Decades of genuine friendship packed into a culminating work for the ages.
Words by Luis (@heaviestofart):
“The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.” -Alberto Giacometti
Swiss sculptor and artistic visionary Alberto Giacometti found meaning through realism and expressed such understanding through multiple iterations of his ambiguous craft. As noted above, his output was more than a byproduct of his existence. It served as an entirely new one that lived on the same emotional plane, akin to that of our subject matter for today: Mastodon's Hushed & Grim.
Released on October 29, 2021 via Reprise Records, the band's ninth studio album can very well be considered a culmination of the band's personal and musical growth with expansive compositions and a staggering visual identity to show for it. It marked a return to longtime confidant Paul Romano, whose landmark offerings have defined an era of metal album covers and a legacy alongside the band from Atlanta, Georgia. Beyond it being a towering artistic encounter, it's an experience that pays tribute to the life and times of Mastodon friend and manager, Nick John, who tragically passed in 2018 after a battle with cancer. Coping with loss is a feat unique to everyone on this Earth and after consecutive losses, Mastodon have carried on through a heartfelt investment in their audiovisuals, Hushed & Grim of which is a prime example of. It's an effort rooted in genuineness, mirroring the same emotional existence it finds the band members in as they embark upon another chapter in their revered discography. That said, there's no question as to why Romano's work earned the #1 spot on our Top Album Covers of 2021 list. It's a thrill to welcome drummer Brann Dailor and artist Paul Romano to discuss it all.
We go Behind the Cover of Hushed & Grim with Brann Dailor and Paul Romano to unpack their longstanding partnership and the development of one grandiose work of art that set a benchmark for what album covers could be:
As we continue the standout release cycle for 'Hushed & Grim', it must be said that this is your most grandiose collaborative effort with Paul yet. Though there were gaps, like with 2011’s ‘The Hunter’, you two have built a legacy together that will forever remain engraved in the hearts and minds of many. In looking at your initial collaborations in retrospect, to what do you attribute such a genuine and long-lasting partnership?
Brann: We clicked right off the bat. We had a lot of similar interests when it comes to art and art history, and Paul is very knowledgeable about art history in general. Originally, with the ‘Lifesblood’ (2001) EP, he did the inside of it, but it was more photography based. He was photographing vignettes and designing around them. It was very art deco looking. When it came down to album covers though, I wasn’t really sure what his capabilities were.
When we played at the Pontiac Grille on South St. in Philadelphia, I had a small conversation with him about the ‘Remission’ (2002) cover, which I already had in my mind because it revolved around a dream that I had. I told him about the dream, about the horse, and asked if he could paint it because I didn’t know what he could do at the time. From there on out, we just clicked with movies, pop culture references, and stuff like that. Whenever we would play in Philadelphia, we always stayed at Paul’s place and stood up late watching Alejandro Jodorowsky movies.
When you meet somebody that you click with, it’s always fun to talk about the cool art that you’re excited about. Meeting somebody so like minded that can also open your eyes to some new stuff that you haven't seen before is special. It’s always been that: more art, more music, and more film to devour our thinking.
Paul: Thank you. I am happy to hear those words, “built a legacy". I grew up admiring album art so much, it is an honor to be part of that history in some way.
For myself, there was an instant connection to Mastodon’s music when I first heard the nine song demo. It is so dynamic; technical but still raw and filled with emotion. I finally met the band in person after 'Lifesblood' came out while they were on a North American tour with Dying Fetus and I met them at the Pontiac Grille. It was epic; especially an early version of Ole Nessie. Brann told me he was really stoked on the interior packaging I did for the 5 song EP and that's where he asked me if I would do the art for the full length.
This part of the story has been told many times in press, but I will quickly reiterate. Brann told me about a dream he had with him running with Skye (Brann’s sister who passed when they were very young) from a fire. She told him not to turn around, but he did. Upon this, Brann connected with a horse on fire, writhing in pain. He then asked me if I could paint something like that. I said no problem. I take my job pretty seriously anyway, but to be trusted with such a task, understanding how personal this dream was to Brann, I pushed myself harder. I believe that sealed the deal.
