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Cover Story: Mastodon

| February 28, 2017

Mastodon photo by Jimmy Hubbard

That which doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger, goes the old maxim. But in the case of sludge-heavy prog-metal quartet Mastodon, mortality can occasionally offer a surprising new strength, as well. As in the recent honor bestowed upon the group by Dan Weiss, the executive producer of HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones, who not only included its song “White Walker” on the soundtrack, but actually invited the members to appear as feral Wildlings in Season Five last year, who were then – in one of the show’s bloodiest battle-scene episodes ever – murdered, and resurrected as undead White Walkers themselves. That much stronger, and more wickedly determined than ever to breach that civilization’s monolithic protective wall.

“It was definitely a cool experience for everybody involved,” declares Mastodon bassist Troy Sanders, who was unable to attend the tapings in Northern Ireland. “And whenever we play Belfast, Dan comes to our show, even though he’s incredibly busy. But he just loves Mastodon, loves the band, and he’s a really sweet guy, and he wears a Mastodon shirt all the time – I’ve seen him in it on television shows. So it was just a really cool connection, and for Wildlings, I think our band fits in nicely.” Why didn’t he accept Weiss’ remarkable offer? “I guess it’s all a hush-hush thing or whatever,” he starts to explain, then catches himself. “Wait – are you talking about last year?” he gulps. That’s right – the White Walkers are an army of zombies, still on their mission of conquest. Which means…”Wellll…I’m not supposed to talk about it — whoops!” he chuckles. Perhaps Game of Thrones fans will have to pause their DVRs once more to catch glimpses of cataract-eyed ex-Wildlings Brann Dailor, Brent Hinds, and Bill Kelliher (already so bearded and burly that they couldn’t have required that much makeup) marching en masse across a frozen wasteland this upcoming season. Given the cone of silence surrounding the program’s future plotlines, Sanders has already said too much.

Then the Atlanta native begins talking about the reason he, personally, didn’t jet to Belfast, even though his wife insisted he go. He had front-row tickets that particular day to see the latest Cirque Du Soleil performance with her and their two children, and witnessing such magical entertainment with his family, up close, meant much more to him at the time. “So I’ll take another sunset with my kids over an amazing opportunity like that any day,” he says, not intending to sound ungrateful. “So sometimes great opportunities come my way that I take, sometimes great opportunities come my way that I pass on. And I’m fortunate enough to have that be a problem – having a great opportunity that I can say ‘no thank you’ to, and Game of Thrones is arguably the best show on TV.” He pauses. “But you know, we just wrote a record on the idea of time, and what it means…”

And therein hangs the real tale, revolving around not only mortality but overcoming human frailty with indomitable will power and inner strength. As parables go, they don’t come much darker than Emperor of Sand, Mastodon’s new seventh studio effort, with said Emperor representing the Grim Reaper who – in thundering Track One – levies upon the unwitting protagonist a “Sultan’s Curse,” which haunts him through his travels/travails across a morally-ambiguous desert of “Precious Stones,” a “Steambreather,” an “Ancient Kingdom,” eliciting the “Why me?” questioning of “Clandestiny,” the star-gazing of “Andromeda” (featuring Brutal Truth’s Kevin Sharp) and the threat of “Scorpion Breath” (with Scott Kelly of Neurosis) before finally finding some sort of mystical South American peace in a closing “Jaguar God.” The dirges were inspired by a subject far more serious than the group’s usual heady dissertations – the unexpected diagnosis of cancer that hit a loved one of each band member over the past two years, starting with the brain cancer that slowly took the life of Kelliher’s mother, while he watched, horrified and helpless as the disease swiftly progressed. Sanders is fairly private, and he doesn’t like oversharing on social media. So he isn’t revealing which person in his own family was affected. But the experience – both alone and collectively, as a group – was quite harrowing, and it could only find release in cathartic songwriting, with the bassist himself providing a good deal of the metaphorical lyrics.

