Interview: Mastodon's Bill Kelliher on new album, The Hunter

Bill Kelliher churns out major riffage on Mastodon's forthcoming album, The Hunter. © Scott Harrison ./Retna Ltd./Corbis

Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher admits that he didn't listen to the band's first four albums much once they were finished. "My attitude was, I made the records; they're for other people now." But there's something about the Atlanta quartet's newest CD, The Hunter, that appeals to him. "It puts a big smile on my face. I listen to it, and I'm loving it. It takes me on a journey."

That's putting it mildly. Due out 26 September (a day later in the US), The Hunter finds the Mastodonians - Kelliher, bassist/singer Troy Sanders, guitarist/singer Brent Hinds and drummer/singer Brann Dailor - in peak shredtastic form. Ditching the high-falutin' concept themes of their previous efforts in favor of shorter, tighter, hallucinogenic thrill rides that deliver plenty of sonic surprises, it's an invigorating experience that gains momentum with each cut. (Read our track-by-track review right here.)

"It's great that people are excited about the new record," says Kelliher, "especially since there always seems to be these unreal expectations placed on us. When we put out Remission, everybody was like, 'Holy shit! How are they going to top that?' Then we put out Leviathan, and it was 'Oh my God, how are they going to top Leviathan?' [laughs] And so on.

"We just have to do what we do. The records are an evolution, a story. We're four guys who play from the heart. At the end of the day, that's all there is."

MusicRadar sat down with Bill Kelliher recently to talk about the making of The Hunter, how he approached his guitar tracks, what instruments and gear he used and why recording in hotel rooms is so much fun.

The production on The Hunter is more direct and to-the-point than on the band's previous albums.

"Direct, absolutely. It's very streamlined and direct. It's a maturity thing with us - we're growing up as a band. I guess we're showing our age, I don't know. [laughs] But we still love harmony guitars, crazy solos - it's wild. There is more depth to this record, though, along with the insanity."

Your choice for a producer is interesting. Mike Elizondo did Avenged Sevenfold's last record, but mostly he's work with hip-hop artists.

"Yeah, but that's what so cool about him. He wasn't stale. Actually, Mike found us. He had wanted to work with us since Blood Mountain. The stars kind of aligned, and he was the guy standing there. We had a lot of rock guys in mind, but Mike really put himself out there to us. He flew down to Atlanta, took us out to lunch, and we got a really cool vibe from him. He didn't seem like a typical hip-hop producer. He was a guy with tattoos, very real, and he knew what he was talking about.

"He's a real musician, too. He knows instruments, knows how to make a band sound like a band. He was hands-on, had ideas for songs. He was there to help us achieve our sound. We're really happy with what he did. He didn't throw turntables in the mix or anything." [laughs]

Mastodon (Brann Dailor, Brent Hinds, Troy Sanders and Kelliher) with a very large tree.

The new songs are much shorter than what you've done in the past. Was that the idea going in?

"Kind of. It's hard to say. The songs capture where we were when we were writing and recording them. I don't know if we wanted to go shorter, but it's true that we've done the big, grandiose epics on our other records. It was time to move on and be different."

As a guitarist, what were your personal goals going into this record?

"I wanted to be a lot more present as far as the writing and riffage. A lot of our last album, Crack The Skye, was written when Brent was in the hospital - he had been in an accident - so some of the songs were pretty heavy. I approached this record in the same way, but Brent came back full force and he had a lot of the album written out in his head, so some of my tunes didn't make it.

"We wound up writing a lot of the record in sections. There's songs that are totally Brent and Brann, some that are me, some that are me and Brann - it came together like that. But I did want to shine, and I think the songs that I contributed to heavily really do.

"I wanted to do a real guitar solo. In the past, the only solo I did was on the song Sleeping Giant, which is kind of like a solo The Edge might play - it's very Sunday Bloody Sunday. I love The Edge. He's an amazing guitar player. For this record, I wrote the solo to Black Tongue, and it came out great.

