Mastodon Are the Most Famous Regular-Ass Dudes in Heavy Music
Guitarist Bill Kelliher and bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders on giving back to the Atlanta music scene, dealing with internet trolls, and their dark new album, 'Emperor of Sand'
A typical interview with a heavy metal band can go one of three ways—phone, email (ugh), or in the best case (and therefore rarest scenario), a writer is able to actually sit down with the band in person and try to have an actual conversation. For the latter, you and the artist (or artists, or artist plus their manager plus their significant other plus their three closest high school friends for some reason) generally cram into a corner of the green room backstage, or the front bench of a van, or maybe, if they're of a certain level, a sterile label office. It's not at all common to find oneself heading to a glamorous Manhattan hotel to talk shop with a couple of heshers made good, but then again, Mastodon is an altogether uncommon kind of metal band.
Their new album, Emperor of Sand, was due to be released later that week, and the band—or, rather, a couple of emissaries in the form of bassist Troy Sanders and guitarist Bill Kelliher—were in New York City to mop up a few last bits of pre-release press. So, there we were—me and two scruffy, laid back dudes from Georgia, surrounded by luxe furnishings, fancy drapes, and top shelf booze we weren't allowed to drink. I'd first met them years before, while working merch for fellow Georgia heavyweights Black Tusk on a short tour the two bands did together, and was secretly delighted when Sanders and Kelliher remembered me now. At that point, Mastodon was already a big band with the kind of drawing power most of their old friends from the Atlanta underground could hardly dream of—but six years on, they've become genuinely huge.
They've been nominated for (and, as Sanders points out, lost) three Grammys by now; their music has been used in movies ( The Big Short, Jonah Monsters University, Hex); three of them—drummer Brann Dailor, guitarist Brent Hinds, and Kelliher—have appeared on Game of Thrones as Wildings; their eighth album, Emperor of Sand, cracked the overall top ten and topped multiple Billboard charts (including their weekly top album sales chart, at one point outselling Ed Sheeran and Drake), and their upcoming North American tour will see them pack out venues like NYC's iconic 2,200 capacity Hammerstein Ballroom alongside the Eagles of Death Metal.
The pair's earnest lack of ego provides ample cover for their considerable successes—a side effect, perhaps, of all those years spent scraping by, sweating it out in vans, and blowing out their voices in tiny dive bars. When I ask them about what it's like to be famous, Kelliher's response was refreshingly pragmatic. "It's just one of the outcomes of what we do. We've just been playing music and being the same four guys we were when we started, and one of the side effects of that is getting famous, I guess," he shrugged. "You know what I mean? We never set out saying, let's one day be famous or go on tour with Metallica. Hard work pays off. It's as simple as that."
Even though they're now one of the biggest heavy rock bands in the world, our conversation made it clear that Mastodon's roots are firmly planted in the Southern DIY scene. They readily mention locals like Royal Thunder, Whores, Withered, Order of the Owl, and the Coathangers when I ask about the current state of Atlanta's heavy music underground, and Kelliher is also eager to talk about his latest project, Ember City. He built the ten-room boutique rehearsal studio from the ground up with master carpenter and grindcore icon Kevin Sharp, and both he and Sanders are involved in maintaining the space (according to Sanders, he's "the toilet guy"). Kelliher envisions the space as a eventual hub for local musicians, as well as a bulwark against the creeping gentrification that he pegs as the main challenge currently facing the Atlanta music community.
"I wanted to do this years ago because I knew this was going to happen," he told me. "You could see it coming. All these building are being torn down. Our building is next. It was just a matter of time. So I thought, wouldn't it be great to have our own place where we have our own little community that we own and are a part of? Everyone has been practicing way outside the 285, like 35 miles away, and [it can take] sometimes an hour to get out there, to get to a public storage spot with a tin door and one little outlet down the hall and a little lightbulb, with no privacy or sound reinforcement or anything. That could make or break a lot of bands, and I think a lot of bands have disappeared over the past few years because of lot of these places have closed."
He and Sanders had quite a lot more to say about Ember City, and over the course of a half hour or so, we got into some bigger, more cosmic questions, too—including the foundations of their uncharacteristically dark new album, the major themes of which Sanders pegs as, "time, mortality, and death, and loss, and sickness, and illness."
