodon fan, I would love this record because it’s totally Mastodon.
I’m also looking forward to hanging out with the Eagles of Death Metal and Russian Circles and seeing them play, and hopefully grabbing some of their fans. They’re all friends of ours, so it’ll be cool. And we’re playing a bunch of venues we’ve never played before, like the Ryman in Tennessee and the Hammerstein in New York. The venues will be bigger, the biggest venues we’ve ever played as a headliner.
How difficult is it to make a set list these days, considering you have a pretty good catalog of material now?
Yeah, it’s a little difficult. We’ve got eight albums worth of material. I really want to play the new stuff mostly, just because we haven’t played it yet. I’m really focused in on doing that. We’ll see, though, because a lot of these new songs are pretty tricky to play live. There’s a lot of stuff going on.
You’re a big part of writing the music for Mastodon. When it comes to putting together riffs, how does that process usually flow?
I’m always writing. On the road, I’ve always got my guitar on in the hotel room and I’ve got Pro Tools on my laptop. Any time I come up with a cool riff, I’ll just record it. I can kill time that way on the road, because there’s a lot of time. And I don’t have that much time at home to write music, because it’s like, “Now, I’m dad.” I try to do most of my writing on the road.
The new song “Sultan’s Curse,” three-quarters of those riffs were all friends floating around for years. And I just couldn’t get it together. I’ve got a lot of songs like that, where I’ve got three or four parts, but it’s still missing a verse or something and I just can’t find it. And I kept telling myself, “I’ve got to finish this song, it’s going to be awesome.”
Brann and I work really well together, and for this record we worked together basically every day for about six months. We went down to my basement. Both our moms were very ill, so we would have coffee and talk about our moms and what was going on, and then we’d go down and start knocking ideas around. And that was how it happened.
Lyrically, this album deals with the subject of cancer and the concept of mortality—how much time we have on this earth. Do you find that the band is a creative outlet for you guys to deal with some dark subject matter?
Well, when it was time for me to start writing the record, that was right when my mom got sick. It was a distraction to write and go down into the studio. My mom lived in Rochester, NY, where I’m from, and when I wasn’t flying back and forth, I’d be up there visiting her, and still working on the album.
I had to put her into hospice, and I would sit by her bed, and I’d just play guitar and be writing. There was nothing I could do anymore, she was totally out of it and just sleeping, waiting to die. I knew we had to write a new record, I’ve got a billion riffs, so I just kept plugging away at it.
I feel like our fans kind of expect a very deep and emotional record from us, because they have an emotional attachment to our band in a lot of ways. And everyone can connect with cancer. Everyone knows someone who’s had it, so everybody can relate to it. And I feel like it was the elephant in the room, you know what I mean? When we were putting the album together, it was like, Brann’s mom, she’s sick; Troy’s wife, she’s sick; my mom, she’s sick. So, we just started writing about that, your time on this planet. Don’t waste your time. Don’t procrastinate until it’s too late.
I feel like our fans, when they hear it, the themes are open to interpretation, of course, and there’s a lot of metaphors within the lyrics. When I listen to bands, I don’t always read the lyrics. I kind of interpret them my own way and put it into my own world, and it’s kind of therapeutic. And I feel like our music is kind of like that, it’s like the medicine.
How long did the final recording take for Emperor of Sand?
We did this record really quickly. We did it in about six weeks.
That is quick.
We spent almost a month in Kennesaw, Georgia, which is right outside of Atlanta, doing all the basic drum tracks, guitar tracks, some vocals. We had a week or two off, then we went out to L.A., to Henson Studios, to finish it up.
It seems like many bands get bogged down for months in the studio. Do you tend to have songs in pretty good shape by the time you go in there, and you can just bang it out?
Yeah. I built a studio in my house last year as well. So, down there writing it every day, we had it pretty much where we wanted it. We had all the guitar parts—I pretty much knew what I was going to play when I got to the studio, so it went by really quickly. The demos don’t sound that much different than the finished product. The ideas were there, and we just went in there and knocked it out.
And Brendan [O’Brien] is a very quick worker, a very quick decision-maker. If he doesn’t like something, he’s not afraid to tell you that. He doesn’t hesitate—it’s cut and dry.
Brendan also produced your album Crack the Skye. What were your reasons for wanting to work with him again?
