Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher wields his new signature model ESP Sparrowhawk during an April 22 concert at the Hollywood Palladium. He also has two models of signature pickups made by Lace. Photo by Debi Del Grande

It’s Bill Kelliher’s birthday. While many rock stars would celebrate the occasion with debauchery, the Mastodon guitarist spent a good part of his morning with Premier Guitar. Over coffee at the Club Room in New York’s Soho Grand Hotel, Kelliher told the tale of the band’s eighth full-length studio release, Emperor of Sand.

Okay, so rock stars only party at night? Well, maybe. Later that evening, we reconvened at a Mastodon listening event held at the Sonos New York City flagship store. Here—in an upscale environment where even the trash can was decked out in black velvet—Kelliher was joined by bassist/co-frontman Troy Sanders and rounded out his celebration by doing more publicity for the new album. These guys live Mastodon 24/7, and Emperor of Sand is a testament to their unwavering dedication.

Emperor of Sand was written during arguably the darkest time in the band’s personal lives. “When we were writing, there was a lot of illness and life-changing events happening all around us,” revealed Kelliher. “Basically, Troy’s wife fell ill with cancer last year and, hitting so close to home, we had to cancel a tour. Brann’s [that’s Brann Dailor, Mastodon’s drummer/vocalist] mom has been in and out of care. She’s been sick with some sort of crippling disease ever since I’ve known him. Myself … as soon as we got off the road two Septembers ago, I started sitting down to write the record and my mom fell ill. I found out that she had a brain tumor that was cancerous.”

Some might have been crushed, but Mastodon, which also includes guitarist Brent Hinds, persevered and ultimately turned these tragedies into songs. “Every day Brann and I would get together and have coffee and be like, ‘How’s your mom doing?’ We’re getting older and we’d talk about what happens when you get older,” says Kelliher. “I felt like it would do a disservice to our loved ones if we didn’t confront it and sing about it, or write about it, or talk about it, and use it for storylines in the making of the record. We were writing the record and it was rubbing off on our creative juices.”

Kelliher’s two-plus years of sobriety also made the writing process more fruitful. And after about a year of pre-production, the band recorded the album at the Quarry in Kennesaw, Georgia. Legendary producer Brendan O’Brien, who had worked with Mastodon previously on Crack the Skye, was brought back to lend his magic touch. And it worked: Emperor of Sand features the signature elements Mastodon fans have grown to love, from the haunting dissonances in “Andromeda” and “Sultan’s Curse”to the blazing, extended melodic outro solo of “Jaguar God.”

“I used to always scoop my mids, and then I learned that if you turn your mids up, you can actually hear your guitar.
The presence of it is there.”

Almost two decades into their career, Mastodon continues to operate in perpetual overdrive. The band recently bought a building in Atlanta, Georgia, and opened Ember City, a rehearsal (and soon, recording) facility. Kelliher’s also got a new signature Friedman amp—the Butterslax—and a new ESP signature model, joining his LP-style ESP BK-600. In support of Emperor of Sand, Mastodon is set to embark on a North American spring tour with Eagles of Death Metal and Russian Circles.

But back at the Club Room, we started by talking about how bad times led to creating new music.

You’ve said that “Sultan’s Curse,” the first song on Emperor of Sand,is about being handed a death sentence. That song sets the theme for the album.
Kelliher: “Sultan’s Curse” was a song I had for probably six or seven years prior to it coming out on Emperor of Sand. I’ve got so many ideas, riffs, and parts of songs just floating around all over—in my Pro Tools, in my head. That particular song just didn’t make it on any other records. It wasn’t completely finished yet. That’s the thing with these songs: You know when they’re finished. When they’re done, it’s like, “Cool, let’s start writing the lyrics.”

I don’t write the lyrics. I’m just the riff guy. Usually when we write concept albums, it either has a very intricate story—something we made up—or a real-life event that influenced us and turned into a story. There are a lot of metaphors in there, which are open to interpretation, like all our lyrics are. But our fans are so die-hard and have such an emotional connection to our music that they are gonna understand it and feed off of it, and the message is really going to get through. My mom passed away, Brann’s mom is still doing all right, Troy’s wife is doing okay. I feel like the album is a real finished piece.

