Mastodon – Reach For The Skye

Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds wasn’t always on the highway to hell. For most of his childhood, Hinds went to Christian school and attended church every Sunday with his parents and older brother. Then he discovered rock ‘n’ roll, started playing guitar, picked up a copy of Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible, and finally shed his remaining Christian vestiges with two tattoos: one of Jesus holding a black sheep on his left forearm, one of the devil on his right.

“It’s from the [AC/DC] song ‘Hell’s Bells,” Hinds explains. “That line that goes, ‘If God’s on the left then I’m sticking to the right.’”

These days, Hinds is a PTA mom’s nightmare, drinking, drugging, fighting, fucking, and playing in numerous bands, including the mighty Mastodon, one of the most successful and hardest working prog-metal outfits. He’s also added significantly to his tattoo collection, leaving just one thigh and “both butt cheeks” to have inked when he’s older. Hyperkinetic drummer and lyricist Brann Dailor and talkative, technically gifted guitarist Bill Kelliher are similarly decorated. Only easygoing vocalist and bassist Troy Sanders is relatively ink-free, with just a few small pieces on his legs.Collectively, most of Mastodon’s tattoos are playful or cool in a nerdy way. There are a slew of tattoos from the Star Wars saga (a must for prog geeks of all stripes), a zombie family, a sexy Ms. Pac-Man adorned in stockings and a garter belt, a giant yeti, a “Mastodragon,” and John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever.

Some of the tattoos are far more meaningful. Sanders had his daughter’s name tattooed above his right ankle when she was born, and when she turned 5, her handprint was inked on the outside of one leg. Last year, when Hinds’s dog of 16 years died, he had “R.I.P. Melvin” tattooed on his forearm. And, most significantly, in 1995 Dailor had a sacred heart inscribed with his late sister’s name, Skye, and the dates 1976–1990 on his chest, with flames going up his throat. “That’s my area for her,” he says in a soft, somber voice. “I surrounded it with yellow roses because she loved those.”

Before last year, Dailor had never really spoken about his younger sister, who committed suicide following a long bout of depression. But as Mastodon started working on their fourth full-length album, Crack the Skye, the drummer decided it was time to reference that dark part of his life in the new record title and lyrics. “I guess it was therapeutic. I’m still not 100 percent sure,” he says. “There are definitely things on this album about that, and I think I’ll just keep writing about it. That’s gonna have to be the way I deal with it for a while.”

Crack the Skye is easily Mastodon’s deepest, most personal album, yet it’s hardly morose, and if Dailor hadn’t revealed anything about his past, there’d be no way of knowing he was carrying such heavy personal baggage. Such is the way of the Mastodon. Since forming in 2000, the Atlanta band has confronted heartache, pain and hardship through metaphor and escapism. The group’s music—a complex, riff-heavy mélange of heavy metal and prog rock—requires focused concentration. You can’t casually listen to Mastodon. You have to clear your mind and inebriate yourself in the details. Like Tool and Neurosis, Mastodon are aggressive, cerebral and innovative. Many of their songs have choruses, but you have to wade through two verses, a pre-chorus and a middle-eight to get there. Some tracks don’t have choruses at all, just rhythm shifts and unconventional time signatures.

“I usually say I don’t write songs anymore, I write many songs within one song,” says Hinds, the most attention-deprived member. “As a fan of music, I get bored with pauses. I’m a big Frank Zappa fan—I wanna hear the whole entire orchestra of sound onslaught at once.”

Mastodon are almost as captivating lyrically as they are musically, addressing aspects of mythology, the occult, science fiction movies, and classic literature, and weaving them into multifaceted conceptual story lines. The band’s 2004 sophomore album, Leviathan, drew parallels between Captain Ahab’s obsessive search for the White Whale in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Mastodon’s insatiable quest for recognition. Their 2006 follow-up, Blood Mountain, compared their musical mission to that of explorers ascending a giant mountain fraught with dangers and magic. While those discs were ambitious, Crack the Skye takes the group into new territory.

Fueled by teenage acid excursions, childhood trauma, fantasy novels, and history, the album is about a boy who loses the use of his arms and legs after seeing the killing of his mother. He astrally projects into space but flies too close to the sun and accidentally burns away the umbilical cord separating him from the dead. Eventually, he gets sucked into a wormhole and winds up in the time of czarist Russia. Desperate to return to Earth, he pleads with wandering spirits to help him, so they reveal him to the underground sect the Khlysty during one of the group’s séances. The Khlysty devise a plan to trap the boy’s spirit inside the body of Rasputin, who they know is the target of an impending assassination. Then, when the mad monk is killed, he guides the boy’s spirit back to its proper body, and everyone trips happily ever after.

