Photo: Jimmy Hubbard
Brann Dailor Talks 20 Years Of Mastodon, New 'Medium Rarities' Collection And How He Spent The Coronavirus Lockdown Drawing Clowns
We can all agree that 2020 is a milestone, albeit challenging, year: There's that end-of-the-world-feeling pandemic that's been going on since March. And oh yeah, it's Mastodon's 20-year anniversary, too.
Brann Dailor, the band's drummer/singer and founding member, has been quarantined at home in Atlanta for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. His mother, who "smokes like it's her job, unfortunately, and has COPD," Dailor says, is at risk for COVID-19, so he didn't visit her in his Rochester, N.Y., hometown. (He jokes that his mom is akin to Keith Richards: eternal.)
Fortunately, his other family, Mastodon, ended up using the last six months in lockdown wisely. Dailor and the rest of the group—bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders, lead guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds and rhythm guitarist/vocalist Bill Kelliher—compiled Medium Rarities, a collection of rarities, covers and B-sides that marks their two decades together as a groundbreaking, GRAMMY-winning quartet that's often narrowly classified as "metal."
In a wide-ranging conversation with GRAMMY.com, the talkative Brann Dailor waxed prolifically on everything from the "homeless" songs that led to Medium Rarities, how he drew 101 clowns in 101 days during the coronavirus lockdown, and how, after 20 years with Mastodon, he continues to focus on the now.
Medium Rarities is a collection of, as the name implies, rarities and covers. Was the project planned before the pandemic?
I mean, we were ruminating on it. The story of our song, "Fallen Torches," explains it. A few years ago, we bought a building in Atlanta because two of the major practice facilities in town closed down. There were hundreds of homeless bands in Atlanta, and we were included in that group.
[Guitarist/vocalist] Bill's basement is very small. There's a little studio down there, but the four of us have been in the band together for 20 years; we're not cramming in that basement to write material.
So we had to figure something out. We started looking for a building where, maybe as a band, we could go in on a building together and build it out and end up with like 20-30 rooms. So we did that. We also put a recording studio in the bottom part.
When we got everything totally hooked up and rockin', and we got the drums set up, we were all very excited to see [what it sounded like], what we had as far as a room. That's kind of a make-or-break: whether or not we can record an actual album in our own studio.
I went over to Bill's basement and I had like three riffs strung together. He had a couple parts. We just started, and we put ["Fallen Torches"] together. We demoed it at Bill's, then we took it over to our place, recorded it and put all the bells and whistles on there.
Very exciting that it sounded great!
Yeah, we were stoked about what we had done, then [guest singer] Scott Kelly had come to start rehearsals for a tour that we were gonna do together. He laid down some vocals for it, and we said, "We can just put this thing out, right? It's finished." Got it mixed and mastered and said, "Here you go, Warner Bros., check it out. We want to put this out ahead of our tour with Scott Kelly." It made perfect sense.
So two weeks into the tour: What's going on? Where's the song? I don't know what happened. Bureaucracy. Red tape. The circumstances were explained to me at some point in time, like a year and a half ago. It has left my brain, like many other things. We had talked about it in the press, too, which is just a no-no. We thought [it] was a done deal. So we had to put it in the corner; we didn't know what to do with it. Should it go on our next album …
Even though it was meant to be a stand-alone one-off with Scott ...
Yeah. Well honestly, with every single album, there'll be riffs and parts that we call "homeless riffs." "Remember that one riff from 2006? Let's revisit that." For instance, the very first riff you hear on [2017 album] Emperor Of Sand is a 10-year-old riff written in 2007 that was sitting in the computer for that long.
So basically, our manager Kristen [Mulderig, president of the RSE Group,] came up with the idea. "Listen, you guys have all these songs … all your covers that only came out on a special release; seven-inches that only serious collectors have … It'll be cool to put all that weird stuff that's been hanging out for a long time all together."
So our "homeless" songs now live on an actual master and a release all together. And it was also a vehicle where we can finally release "Fallen Torches" and also say, "This is our 20th year. You've collected all this. This is all your shrapnel."
Phew. Long story, great idea.
