On Halloween eve, Mastodon unleashed its 8th proper studio album, Hushed and Grim (Reprise). The album’s sprawling 15-songs distill the group’s legacy as the pride of Atlanta metal, and a force of nature the world over, into a punishing, real-time reflection on death, sorrow, and reclamation.
From the moment the album’s first single, “Pushing the Tides” arrived, the brutal power on display made it clear that Mastodon was coming out of the gate strong. Guitar players Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds, drummer Brann Dailor, and bass player Troy Sanders channeled their anguish over the loss of their friend and former manager Nick John, who died from cancer in 2018, into a serpentine musical saga.
Within weeks, “Pushing the Tides” was nominated for a “Best Metal Performance” Grammy. In the meantime, the group has remained on the road playing shows across the U.S.
Dailor took a few minutes between tour stops to talk about how the ideas and imagery behind Hushed and Grim came together to form an emotionally hefty and gorgeously articulated new chapter for Mastodon.
Over the years we’ve had conversations about each new Mastodon album, and there’s often an element of the band confronting death—losing someone close—and dealing with it in a real-time kind of way. I recognize this in Hushed and Grim, but the album also feels empowered.
When you start writing an album, maybe you find out that you have less control than you imagined you did. It just starts to unfold, and maybe in the back of your head you’re thinking, “We need to be heavier, faster, and crazier.” Then the things that you naturally gravitate toward are slower, darker, and deeper. Then you think, “Maybe this is actually the vibe.”
It starts to reveal itself, and it really is the manifestation of what we’re going through during that moment in time. Nothing happens in a vacuum. When you’re creating something, the emotions that you’re experiencing with whatever you’re dealing with in life will ride in tandem with that.
Going into Hushed and Grim, We weren’t feeling too good as a group. So during the writing process, wallowing in those feelings led to what the album sounds like. Anything that sounded remotely happy was kicked out immediately. It was like, “No! I’m not happy. Get rid of that.”
Maybe by the end of the album it becomes empowered — it gets there eventually. For me, it’s a tough listen. It puts me back in these places that weren’t fun to go through, but it was necessary to get through it.
I don’t know what’s going on with us, but for the last bunch of albums, I don’t know if we’re cursed or something … I don’t believe in curses, but I’ll just say it to be fun. From Crack the Skye on, it seems like every time we go into the writing process somebody close to us fucking dies. So word to the wise, don’t be close friends with anyone in Mastodon.
In that pure songwriterly way, Hushed and Grim has multiple meanings. I first saw it as a pandemic reference. … In the early days of the pandemic I even heard someone describe Atlanta’s streets as “hushed and grim.”
Actually, I stole it from Gone With the Wind. I’ve had the title in the back of my head for a long time.
Gone With the Wind was my sister’s favorite movie, and we used to watch it every time it came on. I just really liked that phrase. It’s on a title card halfway through the film, after Sherman burns Atlanta to the ground. You see this massive crane shot over downtown Atlanta, and you see thousands of dead soldiers. Scarlett is running around tending to the wounded that are lying in the street.
Sometimes when a tragedy takes place it’s not people running around screaming. It’s quiet and there’s this acceptance that something terrible is happening, and it’s quiet. When our former manager Nick John had gone into home hospice care we all flew to L.A. to see him one last time, and to say goodbye. He was asleep in a hospital bed, his mom was there, his sister, his wife and some close friends. “Hushed and grim” was the perfect phrase to explain the feeling in that house that day.
So the Atlanta connection, the connection to Nick John in that specific circumstance, and the fact that I felt like it encapsulated the sound of the album being quieter, melancholy, and more sparse really resonated with me. … At least it’s more sparse than maybe we’ve ever been. We’ve hinted at it over the years, but this one really goes in on that slower, more methodical, take-our-time kind of thing.
From the beginning, when I was first hearing the riffs, writing the stuff with the guys, and putting it together, I had this black and gray color palette that I felt was lending itself to the album. I could see black and gray with a touch of gold. That’s the initial conversation I had with Paul Romano about doing the cover. I didn’t have anything else but the color palette.
Song-for-song, the variety goes beyond a lot of what Mastodon has done in the past. Was it your intention to make an album that’s a little more complex?
No, I think that’s the result of having more time to work on it. There was no tour looming. In the past, there’s always something we have to go and do. I don’t want to say that it rushes things, because early on we wrote Leviathan in like three months. But we had a lot of time with this one. We worked on it, and kept coming back to our garden of songs and watering them and watering them. We poured over these things like a barista in a San Francisco coffee shop [laughs]. We really took our time making sure certain parts are what we wanted them to be, building on bridges, and getting into the nooks and crannies that maybe we wouldn’t have discovered if there was a hard time constraint.
Even during Crack The Skye, it was like, “Ok, we need to go play Bonnaroo now.” It’s a mind shift to go from writing and pouring over new songs to practicing “Crystal Skull” and “Blood and Thunder.” So it’s the result of being able to stay in writing mode longer, without any hope of going on tour, ‘cause that wasn’t happening! It was like, “In fact, your industry will be the last one to come back. So now, we’re out here trying to figure it out while staying safe and making sure that our tour can happen. Just yesterday we had a scare with a false positive. This could all be taken down so easily, and everybody goes back home and loses hundreds of thousands of dollars.
That’s the general mood everywhere right now.
Yeah, it’s all hanging on by a thread, but we’re hoping for the best. Getting back to your question, we’re probably most known for complex arrangements. Anytime we come up with something that’s lesser than, people are surprised. But if a simple song reveals itself and we dig it, we’ll go for it. We don’t put on the idea that we have to be proggy all the time, or that every song has to have a thousand riffs, and within those riffs there are hundreds of little riffs. A lot of the time we’re taking stuff away, saying to ourselves, “My God, this song has five bridges. What is going on here?”
It also feels like the band has mastered working at West End Sound and Ember City Studio. Emperor Of Sand through Hushed and Grim encapsulates an era for Mastodon’s sound that has developed since the studio was built. You know how to get the best possible results out of that room.
Yeah, we’re comfy-cozy in there. And if we didn’t have the studio we wouldn’t have been able to make the record. We couldn’t fly to L.A. or anywhere else to record because of the pandemic. Getting David Bottrill to say yes and come to Atlanta and live there for three months while we worked on it was paramount.
The album’s cover is a departure for Mastodon, both in color and orientation — it’s kind of a landscape image.
Yeah, it has Nick John as the Green Man in the middle of the tree. It is expansive; that’s the middle panel of a nine-panel piece by Paul. We were both on the same page as far as having a twisted tree be the main focus, and that it would reveal the seasons as you go around. So the panels are the different seasons. And there are all sorts of Easter eggs in there that Paul takes from the lyrics and song titles, and whatever any of the band members offer. He always fits everything in somewhere. There’s a reference to Jakuchu’s “Elephant and Whale” diptych in there. There’s all sorts of fun stuff in there. I wanted the fan base to know when they saw the cover art that, at least in my perception, they were getting something different. So we wanted it to be a departure, and to look different from the rest of the album covers, while reflecting the mood of the album.
Nick John as the Green Man: I tend to think of the Green Man mythology as being about regeneration, or it being about a new beginning. Is that part of what you are projecting with the artwork?
My whole made up afterlife mythology was that your soul enters the heart of a living tree. In order to say goodbye, it lives there for a whole calendar year, and experiences the seasons to reflect on the life that you had. And that’s how you’re able to say goodbye to the natural world.
… As if we needed any more afterlife mythologies, here’s one more for you! [laughs]
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