From The Pit To The Rink: Brann Dailor
Since the debut of their breakthough album Leviathan in 2004, Atlanta’s Mastodon have been giants (pun very much intended) of the America heavy metal scene. Their sound is a mixture of noodley prog and screaming metal, and the man at the center of this assault is acclaimed drummer Brann Dailor. Not content to just bring the thunder from behind his kick drum, Dailor is also a noted hockey fan who traces his roots to playing for much of his childhod in his hometown of Rochester, NY.
I caught up with Brann when Mastodon played Town Ballroom during autumn of 2011 and we chatted about his songwriting, what tunes he’d play at a game, the band’s first-ever show in Buffalo, and of course his favorite teams.
(As is tradition, my bits of the conversation are bolded and Brann’s bits are italicized.)
Black & Blue & Gold: It’s cool having you guys back in Buffalo; you guys seem to be here a lot. Is this a place that always seems to jump when you guys schedule one of your major tours?
Brann Dailor: Oh yeah, Rochester or Buffalo. We want to play here because we have a lot of friends and family that are here.
BBG: Being that half the band (Brann and guitarist Bill Kelliher) is from Rochester, which is really cool.
The setlist for this show, and this tour really, it’s all over the place with you guys, going back to the first LP. Is it hard for you guys to kind of mesh what order you guys want the songs in when you’re setting up for your tour when it’s so diverse?
BD: Nah, I don’t think so. It seems like it’s all action for a pretty long time, then we dip down in the middle with a couple of slower jams, and then the intensity picks back up all the way to end. Then the finale is when everybody comes out and sings Creature Lives.
It’s probably my favorite setlist we’ve ever had.
BBG: It’s definitely the biggest Mastodon setlist I’ve ever seen. There’s a website that compiles setlists, Setlist.FM, and it’s the biggest that I’ve been able to find on there.
Over the last couple of albums, your role’s really expanded besides just drumming – creative influence behind songs, vocally, etc. Is it a dynamic that you’ve always wanted to do or is it something that just kinda popped up?
BD: I mean, it’s been that way since the beginning but I never sang on stuff so I guess no really knew about it. Some specific songs I’d written were “Blood & Thunder” and “Iron Tusk” and “Workhorse” and co-wrote all sorts of stuff. Y’know, I just always try to chip in any way I can, and that’s the way we’ve always operated as a band. Anybody who has an idea, share it and we’ll see if it fits and it works. We don’t have anybody in the band is oppositional to that. No one here says “Ohhh know your place”; we don’t have that person in the band. There’s no “I’m singing it because I wrote the lyrics.” We just all chip in and audition everyone’s ideas that we can and go from there. Whatever sounds best to everybody, that’ what we’re gonna do.
Plus, about the singing, it’s good for us to delegate that role to everybody in the band because none of us are naturally-gifted singers.
BBG: Well, there are comments on live videos from this tour that the singing is getting better, so there’s that that you guys have going for you.
BD: Yeah, we’ve been working hard on it because we knew it was a problem area, something we needed to address. I feel like we have. The singing’s the best it’s ever been on this tour. I think it’s passable. (laughs)
BBG: You said your influence on the songwriting has gone back all the way to the beginning. Starting, and I know this is probably a horse beaten to death, with Crack The Skye, you really talked about what happened with you personally. It’d probably been your most popular album up until The Hunter came out, which is even more widely acclaimed. Is performing the songs (off of Crack The Skye) a kind of continual therapy for you with how hard everything (the death of Brann’s sister, Skye) hit you when you were a kid?
BD: Nah, it’s not. It wasn’t therapeutic really, it just brought that stuff back up again. It was just a cool tribute for her, and for my family, and to let people know that this person was alive at some point and was somebody that I cared about. It was an experience that inspired a lot of motivation from me personally to, ya know, bring out more art in myself. When someone dies, y’know, I hear people talk about “Oh, I never really dealt with that.” How do you deal with something. You don’t really deal with someone’s death. Time goes by and it just gets easier as time goes by. And not a lot of people have an artistic platform to talk about it, cause everyone has someone has someone close in their life that passes away. If it hasn’t happened yet, eventually it will. And we have Mastodon to sink our feelings into the music, and that’s a good thing, but I don’t think it necessarily helped.
BBG: On The Hunter, in “The Sparrow”, death is an influence again regarding you accountant’s wife’s passing…
BD: I’d like to say that it was more like her life was an influence on that song…
BBG: Exactly, that the song reflected not on her death so much as her life. It seems like it – life, death, tragedy – is such a powerful place that it’s almost impossible to avoid using it as a songwriting influence because it is so powerful. Does that sound about right?
BD: Oh, yeah, definitely. The fact that I lost somebody so young is always on my mind, because I was reminded of it so often when I was 15. When you’re 15, you never think you can die; it’s the farthest thing from your head.
BBG: 15 year old kids think they’re invincible.
