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Interviews

Interview: Mastodon Talk “Hushed and Grim”, Their 2021 U.S. Tour, & Collabing With Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil

By: Jessica Nakamoto –

Over the course of an esteemed and perpetually growing career that has seen them catapult up the ranks and become one of hard rock and metal’s most iconic names, Mastodon’s Troy Sanders (bass/vocals), Brent Hinds (guitar/vocals), Bill Kelliher (guitar), and Brann Dailor (drums/vocals), have accomplished both tremendous musical feats and found the strength to weather repeated hardship in its many arduous forms.  

Indeed, as fans who have followed the Grammy-winning quartet throughout their 21 year journey have come to understand, themes of loss, grief, and the afterlife have often followed the Atlanta-based outfit as they translate feelings of sorrow into dark and impactful music memorials. 

It is in this emotion-laden vein that Hushed and Grim resides, paying tribute to Mastodon’s late manager Nick John, and channeling the ups and downs of the five stages of grief. Written in the wake of John’s passing in 2018, the band’s ninth studio record is truly a monumental work, described as an immortal ode to their dear friend, biggest fan, and the bright light he brought to their careers and lives as a whole. 

Mastodon are looking forward to sharing this powerful release with fans on their upcoming co-headlining tour alongside Opeth this winter. So, before you experience this moving release in person and enjoy a show near you, make sure to check out our interview with Troy for more on the new album, their touching tribute, their 2021 U.S. tour, collabing with Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, creating their first double album, and more!

I wanted to start off by saying thank you so much for taking the time to chat today! I know you must be super busy getting ready for tour. I’m very excited to speak with you about the new record. Congrats on Hushed and Grim!

You’re welcome, and thank you! It’s all coming together now. We’re rehearsing in Atlanta this week, and soon, we leave for a three-and-a-half-week tour which we haven’t done in a couple of years. It’s exciting and overwhelming in a positive way. We’re going through our storage, pulling all our tour gear out, redoing our pedalboards, and rehearsing like crazy to relearn these new songs as well as some oldies. So, it’s super busy but in a great way!

You guys spent a year creating this record, and it turned out to be your first double album! Do you think that having a longer time to workshop it was related to the new format or gave you a new approach to the music?

One-hundred percent! We had all of 2020 to work on it, which thankfully, we were able to use to our advantage. Combining this extra time with the fact that all four of us were contributing lots and lots of ideas to the record, we wound up with over twenty-five rough demos of songs before we even started recording. We’d never had more than maybe eleven or twelve ideas going into any other previous album, so there was far more material than ever before. That was a direct result of having the full year to work on it and the fact that all four of us were excited to create.

Those two reasons gave us enough material to entertain the idea of a double album, but that was never the intention from the get go. We’ve always kind of felt like a double album of Mastodon material would, for most listeners and fans, just be too much. Especially if it was going to be an hour-and-a-half barrage of heaviness that even we might not want to listen to all the time. But, as we started to dive into each and every song, we realized that this album was going to have moments of darkness, have moments of weirdness, have moments of prog, have moments of heavy, and all these different sounds with every track. So, as each song started to create its own personality, we found that they could all belong together.

Of the twenty-five plus original ideas, we honed in on fifteen. And, as we were starting to craft them, we were like ok, now we need to start cutting about six or seven of these in order to have an album. But nobody could agree on even one song to cut! They were starting to become these cool little pieces of music that we all were digging.

We were in love with these songs, and because we felt that they belonged together and were a unique collection that could hopefully make one big album that could stand alone, the question of ‘why should we do a double album?’ started to turn into ‘why shouldn’t we do a double album?’

We didn’t start with that in mind, but it kind of presented itself slowly as we were about halfway through the recording process. 

Mastodon’s eighth studio album, Hushed and Grim, is out now.

In addition to being your first double album, Hushed and Grim is also your longest at 88 minutes! Your bio likened it to a studio film which I thought was interesting, especially because the band has scored films in the past. Do you think that scoring provides a different perspective when it comes to writing for a band or vice versa?

In my mind, it does because you’re able to use the influence of what you see in your head to try to create, match, and marry the sounds to that vision. Thinking of the music as the cinematography and our lyrics as the dialogue is often what we’ve kind of done, and our creative process has loosely always been like that.

The four of us view songwriting as, let’s create the soundtrack, the music, the cinematography that’s playing in our head, and then we’ll create the storyline, the theme, and the lyrical subject matter as the dialogue. I think it just helps create what the blank canvas in your brain should look like.

If you could have Mastodon’s music in any show or movie, what would be your dream placement or production to write for?

