Patrick McBride

Turning Tragedy Into Metal Melodies – Brann Dailor of Mastodon Talks ‘Hushed & Grim’

If there was ever a time for a band to expand the possibilities of their sound, it’s now. Even the metal purists and rock appreciators that make up Mastodon understood that and are now showcasing it on their new LP, Hushed & Grim, out Friday.

By the time the COVID-19 pandemic started to devastate the globe in 2020, the members of Mastodon had already absorbed a considerable dose of sorrow.

The heavy metal band was still reeling from the death of its manager Nick John, who passed away in late 2018 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Drummer Brann Dailor, bassist Troy Sanders, and guitarists Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds channeled their grief into creating their most ambitious album to date – Hushed & Grim, which drops this Friday, October 29.

Musically, the band veers into new territory – tracks like the snappy “Sickle and Peace,” keyboard-driven ballad “Had It All,” Southern rock-tinged “The Beast,” and the Middle Eastern-influenced “Dagger” are unlike anything the band has recorded before. 

Less riff heavy and more atmospheric than the band’s previous work, the new material still flaunts the quartet’s flawless musicianship and rich production values. Guests like Marcus King and Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil provide guitar solos, while producer David Bottrill steers the proceedings with the same sonic aplomb he’s delivered for classic albums for Peter Gabriel and Tool.

Themes of loss and mortality run rampant through the lyrics, with phrases like “I’ve turned the grief to medicine” and “leaving the ash behind / There’s no choice but to move on.” Mastodon is no stranger to exploring the depths of sorrow, as the band’s 2017 studio album Emperor of Sand was influenced by cancer struggles within the band members’ families. 

Clocking in at nearly 90 minutes, Hushed & Grim also marks the first double album of Mastodon’s career. 

“It takes a lot of balls to make a double album,” admitted Dailor, who recently spoke with The Aquarian to discuss the making of Hushed & Grim, the band’s upcoming tour with Opeth, and his own upcoming book of clown artwork. 

What was your main motivation to make a double album? Do you feel you had more material than usual because you had more time to write and record due to the pandemic?

If everything was normal, we would have stopped at a certain point and said, “This is the record. It’s 55 minutes long. Let’s record it, we’ve got to get back on tour,” but there was no end to the pandemic in sight.

It’s a bold move to make a double album these days. Were there any doubts in your mind about making it that long? 

So I had that in the back of my head, but I didn’t say anything out loud for a while [Laughs]. We had 22 songs demoed and we whittled it down to 15. At first, we were all operating under the ‘It’s gotta be 55 minutes and that’ll be it, that’s all people can handle’ thought process. I was listening to all the demos and thinking that the songs all felt right together. In the past, we’ve always had a few leftovers or songs that we could put on the backburner. 

We had David [Bottrill, producer] come in and say we need to make a decision on what’s going to be on the album and what’s going to be recorded. I said to Troy [Sanders, bassist] that I think we should use all 15 songs and do a double album. I said that as I listened to it several times on my own, it doesn’t feel too long, and it feels like these songs all work together – to get this thing down to 50 or so minutes, we’d have to cut out like seven songs. And he said, “Man, I feel the same way… I’m so glad you said something.” Basically, it got to a point where I’d have to be talked out of doing a double album rather than talked into it. 

The production on the new record is amazing. There’s a real richness and depth to the sound. I find it a great album to listen to with headphones so you can really pick up on everything going on in the songs. What made you want to work with David and why was he the ideal partner for this record?

Warner Brothers suggested a few different people and his name came up. I thought, “Wow, he worked with Peter Gabriel for years, is he even a possibility?” For me, I get nervous that anyone would want to work with us. I’m afraid of rejection like most humans. [Laughs] But we were told he was interested. Danny [Carey] from Tool reached out and said we should do the record with David. He said, “You’ll get a great drum sound and he’s really meticulous.” Then we had a discussion on Zoom in September 2020 and David was on the same page with the material. He had said something about the song “Dagger” in the demos and he referenced this Tom Waits song, which was the exact same song I had in my mind. I was like, “That’s a sign. We were on the same page.”

Lyrically, the themes on Hush & Grim deal largely with loss and regret, which were themes you’ve certainly explored before, such as on Emperor of Sand. Can you talk about how the pandemic, and the loss of your manager Nick, inspired your writing for this album?

Losing Nick was such a major blow. After his funeral, I think it was said that our next record was going to be a big one. We knew the importance of this record. I guess that’s the best thing that would come out of [his death]. After all the writing, after all the lyrics, we feel that when we listen to the finished product that is Hushed & Grim, that we did execute that and we did honor our friend – the most important person to Mastodon that has ever been, other than the four of us. We did right by our friend and were able to honor him in a way that he would be more than proud of. 

