“I feel like your spirit lives on in another reality. I feel like it gets transferred to another dimension”: how Mastodon transcended death and tragedy to make Emperor Of Sand

Mastodon in 2017
(Image credit: Justin Borucki)

It’s a gorgeous February day on Florida’s sun-drenched Gulf Coast. The temperature’s just tipping 21˚C and the beaches buzz with locals sneaking in some tanning time between winter thunderstorms. Mastodon bassist and vocalist Troy Sanders is enjoying a relaxing afternoon here with his family, and we find him in full-on chill mode. Easygoing and happy, he is approximately a million emotional miles from where he was just over a year ago, when his band started working on their seventh studio album, Emperor Of Sand.

“I had to miss the first few months of writing the new record because I was going through brutal therapies for cancer, side- by-side with my wife, and watching her be rearranged from the inside-out.” When he speaks these words, his cadence briefly stalls, as if a chill has passed through him. “I enjoy my personal privacy and so I’ve never spoken of it. But my bandmembers knew what I was going through.”

Mastodon issued the press release in July 2015 – they were cancelling their summer tour dates “due to a personal family matter”. In October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month – Troy disclosed the reason: his wife Jeza had been diagnosed with breast cancer and she had begun therapy immediately. Even though early detection had saved her life, everything had changed.

“We had to cancel a European tour and I gave a brief letter on our Mastodon website as to why, because my wife realised that once this hit us, at our young age of 40, it wasn’t normal or expected. She wanted to use the platform of the website, that reaches thousands of people, for a moment of awareness,” Troy explains. He greeted the diagnosis with steely eyed determination. “When I heard the news, my immediate reaction was, ‘OK, how are we going to approach this? What are we going to do to ultimately prevail?’”

Emperor Of Sand marks Mastodon’s return to grand concept albums, with a story about a guy fleeing a death sentence in the desert. Beneath the singing and the screaming, it’s an allegory for cancer. Not only was Troy battling with the effects of the insidious disease on his family, his bandmates were all facing their own life-or-death battles.

Guitarist Bill Kelliher’s struggle had already taken hold before the making of 2014’s Once More ’Round The Sun. After battling with alcoholism for years, Bill finally understood that relapse was no longer an option. But it’s not as simple as deciding not to drink; studies show that only about 5% of people who try to get sober last 90 days. With the same ferocity he applies to slinging bludgeoning riffs, Bill dug into his recovery and crushed the odds. By the end of 2015, he revealed that he had achieved a full year of sobriety and was still going strong. His renewed commitment to his recovery allowed him to be strong and supportive when he discovered his mother had a brain tumour.

“I could have broken down many times and just lost my mind, but when she first got sick, I felt so happy for this gift of sobriety because I could deal with it,” he says. “I was there when the doctor said that she had brain cancer and that she only had a certain amount of time to live.”

Mastodon in 2017

Mastodon in the studio in 2017: (from left) Brent Hinds, Bill Kelliher, Troy Sanders (Image credit: Justin Borucki)

Today he is spending a leisurely Georgia afternoon taking his boy fishing, and though his mom passed away after her nine-month battle, Bill is at peace. When he speaks about his sobriety, it’s with equal parts pride and gratitude. “I’m present now, you know?” he says. “And I’m just happy. When I was drinking, I was in a dark place, and I feel like if I was in that dark place when life is good, what happens to you when life gets bad? Like when your mom is dying? She was very proud of me for changing my ways and turning my life around. I just didn’t want to let her down.”

The remaining members of the band were each working through their own troubles. Drummer Brann Dailor’s mother has fought chronic illnesses her entire life, and during this period she too took ill. Meanwhile, in November, guitarist Brent Hinds broke his right leg starting his motorcycle.

Brent is one of those guys whose appearance perfectly describes his personality – loud, provocative, funny as hell and erupting with testosterone and profane one-liners. Now recovered from his motorcycle mishap, Brent is just finishing a ride when we catch up with him. He speaks rapidly and without the slightest hint of uncertainty regarding virtually anything that comes out of his mouth. While he’s fiercely proud of Emperor…, its release date inspires mixed feelings.

