Cracking the Skye: A Q&A with Mastodon's Brann Dailor

Mastodon tours like rock bands used to, in the 1970s and '80s—grueling, international tours that last for a year, or longer. They're still on the road in support of their fourth album, Crack the Skye, a fantastic, spaced-out concept record about astral projection and Rasputin that was released way back in March 2009. Here's the full transcript of my conversation with drummer Brann Dailor.

You guys have been on the road for more than a year.

It's what we do. We've been doing it the last 10 years. You definitely either love it, it's something you can do, or you can't do it. A lot of people, it's too much to be gone this long.

Do you get restless when you're at home?

I love being home. We're on tour all the time, so it's even better when we do get to go home.

You've been playing Crack the Skye in its entirety on the tour. Why'd you decide to do that?

It seemed like, it's only seven songs, and we didn't want to omit any of them. We feel like they make sense together as one long piece. We come out and do that, and it's like a warm-up for the old stuff. We play 40 or 45 minutes of old stuff, so it's an hour-and-a-half show, and we don't talk in between songs or anything. We work really hard. It's not easy—physically, it's very taxing. It's a good workout. It keeps me fit. I sweat buckets out there. It's relentless, and loud as hell.

You were known for the crazy fills you did on the first couple of albums. Now it seems like the rest of the band has caught up to you.

I guess so. We meet each other in the middle. For the first album, Remission, on those recording sessions most of the drumming was improvisational. There are some awesome mistakes that happened during recording—"I guess I'm happy with that!" Now I feel like I want to tighten things up. When it's broad and sprawling I want to let those moments happen, and busy it up when I need to. There are still lots of crazy fills.

So what exactly is the story behind Crack the Skye?

There's a paraplegic, and the only way he can experience the world is to go outside his body by astral travel, or astral projection. He goes out and flies into outer space. When you do astral projection, you're supported by a golden umbilical cord that connects you to the material world. He goes too close to the sun and his umbilical cord burns up. He's lost in space and gets sucked into a wormhole, into the spirit realm. He explains to the spirits there that he's not really dead, he's just traveling. They inject him into a seance that's being performed by a Russian sect, a Russian orthodox sect that Rasputin is suspected of being a member of. Knowing that Rasputin's about to be assassinated, they put his spirit into Rasputin. Rasputin goes to Moika Palace, where he's murdered. The boy and Rasputin's spirit meet and Rasputin leads the boy back to his body, his miraculously healed body.

I went to Russia for a couple of weeks on vacation. My grandmother used to tell me she would astral travel when I was a kid, that she was out of her body on a nightly basis. I'm not saying I necessarily believe this. But I think it's more fun to believe than it is not to believe. Like Bigfoot—I'd rather believe in Bigfoot than not. The life of a skeptic must be a boring one.

It came about over a long period of time. I had the first part—the paraplegic/astral travel/outer space—but then I was lost. I didn't know where to take it from there. I had to figure out where it was going to go. Then I went to Russia and I read a book called The Rasputin File. Russia obviously has a deep, dark, rich history, and it seemed like a fitting place to go with the story.

Then it seemed like we had two halves for the story. We wanted to mix Tsarist Russia with outer space and wormholes. And with a wormhole you can go anywhere. So we used Steven Hawking's theories to connect the paraplegic to Russia. We thought it was cool. I sent out an e-mail with the story to the other guys and everybody seemed to like it.

It's easier for us to operate with a concept album. It gives us something to look at, something to concentrate on, and we can go from there and figure out what we're going to do with the artwork and T-shirts. It unifies us with one topic we can tackle.

Have you started working on a new album?

We have a bunch of music pretty much written, so we're ahead of the game as far as writing material for the next album. We like to have a starting point or concept as an element. For Crack the Skye it was ether, which is what some people believe the soul is made out of. It's like the quintessential element. We looked into the origins of that and thought, ‘That's some deep shit.' And there are a lot more than just four elements, so there are some interesting and timeless areas that we can go down or avenues we can travel.

What's the status of the Jonah Hex score?

We worked out some stuff in Atlanta before we left on this tour. We were in the studio for three days. I thought it sounded amazing. I'm excited to hear it in the film. There's supposed to be a trailer soon. It's atmospheric, but there's some straight-up double bass and heaviness. Some of it is heavy as hell.

What you're doing when you do movie stuff is making a theme for a character, and they use that theme throughout the movie, and people relate to the character with music. Like in The Empire Strikes Back, the first time you see the Star Destroyer, you hear Darth Vader's theme. Then every time you see Vader, there's a peppering of that, or a stripped-down version of that theme, maybe just a cello and a violin, one bar of that music. And you know you're about to see Darth Vader. So you record that theme eight different ways—you play it with a banjo, or you play it on this or you play it on that, or do it super-slow, or faster.

What was it like working with producer Brendan O'Brien on Crack the Skye?

It went a lot faster. It moved really quick, I think. We weren't used to that. But we were also at home, which definitely helps a great deal. I was four minutes away from my house. In Seattle, I was always done first, because I'm always done first. We didn't have any money, so you had to sit in the studio all day and wait. We only had one car. It wears on you. You can't go anywhere, you can't buy anything because you don't have any money. This time, it was like, "Okay, be here at four," or "Don't come in at all."

Crack the Skye seems to be the culmination of what you've been working on so far. Have you thought about the next direction for the band?

We don't plan any direction. Whatever comes out, comes out. That's how we've always done it. We don't plan it. We just play. When people ask what the difference is between two albums, I always say two years. Two years of living, two years of playing music with each other, and this is where we are right now. It's a snapshot of everybody's personality at that moment. We just roll with it. And it works. It works for us.