“Every time there’s an emotional disturbance, it invigorates me to dump all my emotional baggage into my guitar”: Mastodon on processing tragedy for Hushed And Grim

We catch up with guitar-wielding duo Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher to talk metal stereotypes, collaborating with Marcus King and the grief and pain behind their new album.

It’s been just about two weeks since Mastodon gifted us with their gargantuan eighth studio record Hushed And Grim. Far from just being long (it’s certainly not short, at 88 minutes), it feels big. Sometimes crushingly heavy, sometimes balladic, it showcases Mastodon’s most emotional and intense songwriting to date.

Mastodon’s longtime manager and friend Nick John died in 2018 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. The collective grief of the band – made all the more potent by the uncertainty of the global pandemic – was poured into Hushed And Grim, its length and intensity a testament to the size of the “permanent monument” the band wanted to leave in tribute to John.

Taking Time

When we catch up with guitarists Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds just ahead of Hushed And Grim’s release, both are eager to see it hit shelves. “Excited is an understatement,” Kelliher tells us. “We started recording Hushed And Grim a year ago – and we did take our time. It was kind of the first record, when I, at least, felt like I didn’t have to rush.

“We had our own studio to record in. So there wasn’t money flying out the door, nobody going ‘you only have one month to record this, there’s another band coming in, we have to get it done,’ and so on. There can be real stress there. So we took our time. We finished in January or February – completely finished – mastered, mixed. It’s been a long wait. Especially with Covid, and not touring for all that time.”

“It’s good that it’s bubbling to the surface now, to the point where we can actually work with it,” Hinds adds. “Because I want to learn how to play the songs, I’m sitting here learning how to play solos and whatever.”

The band have been lucky enough to head out to some live shows over the summer, however, only recently debuted Hushed And Grim’s lead singles. “I still don’t know exactly what we’re going to do with the other songs live, but we’ll figure it out,” Hinds adds.

Mastodon - Hushed and Grim

The double-album curse

Hushed And Grim wasn’t always going to have an 88-minute runtime. But the loss of John, as well as a writing phase that spanned the most chaotic months of the pandemic, would snowball into enough song ideas for a two-disc record.

“Me, personally, I collect riffs every day,” Kelliher tells us. “I’m writing and writing, recording onto my laptop or my phone whenever the riff hits me. So couple that with Brent’s songs, Troy’s songs, Brann’s songs – all of a sudden, we had 25 pretty solid ideas.”

“So we whittle it down to about 15 and plan to record them all and just use 12. Normally you want to go into the studio with a few extras, just in case certain ones don’t work out. So we record 15, and then our producer David Bottrill says, ‘alright, which three are we going to dump?’ But we couldn’t pick – we’d never really had this problem before, it was like choosing between your kids, like, ‘which one’s your favourite?’

“We’d always joked about how the double album is a curse. I don’t know why we thought it was a curse, but we did. When we listened to all 15 songs together, they all pulled together like a book. You can’t really take out three chapters of a 15-chapter book without affecting it as a whole. So we used them all.”

The sheer number of ideas that arrived at the studio, for Kelliher, was partially thanks to his response to the most challenging pandemic months. “We had no tour dates in sight,” he says. “Everything has been cancelled, it’s kinda this Armageddon-like world out there. So we approached it with a different sensibility. I personally was thinking: ‘Is this the end of travelling, the end of touring, for good?’”

Bill Kelliher
Image: Xavi Torrent / Getty

As Armageddon-like as it was, the pandemic hit particularly close to home for Bill. “My wife’s an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” he tells us. “So she’s currently working on vaccine safety – that’s what she’s been doing for the past 20 years. She kept telling me: ‘This isn’t going away. You’re not going to be touring for a long fucking time!’ And I believed her. She’s very intelligent, she sees this stuff all day long. She was saying, people have got to mask up, start following the rules – especially in America, that’s a whole other story…

“So living here and seeing the political indecisiveness, there seemed this great divide – like, ‘Is there going to be a civil war?’ Anyway, I’m just going to lock myself in my studio, in my basement, and just write and write and write. All those factors are in there, they’re in Hushed And Grim.

“Every time there’s an emotional disturbance in the force – a death, a sickness, some kind of tragedy – for me, it invigorates me to dump all my emotional baggage into my guitar and write. When my mom was sick, during Emperor Of Sand, I was writing song after song … I couldn’t stop. This record’s no different.”

Tonally speaking

When you listen to Hushed And Grim’s guitar tones, it’s easy to tell a lot of thought has gone into them. Mastodon’s heavier tones have always had character – their sludgier origins come through in blunt-force-trauma levels of midrange impact, rather than laceratingly-scooped metal sharpness.

