Cruising America with Mastodon's Brent Hinds
Over six albums and nearly two decades in the music business, Mastodon has amassed commercial success, appeared on late night national tv with Conan O'Brien and David Letterman, enjoyed GRAMMY nominations, appeared (appropriately) in Game of Thrones as Wildlings—unbound free folk—and earned a fanatical world wide fan base that can recite lyrics, set lists, on-stage brawls, inter-band controversies, instrument and personal malfunctions, and video story lines with little provocation.
Photos & Video: Max Cooper
Mastodon has far outgrown any of the tired brands the music business uses to package product. Because after all this is bigger than the music business. It's Mastodon. The band's second album, Leviathan, based loosely on the theme and narrative of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, was chosen among NPR's most important records of the decade in 2009. And over the years Mastodon has produced a fearless and inventive body of work that has tackled astral projection, Rasputin, Harry Nilsson, and the fever dreams and night terrors of Stephen Hawking.
It's the kind of musical biography that would make any intrepid reporter hesitant on how to approach an interview, especially when the band's spiritual leader, frequent lightning rod, and new Epiphone Signature artist Brent Hinds is known--online at least--for telling writers his disdain for interviews ("That's not really true... as long as you ask good questions") and the entire genre of Heavy Metal itself ("Oh! Jeez, that was taken out of context").
But on the other hand this interview is for Epiphone, a company that prides itself on fearlessness and is in many ways the guitar-company equivalent of the Wildings--unbound by oaths, etc. etc. In fact upon reaching Hinds on the phone after what seemed like an especially dramatic amount of rings (insert thoughts here of being re-routed beyond the Seven Kingdoms), he turned out to be a model of congeniality and enthusiasm. Our conversation was a little like watching a hand built clock where some wheels appear to be moving fast than others yet they both arrive at their destination at the same time. Hinds is an incredible guitarist--fast, soulful, and emotional--and it should have been no surprise that in our brief conversation we should cover a range worthy of... well, the kingdom of Mastodon itself.
The occasion of our talk was, of course, the introduction of the new Epiphone Ltd. Ed. Brent Hinds Flying V Custom ("Man, I love Epiphone--you got that right?") and though--like most interviews--I was not there to speak to Brent in person, as the years go by I am sure that my memory of our conversation will be recalled as more of a Hinds-ian--out of body experience. In other words, I can swear to you that I was right there in the truck next to him. I can almost see the worn pleather red seats, since once connected, that's where Hinds put down his phone so we could together cruise the neighborhoods of Atlanta in search of the day's Holy Grail: an inflatable pool.
"Sorry it took me so long to answer, man," said Hinds behind the wheel of his 1970 Ford pickup. "I was in line to get a car wash but the car wash place broke or something so I'm trying to get my money back. But hey... how's it going?" In between small interruptions while conversing with the car wash attendant ("...I gotta go where?"), I asked him what went through his mind when he was given the opportunity to design a signature Flying V with Epiphone.
"What went through my mind? What went through my mind is I should have had one when I was 30, not when I was 42. They took their sweet time! I'm just kidding. I love Flying Vs. They're cooler than all the other guitars--that's why I love them." Hinds pulled onto the highway and the reception became clear. His speaking voice has a light southern accent and like so many Epiphone signature artists whose on-stage prowess would suggest an off-stage gruffness, Hinds is quiet and measured in conversation.
"Ok--I've put off finding another car wash for today. You see my friend is moving to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. He got kicked out of his house because he can't afford to pay his taxes and he has a gigantic blow-up pool in his back yard that's going to go to waste. I just got this truck--it's an old 1970 Ford. It's making a lot of pitter and patter but I had a mechanic dude check it out so it's cool. C'mon: I'm going to go pick up this pool. It's gonna be (expletive) hard. It's gonna be wet. And the mosquitos are alive here, too."
With Epiphone now in the passenger seat, Hinds headed for the highway and kept the conversation far away from music, ducking innocent questions with literal answers that seemed somehow to have oracle-like overtones. It's clear why fans love him--and pester him. Hinds is totally uninterested in the publicity circus of the music business. And though I'm not in the truck with him, he effortlessly made me feel that we were both along for the ride--just two fellows out for the day in springtime Atlanta, looking to take home a blow-up pool and talking about music.
"What am I up to now? I’m in Atlanta...Georgia...Memorial Avenue...traffic. I'm from Pelham, Alabama just outside of Birmingham. I was about 9 or 10 years old when I first picked up a guitar. I was pestering all the guys at my Dad's work: 'Hey... do you play guitar? No?...ok... @#$% you then. How about you... do you play guitar? ...Ok you're not my guy. I pretty much questioned everyone at my Dad's work and finally I met this guy--McMaster!--who played guitar. He gave a guitar to my Dad to give to me, and my brother and I we fought over it." Hinds doesn't say who won the fight but I can make a good wager. "I guess when you have to fight to do something you want to do anyway, it makes you better than most people who would have taught you in the first place."