And that's the story of Medium Rarities, a cool thing to put out while we are in the middle of writing for our next actual full-length. We're talking about going to the studio somewhere around late September [or] October.
I really like the Feist song, "A Commotion." I thought that was so cool. I want to do so much more of that [artists performing each other's tunes]. We did ["Later... with Jools Holland" in the U.K.] years ago, and that's when we met [Leslie Feist] and we met Bon Iver. It was such a cool thing because, you know, when you play [in] a metal band, you just don't get those kinds of opportunities. You don't get invited to those parties. When you're there, you kind of feel like you don't really belong, like a voyeur in a weird way. But the Bon Iver guys wanted to talk to us, they wanted to meet us, and they said, "We love you guys. We listen to Mastodon before we go on stage."
Mastodon have been nominated for a bunch of GRAMMYs, with one win in 2018 for Best Metal Performance for "Sultan's Curse" off Emperor Of Sand. I'm wondering, what is success to you? Is it an award? Or the band being featured on "Game Of Thrones"? Or …
Honestly, success for me personally is the moment that the four of us can sit together and listen to a finished piece of art that we made together. The pinnacle of success for me is when we listen back and it's tears of joy, high-fives, hugs.
A different topic: your clown drawings. I've seen some online.
I was doing a lot of drawing when everything locked down. When I was a kid, I would draw all the time. I was the kid in high school or in middle school that could draw Eddie from Iron Maiden, so everyone wanted me to draw Eddie on jackets or book covers. I'd charge them $4 because it cost $4 for a hit of acid. "If I do a book cover, I can go to [name redacted!] house, get me a hit of acid for the weekend; it'll be great."
The doors of perception were open and my third eye was squeegeed quite well. So I hadn't drawn anything in like 25 years. The urge to sit down and draw something started to leave me in my late-teens as my life got busier; I just stopped drawing. All my concentration was towards drumming and hanging out with my girlfriend, my friends.
But I had a couple of piles, bags of art supplies in closets in my home. I was always [like], "One day, I'm going to crack you open, I'm going to write on you!" So I drew a clown on the first day of the lockdown on my 11-by-14 paper pad with like 20 pages in it. I liked how it came out. Of course, in the beginning, it was like, "This [lockdown] is gonna go on for 14 days and then we'll be back up and running and everything will be fine."
I drew the second clown. The third clown. Then I drew 101 clowns in 101 days straight. Every single day.
There were all different themes. I did a Steve Harvey clown. I did a Richard Simmons clown … I did a clown in an open casket. A clown with a balloon floating up and the balloon said, "I miss you," on it. I did two clowns hugging. I did a Texas Chain Saw Massacre clown. I did a Silence Of The Lambs clown. It was crazy.
Are the drawings online?
I haven't posted them because I went off all my social media months ago, but you can search. A guy here in town published a couple, and Metal Hammer published some as well. I think there's going to be a coffee-table book.
But I think it was just for me. It went to a snowball of friends; more people would get added to the daily clown list. It got to where it would take me 45 minutes to send in the clowns to everyone. It went to all sorts of people: Lars Ulrich [Metallica] and Josh Homme [Queens Of The Stone Age, Eagles Of Death Metal] and all my buddies from tour who were sitting at home. Every once in a while, it'd be 8 p.m. and I'd get texts from people like, "Hey, are you OK? Where's today's clown?" I'd be like, "It's coming, hang on. I had sh*t to do today!"
Does Mastodon's 20th anniversary make you thoughtful? Do you consider it a big landmark?
I thought it was more impressive when we were a younger band and I would know that another band had been around for that long. Like, "How do you do that with the same people?" Well, usually it's not the same people; you have [band] member changes throughout the years, which makes sense. Yet here we are: same four dudes, 20 years.
Quite honestly, the only time I haven't really thought about Mastodon in the last 20 years was over this little pause. That was the first time in forever, 'cause I'm always thinking about it. It's always this moving motion: I'm not thinking about 20 years behind me, I'm only focused on what's happening now and what we're doing right now. The constant buzzing in my brain is about new material and what to do with it and how to make it better.