Mastodon is no stranger to concept albums. Its second adventurous outing, Leviathan, was a reimagining of Melville’s Moby Dick opus, before the band broke through to Grammy-nominated territory with 2006’s brains-meets-brawn Blood Mountain, leading to a line of Vans skate shoes featuring the eldritch cover artwork, and more recently, its own special craft beers, including Mother Puncher from Denmark’s Keller Brewery, Germany’s The Hunter from Mars Brau, and a Crack the Skye run from Chicago’s Three Floyds company. “If you would have asked us a handful of years ago if there was a certain level of success we were shooting for, we would have said, ‘If we could have our own shoe and our own beer,’” Sanders says. “And now we’ve got five different beers, and we’ve had multiple album art images on shoes. So to us? We’ve made it. We set the goals high, but we did it, damn it!”

Otherwise, the artist sighs, he’s been rolling with the punches, thinking positive, and letting his droll sense of humor buoy his spirits in such grim circumstances. And he and his fellow members found solace in the studio, creating the fable of their Emperor of Sand, Or rather, letting the story imagine itself into existence. “The four of us have been living these experiences deeply over the past two years,” he says. “And that’s what we were writing. When we showed up to band practice, we let that current of emotion flow through our fingers and into the instruments, and through the amps and onto the recording tape. That’s how we build songs.”

That’s what led to the record’s most crucial track, “Clandestiny,” he adds. For any cancer patient, “You find this thing inside you and you say, ‘What’s in me?’ and then you go and get a cancer diagnosis. And you still wonder, ‘Why is this a part of my fate?’ So we wrote that song about the fact that it’s part of your destiny, but it’s been dwelling dormant inside of you, silent all your life, and only now it’s arising. So you have to try to wrap your head around something like that, and that’s affected all of us this year. We’re kind of blown away by how four of our loved ones are dealing with this horrible thing called cancer – it’s affecting lives and taking lives, and that was very brutally on our minds every single day we showed up for band practice. So that was going to come out naturally in the music.”

Kelliher’s mother was something of a matron to the whole group, Sanders admits. So her passing hit them all equally hard. And it brought up the existential question of which is worse for a loved one – a quick, painless death, without closure, or a protracted illness, wherein relatives have time to tie up loose ends? “And I’ve heard it both ways,” Sanders muses. “When it’s slow and really horrific to watch happen, some people are like, ‘I wish this would have happened quickly – this is wrong and undeserved.’ And I’ve heard other people when it’s quicker, go, ‘Oh, my God – I didn’t have time to say goodbye!’ So I guess it’s just bad, either way.” Which leads to the moral of the story, a variation on the old Nike slogan. How many times have you attended a funeral or memorial service, bumped into a friend from the past, and both scratched your heads, wondering why you haven’t stayed in touch? he asks, rhetorically. Then you make plans to get together again, but you rarely follow through – the fast pace of your individual careers, and indeed life itself, practically precludes it. “I’ve had that conversation, and I’ve overheard that conversation, dozens of times,” he says. “So one of the bottom lines of this record of ours is if you’ve been planning a trip, or you want to upgrade your house, or you want to take your parents on this vacation, or do something special with your girlfriend or wife? Just do it. That’s something that no one should need to be reminded of.”

And yet…Our very online-centered culture is leading inextricably to a numb, depersonalization, best exemplified in that classic South Park episode where the family loses the Internet, and has to pack up the station wagon and searching for it like Dust Bowl Okies. And when two long-distance chatroom chums finally meet face to face at a migrant workers camp, they have absolutely no idea what to say to each other without the safe distance of their devices. With the web up and running again, they’ll text each other when they get back home, they nervously tell each other. Mastodon stands as the warm, heartfelt antithesis to such cold, clinical technology. “And we’re comfortable writing about all this because, one, that’s how we prefer to write, being very real, and two, it’s extremely relatable,” Sanders elaborates. “Everyone on Earth has been – or will be – touched by something horrific or tragic, so we’re sharing this, and how we think, and how it’s a therapy for us because we pull positives from this severe darkness. And so can you. So it’s basically how we deal with grief, and I’ve never realized until now how incredibly powerful a positive attitude is. For me, personally, being hit with something this heavy, it was like, ‘Alright – we’re going to do whatever it takes to get through this.’ Otherwise, I could have easily gone into a stupor, put my head in a corner and cried in a fetal position and just started the downward spiral into nothing. So we’re thankful to have this place where we can put all these thoughts and moments of grief and anger, and create something good out of it.”

