Early on, Mastodon could have been written off as just another million-BPS metal act with over-distorted guitars and gruesome vocals. Luckily for us, things change and bands evolve. After their ridiculously heavy 2002 release, Remission
, Mastadon recalibrated. Their evolution from speed metal to Sludge metal (an aggressive, dynamic branch of the metal universe, also referred to as “Southern Metal”) resulted in a more digestible slathering of sludgy guitars and climatically forceful vocals. 2004’s Leviathan
was received by reviewers and music critics alike as a step in the right direction. While the release embraced their heavier sides, it unleashed a collection of harmonizing guitars, driving rhythmic patterns and an lyrical epic loosely based on Moby Dick
and various other adventures at sea.
The boys from Atlanta knew they had something and they set out to prove it. Like Metallica with Master of Puppets
, they honed their craft and exemplified their abilities on 2006’s Blood Mountain
, an album widely considered their “epic.” It features melodic 12-string mastery by guitarist Brent Hinds on “Pendulous Skin” and equally soothing “Sleeping Giant,” which has been compared to Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.” These songs offer a cool contrast to the blistering, harmonized guitar attack with guitarist Bill Kelliher found on tracks like “Bladecatcher” and “This Mortal Soil.” With Blood Mountain
they struck a near perfect equilibrium between hard and heavy and soulful and canorous.
Much like their new video
for Crack the Skye
’s “Divinations” Mastodon found themselves a top the mountain of previous successes and overwhelming expectations. With their latest release, they looked to break down their past accomplishments and forge something new and fresh; the band’s latest, Crack the Skye
, draws influence from unlikely parties. The quartet of metal maniacs looked to their own favorites like the Melvins and Neurosis, but they also leaned on proggers like Pink Floyd, Gary Numan and even Yes to create their own prog-rock-metal rendition. Their ongoing progression and transition as a band and musicians climaxed when Crack the Skye
entered the Billboard Top 200 at #11.
We recently caught up with Mastodon’s guitarists’ Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher on their way to practice and talked about using producer Brendan O’Brien’s ultimate gear stash, hanging with Thin Lizzy’s Scott Gorham and their unlikely journey to acquiring some wicked Gibson Silverburst guitars.
What was it like working with renowned producer Brendan O’Brien [Mastodon’s previous three albums were produced by Matt Bayles]? And how the did different circumstances affect the recording process of Crack the Skye?
It was funny, he told us before day one in the studio that he’d be really brutal on our music and that made us know our stuff pretty well prior to getting started. With Matt Bayles, we’d dial stuff in hundreds and hundreds of times, but with Brendan we’d just be prepared, rock a few takes and move onto the next thing. Another thing that helped while working with Brendan was that he’d just grab a guitar and just start jamming out a part of one of our songs and we’d know exactly what he meant and he’d be like, “Yeah, that part, lose it. Just take it out of the song.” I mean, he would never say anything sucked, but he’d really make sure we wanted or needed something in a particular song. Space and the ability for a track to breathe is something he really emphasized. He was just a no-bullshit kind of a guy. If you played a sour note or played something that didn’t sound right, he’d just tell you straight up that it wasn’t good enough and you’d have to make something else up or just move onto something else. We didn’t waste a lot of time.
I loved every minute of it because Brendan seems to be cut from the same cloth as us. He’s much more of a Mastodon-type of a dude, which really helps bring out the best in us for this album. Matt is a great guy, but he’s just a little bit high-strung for our working environment and schedule. We had only worked with Matt so we thought that all producers were drill sergeants, but they’re not all that bad [laughs]. I think Brendan better suits us as far as attitude, demeanor and work ethic. Overall, I’ve never worked with someone with such ease as we did with Brendan. We love Matt and we’re still all great friends with him, but he’s just relentless with hundreds of re-takes for our vocals and guitars. Plus, Brendan works out of Southern Tracks [Atlanta, GA] and that allowed us to sleep in our own beds every night–that’s something worth noting for sure.
How have you guys prepared to present the new material to fans during the tour?
We’re just going to play through the whole album. We have a keyboardist [Rich Morris] now so he’ll do the interludes, sampling and the keyboard parts on the album. We just did an in-store live performance at Criminal Records in Atlanta as a CD-release party show and we played the first five tracks off Crack the Skye
. I went back and listened to the recording and it sounded amazing. We’ve been practicing for a few weeks now, just nailing down the album for a live setting and being able to play it all the way through; it doesn’t sound like the produced CD, it’s going to sound live, but either way it’s killer stuff.
