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Mastodon’s Brann Dailor Wants the Change to Keep on Coming

The heavy metal drummer and co-vocalist has 1,000 photos of clouds on his phone. Having spent months off the road in lockdown, he’s had plenty of time to reflect — and to learn how to let things go

Like their hairy, towering namesake, Mastodon are a band at once familiar and mysterious. A continuous, steady presence on the music scene for two decades, they’ve been reliably putting out thoughtful, complex, often mesmerizing albums, while rarely giving people entirely what they expect: You could label them metal, of course, but there’s also a groovy, psychedelic streak running across their music the size of, well, a certain once-common North American proboscidean.

They’re also a band that adeptly balances the darker aspect of their work with a knowingly healthy sense of humor, which again, marks them as an important evolution from the more traditionally po-faced metal of previous eras. Case in point: Their fascinating new collection of B-sides, live tracks, covers and instrumentals has been given the truly punderful title “Medium Rarities.” 

The literal beating heart of this behemoth is drummer and co-vocalist Brann Dailor, who founded the group alongside bandmates Troy Sanders, Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliger in Atlanta in 2000. Having started playing drums at “three or four years old,” there was never much question of what Dailor wanted to do with his life. “My grandmother played the bass and sang in a jazz group, my grandfather played guitar and sang in a country group, my mom was a singer in a hard rock band, they did covers and stuff,” he says. “So I was going to play music. It was [just a question of], ‘What instrument are you going to play?’” 

But in a world virtually unrecognizable from where we were even 20 years ago, how does a band adapt and continue to resonate with fans, particularly a younger generation with a very different set of values? Dailor doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but he’s excited to see the changes occurring around him.

How are Mastodon handling coronavirus lockdown? I know a lot of you have some pretty niche hobbies, like your velvet painting collection. Is that keeping you occupied?

The velvet painting collection is kind of at a standstill, and has been for a little while. But because of the lockdown, I drew a clown every single day for 101 days straight.

What was the impetus for that?

I used to draw all the time, and I always threatened that I was going to start back up again. I guess it took the lockdown for me to think, “Let me draw something.” The lockdown happened mid-March, and I cracked open a sketch book and I drew a clown, and I liked how it turned out. I said, “I’ll just keep this going for 14 days,” because the lockdown was only supposed to last for 14 days, then everything was going to go back to normal. I said, “I’ll have 14 clowns, and that’ll be a nice little clown collection.” One hundred and one days later, I finished [with] the clowns. 

It gave me a nice little ritual every day. I would send the clowns out to friends on my phone — I don’t have Instagram or anything like that, so it was very personal for people. If it was 7 p.m. and I hadn’t sent the clown out yet, I’d start getting texts from people going, “Hey, where’s the clown? What’s going on?” It definitely became a thing. It’s probably the first time in 20 years that I haven’t obsessively thought about Mastodon and what we were going to do next. It was actually kind of nice to shut that off for once.

Are they nice clowns? Terrifying, freakish monster clowns? A mix?

They’re all over the map, really. There was one that scared people — I call it Peek-a-Boo, it was a door, but cracked open a little bit so you could just see the clown’s face poking in. I did a Texas Chainsaw Massacre clown, I did a Jaws clown. I’ve got to get them all photographed and do a coffee table book at some point.

It was an exercise where I’d come up with an idea the night before, and where previously defeatist Brann would say, “You can’t do that,” or, “You’re incapable of drawing that, so don’t do it,” I’d just do it. And it didn’t matter, because I don’t consider myself to be an artist in that way. No matter how it turned out, I didn’t really care, whereas with Mastodon, everything has to be totally perfect. I struggle with, “What are people going to think?” So it gave me a fresh approach to music, where I’m like, “I don’t really care what anyone thinks,” which isn’t me at all. It’s one of the things I hate most about myself — that I’m such a people pleaser, and I want everyone to be happy, and I want everyone to like everything that I do. With Mastodon and with music, I’m like, “Oh, please like it.” So I think I’ve shed a bunch of that throughout this coronavirus, which is a really good thing.

Who would have thought clowns would be the medium through which to do that?

Exactly.

The idea of “the woods” comes up a lot in your work, and as a band, you seem like you have a pretty strong connection to the outdoors, to wilderness. Has this pandemic strengthened that connection, or has it made you learn to appreciate the indoor life?

No, I think for probably a lot of people, including myself, it’s strengthened the bond with nature. Personally, I’ve been alone a lot, and I found going on a lot of walks and being with nature was a way to escape a little bit. I found myself looking up a lot more. I have about 1,000 pictures with clouds on my phone now. I’d be like, “Holy shit, look at that cloud!” But yeah, we’ve always included nature in our lyrics and themes. There’s lots of templates that you could follow that are all within nature.

