Three years after the release of Mastodon’s Emperor of Sand, Troy Sanders sat down for a COVID-friendly telephone interview to discuss why the timing felt right to release Medium Rarities, a compilation album of live recordings, B-sides and covers from unexpected artists, as well as the pros and cons of recording and writing new material during a global pandemic. Sanders opens up about how a group of friends with record collections that spanned from ‘Abba to Zappa’ evolved into a heavy metal band, in addition to future plans for side projects such as Killer Be Killed and Gone is Gone.
Photo Credit: Owen Ela
mxdwn: How do you think the new material you are working on compares to Emperor of Sand?
Troy Sanders: How does it compare? Should be an easy answer, but I’ve always had a hard time putting into words contrasts or comparisons. I feel like every record has been like a chapter in the book. This is maybe our ninth record we’re working on – it’s like a whole new chapter. Don’t you think this would be an easy answer? I would think it would, but I have a hard time doing that, actually. We had a very dark environment within our band during the making of Emperor of Sand, and I enjoyed and appreciated the challenge of channeling that dark energy in attempts to create something beautiful that would live forever – you know, that kind of attitude. That’s the same attitude I have now, so at least from the perspective of songcraft we are very driven to make something beautiful and hopefully very moving. And hopefully will touch a lot of our fans and a lot of people around the world, and touch them in a positive way. That doesn’t speak anything of the actual sounds, but attitude can go a long way. So that is the first thing that I think of in comparison: if the drive and the passion that we’re wanting to make a kick-ass album, at least for ourselves, and once we believe that it’s really really as good as it can get and we’re in love with it, that’s all the that power we have. And then it goes out into the world, and we hope people will love it, like it, and listen to it, but that’s out of our control. All we can do is make it as fantastic as we feel we can and really have it affect us in a very powerful way. Sorry for the long-winded answer.
mxdwn: No, that was awesome. Will the material for the new album be similar in sound to “Fallen Torches?”
TS: ‘Fallen Torches’ was recorded about a year and a half ago, shortly after the death of our best friend and manager, Nick John. That was fueled by a very upsetting feeling and a lot of anger, so at the moment that song was written it was reflective of that particular slice of time that we were experiencing. And our new record is being worked on slowly over this past year, and even right now. We’re here in our studio kind of chipping away at ideas and we’ve got loads of songs, in the demo stages, and it’s all coming together now. I’m hoping that the end result will showcase more beauty in the world of that emotional or almost vulnerable state, and maybe not be a 45-minute record of pummeling heaviness. But we’re crafting loads of songs right now, so it’s so hard to say what’s gonna actually be on this record that we’re working on at this very second.
Photo Credit: Boston Lynn Schulz
mxdwn: How has COVID 19 affected the recording and release of the new album?
TS: We didn’t have any specific timeline of a recording, when to write it or when to really hone in on the writing to release it. We were supposed to spend the month of June touring across Europe playing a lot of festivals, but once that got scrapped back in April, we realized that we got the whole year to start working on all the ideas we’ve collected over the last few years. So, just kind of focusing on the positive sides of it, it’s allowed us to spend more time to work on new ideas and kind of honing in. There is something to be said for going into the studio and having spontaneous moments where you create something. A lot of cool magic happens in the studio. But for us if the majority of the material has already been sussed out or hashed out in a nearly full form of a song, then we’re more prepared and we don’t waste too much time or energy or money. This whole shutdown situation has allowed us to spend more time rearranging songs. For myself, I’ll find a vocal pattern, write some lyrics to it, I’ll realize that it’s okay and after two weeks I’m not loving it, so I have time to go back and change that. Or listen to this cool part and say, ‘Guys, I think that guitar solo should go twice as long. It’s so great!’ Because we’ve had more time to be specific with our tunes. I think right now that’s a great thing. We won’t do it for so long that these songs become stale and we’re just driving them into the concrete and it’s becoming monotonous and unenjoyable. Plus, the four of us, knowing that we’re not going to be touring this year and maybe next year, I don’t even know, I’m glad that we’ve had the enthusiasm to want to work on all these songs. And the end result is we have more songs demoed out right now than we’ve ever had on our previous eight records we’ve done. So, we’re in a really good spot, and that’s because of the shutdown thing. It would be easy to complain about all this stuff, but at this moment I’d rather highlight the things working in our favor.
Photo Credit: Raymond Flotat
mwdwn: Can we expect a new album from Gone is Gone in the near future?
TS: Yes! We’ve been working on that over the past year, too. And the answer is yes. I think that a date and an announcement is going to happen very, very soon. We’ve all been able to enjoy our side projects a little bit more, even though it’s been working remotely. From a musician standpoint, jamming with other people and being involved in other musical projects, I’ve always felt is a very healthy thing. It gives you a different outlet, a different environment of musicians and challenges. I encourage it and I enjoy it very much. I’m glad that my other guys and myself included have been able to also work with other people and just be as happily involved as we can be with everything that we’re doing. It’s a bummer to not tour. Not just for us but for the hundreds and hundreds of bands, thousands of bands, probably, that it’s affected, especially since it’s our livelihood. It’s like, ‘Hey, you’re not going to work all year.’ Well, shit. Do I get super bummed out and drink myself to death? Or do I just stay super busy, be creative, and find happiness that doesn’t involve a monetary situation?
mxdwn: That’s tough
TS: I know. We’re not alone. We’re definitely not bitching about it, because there are hundreds and hundreds of people out there that are just like us – thousands, really.
mxdwn: What is the writing process usually like for Gone is Gone and how has that been affected by COVID 19?
