Where Swims the Leviathan?
CoC chats with Brann Dailor from Mastodon
by: Paul Schwarz
In this interview, conducted via phone on March 29th of this year -- long before anyone outside of the band and their immediate circle had heard even a note of _Leviathan_ (Mastodon's second album, which comes out on the 31st of August in the US and the 14th of September in Europe) -- I chatted with drummer Brann Dailor about Mastodon's then-recent activities; the recording of _Leviathan_, which took place at Robert Lang and Litho Studios (who have played host to Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Deftones, Soundgarden and others in their time) with _Remission_ producer Matt Bayles (Botch, Pearl Jam, Isis, The Blood Brothers); and the band's appearance on MTV's Headbanger's Ball. Talk also turned to _Leviathan_ conceptual thrust -- which, as most of you probably know by now, is anchored to themes, ideas and characters borrowed from Herman Melville's proto-modernist masterpiece, "Moby Dick" -- along with Mastodon's current position as one of the most commercially promise-heavy bands in extreme music.

Calling me at noon his time from the Seattle apartment that he and bandmates Troy Sanders, Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher have been sharing for a month while recording _Leviathan_, Dailor sounds like he has just surfaced, his pseudo-drawl and often halting speech-patterns giving the impression of a man who is permanently stoned. But what becomes apparent is that this is just the way he -sounds-, rather than a reflection of his inner mental lucidity. Though he sometimes lacks the power to articulate his feelings concisely off-the-bat, Brann nails things on the head with surprising regularity once you get him going. He's one of the most quotable interviewees I've encountered -- and in a good sense. Anyway, here you go: expect another Mastodon interview conducted around the album's release, in October or November.

CoC: Have you been to Seattle many times?

Brann Dailor: No, this is our first time here, but we've been living here for a month, so I've made a few friends.

CoC: How is it going, working in Robert Lang and Litho Studios?

BD: We should be finished up tomorrow, with the mixing. At the last minute we were listening back to one of the songs and we were like, "Oh man! We gotta put some vocals over that one part." So we had to come in, set up some microphones and record some vocals over on this one part. So now that's the last song that needs to be mixed.

CoC: And then the whole thing's done, you just need to do the mastering?

BD: We need to put our samples on the tape today. There's only a few but we need to put them in there and see if they work.

CoC: Weave it all together.

BD: Yeah.

CoC: That's worked pretty well ever since the _Lifesblood_ EP, which you used samples on as well as _Remission_, right?

BD: Yeah. It's gonna be more... I don't know. When we did the EP thing it was like... I don't know. We just threw some samples in there. With _Remission_ I didn't want to use any real -movie- sound-bites or anything like that. I think that's way overdone.

CoC: I know what you're saying. I think it makes for a more cohesive musical record if you don't, to be honest.

BD: Yeah.

CoC: I mean, I think obviously they can work in there in some records, but I agree with you it is a bit hackneyed at this point, unless you do it really well.

BD: Yeah. It usually just comes off as kinda tacky.

CoC: Exactly. It's a difficult thing to balance. So you've now finished up the record. What people have you had in the studio with you? Relapse were saying you had some guest vocalists or musicians?

BD: Yeah. It's just guest vocalists. We had Scott Kelly from Neurosis and Neal Falon from Clutch. Neil did a part on one song and Scott did one song.

CoC: Was that a last-minute thing or had you conceived any of these particular parts with them in mind?

BD: Uhhh, well... I've always wanted to do something with Scott just 'cause him and I are really good friends and he's always asked me to come play on his solo projects and whatever, but it never has been able to come together and happen. So I figured since we were in Seattle and he lives relatively close to here that I'd call him up. And I was like: "Ummm, would it be... -gay- to ask you to sing a song on our record?" and he was like, "Nah man, it's cool." He came out so awesome. It's a Neurosis-ish part, so it sounds pretty cool.

CoC: So is the other song a Clutch-ish part, would you say?

BD: Not really. It just called for a... voice, I guess. It was a perfect part. We've done like three tours with Clutch, so we know each other pretty well at this point. So we were like just trying to figure out something for him to do just 'cause we just love his voice, y'know? Both those dudes have two of the most distinct voices -- for me, anyways -- in heavy music.

CoC: Working in the two studios with Matt Bayles -- who produced _Remission_, but also for quite a few people, memorably, did Botch -- and occupying the kind of position you do -- I remember in an interview with Digital Metal you talked of liking Dillinger and liking stoner rock, and that maybe Mastodon fans are on the same page -- you look set to become a similar figure to Botch for the current way-of-things, in the sense of having a very specific status. That's in terms of the underground. In the bigger picture you might break like the next Nirvana, in terms of taking a lot of influences from an underground scene -- or at least a scene that's hidden from the mainstream -- and bringing them into your own style as something which I think a lot of people may well get into. For you, doing this album, with some of the people who've recorded in the studios you worked in, did you feel like there was anything more there; or was it very much: let's do it and see what happens?

