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Inside Spoon’s ‘Futuristic’ New ‘Hot Thoughts’ LP, Jam Session With Skrillex

It’s a cold, early January evening, and Spoon frontman Britt Daniel is cozied up in a dimly lit corner of a New York hotel lounge. He’s in typically good spirits, but he pauses and makes a face when the term “indie rock” comes up in conversation.

“I grew tired of that label a while ago,” he says as he anxiously ruffles his hair. He speaks slowly, looking in the air for the right words. “If you’re talking about the spirit of independent record labels, I’m totally into that, but it seems like a lot of times people use the term ‘indie rock’ as sort of a genre typified by a lack of effort, a lack of putting yourself out there. It seems middle-of-the-road to me, like people mean ‘junior-level rock & roll.'”

Spoon, by Daniel’s definition, are not indie rock. The long-running Austin group, known for acerbic yet warmly endearing pop-rock songs like “The Underdog” and “Got Nuffin,” has always strived for greatness. The band members endured a sour major-label experience in the late Nineties, documented on the single “The Agony of Laffitte,” which targeted their former A&R rep, Ron Laffitte. But they went on to find success on the indie label Merge and revenue by placing songs in movies and commercials. By the late 2000s, they began putting out a string of albums that charted in the Top 10.

Although Spoon are far from second-class rock, Daniel clarifies his perspective a couple of days later. “I’ve never really fantasized about being as big as U2,” he says. “But maybe if we were as big as Coldplay, I would.”

As their profile has increased, Spoon’s work has only grown richer – and weirder. Since 2001, when they broke into college radio with their catchy, guitar-centric art-rock LP Girls Can Tell, they’ve gradually radicalized their sound with piano (2002’s Kill the Moonlight), percussion (2005’s Gimme Fiction), horn embellishments (2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga) and, most recently, keyboards and a flirtation with breakbeats (2014’s They Want My Soul). Their latest – Hot Thoughts, which they made with producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Sleater-Kinney) – shows off the band’s ability to balance hooks with experimentation; nearly every member of the group plays keys, which range from fuzzy to cutting, and the last track is five minutes of sax expressionism.

“When we first started out, we were writing songs that were intended to go over well in bars, so that we could impress club owners enough to get a weekend gig,” Daniel says, reflecting on Spoon’s beginnings in 1993. “I’d been in two bands before that couldn’t get weekend gigs. When we started using keyboards on our records, it was uncool. Previously, we’d wanted to be like Guided by Voices and Pavement – I didn’t hear them doing that.”

Daniel & Co. challenged themselves this time by recording songs with as little guitar as possible – even if they wrote them on the instrument – coming up with keyboard-saturated numbers that rocked hard enough to steer clear of New Wave territory. The chilly “I Ain’t the One” was originally a Johnny Cash–inspired acoustic “mythic outsider, tough-guy kind of song” until Daniel rethought it after a night of drinking and smoking weed. “Do I Have to Talk You Into It,” whose lyrics stemmed from a clash Daniel had with a producer, has a cutting chorus worthy of Trent Reznor. “Shotgun,” written after one of Daniel’s friends insulted him, is a galloping, synth-imbued invitation to throw down. “I can be surly sometimes,” he says with a laugh. In total, Daniel describes the album as the “future of Spoon.”

Elsewhere, the group dabbled with in-studio improvisation (“Us” is a saxophone solo with most of the original music removed), sex jams (the title track, inspired by a man hitting on Daniel’s girlfriend by telling her she had beautiful teeth – “I thought that was such a unique angle for hitting on my girlfriend”) and narrative storytelling (the slow-building “WhisperIlllistentohearit,” whose refrain, “Someday you won’t be so alone” is sung from the perspective of Daniel’s father). “I’m not married and don’t have kids,” Daniel says of why he wrote the latter song. “So it’s like something he would say to me. But I don’t feel so alone. I feel good.”

Many of Daniel’s lyrics are personal and he plays his cards close to his chest when discussing them, especially those inspired by arguments. By and large, though, he’s happy. He lives in L.A. and keeps a house in Austin. His girlfriend, a photographer, lives in New York. He loves traveling and says his favorite part of being in a band is touring.

The band’s success, beginning around the time of Gimme Fiction, has also helped him get closer to his family in recent years in unusual ways. “I’d see my family at Christmas and all of a sudden my uncle wants to talk to me about the band,” he says with a laugh. “It seemed like a legit thing to him. He knew I was in a band the whole time, but now it’s, ‘Oh, he’s doing something.'”

