“We used to think, ‘Oh, there’s not enough craziness in this song; we need to add some stuff’ – but we learned that no, we don’t”: How Mastodon matured with Once More ‘Round The Sun

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Mastodon’s sixth release Once More ‘Round The Sun was an artistic concept album presenting the perfect blend of metal, punk, art-rock, jazz and just the right amount of craziness. Just ahead of its release in 2014, they told Prog the story of its development.

Bill Kelliher was pissed off. It was the spring of 1998 and the 27-year-old guitarist had just packed his meagre worldly possessions into a couple of battered suitcases ahead of a move back to his home town of Rochester, New York, having accepted that his dream of starting a new life in Atlanta wasn’t going to pan out.

He’d moved the previous summer when his high school sweetheart was accepted into Georgia’s prestigious Emory University, and his plan was to start a band in the state Little Richard, James Brown, Otis Redding and Ray Charles called home. In Rochester, he’d had four or five bands – but Atlanta had proved a tough nut to crack.

“Everybody wanted to be in a Kyuss cover band,” Kelliher recalls. “Which was cool, but I wanted to try something a bit more proggy.” In search of a drink and some white noise to block out the black thoughts in his head, he decided to spend his final night in the Peach State at a club called The Point in Atlanta’s bohemian Little Five Points district. 

He arrived just as a local support band were finishing up their set. “I remember seeing a bunch of naked dudes with pantyhose on their heads running across the stage, and this skinny, ginger dreadlocked guy playing a Flying V. I was like, ‘Woah! Who the hell are these crazy dudes?’

“The music wasn’t exactly my cup of tea – there was so much chaos that I couldn’t even really tell what was going on – but they were putting on a really cool, out-of-control show, so I was really intrigued. And the guitar player was incredible, more on my level than anyone I’d met in Atlanta.

“I was kinda bummed that I’d finally seen someone with whom I felt a connection, but I wasn’t going to be able to meet him because I was moving away. Funny how things work out...”

Mastodon - High Road [Official Music Video] - YouTube Mastodon - High Road [Official Music Video] - YouTube
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We’re in Thunderbox rehearsal studios in Atlanta, and Kelliher is watching that skinny ginger guitarist crunching through the main theme of Metallica’s prog-thrash instrumental Orion. There are posters of Chewbacca and the late Randy Rhoads behind Brent Hinds’ back, and a multitude of guitar effects pedals – a Swollen Pickle Jumbo Fuzz, a MXR Super Badass Distortion and a Quantum Time Modulator among them – by his feet.

Lost in music, with his eyes shut tight, Hinds seems utterly oblivious to the presence of his bandmates Kelliher, Troy Sanders (bass) and Brann Dailor (drums) in the room. It was here that Mastodon’s sixth studio album, Once More ’Round The Sun, was conceived. A concept album themed around a difficult, tempestuous year in the band’s personal lives, it’s a magnificent, complex and rather beautiful piece of art, marrying the band’s love of progressive rock, metal, punk, art-rock and jazz fusion with the most sublime, melodic choruses they’ve ever written.

We had a ton of material. It’s taken until really recently to get it into focus and see what the hell it is

Brann Dailor

Pitched midway between 2009’s transcendent Crack The Skye and 2011’s more aggressive The Hunter, it’s transparently a rich, layered, involved body of work which unfurls gracefully and offers up new depths, colours and flavours with each listen.

We hear the album for the first time – unmastered and not yet cleared for release, as  Hinds is still mulling over some of producer Nick Raskulinecz’ mixes – at Dailor’s house. A number of songs instantly leap out: the deliciously knotty Aunt Lisa, which features a distorted robotic vocal from  Sanders and an inspired ‘Hey! Ho! Let’s fucking go!’ chant from local garage rockers The Coathangers; The Motherload – formerly titled Buzzard Guts – which features a gorgeous, widescreen ‘This time, things will work out just fine’ chorus purpose built for summer festival stages; the QOTSA-esque title track; and the expansive, pummelling Chimes At Midnight among them.

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Intriguingly, one track on Dailor’s CD-R, an absorbing six-minute epic titled Northside Star, which starts out with shimmering waves of Pink Floyd guitars before morphing into a midsection that channels both Deep Purple and The Bee Gees – no, really – has been left of the finished version of Once More ’Round The Sun, and earmarked instead for a future EP.

“With this album we had a ton of material,” explains Dailor. “A lot of songs. It’s taken until really recently to get it into focus and see what the hell it is. With Crack The Skye we had more moody stuff and so we ditched some of the heavier, crazier, faster stuff we’d written because it didn’t fit in with the overall feel. This one maybe has a bit more of the fast, heavier stuff so we’ve had to shift some of the moodier stuff out of the way and we’ll put that out later.”

