With a sound as hairy as their name suggests, Atlanta quartet Mastodon takes the box that is heavy metal and tramples it to smithereens. On their latest release, The Hunter, the band once again redefines their own sound, as well as the definition of metal itself. Bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders took some time out from the band’s most recent US tour to discuss the new record, personal goals, Record Store Day…and mountains.
Mastodon is one of the few bands I’ve found that can explore a different style or concept on every record and still get everything right. Were there any specific people or events that inspired the music on The Hunter?
The biggest event that inspired the bulk of the sound was the fact that we wrote, recorded, and toured Crack The Skye for two and a half years. That was such a layered, complex, emotional journey, and for the bulk of the tour, we would play that record in its entirety, and that was a daunting task. From start to finish, that thing is kind of a beast to play! When we were done with that seventh song, it was like a giant exhale, like a “Phew!” and now we can move on to some older songs that spark up some fresh energy. So, after writing, recording, and touring that record, when we went into the writing process for the new album, it was a knee-jerk reaction to go in the opposite direction, and not pound our heads into the concrete wall trying to write these 9-minute epics. You know, shoehorning a really difficult bridge in between three verses, two crazy choruses, and this long outro, and this massive intro…this time around, it was, “Hey, guys, let’s embrace the simpler side of Mastodon music”, and go the opposite direction that we did on Crack The Skye. We’re very proud of everything we achieved with Crack The Skye, but after living that for over two years, we wanted to make a sharp left turn, and this seemed like the obvious reaction.
This was the band’s first record with Mike Elizondo handling production duties. What made you guys choose Mike for this session?
Yes, he understood and embraced every aspect and angle that we were throwing at him! Around March of this year, he was the first producer to approach us. He flew to Atlanta, took us out for some tacos, and they were delicious tacos! That’s a good way to win us over, simply purchase four tacos. Besides that, he’s a fan, and had wanted to do a record with us since our Blood Mountain days. He just said “Hey, guys, I just wanted to meet you face to face, and say that I’d like to work with you on your new album, and these are some things that I can bring to the table…” And everything that he mentioned was equally important to the four of us, so we shared with him some demos that we had done. He embraced our heavy songs, our psychedelic songs, the slow sweet stuff, the proggy stuff…he really understood everything that we were trying to do. So we befriended each other right away, personally and musically, and we had no desire to look anywhere else. We felt that we were on the same page, and that was the most important thing to us, to be on the same page with the guy who’s going to be our fifth member while we’re in the studio. Looking back, I don’t think we could’ve made a better decision.
So he’s someone you’d use again?
The Hunter marks a further foray into cleaner, more melodic vocals, a process begun on Crack The Skye. Was there an impetus for that, or did it just happen?
Well, as we’re always trying to grow as songwriters, and focus on the art of song-crafting, we’ve slowly but surely realized that melody plays an important part in writing a memorable and unique song. In the past, it was always easy to ignore, as we were focusing the bulk of our energy on the songs themselves. Then it came to lay down vocals, and it was very easy to resort to a less than meticulously thought out vocal pattern. You could kind of be aggressive over anything, and it would work, to some degree. But slowly, and it started a little bit with Blood Mountain, then we really tried to step it up on Crack The Skye, and then more than ever, we focused our time and energy on vocals for The Hunter. It became vital to us that we wanted to create more melody, and a great way to do that is if you can find a proper vocal pattern that marries and matches the music itself, and it just lends itself to the greater good of the song. All of our favorite albums and songs of all time have a wonderful melody that gets in your head, and you fall in love with it. So that’s what we were shooting for. It wasn’t always as easy as we hoped, but sometimes we’d throw around some vocal ideas, and the guys in the band would say, “Yeah, that works”, and we’d just kind of stick with it. Looking back on the recording, putting more time and energy into creating the vocals was definitely a great idea.
The cover art, as usual, is awesome. Did you guys have a hand in the artwork, or was it entirely up to the artist?
No, it’s a complete collaboration. [The Hunter cover artist] AJ Fosik is a guy who can do some epic wood sculptures, and that type of art fascinates us. The Hunter is not based on wood itself, but there are a lot of references and phrases that deal with the element of wood: the trees, the forest and such. So having a carving of wood was a perfect fit! And we’re always fascinated with mythological creatures, so this triple-jawed Minotaur type head was right up our alley. As soon as we began sharing ideas with AJ, he started to work right away, and he created something that looks so damn slick, it looks fake. It’s that good! He spent hours on it, just as we spent hours in the studio simultaneously, so these two pieces of work coming together, it just seemed like the perfect fit. It made for a wonderful marriage of art and music!
What’s the writing process for Mastodon? Is it primarily one member writing, or a more collaborative effort?
A year ago, when we were on the Blackdiamondskye tour, which was Mastodon, Deftones, and Alice In Chains, we were surrounded by a lot of very genuine people. Both of those bands have overcome very tragic experiences, Deftones with their bassist, and Alice In Chains with their lead singer, but they were still up there every night, killing it! It was a very inspirational tour to be a part of, and having so much down time as the opener on that tour, we would have practice amps set up in our dressing rooms. The skeleton of what would become The Hunter was actually created while on that tour. When we got home, after the holidays, we started sifting through all these ideas, and realized that we had the bulk of a record! It was just a matter of taking those pieces and starting to put that puzzle together. That was a very inspirational part of The Hunter as well, being a part of that tour.
