2018 Grammys: Mastodon, the ‘weirdo heavy rock band,’ up for two awards

Credit: Larry Busacca

Credit: Larry Busacca

Brann Dailor has a T-shirt that reads “Three-Time Grammy Loser.”

Perhaps tonight, inside Madison Square Garden, the universe will align for the Mastodon drummer and his bandmates and they will finally get to make an acceptance speech or two at the 60th annual Grammy Awards.

If that happens, Dailor is ready — at least in his head. He doesn’t believe in preparing a speech because, “then you’ve got hope in your pocket — and that’s the worst!”

Even so, he knows who he wants to thank: “My mom and dad and grandparents; my wife; our manager and Brendan O’Brien, who produced this record; everybody at Warner Bros. and the academy. Should I just do the speech now and get it out of the way?” he asked with a laugh.

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Yes, it's true that the Atlanta-based quartet — Dailor's description is "weirdo heavy rock band" — previously watched the Grammy carrot dangle in 2007, 2012 and 2015, only to be defeated by Tenacious D, most recently for best metal performance.

On Sunday, Dailor, bassist Troy Sanders and guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher will again vie for best metal performance for “Sultan’s Curse” but, for the first time, also compete in a rock category — for best rock album with “Emperor of Sand,” their muscular seventh release that bowed in March.

It’s the first time a Mastodon album has been nominated. “Emperor” enters with heavy themes about mortality, death and, specifically, the gut-wrenching cruelty of cancer, whose tentacles touched the band during the making of the album at the Quarry in Kennesaw, Georgia.

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Kelliher’s mother died of a brain tumor; Sanders’ wife was diagnosed with breast cancer; and Dailor’s mother, who has battled illness for years, underwent another round of chemotherapy.

“We’ve always used (music) as some kind of personal purge,” Dailor said. “That’s how we decided we wanted to use our music in Mastodon, to deal with some of the harder life stuff.”

Dailor, 42, said he watched the Grammys growing up and placed friendly bets with his mother and sister on the winners. He’s quiet as he ponders what a win would mean for Mastodon, which just celebrated its 18th anniversary.

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“I look at it more as an exciting thing for heavy music. I feel like it’s a cool thing for people in bands right now to see it as a possibility — that you can go from playing basements and VFW halls and booking your own tours and playing tiny clubs to winning a Grammy, that it’s still a possibility and — quote unquote — the American Dream,” Dailor said.

He’s talking while seated on the bed in the “clown room” of the two-story Atlanta home he shares with Susanne, his wife of nearly 15 years, and their affable pets — a Dalmatian named Thriller and a one-eyed, slate-colored kitty, Don Tickles.

Rows of jesters gape from the shelves, some grinning maniacally with jagged teeth. On another wall is a series of portraits — sad clowns against black velvet, happy clowns who nonetheless look untrustworthy.

“I’ve always liked clowns, aesthetically. I like the colors,” Dailor said. “I like the creepiness of a regular clown. I don’t usually go for the scary-on-purpose clowns. I feel like clowns are inherently creepy.”

Dailor has a deep affinity for color. At Mastodon’s 2015 Grammy appearance, Dailor strode the red carpet in a suit bedecked with a rainbow palette of balloons — his “birthday suit.”

This year, he’s prepared a pair of ensembles, one for the record label party a few days before the Grammys and one for the big night.

“I have two $50 tuxes from the ‘70s. One is light blue, with a big, fat ‘60s tie and a white tux with tails with giant black lapels and a black bow tie. I had them both custom-tailored to be more ‘now,’” he said. “It will be fun, because we’ll be all dressed up and if you’re all dressed up in something ridiculous, then you can’t be bummed out. You just can’t, because at some point you have to look in the mirror.”

Dailor is opting for the light blue suit for Grammy night, but since Mastodon’s two categories — along with more than 70 of the 84 categories — will be distributed earlier in the day at the “Premiere Ceremony,” fans will have to watch for his sartorial unveiling online.

The "Premiere Ceremony" will stream live on Grammy.com from 3-6 p.m. Sunday and be available on demand following the broadcast. Those awards will be handed out at The Theater at Madison Square Garden, beneath the main arena, in a ceremony hosted by Paul Shaffer. Performers including India.Arie, Taj Mahal and Keb' Mo' will entertain between categories, while the presenter lineup offers Atlanta's Zac Brown (also nominated with the Zac Brown Band), Ledisi, Natalie Grant, Lisa Loeb and Jimmy Jam.

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Unlike some artists, who might feel as if the “Premiere Ceremony” doesn’t carry the cachet of the CBS broadcast, Dailor is “absolutely thrilled” that the band’s categories aren’t televised.

“You gotta get up on stage and the whole front row is littered with the most famous stars in music,” he said. “Stevie Wonder might be sitting there! And even if he can’t see me, I can see him and that would make me really nervous because I’m such a huge fan. That’s not how I want to envision my first time interacting with Stevie Wonder — fumbling and bumbling over some poorly delivered speech.”

Even if Mastodon is again denied the industry’s most notable validation, the band still enjoyed a massive 2017. “Emperor of Sand” debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 album chart with first-week sales of 43,000, their largest ever. And the band’s extensive 2017 tour zigzagged across the U.K. and U.S., including an inaugural performance at the Fox Theatre (the band will embark on another U.S. tour this year).

“Playing the Fox felt like a huge achievement. It’s one of those kinds of things where it feels like we’ve been let in somewhere where heavy metal is not let in,” Dailor said. “We’d drive past it in our van in the days when we were playing the Star Bar and go, ‘One day, we’re gonna play the Fox.’ Playing there, it felt like we won an award.”

So, in a way, mission already accomplished.

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