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."
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