IT’S A ROCK AND ROLL STORY, AND IT AIN’T TOO PRETTY. MASTODON GUITARIST BRENT
Hinds parties hardy at the 2007 Video Music Awards, goes a few rounds with System of a Down
bassist Shavo Odadjian and a friend outside Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Hotel, and ends up with
brain hemorrhaging, a broken nose, and months of vertigo.
“It could have been our last day as Mastodon,” commented bassist Troy Sanders.
But multiple levels of life’s confounding hard knocks—including sickness, death, and homelessness
amongst band members and their immediate families—only served to fire up Mastodon’s
collective consciousness and result in one masterful epic of a tremendously heavy, riff-driven, progrock-
burnished album entitled Crack the Skye [Reprise]. (Even the title evokes tragedy—“Skye”
was the name of drummer Brann Dailor’s sister, who passed away as a child.) Here, the cliché of
hardship fueling creativity is far more than a facile snippet for journalists to throw down in order
to craft a compelling introductory paragraph.
“I was so glad to be alive when it was all over,” says Hinds. “When I finally started playing guitar
again, I was really into playing guitar. It was a creative outburst.”
How all the mayhem informed the concept of Crack the Skye is something the band may hold dear,
but it ultimately produced some extremely
weird, quasi-psychedelic plot strings. Let’s
leave the explanation to Dailor, who detailed
the album’s narrative for one of the band’s
press kits: “This story is a multi-dimensional
journey starting in the present day. Leaving
a crippled body using astral travel, up into
outer space, too close to the sun. Ripped into
a wormhole, and sent to the spirit realm. Convincing
spirits that you’re not one of them.
Channeling you into a Russian Orthodox sect
called the Khlysty in the early 20th century.
Into Rasputin’s body for his assassination.
Out of his body, and up through a crack in
the sky, and passing through the devil’s
dominion without being dragged to hell, and
back into the present day.”
And there you have it.
But whether you’re into the concept or
not, Crack the Skye delivers an explosive array
of jaw-dropping shred excursions, angular
riffs, bombastic tones and textures, guitar
harmonies that are so not Lynyrd Skynyrd
(but still kind of honor them in a strange
and compelling way), and cascading harmonic
and melodic passages that could
power a Prius for months. Furthermore, the
album was guided by producer Brendan
O’Brien—a fabulous guitarist himself—who
has helmed a few little guitar albums by people
such as AC/DC, Aerosmith, Bruce
Springsteen, Velvet Revolver, and Audioslave.
The partnership ensured the tones were
intense, the songs focused, and the grooves
powerful, and it delivered an audio spectrum
that is simultaneously elegant and raw.
Lyrical and compositional elements aside, was
there an overriding performance concept in effect
for Crack the Skye?
Kelliher: We definitely thought more
about negative spaces on this record, rather
than try to fill up every second with music.
We wanted to concentrate more on feel and
atmosphere. Even Brann [Dailor, drummer]
kind of laid back. Brendan told him, “Think
more about the groove of the song, instead
of going super-crazy, Neil Peart style.” He
even played to a click track, and that was a
first. But it worked like magic. Brendan would
have us lay down a few different tempos, and
then he could listen back and say, “This one
is a little too slow, this one is a little too fast,
and this one is right in the pocket.”
How did Brendan guide your tonal choices and
performances in the studio?
Kelliher: He messed with my sound a
little bit, and he got it sounding not quite
as heavy as I’m used to. But after the signal
went through the mics and preamps and all
that stuff, it sounded really good.
So he was cleaning up your amp sound?
Kelliher: Yeah. It was kind of weird for
me, but I thought, “I’m going to listen to
this guy because he’s a brilliant producer,
and he knows what he’s doing.”
Hinds: His attitude about life and his
upbeat personality were very uplifting, and
it was awesome to be around someone who
didn’t make things difficult. His attitude was
kind of like, “We’re musicians and playing
music should be fun.”
He took the angst factor out of making a big,
much-anticipated record, so to speak.
Hinds: Yeah, he totally did. I didn’t even
realize we had made a record when it was
over. I was like, “We’re done? Damn, that
was fast.” Brendan is also an awesome guitar
player who was in all these cover bands,
so he can play almost any song note-for-note.
He taught me all these Brian May and Steve
Howe solos. We’d just start playing guitar
together, and an hour later we’d go, “Okay,
we should get back to working on the
album.” You couldn’t ask for a cooler dude.
I understand that you demoed the entire album
before you recorded it for real. Did you learn anything
from the rather crazy process of recording
Hinds: Well, we really wanted to go through
the demo process, because we didn’t want to
waste time and money in the studio. And, yeah,
when we listened back to all the demos, we
learned there was definitely some stuff in our
songs that didn’t need to be there. It was kind
of obvious what fit and what didn’t. Having
the demos also helped us finalize lyrics and
vocal melodies, because we were actually writing
the songs during the preproduction phase.
