Mastodon’s sound check at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre reflected the personalities of the two guitar players aiming to destroy the majestic venue come nightfall. Freewheeling Brent Hinds completely entrusts his tech, John Araya, to tweak tones while he gets some extra rest. Detail-oriented Bill Kelliher works closely with his tech, Warren Termini, fussing over the pummeling guitar tones emanating from his three towering stacks.
“Brent is a free spirit who lives like he’s going to die in ten minutes,” explains Kelliher. “He may or may not show up at sound check. But I always show up to tweak every knob and try each guitar. I don’t like to wing it.”
Kelliher auditions a Mesa/Boogie Royal Atlantic RA-100, a Diezel Herbert head, a Marshall Kerri King Signature JCM800, and a pair of vintage JCM800s through a Marshall 4x12 stack, an unmiked Orange 4x12 stack, and a Mills Acoustics 4x12 stack.
“Finally something that sounds good!” exclaims Kelliher.
“Looks like we’re going with the vintage Marshalls,” affirms Termini.
Hinds favors a classic pedalboard setup, while Kelliher complements a few pedals with a TC Electronic G-System effects processor. He plays while Termini connects a laptop to the G-System and dials in the requested amount of chorus on a preset as the rest of the band arrives, including drummer Brann Dailor and bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders.
“My setup is simple,” says Hinds. “Each head powers the stack it’s sitting on, and they’re all on all the time.” A Marshall Vintage Modern 2466 powers a pair of Orange 4x12 cabs, a Deizel VH4 powers a pair of Marshall 4x12 cabs, and a beat-up vintage Marshall JMP powers two equally beat-up 4x12 cabs.
Mastodon then gets busy honing the hook-heavy “Blasteroid,” from the band’s surprisingly melodic The Hunter [Roadrunner]. Significant for not being another concept effort, the album has climbed as high as #5 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums chart. The Grammy-nominated single, “Curl of the Burl,” sounds strangely familiar—like it could have been on one of Ozzy’s first two solo albums. With a host of strong supporters, The Hunter is bagging Mastodon a broader audience. After a GP photo shoot, Hinds and Kelliher are ready to detail the piles of gear in tow, and explain how they created the weighty riffs, classic metal tones, and clever guitar harmonies that come together gloriously on the new material.
Are the guitars you chose to pose with your current favorites?
Hinds: The Acrylic V (Electrical Guitar Company Brent Hinds Custom) is my favorite guitar for Mastodon because it looks so great. I slammed in some Lace Sensor pickups and now it also sounds a lot tighter and less fuzzy and buzzy. The downsides are that it’s heavy and awkward to hold, and it’s hard to see what you’re playing onstage because the neck is so shiny.
My overall favorite guitar for sound, feel, and looks is an ’83 Gibson SG that I bought from the Guess Who’s keyboard player at a bar in Pittsburg. If you’ve got a beer belly like I do, the SG is especially comfortable because of the way it’s cut—your pouch goes right in there. When you play a V, the guitar kind of hangs over it unattractively. You’ve got to suck in your gut.
Kelliher: Yes. My current favorite is a ’77 Gibson Les Paul Custom that I found recently. It has the best action of all my guitars, and I own 50 or 60 Les Pauls, Explorers, and random others. The action is so low it plays like butter. I’m trying it out with a Lace Sensor Nitro-Hemi humbucker in the bridge position. It’s a little hot at times, but I like the sound because it’s got a bit more midrange and a stronger attack than the original pickup. That Les Paul will be my primary stage guitar tonight. We use three different tunings, and I use that instrument for the first tuning, which is D standard. All the strings are just dropped a full-step from standard.
I noticed that all the guitars on both sides backstage are lowered a whole step, and then the only difference is the bottom string.
Kelliher: Right. From D standard we also use C and A on the bottom strings.
How do you decide which tuning to use for a given song?
Hinds: It depends on the guitar I pick up when I feel creative. I keep the solidbody electrics I use for Mastodon in the lowered tunings. I usually use hollowbody Gretsches and Yamahas tuned standard for my two other bands, West End Motel and Fiend Without a Face, plus a new project I’m working on with Ben Weinman from Dillinger Escape Plan, Eric Avery from Jane’s Addiction, and Jon Theodore from the Mars Volta. The band is called G.T.O.—Giraffe Tongue Orchestra.
How would you describe its sound?
Hinds: It’s alternative classic psychedelic rock.
We’ll look forward to that. In the meantime, how did you guys come up with the material on The Hunter?
Kelliher: I built a Pro Tools studio in our practice pad. Brent would start working on an idea, and I’d start recording in the other room figuring I’d learn the tune later. When Brent wasn’t there, Brann and I would sift through riffs we’d come up with at sound checks and whatnot. Brent and I usually write separately and then show each other things because we’re two totally different writers. If I show him one of my riffs, he turns it into one of his riffs, so we don’t really get anywhere.