"The interesting thing about that solo is how I cut it - in a hotel room in France on my laptop. I play guitar on the whole song, really. Like I said, we did some things on this record separately. But it was really cool blazing through the solo all on my own in a hotel room across an ocean. I have Pro Tools on my laptop, so I laid it down, e-mailed it off to Mike Elizondo, and there it was - done."

It sounds like a true dual guitar solo, as if you and Brent playing.

"Well, good! [laughs] It's hard to get everybody in the same room sometimes, so that's the only reason why I'm playing it by myself. The second half of the solo was already there, but I had to put the first part on with only a few hours to go before we had to turn the record in to the label. I played it for the rest of the guys the next day, and they loved it. I'm pretty proud of that solo."

Curl Of The Burl is pretty action-packed. What did you do on that one?

"Brann had the riffs for the chorus, and we put some other riffs and parts to it and made it into a song. Brent played most of the guitars on that. He used a Morpheus pedal, which is really cool because it can drop the tuning of your guitar. You can play a full, six-string chord and literally hear every note. I came in and put some harmony guitar in, and in the bridge I did some textures. I tried using the Morpheus pedal myself, but it didn't work with the two of us going through it. I went with straight-on, distorted guitar."

All The Heavy Lifting is another great one.

"Thanks. Brann and I threw that one around. He hums a lot of stuff, and I'll figure it out on guitar. I tuned down to A, which gets a really great sound. During the chorus, once I heard the vocals, I could tell the song was going to be amazing, so I put in some really evil harmony guitars. Actually, that's another song I worked on away from the studio. I recorded some stuff on my laptop backstage in Berlin. You gotta jump when the time is right, you know?" [laughs]

Sure. But is it weird in some way to work on an album on your own, recording in hotel rooms and backstage? Can you get a real band vibe that way?

[laughs] "It's a little weird, I guess. I don't know, I think it's kind of exciting, though. The way technology works now, it's cool. Sometimes you can be in the studio and nothing's happening; there's no vibe; everybody's sitting around, and meanwhile money is going out the window. Recording on the road is nothing new for artists, but I guess it might be new for a band like us."

What kinds of things did you do on the song Spectrelight?

"That's a song Brann mostly came up with. When we got into the studio, I changed around some parts. I dropped down the tuning to make it sound more evil. It was a little too happy at first, so I tuned it down to A again.

"The magic glue to the song is the little staccato bit that holds sections together. Mike Elizondo and I butted heads on that - he thought it was unnecessary, but I stuck to my guns. There's a lot of open, dissonant notes on it - I like how crazy and twisted they sound. Open notes give you a warbly texture."

How do you and Brent work on layering guitar parts? Has your approach changed over the years?

"I think so. Every producer is different in what he thinks works. Mike wasn't a big fan of sticking too many guitars in the mix; he wanted things to be minimal, the whole 'less-is-more' deal. What happens is, I throw guitars on and end up taking them off. Brent's the same way. The record has a big sound, but it's more because of the way we play and how we wrote the songs, not how many guitars we stacked on.

"On Crack The Skye, we went crazy, using every guitar under the sun and putting on track after track of harmonies and things. This time, we were more conservative - I know I was. The only guitars I used were my Les Pauls, my Explorer with an EMG-X pickup and a Jim Root Fender Telecaster that Jim gave me. That was kind of it.

"I go back and forth on guitar stuff. For years I was putting Seymour Duncan Distortion pickups on my Les Pauls, and I've been pretty happy with them. Recently, though, I got a Les Paul Custom with the classic '57 pickups, and they sound amazing. I want all my guitars to have those pickups now."

What amps did you use on the record?

"A few things, but the main amp for me is my old Marshall JCM 800 2210. It's been modded from EL34s to 6550s. When I turn up the preamp volume and the preamp gain, it gets pretty noisy. But for the studio, it's great. It gets me a cool AC/DC-like sound.

"I tried out a few pedals, but I always come back to my Ibanez Tube King. It's an old one. I used one of the newer ones, but the old one sounds awesome. Here and there you wind up trying certain things in the studio, but I always go back to my old reliables."

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.