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Cover Story: Mastodon

| September 30, 2020

In the cold, clinical coronavirus age, no gift horse should ever be looked at directly in the mouth, reckons Mastodon drummer/lyricist Brann Dailor. So, take the Grammy-winning prog-metal outfit’s latest odds-and-sods anthology Medium Rarities at face value — as a surprise mid-pandemic present to diehard fans, featuring the jarring new juggernaut “Fallen Torches,” alongside a collection of hard-to-find B-sides, live cuts, instrumentals, and soundtrack entries like “White Walker,” coinciding with three of its members guest-starring on the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones. There even a few unexpected covers, of Metallica’s “Orion,” “Spoonful” by The Flaming Lips, and Feist’s chugging “A Commotion.” But beneath its shiny, steel-blue exterior lurks plenty of shadowy darkness, a la the group’s last studio set in 2017, Emperor of Sand, mired in the quiet cancer battles fought by bassist Troy Sanders’ wife and the mother of rhythm guitarist Bill Kelliher, fights won and lost, respectively. Because, no matter how sunny the Mastodon sky seems to be of late, the more storm clouds like COVID-19 assemble to obscure it, sighs Dailor, 45, from lockdown with his two trusty pets in his native Atlanta. “We’re always going for the happy themes, trying to cheer people up,” he jokes. “And it was the day after playing the Palladium, backing the cancer album that we put out, and our longtime manager Nick John said, ‘I don’t feel right,’ and it wasn’t even a year later that he was gone from pancreatic cancer. And were all like, ‘What the fuck just happened?’” Visiting their friend in hospice care, they watched him rapidly wither away and felt angry, frustrated, powerless to help — emotions that are currently fueling the grim “Emperor” follow-up they’re recording. But within that penumbra was a silver lining of self-realization, he adds: “Maybe Mastodon has become one of those bands where people are like, ‘I’m feeling really depressed, so the best thing for me to do is revel in it for a minute, put on this album, and live in it right now. And it’s gonna help me cry my eyes out.’ Because I do that with certain records, and I’m suddenly okay with feeling depressed.” Nice work if you can get it, he concludes, accepting the gift horse for the boon that it actually is. Then, there’s this series of clown paintings he’s been doing during the lockdown, sending them as gifts to Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, The Deftones, Chino Moreno, and Gojira’s Joe and Mario Duplantier.

IE: Tell me of the clown paintings.  How and when did they start?

BRANN DAILOR: They started the very first day of the lockdown when it came into effect in Atlanta. I think it was March 21st, maybe? It was a couple of days after my birthday. And I was like, “Okay, I guess I’ve gotta stay home, we can’t go into the studio,” and it was just me here, with the dog and the cat. And I had always drawn a lot when I was a kid — I would draw constantly. And my parents thought I was gonna be some kind of visual artist when I got older, but as time went on, I concentrated more on my drumming and hanging out with my friends and stuff, and I didn’t do as much art. So by the time I hit 17 or so, I just really wasn’t drawing at all, ever. And I moved out of the house, and I started playing drums more and working my shit job at a mini-mart gas station on the C shift there. I worked the graveyard shift, and I dunno how cool that was — I had three guns put to my head, and stuff like that didn’t happen during the day. So anyway, for the last 25 years, I didn’t really draw anything. But I really meant to — I’d say to myself, “I’m gonna draw something!” And I’d be on tour, and I’d get a sketchbook, and I’d stumble across an art-supply store, and I’d go inside and get pens, markers, and swear I was gonna start drawing again. But I never would. And then I’d bring all that stuff home, and it would sit in the closet, and I’d occasionally look at it and tell myself, “One of these days, I’m gonna crack open that sketchbook.” And that day happened to be March 21st. 

