MASTODON’S BILL KELLIHER: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
Last time we spoke with a member of Mastodon was when we interviewed Troy Sanders in person on the Rockstar Mayhem Tour in 2008. It was our biggest interview to date, and we were a bit starstruck. MetalSucks has grown leaps and bounds since then, and Mastodon have too; they’ve toured the world several times over and become without a doubt one of the biggest metal bands on the planet. This Mastodon interview session’s subject was guitarist Bill Kelliher; having now interviewed a number of my heros I wasn’t nervous like I was back in ’08, but it’s always a pleasure to speak with someone whose art you respect so much.
When I’m connected with Bill he’s cruising around Atlanta in his ’64 Pontiac Catalina “because it’s a beautiful day.” Doing nothing seems to be Bill’s preferred activity when he’s not on the road, which doesn’t happen much these days with Mastodon’s busy schedule. After his cruise and our interview, Bill was planning on a quiet night at home with the family: “I’ve got 2 little boys and usually it’s a birthday party or something that we’ve got planned – dinner parties or whatever. It’s always something. My wife and I are just like ‘let’s have a night to do nothing tonight.’ Sit on the couch maybe and watch a movie with the boys.” With Mastodon’s new album The Hunter coming out on September 27th and a headline tour with The Dillinger Escape Plan and Red Fang following shortly thereafter, Bill better squeeze in these nights while he still can.
The Hunter takes Mastodon in a different direction than their past two magnus opuses (opii?). None of the record’s songs are over 5 minutes long. According to Kelliher, the band just “dumped out [their] bag of riffs” and assembled them into songs that worked without worrying about a grandiose concept. “Can we just write a record and have fun and not have to have all these crazy stories and imagery? Can we do without that on this record?” Indeed they can and indeed they have. Kelliher’s thoughts on that and more after the jump.
These last few years you guys have been on the road a lot. Has it been really hard to balance the family life with the band life?
Yeah, a little bit. We’ve actually had a lot of time off these past couple of years. We did the Crack the Skye album cycle and then we had some time off here and there. We used to take every tour that came our way, but nowadays we’re being a little bit pickier and taking only the tours that make sense. God, we used to do whatever was available and did that for many years. It kind of burned us out a little bit. Sometimes you’re just like “I want to be home.” When you’re touring all the time, there’s no sick days. You can’t call in sick to work. If you get sick on tour, you don’t have your own bed to sleep in or somebody to take care of you. You get older, you have families, and it’s just nice to come home and hang out with my kids and mow the damn lawn. It’s those little things that I’ve missed all these years.
It’s great that you guys are finally at the point where you don’t have to tour 9 or 10 months out of the year to make a living.
Yeah, yeah, that’s why my wife still works so that she can bring home the bacon while I’m not touring. [Laughs]
So let’s talk about the new album for a bit. The first thing that I know that a lot of fans were interested in hearing about is that you guys decided to hire a different artist for your cover artwork this time. What went into that decision?
Paul Romano is a big artist. He’s been with us for so long. I think that this record came into fruition so fast and so quick and so spontaneously, and Paul is not that fast. It’s a lot of effort that he puts into all the artwork for our albums. I think we just said “let’s try something totally different” because this time we’re not going with a concept. We just wanted to write a record for fun and not have all this baggage attached to it. By the time we were ready to put the record out, it wouldn’t be ready with the artwork from Paul. We just thought that if there was a time to try somebody else, it would be now.
Are you happy with the way it turned out?
Oh yeah. I think it’s fucking awesome. That head that guy made . . . if it was just a painting or something, I’d be like “meh, yeah, it’s okay”. It’s an actual 3-dimensional work of art that he made out of wood. It’s cool because you can use it for different things. You can look at it from different angles and have different parts of your album with gatefolds – just different angles of it without having to redraw it or whatever. [We can just] take more snaps of it from above or the side or whatever. It’s versatile as an album cover art piece. It’s fairly simple.
