Troy Sanders talks Mastodon's early days, Pixar and being the band pastry chef
BASS EXPO 2013: Since bassist Troy Sanders and his friend virtuoso lead guitarist Brent Hinds bumped into powerhouse drummer Brann Dailor and rhythm juggernaut Bill Kelliher at a fateful High On Fire show in 2000, Mastodon have become, arguably, the most important heavy band on the planet.
Pioneering, challenging and yet still supremely listenable, not to mention, fun - they've fearlessly used their elephantine feet to tread new ground with each of their five albums - most recently 2010's The Hunter.
The winds of change are a-blowing once again though and as the band begin writing sessions on a new record, we caught up with the band's bass supremo Troy Sanders - the warm heart at the centre of the group - to find out about Mastodon's first sessions, how the band came to contribute a song to Pixar's latest, Monster's University, and to bag some exclusive information on his new Fender signature model...
What's your very first memory of playing the bass guitar?
"I stole my brother, Kyle Sanders' left-handed Lotus when I was approximately 13 and attempted to learn my first song on bass, which was Lick It Up by KISS. I was hooked from there. My older brother Kyle was in high school playing in a band and I saw them playing some Van Halen and Cheap Trick covers and I realised that was the coolest thing in the world and I had to follow in his footsteps."
KISS - Lick It Up. The first song Troy learned on bass
How did you go about developing your bass playing from that point?
"I remember just being incredibly driven from that very day up until now to make it my lifestyle. It just felt like a perfect fit. Seeing bands like KISS with Gene Simmons and then Cliff Burton and Michael Anthony and all those guys just kind of opened my ears to hard rock. I was just beyond intrigued and just by being the recluse teenager and locking my door and learning songs by ear, it slowly but surely led to where I am today."
"With all of Brent's ability and influences, it really taught me a great deal - just playing with a guitar player that was phenomenal"
Was there a time where, technically, you thought, 'I'm getting OK at this...'?
"A lot of fortunate situations came into play, but I guess the biggest one was in 1994 when, now my guitar player, Brent Hinds moved from Birmingham, Alabama to my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia and we started playing music together. With all of his ability and influences, it really taught me a great deal by just playing with a guitar player that was phenomenal, in my opinion. Eight years later we were forming Mastodon, 13 years later I'm sitting here, thankful enough to be able to speak to you about it."
It's quite well documented how you and Brent met Bill Kelliher and Brann Dailor at a show and the band formed. Can you remember the early rehearsals and what the atmosphere was like then?
"We felt that the stars had aligned. Brent and I went to a High On Fire show in Atlanta at a basement called the Parasite House and Bill and Brann were fresh into town and were at that show as well. Brent and I knew who they were and said, 'What are you guys doing here?' They said they were looking to start something fresh and were looking for a bass player and a second guitar player. So we were like, 'Well - here we are!'
"Later that week we went to a rehearsal space and it was obvious that we could all play our instruments. After a few minutes we went over to Bill and Brann's apartment and, without writing a single riff together, we just started talking about band names, because we knew that it was right."
Bill's a very tight rhythm player, so he helps fill in part of that bassist role - bridging the melodic and rhythmic. Does that change your role within the band's sound?
"Bill's style is definitely the glue that I would say holds Mastodon's music together. He's more solid than a slab of granite. He's phenomenal, so teaming with him and the entire band, but creating a delicious sandwich musically with Bill makes it easy on me, as the little pastry chef I am in the band.
"Everything I do is from the gut. My gut says if it feels right and my ear says if it sounds right, and that's what I go from."
"Everything I do is from the gut, though. My gut says if it feels right and my ear says if it sounds right, and that's what I go from. It's quite a fortunate situation for me as a bass player because I've got these wizard guitar players on each side of me and this thunderous beast of a drummer behind me, so it becomes easier than I would have ever imagined."
Mastodon are a band without restrictions, musically. Where does that come from?
"We are not worried about putting out a certain-sounding song or record and feeling any backlash from a certain genre of fans, or anyone, period. The four of us have always played music that we wanted to create, from the heart. And when we walk out of band practice we're always high-fiving and like, 'Hey, that song was great!'
"Thankfully, that's worked for us and we're not afraid to put out a country record one day; we're not afraid to put out some very slow, sappy, very deep songs; we're not afraid to put out some super-heavy aggressive songs; because if it stems from and for the four of us then we've got no regrets."
Mastodon - All The Heavy Lifting (Live from Brixton)
"The legendary folks over at Fender have expressed the desire and the interest to put out a signature bass for me"
We heard you might have a signature bass in the pipeline. Can you tell us about that?
"The legendary and kind folks over at Fender have expressed the desire and the interest to put out a signature bass for me and that's easily the most humbling and flattering thing that's ever happened to me in the music business, from an individual aspect at least.
"It's going to be a Fender Jaguar bass in Silverburst, which is kind of in the vein of our signature colour for a big period of our career together. It's also the first Silverburst colour scheme that they've done with a signature model. I believe it's going to be Mexican made. That's in the works and it's scheduled to be released to the world in April at the Musikmesse event."
What kind of tweaks are you making to it?
"Well, the standard Jaguar's got a lot of knobs and switches, so there's going to be some simplification, because I feel I'm a simple man and a simple player - and a lot of the time in the rock 'n' roll world, simple is better. Flashback any number of years ago and say, 'Hey, one day in the future you'll collaborate with the folks at legendary Fender', well, I wouldn't believe myself."
Will you be playing it onstage?
"Absolutely. And last year the wonderful folk at Warwick basses custom'd me a Mastodon bass that has the pearl inlays on the neck of four of our icons from four of the records that we've done. Warwick makes a brilliant product, so I'm enjoying playing Warwicks and Fenders."
What's in your tour rig at present?
"My rig consists of a lot of amps that I will take out at various times because I enjoy them all, but currently my signal is split and I run through Orange and also the TC Electronic Blacksmith amp, which is just thunderous and has a beautiful tone. I also stumbled upon this Wren And Cuff Tall Font Russian distortion and that's my main bass pedal now. With Mastodon, I'm distorted probably 70% of the time, so that's really cool."
Are Mastodon working on a new album currently?
"The idea is to dive in to a whole lot of new material over the next few months and just see where it takes us. We're always driven to move forward, but we don't want to put ourselves under any pressure to hurry up. Once you've recorded something, it's out there for eternity and we want to be as happy as possible with it. Hopefully that will get us a big chunk, or at least the skeleton of a record, written before we go overseas to do a lot of summer festivals."
Mastodon have contributed a track to Pixar's new film Monster University
Finally, you've recorded a song for the Pixar film Monsters University. Appropriate given your love of all things monstrous...
"Yeah, we're giant fans of Pixar movies - they're probably some of the best movies ever - so for them to approach us and ask us for a small collaboration, we were stoked to do it. That was a very surprising yet honourable thing to be part of.
"Apparently it was one of the lead animators had a small scene where some heavy music could be played and I understand that we were the first band that they thought of and got a hold of. Thankfully, we were home and were able to knock out a little ditty. Hopefully it will end up in the movie and on the soundtrack, but we'll see!"