Interview: Bill Kelliher (Mastodon)
Whatever your critical perspective might entail regarding Mastodon’s current position on the ‘Are We Allowed to Like Them’ scale, the band’s 14-year existence has seen them provide a gateway to scores of fans that might otherwise never have heard of Neurosis or the Melvins. The band’s track record has been the source of as much genuinely groundbreaking music as it has divisiveness over the band’s recent creative output. Regardless of any missteps, Mastodon’s influence over heavy metal in the last decade is inarguable and serves as a key component to extreme music’s considerable rise in popularity during the last few years.
Whatever the future might hold for Mastodon, the band has solidified its place in heavy music history and no amount of pointed barbs or references to anyone’s lack of musical taste and understanding can eliminate that fact. On the heels of their sixth full-length, Once More ‘Round the Sun, Mastodon are continuing what’s long been the band’s M.O. of endless touring and promotion with a recently announced set of fall North American dates with Gojira and Kvelertak. I spoke with guitarist/vocalist Bill Kelliher about Mastodon’s evolution, the comfort in leaving complex album themes behind, and what his hopes are for the new Star Wars film.
It has been twelve years since Remission. What was the approach for you guys coming into this? What’s been the evolution of the band from your perspective from Remission to Once More ‘Round the Sun?
Back in the day when we first became a band, we did a lot more of just kind of throwing riffs all in the pot and shaking it up and seeing what stuck. We didn’t spend a lot of time, didn’t have a lot of time really, to go into a studio and experiment, you know what I mean? We were fucking broke, we’re trying to make a name for ourselves.
I remember we would tour all the time, and we’d try to come home from tour for one or two months. It was in that time when we’d go down to the practice space and we’d just start jamming together, throwing riffs around, and then we’d hit the studio like a couple weeks later.
Now it’s a completely different animal. I do a lot of writing on the road, as much as I can, because I don’t have the luxury of doing that at home. I’ve got a family and I’m pretty fucking busy. So I use the time on the road to try and write as much as I can. That way when we get home, we have a small studio that I had built, and we can go in there and I can start recording everything, like on a Pro Tools rig, and get everything sounding really good. If we do decide that we’re gonna be like, ‘okay, let’s see how the drumbeat sounds on this,’ everything’s already plugged in and ready to rock at a moment’s notice. We can just go in there, hit the record button, and [capture] anything that comes up off the cuff or whatever, or try something a couple different ways. It’s very easy to do because we’ve got all the tools right there in front of us.
I remember when we did the Leviathan record, we were driving to Seattle to live there for a month to record. Came out of Atlanta to go work with Matt Bayles. And Leviathan, we were writing it and playing it every night on the road with Clutch, before we even had real, legitimate lyrics. We were just kind making stuff up as we were going, and singing it every night and practicing it. Well that was the good part, we were actually practicing it, so when we got to the studio we could play it really well. Those songs changed a lot, And the vocals. . . we never knew what any of the vocals were until everybody was feverishly writing on the last day of the studio time, writing all the lyrics right then and there. We used to be really pushed into a corner. We didn’t know any better, didn’t know how you were supposed to record. We just thought, Well, this is the budget we have, let’s just start writing on the road, playing the songs every night live, in front of people. We’d never think about doing that now. I want the song to be out before we start playing it live, because if people don’t know it, people wanna hear songs that they know. At least I do when I see a band.
Are you guys more comfortable songwriters now than you were 12 years ago? Or has it always been an exercise in the creative subconscious for Mastodon?
I think it’s both. I mean it’s always subconscious, just because when you’re writing it’s just your hand moving and your brain sending your fingers notes and thoughts and different timings and what-not, and that’s how you’re painting your picture, so to speak. But now we can afford the time to not rush everything. Especially with the advent of Pro Tools and having a home studio, we just try a song a few different ways and we don’t have to settle. And I think we’ve become better songwriters, as well. If Brann and I are down there, we’re really putting stuff under the microscope now, saying, “Does this riff need to be in the song, do we change it somehow?” If something doesn’t feel right we take it out. “Is this the verse, is this the chorus, is this the bridge, where is this gonna go in the song, and is it going to make sense to the listeners?”
