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Interview: Troy Sanders (of Mastodon)

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At some point in its decade-plus career, Mastodon became one of the best bands in hard rock and heavy metal, and one of the best bands in America, period. Mastodon played an integral role in last decade’s new wave of American heavy metal, revitalizing interest in American metal worldwide.

Catchy concept records like 2005’s classic Leviathan and 2009’s Crack the Skye showed a coherent, narrative vision not seen in American hard rock or heavy metal since Tool. If big sounds, musical ambition, and tenacious touring are what make a band truly great, Mastodon provide something for other younger (and older) metal acts to aspire to.

Their new album, The Hunter, is the closest thing Mastodon has done to the polar opposite of a concept record, however. It’s more akin to the individual song orientation of 2003’s Remission and 2006’s Blood Mountain, but much catchier. The Hunter is the band’s most intensely melodic work yet, their brightest and tightest, with nary a song over five minutes. But, man, does it rock.

Consequence of Sound’s Paul de Revere spoke with Mastodon bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders, 38 (“I like to say I’m 30-great,” Sanders mused), in the band’s Atlanta home while rehearsing for their upcoming fall tour. Sanders talked about “hitting the refresh button” on Mastodon, opening for Metallica and Slayer last year, and a mysterious shrine he and his bandmates are creating in their rehearsal space.

Tell me about The Hunter’s augmented reality experience. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of any other band doing that. Where did that idea come from? What’s it like for the user?

The idea came from our manager, Nick John. He had this idea to try something new. Ultimately, it’s just a small step we can take to let our fans, if they wish, to immerse themselves in the Mastodon world. If they can put that Hunter mask on their face, and breathe fire, and roar like a pre-historic beast, then that’s one small step they can take into our world. We welcome anyone to go with us and grow with us. If some people want to do that, that’s great. If some people think that’s silly, then that’s fine, too.

It seems like a totally different kind of cover art, a totally different visual approach from your previous records.

Yeah, we changed everything with this album: musical direction, record producer, new album artist, new logo… We really wanted to hit the refresh button on many aspects of what Mastodon does. We’re just continually trying to challenge ourselves, better ourselves as songwriters, and continue being exciting while Mastodon is progressing. We want to grow, grow, grow.

mastodon the hunter Interview: Troy Sanders (of Mastodon)

Why did you want to do a totally different thing with the album art?

Our good friend Paul Romano has done the album art for every album we’ve done up until The Hunter. But, as we were changing thought processes and changing musical stylings, changing the idea of doing a concept, we decided to change [by] working with a new album artist. We’re fans of many types of art, and this particular gentleman, AJ Fosik, he does some epic wood sculpting. Similar to the way we write music, he spends a lot of time and dedication, and uses his talent to create an epic wood sculpture of this mythical creature, this triple-jawed Minotaur-type head that he created from scratch out of wood. That’s fascinating to us. So, it felt quite fitting; It felt complimentary to the music itself. It came together quite nicely.

That sculpture is en route to Atlanta right now, where it’s going to be in our practice space, and we’re going to create a shrine around it. Perhaps light some candles and be able to look at it, stare at it, talk to it, and touch it every time we go into our rehearsal space.

That’s awesome! God, that’s so metal. One big difference I noticed was that Crack the Skye had an intensely long form, which I loved. You guys kept a catchiness to it, like in “The Czar”, which is 10 minutes long, but has hooks throughout. But these songs, there are maybe a few tracks over five minutes on this record?

Yeah, they range from three to five minutes. That all came quite naturally as well. There was nothing spoken of beforehand amongst each other. Like, “Hey guys, let’s write a bunch of short songs, a couple of pretty ballads, a couple of psychedelic rock songs.” You know? Nothing like that was ever spoken of. There were no predetermined thoughts or ideas beforehand that were shared verbally. I think it’s obvious that after touring Crack the Skye for two years, it was just the obvious reaction to [say], “Hey, let’s focus more and start a riff, make a point and get out!” It was a knee-jerk reaction to what we had been living.

We really wanted to take a sharp left turn, explore some new musical territory, and just be a little more focused, I suppose, on the songs themselves. The grand picture is to let these songs carry over to the live environment with the fresh energy of live rawness… this go ‘round is more straight and to-the-point.

Since Remission, you guys have done a one-on, one-off in terms of concept records: Remission was straight-ahead, but then you had Leviathan, which was a narrative. Then Blood Mountain was pretty straight-ahead, and then Crack the Skye had a very strong narrative. The Hunter seems like, again, another straight-ahead record, more straight-ahead than ever before.

We decided to shed the idea of writing another concept album, and we feel that was very therapeutic to the band, to where we could explore any musical styling or any lyrical content that we felt interesting. It was more free-form to where we could bounce all over the place, as long as we were happy where we were bouncing. That word, “therapeutic,” is very important, that we were able to explore anything we felt that we desired. That was very cool, and very different for us. We haven’t been able to do that in several years, keeping the fire fresh.

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Photo by Karina Halle

As far as concept, narrative things, do you think somewhere down the line, you’ll do that again?

Oh yeah, that’s definitely a possibility. We see endless possibilities with music, and art in general. We won’t really know that until we see how the next year or two of traveling The Hunter leads us emotionally and musically. Who knows what road we’ll travel next as far as the next album or the direction of the band. We let it come naturally… It’s too early to tell now what we’ll do in the future. We never like to put up any boundaries, or border, or have any rules, musically, that we need to follow. It’s, “Hey, what do you want to do now?” That kind of attitude.

