In Search of the Mastodon
“Come here you dickhead!”
A rumble like thunder, or perhaps a distant explosion, shudders loudly. The crowd cheers - the aftershock to the bomb. It’s a charming introduction to HXC Wrestling at The Ritz, an event gaining a fair degree of notoriety amongst the city’s rock community and beyond. Wild Boar roars. An appropriately named wrestler, he is a pair of antlers off of being just that – obese, hairy and in a tight leotard, he looks like the drunken uncle at a wedding except, instead of dancing in suit and tie, he’s dressed in an attire more appropriate for Olympic gymnastics. Delivering a solid ‘whack’ to the face of Toxic Terror Cyanide; his equally mammoth sized opponent, Cyanide falls dramatically to the ground, hitting approximately 6.3 on the Richter scale. More groaning and violent frolics ensue as the two men grapple one another between pre-meditated speeches of grandiosity – or so that’s the idea, I believe. The referee, fresh from his shift at Foot Locker, watches on, occasionally bursting into hand actions more over-emphasised than the son of a conductor and a mime asking what time tea will be ready and whether or not he can have ice cream for pudding.
The crowd, who circle the ring like a pack of wild dogs, churn out gruff chants, proverbial insults and emphatic ‘oohs’ every time one of these battling whales hits the deck, such as that truly thumping sound I was greeted with upon my entrance at The Ritz. I stand breathless and take it all in. But I’m breathless, not so much because of what’s unfurling before my sky blue eyes, but because of the mad dash across town I’ve just made.
You see, there’s an ulterior motive to my presence here tonight. From the warm, cosy confines of my home south of the City Centre I made my way through blistering cold to Piccadilly train station. Panting breath billowed out in clouds from my mouth, leaving a trail behind me like a locomotive speeding through desert wasteland. My footsteps, hastened by urgency, clonked and clattered against the frosted pavement. The last of the autumn leaves donated an extra crunch to the soundtrack as they were trampled underfoot. I made it to the tram stop, stabbing at the ticket machine whose touch screen in this Mancunian cold was about as responsive as a fat cat politician put on the spot. Instead it changed the topic, brining up tram stops nowhere near the one I was pressing.
Eventually however, I boarded a tram with a sign of relief. It wormed its way down Market Street...shit...I’d got on the wrong bloody tram. So on foot I preceded, weaving in and out of pedestrians and nearly tripping several times on the uneven cobbled by-roads scattered throughout the walk to the station. Making it with a few minutes to spare, I parked myself under the bright, flicking arrivals board and watched the world go by. If ever you are short of entertainment, grab a drink and people watch at a busy train station. Watch them scurry about with suitcases, bags and boxes searching frantically for the right platform, witness greeting embraces and farewell hugs happen all around you, a child cries, some poor fool drops their Burger King and a foreign couple argue animatedly about some seemingly miniscule matter.
A stream of people flow out from Platform 2. In amongst them is Daniel Clifford, the founder of Manchester Rocks. In his hand is a guitar bag which he hands swiftly over to me in a transaction that, if someone had indeed grabbed a drink and was sat watching on the balcony above us, looked ever so slightly seedy. Dan's perpetually shifty eyes didn’t help either. Sadly however, there were neither narcotics nor Uzis in the bag, nothing the Mafia would be proud of. Inside was a once plain white acoustic guitar and a sharpie.
The guitar has been a long standing project for Manchester Rocks – it’s nearly a year to the day when it travelled with me to Hard Rock Hell in North Wales and was consequently scribbled on by members of Motörhead, Thin Lizzy, Skindred, Black Spiders and more. The purpose of this? To raise money and awareness for testicular cancer, with the guitar set to be auctioned off for the Men Matter Appeal, a charity focussing on said shitty disease. So with guitar in hand and Dan darting back to the exact train he’d just gotten off, again making the whole thing look a little dodgy, I was off to The Ritz to get more signatures scrawled upon the guitar. In short, I was in search of the Mastodon.
Towards The Ritz then, I ventured where the band were special guests for the evening’s events. I approached the stairs leading out to the taxi rank and chilling streets. Do I take the stairs or escalator? Stairs – I flew down them. Twenty more paces and the same predicament, this time I took the escalator and sighed as I made my way down it sluggishly, a horde of people blocking my route down. The stairs next to me were empty.
