Mastodon bassist-vocalist Troy Sanders is in a good place. When The A.V. Club reached him by phone in Houston, he was enjoying “a good cup of coffee at the lovely, historic Fitzgerald’s Club,” where the band would performing later that night. In late October, Mastodon kicked off its bicoastal tour in Austin supporting The Hunter, the band’s fifth full-length and much-anticipated follow-up to 2009’s magnum opus, Crack The Skye. Quested with topping the insanely ambitious, multi-layered Skye, the Atlanta foursome had basically two options: Lock themselves in a padded room for two years hammering out 20-minute song structures, surrounded by astral charts, amphetamine, or whatever it is that inspires concept albums—or breathe a sigh of relief and start from scratch. Mastodon chose the latter.
The Hunter is a lean beast, with only two tracks cracking the 5-minute mark, and, along with this newfound brevity, Mastodon brought in veteran producer Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Fiona Apple), changed up the artwork, and handed the majority of vocal duties to Sanders. Even with the added responsibility, Sanders is happy to be out on the road, and, before Mastodon’s Nov. 20 show at the Troc , he told The A.V. Club about the new album, what it means to be a fan of metal, and living in “a little nugget of a Golden Age for progressive metal.”
The A.V. Club: How did the band come to the collective decision to hit the reset button before The Hunter? Most of us fear change.
Troy Sanders: The four of us in Mastodon welcome change. We like to surprise ourselves as well as the rest of the world. We like to throw curveballs. Crack The Skye was such a layered, complex, and emotional album—that we lived and breathed for two and a half years—that when we got into the rehearsal space to start working on new stuff, we like to say that it was a knee-jerk reaction to what we had been living for the last two and a half years. We wanted to make a sharp left turn and get some fresh, raw energy back into the band. We weren’t necessarily interested in spending days upon days trying to complete and master this mathematical equation that is going to be a 13-minute song. It’s a lot of work, and that’s what we had done with the previous record.
We were thinking ahead to the live environment, which is what we’re doing now, and we want to go up there and light a new fire under our asses in the live environment and bust out a badass set of Masto-rock. When we were performing Crack The Skye in its entirety, it was a hard record to play, and it wasn’t the most exciting thing to watch. It was four dudes trying to play 9,000 notes, basically. We’re glad that we did the entire Crack The Skye cycle, but this time we’re glad that we’re able to rock out a bit more.
AVC: Getting onstage to perform the songs for the first time, did it feel just as good as you imagined it would be? Did the songs have that badass intensity?
TS: Two nights ago, the tour kicked off in Austin. We played seven of the new songs, along with 15 of the older ones. We had never played the new songs for anyone before in a live setting, so there was a good anxiousness. As soon as we got up there, the set just fucking cruised by, and the songs were a lot of fun to play, just as I had hoped for. There wasn’t a lot of moments where I thought, “Oh God, here comes this part that I can barely play,” or, “Here comes this 9-minute song. I hope nobody gets bored.” It was really refreshing.
AVC: What did Mike Elizondo bring to the table in terms of production? His résumé definitely runs the gamut of genres.
TS: We were sharing our demos with him back in March, and he’s such a well-versed and talented musician, and his ear is very respectful of all genres of music. When he heard our rock songs, he embraced our heavier ideas just as much as he appreciated our psychedelic parts, and was really receptive to each idea that the four of us had. In terms of the sounds of recording that we had in mind, he was very receptive to each of our inputs. He was willing to make everything work and was naturally into it from the get-go. He flew to Atlanta and took us out for tacos. While eating these delicious tacos, we befriended each other on a personal level, and realized that we shared the same personal tastes and ideas for The Hunter. Basically, if anyone takes our band out for tacos, we’re gonna be friends for life.
AVC: Did you approach taking lead vocals on The Hunter with any trepidation? Do you spend a lot of time resting your voice? Have you adopted a new routine on tour?
TS: Well, when we were demoing the songs in the practice space, we would all step up to the mic and try to find a decent vocal melody that we all liked. Brent [Hinds, guitarist] sings a lot on this record, but I think I sing the majority on it. A lot of the guys thought my voice sounded best on certain parts, and it just kind of happened naturally, to the point where I thought, “Holy shit, I’m on the majority of the tracks.” On one hand, I was very honored that my band was into it with the way it sounded, and that they thought my vocals matched the songs best for the part that we were writing. So, I was very honored that my guys had that confidence and faith in me.
On the second hand, I realized that this is going to present a brand-new challenge personally that I’m very excited to step up and accept, meaning that, this 90-minute set that we’re doing every night, I need to be on it. I’ve got more responsibility now. We’re only two gigs into it at this point, but so far, so good. I have adopted a short vocal warm-up that I feel is incredibly helpful, and a small cool-down routine, because I want to preserve this voice. I don’t want to lose my voice 20 or 30 days into this tour. I’ve never lost my voice before, and I don’t want that to ever happen. But, we’ll see. Let’s just say that I’m taking better care of myself overall.
AVC: Mastodon song titles are always interesting and conjure up a lot of images, yet they can be attributed to something as simple as an ’80s arcade game, like with “Blasteroid” off The Hunter. Are the titles sometimes the initial inspiration?
TS: The music always comes first. We like to find a title that matches the feel of the music itself. Lyrics, we always work on last. A lot of times, the lyrical content of the album will have nothing to do with the eventual song title. When we wrote the tune “Blasteroid,” we were playing the video game Blasteroids out in Sound City in Los Angeles, and we thought, “Damn, that song sounds just like a Blasteroid!” It just felt like a nice match. Lyrically, it has nothing to do with the actual video game Blasteroids. That’s just the method we use, and it seems to work.
AVC: Do you feel that being a true metal fan is something you’re born with, or is it a taste you can acquire over time?
TS: Shit, that’s a good question, man. I think it’s something that you love at first listen, but I don’t know any babies who are into metal. At least for me and the guys in the band, we’ve all been fans of music from the first second we heard it. Mastodon has a different flavor to it, almost like Indian food. If you’re not sure about it, give it a couple tastes and let it sit. See how you feel about it later.
AVC: Do you see this as a Golden Age for progressive metal? It’s at a point where it doesn’t seem insane to see Kylesa on the Pitchfork Music Festival stage.
TS: Yeah. Bands like Mars Volta are phenomenal and have a massive following. Opeth is a wonderful band, and they’re doing very well. It definitely seems like a very good time for it. It’s a good time for “thinking man’s music,” I like to say. It’s a little more involved, and you have to wrap your head around it. It’s the exact opposite of cookie-cutter generic rock. I’m just glad that it’s working well for our band, and all the bands that we’re touring with and living this lifestyle. I think it’s a little nugget of a Golden Age.
AVC: I’m curious about band dynamics. Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls was the self-described “lukewarm water” of the band. Do you see yourself as a peacemaker or an instigator?
TS: I’m laid-back, man. I’m a peacemaker. Our band is a total democracy. We all take votes on everything. We’re all such good friends as well. I’m the furthest thing from an instigator, I believe. They call me “Peacemaker Sanders.”
AVC: You’re a remarkably stable band, in the sense that you are all really good friends. Do you ever foresee any kind of forced Some Kind Of Monster-type therapy in your future?
TS: I highly doubt it. We all have a huge amount of mutual respect for each other. We’ve been friends for a long time, and I think that brotherhood is only growing stronger with time. It’s a very fortunate thing.