Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher talks basement shows, videos, and old tracks becoming new on ‘Empire of Sand’

by | May 30, 2017 | METAL / PUNK / THRASH

After an almost three year dry-spell, Mastodon returns with a deeply personal new record in Empire of the Sand.

Formed in the late 90s, Mastodon made waves with a pair of concept records in the early 00s –
2002’s Remission and 2004’s Leviathan, the later of which garnered massive praise from metal mags nationwide. 2006’s Blood Mountain continued to highlight the band’s chops as both musicians and song writers with singles like “Colony of Birchmen” and “Crystal Skull/Capillarian Crest.” It also garnered a grammy nom for best metal performance.

Personally, it was the prog-masterpiece in 2009’s Crack the Sky that helped cement my love for the band.

From there, Mastodon continued to drop records, but between the explosion of digital releases and the growing demand for less technical metal, the band faded some.

That doesn’t mean their sound wasn’t up to snuff – The Hunter offered some incredible sounds in tracks like “Curl of the Burl.” But by the time Once More ‘Round the Sun dropped in 2015 the band had all but fallen off my radar.

But Empire of Sand sees a return the band’s roots and should offer plenty for fans who long for a return to that proggy, technical metal sound. It also should include some riffs and bits that hardcore fans are familiar with.

“‘Sultan’s Curse,’ the first track on the album, I had that song almost completely finished like about five years ago,” said guitarist and band-founder Bill Kelliher in an recent interview with RVA Mag. He said riffs that are put on the “backburner” will often be brought back when he or the band find that it fits into a song.

And while most of the record harkens back to that technical sound, “Show Yourself,” the first single and video to drop from the record, offers a more accessable sound – something fans have pounced on Kelliher for.

“I read these comments on the internet of people saying we sold out by playing songs like ‘Show Yourself’. Who the fuck are you? What do you mean we sold out?” he told Blabbermouth. I’ll play whatever music I want to play! I’ll put out a goddamn pop record if I want to. I don’t have to answer to anybody but my bandmates — and my wife.”

And while the band’s vocals may have transitioned from classic heavy metal roars and tones to more vocalized melodies and harmonies on this most recent release, fans needn’t feel discouraged: the in-your-face rock vibe still persists throughout, complete with heavy drum hits and fills, wailing guitar solos, and face-melting bass lines. This creates an overall sick and brutal sound, especially tracks like “Andromeda,” “Ancient Kingdom,” and “Jaguar God.”

And No matter your opinion of “Show Yourself,” the video for the song returns to Mastodon’s legacy as a metal band that’s self aware in the face of their genre.

“You know, in this day and age, you can’t just put out four dudes playing in a dark basement video like you used to and just look tough,” said Kelliher. There’s nothing like the Grim Reaper competing for kills of band members for a new hearse, set to the soundtrack of a punchy metal song. “Playing songs is all very serious, so we need to have an outlet for the goofy Mastodon.”

Empire also saw the band return to Atlanta to record after getting the last two LPs together in Nashville or LA.

“It’s always fun to record where you can go back home at night and sleep in your own bed.” He said noting that having accessibility to his house allowed him to write songs and use equipment and instruments that were readily available.

The band is just a few weeks away from embarking on a European tour, but a few US dates exist later in the year. If they do end up coming to RVA, Kelliher promises a show that remains true to what fans hear on the release.

“We try to keep it as close to the album as possible,” he said. “But there’s definitely things that kind of grow. Obviously we’ve been playing the same songs for 17 years. It’s not going to sound exactly the same, especially the drums.”

Additionally, their early days of basement shows, packed to the gills with sweaty bearded Georgians, seem to have come to an end. I asked if they’d still be down to play an underground show and Kelliher laughed.

“Those were a young man’s game. I don’t think we could really do that anymore,” he said. However, he still appreciates the energy that comes from basement shows, with fans right there just feet away, sweating and jamming along.

The overarching theme of Emperor of Sand, much like their past album theme’s, aims to tell a story. In this release, a sultan of sorts hands down a death sentence and a damned man must travel through the desert, accepting his fate. While this sounds like a heavy theme, it actually is somewhat lighter than the arcs on past albums. Even the album cover gives a clear, colorful image of the sentence-wielding sultan, a hollow star behind a skull mask standing before a landscape of dry, red earth and fire.

In truth, the record’s metaphors point to a darker, more realistic narrative. As Rolling Stone reported, Bassist Troy Sanders’ wife was diagnosed with breast cancer; drummer Brann Dailor’s mother battled through chemotherapy, the latest chapter in a 40-year illness; and Kelliher’s mother died after suffering a brain tumor – this record aims to share their struggle through a unique story any metal head can understand:

“It makes me think of my mom passing away and all the things I’d witnessed with her going through,” [Kelliher] tells Rolling Stone. “She was just withering away in hospice, and I was just sitting next to her, watching. There’s the evil voice in [“Roots Remain”], which is reality coming to you – all your body withering away. Ugh, it gives me goosebumps when I hear it. Those are the things that are real and emotional, and people are gonna fucking cling to.”

Needless to say, Emperor of Sand will not disappoint Mastodon fans. The same patterns still persist, just with a more melodic vibe to it. You can check out the band’s new album on their website here.

Jo Rozycki

Jo Rozycki

Field reporter for GayRVA/RVA Mag. RVA born and raised. Theatre nerd, french fry lover, dog-obsessed, die-hard Montreal Canadiens fan. Storyteller. William & Mary 2020, Sociology.

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