As Kelliher explained, "It makes for a great story, unfortunately." Read on for the rest of our conversation, including ruminations on the joys of Subway.
Noisey: So going on what you've said already, it sounds like the Atlanta music community is in sort of a state of flux right now.
Bill Kelliher: There's still a scene. I think it kind of disappeared for awhile because there's nowhere for the bands to practice, and nowhere for the bands to play. You gotta be able to play a local show. Not everybody can go on the road and tour. There's 529, which holds like 200 people; there is the Earl. The Masquerade closed down, and it has reopened, but it's still not the same. Atlanta is really changing a lot.
Is it a gentrification issue?
Kelliher: Yeah. So many people are moving there [because of] the movie industry. It's not as expensive as filming in California or living in California, so everyone seems to be moving to Atlanta. Georgia is trying to get more people to come work in Atlanta, and Georgia in general, to stimulate the economy, and it's like everywhere you turn, there's fucking condos. If you take away so much of the arts, why are you coming here? What's there to do after you're done shopping and working? It's a real problem. It's kind of pushing people out of the city. We wanted to keep some sort of a semblance of a scene within the city. There's still pockets of Atlanta that aren't developed yet. The west end, where our building is, is one of them.
As a band that has been very successful, do you feel a specific responsibility to help keep this community alive?
Troy Sanders: Initially, [we built the rehearsal space] because it's fun and we enjoy it. We didn't get one room just so we can practice; Bill spearheaded the idea to get a building. Last year, the two giant rehearsal facilities in Atlanta closed. There was 100 bands in our building alone, the old Thunder Box. The demand was there.
Kelliher: There's ten rooms, and there's probably a few bands in each room. There's a company in there called Atlanta Rockstar rehearsals that rent the rooms out by the hour. They had been over at Avatar and Black Thunder Box for a few years, [but] had to shut the business down because there was no place to do it [until] I got a phone call from them saying they wanted to rent some rooms from us. We really like it down there; I meet new people every day, and it feels like home. I like the sense of giving back a little bit. A lot of people have personally thanked me and the band for doing what we're doing. I don't really want credit for it, though; I just want the scene to stay alive.
I was just walking around the other day, cleaning the trash out like I do, and had a sense of accomplishment walking down the hall hearing all these different bands practicing. I was like, this is really cool. It reminds me of the old days, and my dream of this being our place someday, and now it is! We can be touring all over the world, and [now] we won't get that phone call like we did a couple years ago—'Hey, they're closing the building. You have to get all of your stuff out.' We had to hire the Withered dudes to help us move all our stuff out of our practice room because it had been sold. Now, we always have a place to come home to.
And you get to be regular band dudes when you're there, instead of this famous rock band. What has it been like coming to terms with your current level of visibility?
Sanders: For me personally, I credit our longevity to the slow ascent. If this happened over the course of a year and a half, I think our egos would've got in the way, and we would've had so much friction, and we would've dispersed. We would've broken up, I believe. One of the things we met on 17 years ago was that we all had this desire to take music to the people and make it work for ourselves. I think Bill said it the first time we met. Nobody is going to knock on your door and say 'Hey, you want this really great tour? Hey, we're Relapse Records, you want a record deal?'
Kelliher: That's what we thought when we first started though [laughs].
Sanders: The fact that it has happened really gradually… I'm extremely proud of it. I recognize we are fortunate, but we've dedicated our lives to it. I think it goes hand in hand, setting four grown men's' hearts and desires in the same direction. I recognize that it's rare, but it's also hard work and dedication.
Kelliher: I think because of what Troy said, about the organic way the band has grown, it's always a day to day thing. It's not like everything was thrown at us all at once—people throwing cash at you, just like, 'Here you go, you're famous.' It's not like I thought it would be. Every day, you got to get up. You've got to work. You've got to fly to New York to do interviews and talk to people. I always feel grounded because it still is a slow rise, you know what I mean? I still feel like we're punching the clock because we're working toward doing the next big thing. It's more about the journey than the destination.
Sanders: We didn't obviously set out when we all met—'Hey, do you want to be famous in a few years?' That was not the question. 'Are you cool with living in a van? How good are you at peeing in a water bottle? Because we're not pulling over every five miles.' You gotta be good at that shit.