I built connections with all the boys over the years when they stayed with me while on tour. At a point, Mastodon even had keys to my house and would show up at 3am if they were coming from anywhere within a 2-3 hour drive from Philly. As Brann mentions, we spent a good deal of time together in those early days watching movies and nerding out over art and my library. We grew up liking so many of the same things in film, literature and music. I think how we filter our interests and the stuff life slings at us through our imaginations and filtered into art/music is very similar. I don’t take this lightly. It is a rare connection.
It's as genuine as they come, and the results yielding from it speak volumes. Paul, it’s clear that there’s a strong respect and camaraderie between you and the band at this point, and beyond that, the support system you have at home with your partner Darla Jackson has surely played a role in both of your own growth and development as artists over the years. Where do you feel that the bond you’ve created with Darla and the band members has helped you become the best version of yourself?
Paul: Oh, Darla! Are you asking me because of my not so secret love letter to her on the cover of 'Hushed and Grim'? The bunny in the crow mask. The bunny in the crow mask is a staple in Darla’s work. Knowing what Darla intends with those pieces, it fits the album perfectly.
Darla and I have admired each other’s work for a very long time before we were romantically involved. Our artwork stems from the same place within ourselves and often touches upon similar things thematically, albeit through different mediums; sculpture for Darla, painting and drawing for myself. It is like the connection between Brann/Mastodon and I but much deeper. Darla and I share a life and as you said, a support system. Our art is deeply important to us both and it helps to have a peer at your side who can help you grow.
Rabbit Sculptures In Crow Masks by Darla Jackson
As far as my best self, I heard this on a podcast: folks were asked at what age were you the best version of yourself. Most everyone’s answer was the age that they were currently. I think that applies here. Am I the best version of myself? Sure, I am pretty stoked on the work I made this year, but ask me in two years and I bet you I will be doing things I find much better.
That's likely since your work only gets better and better. Looking back at ‘Remission’ again, Brann, what drew you to Paul’s work initially and how did that first partnership compare to what was a seamless collaboration for ‘Hushed and Grim’? There’s a lot of pressure in delivering on all ends with a debut, which of course can either set you on a path to a success or failure as a whole. Clearly, you excelled.
Brann: He hadn’t done the Red Chord cover and Withered wasn’t a band yet, so I didn’t have anything to go on. I just trusted him for his word. He came back to me with some sketches after agreeing to partner for ‘Remission’ and that was that. He captured what I was talking about right off the bat. I wanted it to look classic and not give off any indication of what the music was going to sound like. I was very adamant that I didn’t want a typical looking metal cover. I wanted it to be a classic, classy but ferocious painting that also captured the mood of ‘Remission’. Again, I had no examples to go on, just his words.
He was already working on the inside of ‘Remission’ throughout our discussions. It was a photograph of I think an early 20th century train wreck because we have that song ‘Trainwreck’. He figured he could collage it all together, so he was working with a few different mediums. He had this honeycomb with a worker bee for a workforce. I loved the fact that he was so thoughtful with incorporating the song titles and lyrics. He wanted to fold in as many little easter eggs and things that he could. It was a good starting point that solidified the band’s image moving forward.
Agreed, it defined your visual identity for years to come. He became your Derek Riggs of sorts. Whether it be Paul, Alan Brown, AJ Fosik, or Richey Beckett, Mastodon has always been very intentional about the visual component and not one cover lacks in quality and substance. When approaching this aspect of a release, is there a particular effect that you’d like for the cover to achieve?
Brann: There’s a mood to the music that I always want to be reflected in the art. That’s one of the first conversations that Paul and I had about the new album. I didn’t see any color in it. It was more on the doom side of things. I saw some black and gray with maybe a little bit of gold whereas in the past, there has been a wide color palette. ‘The Hunter’ (2011) is bold and red with the head, ‘Leviathan’ (2004) is very colorful as well. ‘Crack The Skye’ (2009) has rainbow colors on the cover, so I wanted to get all the way away from all of that.
We were surprisingly on the same page about a twisted tree because I had an afterlife, mythology element that I was sort of working on. It’s symbolic of the spirit of someone who passed away and inhabits a part of a tree and lives a full range of seasons before you say goodbye. That’s your way to say goodbye to the natural world. He had already been working on this Norse mythological tree, so we were definitely in sync there.
