In the span of four years since releasing their seventh album Emperor of Sand, Mastodon lived through many transformations, one marked heavily by loss—the death of the band’s longtime manager and friend Nick Johns, who lost his battle to pancreatic cancer in 2018, all while dealing with a forced lockdown around the pandemic and personal tribulations.
Ending a tour with Coheed and Cambria in 2019, where the band celebrated the 10th anniversary of their fourth album Crack the Skye by playing it in its entirety, Mastodon—vocalist and guitarist Brent Hinds, bassist, keyboardist, and singer Troy Sanders, rhythm guitarist Bill Kelliher and drummer Brann Dailor—were well into writing for a ninth album, one that would reveal some vulnerable states, reflections on fleeting time and regrets on the 15 tracks of Hushed and Grim (Reprise Records).
Through its 88-minute run, Hushed and Grim is a release of all the pent-up emotional heaps of memories and illusions, all surrounded by a more collective tome of grief for a dear friend.
Produced by David Bottrill (Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, Coheed and Cambria), and recorded in the band’s hometown of Atlanta, Hushed and Grim moves through the imagining of the Allman Brothers sharing a bottle of Jack Daniels with Black Sabbath on the southern rock crunch of “The Beast,” featuring guitarist Marcus King. Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil offers a guitar solo, along with French horn by Jody Sanders on “Had it All,” while the band sing around “The Crux” and “Skeleton of Splendor,” and again on closing “Gigantium” salute, My love, so strong / The mountains we made in the distance / Those will stay with us.
Dailor chatted with American Songwriter about the making of Hushed and Grim, approaching the band’s 20th anniversary since its debut Remission, collectively churning through their challenges for the past two decades, and drawing clowns.
American Songwriter: It’s been four years since Emperor of Sand, and so much happened within a short span of time. What was the genesis of the songs on Hushed and Grim, and did the pandemic shift the meaning of any of the 15 tracks?
Brann Dailor: The writing process had already begun a couple of months before the pandemic. We did a tour in the states with Coheed and Cambria where we were doing Crack the Skye (2009) in its entirety. We hadn’t really planned on doing that, but we decided to do it because it made sense. Otherwise, we would have started writing before that, because we’d already done our year and a half to two years of touring on Emperor. Usually, we’d stop, then do the writing thing. Then we record again and go on through the whole cycle that we’ve been doing for 20-something years. We weren’t one of those bands like Deftones or Gojira that had an album ready to go, so once everything got shut down, we had extra time to work on an album, but we took four months off of Mastodon entirely—not 100 percent, but we didn’t really see each other. Bill [Kelliher] lives around the corner from me, so when I did dog walks, they’d be on their porch, and we’d wave.
I did other creative things in this time. I started to draw a clown every day and drew one for 101 days straight. That’s kind of what got me out of bed in the morning.
By late July, early August 2021, the band began to get back together and back into their Atlanta studio to start recording. In September, the band connected with Bottrill, who is based in Canada, all while still coping with the loss of Johns and dealing with their own personal issues.
AS: On Hushed and Grim, there’s a sense that things are falling apart and a cohesiveness. Was it therapeutic, or a release, when it was all complete?
BD: I was going through some tough personal stuff right before everything [the pandemic] hit, and then it was just that on top of everything else, so it was mentally challenging. I went to some super dark places, but I tried to dig myself out of it using my daily clown drawing and sort of prematurely writing some lyrics for the demos that we had already completed. I really tried to stay busy, but there were some really tough moments. Luckily, we have Mastodon. I’m not really sure what it’s like to go through a tragedy without… to use the songs as a way to keep from not crumbling. I’m not gonna call it busy work, but it definitely helps in that way, whereas a lot of people don’t know what to do with all that emotion. Putting it into Mastodon has been our thing for a while now. Hopefully, other people can tap into this kind of monster riding tandem with all the stuff that was going on personally and join up at the end.
AS: Sometimes harder, or sadder songs and albums resonate more when you’re going through tough times.
BD: Oh for sure. There’s nothing wrong with being sad and sometimes you don’t really want to come out of it. You need to sink deeper into a process to really work through it. I’ve never been the type of person that wants to force happiness. I’m not saying that I’m not a happy person. For the most part, I’m all smiles, but I’m not against feeling sad. At the end, it ended up being a mournful-sounding record. There’s a lot in there that goes along with what was going on in everybody’s personal lives.
AS: Were any of the songs on Hushed and Grim ones you had shelved for some time?
BD: We always have a surplus and a bunch of loose leaf [notebooks of] ideas. We call them homeless riffs that you always like but they never got their day because they just didn’t get linked up with anybody or never found a home. There’s always one or two stragglers that finally make the cut. The main riff for “Gigantium” is one that I have been kicking around for three years.”
AS: Are you one of those bands that feels a detachment from an album once it is released and out in the world, or are you still soaking in Hushed and Grim?
BD: I’m still listening to it, maybe not as much as I was throughout the whole process. That’s like the honeymoon period. You’re slowly falling in love with it as you move through the process of writing it. When it’s coming together in the demos, I get all these big feelings, but as it moves closer to the release date, you listen to it not as much. Now it really comes down to learning how to play all the songs, and figuring out what songs are going to be live. That’s a whole other rediscovery. I’m excited to play “Pain with an Anchor,” “Gigantium,” and “Gobblers of Dregs,” but we don’t want to punish people with too many new songs.
AS: It’s almost 20 years now with Mastodon. Do songs still come together for you in the same way?
BD: I don’t know if the process is necessarily that much different but now there’s more of an ability to capture things immediately. We do a lot of writing in Bill’s basement. He’s got a little home studio down there, so we sit down there at nine o’clock in the morning with a couple of cups of coffee. That was the way we did it in the beginning because we all had day jobs and we had a meet-up at night and remember a riff or lyric for a song. We still do that, but now we have a lot more stuff to choose from. If we like something, we immediately record it so it’s there for us later if we need to recall it. If it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck at some point, that means it’s good. That’s our barometer.
AS: Does it feel like it’s been nearly 20 years since Remission ?
BD: I only think about it when people bring it up. I don’t feel like we’re an older band, but then I try to put it in a different perspective. My perspective would be trying to think about other bands that I know have been together for that long, but also the perspective of being 15 and watching classic videos on Headbangers Ball like “Paranoid.” I still thought it was awesome, because I love Black Sabbath, but I was like, “God, these guys are old.” I did the math, and they were about 20 years old [at the time of the video], and then their band was 20 or so years old. They went through so many different versions of themselves throughout those 20 years. When you’re 15, if someone’s 30, you think they’re 60, so there’s that strange, young person’s perspective to take into account. When we first started touring with Slayer in 2004, they were already together around 21 years at that point. Maybe we are an old fart band to some teenagers, but I don’t really think about that. I’m just excited that we’ve kept the same four guys together for this long. I think that’s cool.
Photo by Clay Patrick McBride/Warner