Brann Dailor on Badass Art, Ridiculous Videos and the Genesis of Mastodon
If I didn’t already know him, picking out Brann Dailor at a booth inside the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club on a recent Thursday night would still be a simple task. Is he the one wearing a golden yellow Genesis T-shirt? Why, yes, of course he is.
The funny thing is, maybe five years ago I was at the Variety Playhouse checking out a show by The Musical Box, the Peter Gabriel-era Genesis tribute band that faithfully recreates concerts and Gabriel’s bizarre stage costumery from the group’s early years. Hey, whatever – I’ve never claimed to be cool. And who did I happen to run into that evening, eagerly taking in the performance? Brann and his immensely awesome wife Susanne Gibboney (from Tiger! Tiger!, Lust and Catfight!). “What are you doing here?” I asked, to which I remember him replying something to the effect of, “I’m a nerd for all this stuff! My favorite album is The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway!”
On the one hand, it’s a relief to know Brann isn’t cool either! On the other hand, Brann is cool as fuck! And on the other hand, it all makes sense anyway when you consider that Mastodon – for whom Brann sings and drums, alongside Brent Hinds (guitar, vocals), Troy Sanders (bass, vocals) and Bill Kelliher (guitar) – are often as much a prog band they are a metal band or basic rock band, what with their head-spinning instrumental intricacies and wild fantasy-themed concept albums. But one of the things I love about Mastodon (and actually, there are many) is that they’ve steadily infiltrated the mainstream without sacrificing their balls. Produced by hometown hero Brendan O’Brien (who also guided 2009’s Crack the Skye), the Atlanta band’s seventh and latest album Emperor of Sand (Reprise Records) has been their most successful to date, debuting in the Billboard top ten. With its masterful marriage of fang baring might, high-concept mumbo-jumbo (with a deadly serious underlying inspiration, mind you) and commercial accessibility, the album kicks ass. Beyond that, it’s just reassuring to know that a real rock band can make any sort of meaningful mainstream impact anymore. There aren’t many of them left at that sort of level, honestly, that are still in their prime.
It’s the result of years (approaching 18) of hard work and dedication, which sounds cliché but it’s true. This band works tirelessly, tours relentlessly. They’re back on the road this fall, in fact, including their first headlining show at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre on Friday, October 6th. That particular accomplishment is still a major jewel in the crown for any Georgia band, a milestone all serious local groups aspire to, with only a few reaching that level. “It’s huge, it’s crazy,” admits Dailor, 42. “All of us, we’ve all talked about it for years, like, ‘I wonder if we’ll ever play the Fox…I wonder if we could do it…’”
Don’t ever dismiss Dailor – who occasionally indulges his prog love even further with Arcadea, a keyboards/drums recording project with Atlanta musician Core Atoms – as merely “Mastodon’s drummer.” In addition to singing and writing a good chunk of their material, he also has a major hand in other aspects of their world domination. But, prompted by his Genesis shirt, we got to all that in a roundabout way (Yes reference unintended… probably.)
I’m not a humongous, dedicated, diehard metal fan, or prog head, or anything like that. But I do like certain bands or artists from a wide range of genres, and I think the ones that I gravitate towards are the ones that try to make it more accessible, and try to do “pop” songs in their style. Maybe not pop songs, but hooky, catchy…you know what I mean.
“Yeah – that’s what I need. I need that to like music. I think Genesis, as proggy as they were, they were super catchy and memorable. That’s what sets your big three or four ‘prog’ bands apart from the noise of it all, where you have all these groups, and the ones that rose to the top are Yes, and Genesis, and Rush. They had hooks. They had pop hooks that were super memorable, that kept coming back. Even a song like ‘Close to the Edge’ has that. It’s poppy and hooky.”
Even some of the early Genesis, like ‘Watcher of the Skies,’ is kinda like that.
“Half that album [1972’s Foxtrot], I mean, ‘Get ‘Em Out by Friday,’ all that stuff, it’s pretty poppy, although it’s got some complex drumming and they have their moments of really super complex cool stuff. But that’s sort of what [Mastodon] tries to do, is have that balance, you know, where you have the proggy stuff and the stuff that’s fun to kinda nerd out on, and then juxtapose that with a big hook that people can really sink their teeth into. And that we can sink our teeth into in the studio doing it.”
