Mastodon Honors Beloved Manager on “Stairway to Nick John”

Drummer/vocalist Brann Dailor on the Led Zeppelin classic they recorded for their late manager, who passed away last year.
Mastodon Honors Beloved Manager on “Stairway to Nick John”

Drummer/vocalist Brann Dailor on the Led Zeppelin classic they recorded for their late manager, who passed away last year.

Words: Dan Epstein

photo by Jimmy Hubbard

May 17, 2019

Of all the vinyl platters released to coincide with this year’s Record Store Day, few were more highly sought-after than Mastodon’s Stairway to Nick John, a 10″ single containing two cover versions (one studio, one live) of Led Zeppelin’s iconic “Stairway to Heaven.” Pressed in a limited edition of fifteen hundred copies, the single sold out completely.

While so many RSD releases over the years have been little more than collector bait, Stairway to Nick John was coming from a deeply heartfelt place. Mastodon’s beloved manager Nick John (whose smiling face appears on the cover of the single) passed away last fall, a victim of pancreatic cancer, and Mastodon’s recordings of the Zep classic were done in tribute to his memory. “He was essentially the band’s dad,” the group explained in a statement released shortly after John’s passing. “From our highest highs to our lowest lows, he was always there. Every single move we made went through him first, and our trust in him was marrow deep.” Since John was a massive Led Zeppelin fan, it seemed like an obvious choice for the band to cover “Stairway.”

But if you weren’t able to lay your hands on a copy of the vinyl, don’t despair; the band has announced the single is receiving a worldwide digital release on May 17. As with the original vinyl pressing, proceeds from the sales will benefit the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.

We spoke to Mastodon drummer and vocalist Brann Dailor, who filled us in on the band’s long friendship with John, the crucial role the manager played in Mastodon’s success, and Dailor’s own affinity for the magic of “Stairway.”

When did you guys first hook up with Nick?

It was 2004, right when Leviathan was about to come out. Basically, myself and Gordon Conrad, who worked over at Relapse Records, were doing a lot of leg work in tandem for the band. Gordon and a couple of other people at Relapse were sort of pseudo-managing the band, which wasn’t really their role, but we had delivered Leviathan, and they were like, “Something’s going to happen with this.” Gordon had a conversation with me where he was like, “You guys should really think about getting a manager.” And I was like, “What? Why?” [laughs]. I was so naïve, but I really didn’t see why we would do something like that.

Well, you guys were doing okay on your own terms at that point…

We just weren’t very goal-oriented, to be honest. Our main focus was touring in our van, hanging out and having good shows, and writing. The creative element was more important than anything else for us. The business end of things was way over in some other stratosphere.

Did Gordon put you in touch with Nick?

No, but Gordon gave me a list of about ten names and phone numbers of people to call who might be a good fit, because I didn’t really know where to begin. I got on the phone with all of those guys, but I didn’t really make a connection with any of them.

Anyway, Rich Hoak, who played drums for Brutal Truth, was also handling booking for all the Relapse bands, and he was trying to get their bands on a Slayer tour. So he was on the phone with Slayer’s management a bunch, and Nick John was the guy he was talking to. I guess they knew about our situation, looking for management, and Nick offered up his time to talk me through a few things that I should be looking for.

“From the first time we met him, it was like, ‘This guy’s cool; he’s not some LA slickster. He’s just one of us.’”

I got on the phone with Nick, and we sort of hit it off; we had similar personalities, and we both really liked classic rock and classic metal… And after about five or six conversations, I popped the question, basically [laughs]. I was like, “Dude—do you want to be our manager?” He was like, “Yeah!” Leviathan was just about to come out, and he was like, “You guys are in a cool place. There’s lots of people talking about your band, you’ve got a great new record that’s about to come out… There’s a spot for you guys, but you need someone who can put you in that spot.”

And that’s the truth about it. Basically, it comes down to that you need somebody who has phone numbers, and we didn’t have any phone numbers. You can’t just call up Ozzy Osbourne and say, “Yo, what’s going on? Can we be on your festival?” It doesn’t work like that. You need a person that is juiced-in, who knows all these people already, and who can say, “We’ve got this, we’ve got that going on.”

I remember meeting Nick about a decade back, and thinking, “No way, that’s not their manager…” He was so friendly and down to earth, not some douchebag industry type.

