Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher Talks Judas Priest Tour, Guitar Lessons + More
Mastodon are finishing out their 2015 on a high note, getting a chance to tour alongside rock icons Judas Priest. We recently had a chance to chat with Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher about the trek and also delved into the guitar lessons he's been giving on tour, the band's standout 2015 video for "Asleep in the Deep" and their inclusion in an episode of Game of Thrones and on the show's mixtape earlier this year. Check out our chat with Mastodon's Bill Kelliher below:
Bill, you're getting a chance to tour with Judas Priest. I know it's early, but how's it going so far?
We played a bunch of festivals with them before, I mean, it's Judas Priest, one of the greatest all time metal bands and they're still going strong. They f--king sound great, kill it every night. Put on quite the f--king metal show. Rob Halford is one of the best, if not the best, in the genre. Everything has been amazing. All the crew and the bands, the fans. It's been a great tour so far, but it's only been a couple of shows but sometimes when you go out with bands like Iron Maiden or Metallica or Slayer or Tool, sometimes the crowds are really there to see the headlining band and you don't get too many of our fans. On this tour, it wasn't like that the first show in Paso Robles. There were a lot of fans out there screaming for us and wearing Mastodon shirts. So it was a good pairing, it was very cool to see that because we know how tough it is. You go out to see your favorite band and then some new band you've never heard of and don't want to care to see. But I think we've been turning a few heads and maybe making some new friends out there. It's been great. We're lucky to be here and we feel special.
You've mentioned the fact you've played festivals with them before. Now that you have more time, do you get a chance to sit down and talk to the guys and ask them the questions you've always wanted to ask?
No, not really. Like I said, it's been two shows and the first show there was a landslide or rockslide in California on the 5. They showed up super late to the gig. They had to get there 20 minutes before they were going to go on because all of the road issues and the night before last. I think we had to leave super early to get from Vegas to Sacramento. We had to leave right after the gig, so we haven't had that much time to bro down at all. I've talked to Richie Faulkner, the newer guitar player. I've known him from other bands and touring with him years ago when he was in his previous band so we're pretty good friends. We caught up for a second, but I haven't actually met Halford yet. I talked to the drummer for a little bit while we were in Vegas, he lives there. We were shooting the s--t. I don't know. When the time comes and we're comfortable and we can have a little conversation but it's not like I have a list of interview [questions] to give them I've been waiting for years. I kind of say whatever is on my mind I guess when the time comes.
I noticed you're giving some guitar lessons while on tour?
Yeah I've been doing that for about two years now. A few years ago I just started taking ... there's a lot of downtime on the road when you're backstage and it can drive you a little mad. I play guitar a lot. I try to, I'm just a better player from practicing. I had the idea that maybe someone would be [interested]. We do meet and greets. Kids come and meet you, we sign some stuff and I thought that was -- I think it's better to get a guitar lesson from me. Maybe they'd like to? I was very nervous about doing it. I was like, what if the person is way better than me? And they show me up? [laughs] It's been going really well. I get a few kids every day. I call them kids, sometimes they are older than me. Everybody is very serious and they just want to shoot the s--t and ask a few behind the scenes questions - it's about 50/50. Half talking and half discussing playing and styles and how songs are written and how the chemistry is in the band, who my influences were and how I go about writing a song. Sometimes it's technique. And sometimes someone will have a question about well, I've always wanted to learn how to play this or how does this click?
Guitar players can get into a comfortable plateau zone where you don't really feel like you're getting any better and you're kind of floating around and need a little something, stimulation and not everybody has time to go start a band or jam with someone else. So it's giving them the chance when we come into an area and pick my brain a little bit. It's a very comfortable setting, very relaxed. I find a room backstage every day and we sit around in a circle and just play guitar, talk and everybody seems to really enjoy it.
It seems like everyone has the meet and greets these days, but I think that's an extra special touch that you are adding to the concert experience that these people are getting. Curious, have you had anybody in the years you've been doing this that surprised you? Or maybe that you even picked up something from them?
Not really. They've been pretty much beginners. There was a couple of young kids who were really good, some people have had to show me how to play my own old songs. Which was funny. Or a dude will just jam out a Mastodon songs that are played the way they think they hear them, so it's kind of funny. We joke about it and show him how to quickly play it. It's more kind of my show and I kind of -- some dudes just want to jam a song with me. They're like, I know the solo to this sound and I'll play the rhythm part - I'm like, yeah sure.
I saw you've got The Sound and the Story for Fret12 for people who want to learn a little bit more. If you want to talk a little bit about that, how did it come about?
Jim Root from Slipknot, who is a friend of mine, he was talking to him and was like yeah you should really showcase these lessons and talking to fans and trying put a face to the mystery of Mastodon. Kind of reach out socially and what not, but he said, "Oh this might be right up your alley, here's the guy's number. You should call him up." They were touring there and the guy is up there in Chicago who is doing Fret12 stuff. Talking to him on the phone, I was a little nervous doing that too. I was like, "Well, what am I going to teach anybody?" He's like, "Believe me dude, people are going to want to hear what you have to say about writing songs. They're going to want to see how you play your songs." The songs I wrote I do an instructional thing like OK here's the song, play along to the music and then break it down, show you how I play it. I do a couple of simple little lessons at the end. It's very rudimentary. That kind of got me started on doing the lessons because I started getting better.
