Mastodon: 20 years of triumph, tragedy and scaling the metal mountain

Navigating a multitude of twists and turns, no band has defined heavy music in the 21st century better than Atlantan alpha dogs, Mastodon…

Mastodon: 20 years of triumph, tragedy and scaling the metal mountain
Sam Law

At the dawn of the 21st century, Brann Dailor moved 1,000 miles across America, drawn by the promise of a city he had never seen. Packing his drums, a bag of clothes, a box of VHS tapes and an ice scraper as a memento of his time in the cold Northeast, he hit the interstate out of Rochester, New York in pursuit of guitarist and good friend Bill Kelliher, who in turn had followed then girlfriend, now wife, Julianne to the southern metropolis of Atlanta, Georgia.

Destiny has a way of calling wayward souls. Having recently departed from noise rockers Today Is The Day, and with a longer history in tech-metallers Lethargy, the pair were chasing a fresh start and untapped opportunity. “We had nothing to lose,” says Brann, “and everything to gain.”

READ THIS: Every Mastodon album ranked from worst to best

With 20 years of hindsight, these words are particularly poignant. The journey south was the start of something that would become one of the most important and influential metal forces of their time. Across seven albums, thousands of gigs and immeasurable amounts of praise, Mastodon have twisted what can be done with a riff into brilliant new shapes, to the degree where even experts like James Hetfield have had their jaws sent floorward. But nobody could see that coming back then, of course.

While Bill and Brann were heading south, on the other end of the Appalachian mountains sludgecore heavyweights Four Hour Fogger were waving off vocalist Gary Lindsey. There was a sense of cosmic inevitability when that band’s wildman guitarist Brent Hinds strayed into the two new-lads-in-town’s orbits, with incongruously zen bassist Troy Sanders (a considered Yin to Brent’s chaotic Yang) close behind.

Coming together at an early High On Fire show at now defunct basement The Parasite House – crushing beers, doing mushrooms and watching the bands play – there was instant rapport. The boozy meeting of minds fit far better than the stilted audition process they’d already begun. Getting wasted, however, almost led to a false start.

The evening of their first jam began at still-favoured local Mexican restaurant Elmyr, where Bill was employed at the time. The ‘Tequila Girls’ – scantily clad promo waitresses – were in town, and Brent duly overindulged, getting into a fight with the chef. “They went out into the street and everything,” says Brann. Bill laughs at the memory, and the worry for the job he’d barely blagged. “I was like, ‘Dude! What the fuck?!’”

The session wasn’t much better. “He was so fucked up he could barely play,” Bill winces. “He just rode on that low E-string.”

The next day, though, Brent turned up banging on their apartment door, keen to jam again. Reluctantly, they let him in. “He started noodling all these crazy riffs,” Bill says. “It was like, ‘This guy’s great. Where was he last night?!’”

January 14, 2000 – their second, less sozzled get together – saw the bonds of Mastodon forged. Common tastes as disparate as Thin Lizzy and Melvins were discovered, as a common drive for originality and excitement came into focus. “We’re four pretty unique individuals,” says Brann. “There was something special about the combination, right from day one: fast, ferocious, unhinged, but a little proggy, too.”

Dead ends dropped away. Brann was working the door and doing sound at local club The Star Bar, Bill was rolling burritos, Brent was in construction, while Troy also hustled away.

But Mastodon still practiced five nights a week. Their first show was 500 miles south west at New Orleans’ Dixie Tavern. Their second was at the Cow Haus in Tallahassee. They didn’t play in Atlanta until show three or four. “We’d play dives, basements, VFW halls,” Brann says, recalling their appetite for performance. “We once played in a China Buffet.”

“We were all these lost musicians, all on the same page,” says Bill. “I was, like, 28, without a degree, not knowing what to do with my life. It gave me purpose.”

“There were a lot of red flags, for sure, but I ignored them,” Brann reckons of their helter skelter coming-together. “To me, finding someone unique, special and amazing, who shares your musical soul, is much more important than [peace and quiet]. You could be the worst person on the planet and I’d deal with it for this music that is my whole life.”

Prick the two decades since and memories flood out in a fittingly psychedelic haze. They remember how their 2001 EP Lifesblood was put together to have something to play and sell at early shows. Their 2002 debut LP Remission, meanwhile, was the end product of what Brann describes as a “fast and furious” creativity. He also reminisces about smashing beers, high-fiving and crying as they first listened to the final cut of 2004 breakthrough Leviathan in a truck, parked in front of the Seattle motel where they’d holed up for recording. Bill picks up with the unexpected and “unwanted” affirmation of their first GRAMMY nomination for 2006’s Colony Of Birchmen single, then their first win for 2017 song Sultan’s Curse, and the sheer awe of being asked to perform with boyhood heroes Metallica.

Pressed on why they’ve grown into the definitive metal act of the 21st century, they’re characteristically unpresuming.