Speaking of that tree, there’s much to uncover and this 9-part beauty is riddled with detail. After looking through it a few times, there’s a clear reference to the nine worlds in Norse mythology with the central tree being Yggdrasil. There’s also the eagle at the top and the serpent towards the bottom. Although ‘Ísland’ from the ‘Leviathan’ (2004) record is among the only times Mastodon have made Norse references, is this connection far-fetched or is there something to be found here?
Paul: It is not far-fetched, but also not as straightforward as that. I definitely referenced Yggdrasil, but not the 9 realms so much. A while back, around the time when 'Hunter' was being recorded, Brann and I talked about “the tree of all seeds”. That idea stuck with me and this tree is cobbled together from references of oak, bristlecone pine, olive trees and a few others. The eagle and the snake are an anchor to the Yggdrasil myth. Even those, however, cross over into other mythologies; Native American legends, Christian and Hindu symbolism. I am a big fan of comparative mythology and its major proponent, Joseph Campbell. I feel like I barely scratched the surface of what I had intended with the tree and the worlds attached to it.
Those elements are sprawling all throughout too. Brann, where do you feel that the intersectional nature of the larger 9-piece cover fits along the lines of the record’s lyricism? As you’ve noted in other interviews, ‘Hushed and Grim’ is the musical embodiment of grief.
Brann: It’s all over it. There are all sorts of tie-ins throughout it. For ‘Skeleton of Splendor’, you have the skeleton panel. There’s a representation of Ito Jakuchu’s “Elephant and the Whale” painting, which is an old Japanese master. Our cover has this elephant sort of crying and this whale is sort of taking a breath and swimming away. You almost feel like a longing between the two of them as if the elephant used to be in the sea and now they can’t be together, which is sad. I really wanted to incorporate the Jakuchu painting in there somewhere and Paul did it pretty great with a more Indian inspired elephant saying goodbye to a whale.
There are little easter eggs all over it, which is one of Paul’s favorite things to do. He takes as much of the lyrics as possible and tries to fit them into this massive piece. It’s everywhere and it’s a cool thing for our fans. It gives it another level of depth. You can sit and stare at it for hours and try to piece it together in your mind. You can draw your own conclusions, which is a fun thing for people to do. That was one of the first conversations we had about album art in general. Going back to Iron Maiden’s ‘Somewhere In Time’ (1986), there were so many little easter eggs around that record that you could stare at it for hours.
I’d argue there’s a beautiful synchronicity to the cover painting and the music itself, as if required to gaze at the physical vinyl copy while listening to each passing track. It’s a multi-sensory experience. Beyond the clear Norse influence, there are nods to other Mastodon records as well, particularly ‘Emperor of Sand’ (2017), ‘Crack the Skye’, and ‘Blood Mountain’ (2006). In a way, it’s a homage to the band’s trajectory. What guided the particular elements from each composition to include on the panels?
Paul: I suppose there are nods to the other albums, but not in any overthought way. With the exception of 'Emperor of Sand', all of those came from my imagination. It is only natural that cross over references would come out. I like to create little worlds in the album art that I do. These worlds explore my interests and emotions. I get to explore these facets of myself through the music of each band.
I can certainly understand where you are coming from with 'Emperor of Sand', that is a huge compliment. I am a fan of Alan Brown’s work. I’ve hung out with Alan a bit and I know that we both grew up on a steady diet of horror, comics, and other similar interests, so I can see the connections between our works. I am blown away by Alan’s imagination. It is truly astounding.
Absolutely astounding. Was the expansive nature of the painting always the intention or was it more so an idea that came about as you began the exchange of ideas?
Paul: Yes, it was the idea from very early on. I knew that I wanted to go with the 'Leviathan' format; cover in the center surrounded by a supporting cast of characters/environments - but on a grander scale. 'Leviathan' was just a single canvas 4x4’ (122x122cm) whereas 'Hushed and Grim' is composed of nine 3x3’ (91x91cm) panels, making the whole thing when assembled, 9x9’ (274x274 cm).
