By Rich Hobson
It’s a bitterly cold day in January that sees me chatting to Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher and Brann Dailor about their seventh album, Emperor Of Sand. Sat in the Warner Bros London offices at the end of a long press day, Bill and Brann are – for all intents and purposes – stranded in the desert. But, this isn’t the blazing desert backdrop featured in Emperor of Sand. This is the desert of the music industry; the weather conditions are no less extreme and the fight for survival is very real. All day, vultures have circled overhead (or in my case, shivered meekly in the downstairs lobby), intent on tearing away scraps of information about the upcoming record. Yet, even with the constant barrage of questions, even with all of the album’s inherent negative associations and emotions, Bill and Brann haven’t lost their sense of humour.
“Don’t thank us man. We didn’t agree to do this – we were forced!” Bill tells me with a grin as I walk into the band’s home-for-the-day.
“Tied up and gagged…” supplies Brann.
With that, I am introduced to the core that keeps Mastodon going: iron-clad camaraderie. Both men are forthcoming and amiable in conversation, but together they form an inseparable unit, each helping to elaborate what the other has just said. Until now, secrecy has been paramount in the build-up to the release of Emperor Of Sand. The only detail initially offered in the press was that this album would not be like its two decidedly more song-oriented predecessors, Once More Around The Sun and The Hunter. Emperor Of Sand is instead a return to the core Mastodon mechanic – the concept album.
Likened to Crack The Skye, the album will be based around themes of disease, following the story of a man condemned to death in the desert by a vengeful sultan. But the band haven’t been coy about revealing who the real antagonist is in this scenario: cancer. One of the most prevalent diseases on the planet, cancer affected 14.1 million people worldwide in 2012. That same year 8.2 million lost their lives to the disease. Statistically, the odds of not having to deal with cancer at some point during your life are astronomically high – as Brann puts it in the band’s recent ‘making of’ featurette: “cancer will touch your life at some point, unfortunately”. It was a combination of the universal nature of the disease, and the band’s battles with it within their own personal lives, that proved decisive in its prominence on the album.
“It was never a case of let’s write a record about cancer”, explains Brann, “it just unfolded in tandem with the writing of the album. Bill and I would get together in the mornings and we would talk about what was transpiring on a daily basis in our personal lives.”
On cue, Bill immediately chimes in. “It just felt right, it’s never a conscious decision. There were so many personal things going on in our lives that we felt it would be a disservice to not talk about it. It was right there in our faces, like ‘Hi! I’m the elephant in the room, don’t ignore me!’ We couldn’t write about anything else.”
Most of us can’t keep track of exactly what we want to say, let alone effortlessly support what somebody else is saying as they say it. Yet once again, Brann tags back in. “We sang a bunch of songs about the elephant in the room instead of ignoring it. We acknowledged it and said ‘here’s this elephant’. Now it can be the mastodon in the room.”
For Mastodon, that elephant was an inescapable entity as it trampled through the band’s personal lives, hitting home hard with the diagnosis of cancer for both Bill’s mom and bassist/vocalist Troy Sander’s wife. Rather than trying to escape it, the band tackled their emotions head-on, determined to butt heads with the biggest bastard of them all.
“The music that we create is not separate from the people that we are”, Bill explains. “It was undeniable that it was what everybody was going to be singing about, whether we told the press it was about disease, or just said it’s the story of a guy that’s in the desert struggling to escape a death sentence from a sultan. We could have just said that and acted as if it had nothing to do with us. We could have kept our private stuff private. But I feel like coming out with it and saying ‘this album has a lot to do with the struggles of having somebody you care about deeply be very sick, when there’s nothing you can do about it’. It was important to us to let the fans know that this is what it was about. Everybody has been touched by this disease and every single person at some point in their life will deal with family members, somebody close to them, or even themselves going through cancer. It will affect you.”
Emperor Of Sand isn’t just an opportunity for Bill and Brann to exorcise their own demons. It’s a chance to create discourse and create a sense of universal unity, a reminder that everyone is in it together. “It’s being hopeless,” Brann says. “I think the fans deserve us to be honest and truthful about what it’s really about. They’re going through the same thing, everybody’s been touched by it. People make emotional connections to our music, especially the concept records, and they tell us all the time ‘that record changed my life, it really helped me through some hard times’. It’s not something we should hide and be afraid of. It’s real, true life and it happens to everyone – you might as well turn it into a positive and make an awareness.”
Dressed in a concept narrative or not, the music of Mastodon is undoubtedly personal and emotive. Bill sees it as part and parcel of being in a band. “For me, just writing music is cathartic. Whatever I have inside me, it comes out through my art – playing a guitar. It was turning those feelings about what was happening with my mom into a positive. Like, I’m gonna focus on writing to keep my mind off what she’s going through right now and turning it into positive energy. Take her suffering and channel it into this.”