Kelliher: It's just one of the outcomes of what we do. We've just been playing music and being the same four guys we were when we started, and one of the side effects of that is getting famous, I guess [laughs]. Like Troy said, we never set out saying, 'Let's one day be famous or go on tour with Metallica.' Hard work pays off. It's as simple as that.
If you wanted to get famous, you probably wouldn't have started out playing sludgy, aggro metal.
Kelliher: And that's the cool thing about our band, is that we've always been able to play what we want to play. We never signed a contract that said we were going to be a heavy metal band, or a death metal band, or a crust punk band, for the rest of our lives. Our fucking fans are nuts. They pick apart every fucking note, every fucking word, who's singing what, why this song doesn't sound like the last song, why this song sucks because it's different. I'm always trying to come up with riffs and ideas and songs to impress Troy, Brent, or Brann. I'm not trying to do to it to impress Joe Blow on Facebook. I don't give a shit. That's what keeps us going. It's funny when I read these comments on the internet of people saying we sold out by playing songs like "Show Yourself." Who the fuck are you? What do you mean we sold out? I'll play whatever music I want to play! I'll put out a goddamn pop record if I want to. I don't have to answer to anybody but my bandmates… and my wife.
Sanders: It keeps us motivated to go into the practice room and see what happens that day. If we've worked on one of Bill's riffs and maybe one phrase of vocals in that one day of practice and we're all digging it, then cool! That's what's in our control. What's in our control is the sounds, the notes, the lyrical subject matter, and what cool design we're going to put on the next T-shirt. Once the record is birthed into the world, it's going to touch people in a great way. It's also going to anger people. It doesn't matter to us. We've already hugged and high-fived about how proud we are of this new record. Once it becomes out of our control, then that's a whole other realm.
You are awfully good at making people mad, though.
Sanders: I think those are the people I would never associate with in life, just because I can recognize the negative energy and I don't want to surround myself with that. Our time is short and sweet. I know a lot of people do that, but I'm glad I don't.
Kelliher: There's people that follow the Mastodon Facebook page and then they talk shit. Are you just trying to be cool? I think of a pimply faced 14-year-old in his underpants sitting on his computer. Where's your band that you've had for 17 years? Where are your three-time Grammy loser certificates?
Sanders: Have you lost three Grammys, you little prick? Type, type, type. No, I didn't think so.
It's really funny to hear you go from talking about taking out the trash at your rehearsal space to flexing about the Grammys.
Sanders: Trash takes itself out. You know what makes me have a sense of pride? I drilled a hole in the concrete wall and put up a framed poster in our bathroom. Before I go to band practice, I check the four bathrooms and replace the toilet rolls. Bill is the trash guy. I'm the toilet guy. Together, it's fucking teamwork.
Kelliher: Once in awhile I get my squirt bottle out and clean the seat. You gotta keep it real—or, well, it's not that you gotta keep it real, it's that you don't want to pay someone else to do it [laughs]. You gotta pinch every penny, you know what I mean? I'm not too good to change the trash and pick up all the dirty beer can bottles and put them in the recycling bin and take them home and put them in my own garbage.
Rock and metal have this history of turning its musicians into these larger than life, almost mythical figures… but you're out here cleaning toilets.
Kelliher: But then when that's all over, you've got nothing to stand on. Who are you? I know who I am. You know who I am. Do you know who you are?
That's very profound.
Sanders: Bill is intense, isn't he? He's deep, man.
On another note, aside from building Ember City together, you also had Kevin Sharp guest on "Andromeda", and the result is really noisy and abrasive for what we've come to expect from you guys. Did you tailor the song to his voice?
Sanders: Any time we have a guest on our records, the music has naturally revealed itself to lead to that person. For example, we'll be playing some music that's being created, and think, wow, that kind of sounds like a Mars Volta part from ten years ago… maybe we'll ask for our friend Cedric who sang for the Mars Volta. The same thing with Kevin. That part was heavy as shit, and had Kevin's voice all over it.
Kelliher: I wanted [Sharp] to be involved. He's one of my best friends, and he's the grind father, you know what I mean? Honestly, I feel like our music, you could take probably any part of any of our songs and say, I could see this person's voice here. We know so many dudes who are great singers. Maybe someday we'll do a record like that just for fun, kind of like that Probot thing, which is fucking awesome. And Scott Kelly, we gotta have him in there. He's kind of like the fifth Beatle. We always have some sort music that could fit his vocal style. The past three records, we basically reserve him a spot and send it to him. It has been a nice brotherhood.