“The album comes out on March 31, 2017 and that’s my brother’s birthday and he passed away, so it’s going to feel odd when it’s released,” he says. His brother Brad died on a hunting trip in 2010, during the recording of Mastodon’s fifth album, which the band subsequently named The Hunter. Brad is memorialised in its title track.

As the tragedies mounted, rather than take time off to process things separately, they turned to each other for much-needed emotional support. “Mastodon is our way of going on,” says Brent. “Mastodon is our therapy.” Brent shares that the depth of the material on Emperor… affected him profoundly during the recording process. “The band was getting so deep that I could barely play a song without crying a lot of times,” he tells us. “The new album is really emotional, and when you listen to it as a co-creator, as I am with my fellows, and they have had these horrible incidents happening in their lives with cancer affecting their loved ones, I absorb their hurt. It’s really sad.”

Even for Mastodon, who have weathered more than their fair allotment of tragedy, this has been a soul-kicking stretch of Old Testament-sized misfortune. And yet, slowing down was never an option. As Troy explains, “When you have a giant journey of adversity in front of you, the quickest way to the finish line is straight ahead.”

This ability to bend and utter refusal to break is the very essence of Mastodon.

On October 3, 2016, Mastodon retreated to Kennesaw, Georgia, a smallish Southern town an hour north of Atlanta, where they pitched camp at the Quarry Recording Studio (which bills itself as ‘the vibiest recording studio in the Southeast’). They were joined by the legendary, Grammy Award-winning producer Brendan O’Brien, who oversaw their last proper concept album, 2009’s Crack The Skye.

Once again, Brann conceived the album’s concept. Opening track Sultan’s Curse was the first song they came up with, painting the picture of an evil overlord ruling the desert. “I just see music cinematically,” he explains. “It’s way easier for me to say, ‘OK, here’s the protagonist and here’s the villain...’ Real middle-school fucking story outlines, ha ha ha! I try not to be too rigid with the concepts, though. I try to paint it in as broad strokes as possible so that everyone else can feel free to write whatever they want. Like with Leviathan, which was about Moby Dick, it was just like, ‘Hey, this is about Moby Dick. You’re not required to read the fucking thing. Just have at it.’ It was the same with this record.”

On its face, Emperor Of Sand harkens back to those early 20th-century movies about ancient Egypt – the protagonist receives the Sultan’s Curse, a death sentence. He escapes into the blistering heat of the desert, where he searches in vain for rain and shelter as the sun beats mercilessly down on him (a metaphor for chemotherapy). Eventually, the guy dies and assumes the shape of a jaguar (the record closes with Jaguar God). “Brann was saying, ‘Let’s put a face on [cancer]. Let’s make him the Emperor Of Sand,’” says Bill. “The Emperor is the keeper of time and specifically, your time remaining on this planet in this mortal coil.”

Tonight Brann is flying up to New York City from Atlanta to sit in with the house band of Late Night With Seth Meyers – his second turn in that role, and he’s excited to return. He is cerebral and soft-spoken, and like many language-oriented people, talking seems to be how he processes his thoughts and ideas.

“Pre-Crack The Skye, [life and death themes were] in there, but we almost took a more Joseph Campbell [renowned American mythologist, lecturer and author], mythology approach, and we tried to incorporate all of these cryptozoological beasts into the artwork and the subject matter. We still flirt with those types of fantastical themes, but the more literal inspiration for the music is more up front. We found that with Crack The Skye, which was inspired by the tragedy that affected my family and me in 1990 with my sister’s suicide, the fans’ reaction came back at me tenfold, and we realised that we could actually make a difference in people’s lives.”

Mastodon’s catalogue reveals a gift for channelling intensely personal tragedies into music of terrifying force and beauty. “With The Hunter, you had the death of Brent’s brother,” Brann says, “and then with Once More ’Round The Sun, my mom fell off of a chair and busted her head open. She was in intensive care and I wrote pretty much all of the lyrics in the hospital room with her. It was really touch-and-go and she was about to pass away. And it was the same thing with this album. Troy was going through his thing with his wife, Bill’s mother had just been diagnosed with a brain tumour and my mom had been sick since I was a kid, so I’m very familiar with illness and with watching someone wither away. Why would we write about anything else? I knew we were not going to be able to avoid this.”

