Every once in a while, I wish I could apply for “hazard pay.” It didn’t seem like I’d need it for Mastodon, as the band has been killing it since its latest album, Once More ’Round the Sun, was released last year. Sun was the first Mastodon album to hit #1 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums chart (as well as reaching a peak of #6 on the Billboard 200), the YouTube videos for the singles “High Road” and “The Motherload” pulled in approximately 1.5 million eyeballs each, “High Road” was nominated for a Grammy, and the group is currently on a smash worldwide tour.
But Once More ’Round the Sun is also the most pop-oriented recording from a band that typically releases epic tracks bursting with stunning riffs and ferocious solos from guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher. Apparently, that caused a bit of a, well, interesting reaction from Hinds. But, as uncomfortable as the interview segment with Hinds was for me, it reveals a safe and open working process that allows for dissent and edgy collaboration without weakening the bonds of creativity and brotherhood. All teamwork methodologies should be so productive.
IT ALL STARTS OUT ROSY WITH BILL…
Was there a concerted effort to produce a more, let’s say, “Beatles-songwriting style” album this time around?
Kelliher: It’s very pop, although we’re not a pop band by any stretch. I personally wrote a lot of it, and I’m more of a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-chorus in 4/4 kind of guy. I like songs like that—they’re familiar. So we spent a lot more time—some of us did, anyway—putting more streamlined songs together. It’s actually harder to write less riffs, than it is to write a song with seven riffs in it. That’s how we used to write a song—throw a bunch of riffs at each other into a big melting pot. That was cool, but I think as we’ve matured and gotten better at honing our craft, we try to throw away all the frilly stuff and get down to the meat and potatoes of a song. Personally, I don’t want to bombard somebody with a bunch of riffs that don’t really need to be there.
Do you have a particular process for composing?
Kelliher: I’m a believer that there’s a right time and a place for creativity. You can’t rush a song, or overcook it. It usually comes out when it’s ready. “Diamond in the Witch House” is a good example. It came from a riff I had been playing for years, and, finally, backstage at the Rave Ballroom in Milwaukee, it just came together. I was stoked, because I’d waited years to get that song.
When you bring in songs that are mostly yours, how does Brent typically approach putting his spin on them?
Kelliher: It’s obvious that we didn’t do a lot of collaborating on this record. He’s very much into writing songs that are completely different from mine. I think he takes it as a creative challenge, and he kind of turns it into a competition where he’ll try to put different ideas into my songs. Sometimes, there’s a little contention there. It’s not a competition—it’s more like, “This is my idea, let’s play it like this, and then maybe we can open it up in this area.” I mean, we’re all trying to achieve the same goal and write a great record, but, sometimes, I have to keep things in line when it’s my song without stepping on anyone’s toes. However, I’m usually pleasantly surprised with what Brent will come up with over something I wrote.
You’ve been out on the road for a bit, so how have the “live tests” gone for the new songs?
Kelliher: It’s a real rocking album to bring to the stage, and we’ve had the best reaction we’ve ever had in our whole career. People sing along, and they know the words. There weren’t a lot of “shake your ass” songs on the last two albums—they were more “shoe gaze-y.” But when we first came out and played “Tread Lightly” from the new album, I got goose bumps, because it has such a good groove, and people were jumping up and down in front of the stage.
…AND THEN GETS A BIT INTENSE WITH BRENT
Regarding the new album…
Hinds: I let Bill work it out—there’s not much of my DNA on that album. That’s why it’s not very epic.
I’m sorry, the cell reception broke up. Did you say “not very interesting?”
Hinds: That word will also work.
I understand that Bill came up with a lot of the songs for this album. How did you determine how to add your own twists to the material?
