Trying to be all things to everyone is a fruitless pursuit. It’s impossible on a logistical scale, much less an imaginative one, and no one ends up being satisfied. That being said, Mastodon’s latest album Hushed and Grim (out Friday through Reprise) is, in a way, a Mastodon record for all Mastodon fans. Whatever era you came on to the Atlanta metal quartet over the past two decades, they’ve got your number. “Teardrinker” and “More Than I Can Chew” recall their pivotal turn in Crack the Skye, when drummer Brann Dailor became a co-lead vocalist and ascended to heady prog-metal righteousness. For the heads from the beginning, “Pushing the Tides” and “Savage Lands” will take you back to when Remission was fresh and a roof and beer money was all you needed to be set.
Were you blown away by the left-field country lick in “Megalodon,” and of course you were because it shredded that hard? Brent Hinds’ got another one for ya in “The Beast!” Are you most into their early 2010s era when they ditched concepts for cockiness? “Sickle and Peace” hopes your feets won’t fail you now. Grim is Mastodon being most inspired by themselves, and that might seem like a recipe for overindulgence – this is their longest record, after all, and band indebted to Genesis and Yes was bound to make a double record at some point – it’s also their most compelling record for that exact reason.
Our chat with Dailor, which you can read below, touches greatly on some of the band’s earliest days, and even his pre-Mastodon time as a fixture in the Rochester, New York ’90s grindcore scene. It’s those roots that are key to understanding Grim’s sprawling look at the band’s storied career.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SPIN: Listening to the album, I feel like I’m hearing all eras of Mastodon on here – some of the harder stuff from Leviathan and Blood Mountain, some of Crack the Skye’s proggy vision, and a lot of the newer stuff too. Was this meant to be a holistic look at the band in a record?
Brann Dailor: No, not at all, it’s just what came out. Usually, we’re just a divining rod kind of band, we just follow whatever is sounding good and playing what we dig. It just so happens we dig ourselves for the whole time we’ve been a band. We like the same stuff we’ve always liked – when the riffs present themselves, it’s very simple. “I like that, that sounds good, let’s do that.”
We’re not afraid of anything – when things that sound new or different present themselves, I think we get a little more excited. There’s a blues shuffle thing that happens on a song called “The Beast,” a little country lick at the beginning of that song as well. “Sickle and Peace,” that whole beginning session [is] more 70s kinda proggy than we’ve been. We just put the time in and put the work in and we just sit down there and riff out for hours and hours over many, many months.
That lick in “The Beast,” it reminded me of that country lick in the middle “Megalodon” from Leviathan, a signature Mastodon moment. Where did that country thing come from?
That’s all Brent [Hinds, guitarist], that’s his style of guitar playing. He likes to play guitar in all different facets, but I always like to incorporate the aspect of his playing, that country hybrid picking. If he comes up with something cool, we wanna use it and fold it in. When I was growing up as a teenager, I was only into thrash – country was not something I liked at all. Being in a band with Brent and Troy [Sanders, bassist and vocalist], who are Southern boys, and riding around in our van, “The Fart Box,” whoever was driving had control of the stereo. Troy and Brent introduced me to more of the classic stuff, I grew to love quite a bit of it – John Prine and George Jones and guys like that. A lot of Wille Nelson on the stereo back then, on those long drives across the country getting to know each other. In the beginning, it was getting to know each others’ music collections. If I would drive, I would put on Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and those guys are like “Woah!” It was that that changed my mind about country. That “Megalodon” lick – at first I was on the fence about it because it was out of left field. When it slammed into that Master of Puppets-sounding part, it just worked so well.
Would you say you’re taking more of a role with the vocals on here?
