Spreading Wings of Infinite Reach: Troy Sanders of Mastodon

During their “Big Day Off” tour in Australia, Metal as Fuck caught up with Atlanta-based vocalist and bassist Troy Sanders, of the mighty Mastodon, for a trip into the ethereal world of Crack the Skye, and the astral planes beyond in what he described as the “best interview ever!”

photo credit: Jimmy Hubbard

Troy Sanders looked relaxed. He lacksadaisically strolled into the Warner Records corner office, all the while eating a Bounty [coconut chocolate confectionary] and clutching another in his waiting hands.

He chomped on his chocolates as he slunk back into his chair and bobbed up and down in muted excitement. Being one of the on-point growlers and bassist for the undeniably massive and unashamedly larger-than-life progressive metal outfit Mastodon, one would think that a life of constant partying and tight-wire bound schedules would take its toll. But not for the charming and affable Sanders it would seem – he seemed to liken Australia’s biggest alternative music festival, the Big Day Out to a huge holiday, calling it the “Big Day Off.”

He launched straight into the story in his smooth baritone with a slight Southern twang.

“Well, for the past fifteen years we heard that [the Big Day Out] was a great tour from all of our friends that have done it before,”  he says, clearing his throat. “So we’ve heard nothing but positive things about the whole Big Day Out. When we were invited to do it a few months ago we were pretty excited. We said ‘Yeah, fine!’ because we thought Australia’s beautiful the last time we were here, and we had an amazing time in ’07 supporting Slayer, so we immediately all said yes.

“It's great because there’s two or three days off between each show and we can see the sights and go out of town. It turns it into more of a tour/holiday for us. It’s been a giant awesome party!”

Having played all around the world, there’s only one continent that has eluded Mastodon, and that’s South America.

“We’re going to be playing South America next month, so that’ll be a nice big chunk of land to check off and say ‘yes, done.’ That’s the big one; we’ve been talking about that for ten years.”

The partying hasn’t stopped for the band since the release of their most recent record, Crack the Skye, which received accolades from shore to shore. The release even placed third in the prestigious TIME Magazine's Best Albums of 2009 list. With such an overwhelming positive response, how does Sanders react? He takes it as he comes.

“We didn’t think it would be this positive,” he confesses. “We never really have any preconceived ideas about what we’re going to write in the first place. So ultimately, when the four of us in the band are satisfied creating the songs, creating the story, putting it together, making the recording and completing the album … when the four of us are one-hundred per cent satisfied with everything on there, that’s when our thought process stops and we’ve completed our task.

“We never plan on it to be well received. We never plan on it being successful. We never think a lot of people are going to like it. It’s a piece of art that we’ve created. I like to use the analogy of a giant canvas that you paint. You put all your heart and soul into it and when it's completed, you put it on the wall and there’s your art for the world to see. What the rest of the world thinks of it is out of your control. You want people to like it, you hope people will like it, but you don’t expect people to like it. Whenever something positive comes back to you, it’s very rewarding, it’s very gratifying and it’s an overall great feeling. But the intention of Mastodon is never to appease a certain group of people or to appeal to the masses outside of writing an album that the four of us are extremely proud of. Its that simple.”

For some artists, a live performance is like re-creating the art for a new audience each time they play, adding bits in and shifting around what is already there for a different take on what is there. For Sanders, however, once their piece is finished, there’s no tinkering – it’s done.

“When we play live, we try to play as close to the recording as possible,” Troy says. “We don’t really try to branch off or do any improvisation stretches or what have you. The four of us, although we appreciate all kinds of various approaches to our albums, we want to hear our favorite records live as close to the recording that we’re so familiar with.”

Despite playing a genre that has little favor with a bulk of the metal loving population, Mastodon’s “psychedelic fantasy metal” is undoubtedly a hit with many fans hailing from all across the globe. Coming up with the inspiration for such grand narrative paired with spaced-out music is simple, Troy explains.

“We like to create stories. We’re into the art of storytelling. We write stories that are parallel to our personal or band experiences. Therefore, we can talk about astral travel and diving into certain constellations in outer space. But to us, it’s, metaphorically speaking, ‘blank.’ We like to create metaphors and have an extra dimension to our band and our style instead of being absolutely literal with our lyrics.

