Drummer Brann Dailor on the 10-year anniversary of ‘Crack the Skye,’ and the tragedies that helped shape the album
Drummer/vocalist Brann Dailor addressed his teenage sister's death by suicide on early Mastodon records, but never as explicitly as on the Atlanta metal band's 2009 epic, Crack the Skye, which takes part of its title from her name, Skye.
“Please tell Lucifer he can't have this one,” Dailor and guitarist/vocalist Troy Sanders sing on the chorus to the title track, which also includes an assist from Neurosis singer Scott Kelly, who sought out the approval of Dailor's parents prior to appearing on the song due to its heavy subject matter. “Her spirit's too strong.”
“Lyrics about that situation showed up multiple times in the past, but … with this one, I put some actual moments from my life in there,” said Dailor, who will join his bandmates in celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the record with a show at Express Live on Wednesday, May 29. “On ‘Oblivion,' with [the lyric], ‘I tried to burrow a hole into the ground,' I had this acid trip after hours at [Skye's] gravesite when I was 15. It was probably two weeks after she had passed away, and I just started digging in the ground to get down to her.”
Initially, Dailor had some concerns how family members would take to him dragging the family's private business onto the world stage. “I almost was like, ‘I'm sorry I'm doing this. I don't want to drudge all this up, but I am doing it,'” he said. “But they loved it. They were like, ‘Skye's name is out there.' She was a person and we loved her, and it was horrible what happened. It's a hard thing for a family to go through, and this was a tribute. If we can use it to help somebody, there you go. And I think there were a lot of people that got a lot out of it.”
The recording sessions for Crack the Skye followed a tumultuous stretch for the band that began with a 2007 night in Las Vegas the weekend of the MTV Video Music Awards. The evening started on a high note, with Dave Grohl inviting Mastodon to jam with his band, the Foo Fighters, as well as members of Queens of the Stone Age, late Motorhead singer Lemmy Kilmister and soul man CeeLo Green, among others, but it took an unexpected, violent turn when Mastodon guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds instigated a late-night fight with System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadjian and musician William Hudson. During the altercation, Odadjian and Hudson punched Hinds in the head, which caused brain hemorrhaging, a broken nose and two black eyes, plus an extended bout with vertigo.
To add to the surreal nature of the overall evening, Dailor learned of the assault from members of the comedy troupe Human Giant while seated at the bar at Mandalay Bay with musicians from Queens of the Stone Age.
“That night felt like the biggest thing. We'd done some cool stuff, toured with Black Sabbath … but this was like, ‘Wow.' Then everything shattered,” Dailor said. “Our boy was hurt. … He had some brain damage, and he had vertigo, so he couldn't stand for long periods of time. He was sitting at home writing on his guitar, and when he could finally get to practice, we were like, ‘Hey, take your time. Whenever you can get down there is awesome.'”
With Dailor digging deeper into his past during songwriting, Hinds underwent a similar excavation into his own health and mortality. “Punching these holes in my head,” he sings on “Quintessence,” which appears to musically mirror his condition, moving from clouded, dreamy passages to pulverizing metal outbursts that hit like concentrated, cranium-splitting headaches.
The band members realized early on during sessions that Skye was a bit of a departure. “When we were recording it, it was definitely revelatory. We felt like it sounded different than anything we'd done in the past,” Dailor said. “It just goes a little deeper emotionally. I don't think I had listened to any of our records in the past and gotten choked up, you know what I mean?”
The music had a similar effect on the band's longtime manager, Nick John, who died in September 2018, and to whose memory Mastodon has dedicated this current tour. “When we were listening to the play-through of ‘The Czar,' Nick John was crying, and he was like, ‘This is just so beautiful,'” said Dailor, who joined his bandmates in covering Led Zeppelin's “Stairway to Heaven” for John's funeral. “That was a key moment for me, where I realized we'd tapped into something we hadn't before.”
Considering the personal nature of these songs, Dailor said he has developed a survival technique, of sorts, which allows him to detach emotionally during performances on nights when added insulation is needed.
“When it comes to my sister's situation … over the years I've developed that [scar] tissue just from talking about it. You learn how to speak about it like it's nothing, like you can waltz around that feeling. You can put it over there and then just talk about the situation like a robot,” he said. “You can also do the same thing musically, where you're not digging in and feeling all of it. You can pick and choose when you want to do that, and when you don't. … I can either turn it on or shut it off. It's up to me.”