Mastodon Unleash the Beast Within: Rolling Stone's 2009 Feature

The violent, acid-fueled journey of America's new kings of metal

Photograph by Peter Yang
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Brent Hinds, frontman and lead guitarist for Mastodon, has reached the inevitable point in the evening when his speech starts to slur. A few hours back, during a listening session for his Atlanta metal band's epic new album, Crack the Skye, he polished off at least six Budweiser tallboys; here at a clubby midtown Manhattan steakhouse, where his tribal forehead tattoo and reddish lumberjack's beard are comically out of place, he's deep into a procession of Jack-and-gingers. He's cracking some increasingly nasty but harmless jokes about an encounter with a female celebrity (upshot: she's fat), when he slowly begins to remember that there's a reporter at the table.

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"Don't put this shit in Rolling Stone," he mumbles, blue-gray eyes turning feral. His next words are not at all slurred: "I'll kill you."

When Hinds is functional, Mastodon are the greatest metal band of their generation — no one else comes close. Their music is a gloriously chugga-chugging throwback to the epic heyday of Seventies prog-rock and the best of Eighties thrash, led by drummer Brann Dailor, a Neil Peart-style monster who writes lyrics about Moby Dick, crystal skulls and interstellar travel. And in Hinds they have an authentic rock & roll madman — sometimes too authentic.

This article appeared in the April 16, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

The day the foursome first played together nearly a decade ago, Hinds got in a parking-lot brawl with a cook at a restaurant. Over the years, it's only gotten worse. In 2007, the guitarist almost died after a drunken incident in Las Vegas. Around 3 a.m., Hinds approached System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadjian and his friend William Hudson, swinging a wet T-shirt over his head. "He was more wasted than any human being I've ever seen," Odadjian says. When Hinds got close with the T-shirt, Hudson smacked him — in self-defense, according to Odadjian. Hinds went down, fracturing his skull on a curb and ending up in a coma. "He sucker punched me out of nowhere and almost ended my life," Hinds says. "If I ever see that dude, I will have to spend some time in prison."

At the moment, though, he's still more concerned with me. "Keep in mind, I will kill him," he tells Dailor, and then mumbles, "I'll kill you," at least one more time. But minutes later, he leans his nappy head companionably on my lap. "What do you think about stroking my brow right now while I lay back?" he asks.

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"I feel kind of weird about that."

"Just asking," he says, sitting up.

Women — pretty, well-dressed yuppie women — keep coming over to the table to talk to Hinds, to admire his tattoos, to invite him over to the bar, to suggest that they're up for partying later. "It's always like this," says Mastodon's other guitar player, Bill Kelliher, a Star Wars obsessive covered with tattoos of the bounty hunters from The Empire Strikes Back.

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Hinds' female admirers don't quite know who he is, but they're fascinated, even if his idea of making small talk with a Carrie Bradshaw type in a ruffled top is to ask, "Have you ever been homeless?"

"I'm definitely an alcoholic," Hinds says, sitting in his New York hotel a couple of days later, as he cracks his first Heineken of the day. "I've been a drunk person ever since I was old enough to drink booze. It sucks, but whatever, I can accept the truth." Ever gone to AA? "Nah," he says. "That's for losers."

The Mastodon brain trust of Hinds and Dailor get their weird lyrical ideas the old-fashioned way: "It comes from us doing too much acid," Hinds says. "Acid is the best drug in the world. It did the most amazing things for my creative psyche, and it still is doing it for me."

Seeking refuge from an operatically awful childhood, drummer-lyricist Dailor tripped almost nonstop from the age of 14 until his early 20s. "I went to high school on acid," he recalls. "Droppers filled with liquid acid on my tongue and just going for it, fully exiting what I consider to be an earthly plane. And when the acid wore off, I had a connection with that kind of music, with Frank Zappa and Yes and King Crimson."

Mastodon formed from two pairs of old friends: Hinds and bassist/co-vocalist Troy Sanders — a very tall dude with an impressively pointy metal beard (it has its own MySpace page) and an air of calm authority — played together in Atlanta, while Dailor and guitarist Kelliher slogged away in Rochester, New York. Dailor worked night shifts in a porn shop (he was spared the task of cleaning the video booths: "Roland the jizz mopper took care of that") and in a convenience store that was constantly robbed. Hinds had steady work as a carpenter but was so messed up that colonies of lice took residence in the green dreadlocks he used to have.

In 2000, Kelliher and Dailor moved to Atlanta, befriending the other two within weeks. The music they started making drew from an impressively diverse set of influences: the Melvins, the psychedelic metal act Neurosis, Rush, Genesis, Metallica, ZZ Top and Kiss. Over long, pot-fueled drives in their van, Dailor introduced the others to his favorites. "I grew up with all this awesome music," says the drummer. "David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye — down the line, all the real shit. All the real shit that doesn't exist anymore. That's what I hope Mastodon is. I want Mastodon so badly to be able to be spoken in the same breath as that stuff."

The name Mastodon came from one of Kelliher's many Star Wars tattoos, of an elephantlike creature called a bantha. Recalls Dailor, "Brent was like, 'What's that other animal, the other elephant thing, not the woolly mammoth but the other one?' He was like, 'The matador?' And Bill was like, 'No, the mastodon.' And it just sounded badass."

The band formed in the era of Korn and Limp Bizkit, but Mastodon hated that stuff: The sound they've developed is as classic-metal as it gets: lengthy, impeccably composed tunes spiced with psychedelicized guitar heroics and Hinds' unexpected hints of country and blues. Beginning with their major-label debut, 2006's Blood Mountain, Mastodon moved away from modern metal's melody-sparse barking toward actual singing — Crack the Skye even has three-part harmonies. Their already wide fan base — which ranges from typical headbangers and rock critics to hipsters and famous musicians (Dave Grohl, Pearl Jam, even Björk) — is poised to grow further. "They're heavy," says PJ's Jeff Ament, "but their beautiful parts are more beautiful than most pop bands."