Nevertheless, he’s humble about the band’s success; the first time he spent any real money was in 2003 when he bought an acoustic Gibson J45 guitar for $1,700. “I remember thinking, ‘This is an extravagance that I never would have had otherwise,'” he says. “I played it on the last tour. It’s a good one.” Still, he doesn’t revel in success.

At one point during conversation, Spoon’s “All the Pretty Girls Go to the City” comes on over the restaurant PA. Daniel pauses mid-sentence and points up. “Maybe you’ve heard this before,” he says with a laugh. Is this a regular occurrence for him? “It’s pretty normal,” he says with a laugh. “What I find most amusing is when I’m like, ‘The percussion is us,’ but I’m not sure what song it is. Like, ‘I know that’s Spoon but I don’t know what song it is.’ It’s cool.”

The new album’s edgy lyrics and refigured musical approach are all part of a progressive agenda Daniel and his bandmates have. “I want to make something as different as possible every time we make a record,” he says. “It just has to be great, and it can’t be the same thing.”

Part of Daniel’s interest in expanding the band’s sound, especially in such a blunt way on Hot Thoughts, came from the inspiration of two of his favorite artists – both of whom died last year. “Other than the Beatles, if I had to pick anyone that has affected me that I could point to consciously having affected our songs, it would be Prince and Bowie,” Daniel says. “To lose them both in one year was just … heavy.”

He learned of Bowie’s death in the middle of the night, when he’d gotten up to pee. “I remember actually saying out loud the word, ‘No,’ kind of heartbroken,” he says. “I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night.” He was so grief-stricken he attempted to record a cover of Bowie’s “Never Let Me Down” that night.

When Prince died three months later, it hit him even harder than Bowie’s passing. He says he was “dead” to the news for hours. “I’m a lifelong Prince fan,” he says. “I got 1999 when I was 11. Although he wasn’t making records as good as I would have liked anymore, he never lost what he could do onstage. He was the greatest performer of his generation. Watching Prince was like watching God’s love. There’s nothing else in my life that I’ve ever seen like it. It was superhuman.”

His fandom hasn’t quelled in the months since the artist’s death, either. “At some point in the year, I bought a box of 160 Prince CD-Rs of unreleased music on eBay,” he says. “A lot of it is live, but it’s the best stuff from ’80 through ’86.

“I learned a lot from Prince’s songwriting tricks,” he continues. “Prince knew that to put an exclamation point at the end of a song, it’d be good to scream at the last chorus. Even if you sang the chorus a certain way every time before then, if you get to the third one, you better be screaming. Then there’s what he did with synthesizers. He was doing horn parts on a keyboard, kind of bringing it into the future. He could take a very traditional R&B song and make it sound like the future. I see some parallels to this record with that, especially ‘Pink Up.’ For the end of that song, we were going for something like the end of ‘Purple Rain,’ that melancholy, tense ending.”

Years ago, around the release of Kill the Moonlight, Daniel told an interviewer that his goal was to “add to the history of great rock records.” That’s still the case, he says. So how does he know he’s capable of such a feat when he feels that Prince was not recording music that was up to snuff? “Maybe we’re more humble or we have a better bullshit detector,” he says. “Or maybe we haven’t had the success of that magnitude that makes it more difficult to see what’s good and bad. If you have the success of Prince throughout the Eighties, it’s amazing, but it’s got to be a mindfuck.”

Recently Daniel’s listening tastes have focused on music by his peers, such as Thee Oh Sees (“they put out records incredibly fast, and they’re all pretty fucking good,” he says), and older artists like Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. “Does that make me an old person?” he jokes. Nevertheless, it hasn’t stymied his interest in creating something new.

Progressivism, it turns out, is a mission that extends well beyond Spoon for Daniel. A few years ago, he formed Divine Fits with members of Wolf Parade and New Bomb Turks to explore different, rock-focused musical horizons and it was then that he met Alex Fischel, a musical foil whom he brought into Spoon’s ever-mercurial lineup to play keyboards and guitar. (Drummer Jim Eno is the band’s only other founding member, a feat Daniel chalks up to both musicians keeping their egos in check. “You can’t get your feelings hurt when you’re in the process of being creative,” he says.)

The pair recently embarked on another musical adventure together last year, when they collaborated with EDM’s dastardly duo, Jack Ü team Diplo and Skrillex, at an opulent Malibu mansion “owned by a guy who made porn,” according to Daniel. They’d hoped Diplo would punch up Hot Thoughts’ funky “Can I Sit Next to You” but also ended up jamming for 20 minutes with Skrillex.

“He worked so fast,” Fischel says, seated at a diner table with Daniel and Eno. “There was one point where the computer glitched out and he just yanked out the audio interface and just kept going on another machine. And all of a sudden, he just goes, ‘Bah! Bah!‘ just sampling his voice into the laptop microphone and he made a melody with that. It was like he had Tourette’s or something.”