Mastodon in 2017

Mastodon’s Brann Dailor in the studio in 2017 (Image credit: Justin Borucki)

To flesh out the concept, Brann dove into old-school movies and books about ancient Egypt. “I basically watched Lawrence Of Arabia over and over again,” he says. Visually, the album would need to depict a suitably evil and fearsome-looking villain. Brann explains, “When I talked with the album cover artist, Alan Brown, I said, ‘The Emperor is cancer and it needs to look like that. He needs to look like someone who kills without remorse – this powerful fucking embodiment of evil who doesn’t even care.’ When I finally saw the album cover, I thought, ‘Oh man, that’s it. That’s the guy. He’s the one who killed all of those people.’”

Sonically, the album is relentlessly heavy, balancing an ineffable mainstream appeal with Mastodon’s pummelling tempos, concussive riffage and choruses massive enough to have their own gravity. Pump the new album through some killer speakers and the spectrum of tones is remarkable – deep and warm, reminiscent of the vintage 70s hard rock sound. The reason, Troy explains, is gear.

“Brendan’s a giant fan of vintage gear, and for Brent and Bill to walk into a studio with loads of options and beautiful vintage gear, well, that’s like a couple of kids in a candy store. And Brendan is an incredible musician and we trust his fifth ear in the band more than we’ve ever trusted anyone else that we’ve worked with. If we’re on a fence where two guys feel this way and two guys feel that way, Brendan will give his honest advice of how he feels and that’s where the band would steer.”

Troy gives the example of Show Yourself, the second track on the album and their second single, which boasts a radio-friendly chorus amid its exhilarating, fist-pumping riffs. “I was very proud of the chorus, and when I laid it down, he said, ‘Cool, I’ve got it. Killer.’ Then the next day he came back and said, ‘Hey, I listened to it over and over, and that chorus needs to pop more. Your range and your delivery are good, but they need to be great. What can we do?’ So we sat down for a half hour and tried a bunch of things, and then I hit this one thing where I went [singing] ‘You’re not as safe as far as I can tell’, and he said, ‘That’s it! That makes the whole song.’ Now it’s all over radio, so if that makes us more available to rock lovers’ ears, then that’s great to me.”

Brendan has publicly commented that the band have evolved even further as musicians since Crack The Skye. “Once you do something a lot, you’re going to get better at it,” Brent deadpans. As to whether they were shooting for a specific sound, he says, “Of course. I wanted it to sound like the sound a cash register makes, ha ha! But our music is always heavy, so you never have to worry about that part. That part of the question is not a worry and needs not addressing, because we’re a heavy band and we’re loud and Brann hits the drums loud and so it’s always going to be fucking heavy.”

Since 2000, the same four guys have been making ridiculously ambitious, mind-expanding music together, establishing Mastodon as a modern metal institution. They’ve toured the world several times over, notched up three Grammy nominations and won two Metal Hammer Golden God awards. Yet it’s not what they’ve accomplished but what they have endured together that binds them.

“Our chemistry is amazing,” explains Brent. “It’s like four guys who’ve been brothers our whole lives. Mastodon – Bill, Brann, Brent and Troy – have never been in one argument, ever, and we have been together for almost 18 years. Without the band, we would have all self-destructed by now.”

While the spectre of death looms large in their back catalogue, particularly on Emperor…’s epic closer, Jaguar God, the band hold dramatically different ideas about what happens after we draw our final breath. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the album sounds so multifaceted and diverse.

