The onwards march of the Mastodon
It begins like any other archetypal music video treatment. Blinkered crane shots braided with irregular closeups of the band imitating their best sham performance. Quasi-religious imagery swathed in post-produced sepia connote opaque referencing to the occult. Half-naked men sheathed in chains carry dumbbells as cloaked figures recite passages from the Necronomicon. All the while, scantly clad ladies drop down low, pounding their rumps with the buoyancy of a hot air balloon.
This was the abridged storyboard for Mastodon’s latest single, the winding, undulating The Motherload. Its farcical derision treading a familiar path to their canon of off-the-wall video concepts. But as the band play-acted around their leotard-laden ladies, the images seemed to strike the wrong chord with its audience. The idea backfired, offending flocks of self-righteous puritans. They just couldn’t handle the abstract notion of twerking over a metal song. “We wanted it to be about real female power,” says Brann Dailor, Mastodon’s infinitely adroit drummer and singer. “Like they were completely in charge, we were just bystanders.”
The Motherload’s negative response came as an abysmal shock to Dailor. He speaks with this playful sincerity, one that is instantly engaging even on his concerns of the video’s misinterpretation. “I was very surprised by the reaction. People accused it of pertaining some sort of male gaze but we were just staring at our instruments. Everyone else was just having a party that turned into a Beat It style dance.
“Before the shoot we thought how odd would it be for there to be twerking in a Mastodon video but also how inclusive it would be. I feel like heavy metal is one of those genres that doesn’t let that element in. We’re not on a social crusade or anything but if you want to start trying to blur the lines then start making the lines blurry. It’s about inviting people to the party. Everybody’s welcome.”
But the dysphoria continued. The press publicly persecuted Mastodon, demanding an explanation. “People were calling me asking to defend it and I don’t want to defend it. We made friends with a lot of girls in the video and I don’t want them to feel like they did anything wrong because they didn’t. It really saddened me. I feel like if the video would have been sexist in any way, my wife who was working on the shoot would have said something.” One of the dancers in question, a poledance student with a background in African American literature and cultural theory named only as Jade, was outspoken in her defence of the experience. In a Tumblr post, she stressed that “This video proves that metal can reach out and can be reached out to without parody, without hierarchy, and it is a good thing.”
This is just one of many newsworthy events that has kept Mastodon in the public eye throughout an unruly 2014. Having released their sixth studio album, Once More ‘Round the Sun in June, the group’s popularity spored with burgeoning potency. Statistically, it has been their most successful record to date, climbing to sixth place on the Billboard charts.
"We’re one of those bands that slipped through the cracks. We’re not supposed to be as popular as we are" - Brann Dailor
Active since the turn of the millennium, Mastodon’s progress has charted an unyielding exponential growth. The first track of their first album Remission, the prophetically titled Crusher Destroyer, and marked the elevation of sludge metal to previously uncharted territory. The four fearless, hirsuite warriors from Atlanta (Dailor’s bandmates are bassist Troy Sanders and guitarist/woodsman Brent Hinds, both of whom contribute to the band’s textured web of voices, plus guitarist Bill Kelliher) gradually, through a combination of jaw-dropping musicianship and immeasurable conceptual ambition, set about establishing a catalogue of constantly expanding, preconception-eviscerating majesty. Their 2004 sophomore Leviathan was a pitch-perfect concept album tracing the narrative of Hermann Melville’s Moby Dick via elephantine grooves, sporadic splashes of searing aggression and the kind of lolloping thrash sea-shanties you never knew could exist. It sits comfortably as one of metal’s greatest achievements.
Refusing to settle, the four albums which have come in its wake have witnessed an increasing embroilment in the tangled twines of prog, a growing focus on crystalline vocal delivery and melodic dual guitar leads, as well as Dailor’s increasing establishment as the most revered drummer in modern metal. They’ve also seen record sales, critical acclaim and venue sizes swell with a juggernaut-like predictability. “I guess we’re one of those bands that slipped through the cracks,” Dailor speaks with cogent modesty. “We’re not supposed to be as popular as we are. Of course we’ll take it but stats don’t really mean anything.”
And considering the cyclonic year Dailor’s had, it’s no surprise he bears this mindset. Recording Once More… was no easy feat for anyone involved. Dailor begins to take long drawn out pauses, starting and restarting statements making sure he phrases everything with tender grace. He refers to a great deal of his troubles as ‘the situation’. “As far as Mastodon’s concerned everything is thriving. It’s an unstoppable plant growing in the garden. You don’t tend to it and it’s five times bigger. But personally, it’s been a hard year. Right in the middle of recording Once More… my mum got really ill and I had to leave straight away.
“I didn’t even think about it. I said ‘Dudes, I’ll keep you updated.’ They were all really concerned and worried about the situation … I think everyone had some kind of inspiration from it all. I’d get little updates here and there. They’d send me Brent’s guitarwork over what I had done so I was kept in the loop. By the time I finally got back to the studio the amount of concern from the guys was overwhelming. They were just really sad about the whole situation at hand. They didn’t know where I was going to be at mentally. I had written a shitload of lyrics while I was with my mum in the hospital and was just ready to get going again.”
“The band members will die. Mastodon won’t”
As devastating as the situation may have been, it spurred a creative awakening in Mastodon. In that sense it mirrored the making of their 2009 album Crack The Skye, an elemental vision of Tsarist Russia and a tribute to Dailor’s sister who took her own life at the age of just 14. It was that album which drew him further to the band’s conceptual, lyrical and vocal fore. “When going into Once More… we were all just expecting business as usual, but life isn’t really like that, is it? My wife always says ‘life can get really life-y sometimes’. But you deal with it. It’s the aftermath now and that is currently what I’m dealing with. My grandfather always said there are things worse than death. I deal with that idea by being on tour. It’s hard for me to control a lot of things that are happening back at home. I wish it wasn’t like this. I wish things were different but this is how I support myself and this is how I’m able to maybe take care of my mum. It’s me being out here playing rock shows and trying to get paid for it. I guess like everyone else I’m winging it, trying to figure it all out as we go along.”
Thankfully, Once More… encapsulates the band figuring it out; figuring out how to be the best band they can be. It’s an emotional footer for how much they have achieved collectively. “Every album is released with the same amount of apprehension,” Dailor admits casually, “I always have confidence in the material and I have confidence that when we’re ready to release something it’s ready to be heard by everyone. But one of the things you have absolutely zero control over is whether someone likes something or not or why the hell they like it in the first place. Do they like it because their friends like it? Do they like it because they really truly like it? Do they break up with their girlfriend and for some reason they heard this record and it struck a chord? “I think with this record in particular we maintained that perfect balance. It’s a really good live record. The songs come to life when we’re playing them for you. And that’s what albums have become really; more of a promotional tool for the live show.”
To see Mastodon live is to realise their potential as a band with all the right intentions to transfigure outworn misconceptions of metal music. But is their ability to grow like that untended plant in the garden never-ending? “The band will die and I’m guessing that the band will stop before the people in the band die,” Dailor laughs with his Atlantan sass, “I don’t even want to entertain the idea of the guys in the band being fed up with each other and moving on. I just don’t see it. We‘re a family. No one wants to die but it’s going to happen. I know I’m the first one to tell you. It’s crazy to even think about. However the band members will die. Mastodon won’t. We have six albums now. Mozart’s been dead for over 200 years and I listen to him on a weekly basis. I hope there will always be a new person that will discover Mastodon long after my death. We will live forever!”
Once More Round The Sun is out now via Reprise