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Mastodon: Fear And Loathing In Atlanta

Death, drugs and the mind-boggling highs and lows of being at home in Atlanta with Mastodon...

This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer #223.

In the spring of 1837 an engineer from the Western And Atlantic Company chose a spot amongst the forest of Magnolias, Dogwoods and Southern Pines to plant his stake. This was where the proposed giant railway from the American Mid-West to Georgia would terminate. The company, showing a decisive lack of imagination, said the locale would be called Terminus. A merchant by the mighty name of John Thrasher set about building homes and a general store for the workers who were employed to build Terminus. To be frank they thought the name of their new home sucked balls and as a tribute to their boss dubbed it Thrashersville, the name it kept until becoming Atlanta in 1847. Thrasher, the original pioneer of Atlanta, knew this tiny settlement would grow to become a great city at some point in the future. “If you build it,” he reasoned, “they will come.”

In the winter of 1999, cult sludge unit Today Is The Day toured Europe supporting Neurosis and Voivod. On returning, Brann Dailor and Bill Kelliher quit the group but were enthused by the intensity of the tour and determined not to lose any of the momentum they had built up. They relocated to Atlanta with the express intention of finding new musicians to jam with. Bill’s wife already worked at the city’s Centre For Disease Control and, being the biggest city in the South East, Atlanta had a reputation as being very musician friendly. The pair, perhaps drawn magnetically, headed straight to Thrashersville – or to be precise Five Points, the exact place where the engineer had driven the stake into the forest floor, some 163 years earlier.

It was a frontier town of a different sort now and a bohemian and roughneck hang-out for tattooed speed freaks, pot-smoking rastas, Mohicaned punks and dropouts of every stripe. Within a week Bill was cooking tacos in a dive bar called Elmyr and Brann was working in an alternative shopping arcade called Junkman’s Daughter, where he immediately met the woman he would end up marrying. Before the end of the week the pair went to their first local gig, High On Fire playing a house party supported by local metalheads Four Hour Fogger. They arrived too late to see the support band but ended up hanging out with them all the same. Brent Hinds and Troy Sanders from the band said to Brann, “Hey, aren’t you that crazy drummer from Today Is The Day?” and they all got talking. Brann was already aware that the burly ginger guy with the Iron Maiden backpatch had a reputation as one of the best – if not the best – metal guitarists in Atlanta. By the end of the night they’d arranged to have their first practice together. If we form a band, they reasoned, people will rock. In the summer of 2011, sitting in Elmyr, Brann says with little understatement: “Yeah, things came together for Mastodon really very quickly...”

You only need to look around you when you arrive in Atlanta to see pieces of Mastodon’s history written large around you. The city is home to the world’s largest ‘fish tank’ – Georgia Aquarium. It houses four examples of the largest fish in the world – leviathans of the deep known as whale sharks that can grow up to 44m long. Just outside Atlanta is a 1,700 foot-tall mass of granite that imposes itself onto the skyline, known to the world as Stone Mountain but nicknamed Blood Mountain by the band. The city itself is elemental. In 2008, the largest of 45 tornados formed in one devastating day, cut a six-mile scar across the city, sucking windows and furniture out of the multi-storey Omni Coliseum – former home of local roller hockey team, the Atlanta Fire Ants.

Like any major city built in the American sunbelt, it has had its fair share of devastating fires over the years but is also subject to harsh ice storms in winter as well. But more than anything, Atlanta is a city built in the middle of trees. If you take a plane journey to Hartsfield- Jackson International Airport you could be forgiven for thinking your jet was touching down on the Forest Moon Of Endor. And it is from these trees that the band drew some of their inspiration for new album, The Hunter.

The former sludge-metal turned prog-rock four-piece have, in the past, had their albums associated with the four traditional elements. Remission symbolised fire; Leviathan water; Blood Mountain earth and Crack The Skye air. Initially when you ask them that, now that they’re out of this stage, what the fifth element is, they all contradict each other and kind of fudge the question. Brent, guitarist, vocalist and manic dynamo at the core of the group says: “Get out of your element. Get out of your box. Find yourself a new element.”

Serenely dude-like bassist and centre-stage vocalist Troy Sanders denies that there even is one:

“I guess the overall theme of the album is the fact that there isn’t one.” Ice cool riff- master Bill adds: “People expect us to have a theme; they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, you ran out of elements, there’s only four elements.’ But this is not true because we could have started on the periodic table of elements if we had wanted, but we just chose not to.”

