Bill Kelliher: 'To Me It's Actually Harder to Write Music That Makes Sense'

Mastodon axeman talks about the discipline it took to refine the music on "Once More 'Round the Sun" in order that the songs be distilled down to their purest form.

Bill Kelliher: 'To Me It's Actually Harder to Write Music That Makes Sense'
Following in the footsteps of their massively successful 2011 release with "The Hunter," Mastodon has returned with "Once More 'Round the Sun." Adopting the philosophy of less is more, the Atlanta, Georgia metal quartet - made up of guitarist Bill Kelliher, guitarist Brent Hinds, bassist Troy Sanders and drummer Brann Dailor - has stripped down the arrangements and foregone the mountains of guitar layers in favor of fewer riffs and less obvious prog elements.

"I feel like we really write our best songs when the four of us hunker down on a little more stripped down kind of rock and roll sound," explains Kelliher. "I feel like this new record is full of those songs. I think every song on the record is a f--kin' hit and it's great. There's a lot of melodic stuff and we're kind of taking more the approach of, 'Let the vocals do the kind of proggy stuff.' Instead of always focusing on, 'Oh, what can the guitars do that are super proggy?' It doesn't really have to be tuned down low and super weird off time riffs or super notey to be proggy."

Bill Kelliher talks about the discipline it took to refine the music on "Once More 'Round the Sun" in order that the songs be distilled down to their purest form. Riffs were trashed and arrangements tightened up in an attempt to write the most cohesive collection of songs the band has recorded to date. It is not an easy process to look at something you've created and then say, "No, it's not good enough" and then start hacking and chopping away at it until it is right. But that's exactly what the band did on this new album and the result is nothing less than remarkable.

UG: "The Hunter" was Mastodon's biggest selling album and was also a huge change from earlier records. Did it feel good to know fans were embracing this departure in the band's sound?

BK: Not really consciously. I obviously know "The Hunter" record was a lot different than "Crack the Skye" or "Blood Mountain" and was it was definitely accessible to a lot more people with the sound and the quality of the songs we wrote.

As opposed to the layers of guitars that were on the earlier albums?

I think that's really our forte so to speak. You know what I mean? Songs like "Colony of Birchmen" and "Blood and Thunder" that are not so experimental but they're more the product of a rock and a simpler kind of sound is where we really do our best.

It sounds like you really focused on not doing what you did in the past.

I think progression is just writing a better song and writing stuff that sounds more cohesive and stuff that really rocks. Stuff that has a really good foundation and all the pieces are there. Guitar solo and orally it's got a great and really thick sound. All the songs are really heavy hitters but they're not super technical and you don't get lost in the shuffle. They're very to-the-point and I just think every record we do and the more we write together, the more aware we are of our surroundings in the riff world.

You'd think that's how metal bands would always look at each new record.

We don't really set out saying, "Hey, we gotta write a song that's gonna make it on the radio." We don't do stuff like that. It's always kind of subconscious. We just start fooling around with ideas and riffs and then they just get molded into these songs. That's how we've always worked so there's not really any difference. Like I was saying in the beginning obviously we noticed with The Hunter and every record seemed to get closer and closer to reaching more people and more fans. That's what you want.

Every musician wants more and more people hearing their music.

Of course you wanna reach out to the most people you possibly can and touch those people with your music. Does that mean we're trying to write a softer record? No. It's what came out of us. I'm kind of babbling now.

Not at all.

You know what I mean? We really focused on, "Does the song make sense? Does this riff need to be in here?" Some songs like "The Motherlode" had a couple extra riffs in it for months when we were playing it. Then finally we got to do all the pre-production at my studio in Atlanta and we started putting vocal ideas down and those always kinda come last. But with this record we started to really experiment a lot more with trying to sing over every riff and what felt the best. You can always take stuff away and for "The Motherlode" we ended up taking two or three riffs out of that song and just kind of trashing 'em. Just saying, "Oh, it doesn't really need all that extra flair. Let's kinda strip it down."

After you've written a song with all the parts, it's a hard thing to do to take away those riffs later.

Brann and I would sit down together and keep playing the riffs back and forth. He'd be like, "OK, what is that riff? Is that the verse or the chorus?" and I'm like, "I don't know. It's gotta have a little more flair over here if it's gonna be a chorus." He'll be like, "Why don't you dumb this part down" - not dumb it down - "or don't make it so busy and that'll be the verse." We just worked really well doing that this time. I just think we're getting better at song structures and whatnot.

The song is everything, which sounds like a simple concept but there are bands out there who may not understand what that means.

Yeah, I totally agree. It takes a few records and playing together to be really aware of, "What are we doing here? Are we just playing a bunch of notes and then screaming over it?" That's kind of how we used to be and our first couple records were like that. They were kinda like, "We have a bunch of riffs. Let's put 'em in a row and start screamin' over 'em." The band has become much more finessed.

