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Mastodon: Shaking Hands With the Great Shambling Beast

Bill Kelliher and Scott Wood Talk Drinking, Star Wars, Superfans and Metal Gods Metallica

By Scott Wood

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It is chaos backstage at the Commodore as the metal machine churns away setting up for the show. I hear heated grunts outside. Then Mastodon’s rhythm guitarist/vocalist Bill Kelliher lurches into the room, a mass of tatts and tangled muscles. He is in the middle of sorting out a problem with the merchandise table and he doesn’t look too happy.

As soon as he sees me, it is straight to business. He asks me what this is for. I answer. He prepares himself and sits down, ready for chat.

Scott Wood: What do you not feel like answering today?

Bill Kelliher [he laughs]: Don’t ask me about Star Wars!

I just can't stop collecting. When someone wants to give me some Star Wars stuff, or if I walk down the street into some shop and see something I don't have, I've got to have it - and that's my vice I guess in life. I don't gamble and I'm not a heavy drug user, so I collect Star Wars crap.

Scott Wood: D’oh!

Bill Kelliher: No, that’s fine. Don’t ask me what the concept of the record is.

Scott Wood: Interesting objection.

Bill Kelliher: I’ve told that story a million times. You know everyone wants to know and it’s kind of a long and drawn out story to tell, so...

To save Bill some time and aggravation, I will let Mastodon’s drummer, Brann Dailor, explain the concept behind Crack the Skye. His explanation is taken from an interview he gave to Billboard in March 2009.

"It's about a crippled young man who experiments with astral travel. He goes up into outer space, goes too close to the sun, gets his golden umbilical cord burned off, flies into a wormhole, is thrust into the spirit real, has conversations with spirits about the fact that he's not really dead, and they decide to help him. They put him into a divination that's being performed by an early-20th-century Russian Orthodox sect called the Klisti, which Rasputin is part of.

"Knowing Rasputin is about to be murdered, they put the young boy's spirit inside of Rasputin. Rasputin goes to usurp the throne of the czar and is murdered by the Yusupovs, and the boy and Rasputin fly out of Rasputin's body up through the crack in the sky and head back. Rasputin gets him safely back into his body."

"That's the basic story," he says, "but it's all metaphors for personal shit."

Scott Wood: Since we all know the story behind Crack the Skye, I will ask you what makes the union of metal and sci-fi-fantasy so potent?


Bill Kelliher: Even without the story behind it, I think the record—the music—still stands on its own. It’s good, old-fashioned rock and roll, with a little prog and metal. I think we’ve just kind of evolved over that and beyond that. We like to have a story that goes along with it. You know, it helps us to write the lyrics when we have a story outline. It kind of brings everybody in to hone in on the same page when we’re writing lyrics or the concept or whatever. I think that people really get in to it and it just opens up a whole new world and kids are just like, “How do you come up with this stuff? It just takes me on this mystical trip.” It’s open to interpretation as well with the lyrics and all the concepts with all the ideas in there. It just takes the whole writing music art form to a higher level.

I'm sure I will sit my kids down and tell them the dangers of drinking and drinking and driving and the effects that it has on relationships and everyday life. It effects a lot. I haven't drank in like four months after I had pancreatitis from drinking too much - over the years and years and years. I'll tell them about that.

Scott Wood: Cool. I guess I will risk your ire by asking a Star Wars question. I was reading in the paper today that you are a big fan and you have a big room in your house full of Star Wars collectibles. You are on tour right now and you also have family, so what keeps the kids out of that room?

Bill Kelliher: Well, they have their own room full of Star Wars toys—that are some of mine that I’ve opened and let them play with. It’s funny, just a couple of days ago, some guy my age walked up to me with a big bag and was like, “Here, this is for you Bill!” I was like, “Ok.” I looked inside and there was like 50 Star Wars figures, just like loose inside the bag. I was like, “Awesome!”—none of them I had, ‘cuz they were like newer ones or whatever. I put them into a box and I mailed them from Seattle yesterday to my kids, with a bunch of candy and stuff like that.

