The Weekly interview: Mastodon bassist Troy Sanders

Mastodon performs at the House of Blues on May 3.
Photo: Cindy Frey
Jorge Labrador

When talking about the changes in Mastodon’s sound, you’re more likely to talk in terms of what part of the album you’re on than about years. Atlanta’s ever-experimenting prog-metal quartet has one of the most varied and celebrated discographies in modern metal, and bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders promises that the band continues to change things up on its sixth studio album, Once More ’Round the Sun, set for release on June 24. The Weekly caught up with Sanders ahead of Mastodon’s May 3 House of Blues show with Gojira and Kvelertak.

What’s been keeping you busy these days? Two things. No. 1, enjoying the amount of home time that we’re having at the moment, and No. 2, practicing with the dudes, because we leave this week to tour. We’re just getting together for a couple of hours a day and keeping practice short and sweet.

We spent the past bulk of the year creating, writing and recording the new record, so as this tour kicks off before the new record’s out, we wanted to go back and kind of tip the hat to records that are 10 and 21 years old, Leviathan and Remission. It takes us quite a while to rehearse the old stuff. It’s pretty intense, complex material.

On 2011’s The Hunter the band took less of a concept-album approach than on previous projects. Where are you going with Once More ’Round the Sun? The Hunter was quite freeing. Before it, we’d kind of create this linear story and collaborate on lyrics that followed the story. That was fun and interesting and it worked quite well for us; we enjoyed doing it. But after several records in that style, we decided to just scrap that and bail out and have the freedom to go anywhere lyrically and subject-wise. It was very exciting and freeing to be able to do anything we wanted, from creature babies born in the swamp with algae-covered faces to ascending a mountain in Siberia and encountering ice sloths. We could go anywhere that our little hearts desired to go.

We enjoyed that so much that the all-over-the-place rock ’n’ roll record is what we did with Once More ’Round the Sun. It does not follow a linear path or specific storyline. It’s 11 pieces of Mastodon music that kind of touches base all around the world.

If that kind of departure is so freeing, is there anything lyrically or sound-wise that you’d want to approach that you haven’t had the chance yet? The four of us are very fond of all styles and sorts of music—that’s what really brought us all together. We all love classic country, we all love Neurosis, we all love ’80s punk and so on. Everything from Beethoven to Björk. Having said that, I would love to create albums like an acoustic blues record, a throwback to classic country, something that’s like psycho-surfbilly, and we could all do that when we wanted to. However, when the four of us get together, we have that Mastodon chemistry. We spew out what Mastodon is.

Many metal bands find a niche and stick with that sound once they’ve found it, but you guys seem pretty unafraid to deviate from what you’ve done in the past. What drives that? I think that stems from the makeup of our band in the sense that everyone creates. Some more than others; our guitar players, Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher, are just riff machines. They’ve got songs that they can put together, that all fit under the Mastodon tag, but they’re very different as far as where they come from. Our drummer Brann Dailor writes a lot of music, writes a lot of lyrics. I write a lot of lyrics, Brent writes a lot of lyrics. We have three vocalists in the band that do a vocal tag team. It all adds up to a multidimensional sounding band. Even on each record, you can play two different tracks that sound very far apart from each other stylistically. The way that we create has every new song that we write sounding a bit different than the previous one. And always continuing to do so, we hope.

On the flip side of that, when you’re putting together a new album do you ever worry about backlash for changing things too much? I think a lot of people do and that would be a natural concern to have. However, I’m very grateful that my three bandmates and I pay no mind to that whatsoever. We feel that, No. 1, we know that Mastodon is our art. That’s what we live, love and create. No. 2, we believe that the most authentic way to create art is when we can collaborate directly from our fingers, through our instruments and from our hearts and souls, having spent time, endless energy and effort into creating what we love. When the four of us are happy with something, then we consider it done ... building and building until the end result is a full album. When the four of us are completely happy with that, then we are good to go, because we’re the ones married to it, we’re the ones living with that forever, playing these songs forever, living with the recorded material forever. So we need to be happy with it first and foremost.

Do we want the rest of the world to like it? Yes we do. Do we mind if the rest of the world dislikes it completely? Not really, because that’s not why we created it. We want a Mastodon fanbase to continue to grow; we want more people to join us on this ride. However, this art and this band comes from a quite selfish place, where the four of us are creating it for ourselves—that’s why we got in a band in the first place. We’ve never written any song or album with the intentions of pleasing a certain genre of fans, any group of journalists, trying to appeal to a younger audience, trying to appeal to our old-school fans—none of that whatsoever. We write for ourselves, from ourselves and ultimately trying to please ourselves first and foremost. Whatever carries on after that, any praise or accolades that come our way, is kind of like a bonus.

You guys come through Vegas fairly often. Is there anything you like to indulge in out here? We’re rather chill. We seem to kind of find a pool and relax by it because we enjoy water and we enjoy sun, and there’s certainly loads of that there. And man, you can kill a couple of hours out there easily.

And I don’t know if any roller coasters have opened in the past year, but if so that’s where I will be. I was really bummed when the Speed ride was closed [at the Sahara]—it was a 45-second roller coaster that went from, like, zero to 90 in a few seconds. It was amazing.

I guess I’ll look for a new roller coaster, but other than that we’re kind of laid back. It’ll be a little sun and water. Especially coming after a Los Angeles show. A gazillion friends and industry folks and management and record label all at the show, it tends to get a little insane. Usually we roll into a Las Vegas show and it’s like, “Phew, we finally have some peace and quiet.” It’s rather mild.

If you get a chance to sneak out, you’ll be happy to know there is a new coaster in town called El Loco. Awesome. I consider myself a medium-level roller coaster enthusiast. It’s easy to just cab it around anywhere and find something that intrigues me, so I will be there. Then I’ll rejoin my bandmates at the pool.

One last thing: You were rated on a list that’s been going around online as the “second sexiest hunk in metal.” What do you think about that? I thought someone was pranking me—that’s quite funny. If you see me in real life, I’m just kind of a normal weirdo, tall, skinny dude with, you know, caveman face, total bedhead as far as caveman hair goes. I know for a fact that I’m 50 percent Neanderthal, so it’s inspiring to know that Neanderthal fashion is coming back in style and getting some recognition. I’m most proud of that (laughs).

Mastodon with Gojira, Kvelertak. May 3, 6:30 p.m., $26.50. House of Blues, 632-7600.

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