Brann Dailor: Mastodon Shoots For The Skye
After 15 grueling, exhilarating months your world tour is finally complete. Closing out with Metallica at a packed Wembley Stadium, it was a smashing success. You’re riding high as you return to the States for some much-deserved downtime. Then Dave Grohl calls. He invites you and your band to come help him tear down the walls of a Vegas suite at the Palms hotel for the Video Music Awards. Hell yes, you’ll do it.
The gig is everything you knew it would be: deafening, debauched, and delightful. This is the peak of your hard-fought career as a professional musician. All the doubt, all the rejection, all the battles are overshadowed by this string of stardom and success. You celebrate. You really celebrate.
Then, as the celebration careens into the early hours of the next morning, everything goes terribly, terribly wrong. In the blink of a blackened eye everything you’ve fought for – every inch of accomplishment you’ve managed to accumulate – hangs in the balance. It’s no longer about gigs and albums, successes and failures. It’s about life and death.
Turning Point. This is where Brann Dailor, the sickly talented drummer for the sickly talented metal band Mastodon, found himself in September of 2007. His lead guitarist and vocalist – and, basically, his brother – Brent Hinds ended that Las Vegas celebration unconscious, rushed to the local hospital. The details are fuzzy, but most speculate Hinds drank too much and talked too far to the wrong person and was subsequently pummeled to the point of a broken nose, two black eyes, and severe head trauma. It landed him in intensive care.
“That struck a blow to us,” recalls Dailor, turning somber with the memory. “Everything went from being really great to being … not great. Everything got turned upside down. It threw us for a loop. We all felt really fragile and we didn’t know what would happen or how [Hinds] would react to everything. He was in intensive care. It was pretty bad. There were a lot of questions regarding what would happen with the band.”
With their careers, their artistry, and their best friend all hanging on by one frighteningly delicate thread, the able members of Mastodon had a choice to make: lay down and whither away or tighten the tourniquet and press forward. They, of course, chose to persevere, relying on their music, their “only source of normalcy,” to carry them through. They assembled daily, experimenting with ideas and hoping for the best for their fallen brother. And after a couple of months of recovery, Hinds chose to ride the strength of the Mastodon as well.
“Brent started pouring everything into his guitar and the record took on a new shape. Everything started getting much deeper, musically. So it took a while to get back on track, but once we were back on track I felt the stuff that was coming out was a lot better. We just took our time with it and let things happen the way they were going to happen without forcing anything or making anything stressful. If we felt we needed a week away from it, then we took a week.
“For about a month after Brent’s tragedy, I felt he was kind of lost. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with him. He was obviously pretty [messed] up from that whole situation. I’m just glad he was able to pull out of it and be okay. He came out more than okay – he wrote some amazing stuff. I guess that’s the silver lining. Usually when something tragic happens you have to wait ten years before you can reflect back and see that something good came from it. This happened so fast, three months, it was an immediate reaction.”
Whimsical Wordsmith. Dailor plays a central role in all of Mastodon’s writing. He’s a very cerebral, deeply imaginative guy with an undying thirst for the dark side of mysticism. Each of Mastodon’s previous albums was based – some loosely, some not – on one of the four classical astrological elements. Their latest work, Crack The Skye, follows suit, taking a stab at Air, and much of the conceptualization materialized from Dailor’s complex gray matter.
“During our downtime I went to Russia for a couple weeks,” he says. “When I got back I had a rough idea for a story, kind of an idea I had been working on combined with my experience in Russia. So we had a story and we just started getting together and dumping riffs out to see what we had.”
This is where Dailor tells us the story of Crack The Skye. Are you ready? Deep breath, and …
“The story is about a guy with cerebral palsy, a guy who is locked inside his body and can’t get out. So he decides to start experimenting with astral travel. He ends up leaving his body and he gets lost out there. He can’t get back. He’s sucked into a wormhole, goes into outer space, then gets sucked into a spirit realm with a bunch of spirits who tell him he’s dead. Once he explains to them he’s just out traveling, the spirits decide to help him get back to his body. While they’re doing that – this is where Russia comes in – he gets sucked into this religious sect called Khlysty, this pagan organization like Rasputin, and they decide to put his spirit inside Rasputin because Rasputin has to be murdered in order for history to do its thing. So when Rasputin is murdered, both souls are together and Rasputin, the wise man, knows how to get this guy back to his body before his parents – who think he’s dead – have him buried. That’s the story. Loosely.”