After Hinds' fight in Las Vegas, he spent three days in a coma. "I was totally astral-traveling. I had the most enlightening, loving feeling. I specifically remember being in outer space, looking down on planets and stuff." His journey was eventually interrupted by a sharp pain in the groin — he was somewhere near Saturn, he estimates, when a nurse began to change his catheter. "Right when she touched my penis to take it out, I bolted up and projectile-vomited on everybody in the room. It looked like sangria. It was like 24 PBRs and a gallon of Crown Royal and fruit. Then I was done; I was out of the coma. I had lost weight — I looked great."

Hinds started writing music for what became Crack the Skye as he recovered, sitting on his couch in his underwear, smoking weed, playing his Martin acoustic. It hurt to scream, so he sang instead — on the record, he suddenly sounds like Ozzy Osbourne. The other guys, who have been writing some of the heaviest music Mastodon have ever made, eagerly switched directions when they heard what Hinds had created. Lyricist Dailor was particularly inspired: "I knew Brent was coming from a deeper place, so I knew I had to go deeper with the lyrics."

Astral travel figures into the plot of Crack the Skye, which the band recorded with producer Brendan O'Brien (AC/DC and Pearl Jam). On the surface, it's an outré sci-fi tale — a paraplegic boy's soul travels back in time to enter Rasputin's body, etc. But its subtext of loss and dislocation and rage is really as agonizingly personal as rock music can get.

Dailor, a sardonic, perpetually straight-faced blond guy, looked to his childhood for inspiration: He says his first stepdad was a druggie who hit and choked him, his mom and his sister, Skye. His mom sang in a cover band that specialized in Rush; Stepdad was the drummer. "I was coming home from school, and my mom was doubled over on the fuckin' carpet looking for coke," says Dailor.

Dailor's drumming style comes from this period of his life. "There's a violence that's in there, and that's something that I can't really put into words — it has to be played out with drums," he says. "There's moments when I'm playing the drums, and you're looking at a little kid that's being hit, at a little kid that's watching his mother be dragged up the stairs. When I'm playing fast drumrolls and hitting cymbals, you'll see my face, and that's what's going on."

The worst of it came when Dailor was 15 and already playing in his first band, Maniacal Rage. His sister, who had always been defiant in the face of the abuse ("She was always getting the real brunt of the stuff because she would just be up in the dude's face, like, 'Fuck you!'") had a humiliating encounter with some bullies one day. She went home and took a lethal dose of painkillers from her mother's drawer.

Something inside Brann broke when he found out. "I let out this giant scream, my knees buckled, and I fell down," he recalls. "So that's the crack in the sky, that's the reason the album's named Crack the Skye. It's for that moment you find out someone close to you is gone."

One night, Dailor dropped acid and went to the cemetery: "She was freshly buried, and I tried to dig and get in there with her, and take the fucking tomb off." The Skye track "The Czar" includes the line "I see your face in constellations." "That's from me laying in the dirt and staring up at the stars and seeing her face, and knowing that she was telling me to stop." After that, he spent a month in a mental institution. "When I listen to Crack the Skye and it gets to certain spots, it kills me. I don't even know why I did that to myself. It's just what came out. It needed to be written."

Sitting in his New York hotel, a sleepy Brent Hinds is wearing a hideous brown poncho with white birds on it. He borrowed it from a friend for his Rolling Stone interview, in tribute to one of his heroes, Stevie Ray Vaughan — he's under the mistaken impression that Vaughan wore a similar outfit on an RS cover. Hinds loves Vaughan — "Pendulous Skin," from Mastodon's previous album, is an obvious tribute. Hinds' initial guitar inspirations were Angus Young and Billy Gibbons — his first concert was a date on the Eliminator tour. At the moment, he's wearing a belt buckle with a picture of Ace Frehley on it. "My dad's cool as hell," says Hinds, who grew up in a churchgoing Alabama family, "but in an asshole move, he made me learn the banjo before he would buy me a guitar. So I was learning all this hillbilly music with my uncle, and then I focused on being an awesome guitar player. My mom would come in and say, 'Are you OK? You haven't been out of your room in two days.' I'd be like, 'Don't worry, I'm not masturbating, I'm playing guitar.'"

Now, he can rip through Mastodon's time-signature-shifting tunes even when he's breathtakingly wasted. "It's not complex to me, it's complex to you," he says. "To me, it's a walk in the park." When he's sober, Hinds is sweet and disarmingly charming — he's not sure why his behavior can turn ugly when he drinks. "Who knows what gets on your nerves? It could be a million things. It could be a woman. I'm a glutton for lady punishment."

Hinds calls over a friend — Bridget, a pretty African-American woman in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. It turns out he met her backstage at a Guns n' Roses show in 2006, when she was a recent college graduate — she was one of the good-looking women Axl Rose had invited backstage. "He wrangles a patch of girls," Hinds says. "He'll have, like, 15 of the most killer girls. Every girl was hot as hell." When Bridget chose Hinds over Rose, Axl got upset. "He told me, 'You're a living nightmare,'" Hinds recalls with pride. "I said, 'Sweet dreams, motherfucker.' I took her from him, basically."

Hinds loves women, but he doesn't exactly trust them. "I don't trust you, I don't trust her, I don't trust me," he says. "Fuck, no! Anyone not in the band, I do not trust you."

From The Archives Issue 1076: April 16, 2009