By doing that, you've probably introduced a lot of kids to Neurosis.
Kelliher: Yeah, probably. That's a little bit of where we could give back. Neurosis heavily influenced us in a lot of ways, and still does. There are a lot of bands that fall through the cracks and people don't really appreciate them. I was listening to Isis the other day. I fucking forgot how great they were. There's a lot of nods that we try to incorporate, and so many different bands influence us and me when I'm writing. That's a cool thing about our band—we can add all that stuff in there, wrap it up, and make it a Mastodon song.
Emperor of Sand is a very emotionally grim record—you've never really been this level of dark before. I read that the lyrics are tied to various personal losses within the band; is that what spurred you to create such an overall dark record this time?
Sanders: Music is spilling out of us, and lyrics are coming out of us. It's just a very honest and natural reflection of what we're living in these stages and moments of our lives. I think we're very open and honest with ourselves and our music. We channel all this current state of energy, whether it be good or bad, into this art we call Mastodon. We try to turn it into something that has a positive light at the end of it. Crack the Skye was the first example of turning this very dark subject matter into something we felt was very beautiful and that will live forever. That's a great thing. What better or more honest way to create art than truthfulness or honesty straight from the heart? I don't know any other way to do it.
Kelliher: And the way we can put a spin on it with the metaphors and storytelling and kind of turning it into an adventure that can pertain to you personally. It's open to interpretation, and I love music like that. When I listen to the Melvins, I don't know what the hell he's singing, but I make up my own words about what's going on in the lyrics and it paints this picture in my mind. And I know that our music does that for people, and that's a great thing because it's therapeutic. For me, when I'm feeling shitty or depressed or whatever, I'll put on a super depressing record; we all have those go-to records to listen to when we're feeling a certain way. It's kind of like medicine. I like that our band can be someone's medicine. The record is not even out yet, and I'm reading Facebook messages from fans who are like, 'I've lost my dad to cancer last week. I've been listening to the three songs, and it's helping me cope. It's a distraction.' Things like that make me feel like we're doing the right thing.
Sanders: It's a full circle of energy. We love it. We believe in it and then we send it out, and that energy gets returned in a super complimentary way. It's a circle of beauty. I also believe that music is the medicine. Music is universal language of escapism through musical celebration. We're here to save the world and tell our truths. Music is where you go for the real deal.
Kelliher: And you see it on the faces of people in the front row. They're singing along. I've seen people crying.
Sanders: I've seen people making out, singing along, and crying at the same time. That's fucking cool.
Kelliher: It's gross.
Sanders: But it's true. That's a great moment.
You're also at the point in your musical journey where fans know to expect the unexpected, which has got to be kind of freeing.
Sanders: I've never felt any expectation outside of anyone else other than Bill, Brent, and Brann. I expect to make my three bandmates happy with whatever I have input to a song which is usually lyrics and vocals. Outside of that, once we leave the studio and whatever we've accomplished and we're happy with it, I'm done with it. My personal expectations have stopped.
Kelliher: There are times where we are doing demos or something like that, something that I write or Troy sings will sound very familiar. We'll go back into our catalog and go, ah, that's the same thing, we can't use that! I did that with "Steambreather." When I first wrote the opening riff, we demoed it and I played it for my wife and she's like, 'Why are you playing me this? I've already heard this song.' She said, ''Is this the one with the butts video? 'The Motherload?" I was like, ehh, yeah [laughs]. It sounded so much like that. Even though it was in a different tuning, it was still the same and I was so bummed. We definitely have to check ourselves, because we have 90 songs or something—every once in awhile, something like that might happen. We don't want to repeat ourselves. There's so many new riffs and ideas out there. We just gotta keep it fresh. Eat fresh, too [laughs].
Ha! Are you big Subway fans?
Sanders: No, but we lived on it for six years!
Kelliher: Yeah. We had those little coupon books where you get all the stamps.
Sanders: Buy six sandwiches or something and you get one free. That was a fucking rewarding moment right there. We'd walk in their proudly displaying our six-hole punch Subway club card.
Kelliher: Shit, now we could walk in there and buy that place.
Sanders: Turn it into a rehearsal facility. Practice fresh!
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; she's on Twitter.
Photos by Cody Swanson