“It was a rollercoaster of sickness and bad news” - Mastodon open up about the tragic inspiration for new album Emperor Of Sand
As with all their albums, Georgia metallers Mastodon’s new album Emperor Of Sand takes on a grand, wandering concept, but this one has a biting personal subtext.
On the surface this is an album that tells the story of a man who is handed a death sentence from a desert ruler and then wanders an arid wasteland, but it’s actually the focus for a huge amount of pain and torment for the band, who wrote this record amid a background of tragic news and long spells in hospital wards.
To find out about making the album and how he and drummer Brann Dailor channelled the pain of their mothers’ crippling illnesses into the LP, we spoke to Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelleher...
How did you want this album to move on from what you’d done on 2014’s Once More Round The Sun?
“We wanted to go in a little bit of a different direction and to experiment a little more. I always want to push myself in terms of my guitar-playing and my songwriting and always be maturing and moving on. There are more uncharted waters every time, but you have to do that without jumping overboard. I feel like there’s a lot of our older records in there too and, as with every record, there’s an old song that gets reawoken. We actually wrote about 75% of ‘Sultan’s Curse’ during The Hunter, but it didn’t make it then, so every riff is never lost.”
You worked with Brendan O’Brien on the album, what did he give you as a producer?
“Brendan is a very intelligent dude and he knows how to capture what we’re looking to get from our sound. He works really fast and he doesn’t spend too long over-thinking ideas, he knows how to capture spontaneity and he’s not afraid to experiment and try new things. He brings a third dimension to our sound, it feels a little like we’re a flat drawing and he adds the shading and the cross-hatching, more depth and more elements. He’s also got a tonne of great gear.”
How did you come up with the concept for this album? Was it done before you started on the songs?
“We’re always writing and we like using concepts because they bring more focus to what we’re trying to say. I’m still a huge fan of the album, sitting down with a record and looking at the artwork and following the story. Concept records take you beyond the music and into the dialogue. Brann and I wrote the majority of this album in my studio and it was a really hard time, one tragedy after another, Troy (Sanders, bassist/frontman) found out his wife was sick with cancer, then my mother was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour, Brann’s mother is always in and out of the hospital and she wasn’t doing well at all.”
Writing must have been very difficult under those circumstances?
“Every day we’d sit down before we’d write and talk about how our mums were doing, it was a rollercoaster of sickness and bad news and that really leaked into our writing. A lot of the imagery is from that. Brann saw this painting Alan Brown had done of this vast desert with an evil creature in it, I think he had the idea to make him the embodiment of cancer, this evil disease, and make the guy the emperor of the sand.”
How did you manage to stay focused on writing and creating with all that going on?
“This is life and people get sick. I live in Atlanta and my mum is in upstate New York and I spent most of the year off we had between tours to fly to New York to take care of my mum and to prepare properly for her death. It was difficult, but I’m glad I had an album to write. It wasn’t cathartic, but it did help me distract from what was happening with my mum and it gave me a lot of focus and energy.”
You’re about to head out on tour playing these songs, are you worried that they might bring up some difficult memories?
“I’m always looking forward to playing the new songs, but there are definitely some moments on this record that will bring up sad memories and there’s nothing I can do to change that. Certain parts and songs were literally written in the hospice, my mum was a vegetable, she couldn’t talk or move so I figured I may as well try and get some work done rather than just sit there and stare at her. I can just try and cherish it, I know it’s sad, but I know it’s better that I was there. I know she’d want me to carry on and that’d she’d be proud.”