Tartarean Desire’s Tony Belcher caught up with Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher on November 24, 2004 in Norfolk, Virginia during the band’s stint on the current installment of the Jägermeister Music Tour.

If you can gauge it, what has the response to Leviathan been like so far? I think it is safe to say that it was easily one of the most highly anticipated records of the year and will be on many “top ten lists” for 2004.
Um, it’s been pretty good -- it’s been really good actually. I’m pretty surprised, I mean… I knew, y’know, to us it was just like, there was a lot of pressure I think, put on us to, uh, do better than Remission. Y’know, a lot of people were like “well, are they gonna… oh, well, you can’t top that” kind of thing. And it’s like, well, whatever, we just do what we did and went in the studio, y’know.

Is it cool being on Relapse?
Yeah. They’re awesome. Everyone there is really cool people. Y’know, I dig everybody, everyone is real friendly, it’s kinda like a big family, y’know, but um, yeah, they’re really good with promotion and they treat us real good.

That’s cool.

Are you getting attention from major labels now?
Yeah, it’s starting to come along now.

Having had the pleasure of experiencing Mastodon live a few times myself in Atlanta, I trust your fans are eager to see you once again. Is this the first tour in support of the new album?
Um, let’s see, well, the record came out on August 31, so, yeah I guess it is really [our first tour for Leviathan]. We were on the Fear Factory tour and then – we had already recorded the record – came home, uh, went to Europe with Slipknot and Slayer, so yeah, this is pretty much the second half of the first major tour for Leviathan, so, it’s um, it’s going along great, it’s really, y’know, it’s better than I expected for sure, especially touring with a band like Slayer. Y’know, it’s kind of hard to open for them.

That’s actually the next question I had. So how has that been?
It’s been good. It’s been a really good response, y’know, we haven’t been booed off the stage yet [laughter]. We always used to joke around that no one should ever open up for Slayer ‘cause they’re just so fuckin’ -- their fans are so crazy, they just only want to see Slayer, y’know, so, but I think times are changing and younger kids are more accepting for newer Metal bands and stuff like that, so it’s been going great.

That segues into another touring question. Do you notice a big crowd difference from the U.S. to Europe or, say, Japan where everybody seems to be big?
Um, when we played on the tour in Europe with Slipknot and Slayer, it was no smaller than 7000 kids a night. The biggest was 17,000 in Paris so, yeah, they’re a lot bigger over there. We’ve been to Japan and that was 300 kids a night. It was our first time over there, we’re not that well known over there yet -- the record is about to come out over there. We’re going back in February with Isis and Converge for like a week or so. So that’s gonna be pretty fuckin’ cool. But Europe, the U.K. especially, that’s our second biggest market, pretty much, in the world, so.

About the record, Leviathan, how long did the writing take and was this one different than previously, did it come out slower or faster?
Yeah, basically we were just nonstop touring and we came home last year, I think it was like January, December-January, we’re like, okay well, we’ll go up to Seattle and record Leviathan in march. y’know, take the whole month off and we’ll just, y’know, live, breathe Leviathan and just kinda be relaxed about it. We hadn’t written anything really yet, y’know we got a bunch of, like a bag of riffs here and there. Basically we thought we had like three months to write it and we’re like “okay, that’s cool, we can do that.” We all got off tour – we were on tour with Clutch and then they called us back and they’re like “hey, we want you guys to come out like next month” and we’re like “well, fuck, we can’t ‘cause we’re gonna be recording and we’re gonna be writing. We need to concentrate on writing especially for this record y’know, it’s gonna be a fuckin’ big one, highly anticipated and whatnot.” So our three months turned into, like, a month and a half and we just…

Rushed, rushed, rushed?
Yeah, we rushed around. We went into our practice room every single night and just… I mean, it was tiring, exhausting [laughter]. ‘Cause, y’know being on the road the whole time and then being back together in the little, tiny room.

Holed up in the rehearsal space?
Yeah, it’s like, geez, we want to see our families and shit and hang out. But we wrote this one pretty quickly if you really look at it. We wrote like 8 songs and immediately went on the road with it. The tour path that we were taking was gonna take us up to Seattle. We were learning “Hearts Alive,” writing that song, [and] I barely had it down and it was “okay, we’re leaving tomorrow” and we were gonna open with that song, start off playing that song, so I was like, “oh, man I’m nervous.”