I know you guys don’t think of yourself as primarily a metal band, but even within, let’s say, hard rock, it’s a genre that’s traditionally extremely linked to a certain type of masculinity. I’m curious how you think that’s evolved over the last couple decades, and where you see yourself in that.

I think there’s more sides to it now than there was in the past. Although, metal wasn’t completely one-sided — at its roots, although you could think of Black Sabbath as being this very masculine group, when you meet them, you understand that they were just kind of like hippies. There was this feminine angle — when you hang out with Bill Ward, you understand that there’s this femininity to it that also existed. Even Metallica, they have their Beauty and the Beast, I think. Songs like the song we covered, “Orion,” that’s a very beautiful song. I don’t know that you want to separate these two things and say that when something’s very, very heavy and aggressive, that that’s the male persona, because that also can be a feminine trait. Things aren’t so black and white.

But I’m taking the two prime examples of heavy music, Metallica and Black Sabbath, and obviously that’s all guys, there’s no females in those bands. It’s nice to see more female representation in the genre as time moves along. Unfortunately, especially when I was a kid, if a girl was to show any interest in, say, playing drums, [it was seen as] a very masculine thing. I see a lot more females playing drums nowadays, playing metal, double bass, just killing it, and it’s awesome. That’s come a long way. Is that threatening to other males? Who cares! It should be a thing that’s welcomed and folded in and accepted in every shape and form.

Who do you think were the pioneers, musically, in turning rock away from its often more meathead roots and into something more sensitive and introspective? I always thought Kurt Cobain, for example, stood out among his grunge contemporaries for insisting that he was a feminist.

I would say Nirvana’s one of the perfect examples, because they sort of turned everything upside down as far as the rock god, Robert Plant-with-an-eggplant-in-his-trousers thing — these guys in these bands expecting to be worshiped by groupies. All the hair metal bands got mad at Nirvana, because they took their party away, you know what I mean? 

Yeah, like that scene in The Wrestler where Mickey Rourke’s character talks about “that Cobain pussy” ruining everything.

It’s like, “Hey, you guys were being wildly inappropriate in every aspect, you had to know that that was coming. You had to know that the ax was going to fall at some point.” You can’t just go through that life and that lifestyle and just think, “This is the way it’s going to be forever, and no one’s ever going to call us out. We can just grab them by the pussy.” But Nirvana, they were conducting themselves in a different way. That’s the example where you could say, that’s a pivot point. It opened things up and changed things. It changed the mind set that was very much, “We’re dudes, we’re in the band; you’re a girl, so you’re a groupie — that’s the way it is.”

I would also say, as weird as this might sound, but Motorhead, too — Lemmy was such a champion of Girlschool. Motorhead was maybe forward thinking in that way: “These girls kick ass and we’re going to take them on tour, not because we want to bang them, but because they’re awesome, we like their music, and we think that it’s important. We want these girls to be an example for other girls coming up, to play heavy metal and not have it be this exclusive club for just men. We really, really should be equal.” So Motorhead is also a good example, [although] I think that a lot of people would also be like, “What are you talking about?” [Laughs]

Just how much of an effect do you think #MeToo has had on the music scene? Do you think musicians who are clearly in a position to influence their fans are more aware of the power and the responsibility that they hold now?

I mean, I don’t see how they couldn’t. Probably the truly depraved men that are out there, I don’t know that they’re learning anything, but the people that were maybe on the fence, or didn’t really understand their behavior, maybe this has forced them to be more introspective and look at themselves in the mirror. Even myself, it’s a check yourself moment for everyone, for every male that’s in any position of influence in that way.

I think a lot of guys started playing in bands because they wanted to figure out a way to get a girl, and when #MeToo happened, every single one of those guys, hopefully, had to be like, “Okay, first of all, what can I do to change this thing about myself? And what can I learn from this experience? What can I learn from this moment in time? What can I do to change my own behavior?” So hopefully, a lot of people had those moments.

There’s probably guys that have been too far gone, and they don’t want that party to end, the one that Nirvana took away. I don’t know, everyone’s so secretive. A female friend of mine said, “Every girl knows someone who has been raped, or sexually assaulted. But no guy knows a rapist.” That’s pretty heavy. I mean, as man, fuck, you do know somebody who’s a rapist, but they never told you about it, because they’re not going to tell you about that shit. You have to go back and check every single encounter you’ve ever had and be like, “Was I that guy?” For a lot of guys, I’m sure it was a startling realization that maybe they were, and maybe they had to right those wrongs or have difficult conversations. I think it’s a great thing, the reckoning, at least.

I’m curious what you make of the late-in-career switch to Christianity or conservatism from figures in the more traditional metal scene. Why does someone like Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine or System of a Down’s John Dolmayan drift further to the right as they age? Is metal’s very strong instinct toward individualism a sort of gateway to libertarianism?

