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How Mastodon turned tragedy and trauma into an epic tribute to a lost friend

Mastodon posing in a bar
(Image credit: Clay McBride)

It was a phone call Mastodon had been dreading for months. 

“We’re cancelling your tour,” came the instruction from a friend working in the office of Rick Sales Entertainment Group, the Los Angeles-based management team responsible for overseeing the quartet’s business affairs, alongside those of Slayer, Gojira, Ghost and more. “And you guys need to come to LA right now.” 

As summer 2018 unfolded, Bill Kelliher, Brent Hinds, Troy Sanders and Brann Dailor were increasingly, painfully aware that this day was coming. But that knowledge did nothing to prepare the four members of Mastodon for the almost physical hurt each one of them experienced as they listened in silence to developments of the most unwelcome kind. 

In an August 30 statement that broke news to fans and media outlets of the cancellation of their scheduled autumn tour with Dinosaur Jr., the band initially cited “a critical situation” affecting “a member of the Mastodon family”. 

Two days later, in an openhearted posting on Instagram, guitarist Hinds would be more specific, revealing that the group’s long-time manager and close friend Nick John, “the most kind and beautiful being”, had been stricken by pancreatic cancer and was in need of “very strong amazing vibes”.

“He is withering away,” the guitarist wrote, “and taking a little bit of me with him.” 

Within the week, US music industry resource Billboard shared the news that Nick John had died on September 8, and the moving tribute posted online by his heartbroken friends in Atlanta. 

“Thank you for your guidance, your wisdom, your never-ending hard work and dedication to Mastodon, always pushing and reaching, turning over every stone to make sure we were always protected and always had every opportunity any of us could dream of,” the quartet wrote. “Thank you for making yourself available morning noon and night to handle every crisis or situation that ever came up. Thank you for being so passionate and believing in us with such enthusiasm that we considered you part of the band… 

"Thank you for your smile and your infectious laugh but most of all, thank you for your unconditional love and friendship, we love you very much and are going to miss you more than we know. We love you Nick John. RIP.” 

One year on, when this writer spoke with each member of Mastodon individually for a magazine article celebrating their 20th anniversary as a band, Kelliher, Hinds, Sanders and Dailor addressed the loss of their mentor and friend using word-for-word identical language: “It seems weird to speak about Nick in the past tense,” each of them said. 

“It’s a cruel joke what life throws at some of the best people that ever existed,” said Sanders. “I’m still very angry about it. Everything we do from now on will be in Nick’s honour, and a tip of the hat to his legacy.”

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Mastodon’s monumental new album makes good on that promise. Titled in acknowledgement of the grief-laden atmosphere which descended as the four band members sat by Nick John’s bedside in his Los Angeles home, and bade farewell to their friend in what they knew would be their final hours together, Hushed And Grim is an intense, weighty and crushingly emotional requiem for shared dreams and shattered hearts; a 15-track, 88-minute double album inspired by, and dedicated to, John’s towering presence in the lives of the four men who created it. 

Inevitably, there is grief and anger and confusion woven into its dense layers, but there is joy and warmth and gratitude too, offering a celebration of a life, exultation amid the elegies.

“There was no way we were going to approach this album without addressing how magnificent Nick’s impact was on us, as four individuals and as one band,” Sanders says today. “There was no way we could ignore that. It seemed too large of a moment in our lives to not write about it. It was too monumental and too devastating for us to say: ‘We’re not going to think about that, we’re going to write some fun, happy rock songs.’ 

"It doesn’t work like that with us. From day one we’ve always pulled authentic emotions into our lyrics, our story writing and our riff writing. It always comes from within. Nick not only made us better people, but he took our band under his wing and brought us to new heights that we never had dreamt of. This album is us honouring his memory and showing our gratitude for how he touched our lives in the most incredible ways.” 

To Bill Kelliher, Hushed And Grim is “the deepest record that we’ve written, emotionally and musically”. 