Intensely focused drummer and singer Brann, who is perhaps the closest the group have to a de facto leader and is certainly the member who makes the most aesthetic choices regarding the group, tells a different story: “I guess wood is the theme,” he says then jokes, “If wood can be described as an element that is – I’m sure in China wood is an element. Wood and trees were what I had at the back of my head after Crack The Skye, so I went out and bought a couple of books on tree legends and the secret lives of trees and that’s what I was mulling over. What people believe about trees is pretty strange. I mean obviously trees are alive but some people believe they have a consciousness.”

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Despite initially disagreeing, after three days spent chipping away at him, Brent, a former carpenter, concedes this much: “Has wood played a big part in my life? Jesus yes! Of course! I’m a wood sculptor, I’m a carpenter, I carve tikis in my spare time. I’m obsessed with the forest. I’m obsessed with wood. The forest and nature has made a really big impression on what I write and what I gather. I think it’s beautiful and I want to share the way I feel about it.”

Sitting in Elmyr – the bar where Brent spends so much of his time that he ended up filming a hilarious TV commercial for them – the band talk us through the album. The first single proper is Curl Of The Burl, a twanging, filthy Southern boogie stomp that references prime ZZ Top and is a good example of this arboreal obsession. Brann says: “A burl is like a cancer in wood, a knot that forms during a period of stress and this growth causes whorls to occur round a compression in the ‘design’ of the wood. If you cut a tree open when you’re making furniture you might get a giant burl which means there will be a higher concentration of curls. Furniture makers pay top dollar for interesting burls. So I had this idea about a group of people out in the Pacific North West who are addicted to methamphetamine who go out into the woods with a chainsaw to find the perfect burl to bring back into the town to try and sell to a furniture maker.”

So far, so Mastodon... but none of this explains the opening lines to the track: ‘I killed a man because he kicked my goat.’ Brent laughs darkly and says cryptically: “You fuck with my goat you’re going to get what’s coming to you. And you really shouldn’t be on my property anyway.”

The theme is symbolised by the amazing cover art of a three-jawed minotaur by wood carver and sculptor AJ Fosik. But if anyone is hoping for a grand narrative like on previous albums, they will be sorely disappointed. This is the first traditional album Mastodon have done so it’s free from concept. Brann says: “I came up with this crazy long plot but when it came down to it Brent was like, ‘I don’t want to do that again!’ From that freedom came a flurry of ideas. I ended up being more inspired to write than I had been before so it ended up being a good thing, to be honest.”

Readers of Metal Hammer will be made up to learn that for the first time since Leviathan in 2004, Mastodon have rocked out some proper, face-melting, bowel-prolapsing, hardcore-influenced, sludge-blasted, horns-up, heavy fucking metal this time out. There is the punkish, raw-throated Blasteroid that has the memorable line, ‘Now I wanna drink some fucking blood’; there is the fretboard-splintering Motörhead-meets-Slayer thrasher Spectrelight and the galloping speed metal of All The Heavy Lifting. Bill, one of the more traditionally metal-obsessed members of the group, says: “I’m always about the face-melting riffs! I guess the heavier, faster ones are usually mine but Brent came up with all the songs for Crack The Skye. That was a special album and about us stepping back for a minute and slowing down. So all of the stuff I’d been writing got put into the riff bag for later; to get married with stuff by the other guys for this album.” He pauses, then adds: “I love all the stuff that we do slow or fast but I’m a big fan of The Ramones and Slayer. I’ve always wanted to take that style of The Ramones to a live show and be just like, ‘One, two, three, four...’ I love Slayer albums where it’s the same and just boom, boom, boom in your face. I do enjoy playing songs like The Czar and The Last Baron, because it’s a challenge to play a 15-minute song from start to finish without fucking up. We did a tour that lasted for a year and a half where we played Crack The Skye all the way through every night. That’s how it needed to be performed but we won’t be doing that with The Hunter at all.”

