Mastodon’s Brann Dailor on ‘Stairway to Nick John,’ ‘Crack the Skye’ + 2020 Album
Mastodon lost a longtime family member, manager Nick John, in 2018. The loss devastated the metal giants, but an emotional funeral performance led to Nick John's face being prominently displayed in every record store across America.
We got on the phone with Mastodon drummer / vocalist Brann Dailor to remember the manager's massive accomplishments, which brought the Georgia band to the top of the modern metal scene. At John's funeral, Mastodon performed Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," with Dailor fighting back tears while barely making it through the full song. Gojira frontman Joe Duplantier recorded the performance on his phone, which directly led to Mastodon into the studio.
Dailor recalls how "Stairway to Nick John" happened, discusses Mastodon's upcoming tour with Coheed & Cambria (where they'll play Crack the Skye in full), a new Arcadia record and Mastodon's plans for a new album in 2020.
I really liked that Arcadia album. Is there another one coming?
The Arcadia guys that are down in my basement right now warming up their keyboards. We're fooling around with some stuff, we're actually trying to get it together to play a live show probably down here in Atlanta. We don’t even have one booked. We need to map it out, we don't have a lot of downtime or anything but we have some wiggle room just practicing every Friday just to keep it fresh and write some new stuff just to keep it fresh, then hopefully after my next Masto tour this summer we can do a proper Arcadia show. That would be fun.
When it comes to the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ cover, do you think you guys actually would have gone into the studio and made this cover if someone hadn't recorded you guys playing ‘Stairway’ at Nick's funeral?
Probably not. I don't think so. It wasn’t a big idea of ours to go and record. Like, “Hey guys you know what we should do? We should record 'Stairway to Heaven.'” [laughs] What the fuck are you talking about? There are certain songs that are untouchable and you probably shouldn’t cover them if you’re in a rock band and I think this song is at the top of that list or somewhere towards the top. It’s probably the most iconic rock ballad of all time and it’s an amazing, beautiful song.
When I was a kid I remember listening to ‘Stairway To Heaven’ on repeat. I listened to it over and over again. I was head over heels in love with ‘Stairway to Heaven’ as a kid in the ‘80s. It was on the radio constantly as well. It really didn't become this thing until Wayne's World… Wayne’s World kind of made two things to two different songs. “Okay ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ we don't like it anymore it’s overplayed and everyone was okay we are on board with that, but what we do like is ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ That's back on!” Everyone was like, “Okay we’re on board for that.”
Right before that you couldn't hear ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ I remember being a kid and calling my local radio station WCMF in Rochester and requesting it every night and they would say no. [laughs] “It’s too long.” But, of course, they would play "Stairway to Heaven" all the time, which was just as long. When Wayne's World came out you couldn't get away from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ It was all over MTV, it had a brand new video with those guys rocking out in their Gremlin or Pacer car or whatever they had and then ‘Stairway’ was blacklisted.
Covering ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is for our friend Nick John. He was our manager and one of our best friends and we got asked to play it at his funeral, which sounded like a horrible idea because I don’t want to perform at a funeral, especially not Nick John's funeral. He's like one of my best friends, I’m going to be really upset. As I've said before, there are two things that don't go well: Crying and singing.
We did it and I felt like it was something he would have really loved. We felt like it was the perfect song to do at a funeral. It just kind of lined up. There were a few other suggestions for Zeppelin songs to do, but this one, everyone knows it. We printed the lyrics on the back side of the funeral card that you get when you get in there. It was in the church. We set our stuff up right next to his casket. I mean, it was intense. It was a really intense heavy, heavy, heavy moment. Then afterward, Joe [Duplantier, Gojira] was like, "I recorded it on my phone." We're like, "Oh okay, it probably didn't come out good." He's like, "It actually came out pretty good. I'm going to bring it back to my studio and tweak it a little bit."
Then we heard it. That's when we came up with the idea to do a Record Store Day release. How awesome would it be for one of Nick John's favorite American Holidays, Record Store Day, I know it's a recent one, but it's one of Nick John's favorite places to be in the whole world, along with the rest of us ’80s kids, is in a record store, an independent record store thumbing through records. We thought, “How cool it would be to get his face big on a 10-inch vinyl album with ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ then call it ‘Stairway to Nick John’? Then, his face is gonna be in every independent record store all across the country on Record Store Day. For us, it's the perfect tribute to our dear friend, that's what it is. It wasn't like we had some Eureka moment about covering ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ saying "Oh! We can really do our own thing with this song." We just kind of wanted to do a by-the-numbers rendition of it and that's what it is — a faithful rendition for our friend.
