An Interview with Mastodon's Rhythmn Guitarist, Bill Kelliher
Mastodon is one of those bands that emerges very rarely. You know how big they are about to become when you listen to them. After listening to their latest album, "Crack the Skye," I was blown away by the musical effect it had on me. Just listening to "The Czar" with the lights turned off, right before I go to bed, evokes this mystical atmosphere and hypnagogic hallucinations right before I go to sleep.
When I heard they were touring with High on Fire and Converge, and co-headlining with Dethklok, I could not pass up the opportunity to get tickets and try to get an interview with Bill Kelliher, the rhythm guitarist. Needless to say, the interview went off without a hitch, and their performance was mesmorizing as they played the whole "Crack the Skye" album without a moment's pause and also with the out-of-body images projected to create a truly memorable experience.
Daniel Becker: Where did the name Mastodon come from, and does it hold any significance to the band on a personal level?”
Bill Kelliher: Honestly, when we first got together in 2000, we tossed around a lot of different names. We were all at my apartment and we were all sitting on the couch and Brent was looking at my (pause) I have a tattoo on my arm I’ll show you guys... cause I’m a star wars nerd. It’s way up here this thing like the Boba Fett insignia on my arm right there same spot, and so Brent was looking at that, and we were talking about mammoth and he was like oh what’s that prehistoric mammoth kind of thing; like elephant you know? And I was like a Mastodon? And he was like yeah Mastodon, that’s it. And we were all cool that’s the name like right then and there. After Brent saw the thing on my arm, he was like “ah that looked like a mammoth skull,” so he couldn’t think of the name of the animal and I was like a Mastodon. Then we were trying to decide a way how to spell it. Then we made a few shirts that were spelled with an “a” “Mastadon”, and then we were like nah, I looked it up it was with an “o.” So there are a couple shirts out there, from the first couple of shows that are probably pretty rare to find with the misspelling.
Daniel: Crack the Skye has a very different sound compared to previous releases, are you surprised by the unanimous positive reception it got?
Bill: I don’t know, yes and no I guess. We don’t really think about it. When we’re writing music we do it from the heart. We don’t think if the kid is going to like this, or you know, it’s not a preconceived idea or whatever; it’s kind of we just write what we like and it just so happened that we wanted to take a different turn with this record; and you know we write music for ourselves. We try to impress each other with the stuff that we write. You know, we are always trying to outdo, I mean not outdo each other, but sort of impress each other and write something that is cool. Or someone in the band says I like that, this guy is really cool, lets throw it in the mix and put this in. So it just happened that we wrote a record that we were all very happy with and I think that it is great that people enjoy it, and uh some of the concepts. I mean there is a little bit of maybe not hesitation but I was reading Myspace and what the kids say and saying Oh, I cannot believe you are recording with Brendan O’Brien. You know he is a rock guy. All the stuff he does is shitty like Bruce Springsteen and Stone Temple Pilots, and we don’t want you guys to sound like them and I was like don’t worry he is going to make it sound good so. And he did.
Daniel: Bridging off of that question, why do you think, especially today, that when a band tries something new, that automatically it is a “sell out?” Like is it because of what happened to, the prime example would be Metallica’s post ".....And Justice For All,” Do you think people have a tendency to hold on to those views?”
Bill: I don’t know. "Sell out" is not a word in the band. We just write what sounds good to each other. I think selling out to me would be like when you see Mastodon doing a Pepsi commercial. Or lending our music to something that is really corporate. I mean, we will do Aqua Team Hunger Force, or Metalocalypse voice-overs, or whatever because that is fun and cool I think. I don’t know if Metallica has really sold out, I think they just kind of, I mean every band changes. You cannot keep writing the same record over and over and over. Maybe with Metallica, you cannot say unless you are in their shoes. I mean I don’t think they were struggling after their “And Justice For All,” and the “Black Album.” They were pretty huge. They were on top of their game back then. I don’t think they needed to be like hey, we need to be on radio, we need to change our sound. Maybe it was something that naturally happened and unfortunately, you know a lot of their fans were not in to it- me included. I mean I love Metallica but I just did not listen to Metallica after...
Daniel: “...And Justice For All?”
Bill: There is a lot of good songs on the “Black Album” I think. But they put out so many great records that maybe they just could not top, they could not keep up with it. It is not an easy task when you written fucking “Master of Puppets,” and “Ride the Lightning.” Those records are fucking, they’re amazing. Some bands you know start out small and by the end of their career, they’re huge. Some just keep on getting better and that is what we are trying to do. You know every record should be better than the last, and a change in a different direction maybe. Unless you like Slayer or the Ramones because they keep on putting out records that pretty much sound the same. But that is their genre, kind of made for themselves.
