Mastodon Talk “Emperor Of Sand”

Bill Kelliher describes the personal pains & process behind one of this year’s most eagerly awaited offerings in the world of metal

Since forming back in 2000, Mastodon have certainly made the most of their time. Most recently, their 2014 seventh offering Once More ‘Round The Sun bowed into the number six spot on the Billboard Top 200, marking their highest chart entry to date and second consecutive Top 10 debut following 2011’s The Hunter.

Casting a shadow over pop culture, they received “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance” GRAMMY Award nominations in 2007, 2014 and again in 2015. Their music blasted through the Academy Award-winning comedy The Big Short, animated blockbuster Monsters University, and sci-fi western Jonah Hex. After contributing “White Walker” to HBO’s Catch The Throne, Vol.2 mixtape – a tribute to a certain TV fantasy, Dailor, Hinds, and Kelliher appeared as “Wildlings” in an episode of Game of Thrones Season 5. 

Now the band return to what they do best – making noise of a certain type. After a long hard year of personal losses and the pains of watching loved ones suffer Mastodon used their latest album as a cathartic expression of passing time, the battles too big to win, and the importance of family.

ARTISTdirect’s Christopher caught up with guitarist Bill Kelliher to discuss the process behind Emperor of Sand, the sense of humility he derives from everyday life, and why Mastodon may just write a pop song one day.

Christopher Friedmann: We are talking today because you just released your new album Emperor of Sand

Bill Kelliher: Yeah of Friday, March 31st, the week after my birthday.

CF: Happy belated birthday! So, just in general, since you’re another year older, and about to head out on tour. How is the mood in camp?

BK: Personally, I’m over the moon. I’m really excited because I feel like this record has been getting so much more proper press, good reviews, people just seem in general to be a lot more excited and excitable about it, and me personally as well. I feel like, I’ve put so much hard work and heart and soul into this record, we all did, that it… it was a tough year, last year. It was f***ing brutal on everybody, and it’s always brutal – that’s just life, but I feel like we channeled that brutality into an awesome piece of art, and I think people are noticing that. I feel great about it.

CF: I want to talk about the creative process… it can be like catharsis sometimes; to write in these kind of conditions, in the pressure and noise of turmoil. I wanted to know if it gave you a deeper sense of meaning, maybe there was something more within the pain of your loss?

BK: For me it’s very cathartic to just get out riffs and ideas that I have bouncing around in my head because I have tons of them. Some of the songs that are on this record, “Sultan’s Curse” for instance, that was a song, it wasn’t a finished song, but it’s a song that’s been around for five or six years. I had all those riffs and they just never made it anywhere, and it just starts to just get on my nerves and stress me out that I’m like, “we gotta get this song. It has got to go somewhere,” but every song has its place and its time or whatever.

As far as the stuff that I was going through, it was deeper than just writing the music. It definitely was a distraction for a lot of the hardships… taking care of my mom and just watching her pass away, like, I’m writing this f***ing record. I’m f***ing putting everything into this and I’m going to do it for her. So nothing can make you feel better about losing your parent but it definitely helped me not go f***ing ape-shit crazy and just want to murder everybody around me, be mad at the world.

I just poured all of the energy into the record in every way that I possibly could, so I guess it’s cathartic to a degree, but there’s still the sadness, but I feel like that record is a snapshot of what was going in my life and our lives when we recorded it, so when I think of the lyrics and I listen to the record, I think of the album it’s dedicated to the memory of my mother, so I will always have that connection like, “That was for mom. That was the least that I could do,” and luckily I was off tour when all of this shit hit the fan, and it could have gone the other way. I could have just lost my mind and gone back into the bottle and f***ing ruined everything, but I just stood up and, “f*** this” and just turned it into a positive energy to write some really sad s*** you know.

I feel like it’ll be cathartic to the listeners. They’ll listen to it and be like, “ah,” kind of like medicine. Because everyone has those albums that you reach for when you are feeling a certain way. If you’re sad, you’re like, “I want something that’ll pick me up,” or if I’m too happy, I want to listen to some deep dark s***, or if you’re losing someone close to you, you want a friend or someone that’s gonna listen, or someone that’s going to talk to you and that’s Emperor of Sand.