Something about Rush that I appreciate, that you may not even realize until you see them in concert and you see the videos they play and there’s washing machines running onstage and everything… they have a kooky sense of humor.
And you guys do, too. And I love that, because one of my big pet peeves with a lot of metal bands, especially, and prog bands, is the whole facade of having to be deadly serious or angry or whatever, all the time. It’s not fun.
“I agree. I think, obviously, everyone does a certain amount of self-editing. So they only allow certain people to see certain sides of themselves. But if you’re hanging out with the guys in Slayer, it’s jokes the whole time. But to hear [Slayer guitarist] Kerry [King] explain it, he’s just like, ‘When people come to see Slayer, I want them to be like they’re going to a horror movie. They’re going to go see The Exorcist, a scary movie.’ And I understand that. And our music, lyric content-wise, it’s very serious, everything’s heavy and very dark, and all that. But we also all have senses of humor. For the life of me, I can’t come up with a ‘serious’ video concept [laughs]. I don’t know what it is! I’ve never had a dramatic theme or idea for a video, where I was like, ‘OK I’m gonna sit down and write this treatment for this video…’ It always ends up turning out to be something ridiculous more than anything else. We did a couple of videos early on, off the first record, and we had someone else do the treatment, and someone else directed it, and even though I thought that they came out good, they were not really what I envisioned for us. It just seemed kinda boring to me. I thought we could do so much more. I had an idea for this clown video, doing it at the Star Bar [the ‘Blood and Thunder’ video, from 2004’s Leviathan]. So, from that point on, we really were like, ‘We’re going to be in charge of our videos, and we’re going to write the treatments, and make sure that we’re in control of that aspect of our thing.’ And that’s the avenue for us to explore our weird, wacky sense of humor and put it out there. Make a video for a song that’s super serious, about something serious that might have happened – a tragedy, even – and then make a ridiculous video out of it that has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter or the content of the song. Which has infuriated some fans. But we’ve seen plenty of treatments from people, and they just never really…I dunno. It’s just never really done it for me. Every time I see some of those videos, it just makes my eyes roll. It’s hard to be serious and dramatic! Hahaha! I mean, come on! Look at me! Brent, I guess, could be menacing, but even he is a total goofball. Everybody in the band is, to an extent.”
Album art is another area in which Mastodon excels. You’re credited for “art direction” on Emperor of Sand. And you may have also been on your other albums, too – forgive me, but I didn’t go back and look. But you do have a pretty heavy hand in the visual direction of the group, right?
“Yeah, try to. I usually have something in mind, some kind of direction of what to do for the album art. And with the T-shirts and stuff, I’ll get in touch with the artist and, if they’re a fan, I’ll say, ‘Imagine you’re approaching the merch stand. Just make the most badass T-shirt that you wouldn’t be able to resist from across the room!’ I mean, you pick the artists for a reason: because you admire their work. And sometimes I’ve noticed that when I direct some of them in T-shirt design, I might not get their full potential back, because I bridled them in some way, or told them, ‘This is what needs to happen.’ Didn’t let them do their own thing and surprise me with something fantastic. But, with the album artwork I feel different about it. I feel really protective about it. Usually we’ll have a very strict vision as to what as what it needs to be. I’m not opposed to some surprises. But if we don’t like them, as a band, we put the kibosh on it pretty quick. I just feel like it’s so important… it’s important to me, anyways, and it’s important to the guys in the band, that it’s something amazing. And I feel like we’ve had a really good track record. I think people look forward to seeing our album art.”
Your album covers have always been incredible. Every one of your covers have been works of art, like the kind of thing you would see in a really cool gallery, wall-sized and stuff.