Daniel: Will you ever play “Cut you up with a Linoleum knife” live from Aqua Team Hunger Force?
Bill: No, that would be impossible. Laughter. Brann sings a lot of the stuff and he also plays drums so, I don’t think he can do both. That was a studio thing.
Daniel: All of your albums thus far, are connected by an elemental theme. Are you also planning on including the Chinese elements of metal and wood in the future in addition to air? (“Remission” is fire; “Leviathon” is water; “Blood Mountain” is Earth; “Crack the Skye” is the fifth element/aether/quintessence).
Bill: Yes. We have been thinking about that, the Chinese elements. Because there are a lot of elements out there, not just four or five like some people think.
Daniel: So do you think that after touring, the next plausible concept would be air element in order to complete the elemental suite?
Bill: Well, I don’t know. This album is more of an aether based record. But air, I don’t know. It would be something like wind or air I believe, but I don’t really know because we have not crossed that bridge yet.
Daniel: Personally, my favorite song is the Last Baron. Do you think after this tour you will play that song on subsequent sets?
Bill: Yeah, possibly. It depends on how much time we have. Because if we are doing an opening slot, we only have a half-hour or maybe not even. I mean , yeah right now we are playing the whole record every night on the past couple of tours we did. But you know that all depends on set length and what we’re playing at that time. I guess the answer would be yes.
Daniel: I just heard that this venue (Aragon Ballroom in Chicago Illinois) is going to be the place for your live DVD performance. Do you have a release date for that yet?
Bill: Uh, no. I don’t think so. We basically got to review it and make sure it looks and sounds good and edited correctly before anything like that happens.
Daniel: What is the best tour you have ever been on?
Bill: I don’t know. There have been a lot of them. I remember the “Against Me Tour,” was pretty amazing. The High on Fire tour in Europe was amazing back in 2002. The Metallica tour was amazing. The Tool tour was really cool too, so I don’t know.
Daniel: What is the best story of this tour?
Bill: I don’t know yet.
Danniel Becker: Has there been an event that happened while on stage or back stage that like....
Bill: No, not yet. I think we are too early into it.
Daniel: Do you know that you have a burger named after you at a restaurant in Chicago named Kuma’s?
Daniel: We’re actually going there before the show starts to get the Mastodon Burger.
Bill: (laughs) I have not had one yet. I heard they are pretty tasty though.
Daniel: How is the soundtrack to the new Jonah Hex movie progressing?
Bill: Well it is pretty much in their hands right now. We went to L.A. and from what I hear it is going really well. We just got an update from them, the director and said that everything was looking pretty positive. We just did as much sounds and music that they wanted to try and give them more than enough. They definitely have stuff left over.
Daniel: Since your touring with Dethklok, will you make some guest appearances on the show in a later date?
Bill: Well yeah. The guy did some voice-overs when in L.A. while doing the Jonah Hex stuff.
Daniel: Do you have any good memories with your time with Today is the Day and/or lethargy?
Bill: I don’t know, that was a long time ago (laughs). But lethargy days were really fun. We did not do too much extensive touring. We would go out to New Jersey and play. You know it is always fun playing with those guys.
Daniel: Do you have any good memories with the “In the Eyes of God” tour with Today is the Day?
Bill: No, not really, (laughs).
Daniel: I have noticed that in this set-list for this show, that you removed “Blood and Thunder” and added in “Mother Puncher.” Is there any reason for that?
Bill: Those are songs we had not played in awhile. In the last headlining tour we kind of looked at what we had not played in awhile, earlier stuff off remission. We just wanted to change the set-list up a little bit. We’ve been playing “Blood and Thunder” on the Metallica tour pretty much every night. We just do not want to over do it with the same song.
Daniel: I’ve seen every video you made on youtube, what is the most memorable video that you made?
Bill: “Divinations” and “Oblivion” stick out pretty well. They all have some special element in it though. In Divinations we had to climb up a rock wall a few times to get the angles that we were climbing up a snow covered mountain. In Oblivion we had to hang from waist ropes and kind of float around for a few hours. That was memorable, and the whole clown theme for “Blood and Thunder” was really fun and different.
Daniel: So what is next for Mastodon?
Bill: We are just going to keep on doing what we are doing. Hopefully, get back to the studio soon and visit all the countries we have not been to and put up another good album.
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