In this day and age, we still like to make the grandiose records with all the high detail and all that stuff, but when you look on iTunes where most people shop now, all the album covers are an inch by an inch. They’re really small, and it’s kind of hard to tell what’s going on there. Do we need to be as intricate with all this stuff when most of these things aren’t going to be seen unless you go out and buy the record? Not that that really had a lot to do with our decision in doing that; we just thought that the artist had some really bad ass artwork that he’d created. There were all these giant heads of all these weird looking creatures. We said that we love to use that and then we just added the red background for contrast. To me, it reminds me of an old ’70s album where it was just a picture of something. “Oh this looks cool. Take a picture of it and put it on our album cover”.
I think with the new record we’re hitting the restart button. We’re kind of getting out of a lot of old things. There are little bits of changes going on. The record was written and recorded within a two month period. We went with a new producer.
Yeah, that was something I wanted to ask you about too. How did that decision come about? Was it more hitting the restart button on purpose or did it just come out of something that was an opportunity that was presented to you?
We had a lot of people in mind. We were like “who’s going to record the record? We need somebody who is ready right now.” None of the people that we had on our list of people were really ready. Everybody was busy doing stuff already. We wanted it now. We wanted to do it right now because we were ready to do it. We wanted to record the record while it was still fresh in our heads because it was such a spontaneous thing. We were like “we have to do it now. If we wait until after our European tour, it’s going to lose all of its steam. It’ll all seem contrived.”
We had Mike Elizondo who had wanted to work with us since Blood Mountain. He jumped at the chance. He works for Warner Bros.; he’s their in-house producer guy. We knew that Warner Bros. wouldn’t be all over our shit in the studio if we hired somebody they didn’t know. When we worked with Brendan O’Brien we had no problem because he is a well-revered producer. Warner Bros. didn’t come in and go “how is this guy? How’s he doing? Is he going to make a #1 hit for you guys?” They’ve never been like that. When we worked with Matt Bayles, they would call up the studio every day. That was our first record with Warner Bros. It was a little bothersome.
Having Mike involved on the Warner Bros. side to keep them cool was a plus. He just seemed like he was over the moon with working with us. He came to Atlanta – which says a lot. He pitched himself to us. It was like he was coming in for a job interview. He came to Atlanta and took us out to lunch. He was like “tell me what you guys want to do. I’m here. I think we can make a great record.” He came to my studio that week. We have a little demo studio that we built. He came down there to listen and hear what we were working on. He had ideas off the bat and seemed really excited. He just seemed like he was the guy. He was really easy to get along with. He didn’t have any L.A. attitude that he was too cool for school. He just seemed like a good, honest guy.
As far as the actual recording, how did that work with him? Did it live up to what you thought it would be like working with him?
Oh yeah. It was really quite easy. We laid the drums down at Sound City. He was there every day, unlike some producers who will remain nameless who don’t really show up even though their name is on the record.
I know who you’re talking about.
Mike was there every second of every day. He was right off the bat in the live room with Brann and me when we were recording the first couple of songs. He was like “I got an idea, try it like this or try it like that.” He was very hands on. He wasn’t just “okay, go.” He wanted to hear our ideas because we didn’t even know what we were doing yet. We kind of jumped right into this record without really rehearsing too much. We had some ideas and Brann being… he’s really good at remembering how riffs and songs and stuff like that goes. I kind of forget unless I’ve played it 100 times. He’s the human metronome. I say “hey, let’s play it like this and try this part here” and it went along really fast. Mike is not indecisive. Sometimes you meet people and they can’t make up their mind if something sounds good or not. Mike would just say “no, I don’t like that. Don’t do that. Let’s try something else” or he’d say “yeah, I like that. Let’s do that. Let’s go.” He’ll push record and we’d get it done. It was painless.
Was there ever any concern that this guy hadn’t done metal records before and that you weren’t sure how it was going to come out?
Never. He’s really good at producing bands. I thought it was cool that we picked someone who was more known for hip-hop than metal. I think that gave us a one-up on how the record sounds. It’s not going to sound like your typical metal record because the guy doesn’t do metal records. You hire a producer, someone like Mike who is well-known, just like Brendan O’Brien. When we hired Brendan all the naysayers were like “oh, you’re going to sound like Bruce Springsteen or AC/DC now or Stone Temple Pilots because they’re working with this rock guy.” We didn’t. He was the perfect guy for that record. With Mike, we know he’s going to do a good job. He’s just got a little bit of a different take on the direction of certain things. We’re all welcome to that. It was a little bit of a gamble, but we came out on top.