Hinds: I’m not really sure what you’re trying to ask me. Should I go get the album, so I don’t have to micro-manage the process and explain sh*t that I’ve explained a hundred f**king thousand times? I write songs and Bill writes songs, and then we get together and we jam with Brann [Dailor, drums] and Troy [Sanders, bass] in a room. And then we go to a studio and record it. Like I said, there’s not much of my DNA on the album. I only wrote four songs. My songs are much more along the vein of Crack the Skye, so if you want to know anything about me in the future, I write more long cascading psychedelic epic stuff, and Bill and Brann write faster, snappier, lumbering heavy-metal type songs.
Is there anything about Once More ’Round the Sun you’d rather discuss?
Hinds: It would be nice if magazines and all interviews would just go fall off the face of the earth along with all the cigarette smoke and all the other f**king things I hate in life. I don’t like doing interviews, I don’t read interviews, I don’t need to know how people go about doing things. It frustrates me to do interviews, because I have to talk about things I’ve talked about over and over and over and over again. So, no, there’s nothing that we can talk about that involved Mastodon that I’ll get excited about. After 15 years of doing this every f**king day of my life, the last thing I want to do is talk about doing it.
Well, if you’d prefer, I can finish now and thank you for your time…
Hinds: It’s not your fault at all. Listen, I’m going to make it real simple for you. I have never changed my gear. I still use the same guitars and amps and pedals I used when Mastodon started in 1999. I’m set in my ways, and I was already set in my ways before any kind of success happened with Mastodon. I was already satisfied with my sound and my playing. I didn’t feel the need to change anything—other than to play more. And through more playing came more nimbleness and more of an understanding of the guitar.
I’m very passionate about playing guitar—I’m just not the most passionate guy in the world about talking about any of it. I don’t want your readers to think I’m a dick—it’s just that I just want the readers to think that I’m a real person who has real emotions. Breaking details down and getting micro about what cable I plug into what pedal is, to me, a very unnecessary type of dialogue. I understand you have readers that want to know that stuff, but they’re not going to find out from me. My rig is very bare bones. It’s definitely not rocket science. Bill has a much more complex rig going on, and he is constantly changing his sound. He’s much more the guy to articulate his ongoing endeavor with every tone in the world. I guess he won’t be satisfied until he has heard them all. I knew what kind of guitar sound I wanted the first time I heard AC/DC when I was a kid. I said, “I want my guitar to sound like that!” That was my goal, I achieved it early in life, and I never changed it.
Interesting point. With gear, as with songwriting, perhaps some people get too fussy about details, and they kind of ruin themselves in the process.
Hinds: Sure they do, but I don’t care. I don’t know what most people do, and I don’t want to know what most people do with their rigs or songwriting. I don’t even want to hear most people’s songs. I can barely stomach listening to heavy metal. It makes me ill to hear it.
Is there a particular reason why?
Hinds: I never really liked it in the first place. I came from Alabama playing country music, surf rock, rockabilly, and stuff like that. I just went through a phase in my 20s where I thought it was rebellious to play heavy metal. And then I met Brann and Bill, and they were really, really, really into heavy metal. And ever since then, I’ve been trying to get Mastodon to not be such a heavy metal band, because I f**king hate heavy metal, and I don’t want to be in a heavy metal band.
Do you feel that creative tension can sometimes inspire awesome musical hybrids?
Hinds: Okay, but listen—if there was creative tension, we would just part ways. We don’t thrive on that. We are friends. Friends understand each other. If you have a friend who has a problem, and you’re in an internal situation with him at your job, aren’t you going to try to help your friend work through the problem, and all come to an agreement where everyone can be happy? That’s what Mastodon has done with my hatred of heavy metal. We just came to a happy medium where we’re all happy with our music. I’m happy because it’s not a real heavy metal band, Bill and Brann are happy because it’s heavy enough, and Troy likes all kinds of music, so he was never an issue in that matter. Our music didn’t cause tension—it solved problems. I’m a very lucky man to have three other really talented men who are understanding, compassionate, loving, funny, enduring, and super kind.
Wonderful. Perhaps we should end on that note…
Hinds: I apologize for my unfiltered honesty, but that’s just how I operate.