“I didn’t know what the fuck he was doing with that, ‘Bah!‘” Daniel says, as they both laugh. “Then shortly after you’d hear it in the song.”

Although that recording has yet to see the light of day – Daniel is eager to see what Jack Ü do with it – it dovetailed into some of Spoon’s more adventurous experiments on Hot Thoughts, namely the saxophone-imbued closing track “Us,” which Daniel describes as a total surprise. It was originally a standard instrumental that he thought needed an experimental edge “to bring people into this world.”

He brought in Ted Taforo, a friend of Fischel’s who played sax, and let him improvise layers upon layers of sound on it. “I don’t say this lightly, but it was pretty magical,” Daniel says. “It took the song to a place that I completely hadn’t been expecting. I thought, ‘Those saxophones are so great, I’m just going to listen to them by themselves.’ And I did, and it was emotional. I thought, ‘Maybe, that’s the song.’ So we threw out almost everything he had played to and started over from there.”

“Us” has since become Daniel’s favorite track on Hot Thoughts. Even though the rest of the record is chock full of catchy, radio-ready pop rockers, he jokes that the “future of Spoon” may take a cue from his experiment. “‘Inside Out’ was the last song we wrote for the last album and it was the most forward-thinking,” he says, referring to the keyboard-imbued single, which foreshadowed Hot Thoughts. “So maybe ‘Us’ is going to be the next direction, because that’s the most forward-thinking track on this one, probably.”

He pauses. “Or at least, it’s the most out-there. I don’t know where it’s gonna go next time.”

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Rolling Stones Drummer Charlie Watts Plots New Big Band Record

Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts will release a new live album with the Danish Radio Big Band featuring standards, originals and Rolling Stones covers. Charlie Watts Meets the Danish Radio Big Band arrives April 21st via Impulse!/Verve and is available to pre-order.

Watts and the Danish Radio Big Band recorded the LP in 2010 at the Concert Hall of Denmark in Copenhagen after just four days of rehearsals. The seven-track album boasts a Bossa Nova-inspired take on the Stones’ “Satisfaction,” renditions of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Paint It Black” and a version of Watts’ 2000 piece with the Jim Keltner Project, “Elvin Suite.”

Watts’ relationship with jazz is fittingly inextricable with Denmark. Before the Rolling Stones took off, Watts traveled to Denmark for his day job and embedded himself in the country’s flourishing jazz and blues scene while he was there.

Throughout his career, the drummer has worked on numerous jazz side projects. In 1986, he released a record with the 32-piece Charlie Watts Orchestra and during the Nineties crafted several LPs with the Charlie Watts Quintet. That outfit expanded into a Tentet in 2004, while more recently he formed a group, the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie, with pianists Axel Zwingenberger and Ben Waters and bassist Dave Green.

Last year, the Rolling Stones released their first album in 11 years, Blue and Lonesome, a collection of blues covers.

Charlie Watts Meets the Danish Radio Big Band Track List

1. “Elvin Suite, Pt. 1”
2. “Elvin Suite, Pt. 2”
3. “(Satis) Faction”
4. “I Should Care”
5. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
6. “Paint It Black”
7. “Molasses”

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Watch Mavis Staples, Arcade Fire, More Unleash Powerful ‘The Weight’

Mavis Staples, Arcade Fire‘s Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, Jeff Tweedy, Gregg Allman and more deliver a bombastic cover of the Band‘s “The Weight” in a new clip from the upcoming concert special, Mavis Staples: I’ll Take You There – An All-Star Concert Celebration. The concert was filmed in Chicago in 2014 and will air April 16th at 10 p.m. ET on AXS TV. A CD/DVD set arrives June 2nd via Blackbird Presents Records.

Staples commandeered the song with a handful of gritty and soulful verses alongside a stirring final vocal run. Along with Arcade Fire, Tweedy and Allman, the performance featured Michael McDonald, Emmylou Harris, Eric Church, Bonnie Raitt and more trading lyrics and joining in on the rousing chorus. 

Staples has been performing “The Weight” throughout her career, most notably recording the track with the Staples Singers and the Band for the latter’s 1976 farewell concert film, The Last Waltz

The I’ll Take You There lineup also includes Joan Osborne, Patty Griffin, Glen Hansard, Aaron Neville, Widespread Panic, Grace Potter, Taj Mahal, Jeff Tweedy’s son Spencer and Keb’ Mo’.

Staples released her most recent solo album, Livin’ On a High Note, last year. She recently teamed with Arcade Fire for a new single, “I Give You Power,” and will appear on Gorillaz’s upcoming record, Humanz.  