That’s a great question! Something very odd, wild, and unexpected like a psychedelic or psychological-type thriller. I feel like Mastodon could and would be a perfect fit for something of that sort because we can turn up the weird factor if we want to! (laughs) To write songs like that might not be in our best interest, but to score a film, it very well could be.

The few times we’ve contributed to a movie, whether it be a bit to match the actual scene that’s going on, or to score multiple songs for a film, have been some of the coolest opportunities we’ve been given. We appreciate that challenge because of how different it is. It’s not like hey, we’re getting in a room together to work on new songs, eventually put a record out, and hopefully tour on that for one, two, or three full years before coming back to do the cycle again. All that is great, but when someone asks “hey, can you guys write a song for this scene?” it’s like wow! This is a different energy! I would love to get more opportunities like that. It’s awesome.

I imagine it’s really fun to mix things up.

It is! Of course, every band across the globe would probably say that it’s kind of a dream gig to write songs for TV shows and movies. So, the few times that we’ve been fortunate enough to do that in the past have been very exciting and we’ve been very appreciative to quickly say yes, we’ll do it! Thank you!

Jumping back into the new album, I know that in the past, the band has talked about the connection between your album art and the music. With the art, I’ve heard there’s a story of one’s spirit inhabiting a tree after they pass, and obviously, this record deals with the loss of your good friend and manager, Nick John. Could you tell us more about the tree mythology and the tribute to Nick? 

I can definitely dive into the tribute to Nick and talk about the inspiration and the dedication.

For the work that Paul Romano incorporated into all the panels of this album art, he collaborated with our drummer Brann. They really got deep into mythological creatures and folklore and were able to tie each and every branch and creature and scene into something that is a beautiful metaphor to and for Nick John.

Nick was easily our best friend and by far the biggest Mastodon fan on planet Earth. He was such a fantastic individual. He was humble, he was appreciative, he was always excited, always positive, and in the entire world of music business and the music industry, no one has ever had anything even remotely negative to say about Nick John. He was a very genuine fan, art lover, music fanatic, and his dream job was to be a band manager. Nick wanted to discover a band and have the pride and the dedication to get them to a massive level of success without compromising any artistic integrity.

Basically, he found us playing at a hardcore festival in New Jersey back in 2004 and we fell in love with him rather quickly. Shortly thereafter, he kind of swooped us up and took us under his wing. He facilitated opportunities to allow us to go around the globe playing music for people who enjoyed it, and he made all of our musical dreams come true.

So, after he passed in 2018 from a horrific battle with pancreatic cancer, we knew that given the magnitude with which he had touched our lives, both as four men and as a band, there was no way that we could ignore that and write an album about anything other than the impact that he had on us.

In a nutshell, I was really hoping that we could create something that would be a beautiful music memorial. Something that would live forever in a more beautiful light than the feelings that we were processing and experiencing while writing it. And I think we achieved that. At least the four of us feel like we’ve done a record that he would be absolutely blown away by and happy with. I know he wants us to go on tour and he wants us to keep evolving and keep doing what we do. This record is fully to and for Nick John.

We started writing music right after he passed and a lot of this music is a direct result of what we were experiencing. It’s been about three years now. All the anger and frustration and all the stages of grief are expressed. I’m really proud of the album. All four of us are. I know Nick loves it.

Absolutely! It’s such a beautiful tribute and I think the emotions that you were able to capture will also touch a lot of fans because unfortunately, loss is such a relatable topic. We’ve all been there or will be there at some point. So to be able to come to this record and experience all of these feelings, like the stages of grief you mentioned, is very special. 

Thank you! I agree. We feel that if we pull from our own life experiences at the time, it lends itself to us being more authentic with our art. And on top of that, like you said, it’s extremely relatable. The four of us in this band, we don’t feel that we’re bigger than anybody or better than anybody. We are just four guys that have been playing music together for a long time, and have put in the work. We’ve had some fortunate circumstances happen and we’ve been very successful and we’ve been able to live our dream. 

We’re aware of how fate has aligned and how the stars have aligned, and we just want to be true and honest to ourselves and keep playing music for people who can recognize that. And, if we can touch people’s lives in a positive way, that’s just one of the beautiful, magical things that music gives us.

Well, you guys have been doing exactly that for 21 years now! Do you have a favorite memory or funny story that you could share with us?

I think the idea of traveling the globe multiple times is a fascinating adventure that only enlightened us further. I’ve always encouraged people to travel, whether it’s two hours north to see a mountain or go to the Caribbean or South America or anywhere. It opens your eyes and helps you evolve as a person, grow, and be more understanding of the bigger picture. I think travel in itself is a fantastic experience.

