As seen in the December 2011 issue of DRUM!.
In late September, the monsoon rains are unyielding. At this time of year, some 10″ can fall in a month, the height of the wet season in Cambodia. The rains make the surrounding countryside lush and verdant, but are so unwieldy for the Mekong River that, bulging at its banks, it expels the water into the nearby Tonlé Sap River. The incredible torrent of water from the Mekong — enough to increase its flow by a factor of 50 — forces the 125-mile-long Tonlé Sap to completely reverse its flow and empty into a lake of the same name, flooding the surrounding forest and expanding the body of water to ten times its usual size.
After the Mekong’s waters crest, usually in late October, the Tonlé Sap’s flow reverts to its proper direction, and water flushes out of the enlarged lake. When the river’s flow reverses, fish flow with it, toward the millions of people who live in the capital city of Phnom Penh. It is said that the annual process is a pressure-release valve for the river system.
Just north of the lake, Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor is wandering about, exploring the sandstone galleries of the temple of Angkor Wat. For two weeks, Dailor will be here, as far as humanly possible from his day job and lost in the lens of his camera. He’s quick to insist that he likes the beach just like any other guy, but the truth is that Dailor seeks adventure — and his search for man-made wonder has brought him to the world’s largest religious building, a sprawling series of stone towers from the 12th century.
Unsurprisingly, the complex is almost completely surrounded by water. Legend has it that the ancient city of Angkor Wat collapsed six centuries ago after a relentless barrage of droughts and floods. Experts say the stress was too much to bear.
Dailor can identify. For the next two weeks, he will do everything — anything — but play drums. After a 22-hour flight back to his home in Atlanta, he will fly north to New York City to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman, promoting his band’s new album, The Hunter.
For a heavy-metal band like Mastodon, describing an album as “heavy” is almost too simple. And yet that’s precisely what it is. Sonically, it’s of great weight to the ears, with crackling drums, sludgy guitar riffs, and plenty of attitude. But more importantly, it is what flowed forth from the band’s minds after considerable duress — a pressure-release valve for the pent-up stress of a death in the family. It was too much to bear.
Bradley Ray Hinds died in December 2010. An avid outdoorsman, he had been out on a hunting trip in Alabama when he suffered a heart attack.
At the time, Brad’s brother Brent — the scraggly, bearded fellow better known as Mastodon’s frontman — had just kicked off the first official studio sessions for the band’s next album. Dailor, Hinds, bassist Troy Sanders, and guitarist Bill Kelliher were excited to begin recording again.
“We had a bunch of things loosely together but we decided to put the wheels in motion and record. When we start, we have to finish — our music is like milk; it has a short shelf life. If we come back to it, it might not have the same [vigor].”
The men of Mastodon had spent more than a year touring the world behind their previous album, Crack The Skye, including a string of dates with Deftones and a reformed Alice In Chains. That album was an homage to Dailor’s sister, who committed suicide at age 14. The band, wearied in more ways than one after the better part of nine years on the road, was looking forward to a fresh start. Reinvigorated after a month-and-a-half sabbatical, they moved into a new practice space, split into three separate rooms: jam room, studio, live room. Then they pored through the sketches of ideas they had scribbled down during those many months on the road.
“During the Alice In Chains tour, it was an arena tour. It’s hard to leave the arena. It’s very contained. There’s always this fear you’ll get locked outside before the show. You’re staying close, in some hockey locker room. We had amps backstage and Bill and Troy would jam. If we heard anything good, I’d grab my phone and record it. When we got home, we had almost the entire record there on my phone, just the riffs. It was a good jumping-off point.”
They began writing. Then the phone rang. Brad had died.
“I wasn’t sure how Brent was going to react. He stayed with his family in Birmingham. Around February, we picked things up again. It felt like he needed to be down there [in the studio] and be busy. I’d call him every day — a couple of weeks it was just me and him down there, and we wrote a ton of stuff. We were having a lot of fun with each other, writing. The songs on the record all sounded triumphant. They sounded like the distraction that they were.”
At first listen, you’d have a hard time discerning that The Hunter is anything but a mindlessly fun rock record to blast out the windows of a highway-bound car. The opener’s title, “Black Tongue,” references that part of a parrot. The lead single, “Curl Of The Burl,” is an absurd narrative about a cast of characters on methamphetamines who use chainsaws to fell trees to sell their knotty growths for more drugs. “Blasteroid” is a child-like attempt to lash out in violence. “Stargasm” is about sex in outer space.
“In the past, we’d retool stuff to death. Play it over and over and try it this way and that way. This one was different. We just didn’t really meditate on things for too long. It was very scatterbrainish.”