“Yeah, I mean we got we got really fortunate early on to be able to be able to work with a guy named Paul Romano out of Philadelphia [who did the cover for Leviathan]. I just had this idea, I just wanted this classic looking painting, you know. Something that didn’t really look like a metal album cover. Something that looked like a Dutch Masters type of painting, like a Vermeer. So we had this idea that came out of a dream that I had. And I just told Paul, I explained the dream, and the dream had this horse that was falling down, and it was on fire, and his eye was kinda buggin’ out… And he painted it beautifully, in his style. Paul’s a classically trained oil painter, and he’s a really great artist and great painter, and that started our relationship, and we went on to do, I think, four albums with him. And just more and more far out and crazy as each package went along, and when we got to Crack the Skye with him, it was everything – all the art that he put in there is insane. I’d send him lyrics, and send him music – we had a really close, tight relationship with him, with the art, and just being really specific about what we wanted to see. We come from the same era of vinyl, where you sit there with your album cover, your Miles Davis Bitches Brew, and you crack it open and stare at all the little bits and pieces that are there while you’re listening to it. I like that. And for us, it never went away, but now it’s back with a vengeance. Which is awesome. So we cater to that audience, kind of. That’s our demographic – people that are into collecting that kind of stuff. Colored vinyl with all the bells and whistles, all the crazy art. I like all that stuff, and the guys in the band love all that stuff.”
Have the other covers been done by artists that you already knew?
“I’d met Skinner, the guy who did [2014’s] Once More ‘Round the Sun, he’d done some work for the Melvins, and had befriended them and their tour manager, this guy named Tim Moss, he’s out of San Francisco and was in a band called Men of Porn for a while. And he introduced me to Skinner, he said, ‘I think you’ll really like him, he’s a good guy and an amazing artist.’ And we became fast friends, and from then on, he did a shirt, and he did a couple posters, and another shirt, and then we started writing for Once More ‘Round the Sun, and I was like, ‘We’ve gotta get Skinner to do the album art!’ I had a whole spiel for him, as far as what I wanted it to look like. I went and took a bunch of pictures of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, and sent ’em to him, and said, ‘Can you make this sort of botanical monster that represents life?’ So, it’s just stuff like that. It’s not really too intense, but I try to keep everybody in the loop, as far as updates on how things are going. With Skinner, you know, he really loved Paul Romano’s work, so he was feeling like, ‘Man, I really need to show up for this! This is a huge thing, to do a Mastodon cover!’ And he did the quadruple gatefold thing.”
Yeah, that was incredible.
“It was amazing, yeah. He just went above and beyond. He was so into it, and so excited. He’s a special, awesome dude. And then he introduced me to Alan Brown, who did the latest album cover. He said, ‘Man, this guy is just on another level! His work is evil and dark, but it’s got this whole other side to it that’s deep and emotive,’ you know. And I was going through the guy’s work, and was blown away. He had done a shirt for us – that’s kind of the ice breaker. ‘Hi, my name’s Brann. I play in this band called Mastodon. I love your work. Is there any way that maybe you wouldn’t mind doing a shirt for us?’ I give them the spiel, (a), to see if they know who I am or who the band is at all, and (b) if they would be interested in doing a shirt. Because I feel like a shirt is light and fluffy and it’s not a huge obligation. Like, if they wanna do it, they can. We obviously pay for the design and all that stuff. But, I dunno – it’s a big part of it, for me. I think about it all the time. Like, new shirts… I’m a T-shirt person! I’ve always been T-shirt crazy, since I was a kid. So I want our band to have the most badass T-shirts that we can. As far as the art’s concerned, Brent is also into visual art and crazy art. He and I are more into the visual art thing. And are kind of protective of the aesthetic of the band, I guess.”
Mastodon has a new EP out called Cold Dark Place, and from what I can gather, the cover for that was Brent’s concept.
“It was, yeah. He wanted to take the reins on that, so he got in touch with Richey Beckett, who did the White Walker picture disc, and the T-shirt that we did for Game of Thrones. And he did, I think, probably three T-shirt designs for us. So we were already buddies with him.”
So basically, any artist that wants to work with Mastodon has to first come up with a T-shirt design that blows your mind.
How many different T-shirts has Mastodon had?
“I have no idea. I’d say at least a thousand.”
Do you have them all? One of each?
“No. My dad does! He’s got like eight tubs full of Mastodon shirts. He’s like, ‘Do you want these? You know, at first, I wasn’t sure how many shirts you were gonna make!’ Hahaha! Every time the merch company makes a new batch of shirts, they send him a box. He’s got too many!”
This ties in with the visual thing as well – I’ve always loved that your sense of humor comes through in your band photos. Not all, but a lot of them. Some are straightforward and serious, but then there are others where the guys are looking all goofy pushing you through a park in a shopping cart or something. Most bands – metal bands, at least – would not let the pretense down like that. They feel the need to be “dark” 24/7. Is that something that you personally encouraged, or was it something that happened naturally due to the personalities of the band members?
