Mastodon Sees the Big Picture on Record and on Tour

Mastodon Photo by Clay Patrick McBride, courtesy of Warner Records
“I like epic movies. If I see that it’s three hours, I’m all in,” said Brann Dailor, drummer of Mastodon, one of the world’s best-loved metal bands. “I wasn’t scared or intimidated by that last Quentin Tarantino movie, I was all in on it. Dr. Zhivago is one of my favorite movies. Lawrence of Arabia, you know, those big, sprawling epics. And Gone with the Wind — when I was a kid me and my sister used to watch that. I was all in on the big, long epics that take a while to get there and you really need to sink into the mood of the thing and really have this experience.”

We’re discussing all things epic because the newest Mastodon record, Hushed and Grim, is the sort of album Cecil B. DeMille would love, were he still alive and into inventive prog-metal. The first double album of the Grammy-winning band’s 20-plus year history is broad and dramatic like those CinemaScope blockbusters. Mastodon will be featuring songs from the album when they return to Houston on November 28 at Smart Financial Centre with co-headliners Opeth.

“It definitely wasn’t the intent to make a double album, it just sort of organically shaped up that way,” Dailor said. “For us, we went out and started doing the work. It’s just one big ol’ slab of granite and we just start chipping away at it to see what it’s gonna be without too much of a preconceived notion in our minds about what it’s going to sound like or what’s going to happen.”

What happened was a collection of songs, pared from about two dozen to 15, clocking in at 88 minutes total. The familiar, driving guitar work from Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher remains, supported by Troy Sanders on bass and Dailor on drums. Thematically, the album is a drama fueled by the sense of loss but also the promise of hope. The band’s friend and longtime manager Nick John died in 2018 and the uncertainty of the pandemic followed. Those events shaped Hushed and Grim, which features lyrics like “I’ve turned the grief to medicine,” and “I feel the pressure.”

“The songs just naturally seemed a little bit more melancholy. There was definitely a vibe going on that we noticed after we put together four or five songs and you can say, 'Oh, maybe we need to write some rippers or write some things that are more crazy and fast and wild,’ but it’s sort of like the heart wants what the heart wants. You just write what you want and this is what we wanted to write,” Dailor said.

“The album itself is us sort of processing everything that was going on," he continued. "It’d be impossible to sidestep the pandemic, obviously. Any art or music that was created during the pandemic, there’s probably going to be something in there that deals with some of the feelings people were having, especially if you unfortunately maybe lost someone to the pandemic.

“I also feel like it’s therapeutic to just write down on paper what you’re going through or what you’ve been going through, what your experience has been over the last couple of years and you want to put it into this art to kind of offload it. I think that that’s helpful. Obviously, loss and grief and these kinds of things, everyone goes through it, so it’s going to translate.”

“We weren’t necessarily making things in metaphors. It was a little more literal because the things that were going on were so present. There was no time for metaphors, basically,” Dailor admits. “I think it helped. It helped us sort of process what had happened and also what was happening on a daily basis through the thick of the pandemic, which we’re not out of, unfortunately.”

It’s true, the pandemic is ongoing and everyone is adjusting, including Mastodon. While they’re excited to bring the new music to fans in live settings, they’re getting used to tour life during COVID.

“It’s familiar. I’m used to being out here. It is different, though. Lockdown backstage and masks and we’re tested every three days and temperature checks, and we’re just trying to get through a tour and realizing just how much other people play into being on tour,” Dailor said.

“You’ve got friends hit you up and it’s awful to sort of break the news that yeah, I can get you some tickets but I can’t see you after the show. I’m sorry, we’re in a bubble. We have to try to keep each other safe and we have to try to keep this tour up and running and none of the band members can get sick. There have been so many breakthrough cases and we’ve had so many stories of bands having to cancel their tours and lose tons of money which we don’t have to lose because we haven’t toured in over two years. We really need this to work out to keep food on the floor for the animals and pay the electric bill back at the house. It’s stressful.”

Dailor bemoaned skipping some favored Houston spots like Flying Saucer and Spindletap Brewery. Besides good craft beers, those settings offer nice chances to hang with fans.

“It’s a little bit sad. I’d like to see some people. A big part of touring is not only playing big rock shows but you make all these friends across the country and you always look forward to seeing them when you’re in town and this time around you can’t do that. It’s a bit of a bummer.”

Tour will allow for some connection, though, even if just from the stage. Dailor said lockdown “was scary and it was lonesome. We didn’t know if we were ever going to be able to go back to work.” Dailor used the down time to bring life to 101 Clowns of the Coronavirus.

click to enlarge Hushed and Grim is the first double album in Mastodon's discography - PHOTO BY  CLAY PATRICK MCBRIDE, COURTESY OF WARNER RECORDS
Hushed and Grim is the first double album in Mastodon's discography
Photo by Clay Patrick McBride, courtesy of Warner Records

“During the pandemic when we weren’t going to practice at all and kind of everybody was on lockdown, I got my sketch book out and started drawing a clown a day. I thought it was going to be for about two weeks so I said, ‘I’ll have a nice little 14 clown collection and then I drew a clown every single day for 101 days straight,” he said. “When it was all said and done the Revolver (Magazine) people were like, ‘Hey, let’s do a coffee table book,’ so yeah, it’s out right now through Revolver. It’s pretty sweet, I’m very excited about it and happy that it happened.”

Dailor may enjoy epic films, but he’s aware we’re living in the Tik-Tok era, a time when listeners consume art in fragments or “a la carte,” as he called it. Will listeners stick with Hushed and Grim to hear its final hopeful message in lines like “My love, so strong/The mountains we made in the distance/Those will stay with us,” from the final track?

“Whittling the songs form 23 down to 15 was hard enough and then when we got in there and really started recording everything we just really liked the way everything went together and we couldn’t really see getting rid of six or seven songs,” Dailor explained. “We just leave it up to the listener. If they want to go all in and listen for an hour-and-a-half then it’s up to them and they can experience the album that way or one song at a time, they can put it in their playlist. We just decided we were gonna give it all to them.”

Mastodon, with iconic Swedish prog-metal band Opeth, Sunday, November 28, 2021 at Smart Financial Centre, 18111 Lexington in Sugar Land. With special guests Zeal & Ardor. 7 p.m., tickets $49.50 to $79.50. Check the venue’s web site for its COVID protocols.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.