And I thought, “So what am I gonna draw? I’ll draw a clown.’ And I drew this clown head, just the face of a clown, and it came out cool-looking, I thought. And I thought, “I like that! Maybe I’ll do one tomorrow.” So I did one the next day, and that one came out cool. So I thought, “Maybe I’ll do more, and I’ll have this little 14-day clown period, with COVID clowns. Because in the beginning, they said, “We’re gonna shut everything down for two weeks, and that’ll be it,” you know? And then everything will be back to normal, so I was like, “Let’s go! Go, team! Let’s crush this thing, and it’ll be all good.” So 101 days later, I stopped drawing the clowns. So I did that for 101 days straight and ended up with 101 clowns. My last clown was a clown of my dog, a dalmatian named Thriller — I also own a one-eyed cat named Don Pickles — and he was No. 101, and I put a clown hat on his head. And I think if it weren’t for it being the perfect 101 Dalmatians clown, I probably would still be drawing them right now. But I had to be done with the clowns. And it really helped me through the whole thing, personally. It gave me an anchor. It gave me something to do, something creative that was mine and mine alone. And I was sending them out to people, so sending the clowns out every day became a part of it. With more and more people on the list, receiving the clowns every day, many people said that they looked forward to it, just to see what I was gonna come up with next. And I usually had the Joker film on TV — I had that playing, and I watched that several times during the pandemic. I really liked it; I really liked his performance, especially the last ten minutes, which kind of blew me away. I’m not a big comic-book-movie person, but I liked that interpretation of it. It’s kind of interesting how the Joker has become this Shakespearean character that’s a benchmark for actors now, like, “Are you gonna play the Joker?” And I’d be like, “Uhh, no! I don’t even wanna try and go there!” But I drew lots of different clowns, and I kept getting new ideas for them. I’d get up every morning at 8:00 a.m., come downstairs, have coffee, water, an orange or a piece of fruit, crack the sketchbook, and start. And some of ‘em took two hours. Some of ‘em took seven or eight hours.

IE: What medium did you work in?

BD: Mostly marker, it ended up. Professional markers. Some of them were colored pencil, an outline with Micron pens — it took a few different things to get ‘em to where I wanted ‘em to be. And it was cool — it was a learning experience, and I was teaching myself how to draw, because I didn’t care what anyone thought of them. And I thought a lot about the last 20 years of being in a band that a lot of people are very critical of, where you put yourself out there, and you’re wondering what they’re gonna think. It’s a thing that’s a part of it that shouldn’t be, but it is. But I’m not worried, critically, enough to change the way I approach something — I never find myself mentally thinking that we need to change a song to appease anyone but ourselves. It doesn’t ever go there. But I do worry, once it’s out there, that someone’s going to say something bad about it, which they will, and I KNOW that. And that’s fine. But it’s your baby, and you pore over it for months and months, and you work really hard on it, and you fall in love with it, and it’s basically your child that you’re sending to kindergarten, and then your kid comes back, saying, “This person made fun of me, and this is what they were saying!” And you’re like, “What? You’re perfect! Perfect in every way!” 

IE: Like Milhouse on The Simpsons, going, “My mom says I’m the handsomest boy in class!”

BD: Exactly! That’s what we say to our album when we send it out into the world. “There’s no way that anyone could say anything bad about you — you’re absolutely perfect in every way, because WE made you, and we are great!” And then everyone kicks the shit out of it. 

IE: I like your “Clown Underground” painting, because he’s lying in state, but he has his own little Raggedy Ann doll.

BD: Yeah. That’s his viewing, the funeral viewing for Clown Underground. But I like the Trump Tower one — that was one of the only ones that made me sort of nervous to send out — I was like, “This is really dark, so I don’t know. But okay…” And I promised myself that I wasn’t going to NOT do an idea, although there was one that I didn’t do because it looked kind of lame. I had an idea to do two clowns 69-ing as the 69th clown, but I did David Bowie instead because he was 69 when he passed away. I don’t know what the weirdest one is, though. You probably haven’t seen all of them, I’m sure.