I believe that everything happens for a reason, and this record needed someone like him. We worked with him before, like you said, and I felt like we knew the record was going to be an epic body of work. We put a lot of time and effort into it, and the subject matter was very deep. We wanted a producer who knew us and knew what we wanted, and had all the toys and gadgets that Brendan has. He just knows what type of sound we’re going for, especially when it comes to all the bells and whistles on the record, all the stuff you hear in the background.
One of the things that makes Mastodon unique is you have three different singers contributing vocals. When you’re putting songs together, how do you determine who sings what?
When we demoed this record, Brann sang almost every part, because he’s really good with melody. And since he’s a drummer, he doesn’t think the same way as a guitar player might. He’s playing to a beat and he hears it differently.
When it comes down to being in the studio, we can just sort of tell. Sometimes everyone gives it a try, and we decide, “Yeah, you’re better for this part.” Troy has a deep, deep voice and for some parts, we think, “That’s definitely a Troy part.” It’s doled out pretty evenly. It’s usually just whatever texture we’re looking for.
I still don’t understand how Brann is able to sing so well while playing the drums. It’s unbelievable.
Really! The way he’s described it is, “It’s like I’m on a treadmill, running as fast as I can, and singing at the same time.” It’s got to be incredibly hard to do.
Mastodon typically keeps up a grueling tour schedule. How do you stay sane on the road?
I just have to keep busy. I do guitar lessons on the road, with kids in different cities. I’m going to get back in shape. I need to start running again. When I’m on the road, I try to run six miles a day, and try to be really fit, because it’s grueling out there. It’s tough. You don’t sleep that great. I’m always up early. I like to investigate the cities and see stuff.
How do you set up your music lessons on the road?
I post ads on our Facebook page, and people interested in it write me at a separate email address, I send them all the info and they pay through PayPal. They show up at a certain time and I meet them and bring them backstage and we find a little room to do the lesson. It can be up to six or seven kids sometimes.
What a thrill for a young fan.
Yeah, the kids seem to love it. I figure, I’m just sitting backstage all day playing guitar anyway. Why not do something like that? The first tour I did it, I was booked every day. It’s just something positive to do.
Do you have any advice for aspiring young musicians?
Yeah, stay in school! (Laughs) The music business is getting harder and harder, especially with the decline of record sales. If you’re trying to make it rich, I’d just stay in school. But I love my job, I love what I do. I would say just keep on practicing, and record everything you write. You can never have too many songs. Keep pushing your yourself to write better and better. If you really want to do it for a living, try to find some like-minded musicians. It’s hard to find the kind of people who can see the same destination, same vision.
Mastodon has been around for almost two decades at this point. When you first started the band, did you ever think that was possible?
(Laughs) Never. It’s 17 years right now. It’s funny to look back, though. Seventeen years is a long time. It never crossed my mind that we’d be such a big band. I’m really thankful for all the support we’ve had over the years, and all the people who still come out and see us and make us relevant. It’s just great that we could do this for a living for so long, and still not hate each other and still put out good music. It’s not an easy task.
What types of music do you enjoy listening to outside of Mastodon?
There’s a band called Metric that I really like a lot. I think they’re awesome and the girl’s got a beautiful voice. They’re a real poppy, synth kind of sound, but I like stuff like that. I also like catchy, pop-punk kind of stuff. I grew up listening to a lot of punk rock, and I still do. Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, aggressive stuff like that. I really like Red Fang, Gojira is good. I love the Melvins, Neurosis.
A few years ago, the band had the unique experience of being in an episode of Game of Thrones. Tell me what that was like.
It was a really cool experience, but tiring. I have a whole new respect for actors. They spend hours on set just standing around waiting for the director to yell “action.”
It was cool to be a part of the show, because the show is so amazing. You’ve got dragons, hot women, murder, betrayal. It’s just so dark. It’s got swords and dudes with beards. It’s just done so well. I would love to be back on the show again, and we’d love to be on any TV show. We’re always into that kind of stuff. Like writing a soundtrack, which we did for Jonah Hex, we love doing stuff like that. It’s fun, and it steps us outside of our box of being the heavy metal band that we are. It’s healthy.
Mastodon will perform at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City on May 11.Emperor of Sand is out now on Reprise Records.For more info, visit mastodonrocks.com.