Mastodon: Stairway to the ‘Skye’

Just when you thought they were out, Coheed and Cambria pulled them back in.

After a busy tour schedule following the release of the 2017 album Emperor of Sand, the members of Mastodon were preparing to pack away their road gear for a lengthy break and to focus on writing a new album.

But when the opportunity arose to conduct a summer tour with Coheed, a like-minded band with a high profile on the prog-metal scene, Mastodon jumped at the chance. The trek also gives Mastodon a chance to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its milestone album Crack the Skye, which will be performed in its entirety.

The past few months have taken an emotional toll on Mastodon, as beloved manager Nick John passed away last September. As a tribute, the band performed Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”— John’s favorite song— at his funeral. In April, Mastodon released its version as a Record Store Day single, with all of the proceeds benefitting the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.

Mastodon bassist Troy Sanders recently spoke with me from the band’s Atlanta rehearsal space to weigh in on the new tour, the tribute to John, his thoughts on Crack the Skye, and the status of a new Mastodon album.

How did the idea first come about for Mastodon to hit the road with Coheed? It seems like a natural fit for your bands to tour together. You have a lot of crossover fans.

I agree. That was the initial thought, that over the years they’re one of the few bands out there that we feel super-compatible with that we’ve yet to share a stage with. We’ve crossed paths with the Coheed guys at various spots around the world. They’re fond of our band, we’re fond of theirs, they’re super-friendly, so it just makes sense. Every time we part ways, we’re like, ‘we should tour together.’ It was just a matter of time before the calendars and the planets aligned and we were able to put our bands together.

For us, we’re more than two years into touring the Emperor of Sand album, so we’re nearing the shutdown point. For a tour like this, we took the offer. If it wasn’t something this interesting, we wouldn’t have done it, since we’ve been touring on this record for two years. The offer seemed great—a run around the states in the summertime, and it allows us to perform Crack the Skye for its 10th birthday. We feel it’s a landmark album amongst the four of us that we’re very proud of. Coheed is a perfect band to play that record in front of.

With the Crack the Skye album, many like “Oblivion” and “Divinations” have routinely been in your set lists over the years. What was it like to revisit some of the tracks that rarely get played?

There were one or twothat we realized we haven’t played since the original Crack the Skye tour in 2009. It’s funny you mention that, because right now I’m in Atlanta at the Mastodon rehearsal facility. Our studio is called Ember City. I just arrived early to speak to you, and also rehearse myself on the tunes because we’re going to practice later this afternoon.

Do you get a gold star or something for being first to the rehearsal?

It’s either a small sticker or blue ribbon. I don’t know what it’ll be today. (Laughs)

In re-learning the Crack the Skye songs that you haven’t performed in a while, were there any surprises? Are there any parts that made you think, ‘wow, I don’t remember this being so difficult to play?’

Yeah. When we’re creating our songs, the rhythm of the music and your fingers across the fretboard can be the exact opposite of what the vocal pattern will be. So, some of them are extremely hard to lock in. What it takes is repetition and practice. It’s like rubbing your belly while patting your head. You just have to keep trying until it clicks.

What do you think Crack the Skye meant to Mastodon’s career?

We’ve been excited and proud about all our studio records, but at the time in 2008 and 2009 while we were writing and recording Crack the Skye, we knew we had something that was unique in terms of our band’s path that we were continuing to carve. We felt like it was a landmark album, and the kind we had always hoped to make. The music was extremely complex yet beautiful, and then we tapped into a lyrical subject matter that was extremely personal and channeled that into this storyline that was based around souls traveling through time and space.

It just became this super-odd, yet intriguing experience vocally, lyrically, musically… the whole package. And I can remember the four of us saying ‘wow, this is the record that we’d always dreamt of making’ but never thought the reality would come to fruition. That’s what we said when we were sitting back listening to the final mixes. I remember that very clearly.

It’s been exciting over these past few weeks, relearning some of these songs. Playing the album just reminds me of that feeling we had as a band when we first made it, like we really have something special here. It’s rejuvenated the excitement for a record [that’s] ten years old.

Mastodon has a history of dealing with personal subject matter on its albums. Crack the Skye was influenced by the suicide of Brann Dailor’s sister, and cancer influenced the themes on Emperor of Sand. As a writer, what challenges does that pose for you, since you’re channeling something very deep and private, and getting it across to a wide audience?

We always write from the heart. And when we come together as a band, we talk about what’s going on in each other’s lives, whether it’s good or bad. We have a deep friendship. When it comes time to create something, it’s kind of hard to put aside this brutal, dark reality we might be living in at the moment and write about something happier. We don’t operate like that. We channel whatever energy we’re experiencing at that time into the art we’re creating.

Two-and-a-half years ago, dealing with Emperor of Sand, all four of us had a family member dealing with cancer. We didn’t want to write an album about cancer, because that’s fucking depressing and dark as shit. That’s not a desirable subject matter, but all four of us were dealing with it on a daily basis, so every time we got together that was obviously at the top of our minds as individuals. Collectively, we decided to try to take something that’s extremely dark and heavy and attempt to turn it into something with a shred of light and positivity and hope. Once you record music, that music lives forever. We wanted to create something that was influenced by darkness that rendered a beautiful result. We take our realities and channel it into this form of art that we call Mastodon.

