Mastodon Helps Metal Go Mainstream With 'Once More 'Round the Sun'

The heyday of hairy, ear-splitting bands has come, gone and may be back - for just a handful - as mastodon burns up summer's festivals - and even sells women's "asstodon" shorts in the process

"Bonnaroo, howdoyoudo?"

Brent Hinds, the curly-haired, face-­tattooed co-guitarist/singer of Atlanta metal act Mastodon, is shouting, and the crowd is shouting back. It's the second day of the annual Bonnaroo music festival in Manchester, Tenn., and Hinds and his bandmates - bassist-vocalist Troy Sanders, guitarist Bill Kelliher, drummer-­vocalist Brann Dailor - have just begun a late-night set in front of a crowd packed into Bonnaroo's This Tent. Across the way, on the considerably larger What Stage, Kanye West is wrapping up a headlining show. Hinds makes a lighthearted, and expletive-laden, remark about this as well, to even louder cheers. At another end of the campgrounds, meanwhile, Ice Cube is preparing to take the Which Stage for a run-through of his catalog of hip-hop classics.

Needless to say, the members of Mastodon - with their scrambling, low-tuned riffs; brawny vocals; and busy, jackhammering rhythms - are the odd men out in this musical trifecta. In fact, they're one of very few metal acts playing the festival. But as the band eases into its first song - a heaving, bottom-heavy number from "Leviathan," the group's 2004 breakthrough, which has sold 202,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan - the members, who are in their late 30s and early 40s, seem to be right at home. They may not be playing to a heavy metal crowd, but that's nothing new for Mastodon: Its audiences long have been growing in not only size but also demographic makeup.

Metal's mainstream visibility is hardly at its highest point. The music is largely dependent upon college radio, SiriusXM channels like Liquid Metal and Internet streaming for airplay. MTV, at one time a huge booster of the genre, is out of the music programming game entirely. But in the past few years, a handful of metal's leading acts - Avenged Sevenfold, Five Finger Death Punch and Mastodon among them (see sidebar) - has managed to move into the mainstream, backed by a fan base that, perhaps more so than those of other genres, is unyielding in its devotion. And of these, Mastodon might be the one ready to truly cross over. It is the metal band that plays not only Ozzfest, but also Bonnaroo and Coachella; the metal band that releases a split 7-inch single with Canadian folk-pop songstress Feist (dubbed Feistodon) on which the two acts cover each other's songs; the metal band, it is often said, that all music fans can like - even if they hate metal.

"We're like your metal starter kit!" jokes Hinds earlier that day. He and Sanders - who played together in what he describes as a "crazy, avant-garde art-rock band" called Four Hour Fogger before forming Mastodon with Dailor and Kelliher in Atlanta almost 15 years ago - are seated on a couch behind the Bonnaroo comedy tent and considering their unusual position.

"I think it stems from the fact that the four of us have a giant array of musical inspirations," says Sanders. "So there's a little bit of everything going into a song. It makes for something that's more multidimensional."

Hinds adds, "Or maybe we're just so indecisive that we can't make up our minds what kind of band we want to be."

Indeed, within the group's metal framework listeners will find elements of classic rock, prog, psychedelia, country (in Hinds' slippery lead licks and vocalizations), jazz (in Dailor's nimble fills and off-beat accents) and even a bit of pop. On the band's sixth full-length, Once "More 'Round the Sun" (due June 24 on Reprise), the out-there concepts have been pocketed - in contrast to, say, 2009's "Crack the Skye," which incorporated astral projection, wormholes, a paraplegic, the undead, Dailor's departed sister and Rasputin into its plot, while selling 213,000 units. The choruses are more grandiose; the melodies are stickier and more frequent. In spots, the band's three singers - Sanders, Hinds and Dailor - even try their hand at vocal harmonies. It's an approach that differs markedly from the band's earliest days, when, says Kelliher, "We never thought in verses and choruses. We never had choruses."

This dichotomy sometimes has the band members battling an earlier version of themselves. Says Dailor, "There are always those fans that want every album to sound like your first album. But if we were to try to give them that it wouldn't be the same, because it would no longer be coming from a real place. So those people don't even know what they're asking for."

In fact, Mastodon is well-attuned to its fans' wants, which is key to commercial survival. For instance, since the group's earliest days it has teamed with artists like painter Paul Romano and wood sculptor AJ Fosik on album and T-shirt designs to forge an aesthetic identity, which in turn has intensified fans' fervor. "Half the groups I was into when I was a kid, like Iron Maiden and Slayer, I discovered because of the great artwork on their albums," says Kelliher. But it's an approach that few acts engage in to such a degree. The promotional video for "Black Tongue," from 2011's "The Hunter," for example, is three-and-a-half minutes of Fosik in his shop, creating the Sad Demon Oath sculpture that appears on the album's cover.

Even better, this visual component has helped make Mastodon's physical releases premium products. Warner Bros. is offering "Once More 'Round the Sun," which features a cosmic, colorful cover illustration by Oakland, Calif.-based artist Skinner, in digital, CD and vinyl formats, and also as a deluxe two-LP vinyl edition with exclusive lithographs and other goodies housed inside an elaborate, Skinner-designed quadruple-gatefold sleeve. In Dailor's estimation, these sorts of products "are the only reason someone would buy our records nowadays. Because the music, you can get that anywhere, for free."

Warner Bros. senior vp marketing Xavier Ramos agrees. "Mastodon has a highly engaged fan base that buys into the culture around the band," he says. "So that makes it a lot easier for me to sell these ideas on the business side - to say, 'Hey, we want to make 3,500 pieces of a $70 vinyl gatefold package with art that looks like it's hand-painted.' Because I have the sell-through numbers to back it up."

It's the sort of demand that has enabled Mastodon to create idiosyncratic products, from the retro-looking "Prehistoric Chopper Mirror" that is bundled with a CD version of "Once More 'Round the Sun" to the popular women's shorts emblazoned with the word "Asstodon."

The shorts, in fact, serve notice of the band's widening appeal. "Back in the early days, Mastodon was definitely just a guy thing," says Sanders. Hinds concurs: "For years we never saw a girl in the audience. Now they're there and it's just wild." He pauses, then adds, "Of course, they're there with their boyfriends. But they're still there."

-Rich Bienstock


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