For Brent, the first ingredient in the signal chain was an “arsenal” of guitars: “I have some go-to’s, I pretty much play the same ones that I play on tour,” he tells us, before shouting out a friend. “I’ve been playing a lot of Banker Custom guitars – they’re made here in Atlanta by my buddy Matt Hughes. He was providing us with guitars, that was really cool of him – we used a Strat that he made a lot, we used a Flying V that he made me. That one has a Bigsby on it, between the V horns – it’s pretty cool, and it sounds great.

Mastodon
Image: Clay Patrick McBride

Some old reliables made the cut too, including Hinds’ Gibson Goldtop Les Paul and 1963 SG Junior. Hinds notes that the single-P90 Junior didn’t see as much use as he would have liked: “That one was really noisy. We couldn’t find a way to stop it bleeding into the sound.”
For Brent’s amplifiers, his lead tone came from a combo you might not think you’d hear on a heavy record. “I was using all of these really old amps, again my buddy Matt Hughes let me borrow all these old Fender ‘57s, and they sounded amazing.”

If you’re wondering how to get a heavier sound from such an old-school amp, the answer is simple: “You crank them massively,” Hinds says. “And I was using more than one of them, all strung together, then I could use a distortion pedal on that and it would break it up pretty good. That was all for lead stuff. It’s all just really old stuff that sounds great and works really well.”

We note to Hinds that some solos on the record almost descend into fuzz, with the old Fender combos having been pushed well beyond their breaking point. Brent agrees, but says: “A lot of it ended up too fuzzy for my tastes.”

“Our engineer Tom Tapley and I – we dick around a lot with the amps. It sounds to me like we dicked around too much after I’ve heard the LP, I could have more clear of a guitar connection to the recording. I don’t really use fuzz pedals or anything. But it sounds cool. I just like that clarity – I think I got too stoned down there or something,” he laughs.

However, when Hinds was looking for reliable rhythm tones, there was a little more focus. “I have two Marshall JMPs that work perfectly well and I can’t find an amp that sounds better than them. So I played them,” he says, very matter-of-fact.

For Kelliher, it was a similar story, albeit with a slightly less minimalist attitude. “For every part I played, we had three amps into three different cabinets. And we would balance between those. I collect a lot of amps, a lot of guitars, a lot of pedals and a lot of effects. I’m a very hands-on kind of guitarist, I like to build my own racks, put all my shit together, keep out all of the noise, too.”

“So I collect Marshall JCM800s, and I’m constantly weeding through them and vetting them. So we took all my amps heads, Friedmans, Marshall, Bogner, tonnes of amps: we plugged them into my favourite cabinets, two Friedmans and a Marshall – the first Marshall cab I’ve ever owned. I bought it when I moved to Atlanta 22 years ago or so, and out of all the cabinets – that one sounded the best.

Eventually, Kelliher settled on an oft-forgotten variant of the JCM800 – the JCM800 2210. “I put an MXR Sugar Drive in front of it – I went through all of my distortion pedals to weed out the ones that sounded shit. That one, for such a nondescript little pedal, I wasn’t expecting such a giant sound out of it. It sounds fucking great!”

A beefy Marshall head wasn’t all, though. Kelliher continues: “I had two Friedman’s running as well – my signature Butterslax head, and the Jerry Cantrell JJ head. With that one, one of the tubes went down in it, so it’s only on a couple of songs – I sent it back to Friedman, and they sent me a BE Deluxe to replace it while it was repaired. And I fell in love with it – that thing is a beast. It sounds so damn good. I said to them afterwards, ‘You’re not getting this back. I’m buying this. And they’re like, well, it’s not really for sale… it belongs to Dave.’ So I said, ‘make me one – I have to have one’, and they said, ‘Well, our factory just caught on fire…’ eventually they went, ‘You know what, you can have it, we’ll figure it out.’”

Mastodon
Image: Clay Patrick McBride

Unsurprisingly, with all that going on, Kellier keeps the distortion dialled back “as much as possible. We try to rely more on hearing the riff, sometimes it gets lost if there’s too much gain.” And, to make sure they could mix down the many amps to one great tone, “there were six mics on them in total, so we could blend them all and get the best of everything.”
Like Brent, Bill also decided to bring a little old-school combo action to the party, this time for clean tones. “I picked up a Tone King Fender combo from Duan Denison from the Jesus Lizard and Tomahawk, a friend of mine. He sold it to me. I used that along with a Sears Silvertone for the cleans.

We’re intrigued by the use of an old budget catalogue amplifier. “When I was recording Emperor of Sand, I walked around in the studio and I was looking for something to record some clean parts, and I saw this thing – it was basically made out of cardboard. I said, ‘what the hell is this?’ I’d never seen one before, it had these giant ugly knobs on it. I needed to know what it sounded like. And everyone else said: ‘I dunno if you’re gonna like it.’ I plugged it in and I fell in love with it, god, that thing sounded so good and clean and crispy – it had that really clear high-mid thing. I’m very particular about my clean sound, as I use humbuckers and they don’t clean up that well. Usually, in the studio, you grab a Telecaster or a Stratocaster to get those tones but I wanted something that I could recreate live if I had to.”