BD: Ahhh... well, I guess going into the studios our only thought with recording here in Seattle was the fact that last time, when we did _Remission_, we flew Bayles out to stay with us -- and we were gonna do the record in two weeks. So he got there; and then the tape machine broke in the studio we were scheduled to go into and it just became this big mess and blah blah blah: -nothing- worked out. I can't believe that _Remission_ even got recorded. Everything just fell apart. We had to get out of the studio we were in and change studios and blah blah blah blah blah. So when we were going back and forth with the idea of using Matt Bayles again I was like: well, you know what, I don't wanna bring him to Atlanta again. I'd rather go to Seattle and work in studios that he's comfortable in. Get a hotel room -- 'cause also, when we did _Remission_ we were all working our day jobs and were not able to 100% concentrate on the record. So we'd work all day and then have to go to the studio and then work in the studio. It was a little too stressful. So when we got out here and realised all these huge bands had recorded at these studios, that was cool. It's cool to be in a studio and then look up and realise that, you know, Nirvana and whatever famous bands recorded here, and Litho being the dude from Pearl Jam's studio -- Dave Matthews was just there last week. We thought that was pretty cool, but basically we didn't really -know- much of that information going into it. We just knew that we wanted to work with Matt Bayles again, and we wanted to work with him on his own turf where he's comfortable so we could try to make it the most -easy- record to make instead of having it be a stressful thing, you know what I mean?

CoC: The thing that's interesting to me is that, though the music may not be different, with _Leviathan_ it's very possible that the cultural impact will be different. The same was true with Nirvana -- the albums may in the final assessment be quite different, but when Nirvana released _Bleach_ it was to a smaller crowd. It was still a big reaction, but from a different segment of people. I'm always a bit uneasy asking bands those questions 'cause the reaction of the band is usually that they're very much within their own world. But it is quite interesting for you guys now, 'cause you are one of the bands out there who could possibly make that step. I mean, you came over to the UK for just a few dates with High on Fire and unlike a lot of bands you guys came back within a year to do a headliner and more dates. Did you find the reaction to Mastodon was quite strong in the UK?

BD: Yeah, it was huge. We pretty much come into every situation without any expectations. Like you said, we're just in our own world and in our own mind and in our own, you know, -band- and it's just like: yeah, whatever. But when we came and played in London... I thought it was gonna be good 'cause I remembered when we played there with Today Is the Day -- people were really into the music and were, like, freakin' out.

CoC: I think we've been a bit starved of it in the UK -- the noise / rock / metal / core, whatever-you-wanna-call-it thing.

BD: Yeah yeah yeah.

CoC: I think in the States a lot more of those bands do the circuit. In the UK, we get Converge or Botch or Mastodon or Keelhaul -once- in a few -years- -- or that's certainly how it used to be.

BD: Yeah. Anyway, we were blown away by the reaction we got. We met all sorts of really cool people, and we talked to our manager over there and said we really had to come back as soon as possible.

CoC: Talking about the album's title, _Leviathan_, and some of the song titles that have been released so far: is there any significance concerning the lyrics of the album or your career in general -- not to characterise you like Manowar; I know there's not gonna be a song about Mastodon ruling the world...

BD: <laughs>

CoC: Metaphorically speaking. Again, in that Digital Metal interview you described _Remission_ in metaphorical terms, when faced with the question of how to describe the album. I thought it was interesting, incorporating the cover-art and the conflicting elements in that and the title into the meaning, and such-like. So, _Leviathan_ being the great beast of the sea: is there a portent in that title?

BD: Well, this is our second release, but I think that -always- with Mastodon there's always gonna be some kind of theme that has to be worked out way beforehand, obviously. Last summer when we did the headlining shows of the UK, I was in the middle of reading "Moby Dick". We were in London in fact, and I kinda just spouted off why we should choose "Moby Dick" as a guideline of what to write about and what to go for. I was looking up all these passages and reading them to the guys and saying: look, they call Moby Dick the sea-salt mastodon, you know, it's all in here. There are so many different images we can borrow from whaling and just the whole thing as a complete package. I thought it would be really, really cool, and I kinda used Mad Ahab as -us- being obsessed with, you know, playing music and potentially going down with the whale or whatever, you know what I mean? The whale being the audience, and we just... playing music and touring being such an obsession and just kind of like such a shaky ground 'cause it's heavy metal music, it's really not -- I mean we're all like 30 years old and it's quite possibly, almost definitely, gonna take you nowhere, you know what I mean?

CoC: As far as life security goes, no. Sure.

BD: It's not a good decision to make, to play heavy metal. Rap and r'n'b and stuff like that, that's where the money is at. Rap like Eminem; Britney Spears obviously: those are the people that are massively successful, blah blah. But there's no integrity, no heartfelt anything in that. But we just chose "Moby Dick" 'cause we're all really interested in any kind of folklore. We're totally into Sasquatch and The Yeti and The Loch Ness Monster and all that stuff, you know. We like that kinda subject matter; we're into that kinda subject matter. So I think the record as a whole, as it's coming together right now, has taken all this different stuff -- there's songs about like Fiji Mermaids, songs about Nephilims and all sorts of crazy stuff going on -- but it's also, we kinda tried to tie it into ourselves and the way we feel about stuff, and try to make it as passionate as possible.