So, pretty light stuff then, right?
“It’s about a lot more than that. It’s about us as a band and the changes we go through and everything that’s happened in life. I went deeper lyrically because I knew that Brent was going deeper with the music. So we got into stuff we’ve never touched on.”
By far the most personal and poignant component of the album centers on the work’s title (and title track). Dailor’s sister tragically committed suicide when he was just 15 years old (and she just 14). Her name was Skye. It’s a subject that’s long been buried inside the drummer, and only now is he comfortable enough to talk about it publicly.
“That kind of changes your whole life. Brutal thing, tore my family apart and the bottom fell out and everyone was destroyed, and everyone had to fight to get back some sanity. Through all that, I really climbed into my drum set and into playing music, and that’s how I was able to get here. When you’re with a group of amazing musicians who are also very close friends, it’s a great thing to have, so you can purge those demons and get through those feelings.”
What The Boss Says, Goes. So the thematic material is there and it is deep and it is dark. Now they need the music. Mastodon’s other departure from the norm with Skye was the time they spent not only writing (taking a week off when needed) but also recording. Records are, at their very best and very worst, extremely permanent, and Dailor wanted to be sure this one was done right.
“I don’t want to say there are mistakes on Blood Mountain, but if there are any it’s because we rushed through things. We had a brand new deal with Warner Brothers and we wanted to get a record out and get back out there on tour. Looking back, it probably wasn’t the best idea. You need to make a great record, no matter how long it takes – then you can go out on the road.”
A big part of making a great record is finding a great producer. As it turns out, Max Weinberg’s son Jay is also a drummer, as well as a fan of Dailor and Mastodon. So, through the Jay Weinberg connection, the band eventually found themselves backstage at a Bruce Springsteen concert when The Boss himself stepped up and recommended his longtime producer Brendan O’Brien.
“When The Boss says he wouldn’t trust anyone other than Brendan O’Brien with his musical arrangements, that’s kind of all you need to hear,” Dailor laughs. And the deal was struck. The stripped down, classic rock elements O’Brien brings to Skye are immediately noticeable and appealing.
“It all came together and we heard our music like we’d never heard it before. This sounds like a real record! It almost made our previous efforts seem childish to me. I’ve never felt so good about something that we’ve made. And it doesn’t matter if anyone else likes it or not. The fact is all four of us in the band feel like we did something awesome, and we’re very excited about it.”
A Polished Production. We know what you’re thinking, but fear not. The complex prog freak-out that makes Mastodon Mastodon continues to thrive. These songs rip and burn as hot as the old stuff. Only now they have feel. “This is a lot bigger and probably lends itself to a wider audience,” Dailor says. “It’s groove oriented, but more than that, it’s more emotive. We found a spot to pull from and it’s a deeper spot than we’ve ever gone before. You could say some of our past music has been a little lopsided, where some of it gets a little superficial, like we had something to prove musically. This is purely from a songwriting standpoint.”
And hey, it’s not like anyone will soon use Brann Dailor and Phil Rudd in the same sentence (um, except right there). But, for Dailor, it is definitely a more open and sparse approach. Yes, he’s still a master of head-spinning fills and speedy, compound beats that send you searching for your jock. But here he also lays back, smacks the pocket, and makes you thirst for more.
“Everything I’ve ever played to, I feel like I played what needed to be played. The material I’m given is what I’m going to play to. And this material is a lot spacier, there’s more openness to it. So I realized that and tried to play to it. You definitely have to put your ego aside for the song, otherwise the song will suffer, and nobody wants that. I want the song to be able to do its thing and have those moments.