“I think it comes pretty natural for us. You know – it comes natural to be morons! Hahaha! I don’t know…none of us really want to be portrayed as being serious all the time. Like I said before, it’s just not true. So, like with videos, we have ideas for photos. Like, ‘Let’s take pictures of us in our pickup trucks,’ or… we’ll go to a certain location, and we usually try to have a concept before then… like, last year we had a guy dress up like a clown, and we were in the woods looking all tough, but in the background there’s this clown with a bunch of balloons, hahaha! So, it’s like, you’re kinda giving them what they want, a little bit. You want, what, four angry white dudes? I don’t know what they want.”
Well, you know what the stereotypical metal band photo looks like.
“We definitely don’t wanna do that, and we don’t want to be associated with cliché metal or anything. Because I guess, like, as much as I love heavy metal – and it’s one of the pillars of my childhood, as far as what I kind of aligned myself with for like five years of my life – at 15 I was already moving on in another trajectory, musically. I heard the Mr. Bungle album, which led me to John Zorn, and Bill Laswell, and all that weird stuff, which got me back into John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and back to Genesis and King Crimson, and Camel, and, you know, all that crazy stuff. And so, I guess I listen to everything. ‘Don’t pigeonhole me, man!‘”
I’m not trying to, but Mastodon, whether you like it or not, is generally considered a metal band, associated with that genre.
“Of course. So I guess we do everything in our power to let people know that we’re not the ‘standard’ metal band.”
You’ve increasingly done more lead singing in Mastodon. Seems like it’s now pretty evenly split between you, Brent and Troy. It’s gotta be tough for you, personally, during live shows, singing lead and drumming as hard as you do at the same time…
“Yeah, especially in Denver. It’s a challenge, for sure. I really have to take very good care of myself on tour. I can’t party with the boys too much. And we don’t really…it’s definitely not like it used to be. But it can’t be that way, for me. I can drink beer on tour, a little bit here and there, but…I’m expected to be able to pull that off every night, an hour and a half every night.”
Do you have any secrets besides just taking care of yourself? Is it just a massive amount of practice?
“Pretty much. I practice a lot. I practice just about every day when I’m alone. As much as I’d…I mean, it could be the last thing I want to do in the whole world, sit and go through the Mastodon set in my basement by myself. But I sit down there and do it, with headphones. Those guys don’t wanna do it! And I understand that, but for me, it’s an athletic thing. And I’m 42 years old. So, I don’t wanna put them through that, where they have to go through the set. But before we go out on tour, I’ve gone through it ten times. Usually it’s the same set [every night], with a couple songs different. So, really, we only have to go through it at the rehearsal space, as a band, like twice. But me, I need to start way before that. I’m just super disciplined about it. Always have been. It’s really important to me, to put on a great show. If I play really well, then I’m happy when we’re done, and not ‘at the bottom of Blood Mountain,’ as I call it.”
You mentioned Game of Thrones. You have that whole connection now – you’ve been extras on the show twice. Were you guys fans of the show before that association started?
“Yeah. Our sound guy and our lighting director, they were like, ‘Have you seen Game of Thrones yet?’ I was like, ‘No. What is that? Like Conan, or Star Wars?’ They were like, ‘No – you have to watch it.’ I watched the first episode, and I was hooked. I quickly dialed through the first couple seasons, and I think they were just about to start season three. So we started watching as a band family, you know, on Sunday nights. If we were onstage, we’d tape it on the bus, or TiVo it, or whatever it is.”
And were the creators or producers of the show fans of Mastodon?
“Yeah. I think it was later that summer , we were playing the Sonisphere Festival [in Knebworth, England] – it was like Metallica, Alice in Chains, a big rock festival. And, we all split after we got done playing – we went back to the hotel because I think we were going home the next day. But Brent stayed to hang out. And he said a bunch of people came up and wanted their picture taken with him, and they had American accents, so he asked them where they were from. ‘We’re from L.A.’ ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘We’re from a TV show.’ ‘What TV show?’ ‘Game of Thrones.’ ‘Oh, shit! We love Game of Thrones!’ And then he recognized a couple of the cast members who were there. So our UK/Europe publicist was there, and she got information from a guy named Dan B. Weiss, who’s one of the writers and creators, and basically we just started emailing back and forth. We said, ‘We have a tour starting in Ireland,’ where they film outside of Belfast. And they said, ‘Well, we’re filming this huge battle scene – I don’t know if the guys are interested, but if they flew in a day early for their tour, they could come and be extras in the show.’ We were like, ‘Fuck yeah! That sounds amazing!’ So we went and got makeup, us and 300 other extras, and I got murdered 30 times in a row by a nice Hungarian man who slashed my throat and stabbed me in the stomach over and over again, ’til we got it right. And I don’t even think it made the cut. But that’s how it is.