“We never took ourselves too seriously,” says Bill. “We had a lot of ambition, but we let things grow organically. We never thought we needed to dress like this or sound like that. We never tried to cater to one kind of audience and always toured with different bands. We understood that the work that we put into it reflected the success that we would get out of it. Be nice to people. Practice a lot. Have great songs. Get in a van and start doing it!”

Brann nods to moments of good fortune, too, like connecting with late manager Nick John. “Fifteen minutes after we signed with them, we got a phone call to tell us that we’d scored the opening slot with Slayer and Slipknot [the first Unholy Alliance tour] in the UK and Europe. We literally pulled over and got out to dance around on the sidewalk.”

It wasn’t bad going for a band who didn’t fit neatly anywhere. What were Mastodon, anyway?

“When we started, people didn’t really know what we were,” Bill says. “Metal? Prog? Rock? All of those things in one? For me, that’s the best compliment we could get.”

It wasn’t just in the music that Mastodon had big ideas. Conceptually, they’ve always really gone the extra mile. Picking up on Remission’s flaming horse cover, the idea of the collection of ‘elemental’ albums was devised. On Leviathan (water) they followed the narrative of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. By 2006’s “wild and creative” Blood Mountain (earth), they were writing their own. But it was on the last of that conceptual quadrilogy – 2009’s mind-bending Crack The Skye (air) – that they really surpassed themselves. “Every record feels like a new opportunity to tell a story,” says Brann. “You dig for it – I dig all the time.”

More than most, Mastodon have found inspiration in personal tragedy. Brann, whose sister Skye Dailor died by suicide aged 14 and was the inspiration for large parts of their first and fourth LPs, shifts uneasily at the observation and contends that every artist – if they’re honest – puts that pain into their art. “Is it therapeutic? Not necessarily. It helps you get through a moment in time.” But with 2011’s The Hunter a tribute to Brent’s brother Brad, who died on a hunting trip, Once More ‘Round The Sun was written in the wake of Brann’s mother having fallen into a coma, and 2017’s Emperor Of Sand a chronicle of the cancer suffered by Troy’s wife and Bill’s mother, who passed away during the making of the album, their music has often come cut from real-world hardships.

“No-one is immune to cancer and death,” Bill observes, more openly. “People think of musicians as these untouchable, larger than life characters. I want people to know that we’re just four regular guys with mortgage payments and girlfriends and marital problems. Parents get sick and pass away. I learned a long time ago that if you start to write from a personal place – personal hiccups or tragedies or sadnesses – people really relate. Our fans expect it now. When they’re reaching for a Mastodon record, they’re reaching for the medicine.”

Unlike their post-millennial first meeting, 2020 began not with crushed beers and chaos, but with the quiet warmth and casual familiarity of a group text. Their 20th anniversary – platinum, by wedding standards – was acknowledged. Fresh targets were set for the year ahead. Mostly, however, gratitude was exchanged for the ongoing, four-way friendship that has carried them this far.

“There’s a lot of love there,” Brann reckons of why Mastodon have endured. “We’ve been hitting it pretty hard for the past two decades. We’ll put out a new record every two to three years. Then we’ll tour the hell out of it, away on the road for two years. It’s a long time to be doing it with the same four guys, but it’s a point of pride that we’ve maintained that relationship.”

READ THIS: The 10 greatest Mastodon moments of all time

As the band have become partners, husbands and fathers, allowing ample family time has played its part. “You’ve got to make time for those other people in your life,” says Bill. “Without them, shit falls apart pretty easily.”

Brann agrees. “When you get home from being on tour with your band husbands you’ve got to make time for your family,” he says.

Creative distance is allowed, too. All four members are engaged with other projects: Brent with Giraffe Tongue Orchestra and Legend Of The Seagullmen, Troy with Killer Be Killed and Gone Is Gone, Bill with Primate, and Brann with Arcadea. “It’s healthy to explore other things,” Brann acknowledges. “An important part of managing that is not stepping on someone’s toes when they want to go off and do something else.”

When it boils down, though, the hunger and creative purpose that bound them in the first place still burns. With the writing process properly ramped up for album number eight – some 30 songs shaping up already, covering the full spectrum of their sound – they’re every bit as ravenous as ever.

“We’re so stoked to still be in the game after 20 years,” says Brann. “We’re still excited about jamming with each other. Every album is a new opportunity to explore something different about ourselves and to play something that we haven’t played before; to wear a hat we haven’t worn before. The emphasis isn’t on heavy versus light versus medium, or whatever. The emphasis is on what’s good. Something I can fall in love with.

“I’m extremely proud,” he concludes. “We’re four people who have had some crazy life experiences. In the eyes of a lot of people in our lives, there was the possibility that we weren’t going to amount to much. But Mastodon has allowed us to achieve incredible things. It’s allowed us to be true to ourselves, and to play the music we wanted to play.

“It’s given us an incredible life.”

Mastodon are playing this year's Download festival on June 12-14 at Donington Park. Get your tickets now.

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