CF: It also seems apparent that the album discusses the nature of time, which is certainly an existential concept. Was it the situation that all of you were going through that initially stirred those initial questions to come up?

BK: I just think that with the things that were happening right in front of our eyes, Brann’s mom has been very sick as long as I’ve known him and her, but with Troy’s wife getting cancer we had to cancel some tours and it was just like now this shit is really seeping in, and now my mom has got a brain tumor, what the f***, like now we’re kinda getting attacked from all sides, and I just feel like as we started writing, it would have done them a disservice if we didn’t write about this because it was on everybody’s mind and it was obvious.

It was the elephant in the room so to speak that, we were like, “yeah, I don’t want to f***ing deal with cancer. I f***ing hate cancer. I hate the fact that we are losing everyone to it.” So we kind of just turned it around and were like… writing a concept record, we had all these different ideas, and we’re just like, “What are we talking about?” I was playing “Sultan’s Curse” and Brann was like, “That song just reminds of like pitches of vast desert and a lonely guy running through it,” a metaphor for someone who has got a death sentence and wants to get out and get away from it, you’re running, you’re running, you always have dreams where you’re always just running, you’re trying to get away from something, and that’s what we were all feeling.

We just wanted to get away from this f***ed up reality of our family members… my wife, I would be so miserable if that happened. I would just be desperate. We were all going through it and that’s just what came out really.

CF: Has all that you’ve gone through changed the way you approach life in any way or towards creating?

BK: Definitely watching someone that close to me go through it, I think of my mom every single day. For a long time I was like, “What could I have done to prepare for this better? What could I have done to save her?” I was just thinking, “I’ve got to be healthier. I’ve got to eat healthy. I’ve got to go to the doctor. I’ve got to love my kids. I’ve got to kiss my wife.” We lost one of our neighbors who was just a young guy, and he went out one day on his moped, going to work, and I got a phone call from my like, “He just got killed,” and he was a really good friend of ours, and he had a whole family, and I was like, “Wait, what? I can’t believe that he’s gone. What the f***?” And she’s like, “Every time we say goodbye now, tell me that you love me and give me a kiss because it might be the last.” And I was like, “s***, it’s so depressing to think like that,” but you kind of have to.

So yeah, my brain is definitely open to the fact that we’re all mortal and sometimes you are too far gone to get better, and there is nothing you can do about it, so try to love each other and be happy while you’re here in this short amount of time. I mean… I say that. I try to practice it. It’s not always so easy to be like, “Hey, peace and love dude.” It’s not at all, but I try to not hold grudges and just let sleeping dogs lie and just try to be a loving person and try to be nice to people. That’s kind of the bottom line.

As far as creating, now that I have the studio in my basement, I feel like after doing that record if I can do that I can do anything. I feel like I just gotta keep on writing, just letting it pour out. The older you get, who knows how much time we have left to be this band. I just turned 46, so it’s like ‘do I want to be doing this for the next five years, ten years?’ I mean 56… I don’t know. It’s going to be hard, so I want to get as much music out as I possibly can before you are too old to do it any longer.

CF: This is such a heavy and deep album. Do you ever have a desire to move away from them and create something a bit more lighthearted?

BK: I haven’t really thought about that. I think that would be a weird 180, but I kind of feel like Once More ‘Round the Sun was kind of like that on certain songs because I remember when I was writing, I can’t remember, what riff was it? I was writing some riff, and I was like, “This riff sounds really happy,” but I was happy, and I was like “But am I happy? Yeah, I am happy. F*** it. This is a cool happy riff.” But I don’t know. That’s the thing about when I write, I don’t sit down and go, “I’m gonna write a happy riff right now. Or I’m gonna write a sad riff.” I kind of always tend to go to the dark side and try to get those dissonant notes and stuff that sounds like a spooky movie or some kind of soundtrack to a horror movie, something that just like sounds like,”What the f*** is that? It sounds f***ing creepy,” notes rubbing against each other. I always just go down that way. I don’t usually write stuff that I try to do as like a happy three chord power ballad, not yet atleast. But maybe, you never know, that’s the thing.