That's the perfect description.

Obviously there are people out there who don't like that. But for us it's just the next step in the evolution of our group. We've already been there and done that. We've done concept records and all that stuff is still in there and who's to say what the next record will sound like. Who knows? There's no limits to what we're doing. It's just a photograph, a picture, a snapshot of all of us in the band and where we were at musically.

A great record is supposed to capture a moment in time of the musicians who wrote it.

People have heard "High Road" and they're like, "Nah, I don't like it. Too simple." And other people are saying, "Oh, it sounds like 'Remission'-era. I really like the heaviness." Then you got other people who are like, "Nothing will ever top 'Remission' or 'Blood Mountain.'" It's like, "Why don't you go listen to that record then?" What's the point if you're trying to evolve as a group. Some people think, "Oh, they're dumbing everything down" but to me it's actually harder to write music like this new record that makes sense. Like just taking four or five riffs and putting them in a row and in an order that does make sense and doesn't get boring. It's like, "OK, we have less riffs to work with now" and I think that's the real challenge is trying to get less riffs to sound better.

Anybody describing "High Road" as being too simple or dumbed down doesn't have a clue about the songwriting process.

Yeah, I had about four or five riffs for the song and it was lacking something somewhere. When I'm writing a riff Brann was always like, "Don't play it so busy. Take a few of those notes out so we can actually sing over it so it complements the vocals better than playing all these noodley notes." You want the riff under the vocals to be a little more simple. It kinda gets wasted if it's something real off time and tricky if you're trying to sing over it. We didn't want to clutter it all up with all that stuff.

That was one of the songs where you really chopped stuff out?

That song was a perfect example of that. I go, "Here's a couple really easy riffs that are groove-y and catchy." Brann was immediately singing the chorus part to it and he was like, "Oh, I've got this great idea." When I heard it I was like, "Oh, it's f--kin' awesome." I love bands like Black Sabbath where they have heavy guitars with beautiful singing over it like nice clean harmonies and stuff like that. Soundgarden and bands like that when you don't have to scream and you can write a really pretty, melodic song. The early Weezer records I'm such a fan of. He was trying to start a heavy metal band but he just couldn't. So he had those Beach Boys three-part harmony thing going on, which was amazing with the big, heavy guitars. "The Blue Album." I love that stuff.

When you write riffs, do you hear any melodies at all?

Not a lot of times. I do once in a while and I'll usually play that on guitar over it if I'm layering guitars. The song "Crack the Sky," I had a vocal melody for the chorus part of that song and I was trying to sing it for the guys. Hey, "This is my idea for this part." I do occasionally but usually Brann is right there the second after I write it. He's like, "I've already got a melody right in my head." He comes from a totally different place because he's a percussionist. He hears things a lot differently than I do. I don't feel I'm that great at doing a vocal melody part to something I wrote. I tend to mimic what the guitar is doing so much that to me it doesn't sound like I'm really making up a melody.

A lot of guitar players will use the riff as the vocal melody.

From where he comes from, he's hearing ghost notes that aren't really there. You know what I mean? He hears it more in a pattern than I do because he probably breaks it all up into a math equation. Like, "Oh, this is 2/3 and this is 7/8 and a looped vocal pattern like this." He's usually right on top of that stuff.

You've talked about "Ember City" having elements of Thin Lizzy and Baroness.

I was listening to a lot of the "Yellow & Green" record for sure. I love that record. I think it's brilliant so it definitely rubbed off on me.

You've always been a fan of two-guitar bands?

Yeah, for sure. I just like the way people can play off each other. Guitar harmonies are my wet dream. I love all that stuff. But the Melvins are one of my favorites and they can pull it off with just one guitar. But Iron Maiden, Metallica and Slayer, I grew up on all that stuff. So I love to hear the guitars doing two different things.

What about the more classic rock approach like Keith Richards and Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones?

Yeah, and Thin Lizzy as well. I've been in a couple bands where I was the only guitar player. But you can do so much with two guitars. Brent and I try not to play the same thing. We try to play different stuff unless it's something we have to lock up on like a verse. I try to write something totally different than what he writes. Because we're not ever gonna play it exactly the same and our styles are totally different. I think that's what makes it very special.

If you bring in a song and have the riffs, Brent will go off on his own and come up with his own guitar parts?

"Ember City," that whole song was one I wrote. When I came in with [sings riff], he started going off with the Thin Lizzyesque solo right off the bat. We don't really even think about it. It's just like, "OK, here's the song. I'll see what I can harmonize to that." It came out in like one take and we go, "OK, awesome. That's great."

Do you play many solos?

Usually Brent's the solo guy and I'm more of like the lead player. You know what I mean? A lot of people don't know the difference.

You describe leads as the main signature lines in a song, right?

