Adventures On Blood Mountain
An Interview with Brann Dailor of Mastodon
Blood Mountain is the highest peak on the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail and the sixth-tallest mountain in that state. The ominously named landmark made national news early this year when a hiker last seen on the mountain disappeared and was later discovered to have been the victim of a suspected serial killer. Scary! And while it was released in the fall of 2006, it’s perhaps not completely coincidental that the Atlanta based prog-metal band Mastodon took the name of Blood Mountain for their third album. Because scary shit just has to be going down in a place called “Blood Mountain,” am I right? Anyway, like Mastodon’s previous album, Leviathan – which was based on Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick – Blood Mountain is a concept album about, well, climbing up a mountain and imagining the different things that can happen to you when you’re stranded in the woods, on a mountain, and you’re lost. You’re starving, hallucinating, and running into strange creatures. You’re being hunted. It’s about that whole struggle. Heavy. Metal.
Recently I had the chance to talk to Mastodon’s awesome drummer, Brann Dailor, about Blood Mountain, how different types of literature and film work their way into the influences of a band like Mastodon, and why he’s such an awesome drummer. Brann, whose name is pronounced “Braun,” like the manufacturer of fine electronic products for the home – is joined in Mastodon by band mates Brent Hinds (Vocals, Guitar), Bill Kelliher (Guitar), and Troy Sanders (Bass). Here is our interview.
Regarding the story behind Blood Mountain I wondered if you have seen the film The Holy Mountain directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, and if so was that an influence?
Yes. I’ve seen that movie many times and I love it! He’s probably one of my favorite directors, for sure. I think that all the Jodorowsky movies – Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre, El Topo – all that stuff is part of my collective unconscious, buried deep in the background somewhere.
I love that you guys have some very broad, cerebral influences behind your music and that you aren’t just writing songs about breaking up with your girlfriends and being sad.
We go for more of the triumphant side, but we do put ourselves into empathetic situations and sing about them. But lyrically we take a more cinematic approach and say to ourselves, “Okay, what would be going through your mind if you were in this situation?” or “What do you think it’s like to be half way up, or almost at the apex of, a giant, snow-capped mountain?” We try to think of different things that would happen, write about them and put that in the music as well. We put [whatever] cinematic feelings that [type of conjecturing] might produce into the music.
And nobody is really doing that anymore, especially people who are influenced by ’70s Progressive rock. Songwriting wise, especially with the song title “Colony of Birchmen” sounding like a total homage to the song “The Colony of Slippermen,” were you influenced by concept albums like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis?
Yeah, of course. That’s like my favorite record of all time.
I’m obsessed with it.
Me, too. It’s a big part of my life, since I was a baby. My parents were really into early Genesis. My Mom’s old band used to cover “Supper’s Ready.” For me [Genesis] is like Grandma’s meat loaf: it’s comforting to hear those first few notes on the piano (sighs).
I understand that you’re also a big fan of Phil Collins, as a drummer.
I love his drumming and I’m not afraid to admit that I like those first few [post Peter Gabriel] Genesis albums that he put out, even Abacab! As Genesis’ drummer I think he’s phenomenal and not really talked about enough. He’s just such a great, well-rounded drummer.
I think you also said that a lot of people only think of him as “the guy that ruined Genesis,” or know him as a jacket-and-tie lounge singer rather than a great, innovative drummer.
Absolutely. When I go out and talk to people about Phil Collins and Stevie Wonder being my two favorite drummers, their mouths pretty much hit the floor.
So many people don’t even know that Stevie Wonder played drums on his own albums.
Yeah, I know. That was the fist instrument that he picked up. When his mother took him to Barry Gordy’s office, he had a set of drums and he just started playing them. He’s probably my top favorite musician along with Peter Gabriel and David Bowie.
There’s so much jazz influence in your playing, and I know your primary jazz influences are guys like Elvin, Billy Cobham and Tony Williams.
Those are the top three, yeah. I like how they move around the kit.
Do you think it’s important for metal players to also study jazz?
I never studied it, but I think as a musician you should listen to everything, in general. If you play jazz, you should listen to metal. If you play metal you should listen to jazz. If you play country you should listen to classical, you know what I mean? If you’re playing music at all you should know what you’re talking about when you go into any situation or setting that’s musical, so you know what people are throwing at you if you go to play with somebody. Then you have it in the back of your head of what goes with what. You should have a general knowledge of all different kinds of music. There’s a gem in every genre that’s out there. You’ve just got to look for it. Usually if a lot of people talk about it and it’s a classic artist, like Willie Nelson, then something Willie did is going to be awesome. You never know: it might not speak to you now but it will probably speak to you later.
