Mastodon brew up an aggressive mix of sounds with dense guitars, complex rhythms and the dark tones of progressive metal and sludge. The Atlanta-based quartet’s sixth studio album, “Once More ‘Round the Sun,” is out June 24 and offers trailblazing, guitar-heavy songs that don’t let up, all while centering around the vocals more than ever.
Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher took the time to speak with Gibson.com about the new album, his Bill Kelliher “Golden Axe” Explorer (“It’s an awesome guitar”) and how he kicks around such killer riffs.
Congratulations on the new album, “Once More ‘Round the Sun.” It’s solid. What was your overall guitar philosophy on this album?
I definitely wanted to go in knowing exactly what I was going to play and do a “less is more” approach. There have been some records we’ve done where I’m laying tons of guitars all over the place, and not to say I didn’t do that again, but every time I went into the studio, I tried to get the best guitar tones possible and really focus on that.
I love the riffing on the album’s first single, “High Road.” How did that riff form?
I had a day off in Switzerland, and I was sitting in my hotel room, playing guitar, and it was a crappy day out and raining with not much going on. I always bring my laptop with me, so I set it up and put on some headphones and started toying around with the ideas of all those riffs and put a little drum beat on it. I played it for the guys, and they all said, “Yeah, that’s pretty cool!” We threw it down in our studio – we have a small studio in Atlanta – and it really came together.
Would you say “High Road” is a good snapshot of the whole album, or does the release venture elsewhere?
I don’t think it really represents the album as a whole; it’s one spectrum of it. There are a lot of slower, heavier, down-tuned songs, and “High Road” is a very upbeat song. There are also a lot of upbeat songs on the record. We have a lot of verse-chorus stuff going on. But, that song sticks out as different to me.
One of the great aspects of Mastodon’s sound is your guitar exchange with Brent Hinds. Is there a method for how you two write guitar parts together?
Usually, he’ll write something, and I’ll try to compliment it by playing something that’s not the exact same. I’ll try to play off what he’s playing, nothing to complicated, but I’ll try to make it my own and give it some of my own personality. We’re definitely totally different guitar styles and players, and that’s what makes the band that much more special. I try to play off him, and he does the same with me. We don’t play the exact verbatim riffs.
Would you say this is a more vocal-centric album for Mastodon?
I think with our band, our vocals are always getting bigger and brighter and more the center of the songwriting. When we first started, we didn’t even really have singer. We all just started singing different parts, so that was the least of our concerns. We were more into writing crazy riffs. Now, we’re more focused on having good vocals, because you have to have good vocals to structure a good song. We’re always working harder at coming up with a better melody. Great vocals make a great song come alive.
You’ve had your Bill Kelliher “Golden Axe” Explorer for over a year now. How is it holding up?
It’s holding up great! It’s an awesome guitar. I have so many Gibson guitars, so it’s hard to give them all ample show time. I play the “Golden Axe” on this tour. The guitar plays great, and I always look forward to it. It’s a beautiful guitar and plays amazing. I’m still getting a lot of compliments on it. I also just designed a Les Paul version, a little brother of the Explorer. It’s the Les Paul “Golden Axe,” with the same “Golden Axe” colors, and it looks a lot like an old Tobacco Sunburst from the ‘70s. I love it.
What makes Gibson guitars stand out?
I think it’s the quality. When you pick up the guitar, I like that they’re a big, solid chunk of wood, and it’s heavy, and they’re quality-made. To me, they’re beautiful. They’re a work of art. When I look at old Les Pauls and Explorers and ES-335s, they’re works of art. They feel good. Something about the way the neck is angled back from the body is comfortable. They play well, and Gibsons stay in tune really well. When I get a new one and take it out of the package, it’s always in great condition, and the action is always great. It’s just a quality-made product!
Promo photo by Travis Shinn
Live photo by Anne Erickson