So you’re very satisfied with the way the record came out?
Yeah. I think the production on it is amazing. We didn’t go overboard with effects and layering guitars. We kind of kept the guitars pretty simple. Everything is pretty straight forward. It’s a pretty cut and dry record. It’s much different than Crack the Skye. Crack the Skye was [a record with] really long drawn out 15 minute songs, and this record is the opposite of that. It’s a lot more fun, a little more to the point. There are no songs over 5 minutes. I’m really happy with it. I think it sounds amazing.
That’s definitely a pretty big thing that there aren’t any songs over 5 minutes. The last couple of albums had the more grandiose approach to songwriting. Was that a conscious thing with you guys where you said that you wanted to dial it down a bit?
I don’t think we consciously said that as a band, “hey, let’s dial it down this time. Let’s not play 15 minute songs”. We didn’t really say that. We just dumped our bag of riffs out and saw what went together. Every song seemed to lend itself to 5 minutes or less. It just didn’t seem like [we needed] super long songs.
We don’t really go in saying that this record has to be this way. We never do that. I think collectively that there were a couple of songs there that were lingering around from the Crack the Skye era that just didn’t make it on the record. There were a bunch of riffs that were lingering around for years. I think, not that we threw everything together in a hurry, but we just kind of took a different approach. It was like “this sounds good. Let’s not overthink it. Let’s not overdo it this time. Let’s just write a song.” It just so happened that these three or four parts sound cool together, let’s just keep it like that. We didn’t try to make anything more than what it was. That’s fine with me. We weren’t doing a record for a record’s sake. Before we got totally pigeonholed as that “prog rock Mastodon band that only does concepts and 15 minute songs all the time, what’s their next thing going to be?” we just were like “can we just write a record and have fun and not have to have all these crazy stories and imagery? Can we do without that on this record?” We just did a 180 as far as that goes.
Well, we did have a concept for the record that was really grandiose and really huge and crazy. It was amazing and really awesome. It was something that Brann came up with. He’s usually the brains behind that kind of stuff. At the last minute we were like “I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem to fit.” It just seems like we didn’t need to add all that stuff. It was like “what if we didn’t have a concept? What are people going to say? Can the music stand on its own without all this other stuff?” It was like “yeah, fuck it. Let’s not worry about that and let’s just concentrate on writing this record and that the songs sound good and that’s it.”
What’s next for you guys? You have this tour coming up which is a headline tour. That’s great. You’ve done so many tours in the past couple of years that were big support tours like the Alice in Chains thing and the Dethklok thing. That’s not to mention everything outside the U.S. Is it going to be that kind of approach again where you’re on all these bigger tours or is it like you were saying earlier that you’re going to try and be a lot more selective?
It’s hard to say “no” when a band like Metallica or Tool says “hey, we want to take you out.” It’s hard to say “no” to that. I’m not going to say “never” but right now with a brand new record we need to go out there and hit it hard with a headlining tour and get The Hunter out there to as many people as possible. It’s impossible to hit every single city and every town in the U.S. It’ll take a couple of years to do that. People are always asking “when are you going to come here on your own? When are you going to do this on your own? We don’t want to pay the high prices of the tickets to see you with the Deftones or you with Alice in Chains. We don’t like those bands. We just want to see you.” I think the right thing to do now is to go on a headlining tour. It’s been over a year since we did a headlining tour. The Alice in Chains thing was great because I love those guys. It was a little bit more of a mainstream tour for us. The Deftones we always wanted to tour with. We just got back from a European summer; we didn’t do any headlining shows. We did a couple in Russia. It’s definitely time for us to get out there and show what we’ve got with the new record and play the new songs and have a Mastodon show again and do as many places as we can in the U.S. We have a video coming out that’s being filmed today, I believe, for “Curl of the Burl.” We’re just going to keep busy and do what we can.
Photo #3 from ori0n’s Flickr