Interview by Robert Cavuoto
Mastodon has just released their eighth full-length album entitled, Emperor of Sand. The CD is framed around the tragic turn of events that transpired when Brann Dailor and Bill Kelliher’s family members were diagnosed with cancer. The two talked everyday about their loved ones getting sick, dying, and how much time they have on this planet. Together they went into the studio to lay down some of the bands most adventurous and epic tracks to date, a cathartic release given to the fans. Mastodon is Troy Sanders on bass/vocals, Brent Hinds on guitar/vocals, Bill Kelliher on guitar Brann Dailor on drums/vocals.
I had the pleasure of speaking with guitarist Bill Kelliher to discuss the making of this CD and the band’s skyrocketing career.
Robert Cavuoto: Understanding that the battle against cancer in family members influenced the creation of this CD, did you find it cathartic or difficult to share something so personal?
Bill Kelliher: It was pretty cathartic to get out the riffs. When my Mom got sick it was more of a distraction to focus on and put all my energy towards. I don’t like holding on to riffs for too long. I like to get them out. I’m not sure how cathartic it was because I was pretty sad about losing her so early. I felt like we took a shitty situation and tried to do something positive. To tell a story about it so in a way was cathartic.
Robert Cavuoto: Are you always stock piling riffs?
Bill Kelliher: I feel like I’m always riffing out and recording new ideas. I tend to write riffs all the time. When the tour is over I listen back to all these riffs to see if I can marry them up. I look for riffs that sound like they were all written together. Sometimes they are not. I may have this awesome riff but don’t have a beginning or an ending part. I have to wait until the “Riff Gods” place it in my hands and then make it work. I’m always writing on the road and I have my ProTools with me.
Robert Cavuoto: How has the creative process of the band changed over the years?
Bill Kelliher: Each record is a little different. Back in the early days, I would write half the record and Brent would write the other half. With Crack the Skye, it was almost all of Brent’s ideas but together we chipped in and arranged his ideas. With The Hunter I had a few songs and Brent had a few, Brann wrote the song “The Creature Lives.” Once More ‘Round the Sun was pretty heavy on my writing. On this record it was pretty heavy with Brann and I getting together everyday talking about our how sick our Moms were, then going down in the basement to hammer out all the songs. We had 12 songs pretty much finished and ready to go but didn’t use all of them. By the time we got into the studio it was like butter. We had it all written with some of the lyrics and vocals. It’s different each time, sometime it’s heavier with one guy depending who feels like writing and the time to do it. I was really proactive this time around, and decided every day I was going to write a song or try to get a song together with these 1000s of riffs I have laying around. That’s where the record came from. I wrote “High Road” in a hotel room on my day off with a new guitar. Songs tend to change a lot from when the first time you write it. I have a studio in my basement and wanted to get cracking with this “cup-overfloweth” mentality at the time when my Mom was ill. I had so many song ideas I might as well put them all down.
Robert Cavuoto: Do you think Mastodon has captured their signature sound or was it more a happy accident that the band grew into it?
Bill Kelliher: I think it was an alignment of planets. I worked really hard writing a lot of this record in my studio. I felt like we had good ideas and good riffs. Brann came in with all the melodies and vocals. It was a perfect storm where we put all of our emotions into it. Our fans really have an emotional attachment to our music. We worked with Brendan O’Brien and he is such a great producer. We had the CD where we wanted it; about 75% there. Brendan was able to get the best performances out of everybody. He commands respect and he doesn’t screw around in the studio as he works very quickly. It was a perfect storm of all those elements.
Robert Cavuoto: Is there a message in your music that brings Mastodon fans together?
Bill Kelliher: I think our music comes from a real place. We definitely opened up our souls on this one; talking about our loved ones getting sick, dying, and how much time we have on this planet. Because it’s so real to us that fans going through the same kind of situation can related to it. It’s almost like medicine to some people. I know there are records that I reached out to when I’m feeling a certain way; like super depressed. Music does that to people and it’s therapy. Our music is so unique it’s not really classified as Heavy Metal or Hard Rock. There is some progressive stuff in there. We are not an overnight sensation as we have been building this band for 17 years. I feel like we are playing our best right now with the best music. We have a little bit of each record in this new record and people like it.
Robert Cavuoto: Mastodon is truly a global phenomenon. Can you explain what it is about your music that transcends to so many people around the global in so many cultures?
Bill Kelliher: I think our music transgresses like language. People enjoy and it and its unique with all its different styles. We get a lot of different audiences because of that. We get different audience members across different age groups and musically backgrounds. I think we have perfected ourselves since we first started. We really changed a lot and matured as a band with singing and pay more attention to song structure. It’s just paid off on this record.
Robert Cavuoto: The band’s career has really skyrocketed, at what point in your career did you to start enjoying yourself and what was the first thing you did special to commemorate it?
Bill Kelliher: I don’t think there has really been a point where I said “Hey we made it!” We have had many milestones in our career like being in the NY Times or Wall Street Journal or being nominated for a Grammy three times. James Hetfield came to our gig the other night in New York at the Hammerstein Ballroom. He shook my hand and told me “He loved the record!” I was like maybe we made it now [laughing]. If you would have told a 15 year old Bill Kelliher that James Hetfield would be coming to my gig and complimenting me on my record I would have never believed it. Little things like that happen. I’ll share this story with you, when we signed with Warner Brothers they gave us an advance, my wife said “I’m buying a fucking Dyson vacuum!” [laughing] So we spent $600 on a vacuum, that’s a lot of money for a vacuum but it was worth it.
Robert Cavuoto: You have some amazing guitar tones on the CD, what gear did you use to record Emperor of Sand?
Bill Kelliher: I used my ESP LTD Sparrowhawk with the Lace Dissonant Aggressors pickups and some of Les Pauls. My choices of amps for each song were unlimited during the recording process but I mainly used my Friedman Butterslax amp head for the chunky super heavy stuff. I used an old Silvertone Sears amp for a lot of the clean stuff. We dug in deep and applied the amp’s different sounds, effects, and keyboards to give the songs that third dimension. It’s really a good sounding record.
Robert Cavuoto: The band’s video have always had a dark comedic sense about them, how involved is the band in their development?
Bill Kelliher: We are such a serious band but as people we are jokester and trying to crack each other up. The videos reflect our silly side.
Robert Cavuoto: Do you have any thoughts or words of expression about Chris Cornell’s death?
Bill Kelliher: Totally shocked and overwhelmed with grief. It was very, very terrible. We just played two shows with Soundgarden not even a week ago. I know Kim Thayil really well and he is a super nice guy. He just came to a show of ours two or three weeks ago in Seattle where he lives. We hung out all night. I saw Soundgarden in 1989 in Rochester NY they were fucking incredible and even up to this day. They were like Black Sabbath meets Metal meets Grunge. They were the epitome of the new Grunge era of music. I loved them and a huge fan. Chris’s voice was one of kind. He can sing like such a bad ass, he was so fucking good and talented. I feel bad for his family, band, and all the fans. We will never be able to hear his voice again.
Robert Cavuoto: Did you know Chris personally?
Bill Kelliher: No I think I met him once, at a festival in Europe; maybe in Portugal. He had a bodyguard and I don’t think he hung out like the other guys did. I never got a chance to sit down and get to know him. I know people who knew him and they are crushed.