The Brendan O’Brien-produced Emperor has a Far Eastern, almost Indian feel, even though it ends in the verdant jaguar jungles of Mexico. Those influences didn’t pop up by accident. When the Sanders clan was blindsided by the deadly disease, they didn’t have time to react – they had to treat it immediately, with trusted Western methods like radiation and chemotherapy, which seem to have worked. But that didn’t stop the man from considering other forms of medicine from around the world, like Mexico’s Hoxsey Clinic, which has a highly successful remission rate, or the basic diet in India, where the cancer rate is much lower than in fast-food-devouring America. “I can’t believe that I wasn’t awakened to those numbers a long time ago,” he says. “But a lot of times, you’re uneducated about things until a subject really hits you. So when this hit, one of my first thoughts was, ‘I’d like to explore alternative methods.’ But there was no time to explore that. So we’ve summoned the spirit of the jaguar god, and Mexico is a place that we want to travel. And we want to visit the Hoxsey Clinic and just talk to people there because we find it fascinating. So maybe we’ll tie that in with a beach vacation down there or something.”

This, in part, explains why Sanders was a Game of Thrones no-show – real life simply demanded that he be somewhere else. Somewhere more gut-level important. And real life, John Lennon once said, is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. What has Sanders learned from Mastodon’s trial by fire? He has a ready response. “The first thing that comes to mind is how I spend my time,” he says. “Just making sure that everything I do that involves leaving my house is truly fulfilling and beneficial for either me or my family. I mean, I’m not constantly questioning. But I’m keeping myself in check, making sure I’m doing things for the right reasons, sending out good vibes, and just being a better person, and sharing that positivity at the same time as I’m being extremely realistic. I feel like the outward light that you project will hopefully – and should – return back to you. And that giant description can be summed up in one small word – karma.”

It’s one of the reasons why Mastodon always tries to meet its following after every show, through relatively affordable VIP packages. With an asterisk caveat warning that not all band members will participate. Again, Sanders says, honesty is always the best policy. “It’s a tricky thing,” he says. “We’re friendly guys in the first place, and if anyone ever approaches us we’re always happy to be recognized because without our fans we are nothing. So we recognize that, and we’re humble and genuine men who enjoy engaging with our fans. But there are some cities where – in between sound check and show time – I go to visit my uncle for a couple of hours or we meet at a coffee shop or something. And I can’t be there backstage because this is really important – I need to see this uncle. So the asterisk is a simple disclaimer – if only three of us are there, it’s okay. We, uh, do have a lot of other things going on.”

But all Mastodon members can agree on one thing – they are not heavy metal, and they’ve been trying to wriggle free of such nomenclature through each successive effort. “I mean, there are elements of heavy metal in some of our songs,” Sanders cedes. “But we’ve got a lot of prog moments, a lot of catchy rock moments, along with some slow, sprawling, epic journeys. So we don’t really care for any tags. Besides, when you think of heavy metal, you think of albums where you’re going to get the same intensity, over and over. And that’s just one fact of our band – we have many others to be considered.”

After listening to Emperor of Sand, a friend recently asked Sanders if it was difficult to play such grave material on tour, through a grueling 150-concert tour. No, he immediately responded. Not at all. And in fact, almost the opposite. “Because when we’re on that stage, we can see how our music directly touches people,” he concludes. “They’re singing it back to us, they’re crying, or they’ll even turn to their partner and start making out. So I know that our band touches some people in an incredible way. And we’re always saying, ‘Hey – we write about what we live.’ And as much as I would like to write about ice cream and roller coasters, well, I just can’t do that. That’s not what’s coming from Mastodon, inside…”

Tom Lanham

Appearing 5/13 at Aragon Ballroom, Chicago.

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