I mean, it’s great for bands that have all those crazy studio effects and sounds, but what happens when you can’t recreate that same sound on tour? The songs don’t even resemble the original track. While we know when we record we won’t be able to fully recreate the album verbatim, we’d like to try to nail it as close as possible during the live setting.
Bill, you’ve been a big advocate of the return of the album; how did you guys approach that mentality with Crack the Skye? Was this a conscious effort to produce something that forces a listener to go from start to finish?
We always tried to do that with previous efforts, but I think we actually achieved it with this album. It’s like… get your life in order and take it off shuffle. I think we have always tried to get people to re-embrace the LP, when you’d sit down, put the record on, listen to the lyrics, check out the cover art, but I think we’re losing that feel of how LPs used to be. I remember putting on albums and just picking up a pad of paper and start drawing, or picking up my guitar and try playing along. Listening to those old LPs in that manner would just chill me out and put me in a creative state of mind. Now-a-days, everyone is too busy to sit down and actually enjoy music in that manner. We all have these gadgets to help us go-go-go, but it’s good to take an hour, put the record on and just enjoy the whole thing. I’d like to think that Crack the Skye
is definitely an ode to traditional rock ‘n’ roll records like The Wall
or Zeppelin II
What was it like to hang out with Thin Lizzy’s Scott Gorham and play “Emerald” on some acoustic Gibsons?
It was amazing. The whole thing was super cool. Scott was definitely a down-to-earth, easy-going dude and just like one of us but in a body of guy in his late-50s. This guy is a legend. I think he’s an amazing guitar player for a band that will go down in history and here we were jamming one of their songs with him. He wanted to hear our new record, so I sent him a copy and he played it on his radio show in London. But meeting him, getting to play guitar next to him and just shooting the shit with him like a normal dude instead of being a rabid crazy fan, was definitely an honor and one of the perks of my current position in this band.
For Brent, he’s a bigger Thin Lizzy fan than I am, and he was just beside himself like a little kid and couldn’t really think of what to say. We are going to try to get Scott to come on stage with us and play “Emerald” when we’re at the Knebworth Festival this summer.
Brent, that had to be particularly cool since you’ve noted Gorham as a heavy influence and had even played in a Thin Lizzy cover band.
[laughs] Yeah those were the days; we even dressed the part too! As for Scott, he’s probably one of the coolest dudes I’ve ever met. He’s often labeled as an original guitarist of Thin Lizzy, even though he didn’t join the band until their fourth album, but that’s when they started that Thin Lizzy double-guitar attack we all know and love.
As for playing, it was kind of intimidating at first, because I’ve personally always looked up to him as a player, but he was such a cool dude it was like hanging out with one of our friends. By the end of the show [Rock Sound TV], we were talking gear, how he plays certain parts of Thin Lizzy songs and we just shot the shit with him about guitars and music. We both went in not knowing what to expect, but since then we’ve become friends and that’s the coolest part. Like Bill said, we’re hoping to get him on stage with us when we play the Knebworth Festival.
The Thin Lizzy influence is evident with your own harmonized Gibson, dual-humbucker attack on songs like “Bladecatcher,” “The Wolf is Loose” and parts of “Oblivion.” Is that a direct ode to them or just something that evolved naturally?
Scott Gorham (left) with Brent Hinds (right)
I personally have been a big fan of harmonizing guitars. The Fucking Champs, Metallica, Thin Lizzy and Boston are some of my favorite bands and they often have those harmonized, layered guitars that obviously have played a big part of what I like and play now. I’m always trying to come up with something to compliment the main riff, run or flow of the song. That kind of stuff usually comes out in rehearsal when I have time to sit there and play it over and over. That allows me to dial in my technique and get each note and riff the way it needs to be for the recording and sometimes I’ll even try putting down three different guitars for a part of a track just to make it super harmonized.
It goes back to that Thin Lizzy reference and all those dual-guitar attack bands like the Allman Brothers and whoever else, it’s almost a necessity to double the guitar tracks to make them thick and something you can chew on. I know Bill almost always doubles his parts and everything I do I usually play two of them.