INTERVIEW: Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher

Mastodon’s Crack The Skye is a hard album to top. Heavy, progressive, psychedelic, multilayered, complex – any concept album that knits together such disparate elements as Rasputin and astral travel has gotta be followed up by something pretty big. Just like Crack The Skye, The Hunter finds Mastodon doing what they do best – combining lyrical and musical creativity – yet the approach is different, the songs are shorter, the themes less interwoven and the results more eclectic. The Hunter is a crucial album for the band. After the strength and influence of Crack The Skye, The Hunter has to prove it wasn’t a fluke – it just has to. Guitarists Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds are one of the most interesting and creative duos in modern metal, and I spoke with Kelliher a week before the album’s release. But first we have even more important matters to discuss, about a shared interest… 

(Oh, and, uh, language alert.)

Before we get into talking abut the album, there’s something I wanted to ask you because we both have this in common: what do you think about the new Star Wars Blu-ray and all the changes they’ve made?

Y’know, I’m a fuckin’ Star Wars fanatic. I’ve got all the tattoos, all the toys… It’s like Beyond Thunderdome with the fuckin’ toy collection. I didn’t really know what was going on with the Blu-rays until I paid attention. I don’t really watch too much TV. And I turned the TV on and saw a commercial for it. My buddy had just told me about the spoiler – Darth Vader saying ‘Noooooo!’ as he’s throwing the emperor off the fuckin’ thing, and he was like ‘Fuck all that, it’s a bunch of bullshit. Can’t they just leave it alone? But I’m gonna buy it anyway.’ And after I saw the fuckin’ commercials, the advertising for it on television, I was like, ‘Man, it looks so awesome!’ I’m not gonna lie, I was completely sucked in by George Lucas once again. Just the little scenes that they showed on television, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to watch the whole thing.’ I’ve already seen the movies like fifty trillion times. I’ve got them on every format – Beta, VHS, LaserDisk – you name it. I’ve got every version. And it’s a shame that they had to fuck with the originals. They should have a Blu-ray of just the original movies separately if you want to watch those. Don’t fuck with it, man. Don’t put fuckin’ Hayden Christensen in where Darth Vader’s ghost was at the end of Jedi! What the fuck is that? Everybody aged except for him? What the fuck does that mean? Why? That’s just a sell-out. It makes me mad! I can go off on that shit. I was like, ‘What is that, a Walmart fuckin’ special?’ Maybe they should have done a young Yoda. Maybe Phyllis Diller or somebody could have done that. I don’t know. It’s ridiculous!

But the thing is, when people always ask me, ‘What do you think of the new movies,’ well, they’re fuckin’ horrible, but then again I’m not an 8-year-old boy any more. And when I was an 8-year-old boy – my kids are young, my son’s name is Harrison, for god’s sake – my other son’s name is Cohen, so I’m a little nerdy with the sci fi stuff. But the thing about Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, they’re still cool to me when I’m 40 years old. The new movies to me, they’re horrible. The fuckin’ fart scenes, where one of the creates farts, the whole Jar Jar thing, it’s fuckin’ retarded. But my kids, they think it’s awesome. They’re like, ‘Wow, this is the coolest thing ever.’ And when they watch Star Wars they think it’s kind of boring. They know the characters and they’re interested, but movies have changed so much since when we were kids. I tried to watch that movie Transformers when it came out a couple of years ago, on a small television on our tour bus, and I could not even watch it, because a) there’s way too much shit going on, because kids these days need to see like 50 bazillion laser beams and explosions happening on a TV screen at once rather than an actual story, and, like, feelings and script going on. It’s just all about the action and something happening on the screen. And I couldn’t watch it. I was like, ‘I’ve got to turn this off. This is shit.’ Everything’s in focus, everything’s CGI, it doesn’t look real, I just can’t stand it. So who am I to say anything about movies these days? Let them release it. I don’t have a Blu-ray player but I’ll probably buy one just so I can watch the movies again and boo at the parts they redid.

On to The Hunter. You know it’s a good one because my lady, who’s not into metal at all, likes it too.

Well that’s what we’re aiming for, is like, housewives. We call the new record ‘housewife rock.’ ‘Wifecore.’

Apart from that, what were you going for this time around?