In all honesty, I don’t give a toss about wrestling. I’d grown up watching the likes of HHH, The Rock and The Undertaker on WWF (not the pandas charity, I assure you. Although I reckon they could probably throw a good punch). But, alas, I’d long since lost interest in it all. The overblown dramatics and the sheer faking of it all – after all, these were just athletic actors, not fighters – had lost its magic. Time had drained that magic away; other sources of entertainment had seduced me. Namely heavy metal, underage drinking and the devil’s most famous creation: Women. But, the more I drank and as the build up to the 4x4 tag team match began in front of me, I slowly began to warm to it. Sure, the introductions had more in common with Crufts than UFC, the pomp outweighing the actual action in terms of length and import it would seem, but it was entertaining nonetheless. That’s all it is. The characters were colourful, fictitious and crafted for our amusement yes, but it worked.
From the Liverpudlian who the crowd received warmly – “You Scouse bastard! You Scouse bastard!” - to the camp as Christmas, badly-fringed Cockney and the wrestler wearing nothing but a pair of leggings with ‘Paid’ scrawled on the front and – I kid you not – ‘Laid’ on the back, it was down right hilarious. A charmingly inebriated fellow who, searching for the bar presumably, stumbled over to me affirmed this.
“People watch Coronation Street and all these crappy TV shows and then slag off wrestling,” he spluttered. “This is the same. We know it’s fake but we still like it.” He also tried to convince me that they do occasionally get hurt, that sometimes the rough and tumble actually is rough and tumbling. I remained unconvinced as, at that exact moment the camp Cockney threw a punch that, had it actually landed properly on the other guy’s face, wouldn’t have been enough to floor a granny. But nevertheless the guy went flying. The crowd gasped in awe as he himself got the Richter scale working once more. It was all very homoerotic.
Throughout all of this, my eye flickered between the action and the upper tier – Bill Kelliher had arrived. Soon after, Brent turned up with his girlfriend, made some swaying hand gestures upstairs to get the orders for the bar in before going up there himself.
Another fight was built up, the Voodoo Rage dancers reappearing as each wrestler made their emphatic entrance betwixt swinging hips and fishnet stockings. How many eyes at this point were actually fixed on the wrestlers is to be confirmed. One guy took a handbag backhand from his girlfriend for ogling a little too eagerly. The fool needs to work on a game. Is that a whip cracking I can hear?
Another pint sent to meet my liver, now was a good a time as any to make my way upstairs.
Imagine then, with James Bond desires still a dominant force in my imagination, my disappointment to see the guitar already signed. I mean, this was a bittersweet disappointment, really. I had succeeded my mission, but it was far too straight forward.
Bill was nowhere to be seen, where he’d got to I had no idea. I approached Brent Hinds, the tattoo-faced, instantly recognizable figure he is. I extended my arm to him, thanking him for taking the time to sign the guitar, giving him some spiel about how worthwhile the cause is, Daniel Clifford’s own battle with the disease adding a personal poignancy to our quest.
“Ah it’s no problem man,” he said with a smile, shaking my hand. That Southern hospitality was present once more.
“That’s Phil Campbell from Motörhead’s signature,” I revealed, jabbing a figure at a scribble on the guitar, one with a distinctly prominent ‘P.’ Without taking so much as a breath, he reached for the sharpie that was left hooked on the strings and drew a big circle around the signature. He then began to write something above it: ‘#1 Wanker.’ He would then do the same to his own signature, only with ‘#2 Wanker’ inscribed instead.
“He’s like one of my best friends,” he stammered, again a smile brightened his face. Now, as you will have deciphered, in a mystery not half as difficult as Hound of the Baskervilles, I’d had a few to drink at this point. It was also, again as you will have deciphered from my writing here, that it was nearly a year ago since I last saw the guitar. Since my last encounter with this beautiful Washburn, several other signatures have been added to its palette – Vinnie Paul and The Dead Daisies amongst others. So here, I must admit, that I had in fact pointed to the wrong signature. Who exactly Brent has called a ‘#1 Wanker,’ at this point, is a mystery as difficult as Hound of the Baskervilles.
Watching on as Brent was grabbed for some promotional photos and an interview with the night’s host, Matty Taylor, I then made my move.
“I don’t do interviews anymore, I stopped in the 90s. I got fed up of being asked the same thing over and over. I don’t like talking about Mastodon. When I’m doing Mastodon that’s fine, but when I’m not I just like to shut off.”
“I understand dude, how about just a chat. No recorder, no technology.”
“Can we do it on the move…to the pub?” As if I needed asking.