Did you ever feel that the demos had a certain
rowdy charm that you couldn’t recapture on the
Hinds: There were a couple of really dry,
raw guitars tones on the demo that I wanted
to emulate again for the album sessions, but I
wasn’t able to do it. That was frustrating. There
were also some vocals that were more raw on
the demo versions. But, whatever—I couldn’t
be more pleased with the final recording.
How did you conceptalize your parts for the
Kelliher: I’ve always been inspired by guitar
parts that are really beautiful or sad
sounding, and then kick into a thundering
rhythm with some chunky guitar riffs—like
a lot of Greg Ginn, James Hetfield, and Kerry
King stuff. So when I write a song, I’ll often
start off with something slow, eerie, or creepy,
and then get heavier as the song progresses.
But I usually do most of my experimentation
in the studio, because you can hear how
things are going to work a little better than
maybe, say, being at a rehearsal space and
saying, “Okay guys, play that part again
because I want to mess around with some
stuff.” They’d probably say, “Hey, we don’t
want to sit here all day just for your enjoyment!”
So, in the studio, I’ll usually loop a
section and play something over it until I
find a part that sounds good. I’m usually the
guy doing harmonies and trying different
things under or over what Brent is doing, so
it takes a while to dial that in—especially as
Brent does a lot of crazy chicken picking
that’s really fast and intricate. A lot of times,
I’d lay down a couple of different things, and
I’d go, “Well, it should be one or the other,
because it won’t work to use everything.”
But Brendan really opened my eyes to how
you can mix parts to utilize all of them at
one point or another. He’d have things swell
up or down, or just use a counterpoint for a
short section, or
Hinds: I don’t know where I pull my
inspiration from. I just know that I like to
sit around and play guitar. When I discover
something that sounds cool to me, I’ll
remember it. I never record anything. If I
can’t remember a riff, then I figure it’s not
worth remembering, and I play guitar until
more stuff comes to the surface.
Kelliher: I just write a couple of riffs and
hope they sound good together. That’s the
hard part—making riffs fit together seamlessly
so they sound like they belong together.
Sometimes, we have to add a note to a riff,
or leave a note off. I guess the process would
be easier if we all read music, and we could
just write it down, and say, “Here, play it
like that.” But we do it the old-fashioned
way, and keep playing until it sounds good.
So it seems the material gets refined in the
rehearsal studio, but how does it get from riffs in
your head to the band?
Hinds: It happens two or three different
ways. I can come up with basic ideas, and
then have the other guys help me make those
ideas into songs, or I can come up with all
the parts and the arrangement, and present
it to the band. However, I tend to put too
many ingredients into a song, and I need like
a professional chef to come over and say,
“Dude, you’ve got everything in here but the
kitchen sink!” So I always like to show the
songs to the guys, and say, “What do you
think?” Then, we’ll start nitpicking at it.
But you don’t record anything, so how do you
show your work to the others?
Hinds: They’ll come over to my house
at the beginning of a writing cycle, and I’ll
play them a bunch of stuff right there.
Brent, when I viewed your electronic press kit,
you were never shown sitting at home with an electric
guitar. Did you write the album totally on acoustic?
Hinds: Yes. I don’t think I’ve ever written
anything on electric. I always sit around
with an acoustic guitar. When I write music,
I’m usually not alone. I can’t write unless I
have a cat and a dog bothering me, and I
need the big TV on with some guy catching
a fish or something, and I need to look at
my girlfriend, who is being kind of a muse
by creating some art of her own. We just
kind of get lost in our little den.
Your music is very complex, and all this discussion
about putting riffs together to construct
songs seems so beyond the basic, Beatles approach
to songwriting. How do you hammer all these disparate
riffs together to make a cogent song?
Hinds: It’s really quite simple. It’s more
like you have a big collection of riffs, and
some are in “Riff Detention.” They’re bad
riffs—they did something wrong, and they’re
in trouble. And then, you have your good
riffs. Now, in the back of your head, you have
all these collected riffs that don’t have a song
to be in. But when you’re kind of noodling
around, you find out that detention—or
rehab—has worked for some of those bad
riffs, and they’re ready to behave and play
nice with the good riffs. It kind of comes
about like that. That’s the most elementary
way I can explain it.
Do you actually have a vocal melody line in your
head when you’re coming up with the guitar riffs?
