An Interview with Brann Dailor of Mastodon - April 7th, 2012
The Heritage Hunter tour, featuring Opeth, Mastodon, and special guests Ghost, rolled into Toronto last weekend, marking the fourth evening of the tour. The show, which boasts three bands performing at the top of their game, has been circled on my calendar since it was first announced. Last year, my top ten albums of 2011 featured the Ghost album, Mastodon’s The Hunter, and Opeth’s Heritage. So, this was a triple bill of epic proportions, but was a bit odd considering the venue of choice was a seated theatre. Younger fans would feel the need to bang their heads and thrash to the musical output, but wouldn’t be able to cut loose like they could at a general admittance, standing room only venue.
Upon finding out a few interview slots might be open for Mastodon, I immediately submitted my name for some time with the band. They have two unique singles coming out on Record Store Day (April 21st, 2012) and would have some new perspectives on their latest album, having now toured it heavily for over a half a year.
I was lead through a myriad of stairwells and alcoves permeating the bowels of the Sony Center, and found myself in a small lounge area with a few couches and a small kitchen. Shortly afterwards Brann Dailor strutted in and (re) introduced himself with a handshake.
Mike: How was your soundcheck?
Brann: It was fine. It sounded good.
Mike: It’s going to be pretty cool to see you in this venue.
Brann: Yeah? I don’t like seated venues. It’s going to sound really good, and it’s going to look really cool. But the seats… I dunno.
Mike: Some of the best concerts I’ve seen have been in this venue.
Brann: Really? Well hopefully this will be one of them, as well.
Mike: The seats will be ok. I’ve seen Tool, Beastie Boys, and Queens of the Stone Age in here - all excellent. I think this evening will be pretty epic.
Mike: Where are you tour wise - beginning, middle, or end of this tour? How many dates have you done so far?
Brann: We’re just beginning. We’ve done three dates on this run. They’ve been good. It’s a different set for us. That’s always good.
Mike: This evening will be a pretty special triple bill.
Brann: It is, definitely. The three bands all together is something really cool, you know? We’re excited that we were able to make it work.
Mike: I would argue that Opeth’s latest album is one of their best. The Hunter is certainly one of Mastodon’s best, and Ghost only has the one album, but it’s a pretty fucking sweet album.
Brann: I think it’s their best.
Mike: Their best to date, sure.
Brann: It is a great record. They (Ghost) are onto something, for sure.
Mike: I guess it’s a little early into the tour for any highlights, but what have you seen so far? Your early opinions, if you will.
Brann: Opeth and the level of playing that they’re achieving is pretty incredible. And I think Ghost is a hell of a show. It’s a cool and theatrical thing that they have going on. We’re just trying to do our part, do our thing, and be Mastodon and add to the experience for people, you know? It’s a lot of music. A lot of good songs will be played. It’s just a cool bill.
Mike: Did Mastodon try to do anything to align their set with Opeth? Was there a cognizant effort between yourselves and Opeth to try and play similar songs?
Brann: No, not really. There wasn’t much conversation in that sense. Everybody was already on tour before this tour together was announced, you know what I mean? We’re just kind of going along with the flow. In the grand scheme of things everybody is just really busy. Busy, busy, busy. These days you can’t really go home. Ever! You have to stay on tour if you want to make a living in music.
Mike: The last time you played Toronto you did the sing-along to ‘Creature Lives’ with the guys from Dillinger Escape Plan and Red Fang.
Brann: Yeah, that’s right.
Mike: I’m thinking that might not happen tonight?
Brann: Nah, it wouldn’t be the same. We’re second to last this evening, as well. We’re going to close with ‘The Sparrow’ tonight.
Mike: Nice. Good song.
Brann: It’s different for us to close with a more somber song and go out on a somber note. But it works.
Mike: ‘The Sparrow’ is one of two somber songs on The Hunter. Two good songs, I might add.
Brann: It’s a pretty epic song. I’m excited about it. I like playing it.
Mike: I don’t think you played that last fall. I’ve not seen it live yet.
Brann: It’s very simple drum wise, but I’m also singing a lot on it. So I have to stay on my game, you know?
Mike: The back end of ‘The Sparrow’ has some neat momentum when the guitars kick in.
Brann: Yeah, that’s really awesome. That solo in the middle is probably one of my favourites that we’ve done.
Mike: What happened with Brent’s foot? That’s not him aggravating the same injury he had back when you opened for Iron Maiden, is it?
Brann: Oh no. That was ’05, wasn’t it? Yeah. No, this is new. It’s new.