What can you tell us about the next Mastodon record? You mentioned that if it wasn’t for this Coheed tour, you wouldn’t be going on the road again for a while. Will you start working on the album when this tour is done?

Over the past two years on the road, we’ve been collecting thoughts and ideas and riffs and phrases like we always have. One of the many nice things about this band is we never have any timelines or deadlines of when we need to write or record or have an album released. It’s always come naturally, and we’ve never forced anything. When a touring cycle is over, we all disperse and we go home and enjoy our families and dogs for however long, until we are all excited to get back together and scratch the itch of writing new music. So, we will definitely write a new record, but when that will be is really up to us because we don’t want to force anything.

If only two of us are excited about working on music, we’re not going to force the other guys to join us until they’re ready. But we’ve never waited that long in the past, anyway. Sometimes we’ve only been home for two or three weeks until people are calling each other, saying let’s get back together. Of course, we’re going to do another record, but as to when we’ll begin working on it or recording or releasing it, who knows? Time will tell.

Sadly, your manager Nick John passed away last year after a battle with cancer. What led to the idea to cover “Stairway to Heaven” at his funeral and eventually release it as a single?

We understand that most people around the world would consider it borderline illegal to cover that song. We were asked by his family to perform it at his funeral. As much as that seemed like a daunting task from the get-go, it was a no-brainer that we would do it. So many people came up to us after and said, “that was so beautiful, that was uplifting.” People were singing the song, and it was very touching. We realize it had a very positive impact on an otherwise very dark day.

We realized that we got so many compliments from the people at the church, that maybe we could take this a step forward and do a studio version of that and put it out on Record Store Day, and every penny that it raises can go to the pancreatic cancer foundation. It’s a win-win situation, and it’s for nothing but good causes, and we have zero concerns for any backlash for covering a song that’s highly considered wrong for covering.

Nick was absolutely vital in taking us from where we were to where we are now. We credit him completely. So many people over the past six to eight months have said to us that Nick was the friendliest, most sincere band manager they’ve ever come across. There was no pretentiousness; he was all heart. He was so dedicated to our band.

I loved the Cold Dark Place EP, which consisted of tracks that initially didn’t fit on previous albums. Is it common for you to have songs that don’t make it on a record? Are there a bunch of unheard Mastodon tracks that fans haven’t heard yet?

Not really. We don’t work on the songs and get to the point where it’s complete, and say we’re not putting it on the album. But with Cold Dark Place, we had too many songs for both Emperor of Sand and the previous album Once More ‘Round the Sun that kind of needed to have their own home. We still create albums with a complete feel from from start to finish. With certain songs, instead of forcing them to be inserted into that new record, perhaps we can wait and find their own home that would make more sense. To answer your question, we rarely have songs laying around. There’s a few here and there, but a lot of bands will write twenty songs and the best ten will make the record. I hear that all the time. That’s amazing to me, and very impressive, but Mastodon has never worked like that.

On Twitter, I saw that the band teased some of the visuals you’re using for this new tour. They look amazing.

We just want to elevate our live show. Most importantly, we want to sound good, but adding visuals is hopefully another element that people can lose their minds with. The visuals accompanying the music and the subject matter should let you completely immerse yourself into the Crack the Skye story. We’re not just going to put a drawing of a monster on a backdrop—we want to dive deeper and create visuals that truly marry the emotions of the story.

When your tour hits New York City, you’ll be playing in Coney Island again, where you performed with Primus last summer. What do you think of that venue, and of playing right next to the beach and ocean?

Great venue, and I’m glad we’re getting to go back. But that particular day last summer, a crazy, windy rainstorm came up so we couldn’t walk around or go anywhere all day long. This time around, we’re hoping to be able to explore, walk over to the ocean and see the sights.

What do you think the backstage vibe will be like on this tour? I understand that you guys like to do a lot of barbecuing when you’re on the road in the summer.

Yeah, when you have that parking lot access next to your bus and whatnot, it’s fun to throw some yummy edibles on the grill and have a little picnic vibe going. No one hates a barbeque. You don’t look at a grill and people eating food and see any frowns. Camaraderie is key.

Who makes the best burgers in Mastodon?

I would have to say it’s the combo of Bill Kelliher and Brann Dailor. They can whip up some mean burgers and Zweigle’s, which is an upstate New York hot dog brand that’s pretty incredible. Every time we cook those Zweigle’s for somebody, we get compliments. We also come up with various beverages and give them some fun names. Our biggest requests are for a drink that we’ve created in a big Gatorade cooler and it’s called “wolf urine.” It’s got some special ingredients: vodka, pineapple juice, and ginger, and it’s going to be a world-famous beverage before too long. (Laughs) ‘Wolf urine, get yours today!’

Mastodon will perform at Ford Amphitheater at the Coney Island Boardwalk in Brooklyn on June 7, and BB&T Pavilion in Camden, NJ on June 8. For more info, visit