For the next few hours things would get increasingly blurry, but outside the confines of an official interview I saw the true Brent Hinds. I saw the man who’s fallen head over heels for a Mancunian woman named Amelia. They’d met at a party in Atlanta, where she was studying art at some University or other. Today he’d met the parents for the first time. I saw the humble man who loves music, but is not so much enamoured with the resulting and encompassing fame and recognisability – “I’m the kinda guy who doesn’t want to be the only famous person in the room. I want to walk in a room with fifteen friends and everyone have the same respect and attention off people…then I can slip out the back.” I saw the man who, despite all this, when being served by a bartender who just so happened to be an awestruck Mastodon fan working a quiet Sunday night shift in a bar, still greeted him warmly, gave him the graciousness that he craved. I saw the man who, having spent many years before forming Mastodon, was caught in a wilderness of heroin addiction and didn’t touch a guitar for years, twiddling occasionally on a banjo but nothing more. He was proud of his achievements. He was extremely proud and grateful really, to be free from the hallowed clutches of a drug that has claimed so many victims – many of extremely high profile and all in a terribly disturbing manner. I saw the man who switches off from music when a tour is over, a man who makes wood carvings and art. “It takes patience and time, when I’m off the road time is all I have.”
They say don’t meet your ideals, but whoever this ominous they are, they clearly aren’t Mastodon fans.
So we stood in FAB Café, Celebrity Deathmatch playing on the screens around us, Elton John playing on the jukebox. Brent took a sip of his Guinness, a sea of froth latching onto his moustache like a child clinging to its mother’s arm before its first day of school. “Did you know that statistically, 15% of beer gets lots lost in people’s moustaches,” he pondered, educating in the process, clearly absolutely wankered at this point. “Statistically,” he emphasised, “that’s science.”
For a chunk of the night he would sit unassumingly with Amelia in a corner of the bar. I saw from afar the longing they had for one another, that mutual twinkling in their eyes. It’s weird, when you love a band or musician you build them up to be this super-human, invincible being, this higher power. But really, they are still human and when you witness that human element firsthand, it hits you like a double shot of absinthe.
“ARE YOU EXCITED? I’M EXCITED!”
I wake up with a dry mouth and throbbing head. George Thorogood’s Bad To The Bone – my text tone – had shook me into consciousness. It was a text from a friend; the day of the show was finally upon his.
The day itself was a typical day – the weather a typically overcast, greyscale and characterless din. It was a day spent tinkering with articles, chasing deadlines with a rake, uploading content onto Manchester Rocks and watching the clock wind slowly, so slowly into early evening. The more I stared at the clock, the longer seconds seemed to last. They seemed to multiply like germs, infecting time itself. Eventually however, early evening did arrive and it was off to the pub.
On my way out of the door, my phone buzzed: “Hello”
“Hey man, I met Mastodon outside the Academy earlier. They signed all my vinyls and hung around for a bit. They all left after a while except Brent. He asked me if I could get him some weed and get stoned with him after the show.” It was my friend Mike who lived only a mile or so down the road From the Academy in Fallowfield: Manchester’s infamous student quarter.
“Oh shit. Mind if I join you?”
“Of course not man.” And with that, an evening was planned. Last night was a success for sure, yet a yearning inside me wanted the search to continue. I wanted to meet the rest of the band, to get under their skin and understand the souls behind the powerful, devouring music they create.
After sinking a pint or two in Pub Zoo and listening to a man retell tales about how he ‘drank two litres of vodka or other at Download in an hour and was so wasted,’ and other egotistical classics as ‘ooh, ooh, look at me,’ ‘aren’t I really cool please pay attention to how cool I am’ and, who could forget ‘I’m a thinly veiled shit gibbon.’ This is a man who, despite telling such tales of alcohol consumption in the vein of Keith Richards, struggled to drink so much of a third of his pint in this hour long debacle.
I arrived at the Academy. Getting my press pass was uncomfortably straight forward – how long can this go on for? Bag searched – “nothing exciting in there…honest” – and into the venue I delved.
Big Business were already a few minutes into their set – a two piece consisting of a singing drummer and bass player/vocalist providing the raw, unkemptness of the Melvins and the melodicism of a raging Buffalo. That, I must elaborate, is a compliment. I look around me to see nods of approval, broad smiles and drinks raised aloft. Mastodon’s DNA is a ménage a trios of classic rock sensibilities a la Thin Lizzy and Zeppelin, of 70s prog rock aesthetics such as Rush and King Crimson and of the raucous, full blast fuckery of Melvins and company. With the foliage of a band like this pertaining more than a few leaves of Mastodon’s ancestral family tree, it’s no wonder they go down a storm – and what a band they are.