People like to give me stuff on the road. It’s awesome. Not even just Star Wars stuff. Kids will learn what we like. Like Brent’s really into The Creature From the Black Lagoon, tattoos and old sci-fi movies. We did a meet-and-greet today at a record store, and a guy brought me an old Return of the Jedi-era t-shirt, like a child’s t-shirt. Another lady brought me some Lego Star Wars stuff.

Now it’s become a serious deal, because now I don’t have the room anymore for all the stuff—but I just can’t stop collecting. When someone wants to give me some Star Wars stuff, or if I walk down the street into some shop and see something I don’t have, I’ve got to have it—and that’s my vice I guess in life. I don’t gamble and I’m not a heavy drug user, so I collect Star Wars crap.

Scott Wood: I was reading today another interview where you were talking about your other vice, alcohol. What kind of advice will you give your kids about that? I bet it will be quite a different talk than the one I got from my dad.

Bill Kelliher: Well, you know, as people have always told me, “everything in moderation,” of course. I dunno. That’s a decision they’re gonna have to make. Cuz it’s different from marijuana—since that’s an illegal drug. Well, back home, it’s kind of frowned upon still—hopefully that will change.


I’m sure I will sit my kids down and tell them the dangers of drinking and drinking and driving and the effects that it has on relationships and everyday life. It effects a lot. I haven’t drank in like four months after I had pancreatitis from drinking too much—over the years and years and years. I’ll tell them about that. There’s dangers that way too. It’s bad for your body.

Ultimately, no one can tell you not to drink. You need to make that decision for yourself and do it. It’s a serious addiction. You’ve gotta warn your little ones about it. But you don’t really listen to your parents. When you become that certain age, like 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 year olds—that’s when you break out of your shell and you know it all—at least I thought I did. Mom would be like [he makes a nagging voice], “Are you smoking marijuana?” I used to smoke a lot of pot when I was a kid. I don’t really anymore.

Scott Wood: Imagine your household is a little more liberal than say a fireman or teacher’s house might be?

Bill Kelliher: Well, my wife has a pretty serious job at the Center For Disease Control—she works for the government. She has a pretty steady job and I don’t drink around the kids. I mean I know the environment that I’m in everyday is like a party every night. There’s wild rock and roll and there’s illegal things and substances going on and heavy drinking and whatever. But my kids don’t exactly see that side of it. I mean they’ve come out to see us play before, but it’s something I’d definitely like to keep them out of until they’re old enough to make their own decisions, obviously. You can’t deny that it’s there and those things happen.

I think my father tried to just ignore it and pretend. My mom seems to think he had a bad drinking problem, but he wasn’t the kind of guy I would see drunk all the time, just kind of throwing shit around in fits of anger. He was a very proper suit and tie kind of guy who owns a business. We grew up pretty modestly. But it doesn’t matter if you are a fireman or policeman, you can have a drinking problem.

Scott Wood: Ok, woah! This is kind of going in a very serious direction! I read a quote from Troy where he said that “the music, the band, etc. is like a fire burning in your gut and we’re gonna keep doing it until it’s extinguished.” When you walked in here you were annoyed over some merch issue. What keeps the fire burning when the silly things are getting you down?

Bill Kelliher: It’s a lot of things. It’s all of our passion to play, get up on a stage and make people happy. Me personally, I do some speaking. The fans really fan the flames. [He breaks out in laughter.] Sorry about that pun there. They keep the shit burning, you know? When you see these kids and they’re so impacted by the music. I try to keep up with our myspace and these kids who are like, “My father passed away last year and I’ve been really suicidal or just depressed”—or whatever. I mean, it’s not just one or two, it’s like 10s and 20s, every couple of days and these kids are like, “Your record really changed my life. Please never break up. Please keep putting out music.” It’s little things like that.

When you see these kids and they're so impacted by the music. I try to keep up with our myspace and these kids who are like, "My father passed away last year and I've been really suicidal or just depressed" - or whatever. I mean, it's not just one or two, it's like 10s and 20s, every couple of days and these kids are like, "Your record really changed my life. Please never break up. Please keep putting out music.

