June 12, 2017 Interview – Bill Kelliher of Mastodon
One of the most recognized names in modern Metal, Mastodon has travelled a long road over the past two decades. With roots dating back to early 2000, the band based out of Atlanta, Georgia are known for their diverse style utilizing elements of various forms of Heavy Metal, both progressive and experimental. Even still, Mastodon is a difficult one to box into one sub-genre, and this type of diversity has made their sound universal to a broader audience. Attributes to wear proudly on their backs, major commercial success has followed with the release of The Hunter in 2011, Once More ‘Round the Sun in 2014, and most recently, Emperor of Sand in 2017.
Coming off an intense spring 2017 headlining North American tour with Eagles of Death Metal and Russian Circles, Mastodon look to continue their dominance as they march forward. Recently we caught up with co-founding Guitarist Bill Kelliher to talk the band’s journey, turning tragedy into something hopeful, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – Mastodon has built a strong name for themselves in the Metal scene over the past 15 years plus. From an underground following to the later years where the band has attained highly charted records, how would you describe the journey of the band?
Bill Kelliher – Slow and arduous. Nothing for our band happened overnight, it has all been a long, slow process of doing what we want to do, playing the type of music we like to play. Thankfully other people felt the same way, that they liked our music. It has been a long road from touring the United States in our van with no trailer to having James Hetfield come to our shows and telling me what a great new record we put out. It is kind of surreal, we were all joking around about it, if the 15 year old me were to hear James Hetfield is going to be at your show in NYC someday backstage, buying your albums, and coming to see your band, I would say, “No way.” I wouldn’t believe it!
CrypticRock.com – It has to be a surreal feeling. Like any band, Mastodon has seen their share of progression over the years. One thing that has always remained constant is the storytelling of each album. How important is it for the band to create these cohesive pieces of work?
Bill Kelliher – Well, I think we do our best when we are sticking to a thematic album. Crack the Skye (2009) did extremely well for us, Leviathan (2004) did extremely well. Emperor of Sand is doing really well. It is not always the time and place, when we did The Hunter (2011) the band was in a couple of different places as far as personalities and just general places in our lives. We didn’t just write the record and slap a story onto it. When something happens life-changing in our personal lives, and we happen to be writing at the same time, all planets align, then we do it. It is something we can’t just fake. True art comes from the heart and real experiences.
Crack the Skye and Emperor of Sand are going to be the best because they are really going to connect with people on an emotional level. For us, it is something that can’t be contrived, it has to come from the heart. It is not, “Hey, it is time to write a record. Has anything tragic happened this time?” Emperor of Sand is kind of a melancholy album because it is taking some shitty things in life, real parts of life, and trying to make something good out of it. It is almost like a medicinal record for your emotions.
CrypticRock.com – Speaking of cohesive pieces of work, the band’s latest album, Emperor of Sand, has a constant theme throughout. This has real life issues that many people go through. A very personal album, what was the writing and recording process like for this album?
Bill Kelliher – It all started when Troy’s wife was diagnosed with cancer. We ended up cancelling a summer’s worth of touring so he could be with her, dealing with this life-changing event. We were all freaked out and didn’t know what to think. We took the time off, so I took the time to try and start writing the next record. I am always writing, but I was also building a studio in my home to do the record, at least all the demos. After a few months of working on that, I heard my mom had a seizure and she had a brain tumor and she only had a few months to live. This all happened right when I started writing. The writing was definitely a distraction for me to kind of put all my energies into something besides be mad at the world.
Like I said, I was building the studio, so, slowly, we started putting songs together, demoing stuff, and seeing what things sounded like. Pretty soon, we started coming up with a couple of songs a week and things were just rolling along. It was a very busy year with a lot of different things going on. I tried to spend as much time as I could focusing on this record and all these songs which were pouring out. I just feel like we were more prepared before we went into the studio with Brent and Brann then we had ever been before for an album. The songs were taking a different sort of direction. Some were a lot more aggressive than we had done in the past. One or two are more Pop-like. We were trying to add a little bit more progressive kind of sound, really hone in on vocals and melody. I think we accomplished that with this record.
CrypticRock.com – Agreed. The underlying theme of Emperor of Sand makes it that much more potent. As you said, you cannot fake real life. If people know the story, read the lyrics, they can really connect with this album.
Bill Kelliher – Yes, of course. I feel like our fans have a really emotional attachment to our music and to a lot of our lyrical content. With this record, it is just more of the same of that. Everyone has experienced loss, especially with cancer with a loved one. If they know the backstory, they kind of see something like a life preserver; they can grab a hold of the record, really dive into it, and get deep with it.
CrypticRock.com – No question at all. The band recently wrapped up a tour with Eagles of Death Metal and Russian Circles. This was a very diverse lineup. How did the tour go?
Bill Kelliher – The tour went awesome, it couldn’t be any better. There were really good folks out there, the crowds were great, they were some of the biggest shows we ever played on our own headlining tour. There was nothing to complain about. We are going to try and recreate it hopefully in the fall.
CrypticRock.com – That would be great to see a second leg of this bill. What is interesting about Mastodon is you can tour with so many different types of bands. What have you taken away from all the touring you have done over the years?
Bill Kelliher – I feel like Mastodon is such a versatile band that we can tour with almost anybody. One thing I learned touring in Europe, on those big European festivals, they just love music over there. It doesn’t need to be all Metal, all Country, all Pop, or Hip Hop, they kind of have mixtures of all that stuff at their festivals. People just get along with it, they can like Portishead, Mastodon, and Outkast all at the same time. I think we have taken that approach to touring, Eagles of Death Metal are a pretty big band. I am sure we have a lot of the same fans and visa versa, so why not. We talked about doing something with them for the past few years. I just think it makes sense to have three bands that are on the bill that are completely different. You don’t hear the same band and same wannabe bands right next to each other, you get to hear a mixture of different stuff.
CrypticRock.com – That makes for a much more exciting show. As a guitarist, your sound has always been distinctive and tight. How have you developed your technique through the years.
Bill Kelliher – Like every guitarist, I am always searching for that perfect sound. I was lucky enough to be able to design my own pickups with Lace Sensors. I designed two pickups for them, Lace Dissonant Aggressor and Divinators. I was also lucky enough to design my own guitar with ESP and my own amp with Friedman Amplification. My sound right now is better than ever.
I just find myself playing a lot more, practicing a lot more, getting better, and trying new things. I am always trying to become a better guitar player and try and push myself. Writing something in my studio that is totally complex, to me, that is pushing myself because someday I may have to play that live, so I better really practice it a lot to make sure I have it down and sounding good.
CrypticRock.com – It is great not to become complacent, and you have not. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music and Horror/Sci-Fi films. If you are a fan of these genres, what are some of your favorite films?
Bill Kelliher – The last Horror movie I saw was The Conjuring (2013). I thought I really liked Horror movies until I went to the theater, saw that, and it scared the shit out of me. Literally, I was screaming in the movie theater (laughs). I was laughing and screaming, a scream came out of me and I didn’t know where it came from. I enjoyed it for sure. As far as Sci-Fi, I love Star Wars. I saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) and I thought it was really great.