BD: Yeah, of course. I mean, old people die. And then when someone young that you’re really close to dies, you’re like “Holy s**t.” But as far as “The Sparrow”, she had a beautiful outlook on life and she was a really cool person when she was alive. We just thought that motto of hers was a cool thing anyways – “Pursue happiness with diligence.” It’s like, yeah, try to remind yourself of that every day.
BBG: It’s a helluva mantra to live by.
With the way the sound of the band has gone on, it’s become more and more psychedelic over time. People started to really notice it on Blood Mountain and it’s just become more pronounced. Is it an evolution you guys have always looked at, or did it just happen as you guys progressed musically?
BD: It just sort of happened. I mean, when we were touring Lifesblood and stuff, we were sitting in the van listening to Yes’ Close To The Edge, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Pink Floyd and all that good stuff. It’s always been something we always dug musically and I guess it just took us a little while to start putting it in there.
BBG: I don’t know if you guys are the type to sit down and listen to your older stuff, but do you guys ever put on that old 2000 four track EP and think “How the hell did we go from this to where we are now?”
BD: I don’t really listen to it, because I’m playing it so much. Well, every once in a while, I do. I remember a few years back, I painted every room in my house and I decided to go dig back and listen to all our records. Just to check ’em out.
BBG: Something to do while you’re doing something so mindless as painting the house.
BD: I love all that stuff for different reasons, but yeah, from that first EP to where we are are now, it’s been crazy.
BBG: I know in years past, the chemistry seemed pretty high when considering your tourmates. The last show you guys played here was the Mastoklok show at the Erie County Fairgrounds with Brendon Small, High On Fire, and Converge. Do you guys usually pick your own tourmates or is that something that gets deferred to other people?
BD: We pick ’em. We do usually get a list of available bands, but a lot of the time, our friends’ bands are in that list. A lot of times, you ask for certain bands and go to them and they’re already busy in Europe or whatever. The planets usually have to align for things to work out like that but we’ve gotten pretty lucky, y’know, with all our buddies and it’s been cool.
BBG: You said that it’s fun that you’ve been around long enough now that you get to pick your buddies and that you can pull ’em out onstage with you for the encore. How fun is it that you can do that now, as opposed to in the past when everyone had their vans and had to get right out of there to get to the next city.
BD: Those old van days wouldn’t have stopped us from doing this. In the old days, we’d end up staying at someone’s house so we’d hang out at the bar until 2AM and then we’d drive over to someone’s house to sleep there, because we wouldn’t have to be to the next s**t bar or basement show until 7, 8’o’clock at night. So we’d take our time to get there, stopping at truck stops and driving during the day.
This encore thing, it’s just a cool thing that works with the song and the audience singing along. It’s a cool way to say goodbye, and bring everyone on stage. It’s like the end of Saturday Night Live; the curtain call. Everybody from the bands you’ve seen that night gets to come out and say goodbye.
BBG: Going back to basement shows, here’s fun tidbit – it might not be your earliest show in Buffalo, but there’s like 90 seconds of crappy footage on YouTube of a basement show…
BD: Custer Street?
BBG: Would that have been your first show in Buffalo?
BD: Yeah, yeah. I remember that show.
BBG: Hah very nice. Switching gears, there’s only a few dates left in this tour. What are you guys up to after this thing ends?
BD: January 11, we leave for Europe for a month. Then we have like 10 days off, then we head to Australia for the Soundwave Festival. After that it’s Japan and China. Then we do another U.S. tour in April, I think. April ’til May, then we have a few weeks off and then in June we go back to Europe for all the festivals. We come back in August and I don’t know from there, maybe South America or something.
BBG: It’s pretty rough schedule, with only a few weeks off here and there, isn’t it?
BD: Yeah, it can get to ya.
BBG: You guys seem like road warriors, though, always touring.
BD: Yeah, we’ve been on the road for like 12 years now.
BBG: Let’s switch it up now and talk about hockey. You were pretty widely known as a season ticket holder with the Thrashers…
BD: I was, yeah, and now they’re gone.
BBG: They are gone and we’ll talk about that. Were you always a fan, growing up in Rochester with the Amerks, or did it really start to come out with the Thrashers when you went down south?
BD: Nah, I was a huge fan. I played hockey for 8 years, and was a big Sabres and Amerks fan. My cousin Brett played on the Jr. Amerks and was drafted by the Flyers, went to Colgate, so I looked up to him and wanted to be him basically when I was little. Y’know, I started playing on a pond on South Ave next to my school, on figure skates. Played pond hockey and then my grandmother helped out with some pads and I played some peewee hockey. So yeah, I’ve always been a huge hockey fan and then I moved to Atlanta and they had a team, so it was something fun to do. You could see NHL hockey for $10 dollars, because no one gave a s**t. Those owners wanted to buy a basketball team and ended up with a hockey team that came with. Then the 9 owners of the two teams ended up in litigation in court for the better part of 6 or 7 years and by the time they got out of it, they said “Let’s get rid of this f*****g hockey team” and only spent the bare minimum. They never put out a winning product on the ice, and if you’re trying to grow the sport in the south to a bunch of people that feel like they invented college football, it’s just not going to happen no matter what.