Oh, yeah—from the first time we met him, it was like, “This guy’s cool; he’s not some LA slickster. He’s just one of us.” He was an LA kid, but he never turned into slimeball manager guy, that picture you have in your head when you think of a band’s manager. I talked to him every day on the phone; he was one of my best friends, really. We were super close. He loved Mastodon, he would talk anybody’s ears off for hours about it, and what we were doing, and that we were his Led Zeppelin—he felt like we were four very individual people, and without one of us, Mastodon wouldn’t sound the same. It was like, “Wow, everybody brings their own heavy personality into this, and that creates what this is, and that’s cool and different.”

Was Nick someone you could bounce musical ideas and concepts off of?

Oh yeah, everything. If we had a new riff, and if I thought it was something cool, I would text or email it to him as soon as we got back from practice. Or I’d call him and tell him where I was going with storyline stuff. I’d sit there sometimes and hum him riffs, and he’d be like, “Aww yeah!” [laughs]. It was easy to get him stoked. He was our biggest fan, by far. He was just a kid in a candy store when it came to our new stuff; he loved it.

Did you ever do anything that Nick didn’t dig?

Well, he was real good at saying if he didn’t think something was a good idea, if you know what I mean [laughs]. His soft power was very good. He’d be like, “Yeah, I don’t know…” I don’t want to make it seem like he was just some yes-man; you could tell when he was genuinely excited about something. And if something wasn’t working, he’d just be like, “Eh…” But he was usually dead-on with his assessments. And he was the best cheerleader to have in your corner. He was just into it.

A good example would be when we recorded with Brendan O’Brien [for 2009’s Crack the Skye and 2017’s Emperor of Sand]. Brendan doesn’t want people down there [in the studio] that aren’t in the band, and he definitely doesn’t want management around. He doesn’t want people listening to things before they’re finished, because they jump to conclusions—they don’t know what they’re talking about, they don’t know what they’re hearing, and they’re like, “Where’s this? Where’s that? The vocals should be higher!” Stuff like that. But he never minded when Nick was there. Nick was more than welcome, any time he wanted to come in and hang.

I talked to Brendan after Nick passed, and he was like, “I never met a manager like that. With managers, I’m like, ‘Keep away, keep out. Wait ’til we’re done, and then you guys can come in here and listen, and I’ll go in the other room.’ But Nick was the total opposite. He was one of the guys, one of the band, and he totally understood.” It was cool to hear that from Brendan, because Brendan’s a legendary producer who’s worked with all these huge bands. It’s so nice to know that Nick was held in such high regard, even by somebody like Brendan who’s met everybody.

“Even our engineer, when we were halfway through recording, he was like, ‘You guys have got some fucking balls recording “Stairway to Heaven.” Damn!’”

I know Nick was a huge Led Zeppelin fan. Are you, as well?

Oh yeah, and especially “Stairway to Heaven.” When I was a kid, my mom was in a cover band; they started in 1978 and ended in 1984, so they were doing all the popular songs of the day. They were doing Zeppelin, they were doing Boston, they were doing Cheap Trick, Loverboy, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, blah, blah, blah. So that was my introduction to Led Zeppelin—my mom’s band, and my mom’s records. And Led Zeppelin IV in particular stood out, because I thought it had a cool cover. I had a little Fisher-Price turntable up in my room, and I would sit there and listen to Zeppelin on it with my headphones plugged in. There’s just something about “Stairway to Heaven”; it really is one of the greatest rock songs of all time.

Was it difficult to get your head around recording a song that’s so iconic?

When we first got asked, none of us wanted to do it. First of all, “Stairway to Heaven”? There are certain songs you just shouldn’t cover, and I think that one’s at the top of the list. Even our engineer, when we were like halfway through recording, he was like, “You guys have got some fucking balls recording ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Damn!” [Laughs.]

But you know what? I don’t really care. First of all, this isn’t a cover that we came up with, like, “Whoa, we should do ‘Stairway to Heaven!’” Second of all, it wasn’t like, “We could do this to it! Make it our own!” We recorded this for our friend, arguably one of the best friends that we’ve ever had, and a person who has enriched our lives beyond belief. I mean, we work hard, too, and we are the band that we are—that’s all true. But on top of that, behind the scenes, without ever wanting any recognition for anything… I mean, the guy put me on tour with Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Metallica, and Slayer; the least we could do is rock out some damn “Stairway to Heaven” for the guy, and send him off right.

And that’s all it is, and it sucks that he’s not here to enjoy it, because I can just hear him laughing on the phone, hear how happy it would have made him to know that we were doing “Stairway” for him: “You guys are fucking crazy—that rules!” I fucking miss that guy, and I’m going to continue missing him, because he was such a huge force in our lives. Cancer sucks. FL