Mastodon won its first Grammy earlier this year for best heavy metal performance. The band has been called an exemplar of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal that began in the 1990s.
Over its 18 years of existence, the quartet has been tagged as stoner rock, prog, and nearly everything in between, which is fine with bassist Troy Sanders. “I glad there are multiple tags placed on our band. When the four of us got together, we were rooted in Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden. We’ve toured with Slayer, Iron Maiden, Slipknot, Tool—all our heavy metal heroes.
“But on our eight albums, there’s been more than just metal. There’s sludge. There’s some prog. There’s rock. We’ve always wanted to be a multi-dimensional band, have a multi-dimensional sound.”
Photo by Jimmy Hubbard
Mastodon (L to R): Bill Kelliger (guitar), Troy Sanders (bass), Brent Hinds (guitar) and Brann Dailor (drums)
In 2000, Sanders joined up with guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher and drummer Brann Dailor in Atlanta via their mutual love of sludge. They started writing songs that were distinctively theirs, lyrically and musically.
“The same four guys have remained in the band since day one...I think each of our characters goes into every song. The four of us, I think, have a unique diversity. All of us being involved in songwriting, writing lyrics, working up the songs. That gets away from repetition.
“We joined forces in the year 2000 because we wanted to make our type of music, jump in a van and take it anywhere in the world where people wanted to hear us. Since day one, we’ve been road dogs.”
Mastodon released its first album, Remission, in 2002. Two years later, they put their stamp on the rock world with Leviathan, a concept album loosely based on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Named album of the year by metal magazine Kerrang!, Leviathan got Mastodon signed to Warner Brothers and out on an extensive tour of the U.S. and Europe, setting a pattern that has continued as the band released five additional studio albums.
Mastodon’s shows keep getting bigger, on their own or touring with Tool, Slayer, and Metallica. Each album has continued their musical exploration, garnering them positive reviews and a growing reputation as one of the better bands working the hard rock end of the musical spectrum.
Their style has evolved from, at times abrasive, with distorted instruments and gutteral vocals. By their third album, 2006’s Blood Mountain, the group had shifted to clean vocals, while retaining a heavy sound and the complexity that has characterized their music from the start.
Their most recent record is 2017’s Emperor of Sand—a concept album revolving around a curse placed on a wandering traveler by a despotic ruler, a metaphor for terminal cancer. That theme emerged after two band members’ mothers were diagnosed with the disease, as was Sanders’ wife, Jeza, who recovered from breast cancer in 2015.
“Sultan’s Curse,” the song that sets the theme, wasn’t a chart hit, but it’s now a Grammy Award winner that put Mastodon at the top of rock. “We’ve done it the long way, the hard way. We feel like we’re not yet to the peak of the mountain. Everything is fresh and forward thinking. Had we been an overnight success, won Grammys right away, stuff like that, I think we would have lost the momentum.”
Mastodon hasn’t yet formally begun a follow-up to Emperor of Sand, but that doesn’t mean the band isn’t constantly thinking about creating new music. “The wheels of creativity are always turning. I just left band practice a couple minutes ago, and we recorded a couple of ideas. We do that all the time. If we get good ideas, we record them, get them down, and keep them around.”
Now playing to thousands each night, Mastodon has accomplished the goal they set out to reach nearly two decades ago. “We can go to any major city in the world where a dozen or more people want to hear our music. It’s been awhile, but we’re still motivated by that same idea, that we can go out and play for a dozen people who really want to hear us.”
Mastodon will perform September 7 at the Heritage Center in Duluth. Tickets at JadePresents.com.