But dig deeper into the middle of the album and a more sincere sentiment emerges. “Octopus Has No Friends” is really about returning home after months on tour. “All The Heavy Lifting” prompts you to “just close your eyes and pretend that everything’s fine.” And the title track is a pensive, pained ode to Brent’s brother.
“Mastodon is what we know. Mastodon is that normalcy that you want when something crazy happens. I wanted that to be there for him. An engineer friend came down [to the studio] with us every day and we’d write lyrics and songs. A lot of the stuff ended up being really instinctual — whatever parts followed after a riff. We wouldn’t revisit it.”
The band’s recording sessions became their own pressure-release valve. By February, the band met with producer Mike Elizondo, better known for producing major hip-hop acts such as Eminem but also Avenged Sevenfold’s 2010 album, Nightmare. From countless demos, they extracted 15 solid song ideas.
“We just went down to the practice space every day. It felt like it was the only thing we ever had any control over. If we go down there, we’re being active and productive.”
Brann Dailor was probably three or four years old when he first picked up drum sticks, but it took him many years to perfect what he did with them.
“I’m self-taught and took the long way,” he said, grinning.
Dailor’s uncle played drums in his grandfather’s band, Cinnamon Road, which practiced in the attic of his grandparent’s house in Rochester, New York.
“I’d hear them constantly. I had really young parents and my grandparents helped out a lot. We were over there a lot. They had a jam room upstairs and a small practice kit, Rogers with an 18″ kick drum. An old ’70s kit. If I was over at my grandmother’s house, I was upstairs playing the drums. Any three- or four-year-old kid, given the choice, is going to want to bang on something. Then it took a turn where I could do it and keep a beat naturally and was pretty good at it. I had a lot of positive reinforcement from everyone: ‘Let’s go upstairs and watch Brann play the drums.’ I enjoyed the attention I got from it. I really felt comfortable back there.”
Dailor’s stepfather moved in when Dailor was five. He played drums in Dailor’s mother’s band, and the kit he installed in the living room was far larger than the small Rogers kit Dailor played at his grandparent’s place.
“A huge Neil Peart–looking drum set in the living room. I couldn’t play that kit because it was just too big. There are pictures of me sitting behind it, but I just couldn’t reach around it. A giant tower of cymbals going all the way up.”
It was the late 1970s. His mother’s band reveled in progressive rock and heavy metal, playing covers of Rush, Judas Priest, and Black Sabbath.
“Mom loved Judas Priest and we jammed it all the time. I naturally gravitated toward that heavier stuff. The imagery attracted me: Iron Maiden had monsters on their album covers. It was cool.”
By age nine, Dailor’s uncle gave him the Rogers kit, but it was dilapidated and lacked parts. At age 13, Dailor’s Mom sprung for a new 5-piece Pearl kit. Dailor couldn’t contain his excitement.
“I never took lessons, I was really self-taught. Kids would get dropped off and I started jamming with everybody. We’d eke out versions of Metallica songs.”
All that jamming led to a proper band. Through the late 1980s, Dailor would spend hours in the basement, honing technique while playing with friends.
“My drumming started advancing somehow. I would hit new plateaus. I’d challenge myself a lot. Eric Burke, our guitar player — we’d jam together. I never knew you were supposed to jam with a bass, so I’d follow what guitarists were doing. I’d follow along on my toms. That’s sort of why my style got so busy, I guess.”
When he turned 15, Dailor acquired a “big, ugly rocker kit” with double bass pedals and a rack of toms. His prog-rock band channeled early Genesis and King Crimson, called itself Lethargy, and began playing around Rochester.
By 1994, Lethargy was drawing crowds. The band started booking regional gigs in Syracuse and Cleveland.
“At that point I was like, Okay, I need to figure out how I’m going to do this for a living. I’m 21 — I’m going to give it a shot. But some of the guys in the band weren’t exactly on the same page, and didn’t want to tour.”
Dailor didn’t know where to turn. Then the phone rang. Dailor’s good friend Dave Witte, then of punk outfit Human Remains, needed a drummer for a tour. He took the offer and moved everything he owned to rural Clinton, Massachusetts.
“We wrote a record in a month. We needed a bass player, and I called Bill [Kelliher]. We lived in the recording studio, on couches. We toured with Napalm Death. It was awesome. Exactly what I was looking for.”
But Clinton was hardly the place for an aspiring young rocker — “There were no girls in Clinton,” Dailor admits with a smile — so he soon skipped town with Kelliher and resettled in Atlanta. His girlfriend — now wife — had a job down here at the CDC.
“I had never been there before,” he says. “We met the other guys at Mastodon within two weeks at some basement show; High On Fire was playing. It came together really fast. We started booking tours, and over the next five years just pounded the pavement — basements, VFW halls, any tour that would take us.”
