Mastodon’s major label debut, Blood Mountain, is the best album the Atlanta foursome have ever made. But will it be enough to make them a mainstream success?
You know about the Melvins, right? How about Earth? The Meat Puppets? Those bands all share a few traits: They’re willfully iconoclastic and uncommercial, they’ve consistently released music to the buying public (sometimes through major labels), and they were each among Kurt Cobain’s favorite bands. Whenever the Next Big Thing hits, the subculture that produced it gets thrown into the limelight too. Well, Mastodon are ready to release their major label debut Blood Mountain, and expectations run high. After all, like Metallica in ’86, to whom they’re often compared, Mastodon are our people. If they enter the mainstream, they’ll bring along a boatload of prog-level instrumental skill, a history of basement crust and grind shows… hell, they’ll practically take the whole metal underground with them. But no pressure, right?
“Last night we actually ate in the restaurant where the first major label guy approached us in Las Vegas in 2004,” says Mastodon bassist and vocalist Troy Sanders from a Salt Lake City stop on their tour with Slayer. “We were at the Red Room, this Russian restaurant and vodka bar, and it blew our minds, like ‘Are these guys serious? This is bizarre.’ Like, we don’t have songs on the radio like Queens of the Stone Age or Green Day or whoever.”
But after the much-worshipped Leviathan, the band—Sanders, drummer Brann Dailor, and guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher—found themselves, much to their surprise, a hot commodity. “We’d been together for five years at the time, and at the same time as that Slayer tour, within the space of a month we were courted by many, many major labels,” Sanders recalls. “It’s like they have feelers, like they can sense when someone else knows about a hot band. ‘So-and-so is talking to Mastodon, so we’d better go talk to them too.’ They either have a network of communication or it was just a huge coincidence. Either way, it was mind-boggling.
“It’s 10 degrees in that restaurant—you have to wear a coat while you’re in there, and they keep all the vodka below freezing temperature,” Sanders continues. “We were in there with Slayer, and we all did gigantic shots of this vodka that’s $80 a shot—it’s totally absurd. Brent took his shot, this $80 shot, and he immediately threw up on the floor. By the time we walked out of this freezing room, his puke had frozen on the floor, and the label guy actually slipped on it.”
“It was bizarre,” Dailor echoes. “I figured we’d always be an independent band. It never crossed my mind that we could be on a major label. It was a nice surprise. We like to get our music out to the people, and the majors are more financially equipped to do that. More people, more money, more influence, more power, and if you can use that for good things then I think that’s awesome.”
“I can’t tell you how many shrimps, crabs, lobster tails and martinis we had over the course of all those meetings two years ago,” Sanders says. “That’s a nice little frivolous extra, but ultimately you’re there to talk and discuss shit. We were willing to listen, and we were just flattered that anyone wanted to talk to us about something like this. We were totally fine on Relapse. We signed to Relapse six years ago and ended up as the biggest-selling artists on their roster, so we’ve come a long way. Relapse has been great and has great teamwork. But when these people started approaching us, we said that if we can continue doing everything that we’re doing on our own terms, like we have been, with 100% creative control, nothing that would harm our integrity whatsoever, and we’re still in control of every choice—we wanna use this producer, this engineer, this studio, this video director, these are the songs, these are the titles and the riffs and lyrics, and nobody’s gonna say a fuckin’ word about it negatively, which is how it’s been in our whole career—then that would be OK, and we would only move forward with those conversations if everything I just mentioned would be hands-off and we can make every single decision ourselves.”
After meeting with several labels, Mastodon started talking more seriously with Warner Bros. “Along came the WB, and they were like, ‘Guys, here’s the deal: We love everything that you’ve been doing from 2001 until now. Everything you’ve done artistically with your artwork and lyrics, your tour history,’” says Sanders. “They said ‘We want you to do everything that you’re doing, but with us instead of Relapse.’ In a nutshell, that’s how the first meeting went, and we were like ‘That sounds awesome, maybe we’re interested; let’s have another meeting.’ We had no intentions of doing anything where we weren’t in control of everything. We’re not selling out, we’re not going on tour to get a bunch of money or pussy. We’re grown men and this is what we do for a living; this is our existence. We’ve been doing this since we were eight weeks old as a band; we had five songs and we went on tour. That’s our lifestyle, and that’s what we eat, breathe, shit, and live every day. We weren’t gonna change for anybody. Even if they threw a bunch of money at us, we don’t care. We’ve been broke forever, and we’d be fine being broke for longer.”
Blood Mountain, the album Mastodon eventually turned in to Warner, is not exactly a continuation of the last two records’ elemental themes. (Leviathan was concerned with water; Remission had “Burning Man,” “March of the Fire Ants,” and flaming-horse cover art.) When high-level characters traverse spirit realms and interact with gods and devils in Dungeons & Dragons, it’s known as “epic-level” gaming; Blood Mountain is totally epic-level, and working without someone else’s preexisting story as a template allowed the band to conceive their own potential Fiend Folio entries. “There is kind of an earth theme to the album, but Blood Mountain is alive,” Dailor explains. “The roots of the trees are its capillaries. It’s writhing with creatures and animals, and in my head the mountain itself is a living, breathing thing with a giant heart in the center, and a crystal skull at its peak.” After the living mountain came the creatures that live among its rocks and forests. “Next was the Cysquatch, which is a Cyclops-Sasquatch,” says Dailor. “We decided to make them into shamans, these wise creatures with one eye. The Circle of Cysquatch has a labyrinth at the foot of the mountain. Then we came up with the Birchmen, who are inherently evil. They’re weird little creatures that stand on top of each other and form a tree, and when you look at it, it looks like a forest of birch trees but it’s actually little creatures that climb off each other and surround you, and then they try to take over your body’s cellular structure and make you one of them.”