I’ve always thought of you guys a progressive rock/metal kind of band. But you guys, unlike a lot of prog bands, seem to know when to pull it back just enough, and when to indulge in more wonky stuff. Are there any general feelings that you and other band members get about how far is too far?

Yeah, good question, man. With Crack the Skye, the song could be five minutes in or whatever. If we could continue to go without sounding redundant, then we’ll just keep building, see how far we can take it. With this album, when we felt like that song could be complete, we just stopped at that point. If you allow Mastodon enough time, we will keep adding colors and textures to this painting that we call music. We’ll just keep going and going, and adding and adding until the timer goes off, if there even is a timer. So, with this one, let’s just start a riff, make a point, and get out. It’s a bit more stripped-down, focused feeling.

We can take things loooong. We can draw it out forever, if we desire. But, since we did that on the last record, it was just as exciting to us to kinda pull back and strip it down a bit, take off some clothes. It’s hot outside.

The Hunter’s “Blasteroids” couldn’t be shorter, unless you were Bad Brains or something. That and “Octopus Has No Friends” have such great vocal and guitar melody and harmony. I’ve never heard you guys quite so obviously focused on vocal melody, particularly. Who are you harmonizing with there on “Blasteroids”?

That’s myself and our drummer, Brann [Dailor]. We’re always pushing ourselves as songwriters. We’re continually focused on the art of song-crafting. This record, more than any before, we tried to find the best vocal stylings and the best vocal patterns to match the song as best as possible. Anytime we can find a proper vocal melody or hook, and feel that it fits nicely, we went for it. Melody is what allows a song to ring true into your head time and time again, even when you’re done listening to it.

All of people’s favorite songs of all time have some kind of vocal or guitar melody that really brings you in and is captivating. We were focused on finding any of those moments that we could . Overall, I think we were quite successful on this album. We’ve put more energy and focus on vocals in this record than we ever have before.

One affinity I always noticed that you guys had with Dillinger Escape Plan, who’s on tour with Mastodon this fall, is that you guys make this brutal, heavy music, but you have hilarious, nonsensical song titles like “Octopus Has No Friends” or “Blasteroids”. What’s the joke there? What’s going on?

Well, we always try to find a title that matches the music itself. We always deal with lyrics last. “Blasteroids” was actually a video game that was in the lounge of the studio we were working at. We’re fans of early-‘80s video arcade games, and musically it sounded like you’re shooting at asteroids in outer space. But this isn’t asteroids. It’s “Blasteroids”! This music kinda takes off like it’s blasting, and it’s quite fitting. The four of us in the band, we take the music in Mastodon very seriously. Outside of that, we’re four complete goofballs. We do have a comedic, humorous side to us. We’re not ashamed to let that shine.

“Octopus Has No Friends”, musically, watching Brent [Hinds, guitarist/vocalist] play that song, it sounds like you’d need eight tentacles to play that guitar riff. After visiting the Georgia Aquarium months ago, Brann came back and said, “Man, I don’t think the octopus ever has any friends, ‘cause he’s always in the tank alone. There’s a starfish in there, but it’s far away. Does the octopus have friends, or does he enjoy his recluse environment?” These are just questions we have, and we’re not ashamed to put those into songs and let that be known.

Do the lyrics on The Hunter change up with the different songs, or is there a narrative?

This is more a traditional rock album in the sense that it’s a collection of songs. Each song has its own story.

What’s some metal you listen to?

While touring, I listen to heavy stuff all the time. This past summer, for example, we were able to do the festival circuit where we were fortunate enough to grace the stage with Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper, and Slipknot… There are bands like Russian Circles we’ve talked about taking out with us, they’re a great band. Pelican is beautiful. We’ve been fortunate enough to have shared the stage and toured with bands like Torche, Kylesa, and Baroness.

One band that’s out right now is a band called Monstro. My older brother Kyle plays bass with them. They’re on tour with Kyuss at the moment. Their first record just came out two weeks ago, and Juan Montoya, previously from Torche, is the guitar player, and it’s a kick-ass rock and roll band. It reminds me of early Cult, Jane’s Addiction-type rock. It’s got some very beautiful vocals across the top. Monstro is currently my favorite new band out there.

Speaking of touring, you did shows with Metallica and Slayer in Europe last year, that must’ve been incredible.

It was a dream come true to share a stage with bands that we’ve been inspired by for years and years. So, I was thrilled. I’m flattered they even invited us on tour. That was a dream come true. Each and every night, watching Metallica and Slayer play…That doesn’t get old to me.

51ljtog90pl  sl500 aa300  Interview: Troy Sanders (of Mastodon)What non-metal do you listen to?

Outside of touring, I listen to the exact opposite of heavy. I’m rooted in heavy music. That’s the reason that I’m here, ultimately, but I’m a big fan of classic country music. I woke up this morning and put on the Anniversary: Ten Years of Hits by George Jones. I’m a big fan of Willie Nelson, John Prine, Ray Price, and Merle Haggard. The Big Four, that’s my stuff.

The four of us in the band, we have musical inspirations all over the place, the entire rainbow of musical existence. We listen to a lot of everything. Classic country is my go-to, whether I’m cooking breakfast in the morning or sitting at the beach. That’s just my go-to music.

I’ve noticed that on Remission’s “Ol’e Nessie” and Leviathan’s “Megalodon” that you have these little country blues or southern rock riffs sometimes.

Yeah, if it fits. We enjoy not only surprising ourselves, but the rest of the world.

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