Things moved quickly. After recording a demo in 2000, the band produced its first full-length album, Remission, for Relapse Records, in 2002. Met with positive reception, the album’s two singles — “March Of The Fire Ants” and “Crusher/Destroyer” — took off, the latter appearing in the video game Tony Hawk’s Underground. The band’s second full-length album, Leviathan, appeared in 2004 and garnered the band critical acclaim, exposure, and a major-label record deal with Warner Bros. Blood Mountain came in 2006, with tours with metal giants Tool, Slayer, and Metallica in tow; Crack The Skye followed in 2009.
In just ten years, Dailor went from playing Metallica and Iron Maiden covers in the basement to opening for them on stage in Europe. He still can’t quite believe his trajectory.
“I’ve had my moments with Lars [Ulrich] and Nicko [McBrain]. I’ve dorked out on those guys pretty hardcore. They know. They’re aware.”
HUNTING FOR SOUND
If there’s a musical difference in Dailor’s playing on The Hunter, it’s that he sits in the groove far more often than usual. It’s the result of not overthinking his playing and rejecting perfectionist impulses to rework recorded pieces.
“One part of me was excited because it was different. I like that feeling — the pressure of having to get it done. I dig being scared of something new. The things we decided to do this time were not big, lofty concepts. The songs were a lot more straightforward and stripped down. A lot more groove. I really liked that aspect of it. As we moved through the process, I’d second-guess it a little bit but then listen through it and wonder what else we could do to that song. I really enjoy that we turned down some streets and didn’t turn around.”
At 36, it’s also an approach that’s becoming easier with age.
“It was way more fun to play a sick groove and find it and sit in it and work it. It’s a great place to sit. It’s something I do when I go and jam by myself. I like to sink in — I love that feeling.”
The need to release energy in a time of crisis was one reason for Dailor’s groove-focused playing on the new album, but another was producer Elizondo, who worked with Dailor to find the right sounds.
“He let it be known early on that he wanted to work with us. I guess he’d been wanting to do a record with us for a few years. So I talked to him on the phone and he came down to Atlanta and we ate some tacos. He did an Avenged Sevenfold record — we heard that and he obviously doesn’t want to change us. He’s a very musical guy. He’s an amazing bass player. He’s a prog nerd. And he’s got a great personality. Being a producer, you have to be good with people.”
The result of Elizondo’s touch is an album that’s much more groove-oriented than anything Mastodon has done in the past, with a drum sound that’s more expressive than is conventionally found on albums produced by heavy metal producers.
“He paid a lot of attention to the drums. We worked together to get the baddest sound. Coming in, one of his stipulations was that if I wanted to go down the road of getting the Phil Collins tom sounds, he’d come with me — but I had to rip off the bottoms of those toms to get those ‘barking toms.’ He was totally down with that. Not into sound replacement at all. The drums have to have character.”
Elizondo didn’t fully indulge Dailor, however, and occasionally pushed him to the brink to extract moments of brilliance from spontaneity.
“We did 15 drum tracks in, like, five days. I just worked. I went into machine mode. I did Remission in, like, a day and a half; a lot of those are first takes. Some [others] could have been first takes, but we did ten takes just to see by accident if something would happen. Tried different fills. It was fun, but toward the end it got a little stressful for me. It was a lot. At one point I was just done playing drums.”
At Mastodon headquarters in Atlanta, the excitement for The Hunter is at a fever pitch.
“I think we’re in a really awesome position,” says Dailor. “Everyone who’s heard the record thinks it’s great. We’ve surprised ourselves. Everybody’s buzzing. Can’t wait to get out there and tour it. I love this little spot in time right before a record comes out and no one’s heard it and you’ve heard it and a select group have heard it. We sort of have this little secret. We love the music so much that we’re dying to share it with everybody.”
As the band’s U.S. headlining tour in October nears, Dailor is unsure how the band will approach playing such a sensitive record — and song — that represents both the excitement of a new direction and the tragedy of the environment in which it was written. The promotional push behind the album is also top of mind. As the band retells the story behind the album at every new stop along the tour, it could prevent Hinds’ emotional wound from healing properly.
As someone who also lost a sibling, Dailor can relate.
“Grief is weird. You go into a corner and lick your wounds. You’d think it’d bring people together, but it doesn’t. It has this opposite effect. You can’t look at each other.”
On the other hand, the gradual exorcising of the band’s demons may help it grow stronger in the long term.
“I would hope that [Hinds] could look at me in the room with him and think, ‘Yeah, this dude knows.’ Now he knows what I knew for a long time. Now he understands what I’ve felt, that initial blow. He understands me more. It made it easier to be in the room together and make this record. It’s something that we can share.”
[Read it on DRUM magazine's website here.]