Heavy-hitters, Mastodon, return to Perth as part of Soundwave on Monday, March 3, at Arena Joondalup. AUGUSTUS WELBY reports.
Controversies aside, year-in, year-out, the Soundwave festival boasts a formidable line-up of performers from the punk, metal and heavy rock ranks. In fact, the festival could aptly be described as a showcase of the broad stylistic terrain encompassed by these genre tags.
Atlanta four-piece, Mastodon, are one of the 21st century’s most influential alt-metal bands and ahead of returning to Perth for this year’s Soundwave, guitarist Bill Kelliher notes the considerable strength of their guitar-slinging peers.
“I think it definitely lights a fire under your ass, listening to the new Kvelertak record, the Gojira record, Baroness record – all these bands are putting out amazing records,” Kelliher says. “I think all of us in this kind of genre that are friends push each other, subconsciously. When we go to see a band and they put on an awesome show I’m like, ‘God damn, we’ve got to be that good, we’ve got to practise like crazy’.”
In addition to being motivated by the work of their comrades, Mastodon’s music shows traces of the Melvins’ sludgy riffing and the weighty grooves of Pantera. The melding of these various influences has definitely proved successful for Kelliher and his bandmates: guitarist Brent Hinds, bassist, Troy Sanders and drummer, Brann Dailor. In 2011 Mastodon released their fifth LP, The Hunter, which punched into the Billboard top 10 and firmly stated them as a startling force in modern rock music.
“When you’re in any career,” Kelliher says, “you want to eventually get a raise or move to the next level. As a human being, whether you work at Hungry Jack’s or you work at Mastodon Incorporated you want to get a raise. We want to put out better records and get more successful with every record.”
Mastodon’s career has definitely been a gradual climb into popular regard. The pervasive success of The Hunter handed them a largely unrelenting two-year touring program, which included presiding over many festival main stages and selling out large arenas. Despite this heavy workload, the band actually managed to recently complete a new LP.
“We’ve basically been writing and nibbling stuff here at the studio since late last year,” Kelliher reveals. “We had a producer named Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Alice In Chains, Rush) come down from Nashville, Tennessee and he listened in and came into the rooms with us and directed us, then we went up to Nashville and recorded them all. Right before Christmas we started, we took a break for Christmas then we went back up there. I would imagine we probably spent about two months recording it.”
After a mammoth couple of years touring in support of The Hunter, Mastodon could be forgiven for sitting back and contentedly basking in their widespread esteem. However, a band that writes technically-oriented, progressive-yet-immediate metal with lyrics based upon the literary work of Herman Melville and Stephen Hawking’s theories is hardly attracted to the idea of quiet time.
“Strike the iron while it’s hot,” advises Kelliher. “Try to put out all your best ideas and best foot forward and as an artist write the best music and keep the band alive and well and in the spotlight.”
Musicians often discuss how difficult it is to ignite the creative spirit in the midst of a haphazard touring campaign. Given that Mastodon’s itinerary has been more congested than ever for the past few years it’s a wonder that they were able to prepare a new batch of songs. It is, however, important to remember that performers do only spend a couple of hours onstage each day.
“I try to spend a lot of my time on the road writing. Even if the songs aren’t going to be on the record, it eats up a lot of time and that’s what you have on the road – time to yourself just sitting around doing nothing. So I’ve spent the better half of the past year-and-a-half putting songs together as much as I could and concentrating really hard on trying to write some good stuff for the new record.”
Mastodon’s early records featured Brent Hinds as the band’s primary songwriter, but his dominance has lessened on the last couple of records. All band members are now active creative contributors but Kelliher explains it’s not often that they collaborate directly. “I write riffs and songs and Brent does the same thing. It’s only occasionally that we’ll come together and write something together. A lot of times I’ll write something and he’ll come in and he’ll want to add a part or change something that I wrote or vice versa.”
In addition to getting a lavish seal of approval from their core fanbase, The Hunter’s bold imprint launched Mastodon onto mainstream television shows The Late Show With David Letterman and Later… With Jools Holland, earned them a Grammy nomination and was named album of the year by magazines such as Kerang! and Metal Hammer. Following up on this level of unprecedented commercial approval would surely be a rather intimidating prospect.
“Of course you want to put out a better record,” admits Kelliher, “but it’s not something that we think about and say, ‘We’ve got to put out a better record this year guys!’ We just try our best to write the best possible stuff that we can.
“We don’t ever talk about, ‘Hey, I want my record to sound like this’ or, ‘We’ve got to do a better record than that’,” he adds. “We just write a bunch of songs and riffs and say, ‘Hey, how do you like this song?’ or ‘Do you like this riff?’, ‘Let’s work on this.’ We’re very laid back, we don’t have any expectations or any allegiance to any kind of sound. We just fucking get in there and play what we think sounds good and we hope that other people like it too and we can continue to be a band and put out records and tour.”
The band members might be relatively nonchalant when it comes to mapping out their albums, but it’s quite obvious that they’re hungry to make a substantial impact with everything they release. The Hunter was produced by Dr Dre cohort, Mike Elizondo, and his slick touch excellently complemented the material’s thrusting accessibility. Enlisting Nick Raskulinecz for the new record indicates the band feel comfortable giving their songs an amplified sheen.
“I think that every step that we take in any direction, whether it’s writing or tours we accept or other bands that we hang out with or tour with or producers that we choose, I think it’s always getting better,” Kelliher says. “All that stuff is on the up and up. We’re in a good position, we can afford to get a good producer; we can afford a nice tour bus. All those things come with hard work and putting out great records and that’s just what we try to continually do.”
Before people start getting too excited about Mastodon performing a set of new-album-previews at the upcoming Australian shows, Kelliher relates his thoughts about the demystifying repercussions of performing songs live before they’ve been released. “Honestly, I like to make the audience wait until they’ve heard the whole record and got to sink into the new songs before we just start blasting it live. A lot of people like to capture it on their cellphones and spread it all over the internet on YouTube and people are like, ‘Oh that sounds like shit – what the fuck is that?’ It ruins the surprise of the record.”
However, with the record in the can, the wait for new Mastodon material can’t extend too much longer. In the meantime, Kelliher explains how he plans to amuse himself during their impending visit.
“The Dillinger Escape Plan’s going to be there,” he enthuses. ”I’m excited to hang out with those dudes. We played with them over in Australia a couple of years ago.
“I like to stay backstage and watch the other bands and go hang out with friends and have some food and drinks and catch up,” he revels, “tell some stories and go to the beach on days off.”