I really enjoy working large as it allows me to better explore a composition and pepper it with many more details than I could if painting small. This time around, I was working with only one eye. Back in late 2020, I had a minor stroke that permanently took out 80% of the vision in my right eye (I have a little peripheral vision, mostly just light and shadows). Working larger is preferred. Going back to the support system I have with Darla, I don’t doubt I would be dead or in really bad shape without her. I live very healthily but don't give much thought to my health at the same time.
Also, the album is EPIC, 15 songs. The artwork needed to be encompassing. As it can be evidenced in the previous Mastodon albums that I’ve worked on, I like systems; earth, air, fire, water. I wanted to nod to that by loosely including the seasons. With the tree as the hub, each cross panel contains symbols of Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter, sometimes directly, other times abstractly.
That's another neat detail I hadn't caught. Brann, when approaching Paul for this record, what did you envision and what drove the return after a few years of break? It’s a grand return.
Brann: I felt it was time. It was set to be a double album, so we just knew it was time to bring Paul back because he brings so much. Every time we do something with him, he goes above and beyond.
There was so much going around ‘Crack The Skye’ that we needed to change direction and change everything. We felt that we had reached a pinnacle, so when we started to develop the next release, we wanted it to be different. We wanted to do a total 180 from ourselves and that meant picking a different artist. We felt we might be predictable if we did something that was of the same ilk as ‘Crack The Skye’, so we wanted to take a break. It was healthy to take a step away for a little while and later bring it back. It’s refreshing to bring Paul back, and it’s not to say that he wouldn’t have done something incredible for the records that didn’t feature him as the cover artist because he would’ve. We’ve always maintained our friendship and relationship in that way. He totally understands the need to use different people.
This was such an epic way to bring him back and we knew that we were going to get something extremely grand to match the scope of the album itself with it being the grand gesture that it was. It’s a dedication to Nick John, our manager, who Paul knew really well from working with over the years. We started working with Nick John for the ‘Leviathan’ cycle and worked with him for a very long time. Paul was good friends with him as well so it was perfect to bring him back.
You're right, I don't believe it’s ever personal. It’s a creative refresh that is needed. With so many collaborations with Paul under your belt, does it get easier every time or is there always that newfound excitement of struggling to find a common ground?
Brann: No, it’s always been easy. It’s probably not easy for Paul to paint because it’s a lot of work, but we’re always on the same page. It’s always been very easy.
For ‘Leviathan’, we had an overflowing cornucopia of ideas. We were so inspired for that record and really the reason why we went with Moby Dick on the cover was for the aesthetics. That was one of the main things on my mind at the time. We had to have these two Indonesian shadow puppets with a harpoon and a whale nicely decorated. My father is a Buddhist and I remember this festival called "Vesak" where elephants were heavily decorated. I sent Paul all of these pictures and figured we could decorate the whale like that. Paul made it part of its skin and had the bells hanging off of it, so it looks a lot like an international, religious symbol that we borrowed. We were thinking, “white whale holy grail”, so we were trying to decorate the whale as a religious epithet of sorts.
It’s always been exciting to get into the weeds with Paul because you know that you’re going to get more that you can chew. It’s always a joy to see where he’s coming from and the literature that he’s going to bring out. You’re not just getting a cover, you’re getting all the insides and wraparound. I’m sure you’ve seen all of the panels, but the full painting for ‘Hushed & Grim’ is absolutely massive. It’s really insane. It’s an achievement on its own without even attaching it to our band or the music. Hopefully, it will be in a gallery someday.
Paul: I approach almost every project that comes my way with newfound excitement. It is important to keep the quality of wonder as an artist.
And yes, I am always excited to hear what Mastodon is coming up with. They are so talented and continue to grow as artists. I don’t find it to be a struggle to work with them. As I mentioned earlier, I am fortunate to be trusted. That makes my job easy. The process is that Brann and I talk early on about some initial ideas. I will do my research and present some sketches. Then, he passes me music and lyrics along the way but leaves me to my own devices. Once in awhile, Brann will ask if I could include specific things that he, or one of the other fellas would like to see. This time around, Brann asked me about half way through the process if I could include a reference to Itō Jakuchū’s 'Elephant and the Whale' screens.
