Bill Kelliher of Mastodon: "We started the band, got in the van and started driving"
Mastodon (due tonight at the Fillmore Auditorium) formed in 2000 after meeting at a High on Fire show -- at least that's the myth, and it suits this band that has made a name for itself as purveyors of the kind of metal that is less about speed and more about a groove and weightiness. In the dozen years of its existence, the Atlanta band has explored and evolved its sound over the course of five full-length albums, including its latest, 2011's The Hunter.
Mastodon has been known to do split 7-inch records with bands playing a style of music very different from its own core sound, but that is part of what under-girds the group's appeal -- it's obvious these guys don't listen to just one type of music. At the same, the group's musical output also never tries to be all things to all people. We recently spoke with guitarist Bill Kelliher about the Elephant Man, action figures and the Record Store Day split 7-inch with Feist and another with the Flaming Lips.
Westword: Atlanta apparently has kind of a diverse music scene with people who play shows together regardless of whether it superficially fits together or not. Were you guys part of that?
Bill Kelliher: Early on, yeah. We basically played anybody that would ask us to go on tour, honestly. We've toured with Fear Factory, Avenged Sevenfold, before they got big. We've toured with Clutch, Dying Fetus. We used to tour with Keelhaul and High on Fire. SunnO))), Cephalic Carnage, Against Me! We've toured with a lot of different types of bands.
How about from Atlanta proper?
Not really. I mean we toured with Kylesa. They're not from Atlanta, though, they're from Georgia. We kind of did our own thing, man. We started the band, got in the van and started driving and didn't really ask local bands to tour with us or anything like that. We just got out and started doing it ourselves.
On at least two of your albums, you have Scott Kelly doing vocals. How did you meet him?
Back in '98 and '99, Brann [Dailor] and I were in a band called Today is the Day, and we toured with Neurosis and Voivoid all through Europe. So we got to know Scott and Steve [Von Till] and Jason [Roeder], Dave [Edwardson] and Noah [Landis] all real well. We've just always been fans of Neurosis, and Mastodon has been definitely very influenced by Neurosis in certain ways. Their whole aesthetic. Scott's voice is pretty legendary and some of the songs that we wrote had kind of a Neurosis feel. So what we did was we said, "Well this kind of sounds like Neurosis, why don't you try to sing like that?" And, well, why not just ask Scott if he'll do it. He was more than happy to do it.
"Spectrelight" from The Hunter definitely sounded like a Neurosis song even before Scott's vocals come in.
Is it true that some of your albums end with a song about the Elephant Man?
Not really. I think Remission, Leviathan and Blood Mountain had odes to the Elephant Man on there. That was just kind of a phase we were in. We don't really do that anymore.
Is the Elephant Man kind of a reference to the name of the band or is there another reason?
I think we were all just intrigued by John Merrick's story as a human being. He was a grotesquely deformed man who was very intelligent on the inside and a lot of people judged the book by its cover rather than looking inside the guy's mind. He was a really brilliant guy. He was a human oddity, I guess. So we thought it would be cool to write a song for him or about him and shed some light on the guy and maybe make people more interested in what he had to say, you know?
Is it true that you have a large collection of horror and science fiction action figures?
Me, personally, I'm more of a Star Wars aficionado. I collect a lot of Star Wars toys, posters and ships and vehicles. Anything Star Wars, I collect it, tattoos, books, games, whatever. Any kind of toys I think are cool, I'll buy or pick them up. I'm always perusing toy stores and antique stores just because I like to collect weird stuff, you know, and toys are one of them. I've always been a kid inside, I guess. I never really grew up, I think. When I saw Star Wars, I was blown away.
When I was a kid, I used to own all of that stuff, but my parents sold it all at garage sales. As I got older, they re-released the movies, and they started re-releasing the toys in the stores. They re-did the figures, and I thought it was kind of cool that they were re-sculpting all the old Star Wars things, and I started buying them, trying to look for variant ones, weirdly packaged ones. Oddities like misprints on the package. There's a whole slew of people into collecting all those crazy, variant figures, and I just happen to be one of them.
When you were recording Crack the Sky, did you have a nine-string guitar built for you?
Yeah, I used my nine-string guitar there in the studio a lot. First Act built it. It has an extra three high string like a twelve string -- the three high strings are doubled up. I just thought it had interesting sounds. I always liked the sound of a twelve-string. I just thought it was kind of a cool idea.
You still use a looping pedal heavily. What does it allow you to do that makes it more interesting for you to play?
Oh, the loop pedal I use for my samples. I don't really use it for guitar. We just make different noises and stuff like that in Pro Tools and run samples in between songs to try to keep the ambiance flowing in the show. I've never liked when bands would stop and tune or talk to the crowd. It kind of loses the energy of the show. I always want to have something going on underneath, something that's kind of ringing out whether or not it's just a chord or just some weird, eerie scene from a movie or whatever. We put in weird samples between the songs. That's mostly what I use it for.
For Record Store Day, you put out a split 7-inch with Feist?
Yeah, we did a song. They covered one of our songs, and we covered one of theirs, along with a cover we did of a Flaming Lips song. That's another one of my favorite bands. They're just really good songwriters. The Soft Bulletin record in general...when we did that European tour with Neurosis and Voivoid.
Their sound man every day played it to test the room. It has really crazy low end, I don't know 808 or techno, but more rock and a lot of keyboards. It was totally different from anything I listened to. I'm sure they take themselves seriously but they have this wacky sense of humor that I like. I've met Wayne [Coyne] before, and he's a nice guy, and they put on an incredible live show. They're a Warner Brothers band, too, and they wanted us to cover another Warner Brothers band.
I met [Feist] on [Later...with Jools Holland]. We played Jools Holland and Feist was one of the guests. We met up with Leslie [Feist], and we were blown away by their performance because they were really cool. I think Troy [Sanders] started talking to them how it would be cool to do a cover of each others' songs. I think he was doing an interview on television somewhere and talked about it, so we were kind of forced to do it then. So we stuck to it.
Was it your choice to bring along Ghost for this tour?
Yeah. We just heard a lot of good things about them and their record is really good and they seemed to be getting a lot of good press. They're a young band starting out, and we thought it would be a good tour line-up. I mean Opeth and Mastodon, two totally different bands, but I think we share a few of the same fans and are in the same genre a little bit. Ghost seemed like the natural band to take. A bunch of nice guys, you know?
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