“I guess I’ve just always been a fan of bizarre things,” Dailor says, “And I really enjoy coming up with these ideas and developing them into this complete story. It’s not always easy, and, like the music, you wonder if it’s gonna come and appear, but it does.”

While Dailor conceived the idea of an invalid traveling through space and time over two years ago, the story parallels a near-death experience Hinds had in Las Vegas in September 2007. Mastodon had just finished an MTV Video Music Awards after-party show with Foo Fighters and Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister, and a very drunk Hinds was hanging out with ex-System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadjian in front of the Mandalay Bay casino. Caught up in the excitement, he removed his soaked T-shirt, swung it over his head, and accidentally whacked Wu-Tang Clan associate Rev. William Burke, who, he alleges, sucker punched Hinds so hard that he dropped to the ground and his head smacked the sidewalk.

“It was a cheap shot and if I would’ve seen it coming, it never would’ve happened,” says Hinds, pauses lengthening between words. “He’s a coward and complete asshole. He hides in the shadows and punches people out of nowhere, which is the most little girl thing I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s like, ‘Dude, grow some balls and fuckin’ face me, and I guarantee you’ll be going down, not me.’”Hinds was hospitalized with severe head trauma. At first, his brain was so swollen that his doctor called his relatives and suggested they fly to Vegas in case he didn’t wake up from his coma. “While I was unconscious, I had all these crazy dreams about out-of-body travel,” he says. “Maybe I was really having an out-of-body experience, because I was asleep for three days. It was really surreal and completely bizarre. I was there physically but mentally I was not there at all. I was out in the universe.”

Even after Hinds was released from the hospital, he suffered severe vertigo, and it took him a full month of bed rest before he was able to play guitar again. When he did, ideas came fast and furious. “I was really grateful to be alive, and I had a new lease on life,” he says. “I’d just sit there in Cheshire Cat flannel pajamas writing, and it was like I couldn’t stop. A lot of the songs were way longer at first. I’d take them to the guys and they’d go, ‘Dude, this song is, like, 20 minutes.’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, sorry. I got stoned and it felt so good I kept adding more and more parts.’”

To those he’s close to, Hinds is warm, generous, and funny. To others, he can be paranoid, obnoxious, even belligerent. “I think I’m very levelheaded until someone is completely out of line, and then I’m a total hothead and there’s a total vibe change,” he admits.Hinds was born in Helene, AL, in a devoutly religious home. His dad worked in the two-way radio communications business and listened to blues albums when he wasn’t working or praying. From a very young age, Hinds was interested in music and obsessed with the guitar. “When I was 5, I’d strum a tennis racket and play air guitar everywhere,” he says.

When Hinds was 7, his dad brought home an acoustic guitar. With the help of a neighbor, the boy learned Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” At 10, his parents went through an ugly divorce and his mother had a nervous breakdown in front of him. “I was trying to hug her and she went, ‘Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!’ And I went, ‘Shit, whoa, I’m never falling in love with no one.’ I think I’ve been in love a couple times, but love is a fucking devastating thing. Commitment is totally devastating to me.”

Hinds joined his first rock group, Kill Darling, when he was 16. The band created a local buzz and opened for national acts, including Widespread Panic and Foghat. But the next year, he graduated high school, packed up his guitar, and spent two years hopping trains and traveling the country. That pursuit ended abruptly in New Orleans when he was arrested for trying to steal a horse. “I was tripping on acid and drunk, and I walked over to this horse and started bridling him and walking away with him,” recalls Hinds. “This cop comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, what the hell do you think you’re doing?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m taking this horse with me.’ And he said, ‘No, you’re not. What the hell are you on?’ And I went, ‘I’m on the sidewalk, motherfucker, what are you on?’”

Following his first of several brushes with the law, Hinds went back to his home state and wrote music. When he was 19, he joined Birmingham-based band Knuckle with future Mastodon bassist Sanders. The band moved to Atlanta, changed their name to Four Hour Fogger, and unbeknownst to them, waited for their other half to arrive.

While Dailor isn’t nearly as volatile as Hinds, his life has been even more unstable. In addition to coping with his sister’s suicide, he has endured domestic abuse and alcoholism in his family and suffered through his own drug addiction and mental instability before music saved his life. Dailor was born in Rochester, NY, and his parents split up when he was 3, leaving him and his sister in the care of their mom and various boyfriends she had over the years.

He began playing drums at age 4 and quickly caught on, which was no surprise—his grandfather and grandmother were in a country band in Tennessee in the early ’50s, his uncle played drums, and his mom was in a hard rock and heavy metal cover band. “They would practice every night, and the house was always filled with a bunch of totally cliché-looking ’70s rocker dudes with brown fringe vests, long, curly hair, and handlebar moustaches. It was like a casting call for Boogie Nights.”