I often get asked what was the coolest place you’ve ever been and I’ve always kind of had a tie between Iceland and Japan. Those are two countries that are very different from one another, but they both offer mind-blowing sights, sounds, scenery, and culture. Those are two places that are on my list to go back on a vacation and spend seven days in one spot. 

There’s a lot of great stories to share, like I said, we’ve been very fortunate to travel the world to make a living for the past 21 years, but those are two personal highlights. I recommend everyone go there if and when they can!

But wow! I’d have to sit down and write a coffee table book about funny stories and experiences because thankfully, there’s been a lot of them.

I know for this record, you guys brought in legendary Canadian producer David Bottrill. How did that collaboration come about and what did David add to the mix?

Excellent question! In the past, we’ve been able to work with a lot of people and have enjoyed collaborating with each and every one of them.

We’re lucky enough to have the conversation every record where it’s like, should we go and contact person A or B who we’ve worked with and we love, because we’ve already established a relationship with them? They know how to work with us, we know how their workflow is, and we’re all comfortable. Or, do we recognize the other guys out there that we’ve yet to befriend and who do great work as well? Do we try something fresh? It’s always a conversation of which direction we want to take. It’s easy to be comfortable with things that you’ve done in the past, but it’s also exciting to try something new.

This time, we had a very short list of people we wanted to approach to see if they were even interested in working with us. David’s name obviously came up. His discography is incredible and there’s a few bands that really sparked our ears and eyes and our curiosity. He’s worked with King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Tool and Muse. Those bands have a lot of dynamics in their brand of rock and roll and we really wanted to focus more on that. That was the first thing that was exciting to me personally.

We contacted David and he said he’d love to hear some of the demos that we were working on. We sent him a bunch of songs, and then, about a week later, we got on the phone with him. That’s what changed everything because he already had a list of thoughts and ideas about each and every demo that we sent to him. He said he really liked the material, the direction that it was going, that he was a fan of the band, and wanted to help us make the best record we could possibly make.

When you have enthusiasm and availability both ready to go, that’s what starts a fantastic relationship as far as a band and producer goes. Also, during the pandemic era, he was willing to come to Atlanta, to our home studio, which is where we wanted to record. It worked out just fantastic! He didn’t know he was getting into a double album either, but it turned out well. We stayed longer, worked later, and I think he did a great job. He’s very calm and patient and just pushed us to be the biggest and best that we could all be on an individual performance level. David Bottrill is fantastic!

Speaking about amazing collabs, one of my favorite tracks “Had It All” includes a guitar solo by Kim Thayil from Soundgarden and features your mother Jody on french horn! Can you tell us about the inspiration behind that song and how you decided to include both of them on this track?

That song started out two or three years ago. I was playing around on acoustic guitar and I found a chord progression which I thought was dark and unique and not bordering on a cheesy power ballad. I thought, ok, I feel like this has potential. And thankfully, my bandmates, especially my two guitar players who are wizards in their own right, really supported it. I brought this idea to them and said, “hey what do you think of this?” I was preparing for that song idea to be shot down right away, but they’re cool and recognized that if someone’s got an idea that they’re really digging in on, then we should all give it some effort and see where we could take it.

Flash forward months later and we really hashed it out. Lyrically, it’s like a conversation I was having one night. I live by the ocean and I was there at the beach speaking with Nick in my mind. I put pen to paper, wrote all those thoughts down, put them together, and it turned out to be this really dark but emotive song that we crafted.

My mom has always played french horn and the band has always talked about if and when there’s a space for a horn to be on anything we ever create, it’d be great to have her on it. We’ve never forced the idea, but during the song, David was like, “we could use some strings or some horns here if we wanted to”. And I said, “dude! The horn, I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” I called my mom and she was happy to come to our awesome little recording facility here in Atlanta and track some French horn. It’s tucked in and it’s subtle, but it really adds another boost of emotion in that song and rounds it out to be as incredible as it is.

We tracked this song towards the back half of our studio session, so my guitar players were both entertaining the idea of working with Kim Thayil. We’re friends with him and every time we play Seattle, he comes to our show and he’s always wearing a Mastodon shirt! It’s so cool because he’s a very grounded, humble, and a fun guy. And he’s in one of the biggest rock bands that have inspired us.

The idea to collaborate with him was always there and our guitar player Bill Kelliher said, “hey, should we reach out to Kim to see if he would like to play with us”. Their band is dealing with loss too, reeling from the death of Chris Cornell. We sent him the idea and Kim came back and said, “I love it! I’d be thrilled to collaborate on this song with you.”