Can you talk us through the steps of a typical Mastodon demo?
I have a studio in my basement that I built last year. I built it as fast as I could because I had so many ideas and I needed a place to dump them out. It was just me and Brann. I did all the bass and all the guitars and everything. Because Brann and I had been working really hard at it, we knew the material inside and out. We played the songs for eight months before we really showed them to anybody else.

Did you factor in Brent’s parts as you wrote the riffs?
Over some parts, we’d say, “That’s where Brent will play a solo.” Or, like on “Steambreather,” it was, “We got the verse. Let’s put a little break in between the two verses where normally the chorus would go, but we’ll save the chorus for later and put a little guitar solo in there.”

When I’m down in my studio, I have the advantage of writing all the guitar parts and putting all the guitar harmonies over them. I don’t, by any means, write parts for him, but sometimes I’ll suggest things, like, “I did this cool harmony on the record and I want you to play this part.” Sometimes it works the other way. If he’s written something, it doesn’t always make sense for me because a lot of times he writes super complex, chicken pickin’ things, and I can’t even tell what the hell is going on.

Can you give us an example of something like that on Emperor of Sand?
“Jaguar God” is a Brent song, and in the middle it has that crazy scale thing. I sat there for hours and days, trying to slow it down and play along to it, and I could. But I didn’t feel comfortable playing it. If both of us are doing it live, it’s going to be insane. I don’t know if I could pull it off. I think I’d just get too much anxiety over trying to play it perfectly. And it kind of does the riff a disservice if you’re just playing the exact same thing when you have two different guitar players. Like I’m forcing myself to play like him and it’s not natural. I try to come up with stuff under what he’s playing to more lock up with the rhythm. I’m not really that dexterous.

You’ve got a new signature guitar.
The Sparrowhawk, with ESP. When I left Gibson, I was talking with ESP and everyone I knew kept saying what a great company they are, and how they make great guitars. I’ve always been a Gibson guy, though, so it was hard for me to jump ship, but it had to be done.

When I was first approached by ESP, the first thing out of my mouth was, “Can I design my own guitar?” I’m not a big fan of some of their shapes. It’s like, “That’s kind of too pointy, too metal. That one looks like a Les Paul, but it’s not.” I was a little put off. But they were like, “Of course, man. You can design your own guitar.” But I think they were kind of wary about it—like, “I don’t know how this is going to turn out.”

I took some ’Bird shapes, some RD shapes. I love Fender Mustang and Jag-Stang shapes, but they’re kind of small for me. I like them a little bit bigger. So I took all that stuff into consideration and sketched out this idea. We went back and forth a few times. There are a couple of different colors: a Pelham Blue, which is like a bright blue, and there’s a … I call it army green silverburst. But the custom ones will be available in whatever color you want. And it is one of the greatest playing and sounding guitars I’ve ever owned.

I still play my old Les Paul and my old Explorers, but there’s something about the way this Sparrowhawk just sits. I always wanted to be one of those guys that plays the guitar down here [motions a low-hanging strap], like Slash, but I learned that it’s harder to reach all those notes and not play too sloppily. Like Jimmy Page, who has got his guitars down by his feet. It looks cool as hell. And with the Sparrowhawk, it still looks like it’s sitting pretty low, but I can really get to all the stuff I need to get to on the fretboard.

What pickups do you have in the Sparrowhawk?
They’re pickups I designed with Lace. One set is called the Dissonant Aggressors, and another set is the Divinators, which are brand new, and which I kind of like better than the Dissonant Aggressors. The Dissonant Aggressors are definitely a metal-sounding pickup, but not so high output that you can’t get a good clean sound, too.

Tell us about your signature Friedman Butterslax amp.
I had been playing the Friedman HBE [the Brown Eye 100 set on its “Hairy” channel] and Jerry Cantrell JJ-100 heads, which sound incredible. But their clean channels weren’t what I was looking for, and I told them, “I want three channels and I want more gain.” They were like, “You’ve got plenty of gain.” I was like, “When I’m playing the HBE and JJ head, I’ve got them pegged to like 9 1/2 or 10. Why don’t you take what would be the gain at 9 1/2 or 10 and put that back to, like, noon?”

So, you’ve got half more gain to go?
Even if you don’t use it, it might be a selling point. It’s there if you want it, and I found myself using it.

So you actually go up to the new “10?”
To “11.” [Laughs.] I said to them, “Can you put an 11 on it?” That would be funny.