Everyone has been harping on the Moby Dick theme in Leviathan so I will leave that alone, but does a song typically start with the almighty riff -- as opposed to a lyric, or does it depend on the song?
We usually do, we usually just write, we just have riffs going on…

And the words come later?
Yeah, the words come later. We’re concentrating on the riffage. Just making sure every riff goes together pretty well and we’re all happy with it, y’know, and then lyrics, ideas come out later. Just whatever, some kind of idea or image. Y’know, we’re thinking “this song kinda sounds like you’re on a ship or something….”

Or drowning at sea?
Yeah, y’know, something like that.

Are there bands that you are a fan or friend of, or both? I’m thinking about High on Fire, Clutch, Neurosis, and Isis, specifically. Also, who, if anyone, do you consider to be your true peers in Metal?
Yeah, I mean definitely we all look up to Neurosis, and the Melvins, and Clutch, and High on Fire. All those guys are all good friends and stuff, y’know.

Is that how the Clutch and Neurosis contributions to the record came about? Did you just call up Scott or Neil and say come on down?
Yeah, when we played in Today is the Day we toured with Neurosis. We played a lot of shows with them in the States and went over to Europe with them for like five weeks or so, and Brann and Scott had a pretty good relationship and stayed in touch, and they always wanted to do something together. We thought, “hey, this part of the song sounds like very Neurosis,” and it’s like, “well, maybe we can get Scott to come up and sing on it” and he did. And the same with Neil Fallon. We toured with Clutch three or four times and we love his lyrics….

Yeah, that guy is definitely out there.
He’s got a great – his voice is just fuckin’ really strong and really unique. We just thought in Blood and Thunder that’d be a perfect part for him to sing.

He kills that thing.

Before I read the liner notes I listened to the song and it just sounded like him and I had to check to see that it was.

We can skip this question if you don’t want to answer it, but in a recent interview I did with Steve Austin I tried to ask him about Mastodon and you guys and didn’t even get a “no comment.” He just completely skipped the question. It’s like he went right to number thirteen, or whatever. Is there bad blood relating to Today is the Day?
[laughter] Really? Huh. Ummm, no, maybe he has some [bad blood], I don’t know what his problem is but, uh, we were just in the band and we just weren’t happy – I wasn’t happy with what I was doing. It just wasn’t my thing so that’s all I have to really say about it. “I’m done, see ya later.” I wanted to form my own band and be more in control of the writing process and shit, so….

Did you guys get plucked out of Lethargy before, or…?
Um, Lethargy, we played a lot but we never really toured or did anything serious. We did a lot of recordings and whatnot. We were pretty big in our little, tiny home town of Rochester. But uh, what happened was basically we weren’t really doing much and Dave Witte from Burnt By The Sun had heard that Steve [Austin] was looking for a drummer and he called Brann saying “you should try out ‘cause you’ll get the gig” and they were a touring band and big and whatnot, so, um, I was like “dude, if you’re gonna go, let’s stick together, if you guys need a bass player or guitarist or fuckin’ whatever, let me know ‘cause I’m not doing anything now.” I was just kinda bored and wanted to be in something to get my foot in the door, y’know, and be in a band that was touring and learn how to do all that shit, so.... It happened and worked out for like a year or whatever and we were done with it.

That’s cool. I appreciate you answering that one.
Yeah, sure.

Switching gears a little bit, what do you guys listen to on the bus or at home?
On our tour bus? [laughter]

Uh, the tour van?
On the tour van? [laughter] Right now, let’s see, what do we listen to? We listen to a lot of The Melvins. I just got the new Melvins/Jello Biafra record… y’know, Dead Kennedys. Just trying to soak that in. Just picked up some Turbonegro, uh, it’s like a best of, some live stuff. Um….

Anything surprising? Y’know, like some Enya or Elton John or something like that?
Ummmm, not really. Well we just got a new van and we don’t have a CD player in it yet. We’re getting one tomorrow. [laughter] We’ve been listening to fuckin’ tapes. We’ve been listening to like, Ministry…

Psalm 69?
Yeah, that record’s fuckin’ amazing. We’ve been pumping that. Um, Wolverine Blues… by Entombed.

Right on.
Melvins’ Houdini. What else have we been listening to? Um, Nirvana’s Bleach, that’s a great album.

They’ve got a box set that’s supposed to be the biggest one, I guess in history, coming out soon. So it’s supposed to have a live record on it, too.
Cool. Cool. Uh, Thin Lizzy, um, we’ve got that live Judas Priest tape, been listening to that. Uh, shit, got some, like, George Jones and some country stuff. Y’know, Johnny Cash.

Got any Charlie Daniels [who wrote The Devil Went Down to Georgia] in there?
No, not any Charlie Daniels really, but….