Mavis Staples: I’ll Take You There – An All-Star Concert Celebration

1. Joan Osborne: “You’re Driving Me (To the Arms of a Stranger)”
2. Keb’ Mo’: “Heavy Makes You Happy”
3. Otis Clay: “I Ain’t Raisin’ No Sand”
4. Buddy Miller: Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind on Jesus)”
5. Patty Griffin: “Waiting for My Child”
6. Emmylou Harris: “Far Celestial Shore”
7. Michael McDonald: “Freedom Highway”
8. Glen Hansard: “People Get Ready”
9. Mavis Staples and Aaron Neville: “Respect Yourself”
10. Ryan Bingham: “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)”
11. Widespread Panic: “Hope in a Hopeless World”
12. Grace Potter: “Grandma’s Hands”
13. Eric Church: “Eyes on the Prize”
14. Taj Mahal: “Wade in the Water”
15. Gregg Allman: “Have a Little Faith”
16. Mavis Staples and Bonnie Raitt: “Turn Me Around”
17. Mavis Staples, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Majal and Greg Allman: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”
18. Mavis Staples, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne: “Slippery People”
19. Mavis Staples and Tweedy: “You Are Not Alone”
20. Mavis Staples: “I’ll Take You There”
21. Mavis Staples and Everybody: “The Weight”

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What’s Eating Gilbert Grape Star Darlene Cates Dies – PEOPLE.com


PEOPLE.com

What's Eating Gilbert Grape Star Darlene Cates Dies
PEOPLE.com
What's Eating Gilbert Grape star Darlene Cates has died. The actress died Sunday morning in her sleep. She was 69. Cates sister, Sheri Cates Morgan, shared the news on Facebook. “It is with a bitter-sweet heart that we share that our precious wife
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What’s Eating Gilbert Grape Star Darlene Cates Dies – PEOPLE.com


PEOPLE.com

What's Eating Gilbert Grape Star Darlene Cates Dies
PEOPLE.com
What's Eating Gilbert Grape star Darlene Cates has died. The actress died Sunday morning in her sleep. She was 69. Cates sister, Sheri Cates Morgan, shared the news on Facebook. “It is with a bitter-sweet heart that we share that our precious wife
'What's Eating Gilbert Grape' Mother Darlene Cates Dies at 69Hollywood Reporter
'What's Eating Gilbert Grape' Star Darlene Cates Dies at 69Variety
'Gilbert Grape' Star Darlene Cates Dead at 69TMZ.com
Huffington Post –New York Daily News –Heavy.com –Closer Weekly
all 25 news articles »

Watch Aimee Mann Perform Silky ‘Goose Snow Cone’ on ‘Colbert’ – RollingStone.com


RollingStone.com

Watch Aimee Mann Perform Silky 'Goose Snow Cone' on 'Colbert'
RollingStone.com
Aimee Mann delivered a moving performance of "Goose Snow Cone," from her upcoming LP 'Mental Illness,' on 'The Late Show.' By Jon Blistein. 20 minutes ago. More News. Watch Aimee Mann's Anguished 'Goose Snow Cone' Video Flashback: Rush …
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Watch Aimee Mann Perform Silky ‘Goose Snow Cone’ on ‘Colbert’ – RollingStone.com


RollingStone.com

Watch Aimee Mann Perform Silky 'Goose Snow Cone' on 'Colbert'
RollingStone.com
Aimee Mann delivered a moving performance of "Goose Snow Cone," from her upcoming LP 'Mental Illness,' on 'The Late Show.' By Jon Blistein. 20 minutes ago. More News. Watch Aimee Mann's Anguished 'Goose Snow Cone' Video Flashback: Rush …
Review: Aimee Mann offers delicate takes on 'Mental Illness'Washington Post
Aimee Mann – Mental Illness album reviewTeamRock.com

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Mastodon on Real-Life Tragedies That Inspired Harrowing New LP

“When I first heard it with the lyrics and everything, I was just bawling,” says Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher. He’s referring to “Roots Remain,” the cinematic centerpiece of the prog-metal band’s new concept album, Emperor of Sand. On the track, the titular antagonist – a skeletal, Grim Reaper–like sultan – enforces a death sentence upon a fragile desert wanderer. “The eyes, the face, the tongue, the end,” the villain intones.

The song, like the record itself, is a metaphor for the crushing blow of cancer. In the three years since their sixth LP, Once More ‘Round the Sun, the quartet became ensnared by that dreaded disease: Bassist Troy Sanders’ wife was diagnosed with breast cancer; drummer Brann Dailor’s mother battled through chemotherapy, the latest chapter in a 40-year illness; and Kelliher’s mother died after suffering a brain tumor. For the guitarist, “Roots Remain” still conjures the helpless horror of watching her suffer.