“I’m not really sure what happens,” Bill says. “I feel like your spirit lives on in another realm or reality somewhere. I feel like it gets transferred to another dimension.” Troy also believes in some other realm, but goes a step further, referring to personal experiences outside of this dimension. “I do believe in an afterlife,” he confesses. “Witnessing a universal energy and having interacted with and seen spirits, I believe that something bigger and greater is going on and I’m excited by the possibilities.” Brent is typically assured in his response, saying, “We’re just here for a little spell, my friend. No one needs to be afraid of what’s next because what’s next is grandiose and then it goes on again. Your light of being will always be. That’s the truth.” Brann offers a decidedly less-ethereal option. “If I were to take a stab at guessing what happens, I’d say it’s a deep, deep sleep. That’d be perfect, because you’ve got people who get all excited by the idea that they’re going to see their grandparents again. Well, guess what – your grandparents have been watching you masturbate for all those years, so maybe they’re not the best people to see...”

The men are quick to point out that Emperor… is not a gloomy meditation on death but a call to action. The poignant lyrical refrain on Precious Stones ‘Don’t waste your time, don’t let it slip away from you / Don’t waste your time, if it’s the last thing that you do’ – lingers in the mind long after the record has finished. “Everyone knows that but I just want to reiterate it,” says Troy. “Do things for yourself and do things for others. Choose your time wisely and don’t be a dick!”

“The moral of the record to me is that if you have ambitions or stuff in life that you want to do, do it,” emphasises Bill. “Do it before it’s too late. Do it before you get a crippling injury. Do it before you have six months to live after getting diagnosed with cancer so you’re not sitting around saying, ‘Shit, what do I do with my time left?’ We humans have this belief that we have an inexhaustible well of life, but we really don’t. We only have a certain amount of time here.”

Mastodon’s Troy Sanders onstage in 2017

(Image credit: Burak Cingi/Redferns)

It’s indicative of his personality that Bill’s in complete acceptance of who he is and what he has accomplished, and now seems guided by a powerful sense of gratitude. “I just want to be happy. I feel like I’ve already achieved so much in my life. I could die happy today, but I don’t want to. My goal now is to raise my children, and to continue to make good music, and to do as much as I can to steer my kids in the right direction in life.”

Unsurprisingly, given recent circumstances and the age they’re now at in life, family is a recurring theme when the guys talk about how they’d like to spend their remaining days on the planet. “I want to continue being a solid person,” Troy says after some thought. “I want to continue finding that balance on the fine line of spreading myself overly thin, creating music and art for myself, and at the same time being a positive friend, husband and dad.” Brann is similarly focused. “I’ve spent the majority of my life performing music for strangers,” he muses, casting a light onto the strange touring lifestyle of a band. “We’re gone for a year and a half solid and we’re asking these people that we love to sit and wait. Basically, I don’t have any other commitments than my wife, so I try to be all hers when I’m home. That’s really what I need to do. Same with my family. I don’t want to be in that situation where I find myself wishing I’d spent more time with a person and then they’re gone.”

Brent, however, hints at a ton of plans yet to be realised, though he’s making headway with his solo projects. “Man, I’m always just scratching the surface of things,” he considers. “I haven’t even gotten started.”

Soon they’ll be back on the road supporting the new album – a tour that will take them across North America and then over to Europe in the summer. Once again, their time with friends and families is growing short, but they all exude a real sense of serenity and acceptance. Despite the personal tragedies that have beset each successive record, none of them have ever considered walking away. They are bound by an unlikely agreement from their earliest days, and from a friendship that has grown stronger with each passing year.

“We told each other early on that no one’s allowed to quit unless we all decide to quit,” Bill explains. “That was when we were on our first tour and we were all wasted and drunk, and we made that pact. Kind of a bonded-by-blood moment, but it’s rung true to this day. I never thought we’d still be playing together after 17 years, but we kind of just live day to day, I guess. It’s worked out for us.” 

Originally published in Metal Hammer issue 294

Joe Daly

Hailing from San Diego, California, Joe Daly is an award-winning music journalist with over thirty years experience. Since 2010, Joe has been a regular contributor for Metal Hammer, penning cover features, news stories, album reviews and other content. Joe also writes for Classic Rock, Bass Player, Men’s Health and Outburn magazines. He has served as Music Editor for several online outlets and he has been a contributor for SPIN, the BBC and a frequent guest on several podcasts. When he’s not serenading his neighbours with black metal, Joe enjoys playing hockey, beating on his bass and fawning over his dogs.