So it’s not all business at hand until you get back home?
Yeah, but only if it comes naturally. We’re not going to sit down and say, “Guys, we need to start writing something right now!” We let it come to us. You know, [guitarists] Bill [Kelliher] and Brent [Hinds] will sit down, every day, for either one minute or an hour, and just start playing the guitar, because that’s what they live to do, have a guitar in their hands. So we just let it come to us naturally, we feel that’s the best way to create, when something inspires you authentically, without being forced.
Scott Kelly makes an appearance on this album, as he did on Leviathan, Blood Mountain, and Crack The Skye. How did you guys get together with Scott initially?
Well, we’ve all been hugely inspired by [Scott’s band] Neurosis, even before Mastodon formed. But we befriended Scott along the way, when Mastodon supported Neurosis back in ’02 at The Trocadero in Philadelphia, and from there, we formed a great relationship with all the members of Neurosis, personally and musically. Now, every time we write a riff that sounds like a Neurosis-ish part, we always call Scott, send him the files, and he’s always like “I’ll drop anything to start knocking that out.” It wasn’t pre-planned over the last four records, there’s just been a riff that we could hear Scott’s voice over, and every time, he’s more than happy to collaborate with us.
So it’s just been coincidence, it wasn’t a case of “Hey, we need to put Scott on this record”?
Right, we never intend to write a part for him, it just comes naturally, which is the best way for it to come.
The band is currently on tour with Dillinger Escape Plan and Red Fang. Is there any band that you guys haven’t yet traveled with, but hope to in the future?
The only band that’s left on our list to share a stage with is Judas Priest, and we’re hoping that will happen in the summer of 2012. So, once we check their name off, our list will be complete!
You can die happy?
Yeah… We’ve been fortunate enough to share a stage or tour with all of our musical heroes.
And you’ll live with the fact that K.K. Downing is not in the band anymore?
No, our friend Richie [Faulkner] took his place. Richie’s cool as hell!
For Record Store Day 2012, Mastodon plans to team up with Feist for a split 7”, in which you’ll cover one of their songs, and they’ll cover one of yours. Any ideas as to which songs you’ll be trading?
No, we’re currently in the works, trying to narrow that down, as we only have a small window to make it happen, for us anyway. Our current US tour is ending tomorrow (12/2/11), and we fly to Europe in January to start our tour over there, so we have to have it done and recorded within that one-month span. And when you throw in all the holidays, and New Year’s, we need to get on that right away. So we’re currently narrowing it down, and we will track it in December.
Any clues as to what Feist might cover of yours?
When we met them two months ago, in London, Ms. Feist said she was leaning towards doing “Oblivion” [from Crack The Skye]. But that was two months ago, so I don’t know if they’ve narrowed down what they want to do yet. But anything that they choose, I know it’s going to be beautiful, and whatever we choose, I’m confident that it will be rockin’! And we always embrace change, we never fear to expect the unexpected. I think it’s a good thing, I think it will be very unique. Ultimately, it’s being done because we support independent record stores, and we believe that Record Store Day is vital and extremely important.
If you had to pick one favorite venue, which would it be?
I would say it’s the mountain, I forget the name of it, so this might not do any good. We played three gigs in Greece, it’s this outdoor area right in front of this massive face of a mountain. That’s been the best. I forget the name, but where all the Sonisphere Festivals are held. [Troy was thinking of Terra Vibe Park in Athens, Greece] Anything of epic proportions fascinates us, such as a giant mountain.
So if I hope to lure Mastodon to one of my parties, I need a giant mountain?
Yeah, or a big-ass oak tree, or something…a whale carcass… Any of those would do.
What’s the most fucked up place you’ve ever slept while on the road?
I slept on a pile of cat litter! In the early days, it was ’02 in Binghamton, NY, and this group of kids was gracious enough to have us sleep over at their house, when we couldn’t afford one Motel 6 between the six of us. The four of us woke up, looked at each other, and we all had cat litter stuck to our faces! You know, one of the prouder moments of being a rock ‘n’ roller…
When you’re not shaking the walls with your bass guitar, what do you do for fun?
Oh, I like to lay low at home, because we’re away from our homes eight or nine months of the year. Just reconnecting with family, and having that sense of normalcy is very important to me, personally. I like to buy groceries, and cook them, catch up on movies, and just be a family man.
What albums are you currently listening to?
The only album I’ve listened to this whole month has been the new Feist record because we’re trying to figure out what song we want to do.
So you’re definitely covering something off of the new one?
Yeah, we’re going to do something off their latest one, Metals. Other than that, as my ears are exposed to the daily grind of being on tour with Red Fang and Dillinger Escape Plan every night, I don’t feel much urgency to continue listening to music while I’m out here. It’s more of a decompression thing, for my head and my ears.
Any messages for the fans before we go?
We’re just thrilled that anybody is supporting us. There’s a lot of Mastodon love to go around, and we appreciate people letting us invade their lives, ears, brains, and nervous systems, and we appreciate the energy in return.