There was some black ice in Stockholm coming off a ferry there. He went down and it seemed like he was ok initially. He got on the bus and said, “Oh my God, I slipped out there and hurt my foot really bad”. He walked around on it for three days before sending him to the hospital in Oslo, where they told him that it was completely broken. So, that’s been a little while now. It sucks.
Brann: Yeah, that’s been a bummer for him, but it’s better than it was. A couple of months ago it was more debilitating. It’s been broken for a couple of months.
Mike: He’s been wearing that foot gear for two months already?
Brann: He had a bigger cast on him for a while, but then they took the cast off and he’s now got that (pause) ‘boot’. It’s very inconvenient for everything, especially a venue like this where there are so many steps to walk up and down.
(The Sony Centre does have a very interesting myriad of stairwells leading here and there. I had traversed my own small labyrinth of steps coming backstage with Mastodon’s label rep minutes before this interview)
Getting to and from the stage here is just insane, you know? You don’t really think about it much until someone in your band has a broken foot. It’s everywhere though, you know? Airports and travelling and larger venues - it’s extremely difficult for him right now, and painful.
Luckily it wasn’t me or we wouldn’t be having this conversation, right? We wouldn’t be able to play.
Mike: True. That would shut it all down if it was you.
Brann: I don’t know. I don’t know how I would do it, honestly. I guess I’d have to figure it out. I might be able to still play with a broken foot. It would take some practice sessions though.
Mike: You couldn’t double bass. Can you compromise for that by re-arranging your kit somehow? That would be an interesting scenario.
Brann: It would actually. I dunno if we could do it, and honestly, I hope to never find out.
Mike: I hope the same as well.
Brann: But, you know, a little time off wouldn’t be too bad either.
I can’t lie; I would enjoy that aspect of a foot injury.
Mike: Can we talk a bit about the cover songs you have coming out for Record Store Day?
Brann: For sure. I can talk about them.
Mike: The Feist cover and the Flaming Lips track, correct?
Brann: Well, we met Leslie and Feist at Later with Jools Holland in the UK. It’s a big television show there.
Mike: A lot of good Brit pop has been showcased on that show over the years.
Brann: You know the deal with that show, right? They have five bands in the round and you have the host of the show there… it was super cool. We did ‘Black Tongue’ on the show and Feist goes into ‘The Bad in Each Other’ and Bon Iver played ‘Towers’ or something, and then Buddy Greco from the Rat Pack played a few songs from Sinatra. It was a pretty cool eclectic mix of music.
When we got done, we all went downstairs in the backstage area and Leslie was back there. Her and Brent were talking to each other and talking about covering each others songs. It sounded like a pipe dream to me. Everybody is so busy, you know? It would be hard to make it happen.
Mike: I thought it sounded cool when the news leaked about the possibility of the collaboration last year.
Brann: I thought it would be really hard to make something like that happen. But, fortunately, Troy talked about it in an interview, essentially outing the project, you know? And it just sort of went from there. News spread like wildfire and it quickly became a situation where we HAD to do it. We had to figure out how to make it happen.
Mike: You were all into doing it though, right?
Brann: Totally. It’s just hard to fathom sometimes. You get a week off, maybe, and you have to corral everyone into the studio to learn this song and then record it. When put against some time off, it’s the last thing anyone wants to do. Now that it’s finished and the song is done, we’re really, really proud of it. Her version of ‘Black Tongue’ is so cool. It’s awesome. I love it. It sounds like something off of Black Rider by Tom Waits, but with her singing. And our cover, we did ‘A Commotion’ and it’s neat. We made it our own. That’s something we seldom do with covers because it’s always us covering something that is more in our genre. Initially, I was thinking, “What do we do with this?” We’re a heavy rock band. So we just tried to play it straight, you know?
Same with the Lips cover. I wish we’d had a little more time with the Flaming Lips, to be honest. We sort of decided to do it that day. We went into the song and sort of mimicked their version of it, almost. We didn’t know how to really manipulate it. We basically had the one day to do it, including the Feist song. And the Feist song was the main focus. Hopefully, in the future, we’ve talked to Wayne (Coyne) and he is into doing some sort of collaboration with us. That would be some original music, and that would be something we’d be really into.
Mike: Is the Flaming Lips single a double A-side, as well as the Feist one? Are the Flaming Lips covering a Mastodon song, as well?
Brann: He’s not, no. It’s along the same lines as the ZZ-TOP thing. We cover another Warner Brothers’ artist and they put the original song on one side and our version on the other. So that’s the Flaming Lips thing, and the Feist thing is completely different. It’s got our mutual covers on each side. Anything we can do to help struggling independent record stores across the country. They are closing down at a rapid rate. Some of my fondest memories of being a kid were times spent in a record store, you know?