Perhaps the weirdest (and certainly one of the best) songs on the new album is Creature Lives. Booming Moog synthesizers (played by Brent as a tribute to cult outsider musician R. Stevie Moore) herald a cosmic-sounding ode to a hapless creature who gets pushed into a swamp by a howling mob. It is by turns hilarious, melancholy, psychedelic and rousing as if back in the day prog keyboard maestro Keith Emerson, who used to play by sticking daggers into his organ, had joined acid-fried Oklahoma City weird beards the Flaming Lips. Troy agrees: “It’s currently my favourite song on the album. The first thing we said when we were creating Creature Lives was, ‘Wow, this has got a Flaming Lips, Pink Floyd kind of vibe’ and we hope that when we play it live it will have the same effect – everyone with their arms in the air, singing along. I’m always pulling for the underdog and that song is about a hideous monster from the swamps, looking for acceptance and questioning who he is but realising he’s just fine the way he is... Me and Brann wrote it for Brent who loves The Creature From The Black Lagoon.”

Being freed from writing a concept album has obviously been a creative shot in the arm – on this matter the band are in total agreement. But Brent puts it the most succinctly when he says: “Of course it’s different from the first four albums. Who wants to wake up every fucking morning like it’s Groundhog Day?”

He is, of course, right. If there’s one thing you really can’t accuse Mastodon of, it’s treading water.

In an alternate universe, smart metal-heads are probably keenly awaiting The Hunter, the fifth superb album by a four-piece called Bantha. When trying to come up with a suitably heavy name back in 2000, Brent was looking at the Bantha skull (Boba Fett’s insignia from The Empire Strikes Back) tattooed on Star Wars freak Bill’s arm and, said,‘What is that thing? That elephant thing, is it called a mastodon?’And immediately they knew they had the right name. Things did not look as promising for the group during their first practice the same year, however. Brent, who is by his own admission an alcoholic, was a heroin addict back then as well and turned up too wasted to play. The other three had to wait for him to come back down to Earth and dry out before anything could happen. Brann is candid about his first impressions: “I didn’t like it. I was not excited. It wasn’t good. I wanted to do something fast and wild and he was like, ‘I wanna do stuff like this – BRRRRRRMMMM! [mimes hitting one doomy note] He was just playing one note over and over again. I was like, ‘Dude, I don’t know what that is.’ I mean, I liked him, he was funny and cool but at that instant, I just didn’t think he could play guitar at all. I was like ‘What the fuck is everyone talking about?’ This guy is supposed to be the best guitar player in Atlanta. But he came by the next day and picked up an acoustic guitar and started riffing this crazy shit. Then I was like, ‘Awesome! Let’s go straight to the rehearsal room now and start playing!’ People started saying to me that he had a lot of baggage and that I didn’t want to be in a band with him. But I didn’t care. You’re not going to be in a crazy band or a metal band that doesn’t have people with baggage. I have my own baggage, man. It’s part of the dynamo that powers a good group. As long as none of it gets out of control... as long as no one dies from it.”

After putting out the Slickleg 7” on Reptilian, the band signed to Relapse in 2001 and issued the raw and furious Lifesblood EP. (All these essential tracks were later compiled on The Call Of The Mastodon, in 2006.) Their first album proper, Remission in 2002, contains the brutal fan favourites March Of The Fire Ants and Crusher/Destroyer, but it was Leviathan in 2004 that really smashed down the doors for the band. From the opening riff of Blood And Thunder and Brent Hinds’ bloodcurdling scream: ‘I think that someone’s trying to kill me...’ to the sublime aqueous instrumental Joseph Merrick, it was a copper-bottomed classic and arguably remains the best metal album of the 00s. Brann devised the loose concept while reading Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick on tour. Bill explains: “Brann was reading the book and said, ‘Wow, there are so many parallels we can relate to in our struggle every day to make it. This man is sacrificing everything at home to get in a boat and go out to sea chasing after his obsession, the white whale. And we’re leaving behind everything that makes us happy to jump in our white van to chase our obsession, our holy grail.’ And we thought, ‘Ah, we’re onto something here...’”

After putting out the Slickleg 7” on Reptilian, the band signed to Relapse in 2001 and issued the raw and furious Lifesblood EP. (All these essential tracks were later compiled on The Call Of The Mastodon, in 2006.) Their first album proper, Remission in 2002, contains the brutal fan favourites March Of The Fire Ants and Crusher/Destroyer, but it was Leviathan in 2004 that really smashed down the doors for the band. From the opening riff of Blood And Thunder and Brent Hinds’ bloodcurdling scream: ‘I think that someone’s trying to kill me...’ to the sublime aqueous instrumental Joseph Merrick, it was a copper-bottomed classic and arguably remains the best metal album of the 00s. Brann devised the loose concept while reading Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick on tour. Bill explains: “Brann was reading the book and said, ‘Wow, there are so many parallels we can relate to in our struggle every day to make it. This man is sacrificing everything at home to get in a boat and go out to sea chasing after his obsession, the white whale. And we’re leaving behind everything that makes us happy to jump in our white van to chase our obsession, our holy grail.’ And we thought, ‘Ah, we’re onto something here...’”