I just think that when you’re younger you may have a tendency to be a bit more closed-minded, but [you should] never say never to a certain style of music. Even if you don’t like it, you should know something about it. I don’t get many opportunities to get deeply into conversation with younger kids [who are players], but I wish I could. When I was thirteen or fourteen, I listened to a lot of thrash and I wasn’t able at that point to admit that I was listening to other stuff at home. I was, but I was just trying to be cool.
Your playing reminds me of a guy like Jon Theodore (ex-Mars Volta); a drummer who I think is comparable to you because he was in a modern prog / metal band that broke through with a major label concept album. Are you a fan of Jon’s playing?
Jon’s my buddy! We met at a Mars Volta show, obviously. He’s a good friend of mine and we talk a lot. I absolutely think our styles are comparable. When I first heard Jon he reminded me of myself in a lot of ways. I think we have a lot of similarities and I love his style. He’s really fluid and has some of the tastiest beats around. The way he moves around the kit is very fluid and it seems like everything he does, to me, is in its right place. Whatever I want to hear a drummer do, he does it. He makes me happy. Right now he’s doing a project with Zack from Rage Against The Machine, I think.
Would you say that there are any aspects of your playing style that are, say, your own signature chops?
I think maybe the way I follow guitar lines with the toms. That’s something I do a lot and I’m not sure that many players do that. I do a lot of rolls, basically, and sometimes I put little extra butter on those rolls (laughs)! I go past the one and maybe come in on the two or three, or I come in and out of the beat and just play with it a bit [to] explore every different beat or rhythm that you can play to. Well not every single one, obviously (laughs) but I pick three or four of them and I stagger them. So that’s my thing I guess. But maybe someone else would have more to say about it.
I understand that your wife Suzanne is also a drummer. What’s that like? Do you guys trade fours and influence each other?
Not really. She already played drums when I met her, so she does her own thing. Every once in awhile maybe we’re laying in bed and (laughs) we’ll be talking about drum beats and stuff. We’ll talk about a certain fill like, “you should try it like this” or “do it like that.” So that’s kind of fun, but otherwise it doesn’t come up much. She’s a really good drummer and she has her own band called Cat Fight. She also plays bass for a band called Tiger Tiger. And she sings and plays guitar in another band.
I read that you played a 50-gallon industrial drum on the song “Crystal Skull.” How were you inspired to do that?
I was in the theater watching the Peter Jackson version of the movie King Kong, and it was the part where they’re pounding on drums and shouting for Kong. I got this riff in my head and I had to leave the theater, go call my answering machine and leave the riff on the answering machine. From there, from the beat that I had put to that riff, came the idea to do this big kind of drum intro with 50-gallon drums. I really didn’t actually think it was going to happen until one day, when everyone had something to do, I called our producer and said, “Can we just do one more thing?” I explained that I really wanted to do the 50-gallon drum intro for “Crystal Skull.”
So, all the other guys went out on a sailboat that day and I drove around in a van looking for 50-gallon drums to play. Finally, I found this homeless dude out in the middle of Seattle and he was guarding these five or six 50-gallon drums. I got him to hook me up with two of them and I told him that I’d bring them right back. He wanted a credit on the record (laughs) for letting me borrow them. I brought them to the studio and miked them up. I did maybe fifteen or twenty tracks of 50-gallon drums played with all different kind of sticks: like, I played with lighter sticks on the rims and I played with two giant two-by-fours on the body of the drums. It was just something cool to do for that song. I think it sounds cool.
When you were doing press for Leviathan, there was an interview where, speaking of the importance of maintaining a creative growth curve, you said, “I want to be in the kind of band that opens doors for ourselves to do whatever we want and have the kind of fan base that expects us to be different every time.” In this particular commercial climate, where sameness is rewarded with record sales, now that you’re on a major label how insane would it be to sell millions of copies of this album?
That would be crazy, but I have no delusions of grandeur (laughs). If that happens that would be fine, but you have to be so careful not to let those kinds of thoughts motivate what you’re doing or be the guideline for it. You want to keep things as pure as possible. Bands should be something that’s treated like your garden; something that you tend to, watch it grow and change. But your priorities change when you get older so those thoughts always creep in there. Maybe you think that if you just tweak this song just a little bit and if you do this here and there then maybe you can get on the radio or maybe you could make some real good money for yourselves. But you’ve got to do everything in your power to make those feelings and thoughts go away.
You know what happens so often is that a great band gets signed to a major label after doing well on its own, and then the label just ruins the band.
