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Postponing the next record would pay off, though. By the time the musicians finally got back into the studio, they'd been writing for months. The new album would be their most ambitious to date.
With each foray into the studio, the band has pushed its musicianship and songwriting further. The latest effort, Death Is This Communion, is no exception. It's still undeniably heavy, but the band's brute force is infused with nuance.
"Turk," a song named for Pike's half-Turkish heritage, starts with a flurry of crushing beats and intense riffing, then segues into a guitar hook for the verse that's altogether vicious and captivating. "Ethereal," on the other hand, tinkers with less harsh vocals and a slower pace for Pike to shred over.
In general, there are more orchestrated, dynamic parts, including several instrumentals. Pike's new nine-string guitar gives his riffing a choruslike tone, and overall the album has a cleaner, brighter sound. "We're trying to make the music also more interesting and mood-swingy than it has been in the past," Pike explained. "That was a goal of ours, just with having interludes and stuff like that on the album, just making it more musically interesting on top of just complete destruction."
Bassist Jeff Matz clearly played a role in this melodic direction he performs a Middle Eastern-inspired jam, "Khandrad's Wall," on a tambour and a twelve-string guitar.
The band also has worked to make its songs catchier. Though it's not obvious at first, Pike's choruses and phrasings are actually hummable, a result of keeping him singing within his range, compared to some of his strained reaches on Blessed Black Wings.
While the musicians pushed themselves, producer Jack Endino pushed them even harder. "He, like, really would say: 'You know, I thought that take was shitty, you should do it again,'" Pike said, "where Billy or Steve would have been all, 'I dunno; do you want to live with that or don't you?'"
When he's writing, Pike says he steers clear of metal and listens to "weird shit like Björk." He's often inspired by books, and occasionally will take mushrooms or LSD to find his muse. Other times, inspiration comes from nowhere, or emerges out of dreams.
Lyrically, he continues to draw on weird conspiracy theories, such as those of David Icke, and the fantasy horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft as metaphors for his internal battles. "I'm into the mysteries of the things I can't explain," Pike said. "I'm also into painting a portrait of myself, my fears, the dark side of myself. And the beautiful side occasionally. More like exorcising my demons, really."
Asked what those demons were, Pike cited hostility and fear. "Everybody has their problems," he said. "I don't want to get too fucking personal. Just my struggle with substance abuse, and anger management. There's other stuff."
Some of that other stuff may have to do with the pressures of getting older. Whereas they once used hardship to fuel their aggression, being drunk and struggling just isn't as appealing as it was when they were in their twenties Pike is now 35, Kensel 34, and Matz 30.
When I interviewed the band in 2001, Pike repeatedly offered swigs from a bottle of Jack Daniels he was cradling. This time around, he offered string cheese. "I'm a functional alcoholic," he said. "I can totally drink and function. But I'm choosing this for myself because I've been feeling like shit."
Matz and Pike now practice meditation and yoga, while Kensel partakes in the occasional pickup soccer game in Berkeley to help stay in shape. Which is not to say Pike doesn't still boast about his partying. "Fuck, I got my black belt, seventh degree in that," Pike said.
Asked for his drink of choice, Pike said he and Matz drink the French liqueur Ricard. Then he turned to his bandmates: "Dude, I did play a set once and, like, I put my hands down my pants 'cause my balls were all wet. I smelled my hand and it smelled exactly like Ricard, so I'd started sweating Ricard. ... Yeah, that's why the girls like the balls, dude."
Uh ... okaaay. In any case, the band really has come a long way from its early days. Kensel gets by without a second job, and perhaps Pike could, too, except that struggling seems to be part of his MO. "I torture myself," he said. "Money or not or good shape or not, I'm a true Gemini." But with Bay Area rents to contend with, the musicians have to keep touring to stay afloat, and life on the road gets increasingly burdensome with age.
It's clearly something the musicians are thinking about more and more. "Am I going to be a 44-year-old driving a van around?" Kensel wondered aloud at one point. Since his surgery, the drummer can't drink as much, and he headbangs less on stage. "What's going to be the back breaker of being a touring musician?" he said. "How do I convince my wife it's okay to leave five, six weeks at a time?"
Later, Kensel reneged on his skepticism. After all, he gets to do what he loves for a living, even if that living has been fairly meager. "We could be one day in some shithole in Texas and the next in Tokyo with five hundred Japanese kids going apeshit," he said.
Pike agrees. "Definitely there's times when you question, what the fuck am I doing? But I don't know anything else," he said. "I'm definitely a lifer. I gotta stick with what I started, so hopefully I'll have some success."
Their friends would love to see that happen as well. A couple of weeks ago, Mastodon performed at MTV's glitzy Video Music Awards in Las Vegas. Taking the stage in front of 5.8 million television viewers along with Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds proudly displayed his loyalties: a High on Fire T-shirt.
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