After the success of Leviathan the band signed to Warners imprint Reprise and turned their newfound method to creating their major label breakthrough Blood Mountain, which showcased a growing musical sophistication and a step away from more traditional metal into the realms of prog. Again, they took the mundane idea of the boredom of being on the road and turned it into a fantastical quest to scale a dangerous, monster-inhabited peak. This transformation was partially successful but the process was completed on the masterful Crack The Skye album in 2009, their most successful to date. All traces of hardcore and sludge metal had disappeared and this was partially down to Brent’s health. The singer had spent three days in a coma after getting beaten up by SOAD’s Shavo Odadjian and rapper William Burke backstage at an MTV event. His crime? Drunkenly swinging a wet shirt round his head. The near-death experience led to a necessary slowing of pace and a heightened sense of introspection. While the story was the most complex yet – it ostensibly concerns a quadriplegic who learns astral travel but then becomes reborn as Rasputin; involving the occult, Tsarist Russia and Professor Stephen Hawking’s Unified Theory of Space Time – it had an even deeper level. Skye Dailor was Brann’s sister who committed suicide at the age of 14 after being viciously and violently bullied at school – something that was understandably a pivotal and catastrophic occurrence in the young man’s life. The fantastical tale can be seen as a metaphor for attempting to escape the abysmal pain of losing a loved one – as well as a reflection on how close to the void Brent himself had sailed.

If previous Mastodon albums have been about death, then so is The Hunter. Mastodon are concerned with death.

They don’t deal with the mechanics of mass slaughter during wartime like Bolt Thrower, or what happens to our physical bodies after we have passed on like Carcass originally did. They don’t indulge in the Grand Guignol operatic horror like Cannibal Corpse, or shout back defiantly in the face of oblivion like Slayer do. Instead, they treat death as the constant companion. Something that one day – hopefully no time soon – will happen to them and to all their friends; as it will happen to you and everyone you know. But while Mastodon sing about death, in truth they are celebrating life. An approach to death that is slightly more uncommon amongst most metal bands perhaps. Brann explains: “It’s something that affects all of us. We wanted to address it and we did, especially with Crack The Skye, when that came out and I went more public with my personal situation. [There were several coded references to Skye’s death on their debut album Remission as well.] Death happens to everyone and if it hasn’t happened yet it’s going to happen. So what better way to deal with it? I’m lucky enough to have a platform to honour the people who inspired a lot of the music that we write. I think it’s a good thing for our families in general. It lets them know that we care. For example, The Hunter is very important to Brent and his family. It is named after his brother who died at the end of last year. It was important for it to be a beautiful song. We had to try and turn that terrible situation into a beautiful song. We’ve had countless kids come up to us, saying, ‘Yeah I lost this person and this music helped me.’ And why wouldn’t it, because it helped us in exactly the same situation. I think that artists owe it to themselves and their fans to put as much of themselves into their art as possible. To help themselves and to help other people through their experiences.”

When we arrive at Brent Hind’s house, it’s already dark. There is a beat-up old Ford truck in the drive with a postcard of the Virgin Mary on the dashboard. There is a large deer’s skull with antlers over the garage door. We learn later that his brother – Brad Hinds, The Hunter – bagged it. The noise from locusts is deafening, like the throb of bass in a techno club. When we knock, his girlfriend peers cautiously at us from behind the curtains before letting us in: “It’s kind of a rough neighbourhood,” she explains. Once inside, the house is exactly how you’d want it to be: a baroque, gothic grotto of Creature From The Black Lagoon memorabilia, Shriner fez hats, skulls, candles, stuffed animals, charts of medical oddities, piles of obscure albums and books and giant, leering, wood-carved tikis.

Above the door is a framed photograph of Brad Hinds, cradling a deer he’s just shot. While we’re waiting for Brent to turn up, we meet his pets, one of whom is an epileptic cat. Apparently Brent, ever the curious soul, took some of the cat’s medicine a few weeks ago and passed out cold. When Brent and Tom Cheshire, his best friend and co-conspirator in West End Motel arrive, there is a whirlwind of activity. They start cracking beers and talking at a million miles an hour, curiously. When I finally get to speak to Brent he is halfway to getting drunk and long since disembarked. We go out onto his dimly lit porch to do the interview and he asks if I’m alright. I foolishly say I have a headache and need an aspirin. He says, “Oh we got something better than that...”