TS: We’ve slowly been chipping away on our album for the last few years, as well. I think Echolocation came out in 2017. We’ve just been working remotely, which isn’t horrible. But the preferred method is to get in a room together, because we’re friends and that’s why these bands exist in the first place, is because we enjoy each other’s company, first and foremost and that camaraderie is priceless. But having to do things remotely – we’re still moving with forward motion. It’s still exciting and if it wasn’t rewarding, I wouldn’t want to do it. We’ve been doing a lot of remote writing sessions in the spring and summer. I’m very happy about it, very proud of it.
Photo Credit: Boston Lynn Schulz
mxdwn: Was Gone is Gone’s new song “Everything is Wonderfall” recorded during or before COVID 19?
TS: During. Within the storyline that’s the dream where you realize everything is great. But there is definitely some tinges of darkness throughout the songs and the lyrics, the lyrical subject matter. It will make sense in the grand scheme of the album with where it is placed in the story that we’re telling.
mxdwn: Are there any future plans for new music from Killer Be Killed?
TS: The answer is yes, but I don’t have any specifics. [Editor’s Note: Killer Be Killed announced their sophomore album last Friday] Again, we love each other’s friendship and creative outlet. But amongst the four guys in that band, the family tree of active bands is 17 or 18. So for us to get together and do things is very tough, but we’re always in contact with each other and always wanting to continue and move forward and release a new album. And hopefully play some shows, because we put a record out six years ago and were only able to tour Australia and that was some of the best live shows we ever experienced. We’re still clinging to that energy from five years ago. It’s just a matter of time. We all live by the calendar and it’s always a matter of time.
mxdwn: Has Killer Be Killed recorded any new material since the release of their first album and the tour?
TS: We’re demoed a lot of stuff, so no. But it will happen. It’s just a matter of when.
mxdwn: And will Dave Eilitsch still be on drums going forward?
TS: We have Ben Koller as our drummer.
Photo Credit: Owen Ela
mxdwn: What made Mastodon choose non-metal songs to cover, such as Flaming Lips and Feist?
TS: When our band formed and we all met each other years ago, one of the main reasons that brought us all together was that, once we befriended each other, we would look through each other’s CD booklets that we all had, and right away we knew we could co-exist in a musical creative world because all four of us have a very wide appreciation of all styles of music. It’s not a one-dimensional, ‘Hey, I’m into heavy metal and that’s pretty much it.’ No, it was truly ABBA to Zappa in our CD booklets. You’ve got Beethoven, Bjork, and everything in between – classical music, ’70s prog rock, punk, metal, dance, the whole thing. So, that’s what brought us together. We have incredible appreciation for The Flaming Lips and recording that song was one of the funnest days we’ve ever had in the studio. We love that band – they are an anomaly of a force. We played a show with the band, Feist, and we had never heard of them before, and we were blown away by their dynamics and their rawness. That night we were hanging out with them after the show and we were like, ‘We’ve got to do something together.’ So, we wound up putting out a split 7″. We covered ‘Commotion’ of theirs and they covered our song called ‘Black Tongue.’ We did a limited vinyl release and put it out on Record Store Day to benefit independent retail stores. That was an awesome moment, too. We have a vast sea of musical inspirations. The last thing we would want to do is say, ‘Hey, let’s cover a Slayer song, let’s cover an Iron Maiden song.’ We love those bands, but we like to breathe a little different musical air and express that, too. Covers are fun and when everyone in the band can get behind and get on board with a cover idea. Again, it wouldn’t be as exciting, for us at least if all the songs were expected. I’d like to do a Peter Gabriel song next, and that would lend itself to probably be more unexpected from a band like us. But, the more, the merrier.
Photo Credit: Owen Ela
mxdwn: How do you think live performances will be affected in the future, due to COVID 19?
TS: I haven’t really thought about it too much because it’s a total bummer, and I have no idea when we’re going to return to the stage. But, I would certainly hope that with a proper vaccine in place is when life will return to normal, as far as sports arenas, musical festivals, and packed clubs and theaters. I certainly hope it returns to that. Obviously, a vaccine is important, but is it the only thing to stand between this moment and returning to normal? I don’t know. I’m not really interested in playing half-capacity clubs at the moment, because that energy is different. Thankfully, we’re treading water in the deep end of a new album and that’s occupied my brainwaves.
mxdwn: What made you decide on releasing Medium Rarities now?
TS: Two reasons. Number one: we realized that we had a collection of live songs, instrumentals and these covers, that have never been released properly through digital formats. There’s 10 to 13 songs that we all really like and unless you purchased these limited edition vinyls that come out on Record Store Day and such, you don’t have access to them. So, we wanted to put them all in one big collection. And, along with the new song ‘Fallen Torches’ that we recorded not too long ago, we thought that would be a healthy portion of tunes for our fans. And releasing it now timing-wise makes sense, because Emperor of Sand came out in March 2017 and our new record won’t see light until 2021. This will hopefully be some fresh Mastodon sounds to hold our fans over, or anyone that cares for us.
mxdwn: What was it like making a song for the new Bill and Ted movie?
TS: An absolute honor. I’m a big fan of being fueled by opportunity. When something interesting, unique, or special comes our way, I love jumping on it and saying, ‘Hey, this has been presented to us, let’s do this!’ Especially when it’s someone from within the movie itself that reaches out specifically to us. What a cool opportunity, so we jumped at it.
Featured Image: Boston Lynn Schulz