Simple, easy songs. Haha. Simple, easy and fun. I could sum it up like that, I guess. I mean, it wasn’t even really that we were going for anything at all. Any time we write a record together, it’s not really like, ‘How are we gonna do this? Let’s plan it out, get the blueprints out, let’s write an essay. Everybody chip in!’ It’s just as simple as Brann and myself getting down here to the practice space and me saying ‘Hey, I’ve got this riff.’ And I’ll play it and he’ll say ‘Oh y’know what? I’ve got a riff that’s in that same key and I think it’d go great with that.’ Then we put those two together and then Brent might show up and he’s like ‘What are you guys doing?’ And we’re like, ‘Oh we’re playing these couple of riffs together that are friends.’ And he’s like, ‘Cool!’ and he’ll play a riff that goes along with that, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a song. We haven’t done that for a long time, because Crack The Skye was mostly a bunch of riffs that Brent had written, minus a couple of riffs here and there. He just showed up and said ‘Here, I’ve got all of the stuff written. Let’s arrange it.’ So we all just kinda arranged it. With this record, “The Creature Lives” is all Brann. ‘Black Tongue’ was mostly me, and Brann wrote the opening riff. ‘All The Heavy Lifting’ was one of my songs. ‘Blasteroid’ is all Brent.

That song is really fun. I want it to be my alarm clock every morning.

That song is just such a real spontaneous, fun thing to me. Now that I’ve built a small studio here in our practice space, we have everything mic’d up all the time so that when we have an idea it’s like, ‘Hey, push record and let’s fuckin’ get that idea down.’ That way we can get back to it later if we need to and can’t remember it. We’ve been utilising the ProTools and just trying to write as many riffs as possible and get them down, guitar, bass and drums, and even just record that one riff and just see what hapeens if something else comes out of it. If not, we put it on the backburner until something else we’ve created comes along that fits that in there too. And we just pull it off the backburner and put it in the song. Next thing you know, we had 16 fuckin’ songs to try to record in like four days.

Time for the guitar-nerd talk. What did you use amp-wise on The Hunter?

For me, less is more. I’m not like a rack guy. I don’t have any rack stuff. I plug directly into a Marshall JCM800 and turn up the volume and gain all the way. And I’ve got a lot of cabinets, a lot of Marshall heads. Mostly I use a JCM800 2205, 50 watts, with EL34s. I do have a 100 watt version that’s modded from EL34 for 6550s that sounds pretty beefy too. I use that from time to time. They’re both from the 80s. When I need distortion I’ll throw on like an old 80s or early 90s [Ibanez] Tube King with a 12AX7 built into it. One of those little tan boxes. I just think that’s got a great, crisp tone. I definitely like crispness of notes. I don’t go for that fuzzy tone at all. I want to be able to hear every gallop and chunk-chunk-chunk, y’know what I mean? There’s a very thin line. I’m always searching for that with each amp head.

One thing I really dig about you guys is you have an appreciation of the higher notes. It’s not all just low chords.

I’m a big fan of dissonant notes. Instead of hitting a fretted, I dunno, D note, I’ll hit the open D instead, no matter if it’s easier to hit the fretted one. Just hit the open one and let it ring whether you’re playing, say, a half-step down, so there’s a dissonant wave thing going on, a kind of ‘bow-wow-wow’ thing. I don’t know where it comes from. I think a lot of old punk rock and kinda noisy things, Sonic Youth, Pink Floyd… to me there are certain notes you can hit that are kinda dissonant that are high, and I try to do a lot of stuff where I’ll play a low chord and I’ll strum all six strings and just let the two high strings ring out. We tune D standard and we drop C and A. So like on ‘All The Heavy Lifting,’ on the chorus part I’m playing a power chord that’s actually, because of the tuning, because of where the A would be, fretted A, it’s actually an octave and then if I put my pinky down on a higher string it’s like I’m playing an E power chord. So I’ll play that entire thing and ring out the two high strings. I don’t know, it’s just a very comfortable way of getting a full chord out of every string on the guitar without killing yourself. Like playing two power chords at the same time in different places but one’s an octave of the other, and then you’ve got the high strings ringing out. So I play all that with the high strings still ringing out in the background to give it that extra little ‘What is that weird little sound there?’ thing. I’m really into doing harmonies kinda in the background in the middle. If you’re looking at the sound projecting it’s buried in the middle, I’m doing underlying harmonies. It gives it a kind of evil sound, these rung-out octave chord harmonies that go along with it. I dunno. I do a couple of weird things.


The Hunter is out now via Roadrunner Records.