“So that was that, and we were killed and brought back to life, so they had us [reappear] in this season as well. We went out there [to the U.K.] again, at the tail end of the press trip for Emperor of Sand, we went and did pretty much the same thing, but this time it was on a soundstage where they filmed Titanic. The White Walkers kind of look like Eddie, to me. That was one of the things that hooked me to the show. I remember saying to my friend, the lighting guy, ‘I bet you whoever is in charge of this show is into Iron Maiden, I guarantee, because that’s Eddie from Iron Maiden, for sure.’ He was like, ‘I dunno…’ And I met the guy, and sure enough! I told him, ‘I knew that somebody was a metalhead within the ranks here!’ He was like, ‘Oh, man – it looked way more like Eddie. We had to tone it down a little bit. It looked so much like Eddie we were afraid we were gonna get sued!’ So, it was cool. It’s probably the biggest show on television, and people are really into it, so, it’s really good publicity for us, I guess. Something for your tweets, or twats. It’s cool to be associated with it.”
A lot of what Mastodon does, with your songs and albums, is conceptual. Fantasy, sci-fi stuff. And I know that it’s all inspired by other things – serious, realistic circumstances – but you build a lot of crazy fantasy themes around that. Were you always into that sort of thing? Sci-fi and fantasy stuff, growing up, as a teenager? Movies, comic books…?
“Comic books, I guess mildly. Movies for sure. Movie were always – and still are – a big deal. You know, I liked Star Wars when I was a kid, obviously. If you were a kid in the mid ’70s, or you were a human being that lived in the U.S., or maybe Europe I guess, you liked Star Wars. But I don’t know if that’s where… I mean, that probably has something to do with the concept album thing, or the concepts having fantastical kinds of settings, I guess. But, when I was a kid, my mom took me to see Eraserhead when I was eight years old. And then we saw The Elephant Man. That’s the first movie I saw that made me cry when I was a little kid. I really connected to it. I connected a lot to movies. We went to the movies a lot. There was a movie theater that was really close to our house, and whenever my stepdad would come home and be in the bad way that he was in, my mom would gather me and my sister up and say, ‘Let’s go to the movies!’ And so we’d shuffle off, and go to the movies, until hopefully he would pass out or do whatever he was gonna do. The movie theater that was near our house was called the Cinema Theater, in Rochester. And it was only one screen, so whatever was playing, that’s what we were gonna go see. So, my sister and I were little kids, and we’d go in there and see Conan… I remember leaving, and being scolded by some of the other people that were in the theater – ‘I can’t believe you took this six-year old girl to Conan the Barbarian! It shows people getting their heads chopped off, and naked sex witches and stuff!’ [Laughs] [Mom] was like, ‘It’s better than what’s going on at my house!’ I loved Conan. Great movie. I definitely see music cinematically. Cinematic things kind of bubble up in my brain, and I’ll hear a certain riff or something that works to where I see a little scene unfold. And that works its way into whatever the concept is gonna be.
“You know, I had always wanted to do a concept album, because I loved Genesis’ Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – one of my favorite records of all time. And I really liked, when I was a kid, the King Diamond albums called Abigail and Them – I remember when I got those when I was probably 13 or 14, I was enthralled with the story that was being told throughout the whole thing. It just gave me a lot more to latch onto instead of a bunch of loose-leaf songs that I wasn’t sure what they were about from song to song. And I couldn’t tell you what half the songs I love are even about. I still never really pay too much attention to the lyrics. Susanne’s the polar opposite – she knows the lyrics for every song, and she knows what the song’s about. I can’t remember the lyrics to any song, but I can hum the guitar solo for you! But, I don’t know… from then, I started reading Joseph Campbell, and The Power of Myth, and I was like, ‘We can build our own mythology.’
