Southern metal band Mastodon have been on the scene for well over a decade and a half now. Since their inception in 2000, the dynamic quartet have continually evolved while managing a perfect track record of stellar records. For their seventh full-length release, Emperor of Sand, the group breach the heavy subject of cancer, a disease the band have had the misfortune of knowing all too well. Brain cancer recently took guitarist Bill Kelliher’s life, the mother of drummer Brann Dailor fought through chemotherapy treatments in what has been a 40-year battle with cancer, and bassist Troy Sanders’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Dailor took a break from the band’s stacked spring tour with Eagles of Death Metal and Russian Circles to discuss fans’ reaction to the new material, the fun-loving side of the band and his desire for Mastodon to get “super weird” and more prog-y in the future.
mxdwn: Emperor of Sand tackles some heavy subject matter, how has the response from fans been?
Brann: It’s been good I think. As far as if you mean reaction to the subject matter striking a chord with certain fans who have been through something similar, I think it has been a positive thing. There have been a lot of people who wanna come up and share their stories, which is good and maybe not good sometimes. It can be pretty heart wrenching sometimes. But we knew what we were getting into, or we had an idea at least that that was going to happen more than once. But, if it helps people that’s all you can ask for with any kind of art that you make or put out there into the world and the collective subconscious. People seem to be getting something from it and that’s awesome.
mxdwn: So fans have actually come up to you guys and expressed that your music’s been helping them?
Brann: Yeah, I think even before they even heard it, they connected with it just hearing what it was going to be about before they even heard a lick of music. I feel like we have a pretty trusting fan base. They trust that we’re going to make something honest. We talked about the subject matter and I think obviously every single person is touched someway with cancer. There are bound to be plenty of stories that go along with it. After shows and stuff, just walking out to the bus there’s always a crowd of a few fans that hangs there and waits for us to emerge from the dressing room, take our showers and get cleaned up after the gig. They even stand out there in the cold sometimes for hours waiting so they can regale us with a story of something that happened to them and how our music helped them to get through it. So, we’ve had a few of those. They’re sad, but we’re happy they’re connecting with the music and it’s doing something for them and helping them get through something tough.
mxdwn: In a previous interview, you said it’s “embarrassing to write lyrics” — how do you get past that?
Brann: Well I think what I was trying to say is that I try my hardest to make it so that the lyrics aren’t embarrassing for myself, for the stuff that I write. I don’t know how the other guys feel, but I would imagine everybody is trying to write lyrics that aren’t embarrassing for them. I try to get it so that I can read them out loud without cringing. It takes some effort. It takes some time. It takes some pouring over. You kind of go through them and… I want them to be meaningful. I don’t want them to be too… I mean I can be esoteric in the verses, but, in the choruses, I want them to be relatable so that somebody could make them their own and not where you listen to them and can’t envision anything and not understand what the phrase means at all. I try to attach meaning to every lyric. Every line that goes on there has some memory to tie it to, even if the memory is flipped around and put into story format. I like to have some kind of movie in my head that informs the lyrics. Yeah, that’s what I go for.
mxdwn: The album teasers were awesome, but a completely different vibe from the album. Did it feel weird to have funny teasers but then dark and serious subject matter on the record?
Brann: No, because I feel like only presenting one side of us is lying and that’s really not accurate. A lot of bands maybe do that, you know: they present themselves as totally serious and then you meet those people and they’re totally funny and goofy because who’s going through their whole life — maybe besides Hitler, but, who knows, maybe Hitler was joking around and was funny at times. You know, we’re funny people. We have fun on tour and we have fun in our lives. When I’m at home, I spend almost every second of my day that I’m around my wife trying to make her laugh. A lot of being on tour is trying to kill the boredom of being out here. The last place you wanna be is sitting backstage in a dressing room, so we’re just always trying to make each other laugh. That’s a big part of our personality and it’s a big part of us as people and us as a band. We try to represent that part of us in some way because it is such a major part of all of our personalities. We feel like in our music videos and our art that is attached to the band or some of the videos of us as a band being ourselves, it is important so we’re not just doom and gloom all of the time.
mxdwn: Has the meaning of any songs evolved for you at all, being a little more removed from the writing and recording process?
Brann: Not necessarily, not yet. I get to know some of Troy’s lyrics a little more intimately. I paid some attention to it, but everything was moving so quickly in the studio I didn’t take the time to read all of Troy’s lyrics. I knew they were gonna be sort of heavy because of what he was going through with his wife. I knew they were going to be all about that situation, but I didn’t take the time to read every single thing that he wrote. So it’s nice to dig into his stuff and attach my own meanings and see where he was coming from.
mxdwn: Now that you’ve been on the road for about a month, any songs that you’ve grown to enjoy playing more?