If everyone tells you this Chinese restaurant sucks for ten years, and then suddenly they start to turn it around a little bit and you’re like “Hey, they’ve got good food there now,” it’s going to take some time to turn it around. People weren’t going to go see this Thrashers team, because they thought “Oh they’re just going to lose and I don’t want to spend all this money and bring the kids.” So it’s unfortunate, because it’s the second team that Atlanta has lost and who knows if they’re ever going to get another crack at it.
BBG: Is it strange for you, having put time and money into the Thrashers as a season ticket holder when they were a bad team, land in Winnipeg with minimal roster moves made and see them received like conquering heroes?
BD: Oh yeah, I mean, they’re still the same team pretty much. Yeah, Winnipeg is excited because they’ve got a hockey team and because that’s Canada.
BBG: In fact, the day before the sale was even announced, the corner of Main and Portage in Winnipeg had to be shut down by police because there was something like 15,000 fans gathered at like 1AM our time because “Holy s**t we’re getting a hockey team again and it’s going to be called the Jets!!”
BD: Good for them, man, and I’m happy for them and everything, but I’m bummed I can’t go see games anymore. But hey, my hockey heart isn’t split in two anymore. It’s all Sabres, all the time again. When they would visit, I would just kind of sit there, not sure how to feel, Like “I don’t know how to feel! Gahhhh!”
I got buddies on the Sabres who would come over the night before, and I’d cook them lasagna. (Drew) Stafford and (Toni) Lydman, when he was on the team, so you know, those guys are super cool. I just talked to Stafford today; they’ve got a game tonight, obviously.
BBG: Yeah, it’s a huge clusterf**k down there. They’ve got 9 guys injured…
BD: I know! It’s terrible. And Stafford’s hurting, too. He’s questionable today.
BBG: Yeah, he left after like two minutes of practice this morning.
BD: Yeah, he had to leave for some rehab.
BBG: I gotta say, it’s a bummer that the number of dudes into metal on the Sabres is dwindling. You’ve got Stafford and he’s the only one left. Lydman, you know, he’s in Anaheim where it’s sunny and he probably loves it, but it was awesome to hear stories from people who went to shows and ran into those two there.
It seems like hockey and heavy metal is a really tight mix. Players are into the music. Musicians are into the sport. It’s a marriage of the style – it’s fast, hard, super aggro…
BBG: So, if you could DJ a game, what songs would you play. Real quick, super candid, throw down some tracks.
BD: Oh man, ummm, “Mandatory Suicide” (by Slayer). Ummm, “Creeping Death” (by Metallica). Hmm, let’s see.
BBG: Actually, you will hear “Creeping Death” played down at First Niagara Center. A couple of times last season, even, they would play “Don’t Tread On Me” (also by Metallica) if Cody McCormick got into a fight and won.
BD: That’s killer. Uhhh, let’s see. Man, I don’t know. “Painkiller” (by Judas Priest), “Souls Of Black” (by Testament), all the thrash hits. It don’t seem like techno.
BBG: You would not believe all the crappy Cotton-Eyed Joe you hear it games.
BD: Oh, I know. It’s terrible. I always see, like, this montage of people getting destroyed and they’re playing Switchfoot. I call up my management and I’m like “Yo, we’re watching Versus and they’re showing this montage of people getting destroyed and they should be playing f*****g “Spectrelight”. Get on the horn. Call the NHL right now.” And we’ve had dealings with the NHL in the past. They hooked us up at the All-Star Game when it was in Atlanta…
BBG: See, why can’t you guys play that instead of freakin’ Chaka Khan?
BD: Well, they had the Hives that year, which wasn’t so bad. It was better than most years. It was so arbitrary to have a band play anyways. It was like, “Okay, so when is the hardest shot competition?”
BBG: It’s nice having metalheads like Stafford on the team because they players have input in what gets played…
BD: Yeah. I come up each Christmas and usually hit him up to go see a game. The first time I was there that they knew I was going to be there, they had “Blood & Thunder” come over the system. It was pretty cool.
BBG: I don’t know if you ever get around to the other areans, but in Pittsburgh, their deejay plays crazy s**t. I’ve heard Dimmu Borgir during games…
BD: I remember hearing during the playoffs, they played “Where Strides The Behemoth” between faceoffs and I remember hearing [insert Brann imitating the opening guitar] and thinking “Is that…that…that’s us. Man, that’s me playin’ the drums!”
It was awesome to banter about music, life, and hockey with Brann and hopefully on Mastodon’s next swing through Buffalo, I can get back in touch with him to shoot the breeze some more.