By Ellen Eldridge; photo by Cindy Frey
Atlanta-based band, Mastodon, recently released its fifth full-length, The Hunter. While less progressive than Crack the Skye, it shows a return to riff-based writing that both fans and the boys in the band can enjoy live. The finale of the current tour takes place at Atlanta’s Tabernacle on December 2, and guitarist Bill Kelliher took the time to speak with Atlanta Music Guide about the tour-closing show, what he took the most pride in on the recent release, the artwork and concept behind the videos for the two released singles, and some of the history that newer fans may not have learned about Mastodon yet.
Do you have anything special planned for your final, hometown show in Atlanta this December 2?
We’re putting on a kind of extravaganza. We’ve got a bunch of bands playing; our drummer Brann’s wife’s band is playing. They’re called Tiger Tiger. We’ve got MonstrO, which is Troy’s [bassist] brother’s band. The Black Lips, Dillinger Escape Plan, and Red Fang are also playing. We’re calling it “The Missing Link.” We did one in California a year and a half ago. It came together because we were on tour and our paths crossed. All the bands were together in the same town at the same time so we wanted to throw it all together and have a huge show. We adopted it as something we could market like an OzzFest or something; it’s in the beginning stages. By the time we get to Atlanta and hook up with these bands it should be a well-oiled machine.
What’s the worst technical difficulty Mastodon experienced live?
I’ve got a really good guitar tech, and everybody onboard seems to be well versed in the Mastodon machine and how it runs. I think the most difficult thing to achieve is getting a good sound man. For us, it seems like every tour we have a new sound person. This tour is no different. We’ve got a new guy, Rob Whitener, and I’ve never heard so many compliments. People are really coming out and saying, “You guys really sounded good” from a sound point of view. People used to tell us things like, “You sounded really loud,” and we’re in the band onstage performing – we can’t see and hear what we sound like so we have to take the word of the audience. On this tour I think we’ve finally found someone who is really good and confident.
What are you personally most proud of on The Hunter?
I’m proud of the whole record and how quickly we put it together. The solo on “Black Tongue” was something I had done on my computer in a hotel room in France while we were on the European tour. It made me feel really good because they called me to say Warner Brothers wanted to release “Black Tongue” as the first single, and I say okay, but the song wasn’t finished. We were about 99% done recording in the studio when we had to leave for tour. Our plan was to come back and finish up any unfinished business with the record. So, when they told me they were going to release this for the first single, I thought I needed to get into a studio and put down the guitar solo that I wanted to do and hadn’t done yet. Luckily, I had all the files with me and my Pro Tools rig in my hotel room in my computer so I plugged my guitar into my computer and spent about 4 or 5 hours recording a solo. I emailed it to Mike Elizondo, the producer and engineer. A few hours later it was mixed into the song and it sounded great. I’m not really the lead guitar player; that’s more Brent’s forte, but it was a song I had written so I wanted to write a solo over the parts I had written. When I did and everybody was happy with it, it put a smile on my face that I was able to do that from afar.
How did you hook up with the artist who created the mask on the cover of The Hunter, and include his craftsmanship in the “Black Tongue” video?
We were perusing the internet when Brann found AJ Fosik, and said his artwork was awesome. We got in touch with the guy and he knew who we were; he was a Mastodon fan. We asked him if he could make something for us right away. He did and he filmed it. Usually we do paintings or other one-dimensional artwork, but this thing is three-dimensional.
Tell me about the concepts behind the song and video for “The Curl of the Burl.”
It’s just kind of a made-up story. The burl is the knot in a tree; a cancerous growth. The wood grains go a certain way and the burl is the weird stump that curls around a weird way when you cut the tree open. So, we just sort of came up with a story about people cutting these out to sell to Lowes or Home Depot or whatever to support their drug habit. We have kind of a wild imagination. If it sounds weird or crazy enough we put it into a song.
How did you come up with the name Mastodon?
I have a tattoo on my arm of a bantha skull, from Star Wars. The banthas were the big mammoth things with curly horns that the sand people rode around on. Boba Fett has it on his armor. When we were tossing names around for the band, 12 years ago, Brent looked at my tattoo and said, “What is that – a mammoth, a prehistoric elephant?” I’m like, “A mastodon?” and as soon as I said it we all agreed, “Yeah, Mastodon, that’s the name.”
What was the purpose of using some of the Runes characters in Maston on the album cover?
We wanted to refresh ourselves and try something new. The record was done so quickly and so spontaneously. We got a new artist and wanted to play with new fonts. It looked cool. Honestly, I didn’t know they were runes.
The first three albums Mastodon put out, though thematically different, were anchored by a song about the “Elephant Man” Joseph Merrick. Why didn’t you continue?
We moved on, I guess. We had already written a couple songs about him and just moved on to other things.
Did Mastodon make a conscious decision to move away from a more progressive sound on The Hunter?
When we did Crack the Skye we spent months and months in the making, and we rearranged the songs to try different ways of playing everything. We had a grandiose story behind it, the visuals and movie we made for it, and we played the album front to back live. I think subconsciously we just wanted to have fun again; just write a record to write a record. Not that Crack the Skye wasn’t fun; it was just very involved and a lot of work. We noticed on that tour the kids had a mellowed-out, show-gazer reaction. They had a crazier reaction to the older material we would play. We wanted to stay away from 15-minute songs, and built off bare-necessity, spontaneous riffs. It came together quickly and felt more fun and free.
Mastodon did a song for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie and toured with Dethklok; how did all that come together?
We live in Atlanta with those guys and they asked us to contribute. I wrote that song in ten minutes in my practice space. It was fun to do; I think we recorded it on 06-06-06 if I remember correctly. Adult Swim gravitated toward Mastodon. We were touring at the same time; Brendan Small is now a good friend of ours. We love tongue-in-check humor. Dethklok and Metalocalypse are really funny.
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