“It makes me think of my mom passing away and all the things I’d witnessed with her going through,” he tells Rolling Stone. “She was just withering away in hospice, and I was just sitting next to her, watching. There’s the evil voice in that song, which is reality coming to you – all your body withering away. Ugh, it gives me goosebumps when I hear it. Those are the things that are real and emotional, and people are gonna fucking cling to.

“When we’re re-learning the songs and sing the lyrics, we say, ‘Jesus, this stuff is deep, man,'” he continues, laughing at the band’s insistence on exploring heavy themes. “Why do we have to be so fucking deep all the time?”

In many ways, Emperor of Sand, out Friday, harnesses the same gut-punching catharsis as their last conceptual piece, 2009’s Crack the Skye. That album marked a emotional turning point, with Dailor acknowledging his late sister, Skye, who committed suicide in 1990. But unlike that earlier LP, a barrage of cosmic prog with an inscrutable narrative, Emperor is a direct meditation on time, death and decay – themes spawned by cancer, which Kelliher calls “the elephant in the room.”

Before the group’s fruitful sessions as a full unit, Kelliher and Dailor established a creative direction as a duo, recording detailed demos in a recently installed basement studio at the guitarist’s Atlanta home. Those early brainstorming stints became therapeutic for both. Over six months, they developed a routine: morning coffee, afternoon riffage, constant bonding over their sick moms. Aided by the convenience of his Pro Tools setup, Kelliher had already assembled a massive backlog of riffs, which seemed to be growing exponentially since his mother’s diagnosis.

“Between my trips up to see her in Rochester, staying with her in the hospital, it gave me a distraction,” he says. “It was the impetus to get all this shit off my chest: ‘It’s gonna be awesome – just keep plowing ahead.’ Every chance I had, I was coming up with new ideas. There was a lot of back and forth, flying up there every week or two to be with her. She’d have good days and bad days. It’s kinda the same thing going on with Brann’s family. We’d get together every day and have coffee and sit there and talk about our moms. ‘Hey, how’s your mom doing?’ ‘My mom’s going through radiation right now.’ We spent a lot of time talking about sickness and how much time you have left. Then we’d go down and start jamming.”

“I’m not going to say that going in the basement and playing was a distraction, but it was something,” adds Dailor. “It’s somewhere to put the heavy stuff that was happening in both of our lives with mom stuff. You only get one mom, so when somebody gets diagnosed with cancer, especially the form that Bill’s mom was diagnosed with … It came out of nowhere. One day, I went over to practice, and he was like, ‘My mom had a seizure.’ It was an awful time for all of us. Mastodon is a family at this point, and we all knew and loved Bill’s mom. We’re all gonna miss her. We were all devastated by the news, and we were hoping that something would happen when she started treatment. That’s a frustrating time for any son. We’re so far away, so it’s all you can do: go in the basement and dig into some Mastodon.”

“The C-word,” then, became an inevitable focus. “We wanted to do a concept,” Kelliher says. “[Brann’s] mom’s sick, my mom’s sick. We’ve got other band members’ family members going through the same thing. We’ve had to cancel tours. We’re getting older, and this kind of thing seems more prevalent for people of our age. It’s like, ‘We can metaphorically write about it.’ Our fans are very emotionally connected to our lyrics and subject matter, especially when we do concept albums. It draws out those clairvoyant people who are like, ‘I know you’re talking to me. I went through the same stuff.'”

Kelliher kicked off the writing process with the brawny guitar pattern of “Sultan’s Curse,” one of numerous “homeless riffs” that have been kicking around for more than a decade. Dailor immediately pictured the vast, desolate expanses that became the album’s primary setting. “Cinematically, in my mind, it sounded like the desert,” he says. “It drummed up some imagery like from Lawrence of Arabia. I was watching that movie heavily around that time – I binge on it, watch it to go to sleep sometimes. … The cinematography is so beautiful: ‘This desert is an ocean’ found its way into the lyrics. That was kinda the jumping off point for the story.”

But a lyrical narrative only resonates if the performances do, and Mastodon stepped up their vocal game to a new level. Venerated producer Brendan O’Brien, a fellow Atlanta native who previously helmed Crack the Skye, coached the band’s three singers – Dailor, Sanders and guitarist Brent Hinds – through a series of dynamic performances, fleshed out with added harmonies and backing vocals.