Yeah, it’s a longer album than we’ve ever done, and when it came to working on it in general and demoing, I just had a lot of vocal ideas, and I had a lot of lyrics I had written that were near and dear to me. I didn’t want to give up some of those parts because I felt like they were gonna be more earnest if I sang them. I don’t have an ego when it comes down to it. If those guys vetoed me doing vocals on certain parts, I’m happy to give them up to someone else. My vocal role did expand, but it’s only because I had a lot to say on the record.
Was there a particular song where you were like “I really have to sing this?”
The last lyric on the world record, on a song called “Gigantium” – “mountains we made in the distance, those will stay with us” – it’s telling our former manager who passed away, Nick John, that the things we did together while he was here will remain even though he’s gone now. I think that’s sort of the perfect way to say goodbye, and that last section of “Gigantium” sounds so fitting for an ending, and then it goes to Brent’s really beautiful solo that takes us to the orchestrated part. I’m pretty happy because we always search for this epic ending to all our albums. We’re always looking for that song that’s gonna be that big, long, goodbye, like “Hearts Alive” was on Leviathan. “Gigantium” is this happy accident, when we found that ending riff to ride out on, I was like “we got the ending for whatever this is gonna be.”
You getting into vocals on Crack the Skye was a huge shift for Mastodon. Before that, were there things you wanted to do with vocals, but weren’t really sure how to pull them off?
I never wanted to sing in the band at all. I just basically got pressured by the guys because I would be driving in the van and put on Stevie Wonder or put on Judas Priest or Ozzy and be singing at the top of my lungs [while] driving. Those guys are like “dude you can sing! What the fuck!” And I’m like “I’m not singing and playing drums, I’m not doing it,” cause it’s really hard, and my job’s hard enough as it is. I didn’t want to paint myself in a corner and make it so I have to do this every time. But here I am – it’s OK.
Earlier, I always wrote lyrics and tried to contribute to that way, and I had always had ideas for lyrics, because especially early on with the more shouty lyrics or vocals, they almost act as another percussive instrument. I would always have an idea for some kind of cadence or something to lay over top of it with the lyrics I had written and I would do a mock version of that on the mic. Brent and Troy would reproduce that. Then it got to Crack the Skye and I had done that thing with “Oblivion,” I went in and sang my idea in the hopes that Troy or Brent would duplicate it. Brent was very adamant that there was tonal or timbre to my voice that he really liked – we got pretty close with Troy, he was sort of duplicating it, but listening back to both of them as a group with [producer] Brendan O’Brien and everyone agreed my vocal should stay. That’s what opened the floodgates for me to be singing. I understand there is a cross-section of our fanbase that’s like “This is not what I signed up for.” And that bums me out to a degree, but whatever.
There’s another killer drummer that appears on this record – Dave Witte (Municipal Waste, Discordance Axis, and many, many other bands) makes a guest appearance on “Dagger.” How did you get him to come on this record? How far back do y’all go?
He’s one of my best friends. I probably met him in 1992 – he was playing drums for a New Jersey death metal band called Human Remains that was very influenced by Ripping Corpse. They played in my basement, I had a basement club called “Club Brann,” and my old band Lethargy practiced there and we had parties on the weekends. We would play, some local bands from upstate New York and Rochester would play. But this was the first out-of-town that we had come play. I met Dave that night, and Lethargy and Human Remains became almost sister bands. We’d go down to New Jersey and play with them and they’d come up to Rochester and play with us. Throughout the years, I’ve always maintained contact with Dave throughout many different bands he’s been in – Melt Banana, Black Army Jacket, Discordance Axis, Burnt by the Sun. He’s one of the best one-foot grindcore drummers in existence. And he scored me the gig with Today is the Day, so I don’t know that I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for Dave recommending that I go do that, and it ended up – it led to Mastodon. I love the guy, and we just saw a place for to be able to bring him in to do this tribal drumwork on “Dagger.” When you do a double album, it gives you the opportunity to spread out a little bit. It’s awesome for me to have one of my best friends, a person that I hold in such high esteem, to bring him on, even if it’s just for a cool little drum part.