But to be honest, I’m not sure if I have an unhealthy fascination with death. I think I have the same morbid curiosity as everyone does. But when I was young, my sister died, and I was so curious about what happened to her afterward. Did she have an autopsy? And yeah, she had an autopsy. But what do they do to you? I had no idea. Then I would pick out the casket and everything — I was 15 when that happened, and that whole summer, when my sister died, she was the last person out of many. I mean, I’d never been to a funeral before, ever, but I went to six funerals that summer because, over about two and a half months, all these people died. My friend Rob had a brain aneurism at a police station, and he was there because he was shooting off fireworks, and they brought him in. A week later, my eight-year-old cousin was hit by a drunk driver on the sidewalk in the afternoon, and she died. And then my mom’s best friend and her brother were in a motorcycle accident, and they died. So that was like a big Hell’s Angel’s funeral. And then my sister died, so there was just a lot of death. And I took a lot of acid that summer, too, so it was just a lot of very strange occurrences, a very dark, dark, dark time. And it just got worse. I went to my sister’s grave, and I took a hit of acid. My best friend and I broke into the cemetery after hours, and the dirt was still fresh on her grave. That’s one of the lyrics for the song “Oblivion” — ‘I tried to burrow a hole into the ground’ — because I started digging down to see if I could get to the vault, ya know? So that was probably the last time I took acid because I was like, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to be taking acid for a while.” I wasn’t in the right headspace for it, so things were not good; they were very bad, very depressing. So ever since then, I’ve had a fascination with casket funerals. And I guess I actively think about it occasionally, and I’ve watched many documentaries about death and dying, and the traditions that different cultures have. And it’s very interesting since it’s been a big catalyst for organized religion, basically, just trying to explain it. So it’s impossible for people to fathom that “One day this will end for me, completely” — for them or their loved ones. Because to date, there have been zero reports back from the other side.

IE: Noting how you’re worried about the reaction to your output, was there any pressure when you were commissioned to do a soundtrack song for the new Bill & Ted Face the Music flick?

BD: I mean, a little. We had something that we were actively working on when we were approached, so it was kind of a nice little moment in time when that’s what we were doing, we were writing. So we had some stuff. And they wanted something specific — they had a scene that they sent us, so we did tailor it to that. But it wasn’t a fully-formed idea — it was a couple of riffs strung together, so we had to work on it and complete it after they told us what they wanted to hear. So we whipped it into shape. I haven’t seen it yet, but I hear it’s a very fun movie. When the first one came out, I was a kid, and I only knew Keanu from River’s Edge, which was like my favorite movie. So it was exciting to be approached. And I think anytime we can do something cool like that, that’s not our normal writing-recording-touring cycle, we absolutely welcome it, because it’s like, “Oh, cool! Yeah! We get to be a part of this thing!” Like we did the Jonah Hex thing, we were on Game of Thrones. So over the years, we’ve gotten to do a lot of cool side stuff. 

IE: So obviously, “White Walker” had to be on this new collection. How — and where — did you find the rest of the tracks?

BD: Well, basically, it all centered around “Fallen Torches.” Because a few years ago, a couple of major rehearsal studios — these big complexes that have 20 or 30 rooms, and bands practice in there — closed, so there were a a lot of homeless bands, basically, and we were one of ‘em. We didn’t have a place to jam anymore. And luckily, we were on tour at the time — we didn’t NEED a place to go at the moment. But we were going to eventually, so we were like, “Okay, after two years of touring, we’re going to go into writing mode. And where in the hell are we gonna do that?” So we ended up buying a building, as a band — we went in on it. And we tricked it out into 20 rehearsal spaces, and in the basement, we put a recording studio, a full-on recording studio. So when it was finished and everything was plugged in, and I put my drum kit up, we wanted to see what we had — we wanted to see what we were working with as far as our drum sounds in the room and everything. So we did that, and then said, “Well, let’s record something.” But we didn’t really have a song. So I went over to Bill’s basement one day and said, “I’ve got these two riffs,” and we started going through stuff and jamming, and we put “Fallen Torches” together. And we went in and recorded it at our studio to see what we were working with, and we liked it. Then Scott Kelly came to rehearse with us for a European tour, and he sang on the song, and we thought, “This is done — let’s have it mixed and mastered. Then we can put it out with this tour and it’ll be like this special thing.” Because we’ve never done that before — we’ve never released a loose-leaf song without it being tied to an album. But two weeks into the tour, we were told we can’t do that. And I didn’t know what was going on, and I can’t remember — I was given some reason why. It was some kind of bureaucracy or red tape, but it didn’t come out. But we’d talked about it in the press, so everybody was like, “Where’s this song?” And I was like, “What song? I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I had to shove it under the rug because we had no idea what we were going to do with it. There were a few different options, but one of ‘em made much sense. It had made so much sense to just put it out with the tour. So our manger said, “Listen — you guys have all this stuff that’s only been released on Record Store Day vinyl, special editions.  For the last 20 years you’ve been doing this, so you have a little collection of things that have been out there like shrapnel, basically. So why don’t we collect it all, put it with “Fallen Torches,” and have a release?” So we decided that this was the best way to release “Fallen Torches,” and it’s a cool compilation of songs that I honestly forgot about a little bit, like, “Oh, yeah! We did that cover! And that one!” So it was a nice little trip down memory lane for us, and when I sat and listened to everything together, I thought it was actually a very cool little compilation. It was a fun thing to listen to, to be honest, because I don’t ever hear those songs, and we don’t play ‘em live. So it’s a collection of oddities, so it’s something cool to come out while we’re recording this next album.