“We took a really taking a hard look in the mirror at our band and said, ‘What is the weakest thing we have going on, and how can we make that better?'” Dailor says. “All of us were like, ‘The vocals.’ We’ve never been great, great singers. It takes time. We’re three reluctant singers and a music-first kinda band. Fifteen years ago, we were playing in basements, and [Hinds and Sanders] were screaming their balls off. In 2004, we dipped our little foot into some actual singing, and we found out that Brent had this really cool, Ozzy-sounding voice, and Troy sounded like a heavy-metal version of Peter Gabriel. It’s taken us this long to really get into that, and around Crack the Skye, I started singing some backups.

“But I [eventually] went to a vocal coach and got some pointers, took a couple lessons, and just learned how to be better at it. Just warming up before every single show. We also spent a little more time honing in on the vocals. A lot of times, we go into the studio, and out of 11 or 12 songs, we’ll have about two songs figured out vocally. And with this album, since Bill has his basement studio, we did a lot more vocals in the pre-production phase. I’d get ideas for something to sing over a part, and I’d start singing over everything. Whatever’s the catchiest stuff, that’s where we’ll aim.”

Dailor has developed into the band’s purest technical singer, expanding his emotional and physical range with each album. Though he’s famously a Peter Gabriel–era Genesis fan, Emperor of Sand feels like his Phil Collins moment: evidence of a powerhouse drummer fully embracing the microphone. Take “Steambreather,” on which his soulful hooks slither out of a stoner-metal fog – or the hypnotic middle section of “Roots Remain,” for which he chased the spirit of David Bowie. “I don’t know if this was right after he died or what, but Brann’s a huge Bowie fan,” Kelliher says. “And he was like, ‘I really want to channel some Bowie on this song in the middle.'”

The album’s standout vocal showcase is “Show Yourself,” the most straightforward single in the Mastodon catalog. Ironically, though, the drummer struggled to appreciate the song at first, thinking its simplicity might alienate their more judgmental fans.

“I thought we were capable of more,” he says. “I thought it was too simple. I guess there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to let people down, and I thought some of our most critical fans would frown on this version of us, so I wanted to sidestep it. But Troy was really into it, so that started to sway me. And when I came up with the vocal pattern, it was really obvious and kinda sounded like Queens of the Stone Age to me. It was like, ‘Oh, we’re wearing a Queens costume.’ And I liked it. And once the album came into focus, it was like, ‘We need something like this.’ It’s like an oasis in a really dense record.

“The other songs have so many moving parts with a lot of music and depth,” he continues. “I feel like ‘Show Yourself’ works in the context of the album. I thought it was super catchy and super easy to like, and that’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to do it. But in the end, I was like, ‘This is kind of an undeniably catchy, cool song.’ … I felt like Peter Gabriel with ‘I Know What I Like (in Your Wardrobe).’ I heard a rumor that he hated that song and didn’t want to do it because it was too easy for the fans to like it. But, hey, Genesis did it. If ‘Show Yourself’ is a gateway to our band, then I’m happy to build that gate.”

“Writing a pop song is actually harder than just writing a bunch of technical riffs in a row.” –Bill Kelliher

Kelliher, who wrote the main riff on a tour bus “in the middle of the night bouncing somewhere in Europe after a gig,” pushed for the song from the beginning: “We brought it to Brendan – he was really impressed. He was like, ‘Just cut this part in half and do this, and you’ve got a song.’ And when I heard Brann’s vocals on it, I was like, ‘This is really fucking catchy.’ It’s not like anything we’ve done before. People might think, ‘It must be really easy to write a catchy song.’ But it’s actually not that easy to write a pop song – it’s actually harder than just writing a bunch of technical riffs in a row.”

After 17 years, Mastodon have achieved a startling rebirth with Emperor of Sand, an album that contains their most accessible songs – and also their most honest.

“We could have just left it at the desert-sultan theme and not said anything about what we were going through personally during the making of the album,” Dailor says. “We could have told everybody it was about all the different kinds of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches you could make and enjoy. But coming out publicly about my little sister’s suicide on Crack the Skye opened up this whole new world of fan interaction and human interaction. After shows, people would come up and say, ‘I went through this. My brother just committed suicide, and your album [helped me].’ I don’t know if it would’ve had the same impact for those people if I hadn’t come out and explained what it was about. I think people seek [us] out as a Band-Aid or a remedy for something. Music is definitely healing.”

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Mastodon on Real-Life Tragedies That Inspired Harrowing New LP

“When I first heard it with the lyrics and everything, I was just bawling,” says Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher. He’s referring to “Roots Remain,” the cinematic centerpiece of the prog-metal band’s new concept album, Emperor of Sand. On the track, the titular antagonist – a skeletal, Grim Reaper–like sultan – enforces a death sentence upon a fragile desert wanderer. “The eyes, the face, the tongue, the end,” the villain intones.

