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

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

Riffmeisters Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds play for the song on the quartet’s sixth album, Once More ’Round the Sun.

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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.

Brent Hinds gets nasty on his Flying V while playing Detroit’s Fillmore while on tour in 2011 supporting The Hunter. Photo by Ken Settle

Having very successfully written both complex and simpler songs, what are the key ingredients to writing a good song?
Well, a song’s really gotta have a good melody and a good meaty hook. It has to be something that grabs you, something that you want to hear again. You listen to music because you like the way it sounds, you know? You hear a riff and you like it, and you want to hear it again. Sing-along parts are great. I love early Weezer records, and the Beach Boys, and the Beatles. It’s all about melody and harmony, to me, and obviously about the riff, having some kind of massive, chugga-chugga riff going on.

How do you guys come up with the two-guitar parts?
Bill does all that stuff. I’m not trying to go to Bill to get him to play guitar exactly on point with me ever, really. A lot of times Bill will come to me and say, “Hey, can you play this guitar solo that I wrote with me,” and I’m like, “Okay, cool. No problem.”

Kelliher: Brann and I collaborated on a lot of the stuff, but most of the riffs are mine. I wrote a lot of music on this record, for sure. When Brent writes a song, he’ll play a lot of open notes and I don’t always lock up with what he’s playing. To me the part doesn’t call for two guitars doing the exact same thing. I think that we have to complement each other. He and I are completely different players. He has a style that is very chicken pickin’, and has a lot of open, dissonant notes and chords, which is where we kind of mesh. When I show him stuff, he tries to complement it by writing something different over it. We’re two different players and that’s what makes Mastodon, Mastodon.

“It’s just a feel-good, rockin’ record for the summer.” —Bill Kelliher

Let’s talk gear. The opening of “High Road” has a really meaty guitar sound. What did you use there?
I recently purchased a Friedman BE100 that Friedman’s buddy Rob made for me. I just absolutely love it. It’s such a modern answer to a good cross between metal and rock, with a really warm tone. I used it on almost everything because it just sounded so fuckin’ good. I was like, “Man, this amp just kills it.” I used that for all the distorted stuff. I think we were also running an old Orange—either a bass head or a guitar head—that, by itself, sounded pretty crappy. But somehow Nick [Raskulinecz,producer] had a lot of bass tonality going on there, and it really brought out the sound when you mixed the two together. On its own, when I played through it, I was like, “This does not sound good. I don’t know where you’re going with this.” He was like, “Trust me, it’s going to sound great.”

Bill Kelliher’s Gear

1977 Les Paul Custom loaded with a Lace Sensor Nitro Hemi Humbucker
Gibson Bill Kelliher “Golden Axe” Explorer with signature Bill Kelliher Lace Dissonant Aggressors pickups

Friedman BE100
Orange Thunderverb
Friedman 4x12 cab with 65-watt Celestion Creamback speakers

DigiTech SC-2 HardWire Valve Distortion
DigiTech Bad Monkey
TC Electronic G-System

Strings and Picks
D’Addario EXL116 medium top/heavy bottom (.011–.052) Dunlop Tortex Sharp .88 mm

Hinds: I use old Marshall amps. JMP Mk2 100-watt Lead series—’76 and ’77, around that era.

How about cabs?
I used mostly the Friedman 4x12s with 65-watt Celestion Creamback speakers, which are my personal favorite at the moment. They sound great.

A lot of your songs feature ringing open strings as a texture. How do you set your gear so that the notes ring out crisp, yet still sound warm and blend well with two guitars?
It’s just years of practice, I guess. I don’t really know.

Kelliher: I grew up playing metal, and had a cheap guitar, cheap amp, and cheap pickups. I could get that metal tone because I’d always scoop out the mids. Take all the mids away and then you’d have this chug-chug-chug, super trebly, super bassy ’80s metal sound, you know? After playing with various rock guys, I learned to not be afraid to turn the mids up because the mids is where the actual presence of your guitar sound is. You scoop the mids a little, but I tend to believe that a lot of people scoop it too much and you get that false sense of a heavy, bassy, chuggy metal guitar sound, but you lose the presence of where the guitar actually sits. You can’t take away the mids. You have to have a good EQ of all that stuff in there.