It's a beautiful thing to have his face in all those record stores. When you were in the studio recording this, was it a little easier to get yourself together compared to the funeral?
Yeah, being in the studio, it was emotional for sure, but nowhere near the funeral. I mean, that was like it was tough, you know. We had just read the eulogy and then walked over and sat down and launched into it. The whole front row is pretty much sobbing, like don’t make eye contact with anybody, just looking up, looking anywhere but the front row, basically. His wife Coleen was there, parents, his mom, his sister. It was a heavy, very heavy moment. We really wanted to power through it and make that moment as beautiful a moment that it could be and try to concentrate on how awesome Nick John was, how this moment right here is our little send off for our boy, so we need to show up.
What’s one thing you want people to know about Nick John?
I think that there’s a misconception when you hear “management” and your favorite band, whatever band that might be. I think that there's probably some truth to it, but "manager" almost seems like a bad word. Like, this guy's kind of sleazy or not cool. This person is not cool. What I would want people to know is that Nick was not like that at all. He was very much one of us.
He's a long-haired headbanger from when he was a teenager and he always wanted to be involved, somehow, in music, but he just wasn't a musician. He didn't play an instrument, but he just loved music so much that he just wanted to be involved somehow. He felt like the best way he could contribute to his favorite thing, music, was to get involved on the other side, to help grow a band and to just get back there and to do the hard work that it takes, in tandem with us. We were his band. He worked with Slayer and he worked with a number of other bands and he worked with Gojira, but we were the first band. We kind of came together at the perfect moment, right before Leviathan was about to come out and planted that seed and got into that sweet spot that grew our band to the band that we are today, you know?
He really kind of took the reins with us. He was a workaholic and would just be non-stop working on Mastodon and different ways to make our lives better and different ways to help us get to the next level as a band. Just brainstorming, just working, writing emails, calling people… I mean, the guy was just non-stop, more so that he should have been, you know what I mean? He worked way too hard, you know what I mean? I would feel bad. I'd be like, "Dude, you don't have to be doing all of that. Like, come on. You’ve got to relax a little bit."
The guy never took a vacation, he was always at it. There wasn't a day that went by when you didn't receive two or three emails from Nick John with strategy, you know what I mean? Like, let's do this, or we could do this! We were more than happy to oblige. He just was in the mix all the time. He was our boy. He was part of the band, for sure.
I've heard nothing but good things about him and that's kind of rare in the music industry. It's great to see him get his due. I'm sure we can thank him for the tours that you've done with Slayer and Gojira too, right?
Oh, yeah. You know, I work hard playing the drums and I work hard within Mastodon, and so do the other members. We all pull our weight and do our thing to be the best band that we can be and to continue doing our thing. But he was totally instrumental in fulfilling some childhood fantasies of like, touring with Metallica, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Slayer, all those big tours, you know what I mean? It's us, but it's a lot him too. He pushed for a lot of that stuff.
He knew what a huge fan of Judas Priest I was, so he really pushed for tours like that. He would get in there and would just be like bugging the shit out of people, probably. [laugh] Like, "Come on man, I got to get this for my boy Brann. He loves Judas Priest. I got to get them on a Judas Priest tour, come on!"
I remember when you went on tour with Judas Priest when they were doing The Redeemer of Souls tour. We were backstage with Priest doing a filming thing and I remember Rob Halford talking about how special of a band Mastodon was. We were both kind of nerding out on how much we love Mastodon. To get that rub from Rob Halford, I mean, that's the coolest thing ever, right?
That is the coolest thing ever. That's just insane to me. That's like… that's a little too much. That's like, go back in time to a 15-year-old Brann, tell that story, and then watch his head explode.
I also want to talk about the tour with Coheed coming up. You’re playing Crack the Skye in full. That's a real pivotal album for you in particular, because that's the first one you did lead vocals for. What can you tell me about those sessions all those years ago, you stepping up to the mic and kind of being this new force, vocally, for Mastodon.