I never really understood the finding God thing. I guess it just depends on the person and where they are in their life. Being a professional musician that does nothing but tour for most of their life, you’re out there on the road, there’s not a lot of jobs that you can go to where, when you walk in in the morning, there’s eight cases of free beer and about six bottles of liquor on the table. A lot of guys become pretty hardcore alcoholics, and then at some point they hit their bottom, and at that bottom, for a lot of people, is God. 

As far as the right wing stuff, like Johnny Ramone, I’m not sure, I think it’s upbringing. I think that he was probably pretty far to the right for most of his life. I don’t really know Mustaine’s political affiliations, you’re telling me that he’s far to the right?

He’s kind of all over the place, but he certainly leans heavily that way. He’s not as consistently right wing as Dolmayan, who’s a full-on Trump guy, which I find mystifying. I don’t know how you can be in a band like System of a Down and be a Trump guy — I just don’t understand how it works.

Wait, who’s the Trump guy in System of a Down?

Their drummer, John Dolmayan.

Oh, is he really? I didn’t know that. It’s unfortunate, when you find that out about someone, it’s like “What?” And seriously, how can you be an artist and think that that guy’s cool? Because that guy doesn’t think that you’re cool. That guy’s not on board with you, that guy wouldn’t fucking shake your hand unless there was a photo op involved. That guy doesn’t give a shit about you. He doesn’t give a shit about anybody but himself. It’s so fucking obvious, so I don’t know how you get there. I don’t know how you rationalize it. Rationalization is obviously the most important thing in life, so everybody has their way to be okay about how they feel. But yeah, that mystifies me, I have no idea how you play in System of a Down and be a Trump supporter.

Speaking of confusing and frightening ideas, do you find it weird that metal is still the de facto “scary” genre? Even David Letterman introduced you by saying, simply, “I’m frightened.” (Although I have to assume that was kind of an honor?)

It’s human nature to want to be a little bit scared on purpose, but feel safe at the same time — horror movies and things like that. Black Sabbath knew what they were tapping into, there’s literally people lining up to go into the movie theater to be scared. I also heard Kerry King say the same thing when we were on tour with [Slayer] and Killswitch Engage. I remember Killswitch Engage was a little more lighthearted — Adam [Dutkiewicz] is in the trash can, he’s got silly shorts on; he’s just wild, crazy and super funny. 

Kerry was like, “Not me.” He was saying, from Slayer’s point-of-view, the vibe needs to be like you’re watching The Exorcist, it needs to be scary shit for real. That’s how they want to present. And I get that, I love that — I like that aesthetic as well. I loved horror movies when I was a kid. But there’s all sorts of different styles of that. As far as Mastodon’s concerned, we step outside of that realm all the time, with humor, with our videos and stuff, and we don’t try to take ourselves too seriously. But I’m all for it if you want to present that and you encapsulate that, and hold onto it, make sure that it’s not tarnished in any way. Slayer has done that.

Brann Dailor, Bill Kelliher, Brent Hinds and Troy Sanders of Mastodon. Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for NARAS

I was going to point out that, despite the haunted, trippy nature of your music, you’re also a band known for having a great sense of humor — dressing up as Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World for a Kerrang! shoot, wearing your delightful balloon suit to the Grammys, etc. How important would you say a sense of humor is for a fully functioning adult human?

I can’t be friends with you if there’s no sense of humor, that’s just not going to work. I have a super dry sense of humor, and for the four of us in Mastodon, a lot of it comes down to, we just make each other laugh and we spend all day trying to do so. Being in the band for 20 years, it’s 20 years of inside jokes. If you hang out with us, you’re going to be so fucking annoyed because you’re not going to know what’s being said, we’re just going to be nonstop with these inside jokes that we’ve collected over 20 years. We speak to each other in code almost, and I think a lot of bands are probably the same way. I would imagine that when Metallica is hanging out together, it’s, like, inside jokes for days. It’s incredibly important.

What’s your favorite band-based comedy? Spinal Tap? Airheads? Bill & Ted (whose third movie you wrote a song for)?

Oh, Spinal Tap. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, because if you’re in a rock band, it starts to unfold alongside you, in tandem with your life. You get to see just how close they were. It’s like, “Fuck, oh my God, Spinal Tap, they nailed it.” The aging rock star that I am is just very much experiencing Spinal Tap on a daily basis.

Have you had one particular moment that’s like your own personal Spinal Tap hell?

Yeah, there’s been several. Every day on tour, the little fucking bread, it’s like, “Oh, my God, it’s Spinal Tap bread.” You’ll be in Europe somewhere and there will be these tiny little pieces of bread, and you can’t say anything — you cannot say anything, because that movie has ruined the opportunity to complain about little bread.

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