If there is any struggle it usually comes from within myself wanting to really tap my imagination and draw/paint better than I have previously. The biggest struggle is time - time is the enemy.
If it's not clear already, it’s important to highlight that every creative aspect of ‘Hushed and Grim’ has been intentional and is being given the justice it deserves overall. Like Brann says, this belongs in a museum. Where would you compare the entirety of ‘Hushed and Grim’ to the rest of the Mastodon records, at least in terms of how you feel after delivering the artwork, the difficulties in crafting it, and so on?
Paul: 'Hushed and Grim', while the largest of the Mastodon artworks, was one of the easier ones. With the state of the pandemic, no one was in a rush. It really allowed me to create without a ton of pressure. Every other release felt so compressed. Keeping the palette so muted was also a huge help. I didn’t have to think about color, just value.
I think 'Crack The Skye' was the trickiest. That one had so many different formats to work out. I worked very differently on that one where I painted individual elements that I composed digitally. There was never a large painting with that one.
'Blood Mountain' was hard but only, because I was overbooked. I created a large painting but ended up only using parts of it in the packaging. To this day, I’ve not shown anyone the full painting.
'Leviathan' was a labor of love. At that time, I was still testing grounds for the financial viability of making album art and logging my hours. I would have made more at McDonald’s, but I knew that going in. 'Leviathan' was to be a calling card for both Mastodon and myself. They were about to break out and their album art had to really stand out.
'Remission' was the first album where it was all my work. “Art direction, artwork and design”, as my credit line reads. It was just exciting. I wanted to marry all of these things I do, painting, design, pen and ink and photography into one cohesive story. So that one is “Love Unconditional” for me.
It's amazing to recap these staples of the genre. Shifting gears a bit, the loss of a loved one seems to be an unfortunate recurrence prior to each album cycle, and though it’s part of the cycle of life, it never gets easier. However, you all as people have grown, matured, and learned along the way in ways that have helped you cope and channel these feelings into records that have left an impact on the millions that have heard them. While it can be argued that artists compose for themselves rather than for an audience, what does it mean to you to know that your music has changed the lives of even one person?
Brann: We do it for ourselves first and foremost, but it’s always amazing to hear from people, especially firsthand, when they tell you their story and the way that your music and art has been able to help. It definitely makes it worth it to offer yourself up and be vulnerable. Those kinds of things are questions that we ask ourselves at times, “Do we put ourselves out there like this? Do we really want to be so honest with everybody about what we’ve been battling with?” Those things can come back to bite you because you have to talk about it constantly. That might not be the kind of thing that you want to touch on day after day. When you are open and honest and it eventually does make an impact on another person’s life, it does maybe ease the suffering, which we all know it’s something music can do. Every single person can probably tell you their favorite music to put on when they’re not feeling great. These are songs that you just sit in and feel for a little while.
It’s definitely worth it to put yourself out there. We’ve heard from hundreds of people that have been helped by it, so that’s awesome.
There’s a therapeutic element to Mastodon's art and music, which is of course achieved through the lyricism and varied sound palette. After months of preparation, discussions, and actually painting and developing the effort, is it cathartic in any way to invest so much of your own suffering into these compositions and finally see them realized for millions to consume and interpret in their own ways?
Brann: I think it is. I don’t know because I don’t know what it’s like to not have it. I don’t have the other side of it to put against, so it must be. You learn to live with these things obviously. I’m just happy that we were able to get the word out about a person that was very important to the band and important to us. I feel that we did the best job that we could’ve in honoring someone that wasn’t in the spotlight when it comes to music.
There’s a preconceived notion that band managers are purely on the business side of things and uncool. They’re demonized in a way and they shouldn’t be. Our manager wasn’t some guy wearing a suit, some LA slickster. He was a really awesome guy and one of our best friends. We wouldn’t be the band we are today without him and his help. He worked tirelessly to get us every single opportunity that he could and loved us dearly, and we loved him in return. We felt that we needed to do everything that we could to eulogize him in a proper way. We don’t want only the fans of the band to care and know that he was special. We’d like to tear down that stereotype about band managers, but we do get those stereotypes that are there for a reason. Some aren’t the best people in the world, but Nick wasn’t one of those people. The grand gesture that is ‘Hushed & Grim’ was the proper send off for our boy.