Hybrid picking

The label of ‘metal’ is one neither Kelliher nor Hinds feel does the Mastodon justice. It’s no surprise, really – Hinds’ playing has always had a clear country influence, and nowhere on Hushed And Grim is that more evident than on The Beast. We ask Hinds how he achieved the expressive intro passage, which features what sound like pedal-steel single-string bends.

“It’s a G and B bender device that you put on the tailpiece,” he tells us. “It was a Telecaster that belonged to Marcus King, actually, that he let me borrow to do that. And he’s the one that plays the solo on that track.”

We note that King’s solo almost sounds like a tribute to Hinds’ playing style. “We have similar playing styles, yeah,” Hinds says – but is quick to praise his friend. “He’s like a trained jazz ninja. I love Marcus.” Hinds enthusiastically recommends King’s recent solo record El Dorado, too: “You’ve got to check out the new stuff that he was doing with [Black Keys member and producer] Dan Auerbach. It sounds like ZZ Top on methamphetamines. You’ll love it.”

It’s rare (but not unheard of) for a more straight-ahead blues artist like King to lend a solo to a band as heavy as Mastodon. “I don’t think he’s gonna cross over into metal, he’s gonna stay in the country world and go further there,” Hinds says. “But he’s like my little brother. I just asked, ‘hey Marcus, you want to throw some guitar on here?’, because he had invited me to play on some of his stuff. I was just returning the favour. Plus, we’re tight. Any chance we get to hang out, we jump at it.”

Typecasting

Over the years, Mastodon’s albums have shifted from concept-driven slabs of sludge metal – such as the Moby Dick-inspired Leviathan or the transcendental adventure of Blood Mountain– to an outlet for Bill Kelliher, Brent Hinds, Brann Dailor and Troy Sanders. This isn’t a new development with Hushed And Grim – Mastodon’s previous album, 2017’s Emperor Of Sand, explored mortality and survival, themes borne out of the band’s close family and friends’ battles with cancer. The narrative and imagery of the album, however, remained soaked in lofty mythology – recounting its protagonist’s heady trip through an allegorical desert, after being cursed and exiled.

Mastodon’s own pushback against being purely a ‘metal’ band is partially a way to allow this sort of mythology to inform their music, without the tone fully sliding into sword-and-sorcery cheese. “There’s a lot of fantasy in metal, and those aren’t my favourite bands,” Hinds tells us. “We did that on purpose, so we wouldn’t be lumped in with all that – it’s just not really our bag.”

Brent Hinds
Image: Miikka Skaffari / Getty

Regardless, metalheads and non-metalheads alike becoming more open to a wider swathe of genres is something Bill Kelliher feels optimistic about. “Music fans, in general, are a lot more open-minded because everything is so accessible. Back in the day, when I was in high school, 30, 35 years ago, people would form this little gangs, you know, the jocks, the SPEDs – the ‘smoke pot every days’, and the metalheads and the punks and the preppies. It’s like you’re in prison. So the music was much more divided.”

“For me, I discovered punk rock and metal by accident. I saw those kids at school, the guys with the long hair and the leather vests and the high-top white sneakers, the ripped-up jeans, and I was like ‘I don’t wanna be like those guys.’ And then, one of ‘those guys’ left a tape behind in the art room and me and my friends found it and listened to it. Everyone else hated it. But I loved it, I thought it was fucking awesome. It was the Dead Kennedys”

Hinds recalls similar experiences when he was establishing his musical tastes. “I’d moved down to Birmingham, and I always had this weird, eclectic music taste from listening to college radio, they’d play all this artsy avant-garde shit and I really like it. And world music, too.

“And when Melvins came out with the album Lysol, we were listening to that over at my house and my friends were like ‘what is this shit? God! This is horrible.” They’re probably all fans today. But they were into totally different music then. In Birmingham, it was kinda hard to find people who were into the same music as you. Everyone was into Bon Jovi and shit.”

As to whether those divisions exist today, Kelliher is hopeful that bands that straddle genre lines – like Mastodon – can bring together fans from all over the music spectrum. “I feel like our band is the kind of music that transcends any stereotypes,” he tells us. “When older people ask me what kind of music we play, I say ‘well, we play metal.’ because that’s the easiest way to say it. But we all have a lot of influences: we like Thin Lizzy, we like Metallica, we like Rush, we like old punk rock, we like country music, we like folk music. And as our band matures, we can get away with that more – Hushed And Grim is just another example of that.”

Hushed And Grim is out now on Warner Records.