Brann: I really like “Steambreather;” I like playing that song. It’s so different from the rest of the set and creates this cool mood towards the end of the set. It’s like a breather. I don’t know, it’s just different from anything else we have in the set. It’s nice that it’s in there. I’m finally just about over my cold so I can do it more convincingly. When we first started the tour, day one, I had this wicked sore throat and head cold. It went all around the bus, every single person got it. It was an uphill battle trying to play and sing every night. I was so frustrated and bummed out about it because I want everything to be perfect. For the few weeks leading up to the tour I was singing great and everything was firing on all cylinders. Everything was awesome and everyone was being good. We were all healthy and going to bed early. I was making sure I wasn’t getting sick and that everything was gonna be good. Then I got on the flight and, sure enough, the lady right next to me was just hacking up a lung and I was like, “Oh no, this lady is sick next to me.” Two days later I woke up in this little hotel room coughing. I went to soundcheck and tried to sing and it was like *croak* and I really heavily pushed it to try to get the notes out during the set and that just screwed me up even further. Every day since then has been all day long nasal rinses and Chinese herb syrups and all this stuff for your throat, gargling with salt water, just all the tricks of the trade. I’ve done every single possible thing I can for my voice to make it shine and get out there and try really hard. The last week it’s been good, but it was a bit of a struggle to start out with. It really took the wind out of my sails. But the shows have been awesome and the fans have been understanding. The first couple of shows I came out and was like, “Hey, I’m really sorry about my voice. I’m sick but I really tried.”
mxdwn: What are the set lists like? Are you playing a lot from Emperor of Sand or also from the older albums?
Brann: We have a lot in there. We have a lot of songs at this point. We have, I think, about 100 songs that we’ve written. We know probably 30 of them, maybe 40. The set list is about 20-something songs. I feel like the new stuff is peppered in there nicely. We play about seven of the new songs. I feel like that’s pretty good. There are a lot of oldie-goodies in there. I realize that a lot of our fans are really just into one record or two records. I’m like that with certain bands too, so we try to keep that in mind. We aim to please and make everybody happy. I know that’s not always going to happen. We’ve got a couple songs off of Remission, Crack the Skye, Blood Mountain, some Hunter — we’ve got a lot of albums at this point. We’re building a set list with a good flow. We have the ability to have variety because our albums are so different from each other. We can build a really cool set list with a lot of different sounds and all the different musical hats that we wear.
mxdwn: You also mentioned being uneasy about playing acoustically, that it makes you feel “naked.” Have you been able to go out and play an acoustic set in front of your usual crowd yet?
Brann: No we’ve never done that [laughs].
mxdwn: Do you think that’s in the forecast?
Brann: I don’t know, maybe. But then, I think does anybody want that at all? I don’t feel like that’s what people come to see us do. We would have to do it on our own first and see if it were any good. MTV used to do that cool Unplugged thing and people would buy the ticket and say, “We’re gonna hear all our favorite songs acoustically and it’s gonna be intimate and low volume.” Bands of that time who were doing that like Nirvana or Alice in Chains, those versions became revered versions of those songs. Then they could take those songs to the stage because those albums and those versions became special and people did want that. We would maybe have to do something like that first to test the water and see if that was something anyone would want from us — so maybe.
mxdwn: You’ve said that you were initially on the fence about “Show Yourself.” How has the fan reception been to the song at shows?
Brann: It’s been good. I look for haters, but I can’t really find any. I guess when you’re in the thick of it and you’re in the middle of a big rock show and that song starts playing, you can’t help but move a little bit. Maybe you have a couple beers in you and you’re feeling better about things, maybe you’re feeling a little better about that song because it is a nice, little, splashy puddle of a song in a very dense set of music. It’s a nice breath of fresh air at that point in the set — or I hope anyways — for people. People start jumping up and down. I saw a guy jump up out of his seat and run to the pit and just start dancing the other night. I enjoyed seeing that. I dig it. It’s a break for me. I’m singing the whole song and I’m playing. It’s a little less busy. It’s nice to have it in the middle of the set. It’s like a break because we really don’t take breaks. I hate awkward silence so it’s just song after song after song. We Ramones it all the way through, full throttle. So when we get to that song it’s nice because I don’t have any high notes and it’s kind of right in the middle. I can pull it off convincingly. I dig it.
mxdwn: So, no longer on the fence?
Brann: No, you know, when we were first writing the album, we didn’t have everything written. We just had a couple of things and I was like, “No, I don’t wanna play that. I don’t wanna do that yet. I don’t wanna be that band.” As things came together further, things came more into focus with the rest of the album. Everything was falling into place. It made sense to put it in there. I was like, “Oh, okay, we can do that” — not that it’s only up to me. If everyone likes it, we’re a democracy and if its three against one… But having said that, if someone is really opposed to something, we’re not going to do it because we don’t want that person to have to play that song every night and just hate it. We want everyone to love everything that we’re doing. I think if I had thought, “This is horrible and I really don’t want to do this,” everyone would’ve said “okay.” But recording it and hearing it back I was like “okay.” It’s pretty undeniably catchy and pretty rad. We stuck with it.
mxdwn: Bill Kelliher has said something to the effect that writing a pop song is harder than writing technical riff after technical riff. Do you think Mastodon will continue to push boundaries outside your comfort zone on future recordings?
Brann: [Laughs] I have no idea. I would not like to write pop music, really. I’m cool doing one or two shiny songs, but I want to push it in a more prog-y direction. That’s more fun for me on drums. Something a little more wild would be where I wanna go. I really want to get super weird at some point. I want to push in some stranger directions and get more exploratory with our music in the future.