Hinds: I’ll sometimes have a vocal melody
in my head, but no lyrics. I’ll just be humming
something as I play. Most of the time,
though, I’ll have the music first. Just because
I sing in this band doesn’t mean that I want
to [laughs]. Because I’m such a guitar freak—
and I like playing guitar more than I like
singing—I’ll tend to come up with music
before I start working on lyrics or vocal
melodies. Then, it usually takes a couple of
weeks to where I’m fluent enough on the
guitar parts to be able to open my mouth
and start talking and singing while I’m playing.
I have to be very familiar with the
material before I start vocalizing.
How do your and Bill’s styles mesh?
Hinds: Bill brings the heavy metal. He’s
a total metal head and a punk rocker. I’m a
bluegrass, country, blues, southern rocker.
I have a denim cowboy shirt on right now!
With me and Bill, it’s kind of like the south
meeting the north. As far as technique goes,
I’m just a little more nimble than Bill. He
only does downstrokes, and I’ve been trying
to teach him to pick up and down to make
things easier on him.
I didn’t realize he was solely doing downstrokes.
Hinds: Yeah, he’s a downstroker, but he
hates it. For a long time, when I would write
stuff, it would be almost impossible for him
to mimic it because of the way his picking
hand was positioned. I was like, “Man, I don’t
know why you’re making it so hard on yourself.
If you would just give yourself a couple
of upstrokes right there, you could get this.”
What has he taught you?
Hinds: He has taught me a lot about
metal. He totally opened my eyes about not
being afraid to write the heaviest riff I can.
My usual approach is to write a bunch of
pretty, arpeggiated stuff, but Bill is always
telling me, “Drop the bomb!”
What artists have informed your approach to
Hinds: I’m a big Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy
Page fan, and Matt Pike from High On Fire
inspires me a lot. Other than Bill, Matt is
probably my best guitar-playing friend. He
teaches me a lot about soloing, and I teach
him about dynamics, because he attacks the
guitar like he’s almost hurting it. He has an
unorthodox style that’s very crazed and
intense. I’m like, “Man, you’ve got to relax!”
So if you’re teaching him to use more finesse,
is he inspiring you to get wilder?
Hinds: Exactly. Totally. That’s the deal.
What did you take from Hendrix and Page?
Where does their foundation leave off, and where
do you think your style takes over?
Hinds: Hendrix and Page pretty much
always ripped a lead in the pentatonic scale—
Hendrix more than Page, perhaps—and that’s
my approach. I like a lot of Middle Eastern
scales, too. I only know a handful of scales,
and everything else I just make up on my
own. If it’s already out there, I don’t know
about it. I also like holding notes for a long
time. I like to get on a good note, and then
see what the amp can do for me with some
whistling type of feedback and stuff like that.
And then, I do like to use vibrato arms.
You also have a pretty intense finger vibrato.
Hinds: Oh, yeah—I use the piss out of that.
That’s probably one of my biggest weapons.
But you don’t typically use vibrato as a vocal
effect—like perhaps Eric Clapton or Paul Kossoff.
Your bends are often kind of strange and spooky.
Hinds: That’s coming more from a Jerry
Cantrell standpoint, because I really loved
Alice in Chains when I was a teenager. I think
I draw a lot of influence from Jerry without
knowing it—that creepy, bluesy vibe thing.
My bends are real slow and eerie.
Which guitars saw the most action on Crack
Kelliher: In the studio, I always bring
my trusty 1979 silverburst Les Paul Custom.
It’s in perfect condition, it has great tone, it
plays like butter, and it never fails me. It
doesn’t go on the road because it’s kind of
priceless to me. On tour, I take a Gibson RD
Artist silverburst reissue outfitted with Seymour
Duncan Distortions—those pickups
are pretty much in all my guitars. I also have
a 1982 silverburst Les Paul Custom and a
’82 tobacco sunburst Explorer E2 that’s a
f**king shred machine. Then, I have a few
Yamaha SBG2000s—including a custom silverburst
they made for me—and a new,
limited edition Yamaha SBG3000. The Yamahas
have a bit more bite in the mids than
some of my other guitars, which I like.
What’s the difference between your two silverburst
Kelliher: Honestly, they’re pretty identical,
but the ’79 is special because it’s a little
older and it’s in pristine condition. There’s
not a scratch on it. The ’82 has cracks in the
finish, and I don’t like the way that looks. I
know some people pay a lot of money to have
new guitars “worn in”—like getting your
jeans pre-ripped—but I like it much better
when finishes wear away naturally.
Hinds: No one guitar saw all the action
because Brendan had such a big guitar collection.
I was using all kinds of cool guitars
all the time. He’d whip something out and
say, “Ask me where I got it?” So I’d go,
“Where did you get this guitar?” And he’d
say, “Oh, a little friend of mine by the name
of Bob Dylan gave it to me.”
