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Mastodon is leading the New South's creative Renaissance 

The heavy rock band is an anomaly, gaining exposure on multiple platforms

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Brendon Small remembers the first time he hung out with Mastodon, shortly before they toured together in 2009. "It was kind of what you'd expect from Mastodon," he recalls of that night. He and guitarist Bill Kelliher are now close friends — he's close to the whole band, actually — but back in '09, they were just five dudes getting hammered in some basement bar.

"I think Bill disappeared and no one knew where he went," says Small, the creator of Adult Swim's popular animated series Metalocalypse. "At some point there was a door, I think it was a broom closet, and I think he used that as the exit because we never saw him again. Then we're like, 'I wonder if Bill's going to come to preproduction tomorrow? Oh, well, we'll see him.' And then he showed up. Mastodon always shows up," Small adds, "regardless of what happens the night before."

Mastodon doesn't just show up — this is a band that won't stand still. From constant touring to cross-platform, multimedia visibility on shows like Metalocalypse, Mastodon reaches fans outside music's traditional boundaries, making inroads with mainstream and indie audiences alike. "I was hanging out with Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse," Small says, "and he was very aware of Mastodon. He was like, 'Their shit's fucking awesome.'"

Mastodon is an anomaly for a major-label band that makes heavy rock — the group is adventurous, yet it also has a marquee name and broad crossover appeal. You can see and hear it for yourself when the band brings its noise to Charlotte at The Fillmore on May 10.

But Mastodon isn't alone with this sort of well-funded artistic freedom — the absurdist TV network Adult Swim, based in band's home city of Atlanta, gets by with just as little oversight. Something in the ATL is going very right.

Since it formed in 2000, Mastodon has released three EPs, five studio albums, portrayed a rap-metal band on Metalocalypse, scored a film (Jonah Hex, which bombed) and continues to put its songs in video games and on Adult Swim shows. Kelliher, the band's guitarist and an occasional gamer, says putting music in video games is a good way to reach new audiences. In a marketplace full of 99-cent (and cheaper) single-song downloads, "bands have to come up with new ideas for how to sell themselves," he says. "If you want to be on a movie soundtrack, to me that's great because more people hear you, even if they've gotta be forced to hear you."

That kind of multimedia presence is almost necessary to stay in business as a band today. "You've got to get with the times sometimes," says Kelliher, who rejects regional or stylistic labels — if you think of Mastodon as "Southern sludge," don't tell him that. "We're a modern band," Kelliher says.

Kelliher and Small are very much of like minds, creatively. Small created Metalocalypse, the violent, hilarious and ultimately sympathetic cartoon send-up of heavy metal that's kind of like Spinal Tap cranked to 11 and with more gloom. There's a scene in the recent season premiere where Dethklok, the death-metal band central to the show, walks into a fan convention unrecognized. That could easily be Small himself. He's the invisible star of Metalocalypse, providing the voices for three of the band members. Small also writes Dethklok's music and plays every instrument but drums. For touring, he recruits real musicians to help him recreate Dethklok's music on stage. In 2009, Dethklok co-headlined a tour with Mastodon, sparking a strong friendship that's become a creative juggernaut.

If you ask Small, it's no surprise he and Mastodon eventually collaborated. "There's something about Atlanta that attracts weirdos," says Small, adding that at some point those weirdos wind up working together on strange and beautiful art. By virtue of its location and size, Atlanta has long been a natural hub for Southeastern musicians. And with multiple major artists and networks now based there, all kinds of unlikely collaborations take place. The people at Adult Swim keep Mastodon busy with cool projects such as last year's "Deathbound" music video, a gleefully demented muppet apocalypse set in a mock-up of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.

"When I first moved to Atlanta from upstate New York, it seemed like a lot more things were in reach, a lot more cities were closer by," says Kelliher. "I didn't feel like I was in the middle of nowhere anymore. It felt like, in a lot of ways, the middle of the South."

Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor gushes about the city's music, food and culture, calling it "truly American." He says Adult Swim, in particular, has become a major center of creativity. "It seems like everyone that we're friends with is somehow affiliated with Adult Swim," Dailor says. "It's a place where imagination thrives."

Yet Mastodon is rarely home. Although the Charlotte gig is two days before an Atlanta date, the band will be home for less than two weeks before embarking on a European tour. Kelliher says entire housing subdivisions go up while he's out of town.

Even when not touring, the band stays busy. Since its 2002 sludge-thrash bruiser Remission, Mastodon's catalog has run through a sometimes-hard-to-map spectrum of prog, metal, classic rock and pop. Mastodon seems reluctant to tread the same ground twice: 2009's expansive Crack the Skye, with touchstones in Russian mysticism and mind/body dualism, is not the obvious ancestor of The Hunter, the band's 2011 follow-up consisting of Torche-meets-Clutch tough-pop. The music is memorable and technical: the guitarists showboat plenty, but that's just part of the package. From catchy harmonized hooks to prog-educated concept epics, this stuff was written with big stages in mind.

Small says he's amazed nobody beat Mastodon to the band name. And he thinks they're doing a lot of other things right, too, namely navigating a potentially tricky multimedia landscape, writing good songs, evolving with time, and never making the same album twice. There's a reason people who have never listened to the band may at least be aware of them.

"I think they might know what Mastodon is — 'Oh, yeah, right, that's like a really tough, hairy band,'" Small says. And, to an extent, this is true. But Mastodon may also have similar cross-platform, pseudo-virtual qualities as Dethklok. After all, in today's music industry, it's hard to make money if you're just a band. Sometimes you have to score a b-movie. Or be a cartoon character. Or blow up some muppets.

Mastodon

With Opeth and Ghost. $39.50. May 10. 7:30 p.m. The Fillmore. www.fillmorecharlottenc.com.

Gone Swim-ing
Metalocalypse creator uses television show for music promotion

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Dethklok creator Brendon Small owes the success of his music to multimedia promotion. Whether or not you take Small's cartoon band seriously, Dethklok's 2007 debut album, The Dethalbum, reached No. 21 on Billboard's album chart — a historic accomplishment for death metal. "If I was a dude with a guitar just recording songs, it's really difficult to get an audience to check it out," says Small, 37. "But when you have a TV show, it's everything. We sell tons of records just because of the awareness of the whole project, and that's a really big deal."

Small doesn't use his Adult Swim show, Metalocalypse, just to sell Dethklok merch — which he could easily do. Aware of the show's potential, Small also casts other bands he likes — High on Fire, Cannibal Corpse, and of course, Mastodon — treating Metalocalypse like a gateway drug for potential fans of heavy music.

Small describes himself as autonomous, in his show and in his music, which is something he says he has in common with both Mastodon and the Adult Swim network. He notes that Atlanta is in a unique position to support these outfits. "If Adult Swim was in Hollywood, I don't think it would work the same way," he says. (Ironically, he's saying this from his office in L.A.) "And maybe that's what Mastodon is doing, too. They're just doing whatever they want to do, and it's getting out there and people take notice of it. But no one's second-guessing them."

Small admits that having several Ted Turner networks based in Atlanta has a lot to do with the visibility of the city's artists and musicians. Adult Swim is the city's most dada, giving airtime to both zany comedy and off-the-wall artists like MF Doom, Odd Future and the hairy men of Mastodon. — C.H.

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