I never took any lessons in my life. I learned everything by ear and playing with other people. I don't know. I never had the money or the time -- my parents never took me to get guitar lessons. I feel like there's something to be said for that, doing your own style. Just trying to convey that into a DVD and it's my life story pretty much. Me just talking about myself and the ups and the downs, people can see I'm just a regular person just like them. Anybody who has the ambition to become anything, really in life. You can do it, or come very close. There's no secret, it's just getting out and doing it. People say, how did the band get so big? I say well, years and years of sacrificing a lot of things to jump into a van and start playing your music and working for nothing until you finally become something. Hard work. There's a lot of being in the right place at the right time. Ninety-nine percent of it is hard work, perseverance and not giving up. So I thought it'd be a cool platform to see if anybody gave a s--t about buying it, watching it and learning about me.
There's some great guitar work you've put in over the years. Is there a song that you feel you had a real tough time getting down and now that you've done it, you say finally!
A song like "Asleep in the Deep" -- not that it was hard, but it was just a different song. When I was writing that song, it was a different kind of sound than the typical Mastodon stuff and I wasn't sure how it was going to go over and I felt like it was stepping out on a ledge, branching out a little bit into something a little different and it turned out really good. We made a video for it. I can say that about all of our songs. They're all works in progress when they first start and it's ... I'm not the kind of songwriter who writes the entire song in a week. It's not like here's the whole song, it's more like I write parts. I write lots of parts to songs and usually one of them are beginning riffs, they're the meat and potatoes of the song and the hard part is getting ... I always write the middle of the song. I can never seem to write the ending or the beginning. That's the hard part.
You mentioned "Asleep in the Deep," one of my favorite videos of the year. Talk about that video, how it came together and your thoughts on the final result.
That was kind of an idea we had about, we all love animals and cats. I think we always kind of have these fantasies of, what do cats do when they leave and go outside and go do their thing? They probably chase birds, squirrels and anything that moves, scope around for food. We're just like, what if our cats had these separate lives? They went down into the sewers, met up with other cats and smoked cigarettes and played cards? Like they had their own little world. We started thinking about weird scenarios like that. The whole script of "Asleep in the Deep" came to fruition about your cat is just a regular house cat and then at night when you fall asleep, it takes off and goes meets up with his friends and goes out on some crazy quests and adventures and rescues these enslaved rats or whatever those things [laughs].
It's a trippy video, from the mind of Art Skinner who's in the other room right now here at the Warfield in San Francisco. It's just a bunch of psychedelic imagery, drugs and we didn't want it go be way off the wall like really bizarro because we get a lot of our humor out through our videos. The music is very serious to me, it's gotta be serious. You don't want to be taken lightly but a video i think we can always get away with something funny. If you don't have a great videos, there's so much competition out there you really gotta have something that's really standing out. That was our attempt at it.
You got a chance to do the Game of Thrones thing this year. "White Walker" was on the mixtape. Talk about your involvement.
I don't watch a lot of TV but when I first watched Game of Thrones, I didn't put it down for at least 4-5 episodes. I didn't go to sleep for a couple of days. I was just watching it every episode. It's like a soap opera that's got blood and sex, violence death and incest. It's like a car crash. I couldn't take my eyes off it. The acting is done real well. The direction and everything, so it was something I've always been attracted to as far as a TV series. When they asked us to take part in it we were like, "Oh my god, really? Yeah, we can be extras? Cool." Then they asked us to write a song, I don't know. It's a good thing we can do to be a part of. It's such a cool show.
I know it's one of the biggest TV series in our day, but it's still got that dark underground kind of not for everybody vibe. It's still very evil, people probably think it's some kind of crazy satanic cult. Keep your kids away from watching it with all the sex and violence. I enjoy it, we all think it's a great show. Great story and hopefully it'll continue to write music or do appearances. We love writing songs for movies and TV shows. I think that's real fun just to hear it. Big screen, and know that it's something a little different. Not just going on a record, it's going to go along with something else, a movie soundtrack or something.
You're a year removed now from recording Once More 'Round the Sun. I know you said a lot of things are works in progress. How do you feel about the album having some separation from recording it?
I don't know. I love it. I think it's a great record. I still don't have any problem playing the songs off it. We still have a few more songs that are on it that we haven't played live yet. I'm still a huge fan. I think we can still get a lot more mileage out of it. I'm not sick of it yet.
Favorite song to play live?
Yeah, the opener ['Tread Lightly'] is such an epic song. It's really a great opener, it starts the crowd out on a singalong and gets them very pumped up. We usually play that first. "Diamond in the Witch House" -- I really want to play that one, get [Scott] Kelly to come out and sing with us. He sings on it. All the songs I enjoy playing, because they're newer you know? When you're playing the same old songs over and over for 15 years, anything is a welcome change to play something new.
We saw the story about singer-bassist Troy Sanders' wife being diagnosed with breast cancer over the summer. Any thoughts you can share with us?
It's something that sneaks up on everybody. Cancer is one of those things where you need to keep trying to find some more research for it. No one really knows why. I can go on forever, you just never know. Holding a cell phone against your head for too many years and the radio waves, cell phone tower waves that go into your brain every day can cause your brain cells to start multiplying and going rogue, who knows? Cancer can be from anything, really. It's a cruel world we live in, it's part of being human and it's unfortunate when it happens to people that you love. All you can do is be understanding, be there for them and put your life into perspective as if it can end at any moment. Live it like it's your last.
You're touring now, but what's on the horizon at this point?
After the new year we're going to go home and take a well deserved break. Be with our loved ones and family. We'll try to convene early next year and start writing a new record.
Bill, thanks for your time.
Thank you so much.
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