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Mastodon: Gods of Thunder

Mastodon's Brann Dailor talks about the band's latest album, tour mates Primus -- and "Game of Thrones"

When you're on tour with Primus and have the opportunity to see musical titans Les Claypool, Larry LaLonde and Tim Alexander day in and day out, you take advantage of it.

"I go out and watch them every night," Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor told me over the phone recently. "I usually go out in the crowd and get myself a cold beer and a red solo cup and I go out there to the lawn or wherever, and talk with the fans and do pictures and stuff and just hang out and watch Primus. Some nights, they do a Peter Gabriel cover and I come out and play some drums on that and a couple nights ago, Troy [Sanders, Mastodon's bassist] came out and played some bass on it so it sounded doubly epic. It's been a thrill."

When Mastodon, Primus and JJUUJJUU tear through Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre on Friday, July 6, it'll be a sight to behold, not only for fans of the bands' music but for musician-hero fanboys (like myself) as well.

With Claypool long considered one of rock's all-time great bassists, and every member of Mastodon -- which, in addition to Dailor and Sanders, includes guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds and guitarist Bill Kelliher -- all frequently hailed as gods of metal on their respective instruments, don't be surprised to see a fair amount of air guitar/drums on display at the show. Still, if you asked Dailor about his status as an influential modern drummer, he'll quickly let you know he's altogether unimpressed by it.

"I don't think about that. It's never crossed my mind. People will tell me that and I'm happy if I can influence someone to pick up an instrument and express themselves and have fun playing music -- but I don't feel that way about myself. It's embarrassing to get any kind of accolade, you know? Any time someone starts saying how great you are, I just kind of shrink in terror. I just wanna leave the room, you know?" [laughs]

That's not to say the lads in Mastodon aren't obsessive about their playing. Quite the contrary: Among other things, Dailor goes so far as to perform his drum tracks on the band's albums largely au naturel in the studio, without relying on the aid of recording programs like Pro Tools (which, in this day and age -- and for a band with their major label status -- is increasingly rare).

"I don't know. Maybe I'm a fool, you know?" Dailor said laughing when asked about foregoing the fixing or editing of notes/tracks with recording software. "But I think there's some sort of strange moral compass that's guiding that decision. Like, trying to keep it real [laughs] for lack of a better term. And just know deep down that I'm able to play a full take of a song because I do it every night live. So why wouldn't I be able to go start-to-finish on a song that I worked so hard to master?

"I'm from Rochester, New York, you know what I mean?" he continued. "That's a real roll-up-your-sleeves kind of city. That's a real blue-collar town. There's a real deep, deep work ethic that happens in that town, so there's this feeling like I cheated if I don't play the song all the way through and I'm not happy with a take from start to finish, you know what I mean?"

It's even more of a feat when you realize that Mastodon has been pumping out album after album (beginning with their 2002 full-length debut masterpiece "Remission") of prog-influenced metal thunder. The group's songs routinely vascillate between four-minute hesher singles like "Show Yourself," "Curl of the Burl" and "Sultan's Curse" (which won them the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance) and long, winding conceptual journeys like "Hearts Alive," "The Last Baron," "The Czar" and "Jaguar God" that can take them anywhere from eight- to 15-minute territory.

On their latest album, 2017's "Emperor of Sand," the band's evolution has led them toward the use of even more textures, layers, and different instrumentation to fulfill those musical visions. The band's writing process, Dailor told me, weeds out the material or riffs that travel too closely to roads they've been down before. And when it comes to lengthier songs, the group just know when songs need to be reigned in.

"When we're in the room together and we're playing through something, we all sort of get the feeling that it needs to change to the next part. Or we get the feeling that we've added too much to this song and we need to strip it back a bit because it doesn't make sense or it doesn't feel right ... The four of us just have that feeling of 'OK, this is finished.'

"When you have 'The Last Baron' or 'The Czar' or something like that, you move all the way through it. It doesn't feel like that long of a song and it shouldn't. If it feels like a long song, then you need to trim it back. We've had that happen before. With 'The Motherload' for instance, the first demo of 'The Motherload' had like five more parts in the middle of it and we were like 'What are we doing? There's way too many parts.' ... It just comes down to your natural, organic feeling about the music that you're creating. That's the intangible mystery of music."

As our conversation wrapped up, I admitted that I'd regret letting Dailor off the phone without bringing up the band's two "Game of Thrones" cameos. For the unfamiliar, Dailor, Hinds and Kelliher all moonlighted as wildlings on the HBO series (episode eight of season five and last year's season finale) and as such, I thought it'd be worth a (long) shot to see if he knew anything about the show's upcoming final season.

"It's been a while since I watched the last episode. OK, wait, wait..." Dailor paused briefly to think back on season seven's last episode.

"Oh, that big-ass White Walker dragon came and burned down the damned wall, right?! I was kinda pissed because when we were on [the show] the second time, we were on before the season premiered so we were there filming and they're directing all of us wildlings -- and they're going 'OK, now everyone's looking up and the wall is coming down! The wall is coming down!' And we're like 'Oh s---! We know too much!'" [laughs]

Might Dailor have any secret tidbits about season eight he can let us in on?

"I have no idea, you're gonna have to watch," he said. "We're not gonna be on this season, so I don't know [what's going to happen]. But we got to on twice and you know, it was more than a thrill and it was just an incredible experience to hang out with White Walkers, Jon Snow, Khaleesi -- we got to get our makeup done next to Khaleesi, which was pretty fantastic! Just to be there on the set -- that makes more people jealous than the Grammy, I think. [laughs]"

Mastodon co-headline the Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre on Friday, July 6, with Primus and JJUUJJUU. Tickets are available online here.

Dustin Lothspeich is a San Diego Music Award-winning musician, an associate editor at NBC SoundDiego since 2013, talent buyer at The Merrow, and founder of the music equipment-worshipping blog Gear and Loathing in San Diego. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.

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