IE: After you finished your daily painting, would you turn on the TV news and gasp in horror?

BD: Unfortunately, the news was on almost the whole time. The news was on with that fucking death ticker up in the right corner, and I was just reminiscing with someone today, “Remember when it was at 5,000 deaths, and they were freaking out, saying it was more people than had died in 9/11. And now it’s heading for 200,00 people, and we’re used to this now. But we still can’t get unified as to what to do. These people over here, like myself — I’m just really trying to be so good — but all that work is negated by this other half of the people, who are not following the advice of doctors and scientists, and don’t even think science is real, which is insane. I can’t believe it — you live in a little liberal bubble, but this has really exposed things. And we’re still deep in it. But now the end doesn’t look so bad. But I miss people, really – just hanging out with other people. I’ve just been alone a lot, and feeling kind of crazy. 

IE: Have you found yourself looking up at the sky at night? Constellation guide books are a big seller right now.

BD: Yes. It’s forced you to hang out with nature, which is kind of cool. I have so many pictures of clouds on my phone right now; it’s insane. There are just endless cloud formations on my phone right now. But I spend a lot of time out on my deck grilling. I grill almost every single meal — I have not touched a stovetop since March, or my oven. And I’m pretty fed up with quarantine — I’m good to go. But I couldn’t imagine being in New York City, confined to some tiny apartment. I have a very nice big house, and I have all the entertainment options. And I mean, our industry is gonna be the last to come back, and it is getting a little scary, money-wise. So I’ve had to tighten my belt and cut back on some stuff, and I’m having to watch it, figure some things out, and sell some stuff. 

IE: What’s going on with the new record? Are you penning dark, Apocalyptic stuff, as befits our current situation? Or is it conversely bright, uplifting stuff?

BD: I don’t think it’s possible to not have that seep in, for any artist. I don’t know how you could sidestep it. Like Donald Trump says, “It is what it is.” One hundred thousand people are dead? Hey — it is what it is — Whaddaya gonna do? He’s like, “Sorry!” So yeah, darkness is there. And not only with the coronavirus, but losing our manager Nick John to pancreatic cancer, who was like our best friend, and a lot of this is for him. So for me, just listening to this album so far? It’s devastating.

I can’t give away any song titles yet, because we haven’t all agreed on them. But we will literally say — every time a riff sounds too happy — “Get rid of it. That’s not what this is.” But our new album has to reflect this because every album that you make encompasses what we’re going through as human beings. And this record will reflect this COVID-19 time, the death of our longtime friend, and the countless other obstacles and struggles we’re dealing with within our lives. I can’t write something happy, and the majority of stuff that I’m singing, it’s taken me multiple takes to get through it because emotionally, I can’t even sing it. Because it’s that fucking sad.

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