“The stuff we played when we first got together was just super fast and crazy. It was nuts, out of control. And through the years I think we’ve matured as a band and we’re just now getting all that stuff out of our system and becoming a more mature Mastodon, a more prog-y/King Crimson/Genesis feel with a heavier edge. And since day one we’ve talked about how we’d like to mature into the kind of band we could grow old with, and grow old gracefully instead of having to go out there and fake it. Yeah, I’m an angry young dude! I’m not angry. I can pull [the anger] out. I can pull out bad things that happened. But it’s a different feeling now. It’s a totally different thing. So we concentrate more now on a creepy vibe.”
Dramatic Drumming. With Skye, Dailor walks the fine line between density and scarcity. His drum parts are abundant in number – where lesser drummers would stick to two or three different parts per song, Dailor nibbles from dozens – yet never overbearing or confusing. Many decisions were made in choosing and crafting each part, and each seems to have paid off.
“It’s really by feel. I know when I’m happy with it. That’s a huge part of being an artist: knowing when something is right. It’s not something you can really put a finger on; it’s up to the individual who is creating it. That’s what separates one artist from another. And there’s a thing that happens with the four of us in a room. It’s an emotional thing. I’m building segues and trying to do my job to make sure the songs flow smoothly from part to part and crescendo at the right moments. In between that, my ’style,’ or whatever you call it, may creep in. I use my toms a lot – I guess I’m more of a compositional player.
“We know when we have what we want, and that’s the most important thing to concentrate on when you’re writing music. You can’t worry about what kids are going to say. It just has to be what you want it to be and hopefully that’ll be enough.”
What many of the Mastodon “kids” will say is that this new flavor of the band contradicts the voracious brutality that their fan base so hungrily consumes. In other words, they’ll accuse them of somehow “selling out,” which is a phrase we’ve never truly understood. And, thankfully, neither has Dailor. “Yeah, in hip-hop, if some artist comes from nothing and builds this huge empire and has all this money, everything’s great and everyone’s stoked for him because he ’got out.’ Well, I came from nothing. We were poor as dirt, on welfare; things were not good. But if I start to make even a little bit of money, I’m selling out. All these suburbanite kids live in the ’burbs and have everything and they’re calling us out? Whatever.”
Born To Rock. The suburbanite upbringing is about as alien to Dailor as it would be to 50 Cent. He grew up tough and used music not only as his emotional outlet but also as a way to claim his space in a chaotic world. His parents were onboard, and they may not have known any other way.
“When I was two years old my dad was putting headphones on me playing Bitches Brew. That’s pretty intense. Zappa, King Crimson, Genesis. I was listening to Supper’s Ready when I was three years old. So all that stuff’s in [my drumming], that wild and free drumming and that thought pattern to go all out for it if possible. I was a little rocker kid. I grew up in the city and there was a lot of craziness in my life when I was little. My mom was in a band and there were rockers over at our house all the time, and I kind of looked up to them.
“I started playing drums when I was four. By the time I was 13 all the white kids in my school were longhaired head bangers. Pretty much dirt bags, smoking cigarettes and doing drugs and listening to Metallica and Slayer. And I was the only drummer in town. And it all comes down to your parents. If you have cool parents, they’ll let you play drums in the house. My mom didn’t care. She actually encouraged it.”
Good for mom. And somewhere along the way someone must’ve encouraged another important quality for any drummer, or any human for that matter: humility. No one is more appreciative than Dailor for everything he’s achieved as an artist and as a person. Throughout his ups and downs he has maintained perspective, and that’s a big part of why he’s been able to do the things he does.
“Never let your ego get in the way of a good song. Play from your heart. Do what you think is right. If you’re thinking about starting a rock band, don’t have any expectations. Don’t expect to be a big rock star because nine times out of ten it doesn’t happen, and your heart needs to be in it for the right reasons. You should be playing music with your friends because you think it’s fun. And if something happens from that then great, that’s all icing on your cake. Make sure your motivation stays pure.”