I swallow the pill he hands me and he tells me it is a ridiculously strong painkiller that spins me off into some semi-psychedelic landscape where nearly all words have become unpronounceable. The hour-long conversation that follows is by turns unpleasant, ball-busting, jocular, threatening, whip-crack smart, hilarious and acid-fried nonsensical. But enlightening all the same. Even out of his gourd, Brent’s obviously closer to being some kind of genius than he is a tattooed hillbilly freak – an image he has partially projected himself. Frustratingly, I also get the impression he’s the sort of person who’ll do stuff badly so he doesn’t get asked to do it again. Like interviews for example. You can tell at all times he’d sooner be playing guitar – especially when he informs you. About 30 minutes in, as I’m sinking beneath opiated waves of analgesia and he’s whizzing in high orbit round the planet obstreperousness, he’s arguing black is white to a man who has been beaten insensible with a chemical cosh. At one point I make the mistake of telling him I don’t play guitar and he convinces me that I’m lying: “Trust me, you do play guitar.” All I can do is whimper that he is right and pray he doesn’t demand a demonstration. We talk briefly about his brother and he says: “He died of a heart attack while hunting on December 4, 2010 and I guess that’s pretty much all there is to it. He had killed this deer and he had dragged it up to the truck. I guess he overexerted himself. And they found him dead in that truck.”

I ask him other questions which he answers briefly in a detached, almost bored manner but I notice something weird, both of his cheeks are moist. Now I’m not saying he’s crying – and God knows if I was in his position I would be crying unabashedly – there are plenty of reasons why a man’s eyes might water like fuck on a humid night like this when the potions are flowing. But the situation jerks me back to reality. I’m round this guy’s house on a Saturday night when all of his mates are next door partying, out of my mind on painkillers asking him about his dead brother, while he’s also out of his mind. It just won’t do. As soon as the tape is turned off the mood lightens and he hugs me, offering to BBQ me food. But it’s 2am and time to leave. The band’s PR lady wants us to get up early the next day so we can all visit Atlanta’s internationally famous World Of Coke, celebrating the popular fizzy drink. Ironically, I can tell Brent and his buddies can’t wait to spend an entirely less wholesome rest of the evening once we’ve left.

When I catch up with him a few days later, he’s the same guy, it’s just that the obstreperous, ball-breaking nature has gone. If it was the combative Dr Jekyll we were with then; now it’s the urbane Mr Hinds. He’s a sweetheart and funny as fuck to boot. He laughs when we ask if he identifies with The Creature From The Black Lagoon who he has tattooed about his body: “Well, yeah of course I identify with him because I live in a swamp, I breathe through gills and I’m bright green. What sort of question is this?!” He tells a very instructive story about films: “When I was eight years old The Exorcist came on TV for the first time and oh my God it was the most terrifying place that cinema has ever taken me. I was watching it with my grandmother and she told me, ‘That girl has been possessed by the devil.’ She took a drag on her cigarette, looked me in the eye and with smoke coming out of her mouth and nose said: ‘This could really happen to you...’”

He pauses dramatically: “While I was eight, dude.”

He tells us more about his brother: “Really the time was right to name the album after my brother now. It would have been the wrong time two years down the line. No matter how painful it was in December, now it’s more of a celebration. No one in the world knew my brother. Now everyone in the world is going to know that I had a brother who died hunting. What’s wrong with that?”

There is of course nothing wrong with it. It’s as beautiful a sentiment and as fitting a tribute as it is brilliant an album.

On our last night in Atlanta, Troy and Brann are back home with their families. Bill has to buy his wife a birthday present and drops us off at Elmyr so we can eat awesome Mexican food and hang out and party with Brent and Tom. At about midnight, I make my excuses and leave a bunch of them raging with controls set for the heart of a beautifully hazy night. At 11.30am the next day Hammer photographer Mick Hutson crawls into the hotel lobby with eyes vibrating like tennis balls in a washing machine. He looks at me with a pitiful look and says: “About an hour ago when I was leaving them, I said I had a headache and needed an aspirin. They said, ‘Oh we’ve got something better than that...’”

Southern hospitality, Mastodon style.

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