"The Grammys are weird," says Bill Kelliher. The 47-year-old guitarist of heavy-metal band Mastodon is hardly the first person you'd think of when you think of the music-biz's night of self-congratulatory nights, but the relationship between them runs deep. The Atlanta-based band has earnt five Grammy nominations, and, this year, their first-ever win: Mastodon's song Sultan's Curse, from their seventh LP Emperor Of Sand, taking the prize for Best Metal Performance.
In 2015, Kelliher even became an insider, joining the Grammy committee for Hard Rock and Heavy Metal. "I thought it was my chance to step up and do this for the community," Kelliher offers. "No one takes [the awards] seriously, because it's always the same f-----f' people that win every year. Like: 'oh, look, it's Dave Grohl again!' [In 2015], we lost to Jack Black and Tenacious D. That was a bit of a kick in the balls, because they're a comedy duo".
But the Grammys, Kelliher thinks, are "trying to get their shit together, trying to get a little street-cred. So, they need younger voters. Which, well, I guess I'm younger, at least than the average voter, some 65-year-old white guy who's never heard of Mastodon or Baroness or Ghost, so they see Iron Maiden or Foo Fighters and just vote for them."
Mastodon have steered into the surreal qualities of walking the red carpet: in 2015, wild frontman Brent Hinds and drummer Brann Dailor went viral when they dressed in full baseball uniform and balloon-festooned suit, respectively. Kelliher doesn't figure the Grammys are any stranger than his life —"my life is already pretty surreal," he says, "like: 'Kirk Hammett wants to take a picture with me because he's a fan?'"— but sees his band's success as something to, still, marvel at. "If a little band like us, who started out playing in basements and sleeping on people's floors, can make it to the Grammys, that's pretty cool," he says.
Kelliher grew up on a rural property in Rochester, New York, catching frogs and crayfish in its creek in summer, skiing in winter. At 15, he got his first guitar, after which most of his time was spent "in [his] room, smoking weed, listening to Metallica records". After high-school, he was a "f-----' loser", he says; "I worked shitty jobs, painted houses, sold pot, played in a bunch of bands."
"I was never super-ambitious, [so] I was happy if there was beer in the fridge and weed in the bowl." But one day Kelliher's wife —"the smart one"— said to him: "'What are you going to do with your f------ life? Are you going to be content working in a factory and playing guitar at night?'" he recalls. "I said that I wanted to be in a band, to make records, tour, and support myself that way. So, she said: 'why don't you f-----' do it?!'"
Inspired, Kelliher and Dailor moved to Atlanta to start Mastodon, and "shit took off" straight away. From their first practices, they knew they were "onto something cool", and, at their first-ever show, 200 people crammed into a basement. Since then, Mastodon has just "kept on working", maintaining a blue collar approach across their two decades, seven albums, and five Grammy noms.
"You always have to work really hard to stay on top, to stay relevant, to stay a part of all this stuff," Kelliher says. "I never want to be like Metallica, where they got too famous, or too lazy, or too complacent, or just ran out of ideas, I don't know. I always want to put everything we do under a microscope, and only put out something that we're all 100% happy with."
Mastodon play Download Festival, Melbourne, on Saturday, March 24; Luna Park Big Top, Sydney, on Monday, March 26; and Eatons Hill Hotel, Brisbane, on Wednesday, March 28.
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