Here’s one that might be tougher, but what are the major influences in the band? On an album, or in a given song, one can hear Thrash, Death Metal, surf, rockabilly…
Yeah. [laughter]

…math, southern rock, hardcore…
[more laughter]

…power, grooves, y’know, just plain old rock-n-roll in there, too.
[more laughter, still] Yeah, the group listened to a lot of like Zeppelin, Jimmy Page, really liked his playing. And then, of course Eddie Van Halen. That was, y’know, when I was like 14 or 15 years old…

Who didn’t?
Yeah. And then I got more into East Bay Ray from Dead Kennedys and Greg Ginn from Black Flag. I really liked their styles. Johnny Ramone.

Basically is it just as simple as “we like what we like”?
Yeah, and then I got into King Buzzo. A lot. His fuckin’ tuned down, down-tuning, super-saturated guitar riffs. Page Hamilton from Helmet, definitely. Listened to a lot of that shit.

It was probably inescapable in 92-93-94.
Yeah. Kim Thayil [of Soundgarden].

Some good shit.

You may have gotten this one a lot, but do I hear shades of “Call of Ktulu” on “Joseph Merrick” a little bit?
Um, maybe. Definitely forgot to mention early Metallica, a big influence. And Slayer as well. Y’know, I’m sure there’s a lot of that stuff going on in there, in our music, y’know. [laughter] It’s all over the place!

Yeah, when you start a foundation it’s gotta make its way through everything.

Just got a couple of questions about Metal in general if you’ve got any broad stroke statements about strengths and weaknesses of the genre and how Mastodon would avoid the weaknesses and play to the strengths?

To me your individuality is…
I think a lot of bands might, y’know… We’re diverse because everyone brings something to the table, puts their own two cents in, y’know – riffs or lyrics or whatever and that’s fine. With some bands it’s one guy writing everything, and everything sounds kinda monotone, y’know. I think some bands forget that you need Rock in Metal, definitely. You gotta have your foundation of Rock.

You’ve gotta have a groove somewhere in there.
Yeah, you gotta have some meat and potatoes, definitely, and I think we capture that pretty well. Some bands play everything all heavy all the time and it’s like you lose the power. They gotta play some, like, break it down a little bit and have some nice acoustic, or clean parts and then kick it in heavy, change and switch gears in the beats and shit like that.

You can’t bludgeon somebody repeatedly….
Yeah. See, fuck that.

I think that’s most of it. In closing, I just want to thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. Do you have any parting words for anyone?
Um, if you’re into Rock and Metal check out our new record Leviathan. You can go to… check out merch[andise] and just check out our site. We’ve got a forum, if you’re into that. [laughter]

Cool. I actually lied, I guess. I’ve got some Atlanta questions….

What made you guys decide to go to Atlanta?
Well, my wife is going to school down there at Emory. And uh…

Gotta do what the boss says?
Yeah, back in like 97, we weren’t married yet, but back in 97 she was so sick of upstate New York and she said “I’m gonna go to one of these three different schools” and she picked Atlanta. I had never been there and I was like “okay, well, this is gonna be my opportunity to go down there and try something new, try to find a new band.” And I failed miserably. Couldn’t find anyone to play with, no good drummers and no good guitar players.

It’s not a very Metal city.
Not at all. But then I was seeing that there were people into Metal but there’s no one playing it. So I was like “this is fertile ground down here” – if I only had a fuckin’ band. I was trying to get my band Lethargy to move down, but no one wanted to leave [New York]. That’s when about 7 months later I moved back up there. That’s when Lethargy got back together and then it wasn’t really doing anything and Brann and I went to Today is the Day and then when we left that band we were like “hey, let’s move back down to Atlanta and we’ll start something up down there. I know a couple of guys that I met – Troy and Brent.” And they had a van.

That makes it easier.
We just started hitting it off right away and started writing songs and y’know, started a tour right after that. It just seemed more like – it was nice and warm. It was a better place to be than upstate New York in the fucking freezing cold.

Right. [laughter]
It’s just more centralized, too. You can just drive 4 hours to the beach, or 3 hours to the beach

You can do anything you want to do….
You can go to Florida. You can go to New Orleans in 8 hours. You can go up to the Carolinas. Saw shit all around and it was just a little more centralized than we were [in New York] and I just felt more comfortable there. And we just started meeting a lot of really cool people and I just dug it, y’know?

Right on. That’s cool. That was probably my last question.
Alright, cool, man.

Hey, man, I appreciate it.
Hey, thanks a lot.

Thank you.

Links of interest:

Relapse Records