“My grandmother always went to this psychic community in upstate New York called Lily Dale. It’s where you could go see the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull. So if you go to my grandmother’s house, there’s lots of that kind of stuff around. Tarot cards, a little I Ching, a little runes for ya. She wants to tell you about all the different ghosts that are at the house that will communicate with her. She’ll tell you about her astro-travel adventures to the pyramids and beyond. All this crazy shit.”
Sounds to me like she is where all these crazy concepts come from!
“Pretty much, yeah. At least, she definitely planted the seed for a lot of the more interesting twists and turns that are in some of them. [The concept for 2006’s] Blood Mountain was, you’ve got to get this crystal skull, and get to the top of the mountain, and insert it into the top of the mountain to eliminate the reptile brain, you know…I dunno…It’s written down somewhere, hahaha!”
Some of these concepts are pretty freakin’ wild.
“Yeah, they’re out there. You know, I did a lot of acid when I was a teenager, and I opened the doors of perception, and rode the snake, and, I know how all that stuff is. And I saw movies like Eraserhead when I was seven, so there ya go!”
Did you ever see it doing acid, though?
“Not Eraserhead, but I watched a lot of Alejandro Jodorowsky movies, and… You know, we try to set the tone when we write the lyrics, and getting into the ‘Mastodon zone,’ the more serious and cerebral side of it, I guess – we put those movies on. Even with Emperor of Sand, I was putting on Lawrence of Arabia, just [to imagine] being in that vast, desert landscape. ‘This desert is an ocean!’”
And the concepts act as sort of a mask or metaphor or whatever for the deeper inspiration of some of the lyrics.
“Yeah. For me, it’s not as interesting to be super literal. I mean, it doesn’t make for awesome T-shirts to have a picture of your loved one laying in a hospital bed [laughs]. ‘Here’s my mom – she doesn’t feel good! Wanna buy a T-shirt?’”
Seems like nine times out of 10 your concepts revolve around death, in some way. See, I’ve figured you guys out.
“Yeah. I mean, that’s the big question, right? I guess I’m not that worried about it anymore. I think about it a lot, though. I don’t know… I’m guessing the lights just go out. But who knows? It’s unknowable.”
Until it happens to you. And then who are you gonna tell?
“Yeah, exactly. I guess nobody. But yeah, it always kind of has to do with death. I think about it a lot, so it’s always there. I guess I don’t think about it in so much of a negative way. But I’m really interested in it, as a subject of exploration, as far as what are everybody’s opinions. I like to listen to people debate the subject for hours. Christopher Hitchens and all those guys just would sit and debate and debate and debate religion and death and all that good stuff. I love it. I could sit and listen to it for hours! Susanne is like, ‘Turn that shit off!’ It’s interesting to me. I’m interested in everybody’s take on it, and why they do the things they do, and what the motivations were for religion in the first place.”
What are your takes on it, personally?
“I feel pretty lucky, I wasn’t raised with any sort of religious background. My dad was a Buddhist and my mom was a party animal.”
Your stepdad was a party animal too, apparently.
“He was a party animal, too. And then the one after him was a partier, and the one after him… Yeah, I come from a long line of party animal stepfathers.”
And one Buddhist dad.
“It was pretty good, like, we’d be with my dad on the weekends. And my mom was in a rock band, they did Judas Priest covers and Rush covers, and King Crimson covers, and Genesis. And Black Sabbath, stuff like that.”
How interesting, that’s like every band you love.
“Exactly. Most people are not fans of their parents’ music. But not everyone’s parents were hippies in the ’70s that were into Mahavishnu Orchestra and Stevie Wonder. Some good tunes. But my dad definitely provided this tranquil [contrast]… The weekends with him we were in a zen center, where people weren’t speaking. You know, they’re doing two weeks without talking. So my sister and I had to zip it. But it was actually nice. Because I could just imagine what was going on at my house on the weekends, with the weekdays what they were! [Laughs]. It looked like a casting call for Boogie Nights, basically. Lots of handlebar mustaches and fringe. Let’s just say, it was the early ’80s in full swing. And the guy that was living in our house was the dealer. So he was making it happen, making the party happen, so naturally everybody was there. It was fun, though! It was fun to an extent.”
