When Mastodon returns to Las Vegas on June 28, the Atlanta metal band will do so with a very special show: a performance of ambitious 2009 album Crack the Skye in its entirety. Rhythm guitarist Bill Kelliher called in from Asbury Park, New Jersey, to talk about the record’s anniversary, appearing on Game of Thrones and what’s next for Mastodon.
Besides Crack the Skye celebrating its 10th anniversary, why was the band drawn to playing it in full? Our [latest] record [2017’s Emperor of Sand] came out two and half years ago, and we toured on it a lot. I think in our heads we were ready to go back and start writing a new record, but then this tour got asked of us, and we were like, what can we do that’s something special? Not just play Emperor of Sand again, or play the same songs we just played a year ago.
We decided to do the Crack the Skye because it was the 10th anniversary. It’s just a special record. It was a very well-acclaimed and -reviewed record, so we felt like we can’t go wrong if we decide to do that one front-to-back.
Ten years later, have you gleaned any new insights into the record as you’ve revisited and played it live? A little bit. We’re doing it with an animated video wall behind us. That record has a lot of samples and keyboards and shakers and all sorts of background sounds. We wanted to do it justice, so we basically wanted to put all that stuff in there. So we had to kind of re-learn the record to a click track.
We had to work on—well, I had to work on—all the ProTools sessions of putting the music back to a click. We don’t cheat with background vocals, but definitely little soundscapes and keyboards and Moogs and weird effects in the background, because that record has a ton of ambience and noises behind it. We had to mash it all up with the movie that they’re playing. I had to listen to the record about 100 times just getting everything right for the show. It took a couple nights and a lot of practice to get everything perfect, but I think we’re there now.
That’s such an interesting exercise to go back, syncing up and deconstructing everything to get it right. It’s a different creative exercise. We did play [Crack the Skye] front-to-back back in 2010, I think it was. We brought a keyboardist out with us to play a lot of those parts, and we also used the sampler—[which is] what I call it, a machine I have that I control with my feet. It plays a lot of the ambient sounds and in-between song stuff. But if we were to bring someone else to play every part, we’d have about 20 people onstage (laughs).
We decided it would be easier to fit it all into a click track and put it on the sampler. I just control it with my foot: When it’s time to go into the next song, and the part comes up, I just go up to that song number and fire it off. It’s a little tricky sometimes. It’s a lot of tap-dancing around.
The songs are very complex. We’ve got 15-minute-long songs. We try to put on a show where we don’t really have to say much to the crowd. We want to put them into a trance. This album is very ethereal, very deep. It’s a voyage; it’s a journey. It’s really quite a show now.
Just like anything else, all the stars have to align and everyone has to be on. People have to pay attention to what they’re playing and when they’re playing it, when they start songs and when the video starts, so everything matches up and that we’re all on the same page.
What stands out to you now about making Crack the Skye originally? We were just totally different people. I guess we were standing at the precipice of our career with that record. It was the first time we had worked with a real producer [Brendan O’Brien]. He taught us a lot, and we carried that with us with the next few records that we did.
I just watched the old videos that we re-released. We were all so much younger. We were very excited, stoked because we had every possible tool and toy in the studio to use on the record. And we did use it. We went crazy. We were on to something new.
Every time you do a record in the studio, it’s exciting. When it’s fresh and ideas are coming together, you get excited about all that stuff. It reminded me of how much fun those days were. It was 10 years ago, and we’re still out here playing those songs, and people are still coming out to see them. I guess we’re doing something right.
You and several members of the band appeared several times on Game of Thrones. What was that like? It was really exciting to think that we were actually going to be on the show. Going to the actual location and seeing all the actors and just being part of this monumental TV series was amazing. I was like, “Wow, this is f*cking Game of Thrones. We’re actually here.”
We went there twice to do two separate seasons. A White Walker up close and personal is f*cking scary. Even with all their makeup, those guys look real up close. It was really good makeup. Just seeing such a huge production happening before your eyes—and then you’re just a small little part of it. You see the hours and hours and hours just to film a minute of footage.
[For] the scene we did, we were there all day, all day just doing it, doing it, doing it. The same scene over and over and over. And then when you see it on TV, it’s less than a minute long. You just have a new respect for actors and that whole world.
After this tour, what’s next for the band? I just like to take it easy for the rest of the year, really. Just relax, spend time with my family, work on some projects at home. You know, slowly get back into writing. We’re all always writing; there’s lots of riffage and ideas floating around. But I don’t want to rush anything. We’ve got big shoes to fill with the last record, I feel like. I want to put out another great album like that, with heartfelt material that we’ve all worked on together. It’ll happen.
I think we need a little time to regroup. The band can’t be your entire life—just constantly touring and touring and touring, and then go home and write and write and write, and then go back out and tour, tour, tour. We’re all getting older; we have kids and families growing up. They need our attention, too. I live and breathe Mastodon for so long, and I think it might be good to step away for two months and then get back together and start picking up where we left off and start writing again.
I mean, I’m going to try and write as much as I can on this tour, on my days off, sitting around the hotel room. I’m not really worried about it. The next album will be great.
MASTODON with Coheed and Cambria, Every Time I Die. June 28, 7:30 p.m., $41. The Joint, 702-693-5220.