Like her son, Dailor’s mom escaped pain through music. When she was 19 she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, which gradually degenerated over time, often leaving Dailor and his sister to fend for themselves. In addition to listening to Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath, Dailor delved into science fiction, fantasy, and video games. Then he started playing in bands, but before he could hook up with a serious outfit, his sister overdosed and he spiraled out of control.

“I kept taking acid and doing bunches of drugs to try to deal with it, and it was evil,” he recalls. “Nothing made sense. My stepfather bailed because he couldn’t take it, and my mom and I were all alone. Then she went into a mental hospital and I started feeling suicidal, so I went to the hospital for a few weeks as well.”

In 1992, Dailor played in Lethargy with future Mastodon guitarist Kelliher. Frustrated by the inability to land a good record deal, Lethargy broke up in 1997, and Dailor and Kelliher moved to Clinton, MA, and joined Today Is the Day, a technical noisecore band that influenced numerous outfits, including Dillinger Escape Plan, Converge, and Between the Buried and Me.

Being in Today Is the Day seemed like a solid career move. The band was fronted by visionary and eccentric songwriter Steve Austin and had already released three well-received albums. However, Austin controlled every facet of the band, from songwriting to promotion, and his musicians were on a meager retainer. Determined to start anew, Kelliher made plans to move to Atlanta, where his girlfriend was working, and convinced Dailor to come along. They quickly found a rehearsal space and started writing. Ten days later, Dailor met Hinds at a High on Fire show at an Atlanta house party. “I knew he was the drummer for Today Is the Day,” Hinds says. “And I went, ‘Hey, man, my band Four Hour Fogger just broke up. I’m ready to go. We got a bunch of songs. Let’s get together.’”

Impressed by Hinds’s bravado, Dailor scheduled a jam session, but the whole thing almost went belly-up when Hinds met them at a local restaurant extremely stoned and drunk and nearly got into a fight with the cook. Then, when they got to rehearsal, he insisted on playing a single, droning chord over and over until everyone unplugged and left.

“I was kind of surprised because a lot of people told me he was a really good player, but they also said, ‘Oh, don’t be in a band with him. He’s got a lot of baggage.’ So there were red flags all over the place,” says Dailor. “But I called him the next day and invited him to my house so I could hear him play sober, and he came over with an acoustic guitar and ripped out all this crazy shit. I think he kind of knew the night before didn’t go so well. But he definitely proved himself to be an amazing guitar player.”

With the two factions united—Hinds and Sanders, Dailor and Kelliher—the musicians came up with their band name from Kelliher’s first tattoo, which depicts a Bantha skull from Star Wars that appears on Boba Fett’s armor. “Brent was looking at it and he was like, ‘What’s the name of that thing—not the woolly mammoth, but the other one?’” Kelliher says. “And we’re all, ‘Mastodon.’ And it just clicked. ‘Yeah, Mastodon. That sounds cool.’”

In August 2008, with Crack the Skye completed, the members of Mastodon figured they had ascended Blood Mountain again and their major career obstacles were behind them. Feeling triumphant, they headed to Europe in November 2008 to play a tour with Slayer. Then Kelliher almost died.

Mastodon were in the middle of a 15-hour bus ride from Cardiff, Wales, to Edinburgh, Scotland, when the guitarist started feeling a severe burning pain in his upper abdomen and stomach. He tried to sleep, then made himself throw up, but the pain increased. By the time the band reached Scotland, Kelliher was in agony. He went to a clinic and was given pills for gastroenteritis. They didn’t help and Kelliher couldn’t play the show. He struggled through the night sweating and shivering, and the next day in London he checked into the Royal London Hospital for tests. He expected to be there for a few hours. He would up staying two and a half weeks.

“One of my organs had swollen up really bad, and my blood sugar was through the roof,” Kelliher says. “My body was actually shutting down and going into shock. My doctor said that if I hadn’t gone to the hospital that day I easily could have died.”

Having endured two recent near-death experiences before releasing the most awe-inspiring album of their career, Mastodon are now as tight as they’ve ever been, and they’re ready to conquer the world. Even though they’re heading into their ninth year as a band, they’re as hungry as ever, they still hang out together in Atlanta on a regular basis, and they can’t wait to head out on the Crack the Skye tour, during which they plan to perform the entire record front to back.

“Going through what we’ve been through brings you closer to even your enemies,” Hinds says. “And we’ve always been more like brothers anyway. Shit, man, we’re so close now we’re borderline gay.”

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