Mastodon‘s new album Emperor of Sand was inspired by friends and family of the band who received cancer diagnoses, but we caught them in a predictably more lighthearted mood at SXSW before SPIN’s showcase at Empire Control Room and Garage. We chatted with drummer/vocalist Brann Dailor, above left, and guitarist Bill Kelliher, above middle, about playing live seven albums deep into a career, album producer Brendan O’Brien, and exactly how they feel about going back out on tour.
Brann, I heard you were singing “I Love a Parade” during the sound check.
Brann Dailor: Yeah, that’s my warmup song.
Nice vibrato by the way. Do you have other show tunes in your repertoire?
Dailor: No, that’s pretty much it. We’re kinda light on the Gershwin. As far as that side of the musical spectrum, I don’t know a lot of Gershwin.
“I Love a Parade” really covers every angle that comes with warm-ups.
Dailor: Not a lot of double-bass kicks with Gershwin songs. But they’re about to start doing that more, since he finally did pass away.
So, you mentioned that this would be the first time you’d be playing these songs for a crowd.
Bill Kelliher: Yeah, that was sound check. There was a lot of people out there for sound check, it was almost sold out. And that was the first time we played that for more than just us in our practice space, so it was a little nervous just because you can practice so many times by yourself and practice so many times at band practice, but when you get in front of people, there’s some chemistry that happens, at least to me, where I’m like, “Oh shit, I forgot.” If I think to hard about something I gotta get the memory muscles going.
Are there any pitfalls in the new songs, like where when you’re playing them for the first time, where you say, like, “Oh, that really complicated part is coming up.”
Dailor: “Sultan’s Curse” is really hard to sing and play the drums to. It’s kinda like counterintuitive beats and the vocal pattern overtop. I’ll be happy when we’re onto the next song. I’m excited to play that and excited to see if we get any kind of reaction. I mean, I don’t know if anybody likes this shit. I mean, I know that we dig it, but like he said, we’ve never played it in front of people before.
When you’re reading the crowd, what’s the ideal reaction?
Dailor: A lot of blood.
Kelliher: Knives in the air. People lighting each other on fire, throwing gasoline.
Dailor: We want to see some serious choreography out there. Paula Abdul-style choreography.
Kelliher: And titties. Lots of titties.
Dailor: Like three to five…
Kelliher: Three to five boobs, maybe. Smoke and mirrors and blood.
Dailor: For us, we don’t really feel like we’re doing it right unless there’s people slamming into each other for some reason, but I guess that’s just kinda how we…
Kelliher: We’re standing here upfront, you kinda see down on people. That’s why it’s good to have the record out before you start playing songs off of it. We’ve made that mistake before. I’ve seen bands, some of my favorite bands, like the Melvins. Saw them, they played a bunch of songs off a record I didn’t have yet and I was just like, “This is awesome, but I don’t know what the fuck it is.” So seeing people sing along and close their eyes and fucking get into it. They anticipate the next part, their fucking air-guitaring the solo, whatever—that gets us off. Y’know that makes us feel good, like, “Hey, we’re doing the right thing.” It effects my performance as well, I feed off stuff like that.
Dailor: I like to see a lot of crying out there too, a lot of grown men crying.
With this being your seventh record, you guys have one of those huge discographies where you’re never going to be able to please every fan.
Kelliher: We have fans age eight to eighty. Just like Bobble, the game from Milton Bradley, ages eight to eighty.
So when you’re choosing your new set list, especially with the new record—
Kelliher: There’s a lot of stuff to chose from—we want to play new songs, but we have so many—especially with the new record, learning all that stuff, it’s hard to say, “Let’s dredge up a song we haven’t played from four records ago.” It’s like, “How does it go again?” It’s kinda difficult. It’s not as easy as you see it on TV.
Right, you’re not like a cover band where you just have like 150 songs.
Dailor: It’s not like that episode of Quincy where the punk rocker got stabbed in the mosh pit, it’s not like that at all. It’s totally different. Remember Quincy. Remember the Doctor? That’s a good show.