Paul: For me, it is a real joy. When the music and the art are outside that vacuum of the studio, they really have a life and meaning. It is always a pleasure to see what people are saying about it all, coming up with their own connections and stories.
Side note: The original 'Leviathan' hangs here in Philadelphia at Arch Enemy Arts. Most folks don’t recognize me as the artist, so I will often be a fly on the wall at openings and listen to people’s takes on the painting.
If you're in the area and haven't visited Arch Enemy Arts, let this be a sign. We’ve touched a bit on this before, Paul, but what does it mean to you as an artist to have your work become synonymous with a band’s output as it makes its way around the world through vinyl, CDs, shirts, and of course, digitally? Having spoken to a wide variety of bands and artists, I can confidently say that your artwork has inspired a generation.
Paul: Wow! Thank you. How about that?
I am definitely stoked to be a part of album arts’ legacy. Music has meant and means so much to me. My head exploded when I saw Kiss on Paul Lynde’s Halloween Special (1976). Their visuals with the music did something permanent to my 5 year old brain. I got 'Destroyer' for Christmas that year and would just stare at them coming over the mountain while I wore out 'God of Thunder' on the turntable. Then around 7 years old I was completely perplexed by the 'Paranoid' album cover. Black Sabbath was way heavier than Kiss, but the imagery was definitely not lining up for me. That raised questions. Figuring out the music’s mysteries through the album art was cemented into me from an early age.
The symbiotic relationship of art and music deepens the meaning of each through their juxtaposition. I am very grateful to Mastodon and all of the bands I’ve worked with to have taken my art to levels I never expected.
I’d consider this high point in the Mastodon/Paul Romano legacy. You two became something special, together. Though we as an audience only see the successes and continued high quality of your output, there were sure to be trials and tribulations of all sorts, but yet, you pushed through it all and have firmly established yourself as a household name for bands that have shaped metal for years to come. What would you tell that young Paul Romano of the late 90’s/early 2000’s who was still trying to get his footing?
Paul: A quick history:
I came into doing album art after being fairly successful through the 90s with having worked with large clients like Mattel and RCA. It was easier in the 90s because all of those huge companies were in the process of switching everything over to digital production. If you knew anything about “desktop publishing”, you were in business. I learned a ton about branding during that time, however I was pretty bored though and was definitely not using my fine art background.
I knew so many musicians and a good friend, Liam Wilson (Dillinger Escape Plan, John Frum) knew my fine art side and suggested I approach Relapse to be a client. It was a great idea. I could marry my need to make fine art with the design skills I had amassed. While out at the Relapse office, I heard the Mastodon demo and the rest is history.
But what would I really say to a younger me?. It comes back to what I said earlier about being my best self. When am I my best self? Right now I suppose. The mistakes I made had to be made to make me better (and so on).
I would probably tell my younger self Dad things like:
-Get 50% up front
-Make sure you get enough sleep
-Don’t overwork yourself
-Take care of your health.
For artists reading, take note. In closing, Nick John was considered the fifth member for all that he did. He was family. In a similar way, Paul can be considered the band’s “art guy”. For as high as Mastodon goes, references will always be made to the iconic covers of ‘Leviathan’, ‘Remission’, and ‘Crack the Skye’ and it’s a strong testament to the genuineness of your early collaborations. Seeing as the band has always surrounded themselves by an unmatched support system consisting of people like Nick and Paul, what role do you feel camaraderie has played in the growth and development of the band leading up to the point of ‘Hushed and Grim’?
Brann: That’s what it’s all about. There’s a reason why there’s been just 4 members in the band for 22 years. It’s that camaraderie that has held everything together. Being in a band in the first place takes a friendship to a different place. Yeah, you can be best friends with somebody but when you create art with another person, it’s something that becomes ingrained in your mind and in your soul. Once you make it happen and it comes to fruition, you’ve taken your human relationship to another level. Camaraderie is the main thing. Relationships are the main thing about being here as a band.