“Crystal Skull” the song features another vocal assist from Neurosis’ Scott Kelly, returning from Leviathan. “I felt like the part was reminiscent of Neurosis, with these war drums and all,” Dailor says. “I told him, ‘This is the object that we’re questing for and digging through dirt to try to find this thing,’ He got it; when he sat down and heard that part of the song, he knew what to do. I knew that he’d be like, ‘I’ve got this,’ and he was. For me, it was inspired by something I see a lot on tour—in that element I think that the evils that men do come out a lot more. You see the evil side of people more often. My original idea was that getting to the top of Blood Mountain and obtaining the crystal skull, you would put the crystal skull inside your own head and eliminate the reptile brain, the primitive brain that turns you into a wild beast or brings out that evil in you. Like, for example, when you’ve drank a lot of alcohol,” he laughs. “The goal is to subdue that somehow, to move above or beyond it. I know Bill has said for him it means where we are as a band, that the mountain could mean the mainstream and the Warner Bros. stuff. For me, it’s more like a spiritual journey.”
Despite Warner’s hands-off treatment during the making of Blood Mountain, Decibel wondered what kind of expectations the label has. “I think they’re just gonna take it for what it’s worth and then try to expose it to a larger community. They know it’s not for everybody, but I think they’re proud to be behind something that’s honest,” says Sanders. “We’re not out there writing about our girlfriends or our parents treating us like shit; we’re not kids. It’s written from the heart and it means everything to us. If other people latch onto it and take something positive from it, then that’s wonderful, that makes the world better. And if people don’t like it, that’s fine. But if we can replace any of the bullshit that’s out there right now, then that’s one more point for good music. If our music can take the place of one fuckin’ weak heavy metal boy-band’s song, then we win.”
How about fan expectations? “I would imagine that they’re expecting some of the same things: a solid album, a cohesive piece of music. But we’ve never discussed any sort of formula or specific ingredients to use to keep anyone happy. The four of us are smart enough and man enough to do our own thing, and if we feel good about it, then I’m sure other people will feel good about it as well. We’ve never discussed anything in terms of needing to have more heavy songs or, like, ‘We gotta have a couple of songs that are really crazy.’ It’s like an unspoken bond that we have—whatever we create, we create. We hope our fans will dig it, but it was never a goal to please our fans or please anyone else. It’s very selfish in a way. We joined this band to write and create music that we want to hear. If the four of us are happy when we come out of our practice room with a new song or come out of the studio with an album, that’s all that matters. This is our life, and we’re gonna do it every day until our boat sinks.”
So, the big “what if…?” Mastodon’s influence has already been felt from their indie albums, from namedrops in pieces about the “return of prog” to bandwagon-jumping new-jacks appropriating their big riffing and epic subject matter. From Neurosis to Withered (who feature a couple of Sanders’ Social Infestation bandmates and, if you’re not already on board, totally rule) to most of the Relapse roster and beyond, Mastodon are connected to a pretty big chunk of the metal underground. What will happen if Blood Mountain’s sales are as huge as its subject matter? “I think maybe more real metal bands might get picked up by majors,” says Sanders after mulling it over for a minute. “Maybe. I just hope they do it for the right reasons and keep it pure. It feels like we’re connected with, like, every band in the world. I’m kinda curious to see what happens, if a bunch of bands in our genre get scooped up by the big guys. This whole movement is all happening right now, so it’s hard to say which way it’s gonna go. High on Fire, Isis, the Mars Volta, Withered… bands like us, we’re all equals, we’re all sacrificing our lives to do this, and we’re all doing it from our hearts with no hidden agendas.”
“I think Tool definitely changed some things,” Dailor says. “There were some younger bands that tried to sound like them, but Tool are so much their own thing that everybody realized that they can’t do it. I would hope that we have an original sound that maybe people might borrow from, and that would be great as long as we could always stay one step ahead. If we become big famous dudes, that would be weird. I’d love to be able to support myself and a family and all that, but I don’t want to go into a fuckin’ restaurant and have people know who I am. That’s another thing that Tool did—I was hanging with Danny [Carey, Tool drummer] last night at the Hard Rock Casino in Vegas, and nobody knew who he was because his face isn’t in magazines, he’s not in videos.”
After living it up on major labels’ dime and scoring vocal cameos from Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and the Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala, Dailor and Sanders are still most excited when talking about getting to work with a couple of their idols. “We just met Meatwad last month,” says Sanders, still in awe. “The dudes from Aqua Teen Hunger Force are making an Aqua Teen movie and they asked us to do the music for the opening of the movie. Bill wrote the song, we went into the studio with Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis, two of the creators of the show, and they wrote the lyrics. The opening sequence of the movie is going to be done and animated by the time we get home next week, and we’re all psyched to see it because our band was animated as a bucket of popcorn and a candy bar. We’re all big Aqua Teen fans, of course, so it was great to meet those guys. When we were recording, Dave, who does Carl’s and Meatwad’s voices was using the talkback mic to talk to us in Meatwad’s voice, and it was fuckin’ hilarious. We’d be in the room where we couldn’t see him, and we’d ask ‘Was that take cool?’ and Meatwad’s voice would come back like ‘Naw man, do it like this.’ We laughed so hard we were hurting.”
Indeed, Dailor proved to be capable of an impressively accurate Meatwad impersonation while speaking with Decibel. “I called Dave ‘Carl’ the entire time, too,” Sanders laughs. “I was like ‘Dude, I’m sorry, I know your name’s Dave, but you’re Carl to me.’ Shit like that doesn’t happen all the time. And they’re Mastodon fans, too. They wanted us for their movie and we fuckin’ love them. It was really unique and beautiful.”