Progressive metal band Mastodon call Atlanta home, but drummer Brann Dailor is originally from New York. Born in Rochester, Brann grew up with parents he calls “hippies,” who gave him a Celtic name (pronounced “Bron”), derived from a mythical king, Bran the Blessed. The king’s story involves a magic cauldron, a talking severed head, and a troubled sister. It’s the sort of stuff you might find in Mastodon’s lyrics, or on their concept albums dealing with themes of death or grand quests.
These days, everything about the band — the scale of their music and their success — seems to be ever-increasingly colossal, as will be the size of the crowd likely to turn up for their SummerStage performance in Central Park on May 19.
Speaking by phone from Baltimore before a soundcheck last weekend, Dailor expressed his ongoing surprise at the mainstream popularity of his band, which thus far has collected three Grammy nominations. “Yeah, how’d that happen?” he muses. “I’m just as confused as anyone else. We just keep doing it, and we don’t pay much attention to what stream we’re in. We just keep on floating.”
Success hasn’t shaken the solidity of the Mastodon lineup; there have been no changes in personnel from their 2002 debut, Remission, to 2014’s Once More ‘Round the Sun. Dailor says a deep respect for one another glues the band together.
“We enjoy each other’s company, but we also know when to say when, and we know everyone’s personal parameters and when they’ve had enough.” He adds, “It’s also very key, on the bus, to know what time to go to bed…You just see the look in someone’s eyes and say, ‘OK, that person has just changed into a werewolf, so it’s time for bed!’ ”
Although the people making the music remain the same, the songs themselves continually venture into new territory. In March, Mastodon contributed a song to Catch the Throne, Vol. 2, a Game of Thrones–inspired “mixtape” of free downloads recorded by the likes of Snoop Dogg, Big Boi, Anthrax, and others.
Mastodon’s tune, “White Walker,” is a soft, spectral hymn building toward only a hint of metal aggression. Dailor explains the song’s genesis: “I wrote it when I was on an airplane flying over Helsinki,” he remembers, “flying over Scandinavia in the winter, coming from a tour that had ended there, and I came up with the melody and the lyrics. It struck me more as like a folk song sung by maybe a villager inside Westeros, or something, about the coming attack. So it fit the vibe of the show.” (It also seems appropriate that Brann would pen the song, given that there’s a character on the show who shares his first name, minus one N.) He says the tune is not necessarily indicative of the direction the band plans to go in, however. “It’s just another piece of our personality that you add to the pile of different places that we’ve gone musically as a group. I wouldn’t say we’re pushing in this direction. We don’t really push in any one direction. It just kind of happens.”
Perhaps the biggest intentional push by any members of Mastodon took place fifteen years ago, before the band came together, when Dailor and guitarist Bill Kelliher moved from Rochester to Atlanta. Within two weeks of relocating, Dailor met his wife as well as his and Kelliher’s eventual bandmates, Troy Sanders and Brent Hinds. “Sometimes when you stay in the town that you were born in, things can get repetitive, and you fall into patterns,” Dailor says. “I was happy that I decided to take a chance.”
While most of Dailor’s youth was spent in Rochester, he went to high school in New York City. “My dad lived in New York, and I went to a school called Urban Academy,” he recalls. “I [also] had a job at the New York Historical Society, in the basement.” Dailor goes on to describe cataloging old newspapers. The job was part of the community service requirement for his school, which he remembers fondly as having an unconventional curriculum.
“That school was really incredible and changed my life because I found out that there’s other ways people learn,” he says. “I had an evolution class. I had an architecture class, puzzles, a Russian literature class, and a film class. It was really awesome.” He left the city before finishing school, returning to Rochester to help his mother, who was chronically ill, but found that the high school in Rochester wouldn’t accept some of his credits. “They didn’t know what to do with me,” he says, “Like, ‘These [classes] don’t count toward this school, so you’re a tenth-grader,’ when I was supposed to be a senior. So I just said, ‘Eh, I guess I’ll drop out.’ So I dropped out, got my G.E.D., and started playing in a band. And from there, I’m here.”
Mastodon plays SummerStage on May 19.