How old were you when you became aware of what was really going on?
“Uhhh, I don’t know that I was aware ’til much later. I mean, I had said some things that let them know that I knew what was going on, sort of. And they just kind of told me, ‘If you don’t want us to be put away, you can’t tell anybody about that.’ But things came to a crashing halt with all that. Luckily. I think that I was about ten or 11 or so.”
So, some people got put away.
“Yeah. So that was good. Not my mom. My mom and myself and my sister escaped, and we got out of it, relatively unscathed. But, it was fun because there was always a party at my house, and I had like 50 ‘uncles’ that were all super-fun to hang out with, because they had a lot of energy, hahaha! And they were always hanging out, so you had Fat Bruce, you know, everybody’s a character, and the guys in the band were awesome, and there were drums in the living room…”
Is that when you started playing?
“No, I started playing when I was younger. Like, probably three or four. My grandfather had a band as well. My grandfather played the Opry with my grandmother, they had a band in the early ’50s – ’53, ’54…. They played Ernest Tubb’s record store, and they played the Opry several times, with Johnny Cash. [Mastodon] just played the Ryman on the last tour, and by the end of the show, I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m staring out these windows that my grandparents stared out of in 1953.’ It was so cool. So, my grandfather, he was in a band with my uncle and aunt in the late ’60s, early ’70s, they were called Cinnamon Road. They practiced in the attic, and played bars around Rochester. Just a bar band. But my uncle had a kit up there in the attic that had like an 18″ kick drum, it was a little tiny Rodgers kit from the late ’60s. So I would make my way up there, at three or four years old, and I could sit back there and play. I could reach the kick pedal and make some noise. And my uncle would come up there all excited that I was back there playin’ the drums. He’d put a record on, like Montrose or something like that, and I’d play along to that. He’d be like, ‘Hey, you’re doin’ it! You’re keepin’ the beat!’ So, you know, I got what every kid wants – a little validation from my uncle, who’s the coolest person in the world. My uncle was pretty young when I was born, so he still lived with my grandparents. Him and my two aunts, they all lived there. And my mom was like 18 when she had me, so we were over there all the time.”
What was your mom’s band called?
“They were called Kaper, with a K. That means rock ‘n’ roll – you gotta spell that shit wrong! And they did covers. Her first band was called Chaz. And then they had some member changes, and then they were called Kaper. Chaz was like ’77, ’78, and then Kaper started like ’80 and went to ’84, ’85. They would play bars, parties. They had like a four-hour long set. My mom did costume changes. They did ‘Supper’s Ready’ [by Genesis].”
It really sounds like that’s where you got your first taste of that kind of music.
“Absolutely. My dad, too. My dad was really into all that stuff. And then later he got into punk and new wave, in the early ’80s. He’d play me Elvis Costello, The Ramones, and Suicidal Tendencies, Blondie. And every Saturday he would pick me up and we’d go to the record store and pick out new records. So I remember him going, ‘Ah, the new Peter Gabriel is out!’ or whatever. The one with the melting face. ‘Holy shit, man!’ It really sparked my interest. And then it was another thing with movies. My dad would take us to the record store and then we’d go to a movie. That was my entertainment.”
Your mom was the singer for that band, Kaper?
“Singer, yeah. She did play a little bit of piano but then she got rheumatoid arthritis when she was 17, so it really crippled her hands and made it pretty much impossible for her to be able to continue playing piano, unfortunately. She had a great voice.”
Your mom got cancer, right? Which directly inspired the concept of Emperor of Sand…
“My mom…she’s got a lot of stuff. She’s a marvel of medical science, pretty much, that she’s alive. She’s died four or five times. She’s a tough cookie. I just went and saw her last week. It’s definitely a testament to the human spirit, because she’s been so sick for so long… We’re talking 30-something years of not feeling good. So, I don’t understand how that’s possible to get up and be like, ‘OK, I’m gonna go do stuff.’ And not feel like giving up. I mean, she feels like giving up. She does. But, something…she’s just had a lot of… I mean, I just don’t understand how one person could have that much bad luck. Rheumatoid arthritis, which, when it gets done with your cartilage it starts to go through your vital organs, so when you’re in a full flare-up, there’s almost nothing… it’s so hard to stop it from severely weaving a web through your lungs, or your heart or liver. So, really… it’s from those things, if they get bad, then they’ll put you on all these meds. So they put her on heavy, heavy doses that gave her diabetes, and that led to a whole other host of things.”