Writing the new record, there’s a lot of stuff that got cannibalized — taken out of one song, put in another — it just felt right. And there were some songs that completely lost riffs, like two or three riffs taken out of the song. For the song “Motherload,” we had like three different verses that sounded the same, and once we started singing down in the studio, you know when we go down for vocals day and start singing over all the stuff, everything started to show itself. Then we could start picturing more instruments and more layers and more vocal harmonies, and have everybody try to sing it a different way and pick which one we like the best. We’ve got a lot more freedom, you know?
Do you see yourself personally as a musician being influenced by different things now as opposed to when Mastodon first started?
Yeah, I mean when we first started it was 14 years ago, almost 15 years ago, and we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. We kind of know what we’re doing now. But it took all those years of touring with bigger bands and watching how they do things, and listening to different things; music is always evolving and changing. We listened to the new Alice in Chains records, and the Deftones — we toured with them — Baroness. . . All that stuff starts to sink in, into your influences, and you just can’t help it. We toured with Iron Maiden and we got to know those guys, and Metallica and Slayer, obviously. You know, all that stuff kind of teaches us a little something along the way. Not like I ever ask them directly like, “Hey, can you give me some advice on keeping the band together?” And having a manager, because back when we first started we didn’t have a manager until, like six years into it. That really helped, that’s when things started to get a lot bigger for us. Somebody looking after us, [when] you actually get real tours and real money.
You know, it has been a nice ride. There are obviously some things that are probably different about writing and the intimacy there isn’t always like it used to be. Now everything is so fast and so quick and it’s so easy to just record it at home when you’re writing. You know, back in the day, we’d sit there and play the song 100,000 times before we would even record it, instead of just recording it once, listening to it in Pro Tools, and then chopping it up and moving stuff around. You can do all that now and it’s way less painful. You can write a song in like a couple hours. Before, we’d throw riffs around. Now it’s a lot easier, but you also lose the intimacy of it. With this record I got down to the practice space every day. Brann and I were probably there the most out of everybody. We got real intimate with it. I’m not afraid, I don’t have an ego when it comes to him saying, “I don’t really like that riff, let’s try another one. Can you write it a little more like this?” I’m like, “Yeah, sure, of course.” That’s how we work together.
Obviously one of the most notable aspects of the earlier Mastodon material was the fact that the band threaded these incredibly complex themes and storylines into the albums as a whole, whereas now the focus has shifted to the individual songs. Do you see Mastodon in a more comfortable place now that you don’t have those huge concepts that you’re trying to fit into the music, or was it really not that big of a deal in the first place?
Yeah, I mean I like the concepts. I think they’re really cool. But I think this is a little more liberating. With The Hunter it was more of an experiment. It was just a bunch of crazy songs; put them all on one record and they don’t have to flow into each other. I feel like this new record, all the songs are kind of calmed down, and they’re getting closer to a Crack the Skye kind of vibe. I feel like each song spawns out from the next. They don’t sound like 12 totally different songs by 12 totally different dudes. They sound more cohesive, and I don’t know if that’s because of the freedom.
There’s no concept, really. Once more round the sun is one year. The real concept was just like, ‘well, these songs are gonna be about things that have happened to us personally in the past year.’ And I remember Brann, I think I was playing the “Motherload” riff for him, and he was like, “Yeah it sounds kinda happy. . . is it happy? Are we happy? Are we a happy band? Are we happy people?” And I was like, “I don’t know, at the moment when I wrote it I felt pretty happy, I felt good about life.” So it was kind of a funny moment. (laughs) Like are we a happy band? I don’t know. We can be. I feel good at the moment, happy and positive about life.
Completely unrelated to the new release, but something that’s pretty well-documented is the fact that you’re a big Star Wars fan, Bill. Any thoughts or expectations about the upcoming film?
It’s kind of like rap and metal. I hope that Star Wars and Disney don’t sour the movie franchise, you know what I mean? I hope they do it right.
Which I think they will, but I just hope they don’t fuck it up and make some kind of goofy movie with storm troopers with Mickey Mouse ears or anything crazy like that. So we’ll see. I’ve got my fingers crossed. Ugh. The acting was terrible in those three movies that came out.