With rockers Mastodon's new album Once More 'Round the Sun just released, Harry Guerin catches up with guitarist Bill Kelliher to talk songs, success and Thin Lizzy.
Harry Guerin: After the success of your 2011 album The Hunter, did the four of you have a big sit-down to decide where you wanted to go with Once More 'Round the Sun?
Bill Kelliher: No, we did not - it just evolved after months and months of touring. I spent a lot of time sitting in front of my computer with a guitar in my hand. I just started writing riffs and plugging them into Pro Tools, just bouncing ideas off the guys. We're not the kind of band that really sits down together and ever discusses anything - dysfunctional in that regard!
But very functional in others. To these ears it sounds like Once More 'Round the Sun is your catchiest album.
I think we've been honing our skills as songwriters and have really come together in the past couple of years and [the] past couple of records. We really started thinking more in terms of vocal melodies and what's going to be the foundation [of the song]. Instead of writing super-complex, crazy-off-time guitar parts, I've been kind of thinking about it in a different way: 'Ok, how can you sing over this? How is this going to sound if it's a verse?'
There are some really uplifting lyrics on the album track The Motherload - was that just an organic thing as well?
They came from real experiences. A song like The Motherload, I remember when I wrote it... The opening riff, I think I was playing it for Brann [Dailor, drummer], and he was like, 'Ah, it sounds kind of happy. Are we a happy band?!' Normally we write a little more evil, dark-sounding songs and riffs, y'know? And I was like, 'Well, I'm pretty happy at the moment!' I think it's an upbeat, uplifting kind of song. We just went with it. Definitely organic.
How did the elements of Thin Lizzy's Cowboy Song find their way onto the title track?
Well, we're all big Thin Lizzy fans. And I think that song, before it was called Once More 'Round the Sun, we had named it Lizzy. It sounded very Thin Lizzyesque. Before all the Thin Lizzy references came into the song, we had different lyrics - the pre-production lyrics that just kind of went on there. When I was naming the songs in the computer when I was recording the pre-production stuff at our studio I called it Lizzy. It just evolved into a tip of the hat to [Phil] Lynott and Thin Lizzy.
Thin Lizzy could do the soft stuff, the hard stuff, the happy stuff and the angry stuff - is that part of their attraction for Mastodon as a band?
It's good for any band to be able to step outside the box and to just play however they're feeling at the moment and not be stuck as an artist in this band that you can 'only play heavy metal'. It doesn't make sense because people change, people grow and people mature and people wear different clothes every day! You have different thoughts every day and you do different things. It's healthy to be able to experiment with your art and be able to paint a different picture for each album. Thin Lizzy was on the same kind of tip.
Are you amazed how big Mastodon have become?
I don't know; it's kind of hard to see that when you're in the band. I guess from an outsider's point of view it's a lot easier to see. I guess it's humbling, but I don't really notice. To me, it's like, 'Hey, we've got a tour. We've got to go back to Europe now'. The shows are getting bigger slowly, but I think it's been such a gradual growing experience, very organic - it's not like an overnight success. I appreciate where we are. Obviously, I'd love to be bigger. I'd love for the band to keep growing and I think there's always room to be a bigger band. It wasn't like all of a sudden one day I'm like, 'Man, we're a really big band!' I feel like, 'Ok, well I hope some people show up to the gig tonight!'
You won't have to worry about that again. Are you happy success happened when you were a little older?
It's hard to say. Obviously, I wished it happened when I was younger - you always want to be younger! - but I feel I know so much more now than I did when I was, say, 25. I'm just a totally different person today than I was back then.
More chilled out or career-driven?
More chilled out. I just feel like I'm more intelligent. I know a lot more things after going through it all - especially in the music business - than I would or did at 25. So if you put all of this on me as a 25-year-old who knows where it would go? I might not be able to control it. Y'know, like, drive it right into the dirt!
What do you think the biggest misconception about the band is?
That we're all rich and stuck-up snobs, I guess!
But there is a very special bond between you and your fans. It's like they feel you've all grown up together.
I can see that. I try to keep in touch, keep my feet on the ground as far as the band goes. When people write to us on Facebook, which is like a hundred people a day, I try to respond to as many as I can. There are certain things I read on the Internet which I shouldn't take to heart. There are always going to be people who are naysayers. You can't please everybody all the time.
So don't even try.
We try to make music for ourselves that we enjoy to play, to write and to create. And if there's people that like to follow us and come to our concerts and listen to us, that's great. But we don't write the music for the fans. A lot of times fans get upset when your new album doesn't sound like the last record. We never promised anybody we were going to sound a certain way. We write music to write music for ourselves, that makes us happy.
I think there's a lot of misconceptions with kids thinking, 'Oh, they're selling out. They're just trying to get on the radio. They're trying to make more money by sounding more catchy, more poppy'. But that's quite the opposite. It'd be great to make more money and gain more fans and everything. That is the purpose of being in a band: you want to reach as many people as possible. You have to do it organically. You can't fudge it or fake it because your fans are going to know.
So what about Irish shows?
We're doing a headlining tour in, I think, November/December and the first couple of shows are in Ireland.