So what does your EQ curve look like? Is it less pronounced of a V-shape or are the mids peaking?
Well, if you’re going to look at it, I have my bass frequencies at probably 75 or 80 percent, the mids up about 55, and the highs at about 55.

Is all your gain from the amp or are you using dirt pedals, too?
I just use the amp distortion. I mean I like pedals and have hundreds of distortion pedals that I use in different ways, but for this record I basically plugged straight into the Friedman. The less things in the way….

Mastodon gives the fans at NYC’s Terminal 5 a pre-release teaser of “Chimes at Midnight,” another song off their new album, Once More ’Round the Sun.

Brent Hinds’ Gear

Gibson Flying V with signature Lace Brent Hinds Hammer Claw pickups
Electrical Guitar Company Brent Hinds Custom acrylic V-style
First Act Lola 12-string
First Act Brent Hinds Custom

Marshall JMP Mk2 Master Model 100-watt Lead head
Marshall 4x12 cab with 75-watt Celestion speakers
silverface Fender Twin Reverb

TC Electronic Flashback
TC Electronic Corona
TC Electronic PolyTune

Strings and Picks
D’Addario EXL116 medium top/heavy bottom (.011–.052)
Dunlop Tortex .73 mm picks

Did you crank the amp or use preamp gain?
I used the preamp gain of the amp. Turned the gain and volume up and it just gives you the sound of the amp. The speakers are big enough where they don’t break up too much, they break up a little bit when you crank it up really loud, but it’s a good breakup.

What do you use for effects?
I use a lot of TC Electronic stuff, their delay pedals and chorus. I like a lot of vibrato and tremolo pedals.

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

Brent, there are videos of you creating some TC Electronic TonePrints. Are you still using those pedals?
TC Electronic? Yeah, I use some of those.

Which ones?
I can’t really remember, to be honest with you.

There’s a cool pulsating sound in the middle of “Once More ’Round the Sun.” What did you use there?
Oh yeah. I think that’s an old Uni-Vibe or a vibrato pedal, just moving the knob as we were playing.

How were you physically able to maneuver the knob while you were playing?
We had the producer turn it as we were playing to make it go all over the place. I also use some DigiTech pedals. They endorse me and I just flipped through their catalog and said, “Let me try out a bunch of pedals.” I use their tremolo pedal live, and their HardWire tube distortion. They also have a distortion pedal called the Bad Monkey.

Oh yeah, that’s a killer pedal that’s also pretty affordable.
It’s awesome, it’s fuckin’ great. I’ve been using that just straight into a Marshall for the past couple of tours. Just to give it a little bit of distortion on top, a little overdrive.

“I like pedals and have got hundreds of distortion pedals that I use in different ways, but for this record I basically plugged straight into the Friedman.” —Bill Kelliher

Brent, how did you come up with your hybrid-picking approach?
Just by watching Jeff Beck play guitar.

That’s unique in a metal context.
Yeah, that’s a good thing for me. You’ll see everybody do it in the future just like everybody else copying everybody all the time. Just like I copied Jeff Beck. See how that went?

How do you keep things clean without the open strings accidentally ringing? I imagine it’s probably hard to control.
Palm mute it.

Is the intro to “Feast Your Eyes” played using hybrid picking?
I don’t know the names of any of the songs because they all got changed at the last minute. If it’s me playing, it’s probably hybrid picked.

What do you practice away from the band stuff?
I don’t.

So how do you maintain your chops?
I have no idea. They’re just there. I don’t know how they stay there. Sometimes they show up, sometimes they don’t. Whatever, they have a schedule of their own. It’s like one of those natural powers. You just have it, I guess. I don’t know. Sometimes you’re nimble and sometimes if it’s cold or you haven’t played in a while, you’re rusty, then seconds later you’re doing something you’ve never done before. I’ve been playing for a long time, since I was 10, you know. You just have a big discography of things you can do after a while, I guess.

Do you have a favorite track off Once More ’Round the Sun?
Probably “Once More ’Round the Sun” or “Halloween.”

How does Once More ’Round the Sun compare to your earlier records?
It’s just a feel-good, rockin’ record for the summer. We had a bunch of songs that we’d written and just wanted to display in the truest form. We wanted to just let the songs come out the way they are and not attach any concept to it. They stand on their own and didn’t really need to have any kind of extra thought about it.