Did you have any favorites?
Hinds: Now that I think about it, I probably
I played my 30th Anniversary Gibson
Les Paul goldtop the most. It’s a good “sit
down” guitar, and I usually play sitting on a
chair in the control room.
What about the guitars Brendan brought in?
Hinds: I liked his ’60s Teles and Strats, his
Baldwin 12-string, and his 1936 Martin acoustic.
What amps were used during the sessions?
Hinds: My main amp is a ’76 Marshall JMP
MK II, which I often layer with a ’70 silverface
Fender Twin Reverb. I love the raw rock-and
roll sound of a Fender mixed with the tight,
heavy-metal sound of a Marshall. Most of the
guitar parts on the album—with the exception
of the solos—were pretty heavily layered.
Kelliher: I have a ’80s Marshall JCM 800
that has a really good natural distortion, but
I don’t bring it on the road anymore. On stage,
I run a Marshall Kerry King signature head
with Marshall and Mills Acoustics cabinets.
It’s a full-stack, and it can rip your face off.
How about pedals?
Hinds: Brendan had all this cool candy to
chew on—mostly boosts, distortions, and delays.
We were exploring options, but we didn’t want
to use anything that would make the guitar
sound like anything other than a guitar. My
own pedalboard just has a Boss DD-6 Digital
Delay, a Planet Waves tuner, an EQ, and a “Mastortion”
overdrive made by one of my friends.
Kelliher: I’ve got a delay pedal by
Guyatone, a Boss RT-20 Rotary Speaker
Emulator, an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail,
and a DigiTech JamMan for firing off samples
from the record—robot voices and stuff like
that. I also have an old Ibanez Tube King with
a 12AX7 inside, and I’ve been experimenting
with putting different tubes in it. I swapped
the 12AX7 for an EC83, cranked the Tube
King’s Distortion knob to 10, and it blasted
out this awesomely heavy and nicely saturated
distortion. Super low end, too. And when I
stop playing, the sound just shuts off. No feedback.
No squealing. No nothing. I can stand
right in front of my amp with it up full blast,
not playing anything, and no sound will come
out. It’s amazing—like a magic noise gate or
something. My guitar tech told me, “I think
you’re playing with the devil here.”
Do you have a preference for strings and gauges?
Kelliher: I’ve been using D’Addario
strings forever, and I just started trying Dunlops.
I can’t say I like one string over the
other, so I keep bouncing back and forth. My
preferred gauge used to be .012-.054, but
lately I’ve gone to .010-.052, because that’s
the gauge the Explorer had on it when I got
it from eBay. I played the Explorer for a while,
and when I picked up my other guitars, I
said, “Man, I can do a lot more with this light
gauge!” It’s definitely a more comfortable
gauge for bends.
Hinds: We once had a deal with Thomastik,
and they made me a custom set of Power
Brights, gauged .011-.051. When we got
dropped, I never found anyone else who made
that gauge. I play with D’Addarios now.
Is there a typical Mastodon tuning?
Kelliher: We play in standard, but
dropped down to D. From there, we only
mess with the low-E string—sometimes we’ll
drop it to C, or even all the way down to A.
What prompted you to use drop tunings?
Kelliher: I’ve always thought standard
tuning sounded too high. Tuning down to D
just sounds heavier. The strings are a little
looser, and it’s more chunky when you play
an E chord—like “grrong.” I also like how
it sounds when you experiment with
“reverse” power chords, where your pinky
is on the low E string and your first finger
is on the A string. It’s super heavy.
You guys are kind of the “new metal heroes” now.
You’ve certainly generated a ton of fan anticipation
and media buzz at a time when heavy guitar can often
seem so underground. What do you feel have been
the elements that have come together for Mastodon?
Kelliher: I think that hard work pays off,
and we’ve been road dogs our whole career.
You can’t sit around and wait for something
to happen. You have to go out and get it, and
for like eight years straight, we never turned
down any tours. We went to every city and
every country that asked us to play. I think
people are finally starting to take us seriously.
Getting nominated for a Grammy has helped,
and so is working with someone on the level
of Brendan. I also think the stuff we write is
right up a lot of kids’ alleys. Metallica said to
us, “We’re passing the torch off to you guys,”
and that was quite a compliment. I mean, we
have pretty complex parts, but they’re also
catchy—they’re hooks. We now have a wide
fan base of eclectic listeners. Not that we’re
chameleons, but we have a variety of influences
that show up in our music, and that’s
from everyone in the band writing songs. We
can also write concepts that get into a story
or a game. We have the fantasy in there. We’re
like a thinking man’s band.