It’s all about the deal you sign and the kind of people that you have in the band, the kind of music that you make and if you have your own vision. So many bands get signed to major labels and they don’t know what they want to do. Ultimately, they let it fall into the wrong hands and the minute that your vision goes into someone else’s hands then that’s when it’s all done. It gets out of control. You give someone else the power to touch your music and to mess with your riffs when they don’t have any reason or right to be there doing that anyway. Basically you just need to know what you’re getting yourself into. You need to have a good head on your shoulders. You can’t be some “Rock Star” that’s all caught up in ‘sex and drugs and rock and roll’ – and meanwhile your whole vision is lost.
I thought that this label deal would do nothing but good things for us. All I can do is write the music that we like as a band and that’s all we can do. That’s it. All we can do is play that music in our rehearsal space until we think it’s awesome, record it, put it out, and tour our asses off. The rest is up to the record label to pitch it any way they see possible to get it into the right hands and let it fall into the right ears. It’s real simple but if the masses don’t like it and accept it then it’s just something that everyone’s going to have to deal with at some point. If they do love it and everybody jumps up and down and goes “Yay” and high-fives each other, and then we all pop a cork and drink champagne, that’s cool too.
Another thing that sets Mastodon apart is the concept album thing; I don’t really hear too much “idea music” any more in the pop domain.
Well, it’s pretty sad, but there is really good music out there in the world and it’s under rocks or floating down streams somewhere and no one can seem to find it. But it’s out there and it’s going to do what it’s always done. There will be a backlash and then real good music will be popular again for a little while, then that idea will be scooped up by guys in suits and run into the ground. Then it will happen all over again.
It’s like everything, but let’s use bell-bottoms as an example. When bell-bottoms started in the late ’60s they were just these little flares, and people thought, “Oh that looks kind of cool. Let’s make them a little bit bigger.” By the time the late ’70s started rolling around you couldn’t even see anyone’s fucking feet anymore because of their giant fucking bell-bottoms. Over time they had gotten so ridiculously huge that suddenly 1980 happened and people were like, “Fuck that!” They tightened up their pant legs and pegged them as tight as they could around their ankles.
The bell-bottom backlash.
It was a total bell-bottom backlash. And that’s life (laughs).
With current metal drumming trends seeming to focusing on speed and precision (and here I’m talking about guys like Chris Adler, Morgan Rose, and Jason Bittner), where do you see drumming in metal headed?
I have no idea. I don’t know about trends in metal drumming. Let’s see…hopefully there will be more diversity in the playing. I’m not the best at doing super-fast double bass, so I developed my hands. Along with developing my hands came lots of crazy fills and stuff like that. A lot of my drumming is just the result of [making allowances for] stuff that I couldn’t do (laughs). The guys that play like that are the best at it, so why even bother trying to mess with them? I just do my own thing and hopefully I can keep myself original, try to challenge myself as much as possible and try to think of the coolest stuff that I can play. If it doesn’t work then it doesn’t work. If I have to lay down some meat and potatoes, I’m totally fine with doing that as well. I always strive to be different and to play some of the most interesting stuff that I can. You shouldn’t do that all the time though. Sometimes you’ve got to Phil Rudd it. I just try to make [the parts] interesting for me to play and interesting for the listener to hear. I try to build my beats around the music. I’m really just inspired by whatever riffs are going on at the time. It makes me want to build my transitions and build crescendos and make things happen in the song where they’re supposed to happen. I want to make sure that the intensity level that I’m looking for as a drummer happens in the song. It’s that next level, that “Runner’s high” type of thing. I always look for that.
Your publicist said that before we hung up I had to ask you about your new car.
Yeah, I just got this crystal skull for the dashboard of my car. The dashboard is white fur and I got this crystal skull to put up in there. It’s real heavy. I’m going to put it up there so if people try to steal the car they’ll look in and see that skull – and maybe a couple of voodoo things here and there. Then they’ll be like, “man that car has voodoo all up in the dashboard. I don’t want to go there. If I take that radio I might grow a tail in the morning, so I don’t want to be doing that.” Don’t mess with it or the Curse of Twinkle Toes – the car is named Twinkle Toes – will be upon you.
What kind of car is it?
It’s a 1970 Cadillac Coupe DeVille with a blue sparkle paint job and its name is Twinkle Toes. My Grandma used to call me Twinkle Toes when I was a baby because I was born premature. I had little tiny Twinkle Toes and I think that it was also Fred Flintstone’s nickname when he was a bowler.
I am remembering that now, and the accompanying sound effects as Fred tiptoed down the alley with his bowling ball.
(Makes Twinkle Toes sound effects). I think my Grandma gave me that name because that show was popular at the time.