It was the treatment that led to other bad things?
I’ve heard similar things from other people.
“I mean, you know as much as I do, they’re wrong as much as they’re right. It seems like. It’s hard to gauge sometimes whether [doctors] know exactly what they’re talking about. From one doctor to the next. And now, where we are right now with her, she’s kind of at the end stages of that. With the cancer, she had some lung polyps, so she went on chemo for that. But, I mean… she’s alive. And when I was there visiting her we went to the Cinema Theater for the first time probably since 1984 or ’85. So she can still get around and go do stuff.”
Damn. I know that’s a hard thing to see.
“Yeah, it’s rough, and it’s frustrating because there’s not much you can do. Because she’s in pain. But she’s kind of caught in the middle of the opioid epidemic. She was one of the people that was, in the ’90s and the early 2000s, prescribed the highest doses of pain medication that you could ever get. And then when the opioid epidemic took hold, and she got sort of reassessed, they kind of took all that stuff away, and put her on very small doses of morphine and stuff. Taking her from the highest level of fentanyl anybody could ever be given, to something that’s not anywhere near that level. And then saying, ‘Sorry, this is the way it is now. It’s a new protocol.’ All of society in the U.S. has to kick their opioids down like this, because in the early 2000s, all the doctors were way over-prescribing opiates to everyone that had a fucking toothache. The doctors would say, ‘Nobody should ever feel any pain, ever.’ And the pharmaceutical companies were hovering over their backs with smiles on their faces, going, ‘Yeah! Let’s do this!’ And now you see where we’re at. But my mom doesn’t even know that that’s happening. She’s just like, ‘I’m in pain. I don’t know what these people are doing, but I’m in chronic pain.’ So, that sucks. There you go.”
Let’s talk about something more positive. Relapse released Arcadea’s self-titled debut album in June…
“Yeah, Core’s an old friend of mine. He plays in a band called Zruda. You might have seen him work in the security booth at Junkman’s Daughter. Wears a cool fedora, has a curly mustache. Well he’s a really cool, left-handed, upside-down guitar player from Rochester. And I used to be in a band called Gaylord with him back in Rochester in the early ’90s. It was really bizarre, kinda Mr. Bungly, kinda Shaft soundtrack, kinda weird funk. So when I moved to Atlanta, a few years later he decided to come down here as well, for a change of scenery. So maybe five years ago, he said he’d gotten a mini Korg, and just had it at his house, he was like, ‘Yeah, I really like this new keyboard that I got. I feel like I wrote some cool songs – you wanna check ’em out? Maybe play drums to ’em?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds cool!’ Because I’d always wanted to work with him again in some capacity, but I really didn’t wanna do another heavy guitar rock band, because I already kinda do that. So I listened to what he had been working on, and it sounded really cool and interesting, and not EDM. Almost like a heavy rock band, but all keyboards.”
Actually it sounds more like a lot of old prog than Mastodon.
“Yeah, and he’s a big fan of the old Genesis stuff. And I always love the moments in Genesis, the Tony Banks breaks, you know, where it’s all keys and things kind of lift off. Like, ‘What if we had a band that was all that stuff?’ So, that’s kind of where it started, and it took like three years, because I’m always gone… But I really like it because I don’t have to be uber-involved, you know, because I feel like Mastodon takes almost a hundred percent of my biology, my DNA. [Mastodon’s] the project that keeps me up at night, with tours, and tour visuals, and T-shirts, and merch, and everything that goes along with being in a band, and trying to stay on top of things. A lot of bands let creative control slip through their fingers, because they get busy and they’re on tour, or they just get old and tired, where they’re like, ‘I’m exhausted, I don’t wanna deal with that shit. Let the merchandise company decide what the T-shirt designs are gonna be.’ They let things get out of their control. And I don’t wanna be like, ‘I’m a control freak about it,’ but, I do want to micromanage some aspects of it. Make sure those aesthetics aren’t out of our control.”
Basically, it’s your legacy you’re creating. You should be protective of it. At a certain point. people are going to look back, and it’ll be their only impression of you.
“Exactly. It’s all we got!”
Photo by Jimmy Hubbard.