OK, for instance "Black Tongue" from "The Hunter" record was one of my songs and the guitar solo in that is me. I really don't play a lot of guitar solos. I did the double harmony for that song. On "Spectrelight" I do a little lead towards the end of that. "High Road" and all the guitar solo stuff in that, which is kind of more like a lead to me, I did all that too. But when Brent and I play 'em together live, we both play it and do harmonies off each other. When you hear a guitar solo, 99. 9 percent of the time it's Brent.

"Diamond in the Witch House" is the epic 7:50 track that closes the album and you brought in Scott Kelly again to do some vocals?

That was one of my old riffs I had for years since probably the "Blood Mountain" era. It never really made it on any records because it wasn't totally complete. But I always thought of it as a very heavily influenced by Neurosis. Of course we called Scott and all agreed on that. It was, "Scott Kelly should sing on this. It would be great."

There's also going to be a vinyl release of "Once More 'Round the Sun?"

Oh, yeah. Sure.

You were a vinyl guy back in the day?

Totally, yeah. That was my era. Tapes and record players. My dad owned a hi-fi business in New York for many years so he always had records and the latest Betamax players and laser discs and then CDs and all that good stuff. All the good components like old tube amps [for stereos] and big speakers and all that stuff. So music was always flowing in the house. I collected lots of records. I had maybe a couple hundred record collection when I was a kid. I ended up needing to make my rent money and I had to sell 'em, hah hah hah. I sold a lot of 'em off because I couldn't afford my $150 rent a month at the time.

Do you still have any of that collection?

I've still got all the good ones. All my old punk rock records like the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Ramones and Sex Pistols. I've still got all those. There's a whole generation of kids and it's a totally brand new thing to them. It's making a total comeback - it has made a comeback - and vinyl is everywhere. That hands-on experience of going to a record store and buying an album is totally missing in today's world of downloads.

I would go to the record store and buy so many records just based on the covers. It's a nice big format. I'd look at the covers and go, "This looks f--king awesome. I'm gonna buy this Slayer record." I had no idea who Slayer was because they didn't play 'em on the radio. The crazier the covers looked, I would go crazy for those records.

Mastodon has always been aware of the graphics and how your CD covers looked.

That's how I feel about our artwork in our band. You've got to have a good representation of what's on the inside on the outside.

The artist Skinner did an amazing cover of "Once More 'Round the Sun."

Oh yeah. You look at that cover, man, and it's insane. Even people who never heard of Mastodon and see that cover will probably go, "I'm gonna buy this for the cover." It's such an amazing piece of art.

On a more personal level, you got sober recently. What was that like working on the new album without drinking?

I just felt a lot more focused when I was doing the record. Especially during the writing process, it was definitely more eye-opening. I really wanted to write a lot of these songs because I wasn't there for The Hunter recording. I mean I was there but I just got out of rehab so I was not really as present as I wanted to be. I did write a few songs on there but it could have been more and it could have been better I felt.

"The Hunter" was a really challenging record for you?

I wasn't around and the guys really wanted to have that record be finished the week I got out. So it was like rush, rush. So for this record I wanted to be completely prepared. Staying sober is definitely a day-to-day battle. When you say, "Hey, I'm gonna be sober now," it's not like a switch you can really turn on and off. I struggle with it but it's definitely not like it used to be. With me everyday I'd be drinking and getting into trouble and doing stuff I shouldn't be doing. It goes hand-in-hand with using any kind of substance and not getting enough rest and staying up way too late.

Addiction is horrible.

It's easy to do that when you're out on the road and you're in a big rock band and everybody wants to party with you all the time. There has to be a time where you just say, "OK, enough's enough" and I start taking care of myself now and not worry about what Joe Schmo wants to do when he comes to Toledo and he wants to party with you the five, six hours you're there. It's a lifestyle change. When you take the drugs and the booze out of the equation, you kinda wonder, "What do I really have in common with some of these people?" It's like nothing, really. So it's kind of an easy no-brainer.

If sobriety contributed to the making of "Once More 'Round the Sun," it was worth it. You have raised the bar for every other band with this album.

You think so? Wow, thank you very much. I really appreciate those nice words. Thanks so much.

Interview by Steven Rosen
Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2014

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    Awesome interview, I had no idea he had such a big hand in the writing process. Sometimes I feel people pay too much attention to Brent, which is a shame, because Bill's also a hell of a guitarist.
    I saw them when they came to Salt Lake a few years ago with Red Fang. I got to the front and stood right in front of Bill. He hardly moved or anything, just planted and played, and I remember thinking, "he doesn't have to jump or run around or move at all to entertain me. He's a master in his realm and I am a guest." Huge inspiration for what kind of guitarist I want to be and what kind of music I want to write.
    Great interview. Bill seems to be such a kind and humble dude. And I agree with Alex011, I had no idea he played instrumental role in the songwriting process. I thought it was all Brent and Brann. I guess it's just because those two are the most upfront personalities, but Bill has brought some of my favorite Mastodon songs to the table.