I don't know. [laughs] I don't know if it's all like that. [laugh] I think that the album is really something special in our catalog and I'm really happy that we have it. I think it's really like a Brent Hinds creative genius moment. He wrote the vast majority of all those riffs and stuff and we all got in there and put it together, all of us, with Brendan O'Brien. It was an all hands on deck when it came down to it. but Brent really wrote a lot of that. All of that guitar work, labyrinthine; pretty crazy. He wrote a lot of it on his acoustic, just at home.
He was kind of nursing an unfortunate brain injury that he acquired in Las Vegas. He was at home a lot, sort of battling vertigo and not really able to get up off the couch and come and join us down at the practice space. So he wrote all this crazy stuff, you know?
I wrote a lot of lyrics for it and I wrote the storyline. So, Brent and I really collaborated on a lot of that. But in the past, I would write lyrics, and I would come up with a vocal melody and I would go in and sing it and then one of the other guys would go and sing over the top of it, whatever I had sung. This time, it just so happens that the music being written and performed was a little more… previously, it was a step in a heavier direction, so my voice didn't really work on stuff. There was no plan for me to be singing anything on Blood Mountain or anything. So I went in there and I would sing the beginning to ‘Oblivion’ and Brent was like, "I really like the way your voice sounds on that."
The last thing Brendan O'Brien wanted was the very first opening vocal line to this album to be the drummer singing. [laugh] He just didn't want... He was like, "It's not that I don't like it, because I do. I love your voice and it sounds great. But, god damn it, why does first thing that anyone hears have to be the drummer singing? It's just weird!” I'm like, "I know!" We tried like hell to get Troy… It did sound very similar, it sounded super-close. But then, I think Brent was like, "Play Brann's one again." And then we listened to my version and Brent just looked over at me and was like, "Dude you have to do that. It has to be you.” I was like, “shit.”
The last thing I wanted was to start singing and playing drums, 'cause it's really hard! It's like singing on an exercise machine. So I went home and I practiced it and I could do it. I went back and I said, "I can pull it off, I think." It was really Brent that sort of pushed for it. I mean, I could always sing, but I'm a reluctant singer, like the rest of us. We're all reluctant singers in Mastodon. We're all thrust into the position and we all try to hand off vocal parts to each other, and say, "Sing it!" "No, you sing it, I don't want to sing it!" "Well I'm playing something too busy there; you need to sing it."
As far as Crack the Skye is concerned, it's definitely a record for me where I remember hearing it for the first time, all the way back, and I think it was just emotional. I feel like everybody in the room was like tearing up at certain moments, especially Nick John. He'd be like, “Dude I'm crying. What the fuck?” [laughs] at the song ‘The Czar.’
So I think we all knew that we had something similar to the feeling we had with Leviathan. When we finished recording Leviathan we sat in our van, which was in an extended stay parking lot, with a case of beer and we just sat there and blasted Leviathan over and over again because we were so excited with what we had just created. “Fuck yeah! This song! That's sick!” Just four buddies. For me, that sounds like that record — a case of beer in a van, just partying, cranking those tunes and then Crack the Skye was a little more sit back and sink in.
I’m excited to play it again all the way through because I think we're better at playing it now than we were. That happens a lot of times, you revisit an older song and you're like, I think we understand this song a little better now and how to play it live better. We have a revamped video show that goes along with it. That's being put together and built as we speak with the Paul Romano artwork, some new artwork by Skinner, and it's all combined. It's gonna be pretty sick in the eye candy department.
When you guys are done with your summer touring, do you think you'll head right into the studio for a new record?
I don’t know that we'll head right into the studio, but we'll commence to writing. We have a lot of material at the moment, which is always the case with us. We always have this big bundle of riffs and stuff. We just really need to get in there and put them all together. I don't think anyone is in a massive hurry. We just really want it to be right. We want it to be like it always is. It just needs to be right. It needs to be organic and natural and happen when everybody wants it to happen.
It doesn't hurt to push a little bit, but right now the main focus is getting the Crack the Skye set perfect and nailed down. When we get out there on the road, we'll have a month of change and we'll have a lot of free time during the day to work on new stuff. By the time we get back it'll be end of the summer so we will take a little breather from the tour and then we'll get in there and start working. Hopefully we'll have a new album out by next spring.
Thanks again to Brann Dailor for his time. "Stairway to Nick John" is now available to purchase digitally. All of the proceeds benefit the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research. For Mastodon's full list of tour dates with Coheed & Cambria, click here.
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