So, three years ago I had this simple idea on acoustic guitar, and two years later, it was finished with this incredible collaboration between my mom, Kim, and my bandmates. It’s just this really cool moment on the record. It’s amazing how the simplest idea can come to fruition and be what, in my eyes and ears, is really great. A neat story for that one!

Another track that I really enjoyed was “The Beast”. It has a blues-y southern feel which was unexpected but cool. What was the inspiration behind this musical approach?

That song was written by our guitar player Brent Hines. He’s a wonderful guitarist who has by far helped create the unique sound of Mastodon over our entire discography. Brent has an incredible appreciation of blues, rock, and classical music. When he brought in this song, it had a blues-y feel and started to take on its own identity. It turned out to be a great track that stands out on a big album full of other songs. I’m hoping we get to play that one live too! We’re working on it. It seems to be one of the fan favorites so far. The record has been out for almost two weeks and we’ve been hearing a lot of good response regarding “The Beast.”

In addition to “The Beast,” what are some of the other songs you’re looking forward to playing on tour from this new record?

Great question! We’ve been rehearsing the new stuff a lot lately. Part of us just wants to go out and play the whole new record. But, first of all, our set’s not even that long. And then, that would be cheating a lot of people that have been with us for a long time. When we go to concerts, we want to hear our favorite bands play some new stuff, some familiar stuff, an old track or two. You have to be a little more diverse. So, putting together a set list is becoming harder with the more material we have under our belt.

I feel like half of our set will probably be new songs. We’ve got about nine of the fifteen tracks ready to rock and we’ll probably start mixing them up as we go.

There’s a slower song called “Skeleton of Splendor.” We’re going to play that one live and I’m excited that all four of us are thrilled to do that. We aren’t intimidated by “is this going to be a lull in the set or is this too slow or too sappy?” No. We wrote a song that we’re fully immersed in and believe in. So, it’s cool that we’re proudly going to play a slower tune.

On top of that, there’s “Sickle and Peace.” That’s a beast of a song and I’m very excited about it.

The third one I’m really looking forward to would be “Gobblers of Dregs.” It’s dark, it’s proggy, it’s heavy. It’s one of those songs that just feels really good to play. But honestly, I’m really excited about them all. It’s kind of like having children. People ask what’s your favorite? And it’s like, I love them all! (laughs)

Overall, we’re thrilled to start playing a lot of new stuff because it’s been a while. Our last record, Emperor of Sand, came out in March of 2017, so it’s been about four-and-a-half years, which is wild.

In addition to the tour, is there anything exciting that you or the band have coming up that you’d like to touch on?

We have the next year of touring down on paper, ready to move forward. Realistically, I think the four of us are just being very grounded in our outlook and are hoping that all of this happens in a successful manner because that’s a lot on our plate.

I think I’m more just looking at the short term like, let’s just get through each and every one of these tours successfully. That would be a fantastic win.

For the fans, I think just getting to see you guys and hear the new material live is easily going to be a highlight of the year!

I hope so! We’re excited to play music for people. We’ve recognized since day one that we have an incredible fan base across the globe and we’ve never taken it for granted. We’re all excited to play for everyone that comes out, supports us, and wants to hear some tunes. We’re practicing really hard and are going to try to sound our best!

To wrap things up, I’ve got a few fun fill-in-the-blanks questions. Would you like to give it a go?

Yes!

My favorite winter activity is…

Throwing together some delicious ingredients in a crockpot. In the wintertime, the crockpot is my best friend.

Besides instruments, something I always take on tour with me would have to be…

Earplugs, because sleeping in a bus with a bunch of other grown men, you hear lots of conversations and snoring and toots! So, foam earplugs are a touring musician’s best friend. A must have for sure.

A song that inspires me is…

There are easily over a thousand of them. The most recent one for me isn’t new, but it’s a song called “Holocene” by Bon Iver. If you’re in an airplane and you want to feel good but then cry, just listen to “Holocene.”

Last one! When I’m not playing music, I love to…

Eat soup!

Back to that crockpot! 

Yeah! (laughs) In my life, there are so many analogies that could involve a slow cooker. You’ve got to put in the work, you have to let ideas, thoughts, and situations marinate, and it’s ready when it’s ready. Plus, you’re more appreciative as you consume it or immerse yourself in it. I could do food analogies all day! I’m hungry!

Don’t miss Mastodon as they perform live on Late Night with Seth Meyers on November 23rd. Tune into NBC stations at 12:35AM ET/PT. Click here for broadcast details.

Click here to buy/stream Hushed and Grim.

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