Mastodon on Dressing Up as Darth Vader and Having Their Egos Stroked

Guitarist Bill Kelliher explains the sort of motivation the group needed to make 'Once More 'Round the Sun'

Bill Kelliher of Mastodon performs
Kevin Nixon/Classic Rock Magazine/TeamRock via Getty Images
Bill Kelliher of Mastodon performs in Reading.
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When metal pugilists Mastodon are working on a record, they don't like to go easy on their riffs. "We just kind of smash them together and see what sticks," guitarist-vocalist Bill Kelliher says. "We're not like 'Mastodon 101' in the studio and talk about what kind of record we're going to make."

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But whether or not they parse the heady minutiae of their walloping sound, the group's latest LP, Once More 'Round the Sun, finds a rare balance between the hard rock leanings of 2011's The Hunter and the heavy-hitting metal attack of their earlier recordings. The only thing is, as Kelliher reports, the band needed a little encouragement to get there.

You've said that your producer, Nick Raskulinecz, motivated you in the studio by saying, "You guys are Mastodon. You're one of the biggest bands in metal." What goes through your mind when someone tells you that?
I think, "What does that mean?" I don't feel like we are. I just take it with a grain of salt, like, "OK, if you say so." I don't know if we're one of the biggest, but we're definitely one of the hardest working.

Why did he have to remind you that you were one of the biggest bands in metal anyway?
Maybe we were slacking a little bit to him. He really wanted us to have all our songs done, right down to the singing and guitar solos so we could play them back to back. We were nowhere near there. Half the band can do that, but the other half can't. Certain people have ADD, and we don't function like that. When the pressure's on we really kind of shine.

I guess to deal with it, he said, "Come on, guys, you're one of the biggest bands in metal right now. You need to shine and pull it together, man." It was a struggle, but no one's ever really said that to us before. Normally, we'd get to the studio and just play and make the magic. We just never had a football coach.

The song "Aunt Lisa" on the new album even features a cheerleader chant. But I take it you guys weren't jocks in high school?
Oh, no. I was definitely a punker. I had my ears pierced, spiky hair, ripped clothing and safety pins and listened to Black Flag and Dead Kennedys and shit like that. I don't think any of us were jocks. Maybe Troy. He took bowling in college, but that doesn't count.

Bowling counts. How did you get the Coathangers to do the chant?
Brent [Hinds] said, "Let's get some girls to do it." But we couldn't round up any girls in Tennessee, where we were recording the record. Brent's friends with the Coathangers, so when we got back to Atlanta, we got them to do it.

You have another song on your album called "Halloween." Who goes the hardest in October?
We all do. A couple years ago we played a float for the Halloween parade in Atlanta, and Brent dressed up like a Hooters girl with real long curly red hair and big ponytails. I had an "old man" costume with a bald wig that had the comb over. Troy was a clown with a big Afro wig. And I think Brann was dressed up like Tony Clifton, which is usually his costume of choice with fake cocaine under his mustache. It was fun.

Your video for "High Road" is basically a LARPer's fantasy. Do you LARP?
I don't know what the other guys do in the privacy of their own homes, but I have a Darth Vader costume with a light saber that I dress up in once in a while. I've gone to a couple of my kid's school functions dressed up as Darth and surprised the kids with a little lecture on listening to your teachers and staying in school. I don't know if that counts, but that's as far as my LARPing experience has gone.

Is Darth Vader a good role model for children?
Probably not to an adult, because he's evil, but I think little children look up to any character, good or bad. They don't really know anything about evil yet – good and bad, yes – but they all think Darth Vader is pretty damn cool.

Photo: Courtesy of Bill Kelliher

You're a huge Star Wars fan. Have you acquired any new toys lately? 
I haven't bought any Star Wars junk in a long time. I recently built a new house. I used to have a Star Wars room that my collection totally overgrew, and I had stuff hanging from the ceiling and stuff up on the walls. I'm gonna have my own Star Wars room in the basement of the new house and we're going to be able to display all the stuff. I'm really excited about going through everything and displaying it all and maybe charging an admission fee for coming into the big Star Wars house.

What's your wildest piece of Star Wars memorabilia?
I just acquired a 1/8 scale ATST from The Empire Strikes Back, the little chicken walker. The guy that built my house had a guy make it for me out of metal. It's about 8 feet tall. It's pretty fucking badass. My wife loves it, let me tell you [laughs].

Is that your most valuable Star Wars item?
I don't know. I have a lot of autographs. I've got a blue Snaggletooth, which is worth 300 bucks. Probably the ATST is probably worth the most, a couple thousand bucks. Slash saw a picture of it and told me, "I want one for my backyard, too."

So do you think Star Wars: Episode VII is gonna suck?
I'm just going to to keep my expectations low and hope for the best. I think it's going to be OK. Anything's got to be better than those fucking shitty movies that came out a couple of years ago.