It's a rainy Sunday afternoon, and Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher is sipping a margarita in the quiet back room of El Myr, a Little Five Points burrito joint. He seems a bit tired, as he should be. It's been seven years since Kelliher formed the Atlanta-based metal monstrosity with drummer Brann Dailor, guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds and bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders. And with three albums under their belt and an average of eight or nine months on the road each year, it's been an exhausting near-decade so far.
Although we Atlantans can rightly claim Mastodon as our own, the truth of the matter is that, even from the earliest years of the band's existence, these hometown heroes have been just as much a national act as a local one. The quartet first hit the road in the summer of 2000 -- "just six months after we got together," claims Sanders -- and hasn't looked back since.
For every few Mastodon shows at the Star Bar or the Earl in those early years of the new millennium, there was another national tour to catapult the band across the country in one of its trusty Ford vans. And while every homecoming show brought the quartet back to the same comfortable venues time and time again, local supporters watched Mastodon slowly grow from Atlanta's most punishing bar band to the group of veritable metal gods its hundreds of thousands of international fans view it as today.
These days, you're more likely to find Mastodon playing the massive European festival circuits, leading high-profile, headlining tours across various continents or preparing for its first trip to the Grammys as a result of its first-ever nomination recently. "Eventually," says Dave Parker, talent booker and co-owner of the Star Bar, "we had to tell them that we loved 'em to death, but they were just too big to play here anymore."
Blood Mountain, the band's third album and its major-label debut, was released by Warner Brothers in September to a rabid reception by the band's fans and critics alike -- and for good reason. It's the most well-rounded, psychedelic and fierce realization of Mastodon's demented vision to date. The band has forged a unique amalgam of metals young and old, drawing from the sinister riffs of various '80s thrash titans and the more heady explorations of King Crimson to the plodding desert squall of Neurosis and the circus-melody antics of Lethargy, the Rochester metal act in which Kelliher and Dailor got their start.
And in what has become a typical ritual with the release of a new Mastodon album, it ended up atop dozens of critics' year-end top-10 lists, adding to countless other distinctions that were heaped upon the band's previous albums Leviathan and Remission.
The recently received Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance, however, breaks entirely new ground for the band. It's an honor that shocked no one more than the members themselves. "We never remotely had begun to think that we had one percent chance of using [the word Grammy] in our band's existence," laughs Sanders over the phone from his Atlanta home. "It was basically the last thing in the world we had ever remotely imagined."
While Kelliher was also surprised, he intends to "take it all with a grain of salt," he says. "That's all good and stuff, but we're also up against our friends in Slayer and Lamb of God. Whoever wins, it's just a paperweight, really."
That said, Kelliher and Sanders didn't hesitate to walk the red carpet with other Georgia Grammy nominees at a recent gathering hosted by Tiffany & Co. at Phipps Plaza. "It was funny, rubbing elbows with Ludacris," laughs Kelliher, also naming T.I. and Bow Wow among the attendees. Yet if there's any wonder why the Tiffany's sales clerk didn't recognize the scraggly, tattooed duo among the other nominees, one must be reminded that while Mastodon members are celebrities among their metal brethren, there's no denying that Atlanta is much sooner known for Stankonia and the "Rubber Band Man" himself than for one heavy-as-hell, progressive metal act named after a prehistoric land beast.
Yet Mastodon would still be the odd band out even if it hailed from the Bay Area, Montreal, Tampa, or any other notoriously "metal" locale. With Blood Mountain, the group has proven itself wholly unique in that it has achieved the near-impossible in the underground metal world by continuing to create music that commands the respect of longtime fans while simultaneously achieving acclaim and recognition from what is perhaps the biggest dinosaur of a mainstream institution -- the pop-music industry.
"When it comes to receiving high accolades, it's refreshing and rewarding because it proves that our integrity has touched many people," Sanders says. "But this was originally started by us, for us. We're always writing the songs that we want to write and traveling the world with music that we want to share with other people. It kinda stemmed from a selfish standpoint in the beginning, but we really haven't curved off of that path. ... We haven't tried to please anyone else or satisfy the masses."
Kelliher concurs, stating simply, "We know who we are, and we know what we're doing. And we're going to continue to do that."
Grammy win or not, he has reason enough to celebrate and enjoy a few more margaritas. After all, Mastodon has four more tours booked between now and July, and the rainy days at home are few and far between.
The 49th annual Grammy Awards will air Sun., Feb. 11, at 8 p.m. on CBS.
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