Because you never know when opportunity will cease to exist. The bottom has been yanked from underneath Dailor enough times that he’ll never take another gig, another record, another moment with a friend for granted. “It’s shaky ground,” he warns. “You never know what could happen. Someone could die and it’d be gone. It might not be gone but if someone died in the band I’d have a really hard time recovering and going out and doing this again. It’s taken everything we have, as people, to get it this far.
“You’ve got to be careful with your life, without living in a bubble. I try to be as careful as I can just to protect this thing – Mastodon. I want it to go on for as long as it can.”
DRUMS Tama Starclassic Bubinga
1 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6" Warlord Masai Snare Drum
3 10" x 8" Tom
4 12" x 9" Tom
5 14" x 11" Tom
6 18" x 16" Floor Tom
A 14" Mb20 Heavy Soundwave Hi-Hat
B 18" Mb20 Heavy Crash
C 20" Mb8 Medium Crash
D 20" Mb8 Medium Ride
Brann Dailor also uses Tama hardware, Vater sticks, and Evans heads.
Troy Sanders: His Boy Brann
By Andrew Lentz
Mastodon bassist Troy Sanders is at home in his kitchen in Atlanta, having just poured the day’s first cup of coffee. Don’t know if it’s the caffeine or what, but when it comes to laying down the low end, Sanders can go on for days about working alongside Brann Dailor.
“His unconventional drumming makes it fun for me,” Sanders says, referring to Dailor’s chronic pummeling and loooong fills. “Brann loves going crazy on the drums, but this record he had no reservations whatsoever to just sit back and stay in the pocket.”
With the beats more restrained, Sanders stepped up with more complex bass parts in tracks like “Oblivion” and “Quintessence,” even if he doesn’t see it that way: “Oh, a little bit here and there,” he says modestly. “I just stick with the drums to add that warm rhythm section with Brann for the guitars to soar over. A lot of times when our music becomes more layered and spacious, then I’m able to walk around the drums a bit. I like to be a bit different on the bass only when it’s called for. I’ve got no need to be flashy or to out-shine anyone in my band by any means – it’s really the traditional role of a rock bass player: solidity and warmth.”
It tickles Sanders that he often gets tagged as a frontman, simply because he stands in the middle on stage and also happens to sing. But now the roles have gotten blurred further with Dailor singing more parts than ever. “We’re doing the three-vocal attack,” the bassist says proudly.
While Dailor has written more than his share of the band’s melodies – ideas he hummed for the guitarists, which they translated to the fretboards – the majority of the music on Skye was written by Hinds on acoustic guitar. “Brann really crafted the skeleton of the story and we’ve always thought of ourselves as great storytellers,” Sanders says, mentioning constellations, primal elements, and the occult as primary inspirations.
“Over the past four records, nine years, and thousand gigs, people know we can play our instruments extremely well.” To crystallize the thought, he simply paraphrases: “Brann stated it best when he said, ’That’s been proven, that’s been done, now let’s focus more energy on the craft of songwriting.’”
By Brad Schlueter
Dailor’s Massive Mastodon Licks
If you’re not familiar with the progressive metal sound of Brann Dailor’s Grammy-nominated band, you might find Crack The Skye, the outfit’s latest release, a refreshing change from the cookie-cutter songwriting approach used by countless other bands. Mastodon’s songs are often lengthy with lots of contrasting sections, time-signature changes, definite hooks, and even an occasional guitar solo. Anchoring everything is Dailor’s frenetic drumming and prodigious fills, which augment the band’s complexity. Here is an example from the new disc.
“Oblivion” The first track reveals a host of divergent feels and unusual grooves. The drums enter with a building crescendo that Dailor plays between his snare, bass drum, and floor tom. He adds short snare embellishments that lead up to the fill, which sets up a brief march quality in the section, and leads to another motif built around a jungle drum feel. The basic pattern is pretty common, but Dailor embellishes it with thirty-second-notes and puts a crash on 4. Following this section, there’s an odd groove for three bars that features quick snare rolls, and ends in a measure of 3/4, which leads into a 6/4 section. Dailor plays a quasi-Afro Cuban groove for this section and places his snare on count 4, giving the phrase a laid-back, half-time feel.