In terms of subject matter, there was no way we were able to sidestep it. It was the most present thing… then you throw a dollop of pandemic on there. When you’re going through it, a lot of isolation and mental health stuff goes on with everybody, so that found its way into the lyrics. There’s a lot on there, but a lot of it is Nick-centric and just processing that loss and going through all the stages of grief, just in the scope of this album. From “The Crux,” which was one of the first songs we wrote for this record, that’s us angry, frustrated, and pissed off at the situation, to “Gigantium,” which is kind of having this resolve and appreciation for having been able to experience the relationship in the first place.

Several of the new songs sound very different from typical Mastodon. You’ve brought a lot of different musical styles into this album. Was that your goal, to mess with people’s notions of your sound and let all your influences come out?

Oh, yeah! Absolutely. It’s always a new opportunity to expand and fold new sounds into whatever is perceived that Mastodon is. Like a snowball rolling downhill, you’re just collecting different things. We were almost gravitating toward something that doesn’t sound like us, which seems weird, but I feel the four of us are fairly unique players so it always sounds like us to a degree. We’re just trying to look for different versions. We’ll think, “Let’s follow that, because it sounds different.”

You’ve been able to play some festival shows recently. What’s been the most exciting thing about being out there playing for fans again?

Just playing – that’s the most exciting thing. Getting back, we were thinking, “Are we going to remember how to do this?” [Laughs] It turns out we still can!

I’ve heard quite a few bands say that playing concerts was just something they always took for granted, but after the pandemic they’ll never take it for granted again. Do you feel the same way?

No, not necessarily. I don’t think it was anything I ever took for granted. I always appreciate the fans and being able to be onstage. The fact that I get to play drums for a living is something I know can be taken away at any time.

You’ve got a co-headlining tour coming up with Opeth. Do you know the Opeth guys well? 

Yeah, we did a co-headline tour with them in 2012 for The Hunter album. We did the Heritage Hunter tour with them and Ghost was the opening band. We got to be good friends with those guys. I’m excited to see them again. I haven’t seen them in a while and I’m excited to reconnect with them. When you tour a lot, you get to tour with these bands and you’ll make good friends with them, but then they live in Sweden, so it’s hard to maintain those relationships sometimes.

The last time I saw you guys in concert, you were on the tour where you played Crack the Skye in its entirety. What did you think of the experience of playing a full album and do you think you might do that with any of your other albums?

I loved doing that, especially with Crack the Skye – that was such a big record for a lot of people. It really connected with our fans and grew our fanbase a bit. It was nice to go out 10 years later and have another go at it. I can see doing that for any one of our albums. I can defintely see it for the new one. I think it would be a good start-to-finish type of jam. I guess we’ll see when it comes out whether anyone likes it [Laughs].

You developed a unique hobby during the pandemic. You became obsessed with drawing pictures of clowns on a daily basis. How did all of that come about? Have you always been into making artwork?

As a teenager, I drew all the time. I was the kid in middle school who could draw [Iron Maiden mascot] Eddie. I would draw it on people’s jackets or draw it on people’s book covers. When I moved out of my mom’s house at 16 or 17, I just stopped drawing. I would draw or paint here and there, but drums took over my life. Being in a band was my main artistic release and that just took over. I always thought that I wanted to draw again. I would be on tour and I would buy sketchbooks and pencils and markers and thought I’d start doing it again, but they’d just end up in a closet in my house. I went to that closet on the first day of the lockdown and took the stuff out. I thought I’d sketch one clown a day for a few days. I drew 101 clowns in 101 days! The clown is such an icon that you can pretty much clown anything. I don’t have an Instagram or anything like that, so I was texting each person my clown drawing separately. In the end, there were probably about 100 people on my clown text list. It became a thing. 

At times, the drawings were really dark. I had people psychoanalyzing me! Driends would think, “This has been a dark week for Brann… are you OK?’” [Laughs] There was some concern for my mental health from some people. But it was the clowns that would get me out of bed every morning. I would get up at 8 o’clock in the morning, have my water, coffee, a couple of tangerines, and crack open my sketchbook and start drawing.

Were you drawing famous album covers or anything like that? 

I did one. I did Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast with two clowns. It was pretty funny.

What’s your favorite type of clown? Scary or silly? 

I’m not really a big fan of scary on purpose. I like the idea of regular clowns. I like Ringling Brothers clowns, the classic Lou Jacobs or classic hobo/tramp clown like Emmett Kelly. Bozo is good. Even Ronald McDonald can hang. I have a lot of clowns in my home. I have a clown room and others spilled out around the house.

Will your clowns ever make it into Mastadon’s album art?

No. Those two things are mutually exclusive. Although on my drum kit, there are a couple of clown heads that show up from time to time. That’s my domain back there. I can decorate it however I want! [Laughs]

Now, Revolver is publishing all of your clown drawings in a book called 101 Clowns of the Coronavirus.

It should be ready pretty soon. I’m pretty excited about it. I can’t wait to hold it in my hands. I never thought I’d actually have an art book out. It’s going to be awesome.