Out of school, Hinds moved to Atlanta where he met Troy Sanders, joining his band Four Hour Fogger before that disbanded. Sanders and Hinds stuck together and eventually formed Mastodon in 1999 after meeting Brann Dailor and Bill Kelliher. Their first album, Remission, was released in 2002 which immediately put the band on the music map after stellar reviews by All Music and Pitchfork, one of the most notoriously cranky online music mags.
"Oh I wish you could be in my shoes now...” Hinds interrupted when I asked about his early days in Mastodon. "I've got to get away from this traffic. What was I playing when I met those guys? Oh, AC/DC, Bad Company, Guess Who, Jimi Hendrix. Southern Rock basically, being a kid from Alabama."
I imagined a young Hinds working his way through "Statesboro Blues" or "Bad Company" and wondered if he ever still played those songs during soundchecks when no one was looking. "No, those guys don't want to--nor-do-they-want-to-know-how-to (he says in staccato with emphasis) at all. In any shape form or matter. That's why I play in these other bands. I don't think Brann and Bill could be bothered really."
Photos & Video: Max Cooper
Hinds has kept several other bands in between commitments with Mastodon--most recently Fiend Without a Face, Giraffe Tongue Orchestra (GTO), and West End Motel. "I've already finished two albums this year, neither of them are Mastodon related. I wrote a Fiend Without A Face album this year and a West End Motel album and... oh!... a GTO album. So I've been busy. I play with them all a lot. Whenever Mastodon permits my time being available. These bands don't pay the bills so you gotta go where the bread is."
As we got closer to his friend's house ("America will get you if you get behind on your bills... Are we there? We're here!”) Hinds talked about what he's been listening to. "I play a lot of country music. I listen to a lot of nostalgic Django Reinhardt jazz, esoteric composers... I don't follow heavy metal or walk to the beat of the heavy-metal-drum society in any way." I mentioned a recent Guitar Player story that attempted to grab click headlines by portraying him as unfiltered ("I'm just honest") and dismissal of the entire genre of heavy metal. "Yeah, I know... you see, I don't do many interviews because I'm often taken out of context. Like when I say 'I don't like Heavy Metal.' I didn't mean that. I just mean the general populous of Heavy Metal is not my thing. But now look what you made me do (laughs)! Now I've said it again in another interview. You see what I mean?"
Photos & Video: Max Cooper
Through many turns of traffic ("Oh boy if you could be in my shoes now") Hinds apologies for the sometimes-wavering connection "Sorry dude. Stay with me. I've got rock n' roll itis from Brann's cymbals. It's hard to hear. What do I do when I'm not playing? Well, I also do a lot of woodwork actually when I'm not touring. I just built my dog a dog house. Everyone once in awhile I'll sit around and play guitar but it's kind of rare. I play a lot of guitar with my other project so I don't feel like I have to sit around and practice really. Always putting your skills to use makes you kind of nimble at it so you don't have to practice."
Pulling in to the driveway ("Oh you should see this place! It's like Christmas time over here for me") I asked Hinds if he had any advice for Epiphone when he started planning his new Flying V. I hear the terrific classic crunch of a pick up truck door opening and slamming shut. "Yeah, I just said here is the one to copy--now take all the radius specs of it and make it exactly like this one, you bunch of geniuses. And they sent me about about 3 or 4 wrong ones..." Hinds paused for drama and I waited him out. "But I ended up liking those more. And now it's perfect. Like I said, they are a bunch of geniuses. That's the way it works sometimes."
Already well into the year, Hinds has most of the coming months planned out and I feel fortunate that we caught him outside of the music business, which even in suburban Atlanta seems to hover around him wherever he goes, watching his every move, even in the simple act of trying to rescue a friend's inflatable pool.
Photos & Video: Max Cooper
"Oh you should see this massive thing. Man! There are tadpoles living in here. I got to send you a photo. (Brent didn't send a photo of the pool but this nice flower instead.) Yes, I'm busy with Mastodon--we're going back on tour in May and then July to Europe. GTO is coming out this year, Fiend Without a Face is coming out this year. And I bet Mastodon will have an album out this year. I'll be disappointed if we don't."
While discussing (potentially) three new album for 2016 alone, Hinds is simultaneously bantering with what sounds like a crowd of people who have descended on the house to pick it clean before the local Federales put a padlock on the front door. "You're about to get a picture and you'll see what's been going through my mind this whole time... I drove all the way over here for this pool and there's a huge hole in it. Decisions, decisions..." Hinds walks around the perimeter of the pool. "I'm afraid it's just not worth it. But hey listen, before you go, thanks for everything, Epiphone. I mean it. Thanks for my Flying V. Thanks for thinking of me. I love it. It rocks, man. I wouldn't even be getting this pool off the ground if it weren't for you guys."