It was a set that was all about harsh, caveman fashioned vocals, drums that never cease to make anything but a righteous racket and a cataclysmically massive sounding bass with distortion pushed to breaking point. The groove was a continuous punch to the stomach – better than anything Toxic Terror Cyanide could do – that only encouraged the crowd to pit, drink and heighten the sense of excitement for the mighty Mastodon. It was an excitement that was not only surpassed with ease, but they did so with a stampeding bombast, simply crushing any doubts on their abilities to deliver with a clawed, iron fist.
My last and thus far only experience of seeing the Atlanta quartet live was on a windswept afternoon at Donnington Park back in 2012. Their sound was sabotaged and ripped apart by an increasingly wild wind. It clearly affected the band’s energy and passion levels as they just lacked that firepower their music demands. Couple that disappointment with my sparsely unrivalled admiration for the band and there was a hell of a lot riding on the next 90 minutes. But when the place fell into darkness, the crowd exploded and the band walked on stage, there wasn’t a moment of mercy given within their ranks. The instant the resonance-drenched acoustics of Tread Lightly rattled out of their vintage amp heads and combo Orange tube amps – “you don’t want fucking solid state,” Brent had told me, “and it has to sound vintage,” – I was done. I was lost, entrenched in crashing ocean waves of seismic riffs that transcend time signatures and lateral musical thinking, enslaved by a current of rudimentary yet astoundingly intelligent drumming, being pulled under the surface by predatory sludge metal viciousness and letting the water fill my lungs until there wasn’t a single breath left within my body.
Once More ‘Round The Sun was rambunctious and Oblivion then dragged me down into the deeper, murkier depths of the band’s discography, swimming with creatures so hideous only a sprawling evolutionary trail a life in nought but bleakness could have contorted so. That chorus though, as anthemic, uplifting and as gorgeously crafted as any launched me above the surface, gasping for air while I could, over ought by the sheer majesty and emotion of it all. The Motherload was spent with me cast momentarily on a desert island in a calm but unapologetically dehydrating sun. The heartfelt lyrics and Rush inspired chorus, pertaining a headstrong, uplifting message of hope and prosperity. But the surf crawled back to my shoreline and enveloped me one more time. Aqua Dementia endeavoured to redefine the definition of mayhem, Ole’ Nessie showed the band in their most raw, undeveloped form before Bladecatcher, Megalodon and Crystal Skull raged into a whirlpool of frenzied fretwork, of bewildering complexity and irresistible melodicism. Blood and Thunder brought reality crashing back into existence with a thud: A savage and mesmeric way to end a show.
As the room began to empty, doors flung open to the cold outside and the knock-off merchants, Brann Dailor addressed the crowd. Pendulous Skin played through the speakers; the band’s farewell to ex-Mars Volta keyboardist Ikey Owens. A regular contributor to Mastodon’s boisterous body of work, he sadly passed away a few short months ago. So I shuffled out of the venue into the outside world, stricken hard by the harshness of life. This was a supremely talented man, loved by so many, taken from us in a heartbeat. He was on tour with Jack White at the time. He died alone in a hotel room.
I needed a smoke. This was all too deep for me. A cloud of marijuana in my lungs would free me from the torrent of depressing notions that sauntered into my head without a care in the world.
This is where things got understandably hazy once more. I’d met up with Mike – Brent’s weed was my escape rope – and we were in Big Hands.
It’s a narrow but long, rock-edged pub a minute’s walk from the Academy. The place was heaving. They’d stocked up on bottles of Mastodon’s 8.3% blend of the devil’s nectar but had sold out hours ago. Several pints later, my head trying its best to become a merry go round of nonsensical lights and colours, we headed back to the Academy to intercept the band.
We were there for only a short few minutes before Troy Sanders left the venue and headed for the tour bus. On stage he is a giant of a man who passes off like a true leader of men. He has this real gravitas about him, almost like the father figure within the band. Off stage, while that gravitas is still present, the feral aggression and seething passion with which he blasts out his bass lines and bellowing vocals recedes, displaying a much calmer persona. He is a gentle giant. Before a small pool of fans, awe-struck by his presence, he is polite, charming and as hospitable as Brent and his entourage had been the night before. He signed merch, a man’s hairy leg, posed for photos and spoke with a quiet grace.
"I really enjoyed Big Business tonight,” I’d said at one point.