The song, like the record itself, is a metaphor for the crushing blow of cancer. In the three years since their sixth LP, Once More ‘Round the Sun, the quartet became ensnared by that dreaded disease: Bassist Troy Sanders’ wife was diagnosed with breast cancer; drummer Brann Dailor’s mother battled through chemotherapy, the latest chapter in a 40-year illness; and Kelliher’s mother died after suffering a brain tumor. For the guitarist, “Roots Remain” still conjures the helpless horror of watching her suffer.

“It makes me think of my mom passing away and all the things I’d witnessed with her going through,” he tells Rolling Stone. “She was just withering away in hospice, and I was just sitting next to her, watching. There’s the evil voice in that song, which is reality coming to you – all your body withering away. Ugh, it gives me goosebumps when I hear it. Those are the things that are real and emotional, and people are gonna fucking cling to.

“When we’re re-learning the songs and sing the lyrics, we say, ‘Jesus, this stuff is deep, man,'” he continues, laughing at the band’s insistence on exploring heavy themes. “Why do we have to be so fucking deep all the time?”

In many ways, Emperor of Sand, out Friday, harnesses the same gut-punching catharsis as their last conceptual piece, 2009’s Crack the Skye. That album marked a emotional turning point, with Dailor acknowledging his late sister, Skye, who committed suicide in 1990. But unlike that earlier LP, a barrage of cosmic prog with an inscrutable narrative, Emperor is a direct meditation on time, death and decay – themes spawned by cancer, which Kelliher calls “the elephant in the room.”

Before the group’s fruitful sessions as a full unit, Kelliher and Dailor established a creative direction as a duo, recording detailed demos in a recently installed basement studio at the guitarist’s Atlanta home. Those early brainstorming stints became therapeutic for both. Over six months, they developed a routine: morning coffee, afternoon riffage, constant bonding over their sick moms. Aided by the convenience of his Pro Tools setup, Kelliher had already assembled a massive backlog of riffs, which seemed to be growing exponentially since his mother’s diagnosis.

“Between my trips up to see her in Rochester, staying with her in the hospital, it gave me a distraction,” he says. “It was the impetus to get all this shit off my chest: ‘It’s gonna be awesome – just keep plowing ahead.’ Every chance I had, I was coming up with new ideas. There was a lot of back and forth, flying up there every week or two to be with her. She’d have good days and bad days. It’s kinda the same thing going on with Brann’s family. We’d get together every day and have coffee and sit there and talk about our moms. ‘Hey, how’s your mom doing?’ ‘My mom’s going through radiation right now.’ We spent a lot of time talking about sickness and how much time you have left. Then we’d go down and start jamming.”

“I’m not going to say that going in the basement and playing was a distraction, but it was something,” adds Dailor. “It’s somewhere to put the heavy stuff that was happening in both of our lives with mom stuff. You only get one mom, so when somebody gets diagnosed with cancer, especially the form that Bill’s mom was diagnosed with … It came out of nowhere. One day, I went over to practice, and he was like, ‘My mom had a seizure.’ It was an awful time for all of us. Mastodon is a family at this point, and we all knew and loved Bill’s mom. We’re all gonna miss her. We were all devastated by the news, and we were hoping that something would happen when she started treatment. That’s a frustrating time for any son. We’re so far away, so it’s all you can do: go in the basement and dig into some Mastodon.”

“The C-word,” then, became an inevitable focus. “We wanted to do a concept,” Kelliher says. “[Brann’s] mom’s sick, my mom’s sick. We’ve got other band members’ family members going through the same thing. We’ve had to cancel tours. We’re getting older, and this kind of thing seems more prevalent for people of our age. It’s like, ‘We can metaphorically write about it.’ Our fans are very emotionally connected to our lyrics and subject matter, especially when we do concept albums. It draws out those clairvoyant people who are like, ‘I know you’re talking to me. I went through the same stuff.'”

Kelliher kicked off the writing process with the brawny guitar pattern of “Sultan’s Curse,” one of numerous “homeless riffs” that have been kicking around for more than a decade. Dailor immediately pictured the vast, desolate expanses that became the album’s primary setting. “Cinematically, in my mind, it sounded like the desert,” he says. “It drummed up some imagery like from Lawrence of Arabia. I was watching that movie heavily around that time – I binge on it, watch it to go to sleep sometimes. … The cinematography is so beautiful: ‘This desert is an ocean’ found its way into the lyrics. That was kinda the jumping off point for the story.”