There’s that and there’s I don’t know what else to do with my life. It’s like I have been doing this for so long. You know, I am 38 now. It’s not really the best time—the way the economy is—it’s not really the best time to go “I quit!” and go back to school or become a chef or a garbage man or something like that. It’s my livelihood too now I’ve got a house payment a wife two kids. I have to keep going in this direction.

I guess what keeps it burning is the fact that we’ve made this out of nothing. Us four guys, when we got together, we didn’t really see it being this big. And you know, it is pretty big, in retrospect. It can only get better. But we’ve just put so much time and effort and work of our lives—you know living in a van, just like these guys, the bands we are on tour with. It’s not easy to do, and all the determination and the sacrificing that we’ve had to do over the years to get where we are today is... We’ve gotta do it for as long as we can, because it wouldn’t be worth it, all of that would be a waste.

And you just never know. Anything could happen. Brent was in the hospital. I was in the hospital. At any point in time, it could just all be over. You just never know so I guess we’ve gotta live for what we’re here to do—which is rock.

Scott Wood: I just recently watched Some Kind Of Monster again. And you guys have toured with them. But I’ve always wanted to ask someone in the game what they think of that movie.

[Note: For those who don’t know, Some Kind Of Monster (2004) is a controversial behind-the-scenes documentary that focuses on the metal gods Metallica while they were making their St. Anger album. Their label fought the documentary’s release, but the band wanted the film to be shown. The film bursts any kind of macho illusions fans might have had about the band. It depicts these heavy metal heroes talking about their feelings and showing the band interpersonal relationships, warts and all. The film is interesting to watch, and guarantees that any Metallica fan will walk away from the film with a radically different perception of the band.]

Bill Kelliher: I love the Metallica guys. I have always loved Metallica, obviously. When I was a kid coming home from school, putting on their record and learning the music and that was what kept me going. I was just like, “Yeah, a new Metallica record!” It was an obsession, you know?


And then meeting them and seeing the movie, I kind of wish I didn’t see the movie. It’s a little too up close and personal for me. Like, we do behind-the-scene DVDs, you know for special editions of our records and what not, kind of like the making of our records and stuff like that. When it really gets in there, when they are fighting with each other, and they’ve got their producer guy who’s trying to stir the pot and give his advice, it doesn’t put them in a good light to me.

I guess I applaud them for being so brutally honest and able to... to put out something like that because that’s really showing your soul out to the whole world, you know? Like I said, I think of them totally different now. Like before, it’s like their gods up on this pedestal. It’s like you can’t touch that, you can’t achieve what they’re doing. But then you see they have real problems, but they’re not everyday guy-girl problems, they’re like these really major rock star problems where they can’t even talk to the other guys in the band. They need a therapist to get paid $40,000 dollars a month.

Being in a band with three other guys, I can kind of see—you know it’s not always easiest to talk to those that you are closest to you. When I heard they were paying this guy like 40-Grand to write lyrics or something, I was just like... and the psychiatrist... It was just too far-fetched for real life.

Scott Wood: Wasn’t that guy just their live in psychiatrist? $40,000-a-month to listen to them complain?

Bill Kelliher: I dunno. It was just weird. Maybe it was the producer guy. Someone was writing some lyrics that were really bad—I remember that! I dunno if it was him or Bob Rock, or whoever, I dunno. I just could not relate, you know? What are you guys talking about? Save the $40,000 dollars and just fucking go talk to each other, you know? It’s just too personal for me. I would never want anyone to see us in that light just ‘cuz... There’s been ugly moments in real life and on tour and stuff. It’s not something I’d wanna share, so... But like I said, I applaud them, if they did it for the right reasons.

We’re gonna make a movie, but it’s not gonna be about us. It’s gonna be about the music. Crack The Skye: The Movie, like a Pink Floyd The Wall—or something, animation. We’re gonna try to do that. We’ve been talking about doing it. We’ve just gotta kind of figure out how monetarily to do it ‘cuz it costs money to make this movie—a lot of money. Hopefully, it will come out soon and it won’t be anything like Some Kind Of Monster.

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