“It creates a fun and challenging experience for us but we also enjoy it and kind of feed off of that. We’ve always considered our band to write the music for the cinematography for a movie from start to finish. Our lyrics would become the dialog in the movie which would then be the storyline. We like the idea of Mastodon being created and performed like a movie.”

Sanders says that all of their studio albums have taken this approach of “record as movie analog”, deviating from the traditional conception of simply “music as music.”

“Yes, our past four records have been like that. Our Remission record was loosely based on fire, Leviathan was completely about water and parallels to the Moby Dick story, Blood Mountain was about the earth, and Crack the Skye completed the book of elemental chapters, as the main element of that record was the element of ether, the dark matter that dominates the universe. That pattern has worked for us in the past and we’ve just continued to do that. Whether we’ll continue on that path, I don’t know.

“We’re inspired by a wide range of sights, sounds, experiences, travels. Again, there’s no preconceived ideas in our band where we sit down and say ‘It’s going to be more psychedelic’ or that we’re going to record ‘short and sweet’ songs. To the individual writer of that song, it might be their intention. But we never sit down as a band and decide the ultimate effect or sound that we were trying to achieve.

“If we get on some kind of Southern rock trip, that’s the way it’s gonna go; if we feel like getting experimental and crazy, that’s the way we’re gonna go. If we want to get sound-scapey, that’s the way we’re gonna go. We just let the natural evolution open itself up to us. Whatever comes through the heart and out the fingers, that’s what it’s going to sound like.”

Mastodon’s visuals as Sanders intimates to us are a high priority and the band gets completely immersed in the creation and execution of their music videos and album art.

“Videos are very important to us. They’re fun. And we always get completely involved. We always collaborate with whatever video director we work with. We give them our idea of what the video should look like and they come back with a very thorough written treatment of what it will look like and we just kind of go back and forth until we’re happy. Then we go out and shoot it and hopefully it will turn out … interesting.

“I mean, it makes for a good story. People will ask ‘So, what did you do today?’ and I’ll reply ‘well, I was suspended 40 feet above the ground in front of a green screen for three hours, then I got stuck in a spacesuit where two dudes had to pull it off of me, I couldn’t breathe, I broke out in hives…’ It makes for a good story. It’s the same thing with Paul Romano who has done all the artwork for our records, that back and forth sort of thing. Collaboration is the key.”

I asked Troy straight-up why he plays bass in Mastodon, his reply just as straightforward.

“Well, ten years ago when those three dudes were looking for a bass player, I was the only one with a van,” he laughs.

As for being a creative outlet for his love of the bass guitar, Mastodon as an inspiration and performing force fits the bill like no other for Sanders.

“It’s immensely satisfying,” he says. “I get to lock in with one of the best drummers ever, I’m sandwiched in between two amazing, incredible guitar players. I attempt to lay the low-end down with three other ridiculously amazing musicians. To say it’s honorable is saying the least. I’m very fortunate.”

Something sorely lacking in today’s corporatised and mechanised music industry is the ability for bands to take risks and to look beyond the obvious and marketable. For Sanders, taking risks and trying new things is like a mantra for both himself and Mastodon.

“I think if you’re taking a risk to tap into an audience for the wrong reasons, I would disagree with that, personally. But if our band comes out with a mariachi batch of songs and the four of us believe in it? Then there’s nothing wrong with that. At all. If we wrote a bunch of 1950s sappy Mississippi blues-type of songs, and we enjoyed writing and creating that, and we were really feeling it? I would want to record and release that.

“As the world is big, the world of music is enormous as well. There’s many sights and sounds and as an artist you’re free to explore any musical waters you wish to. Even the guys in fuckin’ Slayer: if they wanted to, they could write a country [and western] album. If they believed in it, I would want them to release it because I would want to hear it.

“As an artist I do believe in risk. But as an artist that has created something, it’s up to you if you want to share it with the world and put it on the wall. If I got any backlash from it, I wouldn’t care. We’re doing this for ourselves. We’re sacrificing everything to fulfill our need to play music and travel the world. I don’t think anything should come in between it.”