But a lyrical narrative only resonates if the performances do, and Mastodon stepped up their vocal game to a new level. Venerated producer Brendan O’Brien, a fellow Atlanta native who previously helmed Crack the Skye, coached the band’s three singers – Dailor, Sanders and guitarist Brent Hinds – through a series of dynamic performances, fleshed out with added harmonies and backing vocals.

“We took a really taking a hard look in the mirror at our band and said, ‘What is the weakest thing we have going on, and how can we make that better?'” Dailor says. “All of us were like, ‘The vocals.’ We’ve never been great, great singers. It takes time. We’re three reluctant singers and a music-first kinda band. Fifteen years ago, we were playing in basements, and [Hinds and Sanders] were screaming their balls off. In 2004, we dipped our little foot into some actual singing, and we found out that Brent had this really cool, Ozzy-sounding voice, and Troy sounded like a heavy-metal version of Peter Gabriel. It’s taken us this long to really get into that, and around Crack the Skye, I started singing some backups.

“But I [eventually] went to a vocal coach and got some pointers, took a couple lessons, and just learned how to be better at it. Just warming up before every single show. We also spent a little more time honing in on the vocals. A lot of times, we go into the studio, and out of 11 or 12 songs, we’ll have about two songs figured out vocally. And with this album, since Bill has his basement studio, we did a lot more vocals in the pre-production phase. I’d get ideas for something to sing over a part, and I’d start singing over everything. Whatever’s the catchiest stuff, that’s where we’ll aim.”

Dailor has developed into the band’s purest technical singer, expanding his emotional and physical range with each album. Though he’s famously a Peter Gabriel–era Genesis fan, Emperor of Sand feels like his Phil Collins moment: evidence of a powerhouse drummer fully embracing the microphone. Take “Steambreather,” on which his soulful hooks slither out of a stoner-metal fog – or the hypnotic middle section of “Roots Remain,” for which he chased the spirit of David Bowie. “I don’t know if this was right after he died or what, but Brann’s a huge Bowie fan,” Kelliher says. “And he was like, ‘I really want to channel some Bowie on this song in the middle.'”

The album’s standout vocal showcase is “Show Yourself,” the most straightforward single in the Mastodon catalog. Ironically, though, the drummer struggled to appreciate the song at first, thinking its simplicity might alienate their more judgmental fans.

“I thought we were capable of more,” he says. “I thought it was too simple. I guess there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to let people down, and I thought some of our most critical fans would frown on this version of us, so I wanted to sidestep it. But Troy was really into it, so that started to sway me. And when I came up with the vocal pattern, it was really obvious and kinda sounded like Queens of the Stone Age to me. It was like, ‘Oh, we’re wearing a Queens costume.’ And I liked it. And once the album came into focus, it was like, ‘We need something like this.’ It’s like an oasis in a really dense record.

“The other songs have so many moving parts with a lot of music and depth,” he continues. “I feel like ‘Show Yourself’ works in the context of the album. I thought it was super catchy and super easy to like, and that’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to do it. But in the end, I was like, ‘This is kind of an undeniably catchy, cool song.’ … I felt like Peter Gabriel with ‘I Know What I Like (in Your Wardrobe).’ I heard a rumor that he hated that song and didn’t want to do it because it was too easy for the fans to like it. But, hey, Genesis did it. If ‘Show Yourself’ is a gateway to our band, then I’m happy to build that gate.”

“Writing a pop song is actually harder than just writing a bunch of technical riffs in a row.” –Bill Kelliher

Kelliher, who wrote the main riff on a tour bus “in the middle of the night bouncing somewhere in Europe after a gig,” pushed for the song from the beginning: “We brought it to Brendan – he was really impressed. He was like, ‘Just cut this part in half and do this, and you’ve got a song.’ And when I heard Brann’s vocals on it, I was like, ‘This is really fucking catchy.’ It’s not like anything we’ve done before. People might think, ‘It must be really easy to write a catchy song.’ But it’s actually not that easy to write a pop song – it’s actually harder than just writing a bunch of technical riffs in a row.”

After 17 years, Mastodon have achieved a startling rebirth with Emperor of Sand, an album that contains their most accessible songs – and also their most honest.

“We could have just left it at the desert-sultan theme and not said anything about what we were going through personally during the making of the album,” Dailor says. “We could have told everybody it was about all the different kinds of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches you could make and enjoy. But coming out publicly about my little sister’s suicide on Crack the Skye opened up this whole new world of fan interaction and human interaction. After shows, people would come up and say, ‘I went through this. My brother just committed suicide, and your album [helped me].’ I don’t know if it would’ve had the same impact for those people if I hadn’t come out and explained what it was about. I think people seek [us] out as a Band-Aid or a remedy for something. Music is definitely healing.”

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