By now, it’s no secret that the members of Mastodon were going through deep personal issues before and during the recording sessions for their latest release, Emperor of Sand. Troy Sanders, in particular, was dealing with his wife’s breast-cancer battle. Although things are much improved this year, Sanders went through a tumultuous period. “I wasn’t even able to join my bandmates until ten days into tracking,” he confesses. “When the heaviness hits and you have to re-prioritize your life, certain things come into question, like, ‘Am I able to be a bandmate, or do I need to focus all of my time at home?’” As all of this was happening in February 2016, Troy hit a wall of frustration, confusion, and anger. “I had to sort all that out personally, so I had to back out of the band for several months.”
In his absence, Sanders’ bandmates, guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher and drummer Brann Dailor, continued writing and demoing material. “One of the many amazing facets about Mastodon is that we continue with momentum. The teamwork perseveres. If I’m not there for several months, those guys are productive without me. The same goes for anyone else—we pick up each other’s slack.” Most of the music for Emperor already existed by the time Sanders showed up, so he instead focused on lyrics and vocal melodies, which allowed him to have a cathartic experience about his wife’s bout with cancer. “The point of doing this record was to try to create something positive at the end of this gigantic, dark, turbulent experience.”
Emperor of Sand was produced by Brendan O’Brien, the man at the helm for 2009’s masterstroke, Crack the Skye [Reprise]. Similarly, it’s a concept album, this time using sand as a metaphor for mortality. There may be more clean singing than ever, a component of their sound that has been evolving over their recent records, but they also flex their chops as did they on earlier affairs like Leviathan [2004, Relapse] and Blood Mountain [2006, Reprise]. Sanders’ playing on Emperor sits in the mix as it always does—ungirding his bandmates’ virtuosity with an undeniable, self-assured selflessness. This humble, gracious attitude toward life, interpersonal relationships, and music has enabled Sanders and company to remain relevant 17 years into their career.
What is it about Brendan O’Brien that made you re-enlist his services?
We were still trying to find our niche vocally on Crack the Skye, and we needed the vocals to complement the very layered and complex music we had written. Brendan was able to help us tap into the triple-tag-team vocal approach that’s become part of our signature. When we were going through all of these personal experiences in 2015 and 2016, it was obvious that the record was going to be deep and personal. Reaching out to Brendan again made the most sense, because we focused more time and energy on the vocals than ever before.
How did being pressed for time affect your personal contributions?
I had to jump in, dig in, and get out. We found a sound that we liked, and I was able to play around with a handful of my favorite distortion pedals.
What are some of the pedals you relied on?
My go-to is my signature Elephant Skin Fuzz. I also busted out my Moog Taurus 3 pedals and laid some bass synth accents, tastefully, throughout the record.
“Tasty accents” seems to be your M.O. in Mastodon.
In the world of Mastodon there’s a lot going on. Brann is just a mountain range of a drummer, and I’m flanked by two incredible guitar players who tastefully layer their parts. The role of the bass—and any sonic flavor I throw in—is going to be simple, warm, and felt; that’s my role in the band. On softer, quieter, more subtle parts, I can exercise a bit of freedom and give the bass some character.
Do you refine your parts throughout the recording process?
When we’re writing, I’m always busier than when we get down to recording. It always tends to simplify for the greater good. And I’m okay with that. I’m a bass player. I’m there to be felt and heard and not to outshine anyone, ever.
Do you ever use a pick, or is it always all fingers?
Live, it’s all fingers. In the studio, sometimes there’s a pattern or a part that just cuts through better with a pick, but I don’t want to deal with that in a live environment. I have footpedals, lyrics to remember, vocals to do, and I have to keep up with the bass notes, so it’s fingers all the way for me. And that comes from my two main influences: my older brother Kyle [Sanders, of Hellyeah] and Cliff Burton [early Metallica].
You’ve had several months to reflect upon Emperor of Sand. What’s your relationship to the material after two major tours?
I’m in a much better headspace, as is my family. At the time, my heart was not fully in it, and I was very angry at everything. I was exhausted mentally and physically from going through the world of cancer every waking moment for a year and a half. This year is looking brighter and brighter, so now I look back and realize that plowing forward like that, through the thick and thin, paid off. Now, I’m deeply in love with the record. It’s not all bubblegum and rollercoasters, but it was necessary. This record was necessary.
Mastodon, Emperor of Sand [2017, Reprise]
Basses Fender Troy Sanders Jaguar Bass, Warwick Streamer Stage II
Amps TC Electronic Blacksmith, Orange AD200B MK 3, Mesa Boogie Big Block 750, Ampeg SVT-VR
Cabs TC Electronic RS410, Orange Smart-Power SP410, Mesa Boogie RoadReady 8x10
Strings Dunlop Nickel Plated Steel (.045–.105)
Effects Moog Taurus 3 Bass Pedals, Wren and Cuff Elephant Skin Troy Sanders Signature Fuzz, TC Electronic Corona Chorus