Mike: I still like that feeling of trolling through a good record store – open to buying anything that turns up going through the racks.
Brann: Yeah, me too. You can find old stuff. You can find albums that you buy based solely on the cover artwork itself. It’s a cool way to discover music. I just like how a record store smells.
Mike: Oh, yeah.
Brann: It smells like old records, and of potential. It’s a shame that they’re disappearing. So anything we can do to help, we want to do. I think this year’s contribution is a good one. I’m excited about Record Store Day this year.
Mike: Some of the early press Mastodon did for The Hunter, it seemed you all felt that the album was one of the quickest and easiest albums you’d ever done.
Brann: Mm hmm.
Mike: Does the material still feel fresh and easy now that you’ve done a few designated tours in different parts of the world playing the majority of the album live on stage?
Brann: It’s uh (pauses)... Compared to Crack The Skye, it’s a lot more fun to play, you know? And I don’t want to say Crack The Skye wasn’t fun to play… it was kind of like Sgt Peppers or something… it was really different to tour.
Mike: I’m glad you all stuck to a regiment of playing the whole album when you toured it. I saw the album live a couple of times and really enjoyed those shows. I play Crack The Skye as an entity. I don’t think I’ve gone to the album and just played ‘The Last Baron’ or ‘Oblivion’. I’ll finish the whole album and then move onto something else.
Brann: Yeah, that makes sense; hearing it as a whole piece.
Mike: Crack The Skye is more of an orchestration of material and not so much an assortment of songs. The Hunter comes off as a collection of really cool jams to me.
Brann: Yeah. That’s what it was and what it was supposed to be. We play almost all of The Hunter on this tour, just about all of it. It’s been cool so far. We worked on ‘Stargasm’ and ‘Octopus’ and ‘Sparrow’ and ‘The Hunter’ itself for this tour.
It wasn’t like making The Hunter was no sweat, you know?
Mike: Of course, the album doesn’t sound that way at all. Some of my favourite Mastodon moments are on The Hunter. There’s some different riffs and drumming on the album. You’re stretching out more on vocals.
Brann: When I say things came together quickly, they did. But it wasn’t without pulling teeth to get people to be in the room. Life is happening – things are happening. People were all doing their thing, you know? I felt like the record came together in these two halves. First it was me and Bill and Troy in there, and Brent was off touring with his other projects; just kind of doing stuff, right - out and about, which is totally fine. But then he came back and then Bill went away and it was just me and Brent down there. When we committed to: “OK, we’re going to try and record,” it just kind of felt like (puts hands up in air and shrugs) “Is it going to happen? I don’t know…” It was very up in the air as to whether the record was going to come together or not. We just weren’t sure.
We just kind of threw caution to the wind with Mike Elizondo and pretty much told him what was up and he was like, “Dude, I’ve got the demos. They’re sick! These are great. We’ve got a really good starting point here – let’s look at it that way. Let’s get in here and let’s work and do drum tracks.” I worked over a week straight and just played drums the entire time. I fried myself out for the first time. I’ve never done that before and I did it on The Hunter. From morning until night, it got pretty intense, to the point where I was saying, “I can’t record anymore”. And Elizondo was in front of the console after take fifteen or whatever and I came out with, “I’m done. That’s it. I’m done for now. Someone else do something.” I worked really hard on The Hunter and I felt like when we added ‘The Sparrow’ and ‘Black Tongue’ – both being studio creations in that the heavy section of those songs came together there. ‘Heavy Lifting’, as well, was written in the studio within those five days.
Mike: That’s pretty awesome, actually.
Brann: It was crazy. I felt like it was really bizarre because usually we are so über prepared, you know? To just roll in there and create… it was new for us. The whole process was sort of new and different. Mostly because everybody had other shit going on. (Chuckles) It’s weird, but it came together. If we weren’t proud of it and we didn’t love it, we wouldn’t have put it out. We at least trust ourselves with that aspect of it. We’re not going to lie to ourselves just to put a product out, you know what I mean?
Mike: When you look at releasing an album, say your first album compared to The Hunter, the industry has changed so much in the space between those albums. So, you guys have a new album of material ready to release. Are there any aspects of the way things have changed within the industry that have either helped or hindered the way you release music?
Brann: Um, well when Remission came out…
Mike: Different label. You were on Relapse at the time.
Brann: Yeah, it so different. Things have completely changed. Since 2005 when we switched over to Warner Brothers, we’ve grown so much. It’s taken those ten years to become as successful as we are - every second of those ten years. It’s not like we’ve been in a place as a band that will fit into that entire arc that you are talking about. We were just a baby band playing in basements for a few years there. So we weren’t really IN the industry, so to speak.