“Every time I’d sit down to write, I was always just thinking about Nick,” the guitarist says. “Even before he died he was on my mind constantly. Because not only was he the world’s greatest manager, he was also the world’s greatest friend. We used to talk on the phone every day, for like thirty minutes to two hours, not just about band business but about our lives. 

"But about a year and a half prior to him passing away, we just stopped communicating, because he was sick and had problems with his voice. It really affected me, it made me really sad. I just kept waiting for the time that he was gonna call and be like: ‘Hey, I’m feeling better, and everything is cool.’ But that call never came.”

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Bill Kelliher learned of Nick John’s cancer diagnosis in 2017 while on a courtesy call with his manager during a rest day timetabled amid Mastodon’s European tour itinerary. A casual enquiry from the guitarist as to the source of his friend’s unusually husky voice on the call caused John to break down in tears. 

The details of his illness soon spilled. But by his own admission today, Kelliher didn’t quite grasp the true gravity of his friend’s condition until he visited John’s LA home during a stop-over on his return journey to Atlanta following a brief visit to Mexico with Mastodon in May 2018. 

“I hired a rental car and drove out to see him,” the guitarist says quietly. “But when Nick answered the door I almost didn’t recognise him, because he looked like a completely different person. He’d lost so much weight, his beard was really grey, and he was real gaunt. I was like, holy shit, you don’t look well at all, you look like a skeleton. But I’m glad I went, because it turned out to be the last chance I’d get to have a lucid conversation with him.”

Brann Dailor visited his manager’s home some weeks later, on July 4, on a time-out scheduled in Mastodon’s co-headlining tour with Primus. While the drummer remembers the holiday spent with John and his wife Colleen being “light and fluffy, full of laughter”, he recalls also feeling distinctly “dismayed” by his friend’s obvious fragility. 

“Nick was very sick,” he says. “I couldn’t see how someone could be that sick, and then at some point be okay again. I left his house less hopeful than when I arrived.” 

With the benefit of hindsight, Dailor can now see that he was in denial of the very clear evidence of his friend’s decline – “even though it was staring us right in the face you’ll do anything to believe that one more treatment will cure this” he reflects – as he recalls being utterly poleaxed when word reached Mastodon the following month that a hospital bed had been set up in John’s living room, and it would be in this bed that their dear friend would soon take his last breaths. 

Mastodon

(Image credit: Patrick McBride)

Three years on, as Dailor, Kelliher and Sanders revisit deeply personal memories of the final hours they shared at John’s bedside, it’s clear that they are still processing the trauma of their loss. 

“I had never experienced anything like that,” Sanders admits. “Unbelievably, I’ve gone this far in my life without losing a parent or sibling, and my true circle of friends is quite small, with Nick by far the dearest person, personally and band-wise. Losing him in that fashion evoked layers of fury and anger that I’ve never experienced before.” 

“It was a terrible day,” agrees Brann Dailor, “so stressful, so shocking. We were all very nervous about it, but we wanted to say goodbye. The mood inside Nick’s home when the door opened and we went inside was so heavy. You have this tragedy unfolding right before your eyes and there’s nothing anybody can do to stop it. And you’re not screaming, it’s quiet, hushed and grim. To me, those words are the best description of a day we hoped would never come."

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The idea that songs written for Mastodon’s ninth album could coalesce to offer an expansive, kaleidoscopic salute to Nick John’s memory was never actually explicitly discussed during the creative process, which dates back to October 2019, when Dailor and Kelliher first began sifting through the guitarist’s ‘riff tapes’. 

That they do, however, was perhaps inevitable. While Sanders acknowledges that themes of “loss and devastation and death” have previously served as the spine of past Mastodon records, Hinds was more blunt in a recent interview, stating: “It feels like someone always has to die for us to make a record.” 

For genres that draw so much material from death as an abstract concept, metal and progressive rock acts often display a real squeamishness about facing up to the devastation which comes in its wake: Mastodon are one of a small and diminishing number of artists who display a willingness to face, confront and embrace the true weight of loss and also have the emotional tools to articulate its cost. 

