Mastodon are a unique band: definitely heavy metal in flavour and progressive in nature, but a long way from the actual ‘prog-metal’ tag that we’re all familiar with. Partly this is due to their expansive sound, epic rather than granular in focus, but also it’s 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 might think that any band would need serious cojones to even dare to consider covering 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.
“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 honor of their manager Nick John, who died of pancreatic cancer in September 2018, after performing the song at his funeral. “Led Zeppelin was Nick’s favorite band and ‘Stairway’ was his favorite 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. 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 could 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 realized 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, all the money raised from it could go to 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 http://pancreatic.org and order the song in digital form at https://mastodon.lnk.to/stairway.
Sanders has had a busy year thus far, with Mastodon touring alongside fellow uncategorizables 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 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. Nothing too fancy, I haven’t changed much over the past few years.”
That said, Sanders does use 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 was 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 into their catalog and setlist now – and they’re the greatest bass lessons 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...”
Basses Fender Jaguar Signature bass and Precision, Warwick Custom
Effects Moog Taurus Synth Pedals, Wren & Cuff Elephant Skin signature distortion pedal, TC Electronic Corona Chorus
Amps Orange OB1, Ampeg SVT-VR, TC Electronic Blacksmith, Orange 4x10 SmartPower cab, Mesa Boogie 8x10 RoadReady cab