In recent years, when the members of metal riff crushers Mastodon were on the road, they turned to an unexpected source for inspiration: Stevie Wonder.
"Every night before we went onstage, we used to put on a video of Stevie Wonder, live in '72 on a New York public access show, and then Stevie live in '75 on a German music show," reveals drummer Brann Dailor as he sits in a van after a band rehearsal. "Watching Stevie Wonder, he gets there, and it doesn't seem hard for him. It just puts me in that mindset where it's more of a spiritual realm of going on the stage as opposed to taking it for granted."
The drummer says that watching Wonder in his prime – and watching concert films in general – is what inspired the group, in part, to film a February 2012 gig at the O2 Academy Brixton in London when the quartet was deep into a tour supporting their most recent album, The Hunter. At the time, the 5,000 or so metalheads who filled the venue was the largest audience the band had played for as a headliner. Now the group's 97-minute set is coming out as the digital-only video and audio release Mastodon Live at Brixton.
Over a year later, Dailor still recalls the show fondly, using words like "amazing" and "pretty fantastic." Knowing that the show would be a milestone for the group, Mastodon planned ahead and booked a camera crew to capture it. "It's a cool thing for us to have a pro-shot thing now that sounds really good and sees us really digging into our material and being Mastodon," he says. "It's a good opportunity to present the live experience of seeing our band, because we are a live band."
Although the show contains many highlights, including the group's sweaty, guitar-dueling anthem "Blood and Thunder" and their recent, cucumber-cool "Curl of the Burl" single, the standout is the finale. The set contains 23 songs but feels like less of a workout since Mastodon has the tendency to "Ramones it," as Dailor puts it, going from one song to the next with a "less talk, more rock" attitude. After pummeling their way to a well-deserved break, they returned to the stage so Dailor could drum and take lead vocals on the catchy, hard-rock-leaning Hunter track "Creature Lives."
As green lasers light the audience, he begins his lyrics about an "Iron Man" or "Jeremy"-type character who feels unloved and retreats "into the swamp from which he spawned." But Mastodon could hardly relate, since the 5,000 headbangers in the audience raise their hands and sing along on the song's "whoa" chorus breaks, and members of the tour's supporting acts – art-metal terrorists the Dillinger Escape Plan and stoner-metal troupe Red Fang – mount the stage to join in.
"We never had a real sing-along kind of song before," Dailor says, looking back. "When I wrote it, in my head, I remember driving around thinking about that." Midway through the performance, red balloons descend from the rafters – an event the drummer says occurred only in London. "That's expensive, them balloons," he says with a laugh. "You gotta have somebody come and rig 'em up in the ceiling and drop them – it costs money."
As of August, the group has ended touring in support of The Hunter. Currently, Mastodon's focus is on writing their as-yet-untitled sixth full-length. They'd begun writing a bit during a tour-free gap between November 2012 and this past May, during which vocalist-guitarist Brent Hinds told reporters he was writing "spooky sounding," "Radiohead-ish" music for the band. But a European trek and a run on the main stage of this summer's Mayhem Festival stymied their progress. Looking back, the drummer doesn't mind the break from songwriting.
"In all honesty, I didn't feel like we were ready before Mayhem Fest," he says. "When we got back, it wasn't too hard to get back into writing. In my head, I worry so much about the music, like, 'Is it going to come together?' But it will be ready when it's ready. It's pretty much ready right now."
In a couple of weeks, Mastodon will be entering the studio with producer Nick Raskulinecz, who has helmed LPs for Foo Fighters, Rush and others. Explaining the choice, Dailor unleashes a litany of rationales: "He's a rock guy. He's a rocker. He likes to rock." Most important, "He's done a bunch of our friends' records that sound great," Dailor says. "I'm a fan of all the Deftones records he's done, all the Alice in Chains stuff, and he worked with Queens of the Stone Age on [their 2002 album] Songs for the Deaf."
So far Mastodon have written about 18 or 19 songs, but Dailor says the group "needs to trim the herd." Though he's cagey about specifics, he says the songs reflect Mastodon's inclination for trying new things, considering their career has found them transition from playing sludge metal to prog metal to hard rock.
"It's gonna be massive and insane, lots of epic greatness," he says. "There will be lots of huge riffs and new directions. It's real weird, real math-y, real straightforward. It's up, down and all around." He laughs. "It's a culmination of everything for the band. The snowball keeps rolling and collecting snow."
Asked whether Mastodon has been channeling any of the Stevie Wonder mentality in songwriting, he replies in the affirmative. "He's just in the moment and he loves it so much," Dailor says. "It's like, oh, man, I want that. The four of us try to go all the way there. Since we are the only ones that we can please genuinely, that's what we try to do."
But for all of Dailor's turns of phrase and philosophizing, his demeanor grows suddenly serious. "There's very few things that anybody can do to stop a Mastodon record from being born," he says. "And this thing's gonna get born, OK? And there's nothing anybody can do about it. We're ready to lay them shits down. We're ready to rock."