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Mastodon: A Year in the Life of the Sludge Metal Lords

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Bill Kelliher rocks a 1977 Les Paul Custom loaded with a Lace Sensor Nitro Hemi Humbucker. Photo by Ken Settle

For some, the country of Luxembourg evokes an image of a fairy-tale land where aristocratic Gwyneth Paltrow look-alikes leisurely spend their afternoons indulging in Quetschentaart, a fruit tart made with Damson plums. For Mastodon, the setting conjured up much less pretentious thoughts. On a rainy Sunday off while on tour in Europe’s wealthiest country, when nothing was open, guitarist Bill Kelliher wrote the tritone-laced riffs for “High Road,” the lead single from the band’s sixth release, Once More ’Round the Sun. The song features lyrics like “I have my boot stuck in your mouth. I have you screaming for your last breath. I shoved them both deep inside.”

You might assume that Kelliher was raging pretty damn hard as he cranked out the hellacious, detuned “High Road” riffs, but that wasn’t the case. “You know, when I was writing it, it wasn’t like I was in a bad mood or anything,” he explains. “But it definitely has a melancholy feel. I felt like it had a heavy kind of, angry grit to the low-tuned chug of the riff. When it gets to the chorus, it opens up and draws you in. I knew something special was going to go on there. It’s happier and catchier.”

And catchier it is. “High Road,” like many of the tracks on Once More ’Round the Sun, features a more concise and accessible song structure than Mastodon’s earlier offerings. “We’re getting better at crafting songs,” says Kelliher. “It’s not easy. Even though it sounds like it’s trimmed down and streamlined and all that stuff, to me, it’s harder to write something that makes more sense like that, rather than just throw in a bunch of riffs in a row and scream over it.”

A few days after Mastodon’s performance at Bonnaroo 2014, Premier Guitar caught up with Kelliher and lead guitarist Brent Hinds to discuss the making of Once More ’Round the Sun and talk gear.

Prior to The Hunter, your albums had concepts behind them. Was there a concept behind Once More ’Round the Sun?
Kelliher:
It doesn’t really have a concept, per se. Not that we gave up on concepts but we’re just going in a different direction, I guess. We’ve done concept albums, which are really cool, and really serious. The Hunter was kind of more laid back and we were feeling like, “Let’s just write a record for the sake of making some music and not have to have anything attached to it, like a concept and all the visuals, and all the stuff that goes with it.” I think this record was just a continuation of that.

While there might not be a concept per se, it seems like there is a theme that runs throughout the album. What does the album title refer to?
Kelliher:
It’s loosely based on real events that happened. Once more ’round the sun, which is a full revolution of the earth around the sun, and all of the things that happened within that year. It’s based on things that happened in our personal lives, whether they were tragedies or good things. It’s based on the feeling of what we were all going through.

Did everyone in the band get his story told?
Kelliher:
Everybody knows everybody’s business in our band. The four of us know what kind of things went down but people on the outside don’t really know. It’s all wrapped up into the lyrics and all got put in there in some way or another. That was the driving force.

The songs on Once More ’Round the Sunhave simpler verse/chorus structures than some of your earlier outings.
Hinds:
Yeah, simpler. You hit the nail on the head. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

“I use very minimal effects ... there’s no sense in having all that garbage all over your guitar.” —Brent Hinds

Kelliher: I had a lot of riffs and songs that I personally wanted to get out. Brann [Dailor, drummer] and I would go down to the practice space and spend months writing and arranging. I would come up with the riffs and he’d say, “Okay, let’s really look at what this song’s about. What’s the main riff? What’s the verse? What’s the chorus here? What makes sense?” We really made a conscious effort to do that.

Is this a big departure from how you’ve written in the past?
Kelliher:
We never really used to do that. We just wrote a bunch of songs and riffs and put them in a row and kind of screamed over it. We didn’t worry too much about, “Where’s the chorus? Where’s the hooky part? What part is what?” We slowly did, over time, and Blood Mountain started it. Then, I guess on Leviathan, you started to notice things like, “This is kind of a chorus part here, and this is a verse and whatnot.”


On their last tour, Mastodon gave audiences a preview of “High Life” from their new release Once More ’Round the Sun, followed by “Sparrow” from their previous album, The Hunter.

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