But we grew, certainly, and are continuing to grow and become more popular slowly but surely, through the different changes in the industry - changes that are still happening now, obviously, because they don’t know what to do.
But I guess for the first time in five years or something like that, there are statistics showing that record sales went up, right?
Mike: Yeah. Vinyl for sure is on the rise again. People are spending their money on music, whether it’s physical product or digital delivery.
Brann: Right. They (labels) have made it easier for fans to download a record and pay for it.
Mike: As far as the internet goes, a band like yours will post something online - a new song snippit, or a new video; whatever. The first fifty comments are often things like, “Not as good as Leviathan. I don’t like this. I hate these guys,” - all of this negativity, because anyone with a 50 IQ and an internet connection is all of a sudden an expert on all things Mastodon, right?
It just feels like there is so much that is out of control when it comes to the hyping of music these days. I find it disheartening.
Brann: Yeah, yeah. It’s easier for them to say anything now.
Mike: It’s a real open forum for haters and zealots alike, and it’s immediate.
Brann: I always look at it like this: being an artist, especially in this day and age, if it wasn’t already a vulnerable place to be, it definitely is more so now. You’ve really got to have a thick skin when you’re putting your art there to be judged by everybody. It’s like you have this child, right? And you have this infant at your house for a number of years; four to five years say, before you let him or her go to school. And you think to yourself that this is the most perfect little baby in the world. How could anyone ever have a bad thing to say about this beautiful baby? So this kid goes to school and people start to harp on him/her. They don’t like the kid’s teeth or they raz the kid for something physical. And you’re like “WHAT!?! How could people not like you? You’re great! You’re perfect!”
So that’s kind of how it is right now with releasing music. You try not to get your feelings hurt, and you get really protective of your material; your baby. So if anyone has anything really negative to say about it, it can piss us off, you know? We’ve all worked really hard on it. It’s so easy for someone who is not working hard at making art to take a shit on something, but I also completely understand that at the same time. I don’t really know what makes our music appealing or not appealing to a listener. I don’t know why I like the things that I like. But I don’t EXPECT anybody to just LIKE our music. I just know that we get to a point where we like it. I feel like if we fall in love with it for the right reasons, then the material at least has a chance out there. But if we’re not fully 100% committed for whatever reason, and aren’t completely moved by the material we are releasing, then it’s not going to transfer onto an audience. If we are 100% moved by our material, then someone else is going to be moved by it as well. That connection will be made with some people.
If the kids that liked Remission are not getting what they need from The Hunter, then someone else will. So that is really what we try to concentrate on. There are a lot of Mastodon fans that have come with us for the whole, entire ride, and I really appreciate them. That’s awesome. But we’re on the same path, you know what I mean? We are on the same ride. It’s all changing quickly and things are happening. Our tastes are changing, and we’re all kind of digging on new and different things as we grow. Each album is unique and reflects its own thing. They are these perfect little snapshots of where we were in our lives when they were made.
The Hunter is not Remission, you know?
Mike: I played Remission today on the way into town for this interview. Still great.
Brann: Right. Cool.
Mike: And I played some of the Jonah Hex score as there are some good jams on Hex. I like some of the alternate versions more than the ‘real’ versions - the tinnier guitar work on the outtake versions kind of work for me.
Brann: Me, too.
Mike: What do you think is the rarest piece of Mastodon merchandise that is available on the open market or aftermarket?
Brann: The most collectable piece, huh?
Mike: The hardest Mastodon thing to find…
Brann: Well, there are six printed T-shirts that say ‘Mastadon’ – and it's spelled wrong. Troy went and made six T-shirts - black with m-a-s-t-a-d-o-n on the front.
Mike: I see that typo online all of the time, actually.
Brann: Yeah, us too. But this was us, right when we first started the band and he didn’t know how to spell it properly…
And he went and made six T-shirts and spelled it wrong. I think my Dad has one of them, actually. That would probably be up there as the most collectable Mastodon item.
They (Warner) made about a dozen Crack The Skye miniature squirt guns.
Mike: I’ve never even heard of one of those.
Brann: Yeah, there’s a few weird ones out there. There’s a mini CD out there that has a Deftones song and a Mastodon song on it. It comes in this little slim case.
Mike: Never seen that either. I’ve got a bunch of Mastodon stuff. I’m invested, but I’ve never really looked around for what’s rare and considered collectable. I genuinely was interested.
Brann: Cool. There’s a demo thing out there - our demos on a disc. The original ‘nine song demo’, which is what it was called. There’s a few of those floating around. I saw that one on eBay. That’s out there, too.