Emotional Rescue: Mastodon Channels Adversity, Anxiety, And Tremendous Riffs Into Crack The Skye

August 1, 2009
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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 everything twice?

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 album tracks?

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 album?

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 soloing?

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 the Skye?

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 Les Pauls?

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.

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