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Since debuting in 2002 with their universally acclaimed eleven-song roar Remission, Atlanta-based four-piece Mastodon have humbly commanded a reputation as one of the most sonically daring, creatively fertile, and ethically spotless rock bands currently operating in contemporary music.
As they gear up to release their sixth studio effort, the heavily anticipated Once More Round the Sun, the band are hard at work preserving a growing musical legacy that has more recently seen them venture into previously untapped areas of artistry, as they continue to divest themselves of the confines of the concept album.
To better understand what it’s like being in one of the world’s most interesting rock bands, we caught up with bass player and vocalist Troy Sanders, who opened up on what goes on inside of the Mastodon studio, what the band has in store for the future, and what their plans are for their Australian fans.
Watch: Mastodon – High Road
Brent mentioned that he’s often surprised by what ends up happening in the studio because he’s letting the album flow through from his subconscious – is the process similar for you and the rest of the band?
Troy Sanders: Who mentioned that?
TS: Wow, that’s pretty wild. What was the quote?
He mentioned that his process for recording was to meditate on what he wants to do in the studio and then let it flow through him. What’s your process in relation to that?
TS: Yeah, he does that a lot. He’ll listen back to a song and he’s like, “Okay, I really need to put some soul here with a guitar solo.” He’ll let the music penetrate his entire body and let something come out that he feels married to, he’s a pretty deep and intense dude.
I had two major roles while recording in the studio. Number one was to lay down some solid and hopefully classy and tasty bass lines and the majority of my stuff was prepared and ready to go. And my second part was doing vocals… a lot of vocal ideas and lyrics are done while we’re in [the studio]. I just listen to the songs and the verses and the choruses and I go with my gut in everything in life and whatever I hear, I’ll go in a vocal booth and give it a take.
Having three vocalists in the band, if my guys like what I do they’ll say if it sounds good. If the three of us have ideas we’ll all go in the booth, even if it’s just to hum a certain melody or pattern and we’ll quickly decide on who stood out. We’re very selfless and friendly when it comes to who does vocals where, because we all want the greater good for the song. So I guess I’m more instinctual.
You mentioned how the songs revealed themselves as what you’d hoped they’d sound like, which is fascinating. Was there an instance on the new record where you were surprised by how a song revealed itself?
TS: Yeah, there’s a song called Asleep In the Deep. I remember while we were writing it, thinking it had a lot of pretty parts and was really dreamy and that it would be a really good one. Once we started recording, Brann laid down some super solid drumming and the guitars started layering themselves, it felt very masculine in the sense of songwriting. It felt very mature. You couldn’t write that type of song on your first band’s demo or recording.
I’m probably the only person in the world that felt like that, but I remember it came like that with this dreamy sound and this underlying rhythm that was super solid and it turned out to be one of the most unique and refreshing sounding rock songs that I’ve heard in a long, long time. I remember just being super proud of how it came together in a strong way. I love everything on the album, but that song still surprises me with how tough yet dreamy it sounds.
You guys most often leave things open to interpretation for fans, but I’m interested if there’s anything on the new album that’s more explicit and that you’re hoping will come across to fans?
TS: I don’t think so. The album title itself means something to me, but if you were to ask all four guys you’d probably get four very different answers. We never collectively said what that title means. I think it means something different to all of us. Even how we write lyrics, we enjoy masking the real issue with metaphors and stories. Let’s say I wrote the entire lyrics to a certain song, my guys might know what bits and pieces truly mean but they’re gonna have their own interpretations. We kind of enjoy that about ourselves, that it’s up to the listener and even up to my own bandmates sometimes.
Watch: Mastodon – Chimes At Midnight Audio Visualiser
I feel like The Hunter was a liberating record for you guys, in that you were able to start writing…
TS: Oh yeah.
…without a narrative scope. Yeah, how true is that?
TS: Oh, especially after Crack The Skye, which was very layered and involved and some of the songs were extremely difficult to play and a couple were nine, ten, twelve minutes and had eight or nine parts. We were very proud to achieve what we did on that record, but after writing Crack The Skye, recording Crack The Skye and touring two years on it, we checked that off the list of music to write in life.
