Mastodon's Bill Kelliher on Covering Feist and The Flaming Lips

Mastodon is old-school American heavy metal at its finest. The band is known for a distinctly sludgy sound, mixing stripped and distortion-heavy instrumentals, intricate grooves, and vocal harmonies that alternate between clean melodies and harsh screams.

The band has five full-length albums under its belt to date, with its latest, 2011's The Hunter, rapidly becoming known as one of their best. The record is still making waves. On Tuesday, it was named the best album of year at the 2012 Metal Hammer Golden Gods Awards by UK metal authority Metal Hammer.

While the band appears super-hardcore -- the tattoos trailing across vocalist/guitarist Brett Hinds' face go hand-in-hand with the Mastodon brand, and the members rarely smile on stage -- they're quite easygoing and open to just about anyone's interpretation of their music. In fact, earlier this year Mastodon, excitedly recorded covers of the Flaming Lips and Feist (with those artists returning the favor) for Record Store Day.

Up on the Sun talked with guitarist Bill Kelliher about the creative relief behind The Hunter, his love for the band Boston, and why he would redo all the band's albums if he could turn back time.

Up on the Sun: How's touring going?

Bill Kelliher: It's going great. It's long and decent-sized. After Rock on the Range we're headed to Europe for six weeks.

Among all your different tours, are you eager to get home?

Yes, definitely. Luckily, around July 1, we'll have some time to just do nothing.

Among Mastodon's five albums, if you had to pick a favorite and a least favorite what would they be? I know Crack the Skye is close to your heart.

At the moment, my favorite is the last one. It's a breath of fresh air for us, trying some new things . . . sonically, I think it sounds best. When you record records you spend a lot of time in the studio, and hear you things over and over and over, like, every which way it can be played. And then you record the record, get it done, and then you kinda just put it on a shelf. You don't really go back and listen to it, well, maybe a couple times playing it for some friends. But once it comes out . . . me personally, it's not like I go around listening to myself playing anymore, with all the bands and projects or whatever. I mean, it's really fun when you're in the studio. You're recording all the individual parts and stuff.

But if I roll back and listen to, like, Remission, I think it was . . . it's a great record, but it's different. Recording has come so far! Back with those records, we were all spending a couple weeks in the studio, spending a lot of money flying people in, and you're on a time crunch, really. I remember we had to move to a couple different studios in Atlanta, because the two-inch tape machine was broken. I think we had a like a week to record that record. We tracked drums for like the first three days but then the machine broke. We had to find another place in Atlanta. When you look back on it, you feel like it sounds good because you actually recorded it that day with all of that going on. And back then we didn't do as much singing as we do now, so I listen back and hear all these stops where we could've had vocals. So I don't know . . . all that stuff, that was just where the band was at.

But to answer your question: the earlier stuff -- it would be great to go back and re-record those records and redo it all. So the newest album is my favorite, sonically.

It seems a lot different than Mastodon's other records, which are all a lot more like concept albums. So how was the creative process different for The Hunter than the past albums?

Well, this record, we kinda just wrote down whatever was on our minds and played it. Like songs didn't have to flow to the next songs, and lyrics didn't have to tell short stories about one big concept. Earlier records, like Crack the Skye and Blood Mountain, that was kinda like . . . you know, it was a story. The whole album had to fit into that. Like, oh, this song has to come before that one because the story is being told in order." With this record, we didn't follow that. So we didn't have to worry about, like, oh, what song will fit in lyrically with the last one? It wasn't a concept, so it was the freedom to write whatever you want.

So The Hunter was much less stressful than the other albums.

It really was! We didn't have to sit there and discuss it too much. We just went with our gut instincts on a lot of stuff. Just went for it. We would just throw it down and see what happens. You know, on past albums, we'd sit in the studio for months rearranging songs and parts. It was time-consuming. Me, personally, I wasn't sure if those albums would sound good. We're chopping stuff up and rearranging it constantly . . . and I was, like, this isn't the way to write music. We were losing sight of why we were writing music, almost like narcissism. We just need to get stuff out and get it off our chests. We were losing spontaneity. The Hunter was totally spontaneous for me. Parts were coming out of thin air . . . we didn't have to think to hard. We didn't make things more complicated like we did in the past, and it fell into place.

To commemorate Record Store Day, you guys released two separate vinyls. The first is a split 7-inch with Feist titled Feistodon. Mastodon will cover Feist's "A Commotion," and Feist will cover Mastodon's "Black Tongue." Secondly, Mastodon will release, on a 7-inch pink vinyl, a cover of The Flaming Lips "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton." Can you tell me about those?

Well, for Feist, we played with Feist on a TV show in the UK. We were hanging out with the band after the show, bouncing around ideas . . . and, you know, a lot of times when bands are messing around together they decide that it might be a good idea to collaborate on something sometime. But with our hectic schedule, it rarely happens, you know? But with Feist, we thought it would be really interesting it they covered one of our songs and we covered one of theirs. And we thought Record Store Day would be perfect timing. Somehow we were able to take a two-day stint in the studio, we learned the song, tracked the vocals and ended up doing it really quickly. But I thought it came out really good!

With the Flaming Lips, well, we're all big fans of the Lips. And during those two days in the studio, our label wanted to do something like new bands covering old bands, so we were, like, let's knock something out for that as well while were in the studio for those two days. And, we did. [Laughs]

So it was a pretty fun project?

Yeah it was great! It was awesome.

What is one of your musical influences that you think fans would be surprised to hear about?

I'd have to say Boston. They have the market cornered on the guitar harmonies. I've always been a big fan of guitar harmonies . . . and Boston's got it down.

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Lauren Wise has worked as a rock/heavy metal journalist for 15 years. She contributes to Noisey and LA Weekly, edits books, and drinks whiskey.
Contact: Lauren Wise