The list of heavy metal Grammy-winners is an illustrious one. Metallica. Iron Maiden. Black Sabbath. Megadeth. Korn. Slayer.
As of 2018, you can add Mastodon to that revered group, one which is a veritable who’s who of the genre’s most influential bands – albeit with a few notable yet expected exceptions.
“It’s something that’s going to be a tagline for the rest of your career,” says the band’s drummer-vocalist, Brann Dailor.
“Almost every sentence that’s muttered about your band or put into print is going to say, ‘Grammy-winning artist, Mastodon.’
“So, that’s something that we’re going to be proud of.”
The award went the way of the band for ‘Sultan’s Curse’, the opening track of last year’s tremendously well-received album, Emperor of Sand.
All Mastodon fans are now no doubt well aware of the album’s morbid nature – death and, more specifically, cancer are almost ever-present metaphors throughout, a product of the tragedies which the band went through prior to its release in March last year.
Guitarist Bill Kelliher’s mother passed away after a brain tumour, bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders’ wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Dailor’s mother underwent chemotherapy in the years between the band’s sixth and seventh studio albums. No wonder, then, the album’s themes are so morbid.
But the difficult personal time which preceded the album hasn’t taken any gloss off the award which followed.
“Not at all,” Dailor says. “We don’t look at it as winning for this one song.
“That Grammy has everything wrapped up in it. For us, the way that we feel about it is it’s more than 20 years of hard work and slugging it out in the metal scene. It’s our whole life.
“It’s my sister’s death, it’s the death of Bill’s mom, it’s the cancer, going through that cancer with my mom, going through the cancer with Troy’s wife, and it’s a huge thing for us. It’s for all those people, it’s for our family members that we leave behind when we go on tour, and it’s for writing over a hundred songs.
“There’s nothing negative about it for us. And I didn’t even know I felt that way about it until after we won. It was so over-the-top emotional. There were people crying, and it just felt like this big justification for everything that we’d ever done.”
Now heading down under after the Grammys triumph, Mastodon will kick things off with an appearance at Download in Melbourne on Saturday before a couple of sideshows in Sydney and Brisbane. It’s a quick mix of festival and headline performances, one of which Dailor thinks the band is far more suited to.
“I don’t know that we’re the best festival band,” he says.
“We try. We do our thing, we go up there and play our music, but we don’t yell at the audience to go crazy or anything.
“We’re not good like that. We just play our songs. We might play some really weird stuff that has lots of time changes in it, and is bizarre. We’re ourselves.”
What’s likely is that anyone making the trip from Melbourne up to Sydney or Brisbane to see the band multiple times will be treated to two fairly different set-lists.
“We do try to lean on the more popular songs when we play festivals, because we only have like a 45-minute set [they’ll have a full hour at Download]. You have to assume that a lot of these people that are at the festival aren’t superfans of your band,” says Dailor.
“Maybe they might have heard a few songs. Maybe they’re satellite fans or peripheral fans… you’re in the corner of their eye. They’ve heard three or four songs, and they liked them, but maybe they don’t even know the name of your band, and then you play that song and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I know this band.’
“When we play our own show, we assume the opposite. We assume that the majority of people that are in the room know the catalogue, and then the other people are maybe there socially.
“And then some of the other people have been dragged there by their boyfriends.”
It’s certainly an impressive catalogue that Mastodon has to choose from.
Since forming at the start of the century, the Atlanta-based four-piece has showcased an impressive development in their style, from the brutal rawness of earlier releases like Remission and Leviathan to the more nuanced – but still heavy – sound of their more recent albums.
One of the most notable shifts has revolved around Dailor and the increasing presence of his vocals. An ever-impressive drummer (one recently described by Sanders as “a mountain with octopus arms and legs”), Dailor’s singing has progressed to the point where he’s arguably the band’s most prominent vocalist on Emperor of Sand.
Coupling singing and drumming in a live setting has posed challenges, but ones which Dailor feels he’s overcoming.
“It’s a work in progress. A WIP. I’m working on it,” he says. “I have to be in really perfect health to be able to pull it off. It’s tough.
“I feel like, over the last couple of tours, I’ve gotten pretty decent at it, and I feel like I get better all the time. It sort of happens in waves. I’ll go through a stretch where, almost like when a sports coach would run video for their players and try to point out what they did wrong, I listen back to myself and see what parts I’m not doing that great on.
“I’m mindful of my performance, and my vocal performance. I really want it to be awesome, so I do everything I can to make sure that it is.”
As for a specific song that’s proved particularly difficult for Dailor, he’s quick to find an answer:
“‘Roots Remain’ is tough. It’s really high, and there’s more of a subtle vocal thing that happens towards the end, and everything has to be just right for me to be able to pull that one off.”
But Dailor has some promising news for Mastodon’s Australian fans.
“Recently I’ve done pretty well with ‘Roots Remain’, and ‘Steambreather’ was kind of tough at first too but I’ve done well with that one as of late.
“So, you guys are catching me at the perfect moment in time for my vocal stylings.”