“This” eventually becoming Emperor Of Sand, the band’s first concept album in eight years. But why go for a concept in the first place? “I think the way the songs just started coming together, they just seemed a little more complex, a little deeper and more worthy of a concept. It lent itself very easily,” Bill explains.
“There was a lot of imagery that went along with the music and it all had the same feel, as we went through it. There were different songs as we went through, but it all just seemed to have this flow,” says Brann.
Brann grins as he answers, “It’s the oasis in the desert that you’re wanting after all the heat and struggle. You’re trudging through the desert then it’s like oh, some palm trees!”
“But it’s false hope! Right after that you get pummelled again into the desert for 45 more minutes,” says Bill, clearly pleased with the bait-and-switch.
Pop-oriented as ‘Show Yourself’ is, Emperor of Sand is by no means an abandonment of Mastodon’s sense of heaviness, nor their penchant for prog-metal pomp. If anything, the album represents a less commercial turn than their previous two efforts, both of which charted in the top 20 on the UK Music Albums Chart. But, does stepping away from the mechanic that brought them success so recently constitute career suicide?
Bill shakes his head. “I have no idea! It’s always hard to tell. Because, when we’re writing stuff and we’re singing along to it, there is some stuff that – I wouldn’t say “commercial – but it’s got more pop sensibility. You know, verse/chorus/verse. I grew up on a lot of punk rock and I love that formula, but then putting some sort of Proggy bridge in the middle, or a guitar solo, there are times when it’s like ‘is this a pop-rock-metal song? Am I thinking about it too hard?’ But I can’t think like that. I’m just like ‘do we like it?’ Does Brann like it? Brann’s like ‘fuck yeah I like it!’, Troy likes it, Brent likes it, so it becomes well, this is who we are”.
“It’s hard to escape yourself. So now we just say: ‘this is us’. Apologise later”, Bronn adds.
“People might say ‘oh, well they did this because they want to get on the radio’, but it’s not fucking true. If that were true we’d write every song to sound like Twenty One Pilots or whatever”, says Bill.
By this point both men are animated in discussion. “If you’re trying to get on the radio and you’re in a heavy metal band, you’re in the wrong fuckin’ job. You’re trying to basically commit suicide by flying on an airplane all the time. If we are trying to be on the radio, we’re going about it in a completely ridiculous way –“, Brann offers.
“The long way!”, finishes Bill.
Ten years ago it would have been hard to imagine a band like Mastodon getting regular airtime, even on a specialist rock radio-show. But, the time’s they are a-changin’, and we now live in a world where bands like Opeth can headline shows at Wembley Arena. Do the band see themselves fitting into this new world order of prog-metal royalty?
“Yeah, there’s a lot of awesome prog-type bands coming out. Opeth, Gojira… To me, Baroness has a lot of great stuff coming out – there’s a lot of it out there. There’s millions of people playing in bands and the bar just keeps getting higher and higher. That’s why we have to work so hard, to come up with something we feel is worthy of competing with that stuff. Otherwise, you’re left in the dust.”
There’s very little risk of Mastodon being left in the dust – or the sand, for that matter. The band’s most personal and ambitious record to date, Emperor of Sand clocks in at a little over the 50-minute marker in a twelve-track, prog-metal-rock-whatever-you-could-possibly-want package. A band with the well-established reputation for constantly evolving their sound, it quite possibly explains why they have kept details so quiet about this album.
“For the records we produce, people aren’t sure where we’re gonna go next”, admits Bill. “It’s a game, it’s teasing. When we were kids there was no internet and I didn’t know anything about any bands. I thought Metallica lived in some tower or castle and were up there all the time. There was no real world for them – they were just Metallica. What do you mean James Hetfield has a mom?!”
“It’s impossible for us to do that. We’ve put ourselves out there too much”, says Brann. “But it’s fun and entertaining to do things this way and it gets people excited. It’s drip-feeding so that the fans can get super excited and share it around”.
The Mastodon story is built upon word-of-mouth, with rave reviews and a die-hard fanbase spreading the gospel more fervently than any slick PR campaign ever could. Fifteen years spent wandering the arid plains as outcasts of the commercial world has shaped them into a band that can take the very worst and turn it into a hit record. As I head towards the door, Bill asks if I’ve heard the album yet. ““I’m very optimistic to the direction we’re headed in. I know if I were a fan of my band and this record came out, I’d be like ‘I’m psyched; this is great!’”.
Earlier in the day, sat beneath an oh-so-chic chandelier made of rockabilly style microphones, it struck me as incongruous that I would be meeting Mastodon in a building so obviously commercial and corporate. Staring at a board of portraits featuring some of Warner Music’s most prominent rock n roll elite (Lily Allen, a band that could be All Time Low, but may also not be All Time Low), it was hard to see where a band as uncompromisingly inventive as Mastodon could fit in. With Emperor of Sand, Mastodon have another chart-stormer on their hands, finally ready to take their place in the promised land.
Emperor of Sand is due for release on March 31st, through Reprise Records.