We’re not out to throw 180-degree curveballs just to be different. That would be dishonest

Troy Sanders

“I think we’re at our best when we write actual songs,” says Kelliher, “with a verse, chorus, solo, bridge, end – songs like Colony Of Birchmen or Blood And Thunder. Those are the songs that seem to really resonate with people: the songs that send crowds wild at festivals. I like songs that have a little bit of prog and a lot of meat and potatoes. It doesn’t always have to be crazy. A lot of the stuff that Brann and I wrote together this time around is pretty together – it’s like, here’s the beginning, here’s the verse, here’s the verse-chorus, here’s the chorus, instead of just being proggy for the sake of it.

“Sometimes we used to think, ‘Oh, there’s not enough craziness in this song; we need to add some stuff and make it crazier because it’s too simple.’ But I’ve learned that no, we don’t – it’s enough to write riffs that feel good and then move on to the next part. I think we’re starting to write like adults, which some people might not like. I think the new record is us at our finest.”

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“We’re not out to throw 180-degree curveballs just to be different,” adds Sanders. “That would be dishonest, and I think we’re an honest and sincere band.”

Hinds – as impulsive and mercurial as Kelliher is studied and thoughtful – has a slightly different take on the album. A huge Frank Zappa fan who describes himself as a ‘chatty Cathy’ and also a ‘thinking out loud’ player, Hinds maintains: “We don’t know how to write songs that are simplified versions of ourselves. I feel like we’re part of a rock’n’roll brotherhood. We’re trying to take things to the next level. Us, Queens Of The Stone Age, Dillinger Escape Plan, Baroness, Neurosis...

“And I’m hoping the best for the album. I put my heart and soul into it: if you want some, have a listen. How does it feel to listen to my heart and soul? Because it feels pretty good to pour it in there.”

Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew is a perfect example of art that you can look deep into. We desperately want to cling to the past when it comes to that kind of stuff

Brann Dailor

Once More ’Round The Sun is a record from which big things are expected, given that The Hunter debuted in the Billboard Top 10 and scored a Grammy nomination for lead single Curl Of The Burl. Ahead of the new album’s release there are traces of tension in the Mastodon camp: Hinds isn’t entirely thrilled that Raskulinecz has started work on the new Bush album before his mixes have been fully approved; Kelliher is a touch displeased that the artwork has been passed before he’s seen a finished copy; and Dailor is a little bemused that there are issues at all. Such niggles are sweet rather than alarming.

The stunning cover art is the work of celebrated Oakland-based artist Skinner, a friend of the band who specialises in “psychedelic nightmare paintings” influenced by “80s pop culture, human struggle, myths and violence, dungeons and dragons and the heavy metal gods.”

Once More 'Round the Sun - YouTube Once More 'Round the Sun - YouTube
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“Skinner is an amazing artist,” says Dailor. “He painted four big panels, a life-to-death cycle, with the seasons and a lot of plants involved. You don’t really want to give someone like that too much direction. I want to see what he comes up with because he needs to express himself. When I was a kid, looking at albums, I always wanted a lot to look at. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew is a perfect example of art that you can look deep into. We desperately want to cling to the past when it comes to that kind of stuff, and I think that our fans expect that from us. We really are such art nerds.”

Given that a plethora of side-projects exist beneath the Mastodon umbrella – Kelliher’s Primate, Sanders’ Killer Be Killed, Hinds’ Giraffe Tongue Orchestra, West End Motel, Fiend Without A Face and the intriguing Legend Of The Seagull Men – the reality is that after almost 15 years together, these men don’t need to be in Mastodon.

I felt like I was caught up in someone else’s dream of a band. I wanted my own dream. And with Mastodon, we created that

Bill Kelliher

That they still choose to make music together is indicative of the love they have for their challenging, provocative and idiosyncratic band. And the excitement they feel about sharing their new creation with the world is palpable.

“When I left Atlanta in 1998, I was pretty down,” Kelliher admits. “I kinda thought that I’d failed and my life was spiralling down. And then soon after I went back to Rochester, Brann got invited to join Today Is The Day and I followed him into that band. That was a great experience, but I still felt kinda trapped, like I was caught up in someone else’s dream of a band. I wanted my own dream. And with Mastodon, we created that dream.

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“There have been tough times, some of which have informed this album,” he admits. “This band can be so all-consuming, to the point where it’s unhealthy. But I’ve learned that I can’t worry about other people and how they’re affecting me – I can only worry about keeping my side of the street clean. If I could control everybody and get them to do what I want them to do, we’d all get along great, right?

“But that’s not the way the universe is cut out. And once I realised that, it really felt like a load of shit off my back. In the long run, everything is going to be okay. And the path ahead looks pretty good right now.”

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. 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. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.