CF: The second single from the record, “Show Yourself”, is much more pop-driven than the band’s usual direction. Why did that seem like the right thing to do at this point and was it a challenge to go in that direction?

BK: No, when I first wrote the riff, I didn’t hear it as a poppy riff at all. I felt more like a kind of Kvelertak kind of feel to me. I felt more of a driving evil, like what those guys do. That’s kind of what I channeled, was like Kvelertak because we just toured with them and I kind of had like their beat in my head and was just playing along to it in the back of the tour bus in Europe one day, and I should it to Brann, and he was like, “Yeah that’s cool.” I recorded it and we revisited it years later when we were doing this record, and Brann was like, “I still don’t feel it.” I wrote probably 20 riffs for that song and we just chopped it down to just four riffs that are in it now, but not until Brann started singing on it did it come alive. And then it kind of turned to me into more of a pop sounding song because you never know what it’s going to be. If you didn’t hear the lyrics or the vocals, you probably wouldn’t say, “Oh it’s a poppy song,” but the second you hear the vocals, you’re like that’s a pop song.

It’s funny for me saying that because it’s not really a pop song, but in the metal world you can say, “That sounds poppy,” just because it’s catchy and it gets stuck in your head, but I never signed any papers, I don’t remember where I said, “Mastodon is going to be a heavy metal band forever.” I just write songs and if the rest of the guys in my band like them and we all agree that it’s going to go on the record, then it goes on the record. We don’t say, “oh it’s too poppy, we’re going to take that off.” It’s usually the one poppy song on our record that gets the attention that we… unfortunately.

If you look at The Hunter, we had “Curl of the Burl” that song was very simple, very poppish, very straight drum beat, yet it’s up for a GRAMMY. “Colony of Birchmen” from Blood Mountain, it’s like no one paid attention to any of the other songs, but because that one song was so easy to digest, which is a great song. It’s not always easy to write a pop song. It’s actually kind of hard. I always thought it was harder to write all these crazy notes, it’s not, or play as fast as you can.

To me it’s harder to write something that’s memorable. And that’s what I like about pop songs. I grew up listening to The Ramones and The Sex Pistols and punk rock, and stuff that is vocally melodic and something that starts and then it comes back to the beginning and then you hear that part again and you’re like, “Oh yeah that rocks,” that’s just a beer-swinging, head-banging kind of riff. Whatever style of music it falls under, it’s still a good song to me.

CF: Over the course of your career you’ve have had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?

BK: I think the fact that my wife doesn’t… she’s been with me since 1988… so she doesn’t treat me any differently. She’s like, “You’re not getting out of this. You gotta clean the f***ing kitchen, clean the house, the cleaners are coming.” We have cleaners that come twice a month, and she’s like, “Goddammit, it’s f***ing Thursday night, and I gotta clean the house for the cleaners.” She’s real clean. She likes to keep the f***ing house clean, which I like to keep the house clean too, but I like to keep her happy. Happy wife happy life. So she keeps me grounded.

I don’t know if that answers your question or not, but look at my kids. I just feel like I gotta do this for somebody. It’s like I’m doing it for them. It’s my job. I want to be successful. I want them to see me and look up to me. I didn’t care about myself before I had kids. I was just a trainwreck, going through life on the road, drinking and partying, and just enjoying what we were doing, and, finally, after you have kids, it’s like it’s not about me anymore. I’ve got to set them up for the future. When I look at them every day, and we’re talking about mortality and watching my family pass away, and it’s just like I want them to have every chance in life to do as many cool awesome things as they can do.

I never went to college or had a real job, so I have to make the most of what I’m doing, which I’m trying to do. They get to travel with me. They are here tonight. I think they are just getting to the age where they are like, “Okay Dad is kind of cool. He’s got a cool job. We like his music,” so it’s all for them.

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