Bill Kelliher on Music Economy and Hellbender Pickups
An interview with Bill Kelliher where he talks about his MojoTone made Hellbender Pickups and music economy
March 31, 2023 at 10:26:43 AM PDT March 31, 2023 at 10:26:43 AM PDTst, March 31, 2023 at 10:26:43 AM PDT
Today we have the privilege of sitting down to chat with an absolute monster of a recording artist and working musician, Mr. Bill Kelliher of the famed Mastodon. Since 1999, Mastodon has been a huge player in the metal game with eight full-length studio albums, compilations, live albums, and more. Bill Kelliher also recently released his signature pickup set named Hellbender, made by MojoTone. Let’s see how things have been going in Bill’s world…
What are some victories you’ve had over the last few years?
I love working in the studio, recording new ideas and seeing what stuff turns into. I’ve always always dreamed of having my own studio to work in without having to worry about time/money constraints.
"A few years ago I helped design and build a studio called West End Sound with my partner and longtime friend Tom Tapley. I’ve been spending a lot of time there working on various projects, and it was always my intention for Mastodon to record an album there .
We recorded Hushed and Grim in our studio a couple years ago and it sounded great. I just felt really proud of all the work we put into it. And another success story would be that album, Hushed and Grim. Double album, lots of music, lots of hard work, lots of odes to our late manager Nick John, and just taking a lot of emotion out and transferring it into a musical journey for other people to enjoy. It’s sort of cathartic to turn something that’s so sad, and life-changing, and depressing into this kind of masterpiece, in my mind. We put all these emotions and pieces together and turned them into this work of art. When we do an album, so much goes into it bit by bit. Something that starts out as a spark of an idea has morphed into this massive album, this is what we try to achieve."
Alright, now for the hard part: What are some of the challenges you and Mastodon have had in recent years?
“The landscape of the industry is ever-evolving. When I was younger there were tapes, records, 8-tracks, CDs, and MP3s. Now everything is streaming, so it’s really kind of hard to squeeze any money out of these streaming companies and that’s probably one of the biggest hurdles: trying to figure out how to monetize your art like you used to, as far as physical album sales and percentages of those. It’s a lot trickier now, with streams, because it’s not like it’s sold by-the-song. You sign up for a subscription to a company and you can play millions of songs in your month of a subscription. It’s not as cut and dry as it used to be when you were actually selling 10,000 records and you got a percentage of that. Touring has been difficult because after the pandemic there were shortages everywhere, the price of goods had gone up, the price of gas of course, and all that stuff trickles down to the income that you bring home. The band ultimately are the last people to get paid, so that’s pretty difficult. It’s challenging, so we’re trying to think of new and creative ways to stay afloat.”
Musicians have to be creative in this economy - Does Bill have any advice for the rest of us musicians out there grinding day in and day out?
“I would say, whether you’re a newer or older artist, write as much music as you possibly can, record it, and put it out. I mean, touring is really where lots of artists make their money and that’s getting harder and harder. There are so many bands out there. So much competition. There’s always someone who’s willing to work for less, so it’s a very competitive world. If you’re looking to get rich quick, being in a band or being a musician is not the answer.”
Good thing most of us do it for the love of the art, huh? My man Bill is just telling it like it is. Alright, let’s shift gears and talk about…well…Guitar Gear. Bill’s new signature Hellbender guitar pickup set, is selling like hotcakes.
What was the motivation behind this monstrous guitar pickup, and why did you choose MojoTone to build the Hellbender Pickup?
“I really enjoy designing custom things because I’m pretty meticulous when it comes to sound, at least I think I am. I own about a thousand amps and a hundred guitars or whatever. I’ve tried all the amp modelers and all the new-fangled pedals. Whatever it is, I have to try it out. As far as pickups go, I was with another company for many years and I just felt like it was time for me to move on and design something new and fresh, because after seven or so years my tastes changed a bit, plus my rig is always changing. And I remembered that Andrew Simmons had sent me some Mojotone pickups in the past and I tried them and they really stuck out. I really liked them. So I figured, ‘I’m just gonna call him and see if they’re a big enough company to take on an endeavor like this and mass produce this pickup.’ I called Andrew up and he was totally down with it and we just started going to the drawing board and I think I might’ve sent him a couple pickups that I really liked, wound by independent pickup designers as well as companies like Seymour Duncan and Lace, that were somewhere in the range of what I was looking for. We went back and forth a few times and I would take the old pickups out and put the prototypes in, and try them out for a while. I really wanted to hone it in and get something where there wasn’t too much gain because I really wanted a good clean tone as well, which is hard out of a humbucker: to get a clean tone through the high distortion amps that I use. I just wanted it to be articulate, playable, and HEARable. We do a lot of dissonant open string chords and notes, and I really enjoy hearing every note that I hit. There are some pickups that are made more for metal and distortion, and sometimes they get muddy when you’re going to play some high strings under a power chord or something like that. Those were the things I was kind of looking for. Eventually we got there. The pickup is great. It’s not overly aggressive. It’s just right.”
What’s Next for Bill Kelliher and What’s Next for Mastodon?
“We (Mastodon) do have a pickle coming out pretty soon, from Kelly’s Death Pickles. He is really the guy who makes the best pickles in the world and he’s located at the building where we rehearse. This guy pickles everything: watermelon rinds, blueberries, okra, beets. And it’s always the best damn pickle in the world. We’re about to start a US tour with Gojira and Lorna Shore and that starts April 18th, it goes for three weeks and then we have a little break; then we go back out again with them in the US and I’m looking forward to that. The Gojira dudes are some of our closest pals, they’re like family.”
Pickles and Gojira? I’ll take two of each. Welp, I guess that pretty much does it for us! Thank you for tuning in and showing Bill some love. Make sure you check out his new signature guitar pickup Hellbender