Consider Mastodon the horticulturists of metal. For guitarist Bill Kelliher, crafting the Atlanta-based group’s latest album, “The Hunter,” was a swift, easy process.
“It just kind of came together really quickly in the studio,” Kelliher says. “You could kind of just see it growing everyday and someone would come in and add something. It was kind of like a shrub, we planted it from seed and every day someone would water it or fertilize it and you could see it growing into this magnificent — it was more like a weed growing into a beautiful tree.”
With catchy hooks on tracks such as “Curl of the Burl” and “Creature Lives,” the album continues Mastodon’s growth as a metal band looking for a groove instead of the frenetic chaos that defined earlier efforts.
Currently, Mastodon is on the road with Swedish prog-metalheads Opeth for the Heritage Hunter Tour. Before stopping at The Fillmore Silver Spring on May 9, Kelliher took time to chat with The Gazette about Opeth, punk rock and tacos.
A&E: You guys are touring with Opeth, who started a little bit earlier than Mastodon. Did you listen to them much?
Kelliher: I never really listened to them. I never really got into Opeth. I think I might have heard of them a little bit, but my tastes are kind of weird… I’m more your standard metal guy. I was more into Metallica and Slayer and that was pretty much it for metal. I was pretty close-minded. Not close-minded, but if it wasn’t as heavy as Slayer then I didn’t like it. If it wasn’t as pretty as Metallica, then I didn’t like it or didn’t get into it. I was more of a punk rock kid. I was into all the punk rock bands, I didn’t pay much attention, I guess.
A&E: Was it much of a jump for you to be in a metal band?
Kelliher: My first band was a punk rock band and I slowly started to play metal with other dudes, but we did punk covers. When I joined the band Today Is The Day, I just wanted to play music. I was starting to get older and I just wanted to be in a band that was working and doing stuff and I always tried to write thrash and metal in my own kind of way. So when Mastodon started, I already had a bunch of songs left over... Brann [Dailor, Mastodon’s drummer] and I started writing for Mastodon when Today Is The Day was on the way out. The stuff I was writing then, I played in a band with Brann before called Lethargy and that was super tech metal, straight up, like it was like death metal with a lot technicalities in it. I wasn’t 100 percent in love with it. I thought it was cool, but there wasn’t any room for expression. It was very robotic and very precise it had to be perfect, everything about it.
A&E: On Opeth’s latest album, they moved away from the growling, more intense vocals and that’s something Mastodon did a while back. Was that a conscious decision or just how the music evolved?
Kelliher: It’s really how the songwriting evolves, you know? We don’t really think, “Okay, with this record we’re going to start singing.” It just kind of happens to be that the riffs that we write kind of lend themselves to that kind of tonality in the vocals. When we first started writing, everything was really fast and kind of messy and loud and explosive so were the lyrics, and a lot of stuff has changed as the band grows and we mature and we start writing a little bit cleaner, I guess. To us, it’s the next step to just write a little more melodically... When we first started, nobody could really sing, so everyone was yelling and screaming into the microphone. And now we’ve been doing it for so long that it’s evolved. It’s just the natural progression of the band.
A&E: You guys covered Feist’s “A Commotion” for Record Store Day and she did the band’s “Black Tongue.” How was it working on that song?
Kelliher: It was easy. It was fun. We just kind of tuned our guitars real low and just tried to kind of follow what they were doing and just get the feel there and make it a Mastodon song kind of pick up what they were doing and strap on the broadswords, put on the heavy armor and the chain mail to it, attaching that slowly, the spikes and the bullet-belts and all that [expletive], I guess. I don’t know.
A&E: A Mastodon-Feist crossover just seemed unlikely, but you have done covers before.
Kelliher: This was definitely the furthest away from our natural habitat, but we’re just showing people that we’re not just a one-trick pony. We all have different musical tastes and pop music is one of them and great songwriting is great songwriting, whether it’s AC/DC or Slayer or it’s Feist or it’s The Pixies or it’s [expletive] the Dead Kennedys. Music is music, you can’t just say, ‘Well, I don’t like that [expletive] because it’s pop-rock or it’s soft or it’s folk art.’ It’s all relative.
A&E: I heard you recycled some riffs on “The Hunter” that you wrote years ago. What are some examples on the record?
Kelliher: The song “All The Heavy Lifting,” there’s a couple parts in that song toward the end that were riffs that were written for “Blood Mountain” that never really made it on the “Blood Mountain” record. They weren’t really recycled, but they came back into play. There’s a song called “The Ruiner,” which was left over from the “Crack the Skye” sessions that’s like a special edition song that’s on there. Also “Deathbound.” That song was leftover from the “Crack the Skye” sessions. It didn’t make it on that record, it just sounded too different.
A&E: I know that Mastodon mask, which is on the cover of “The Hunter,” is out, but I was looking around on the merchandise page and saw the Mastodon taco luggage tags. Is there a story behind that?
Kelliher: We love tacos, man. Who doesn’t?