Mastodon: Cracking Up

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“Lots of marijuana,” laughs Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds. Hammer has just quizzed him, as we have every member of the band, on what on Earth their new album, Crack The Skye, is about.

“It started out with us knowing we wanted to tell a story about ether; people thinking the human spirit was made of ether, so I started with the idea of astral travel,” drummer, main lyricist and the source of the intriguing concept of Crack The Skye, Brann Dailor adds. “Troy [Sanders] wanted to do something with outer space. So we put them together, this guy going up into space as he astral travels. He goes too close to the sun and it burns off the golden umbilical cord that connects the spirit to the body. He gets sucked into a wormhole.”

Now if that sounds weird, throw in paraplegics, Rasputin, a Russian religious cult, a few time dimension shifts and the Dark Lord himself, and you probably have the measure of the themes that drive Crack The Skye. Or not, as the case may be.

Yet to dwell on the mind-bending tale behind the album too much would be doing Mastodon a disservice. Because before anyone gets to understanding what the band who once laid bare, in metallic terms, Herman Melville’s legendary tale Moby Dick on 2004’s Leviathan, one must encounter the sound. Aided and abetted by AC/DC producer Brendan O’Brien, Mastodon have created a sonic masterpiece. The raging power that has always driven the band on is there for all to hear, from the opening torrent of Oblivion through to the lengthy work out of The Last Baron. Only this time Mastodon have thrown caution to the wind, remained true to their inspirations and created the album of their lives.

Strident melodies intertwine with sheer metallic power. Musical dexterity that would do prog rock icons like King Crimson proud blends with clean, impassioned vocal work from Brent and bassist Troy Sanders. Little wonder those who have heard Crack The Skye are in no doubt this is the finest album that Mastodon have created during their decade in existence.

With the album being talked of in reverential tones, fans should strap themselves in for a thrilling ride. There is no question that Mastodon have raised their game several notches. And yet, in the wake of Brent’s hospitalisation following a drunken altercation with System Of A Down’s Shavo Odadjian and fellow musician William Hudson at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, leaving the guitarist with a brain haemorrhage, followed by guitarist Bell Kelliher being stricken ill during the band’s tour with Slayer, forcing them to perform as a three-piece for the first time in their career, it stands as an even more accomplished achievement. As Brann notes, “This is an album I wouldn’t be embarrassed to play in front of Jimmy Page.”

Are you happy with the way the album has turned out?

Brann: “We’re really proud of it.”

Troy (pictured above): “Every time we finish a record we always sit in the van and give it a blast a few times and when you get the high fi ves you know you’ve accomplished the job.”

_What was the recording process like? _

Brann: “The last step was easy, but we spent the whole year practising and getting it to that point.”

Bill: “For pre-production we went into a studio before we hooked up with Brendan and chopped stuff up, took stuff out, re-worked things.”

Brann: “We were in good shape when we got into the studio with Brendan. But the actual writing was the normal baby-steps thing of stuff coming together. You’ve just got to trust that it’s going to happen. So it’s a lot of second-guessing, banging your head against a wall. You don’t know how to make a song better and then like a month goes by and finally another part reveals itself. Our basic thought pattern going into it was that we would absolutely take our time with this one, and make sure every single moment on it was the best. We were pretty unified and we’re proud of it.”

_At what point did it start to become apparent to you that you were creating something special? _

Bill: “When I first heard Divinations, and the vocals, I was blown away. It sounded so strong and melodic.”

Brann: “I thought there was something deeper with the music. I felt there was something else going on when I heard The Czar. When I was able to lay down a solid funk beat to one of our songs. That felt weird, different, but I really liked it.”

Bill: “Every song, when we finally got it finished. Especially The Czar, I felt that was quite a feat. And The Last Baron. A 15-minute song and when we pulled it off from beginning to end. It was like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot going on there’.”

Did you find, as the new material developed and you were liking the new sounds, that you pushed yourselves even _further? _

Bill: “We always push ourselves. We didn’t purposely think like that. We do it naturally.” Brann: “It’s gut instinct when we start playing something. The four of us know it’s something that we dig. When the hair stands up on the back of your neck when you’re playing it. That’s the moment you’re searching for when you’re playing the song and that’s what we rely on. When you stop and everybody’s got big smiles on their faces.”

Brann: It’s gut instinct when we start playing something. The four of us know it’s something that we dig. When the hair stands up on the back of your neck when you’re playing it. That’s the moment you’re searching for when you’re playing the song and that’s what we rely on. When you stop and everybody’s got big smiles on their face.”

Bill: “Everybody feels free to speak their mind. We’re definitely a democratic band and no one should ever feel squashed. A song is finished when everyone feels good.”