“Yeah we love those guys, they have a real Melvins feel about them. They’ve been great to tour with.” And when I asked him how he found time to write both a stunning new Mastodon record and a solid effort with one-time ‘super group’ Killer Be Killed he merely smiled. “I did do that [Killer Be Killed] record too yeah,” he nodded. “It was a lot of fun and Max Cavalera is a really nice guy. People think he’s a really loud and crazy person but that’s a common misconception,” he continued with a softly spoken voice not quite befitting his towering stature. “It was a great record to do, it didn’t take too long.” It’s complete madness how someone can help pen two magnificent records in such a short space of time, passing it off as mere fact rather than the attention seeking enthusiasm and hyperbole so many other bands do. Troy Sanders is a living, breathing metaphor for the humble yet ridiculously talented band Mastodon are. They’ve ascended to the mountainous peak they stand on now without any real fuss. Fans and the media may trumpet their brilliance, but they’re so dismissive of it all. Humility is a fine thing.
But still the merry go round turned. The intricate details of the night evaporated, the few notes I made are unreadable drivel. The order of events from this point on is sketchy but I did succeed in meeting Bill and thanking him for taking the time to sign the guitar. Smaller and less visually assuming than Troy or Brent, he went about signing stuff for his fans with an attitude that expressed an underlying desire to be elsewhere, but knew and accepted his duties as a decent human being. What we spoke about after that I couldn’t possibly tell you, but I do at least remember coming away with a half decent insight to the man behind the music. Bill Kelliher is an astounding guitarist and musician. With a deep rooted musicality in country, he brings a lot of the resonance and vocabulary to what makes up their signature sonic language. But this is a man who learnt to play guitar because he wanted to and nothing gives him the same kind of fulfilment in life. He didn’t play guitar to make friends or bed women, emotions are much more important than arbitrary goods.
Meeting Brann was a much shorter lived affair but still one that told me what I needed to know about who this genius is. We were in Big Hands and he’d plonked himself on a stool near the bar. Then again, the place was so narrow you were pretty much always sat near the bar. There was always one or two people stood talking to him, but people seemed to appreciate that he wouldn't want hassling all the time and so they came and went.
Brann is the band’s shining light. He is the free spirited optimist, the bright, smiling, easy going sticksman that keeps the band together. Because when times are tough, its people like Brann that smile, give you a hug and tell you everything will be alright. When Mike took a picture of him with Fia, another one of our friends, he had said that he needed to take it again as it didn’t look great. “Oh I’m sure it looks great,” was Brann’s sprightly response. Those six words captured his entire being perfectly. His eyes flicked affectionately upon Fia for a moment – affectionately because she was a fan and without people like her, the people who buy their albums and merch and come and see their shows that make him able to have this dream job.
At some point or other I bumped into Brent. “Hey, it’s Phil! You remember him from last night?” he said turning to Amelia, with a mouthful of chips and gravy. She smiled, said hello and we stood together as Brent, still chomping away, stopped to sign tickets from some fans who had circled around him. Amelia shivered in the cold air, steam rising off the hot chips, their smell enough to bring a man to climax.
Brent was in high spirits as ever. This is a man loving life. With Amelia by his side, touring with his band of brothers and several more Guinnesses poured down his gullet, he quipped sharp remarks, made jokes, laughed with everyone around him, generally resonating a positive, happy atmosphere. He shared his chips, jokingly tried to sell some of the tickets he just signed, shouting at passers by – “You wanna buy some signed tickets?! Who wants ‘em?!”
“We’ve got you that weed, Brent,” Mike had told him.
"It’s alright; I’ve already smoked copious amounts of weed.”
Brent Hinds is a little bit the resident class clown. He’s the one always trying to entertain, although he’s someone who doesn’t particularly want to draw attention to himself, when he is holding court he does so with hilarious results. Like Brann, he wants to make those around him happy; he’s a free spirit and a genuinely nice guy.
Where Brann and Brent are the wild ones, Troy assumes the father figure role well. He’s the one with the cool head, the one always on the look out for trouble for the purposes of avoiding it. Bill then, I suppose is more like the mother. He is a big contributor to the family; he works hard and tirelessly, never seeking credit. Happy to take a backseat he acts through love and not for egotistical, personal gain.
The truth is that Mastodon simply wouldn’t be the band they are were it not for one another. They are a collective entity who function perfectly well, who work harmoniously with one another. There are some bands out there where the talents and import of a select few members, often one solitary individual, outweighs the rest. These are bands with disposable musicians; so long as the king still has his throne the right hand man and court jester can be lost if there were ever to be unsettlement in the castle. Lose a member of Mastodon and there would be a loose thread that would begin to unravel in the band’s intricate tapestry. They are bound together for life you feel. Mastodon is Brent, Bill, Troy and Brann and it will be that way until the beast finally settles down in a peaceful mountain cave to live out its final breaths. When that happens, the world will have lost something truly special.
Words: Phil Weller Photos: Phil Goddard (Mastodon)