Hinds: I always have to keep the mindset that I’m working on a solo album in order to get more done. When Bill wasn’t available, I laid down my nine or ten songs—sometimes playing to a click track, but usually with Brann or Troy and Brann. When Brann comes up with riffs he works them out with Bill. They’re the clean-cut metalheads and me and Troy are the dirty scumbags. That’s just the way it is. I’ve never recorded with Bill simultaneously. Bill’s always combing his mustache somewhere while I do whatever I’ve got to do.
You’ve always recorded individually?
Hinds: Exactly. I don’t waste time and money showing Bill what to play in the studio when I could simply record it and then tell everybody that Bill’s playing on it too. Besides, Bill doesn’t want to sit around the studio when he can take his beautiful children to the park or something. He can learn his parts for the live show, and that will sound a little different, which is cool.
Kelliher: Here’s an interesting story about “Black Tongue.” Brent suggested that I track a solo. “I don’t really play solos, so I don’t really know what to do,” I told him. I had put some guitar harmonies in the second half of the instrumental break. That’s my thing. I try not to overdo it, but I like using harmony to add color to a musical break that needs a bit of a spotlight to fancy it up.
The record was 99 percent wrapped when we left for a European tour—still no proper solo. Warner Brothers called to say they were putting “Black Tongue” out as the first single—the next day! Producer Mike Elizondo liked the harmonies and encouraged me to “do that some more.”
I had all the songs in Pro Tools 9, so I spent five hours in a French hotel room figuring out a 20-second guitar solo that had kind of a Kirk Hammett feel. I just plugged my guitar right into my laptop and tried to get a good sound. I recorded a solo, and then the harmony. I eventually played that in one pass, but I had to do it about 100 times to get it right. When I finally finished, I sent it over to Mike. At 4 a.m., he e-mailed me his mix, and everybody agreed that it sounded awesome. I was excited because I’d never done anything like that before on a major release.
What was your principal tracking setup for The Hunter?
Kelliher: I used a ’74 Les Paul Custom tobacco sunburst loaded with Gibson ’57 Classic humbuckers. It’s very comfortable, low noise, and it stays in tune. That’s huge because we tune low, but I don’t use extraheavy strings. They’re D’Addario gauges .011- .052. The low string warbled least with the ’74, so I used it most. I used a Kerry King Signature Marshall head for a couple songs, but I got the best rock sound out of my old JCM800s. Modern amps usually sound too blended to my ears. I’ve got 20-watt, handwound Celestions in the Marshall cabinet because they break up nice and organically.
Hinds: The ’76 Marshall 100-watt JMP Mark II Lead Series is my overall go-to amp.
What about that particular vintage sounds so great to you?
Hinds: Rock and roll, AC/DC, ”Kick Out the Jams,” MC5, the Stooges, in your face, shut the f**k up—all that awesome punk rock that I missed.
“Curl of the Burl” sounds wicked. What can you remember about writing and recording that track?
Hinds: I was messing around with a riff using a Morpheus DropTune pedal for an octave-down effect in dropped-A tuning when Brann suggested that it would go good with two other riffs we had played earlier. I decided that we needed a bridge when we were in the studio, so I wrote one really fast.
How did you get that big phasing sound?
Hinds: I played an arpeggiated part, and then I layered it with a 12-string Takamine acoustic until I got that phasing texture.
“Blasteroid” is a super-catchy tune.
Hinds: It probably took me two minutes to write that song. I diarrhea music. I don’t practice how to play guitar—I practice how to write music, and then accidentally there’s a song. Those parts spewed out in order. I felt like I was on “The A-Team” that day. I love it when a plan comes together.
Did you achieve the soaring, fuzzy, echoed-out solo on “The Sparrow” by doubling it with a synth?
Hinds: That’s a Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Octavio pedal through an Ibanez Tube Screamer over a Monster Effects Mastortion pedal into a Fender Princeton Reverb. It sounds doubled, but it’s not.
As the song starts to fall apart at the very end, lots of different vibe-y parts become audible. What’s going on?
Hinds: There are probably six or seven guitar tracks including a hollowbody Gretsch, 12- and 6-string acoustics, and my SG. I also played lap-steel all over the place, which gives “Sparrow” that Meddleera David Gilmour vibe.
On average, how many guitar parts are on each track?
Kelliher: Usually only two. Back in the day I thought more was better and I’d lay lots of tracks down, but these days we like to be as true to the recording as possible when playing onstage. When you’ve got five guitars doing harmonies with rhythms underneath plus a solo on top it’s like, “Who’s going to play all that extra stuff live?
What do you enjoy most or least about playing live?
Hinds: I’m not happy when we have to play 12-year-old stuff that the audience has heard Lord knows how many times, but it feels awesome when we lock in on the new stuff. I’m happy as hell during those moments.