If there's one thing Mastodon endorse, it's trying new things. Since 1999, they have evolved from grunty sludge-metal Neanderthals into taut melodic heavy-rock assassins on their latest, The Hunter. Compared to their last LP, Crack the Skye — an intricate progressive-metal exercise, complete with a storyline involving Rasputin and astral projection — the new record is chock-full of (gasp!) accessible songs you could hum to. The change in direction has already paid off, as the album's Queens of the Stone Age-like first single "Curl of the Burl" is the Atlanta group's first bona fide hit, having cracked Billboard's Top 40 Rock Songs.
"To me, it sounds like our best record," guitarist Bill Kelliher says. "We didn't go overboard and overthink the concepts and all the BS. It's just a straight-up rock'n'roll record." Speaking to SPIN backstage at the band's recent sold-out New York show, he explains how they got to this point.
How are the new songs going over on this tour?
Surprisingly really well. The crowd kind of roars when we play the opening riff to "Black Tongue." And we've got some people grooving along to "Curl of the Burl." The new record has got a lot more groove-orientated songwriting.
Why is that?
It just kind of happened. It was a very spontaneous record. We just got onto a riff and just went with it. With past records, especially Crack the Skye, we would write a few riffs and then we would go back and be like, "Oh, that's not technical enough," or, "That's not interesting enough. Let's add some more stuff to it." With The Hunter, we just kind of wrote three or four parts and went with it.
You are all singing more this time, as opposed to growling. Why did you move in that direction?
The weakest link in Mastodon has always been the vocals. When you can't really sing, you growl. [Laughs] These songs just lent themselves to more melody and more singing. And my personal favorite style of music is really heavy low-tuned guitars and heavy drums and thundering bass, but with really beautiful vocals, like harmonies. Think Black Sabbath: You've got really deep, dark guitars, but Ozzy sings. He sings really high. Soundgarden did the same thing on their old stuff; they tuned even lower, played even heavier. Also stuff like the Pixies and Weezer. I'm a big fan of their early records. I think we've just reached a point where we're really thinking about melody. Plus, I think we're just tired of screaming all the time.
You recently posted a photo of you guys with Barney & Friends to your website. What's going on there?
[Laughs] We played the Egyptian Theater in Indianapolis, Indiana, and the marquee said "Barney's Birthday Bash," and underneath that, "Mastodon." When we were doing soundcheck, we had to stop, 'cause apparently we were scaring Barney. That's what they told us. Seriously. So, we ended up meeting Barney at the end of their show and actually hanging out with them. We invited all the characters to come to our show. I mean, they were out of their costumes, of course, but it was cool to meet them. They were in a tour bus as well, so we shared some stories. They're on a totally different level than we are. [Laughs]
You have kids. What did they think of the photo?
My kids never liked Barney. I didn't think it was anything worth showing them [laughs] but a lot of people like Barney.