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Mastodon’s Troy Sanders: “There’s got to be a stronger word than ‘humbled’, and whatever that word is, that’s what I’m feeling”

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon / Future)

Mastodon bassist Troy Sanders has been busy - he’s put out a cover version of the most famous song in rock history, and then there’s the small matter of joining Thin Lizzy...

Mastodon are a unique band: definitely heavy metal in flavour and progressive in nature, but a million miles away from anything that would usually be associated with the familiar ‘prog-metal’ tag.

Partly this is due to their expansive sound, epic rather than granular in focus, but it’s also a lot to do with the Atlanta foursome’s classic rock influences, as we found out when Mastodon recently covered Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’. You’d think a band would need serious cojones to dare to cover the most iconic heavy rock composition of all time (okay, maybe Bohemian Rhapsody comes close) and indeed you’d be right, says bassist Troy Sanders.

Led Zeppelin was Nick’s favourite band and Stairway was his favourite song

“We know that people consider it borderline illegal to cover Stairway To Heaven, of course,” he tells us. “In the real world it’s a pointless venture, but in our world it was very special, and it turned out to be wonderful.”

Mastodon recorded Stairway in honour of their manager Nick John, who died of pancreatic cancer in September 2018. The idea came about after they performed the song at his funeral. 

“Led Zeppelin was Nick’s favourite band and Stairway was his favourite song, so when we were asked to perform it at his funeral, of course we said yes,” says Sanders. “It wasn’t fully acoustic; we used small amps, because the building held several hundred people, but it wasn’t a full-on electric assault either.

So many people came up to us and told us that it was a wonderful way to close the ceremony, and that it had given the service a positive ending. Funerals are miserable, so we were pleased that we were able to put a speck of shining light on it.”

He continues: “Joe Duplantier from Gojira was in the church and he recorded it on his phone, and when we listened back to it we realised that it wasn’t bad. Then we figured out that we could record a studio version and do two good things with it: one, release it on vinyl for Record Store Day, because we’re constantly trying to support independent music retailers, and two, put all the money raised from it into the Hirshberg Foundation For Pancreatic Cancer Research, making it a win-win situation. It’s important that people know about those two reasons.”

The vinyl release of the song, released as Stairway To Nick John this past May, sold out quickly, but you can still make a donation at pancreatic.org and download the song at mastodon.lnk.to/stairway.

Thick slab of Thin Lizzy

Sanders has had a busy year thus far, with Mastodon touring alongside fellow uncategorisables Coheed & Cambria and playing their 2009 album Crack The Skye in its entirety. For those shows, he’s been deploying a killer range of gear: 

My main basses are my signature Fender Jaguars, of course, but for all the low tunings we have, I take out my Warwick

“My main basses are my signature Fender Jaguars, of course, but for all the low tunings we have, I take out my Warwick that I’ve had for 10 years. It handles them better than anything I’ve ever played, so it’s always a part of my live arsenal. I have a signature distortion pedal, made for me by a company called Wren & Cuff, which we worked together to make, and I use a Corona chorus from TC Electronic, but that’s it from a live pedalboard point of view. That’s all I need. I don’t use anything too fancy, and I haven’t changed much over the past few years.”

That said, Sanders does admit to employing a relatively complex amp setup: “I use three of them. I run a Moog Taurus Synth pedal through one of the amps, although which one I don’t know. They’re an Ampeg SVT-VR, a TC Electronic Blacksmith and an Orange OB1. I play what I love and I love what I play!”

Talking of loving what he plays, Sanders experienced perhaps the ultimate fan rush when he was asked to play five forthcoming shows with his heroes Thin Lizzy. 

“What a beautiful warmth that thought sends through my body!” he says. “It makes me so happy. There’s got to be a stronger word than ‘humbled’, and whatever that word is, that’s what I’m feeling. It was such a beautifully odd moment when [Lizzy guitarist] Damon Johnson reached out to see if I was willing and able to do the 2019 Thin Lizzy shows across the UK and Europe. Thankfully my schedule allows that.”

Thin Lizzy have featured some world- class bass players since the band reformed in 1996, a decade after original frontman Phil Lynott’s untimely death. How is Sanders going to approach the shows - which must be the ultimate Precision-plus- pick gig ever, we assume?

“I think so!” he agrees. “I picked up a pretty sweet American-made gold sparkle P-Bass that plays wonderful, and the songs definitely sound better with a pick. I’m just diving down into their catalogue and setlist now - and it’s turning out to be the greatest bass lesson I’ve ever taken. I will definitely emerge from this experience a better person and a better bass player. How can it not affect me? It’s amazing. It warms my soul, man.”

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