CoC: How did your recent co-hosting of Headbanger's Ball go?

BD: It was cool. It was kinda crazy because we hadda play a show the night before and we slept for like one hour and then we got up and had to drive to the city [New York -- Paul]. You have to be there at, like, 9:30 in the morning. But you know, it's not like the old Headbanger's Ball. The old Headbanger's Ball had a set and you could run around and do crazy stuff. This was like: they sit you down, and you have to sit -right there-. You can't move 'cause there are cameras -on- you. It's kinda subdued. I'm kinda thinking that Headbanger's Ball has just started back up and probably doesn't have the budget to do a lot of the things they used to do, but hopefully it'll gain popularity, and they'll be able to run around and go on location like they used to. Like when they used to be at a Slayer show or an Ozzy show and blah blah blah. We tried to be as loose as possible. It helped that Jamie was there because I've been drunk on Hatebreed's tourbus many times talking with Jamie. So it was definitely a lot easier than if it had been someone I didn't know. But 'cause I know Jamie pretty well it was pretty cool: I was just talking to him and the cameras are a little bit off in the distance, in the dark, so you can't really see 'em. But it was cool, y'know: it did a lot for our band, you know. I mean, we've been in places here in Seattle and people walk up and they're like: I recognise you from TV! It's like the ultimate goal in everyone's life is to make it onto that little -box-, y'know. It's like: -you were on the TV!-. It's like you're a different person now: you're not just that dude, you're that dude from -TV- now. It's weird...

CoC: It's gotta be a strange thing for Mastodon 'cause Mastodon, in a lot of ways, is about playing live and getting that sort of energy and bringing it onto the record.

BD: Yeah.

CoC: Mastodon seem to have gone at least beyond where Today Is the Day have gone as far as -- not cracking the -real- mainstream, but cracking half-way into the mainstream, where a -lot- of people are getting into it. 'Cause there was a huge buzz about TItD and I'm not knocking them in the slightest, but as far as the music's gone with _Sadness Will Prevail_ and stuff, I think Mastodon's made a lot more connections in the last year or two...

BD: Yeah.

CoC: ...and I'm just basically curious about whether you think in the wake of Mastodon and Dillinger Escape Plan as well, making it to the consciousness of many, whether a lot of the general time-signature-changing, quite -solid-, stoner-rock-based [in Mastodon's case -- Paul] music will make it onto a bigger plateau. This is coming back to my Nirvana point, I think...

BD: Yeah.

CoC: ...just because: I totally dig what you're saying -- and I don't wanna jinx it as far where the big money is, but as far as where Nirvana came from in 1991/1990, they came as the antithesis to the glam era...

BD: Right.

CoC: And essentially changed the way that people of the time thought about a popular rock band.

BD: Yeah.

CoC: It had a lot of different effects on old heavy metal and stuff like that.

BD: Absolutely.

CoC: But -- and it sounds -very- music journalist, but I think we're due another one. I think some of the stuff that's come out of extreme metal and its crossover, very strongly, with hardcore and stoner rock is sort of -primed- to make that sort of thing happen again. I think Botch were primed to do it, before they imploded. On that level would you say that you do feel -- when you go on tour and when people listen to the records and the reactions come back -- that you are on the cusp of something, to put it simply?

BD: I don't know. I guess I just can't see it or I can't tell. I guess I feel like... you know... <sighs> I don't know. <laughs> I don't think Nirvana had any idea what was about to happen to them, you know what I mean? I don't think any band that's not, like, being -coddled- by the -industry-... and plus I think that things are so much different now compared to how they were back then. I think that -because- of the fact that that Nirvana thing happened, there's all these people that are, like, looking for that... -now-, you know what I mean? Instead of just, like, letting it happen naturally like it did with Nirvana, people are trying to -force- it; so if they see anything that's like, not even boiling but just on the pot, they're like all -over- it, -immediately-, you know what I mean? Whereas Nirvana, they had a little bit of time to... cook, you know what I mean? Without being completely run through the mill; but as soon as _Nevermind_ hit it was like BOOM! It was -crazy-! I remember walking into Tower Records and this band that all my -skateboard- friends listened to a year ago; now all that's in my face is that baby swimming towards the dollar bill, you know? But you know, I guess I hope that happens, but we're definitely not banking on anything like that. We're just really trying to concentrate and make sure that we write the music that we wanna write and make sure we're not writing for anyone but ourselves, first off. And writing cool stuff and writing really musical... -music-, you know. And writing stuff that's challenging and writing stuff that's -new- to us and -changing-: we didn't write another _Remission_ album, you know what I mean? _Leviathan_ is -different-, it's a different record. There's singing on it -- but it's not like... <laughs> it's not like nu metal singing: it sounds like Thin Lizzy or The Melvins or something like that. It's more -real-.

CoC: I think that -is- reflected in _Remission_. There are aspects of _Remission_ where you can -see- how you could move forward with it.

BD: It's gotta grow and open up like that, or else I don't know what we're doin' here. <chuckles> If we just stayed stagnant? Hopefully that's impossible for us. If it ever gets to be stagnant, we'll have to do something else.

(article submitted 31/8/2004)

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