It was very therapeutic to go in and do The Hunter where anything goes, it’s a clean slate, it’s a free-for-all. If you wanna write a song about a swamp baby born with algae all over its face and feeling he’s not going to be accepted in society, then yes, you’re allowed to write a song like that. A lot of the songs were short and sweet and that was very much a reaction to [wanting] to do something opposite to Crack The Skye. We kind of took that approach with this new record as well.
Staying with “the checklist,” what are your aspirations with Mastodon now that you guys have been a band for so long? Is there something you’d like to do that you haven’t done? Is there a master-plan?
TS: There’s really no master-plan. We’re really quite grounded in the sense that none of this is guaranteed, we’re not guaranteed to be a band for another 20 years and be successful because life is very fragile and things happen. We take it album by album and tour by tour. Once this record comes out in a couple weeks we’re very happy for that of course, but we’ve already got the rest of the year lined up with shows.
Our plate is very full at the moment and we’re just going to eat everything on this plate and that will take us into next year and then we’re gonna be hungry again and we’ll fill the plate back up with more food, which is touring. So there’s really no master-plan, but I think the four of us are very comfortable saying that we know we could create music for as long as we’re healthy and alive with one another because we have so much appreciation for all types of music under the sun.
We’re just taking it moment by moment, record by record, tour by tour, and obviously year by year.
Was there a watershed moment where you realised you could do Mastodon as a career? Do you feel like it’s easier to become a professional musician these days with resources like the internet?
TS: That’s a good question. It’s been 10 years now, but after we did the Leviathan record, I remember knowing that whether the rest of the world liked it or not, I knew that we’d captured something that was very, very unique and very promising. And as soon as Leviathan came out we went from these tiny dive bars to the Unholy Alliance European tour supporting Slipknot and Slayer.
We were supporting these two giant bands in arenas across Europe and the four of us were beyond proud of the record we’d done and now this touring has taken off and exposing ourselves every night in front of four to fourteen-thousand people. So that was the moment where we all realised that we could possibly be onto something very, very grand. That was the moment where we looked at each other and thought, ‘This is good shit. This feels promising’.
When it comes to music, as I and my bandmates are witnessing the music industry change, we realise that we need to take our music on the road more and more because that’s how we make our livelihood, but first and foremost, we need to write songs that people are gonna want to hear and come see live.
So even though anyone on planet Earth can create a song to some degree using the internet… it is easier than ever to plug in and record sounds, but it needs to be quality. I think songwriting and music and sounds themselves need to be worthy of grabbing someone’s ears, so we’re constantly trying to improve ourselves as a band, as men and songwriters but also realise that we need to put out quality tunes that people are interested to see live.
You’ve said yourself that you find the metal band tag to be limiting, has there been a conscious effort on the part of the band to quash that and show that you’re capable of more?
TS: Yeah, I think we got the metal tag with our first couple of records because they were stemming from a much more angry outlet that we had within the band and that was very reflective of our four lives fourteen, twelve years ago. But we have such a wide appreciation of and [draw] inspiration from bands and music that have existed over the past 300 years. We love everything from Beethoven up to Bjork and everything in between.
We feel that our albums are more multi-dimensional sounding than just a heavy metal tag. So we understand genres and you need to say, ‘Hey, what does so and so sound like? Oh, they sound like indie rock or they sound like metal’.
We understand how tags work, but we appreciate the fact that we can go on tour with Ozzfest or Slayer, do six weeks with them, and then go right into a rock tour with someone like Against Me! or Clutch and we can do various festivals like Coachella or Bonnaroo. We appreciate that we can play stages where there’s a wider selection of music fans. I like to tag us under the hard rock category.
I was lucky enough to see you guys when you last played in Melbourne and Brann mentioned at the end of the show that you guys would be back next year. Are you able to elaborate on that at all?
TS: Yeah, when we came home from Soundwave a couple months ago we said that we’ve got to make sure that we come back and do our own tour across Australia because we came down and supported Slayer, then we did the Big Day Out, we’ve done two Soundwaves and we really need to come and do a proper club slash theatre setting and do four, five, six, seven shows across the country. We enjoy it down there so much. The people are so welcoming, the music fans are just so hungry and they eat us up and we love it and we need to come down and do a proper tour.
So that is a hundred per cent in our plans to do. We have the rest of this physical year, 2014 booked, but we plan on doing two solid years of touring on this new record so we will be there and that will be one of the highlights of our entire touring cycle because it’s so great every time we visit.