Each of the band’s previous four albums, all of which made the Top 20 in both the UK and US, have drawn heavily about tragedy and trauma in the musicians’ lives. The complex narrative core for 2009’s Crack The Skye has its roots in the death by suicide of Brann Dailor’s sister, while 2011’s The Hunter was titled in dedication to Brent Hinds’s brother, Brad, who died in a hunting accident during the making of it. 

While promoting 2017’s Emperor Of Sand – talked up as conceptual melodrama revolving around a protagonist’s feverish attempts to out-run a death sentence imposed by a tyrannical sultan – Kelliher, Dailor and Sanders revealed that the storyline was informed by loved ones’ contemporaneous battles with cancer, and was, at heart, a deeply personal meditation about fear, loss and mortality. 

“I’ve said this a million times, but music is medicine,” Kelliher says today. “It’s a drug that we take to feel better in dark times. Like a lot of men, we’re not always open to sharing our feelings, so instead of going to counselling we express our emotions in our music. I think we’re a great band, and we write great songs, but the icing on the cake is hearing from people who say, ‘Hey, your music really helped me emotionally’. That’s the great compliment.” 

“Towards the end of the recording process, I recognised that I was processing all the different stages of grief,” says Sanders. “The first lyrics I wrote for the album were just fuelled by anger and frustration. But writing lyrics for Skeleton Of Splendour, for instance, lines such as ‘You painted us with effort, always praising us high/The day has come to face the storm, as lightning strikes me in two’ brought some emotional closure to me. I wasn’t angry, it was almost like a very welcome exhalation.”

If, as Bill Kelliher says, “death is an inevitable part of life”, so too is the idea that there is life to be lived even after death. With hopes of the covid-19 pandemic easing off, the live music industry is beginning to awake from its enforced slumber, with Troy Sanders revealing that Mastodon have been able to perform at four festivals over the three weekends preceding our scheduled interview. 

There’s excitement in Kelliher‘s voice today as he contemplates pulling songs from the quartet’s new “beast of a record” into future set-lists, and pride in Dailor’s voice when told that with Hushed And Grim his band have made a classic double album in the lineage of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, which the drummer nominates as “one of my favourite records of all time”. 

“I’m not sure I could mention our band in the same breath as those bands,” he says with a smile. “But having put this body of work together I feel strongly that it could hang in the realms of some of the double albums that already exist. Demo-wise we had twenty-two songs and we cut those down to fifteen songs that we wanted to work on in pre-production with [producer] David Bottrill. 

"I spent countless nights jamming the demos and I kept thinking I don’t know how we’re going to get this back down to fifty to fifty-five minutes of music, because I would have had a really hard time picking those six or seven songs that had to go. I remember saying to Troy: ‘At this point I’ll have to be convinced not to make it a double album’, and everybody was on the page. It felt like a great way to honour Nick.” 

Indeed, perhaps the greatest tribute to Nick John’s legacy is the fact that Mastodon are given the freedom to release an album this ambitious 21 years into their career, as a result of the deal he struck with Reprise Records guaranteeing his friends’ complete creative control over their art. It’s something Troy Sanders touches on when he says, with some gratitude, that Mastodon “have never heard one word of the label’s thoughts or advice or criticism on our music”, which he says is “incredible”. 

“With each and every year, we recognise that what we have is rare, and recognise the significance of what we have,” he states as our conversation draws to a close. “We never talk about what an album needs to sound like,” he insists, “or what we should do. It always starts naturally, with one riff, and if someone likes it we all work on it. Sometimes the greatest ideas start out super-small and super-simple. Like this band did for us. 

"Making music for us is still selfless, still a privilege. And if in the process we can help shine some light into the darkness for others with a record like Hushed And Grim, we can ask for nothing more.” 

“We’ve come to appreciate what Mastodon can give us as human beings too,” adds Dailor. “Writing music for this band is therapeutic, and I guess cathartic. I’m not sure that I truly believe in the idea of closure for grief… but this helps.”

Paul Brannigan
Paul Brannigan

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder and Metal Hammer. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.