Okay, so the new record—
Dailor: Emperor of Sand, comes out March 31st. Yes—we’re here, we’re talking about it with people.
Tell me what this record is about. Sum it up in two sentences, like we’re on an elevator.
Dailor: Death, disease, famine.
Kelliher: How much time do you have left and what you’re going to do with it.
And Brenden O’Brian—you’re working with him again. What kind of curveballs does he introduce into the process?
Kelliher: He doesn’t really introduce any curveballs, except for making us do our best. Like, “No, sing it again.” But he really brings out the best in everybody’s performance, without being overbearing and making you, “Play it again, play it again, play it again.” It’s not like that because with Brenden, to me and to us, it’s more about capturing that spontaneity of playing that riff for the first time. And you get goosebumps–“It fuckin’ sounds great.” You don’t want to beat it to death. And he understands it.
Dailor: He makes us seem sophisticated when we’re not.
Speaking of sophistication, singing drummers—Phil Collins, Peter Chris, any other mentors?
Dailor: The guy in Nightranger. Don Henley. Golden pipes.
Do you see yourself on a wall with those people at some point?
Dailor: I guess so, I wasn’t planning on it. But I’m slowly but surely gonna have to get some other to come out and play drums in overalls with no shirt. Just roll around. I do, I love Phil Collins, but I guess I’ve never really wanted to sing and play the drums. I was just like, “That looks ridiculous, and it’s probably really hard.”
Kelliher: Which both those things it does, but Brann’s a great singer.
You never had a lesson?
Kelliher: It’s all those King Diamond tryouts.
Dailor: I sang was a kid, in my first band, I was the singer—I was the drummer, but then they were like, “Jeff plays the drums” We don’t have anybody that can sing, you’ve got the blonde hair, stand up front like Vince Neil. I was like, “Okay.”
Was that reluctantly?
Dailor: It was a covenant. The first show I ever played was at a rollerskating rink and I was the lead singer guy and I really hated it. I just felt awkward, I didn’t know what to do with my hands, it’s a weird thing. So now, I’ve got the best of both worlds, basically. I feel like I’m a pretty good drummer on my own, and a pretty good singer own my own, and when I combine the two, I’m pretty mediocre at both.
So the tour’s coming up, you’re getting psyched, how do you mentally prepare to go on tour?
Dailor: At this point, you kinda just go, “Ugh.” A little bit.
Kelliher: You’re never completely prepared. We try to practice as much as possible, but there’s always something. We’ve gotta seize the moment of like, “Hey we have this week off.” It might be two months before we go on tour but that’s the only time we can practice. We need to relearn all these songs from the studio that we haven’t played in four months, that we kinda just learned and wrote in the studio, whatever. For me, I’m always trying to make a mental checklist of… y’know a bar of soap, razors, hair products.
Dailor: We need to make sure we have the most kickass t-shirts available at the show. And we need to make sure we have the coolest production.
I know as a guy who’s got some grey in his beard, this is my umpteenth South By. This year I discovered the best underwear to wear at South By, do you guys have any like…?
Kelliher: I like “funderwear.” Because they’re fun to wear. That’s “funderwear.”
Is that a real thing?
Kelliher: Yeah. I’ve got some Chewbacca, Star Wars themed ones, they’re real fuzzy. A little itchy. I won’t wear them tonight, but when I get off-stage I’ll slip right into those things.
Dailor: Yeah, I don’t know, there’s nothing that I have to have except for my in-ears. I gotta have those. I usually have a pair of sticks in my bag so I can warm up at the hotel.
No Ben-Gay or whatever?
Kelliher: Been there, man.
Dailor: I just had a massage a couple days ago because I had like a crick in my neck, I don’t get massages.
That was probably like your first massage ever, right?
Dailor: My second one, I got one ten years ago, so to mark the anniversary of that massage, I got another one.
Dailor: They call that the silver anniversary. Call me in 2027 and we’ll see where were at, massage-wise.