One thing that stands out is the clarity of the songs.

Brent: “Yes, you can actually understand what we’re singing.”

Troy: “The music came very naturally, it wasn’t pre-conceived. And we focused more time and energy on the vocals that were strong, melodic, true and sincere, because we feel that the music deserved that.”

You’ve always had a progressive element to what you do. That side is much more prevalent here, and yet it doesn’t sound like a prog rock record in the obvious sense of the word.

Brann: “It’s not prog as in showing off, though.”

Troy: “It reminds me of a movie that you watch once and it’s interesting and draws you in but you have to watch it a few times to figure it out. It’s a multi-dimensional story.”

Given the sonic advancement we’re hearing from Mastodon on the new record, was there ever a point where you feared you might alienate longstanding fans?

Bill: “There are people who want to keep you as their own band, and they probably didn’t like it when we signed to Warners, but we can’t stay on underground labels for the rest of our lives. You have to grow. We might lose a few fans but I think we’ll gain a load more with the direction that we’re going in.”

Brent: “They’re closed-minded and we don’t want closed-minded fans. I mean, we’re grateful that they’ve been with us for as long as they have, but if they can’t be with us any more then I’m fine with that.”

Troy: “We’re hoping that people will grow with us. That’s what we’re looking for.”

Brent: “If they’re going to be your typical metal asshole, claiming we sold out, then fuck you. I don’t care.”

_You’ve never been a typical metal band though, have you? _

Troy: “Not at all.”

Brent: “I don’t think we’re a heavy metal band at all, though. I don’t really even listen to heavy metal.”

_What do you consider Mastodon to be? _

Brent: “Art rock.”

Troy: “Our favourite songs and artists is that era of classic rock like Yes, King Crimson, Thin Lizzy. Look at Neurosis. They deliver their vocals cleanly and they’re heavier than anything in the world.”

And yet it must be a good position to be in where you can tour with a band like Tool and also hold your own with someone like Slayer?

Brent (pictured above): “I wish we’d toured with Tool with this record out. We were accepted way more by the Slayer crowd than the Tool crowd. But the guys in Tool have heard the record and they really like it.”

How did the fact that you had to endure the trauma of having two band members hospitalised with serious problems affect your state of mind while creating the album?

Brann: “We were really bummed out. We knew [Brent] was going to be OK, so that was good. He just needed to heal. In the meantime we needed to maintain some kind of normality so we just carried on working and made sure we were being productive. So we stuck to our guns and just went down our practice space at the same time each day and worked. The worst thing would’ve been to sit around doing nothing.”

Bill: “That was pretty frightening to be honest. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before.”

Having those two incidents happen in close proximity to each other must have forced you to wonder if the band might even continue.

Bill: “That’s life. We’ve been going strong for almost 10 years and then this happened, But it just makes you stronger. I think we’re all better for it.”

Troy: “It’s just another aspect of life.”

Brent: “Any time anyone gets injured or gets ill you’ve just got to put the brakes on a little bit and let them heal. I got injured at the perfect time, ha ha. I was kind of shaky for a while but getting back to the band was pretty cool.”

The album’s concept is pretty out there, taking in paraplegics, astral travelling, bizarre Russian sects, Rasputin and wormholes.

Brent: “Out-of-body astral travelling’s always fun to talk about. The ideas are pretty out there.”

How on Earth did you come across the Khlysty?

Brann: “When I went to Russia on a vacation. It’s cool. It’s stuff we’re all into.”

Bill:“Weird secret societies. It’s interesting. It’s folklore.”

Brann: “It’s good to tell a story. It’s like when we did Leviathan people were going out and buying Moby Dick. So they might go out and read about Rasputin and the Tsar. I guess it fi ts with our whole thing.”

Despite working democratically as a band, Brent seems to come to the fore on Crack The Skye.

Brann: “Definitely, especially the vocals. But that was him working with Brendan. And for Troy too, I think Brendan gave both of them the confidence to really dig deep on the vocals.”

Bill (pictured below): “We didn’t really know what it was like to have a real producer. It just seemed the planets and the stars aligned. Everyone else we’d thought about using weren’t available at the time. But it’s a taste thing really, and he was on the same wavelength. It’s a taste thing. He’s also such a personable guy and he can deal with the fragile musical ego!”

On the title track you once again work with Neurosis frontman Scott Kelly, who also appears on previous albums Leviathan and Blood Mountain.

Brann: “If it wasn’t for them we probably wouldn’t be around. The riff for Crack The Skye had been around for a while. We were touring with Machine Head and toying around with the song on our practice amps and it just became apparent that the song really called for a Scott Kelly vocal.”

This was first published in Metal Hammer issue 190.