Troy Sanders Keeps it Low & Rocking with Mastodon

On September 8, 1989, the day Troy Sanders turned 16 years old, he got his driver’s license, picked up a local newspaper, looked at the musicians wanted ads, and drove to his very first band practice.
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On September 8, 1989, the day Troy Sanders turned 16 years old, he got his driver’s license, picked up a local newspaper, looked at the musicians wanted ads, and drove to his very first band practice. “Thankfully,” he says, “I’ve never looked back.” Sanders was completely focused from an early age, cutting his teeth in bands like Four Hour Fogger, Knuckle, and Social Infestation before hooking up with his Mastodon cohorts—guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds, guitarist Bill Kelliher, and drummer Brann Dailor—in 2000. Heavily influenced in those formative years by his brothers Kyle (now the bass player in Hellyeah) and Darren (currently Troy’s bass tech), Sanders’ passion for the craft has never waned. “The fire inside that has fueled my persistence has yet to be extinguished. I still do what I love and I love what I do.”

Fifteen years into his career with Mastodon, Troy’s fiery attitude is totally evident on the band’s latest (and sixth overall) release, Once More ’Round the Sun. Just after Kelliher’s ominous 12-string acoustic intro on album opener “Tread Lightly,” Sanders comes crashing in with his unmistakable roar. The pummeling continues on songs like the title track and “High Road,” where the band melds psychedelic guitar work and intense polyrhythmic grooves, creating the kind of enigmatic union of sounds that has become synonymous with the band’s name. Mastodon may continue to be categorized as a metal band, but Once More ’Round the Sun draws equally from classic rock, psych, stoner, doom, prog and thrash. Sanders and company are more interested in personal growth than categorization.

The album was produced by Nick Raskulinecz (Rush, Alice In Chains, Deftones) at his Nashville studio in fall 2013, and the results of this first-time partnership are simply electric. As with many Mastodon records, Once More ’Round the Sun carries a theme. “The title itself deals with a cycle,” clarifies Sanders. “Writing, recording, and touring are kickass experiences that we get to relive over and over again. We’ve got the ability to strap it on and go out another time. I look forward to riding this out again with my three friends.”

What did Nick Raskulinecz bring to the table?

He’s a rock & roll dude. He’s done the past couple of Alice In Chains records, he’s done a couple of Deftones records, Ghost, Rush. He lives and breathes rock & roll. The work would not begin each day until Nick spun at least two vinyl records, to set the vibe. He’d come in and pick out Kiss Alive or a Van Halen or Cheap Trick record and just chit-chat and rock out before we actually began to rock out.

Mastodon; Sanders, far right Was he involved in writing and arranging?

We had the bulk of everything sorted out, but Nick definitely had some ideas about arrangements. We always consider the producer a fifth band member. We’ll try anyone’s idea. Every thought and idea is ultimately for the greater good of the song, and if you treat every song like that, you should be able to build a very strong album. I thought Nick did a great job. I like that dude a lot.

At what point in the recording process did you track your bass?

We tracked the bass after the guitars. It’s more efficient for me to lay the bass down after the guitars have been done, because there are a lot of intricacies in what Brent and Bill play, so it’s easier for me to marry and match my parts once their tracks are laid. It makes perfect sense for our band to do drums and guitars first, then start working on the bass.

How did you record your bass?

We went the three-channel route: a DI, a clean amp, and a dirty amp in order to give Nick some options while mixing. I don’t remember the DI he used, but there was a combination of three amps of mine: an Orange, some Mesa Boogie stuff and my TC Electronic Blacksmith head that I love.

Did you use your new Fender Jaguar?

I used a plethora of basses on this record. I’ve always considered all of my basses and all of my effect pedals my toys. They are all part of this hobby that I love. I did use the Jaguar a lot, and I also used my Warwick Streamer a lot. I picked up an old 1973 Rickenbacker on a song or two. I went out and purchased a 12-string from Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick. Finally, I own one of those now, so I can check that off of my wish list. I played it on a song that didn’t make this record; it’ll be on our next one. We have loads of songs left over. I was also able to use an old fretless Gibson Ripper that Nick owns. They’re all toys to me, and I enjoy having loads of options.

What’s the breakdown on the tunings you are using?

We have three tunings. The first one is everything dropped one whole-step to D [DGCF]. We call that our standard tuning. From there we go to drop C with the bottom string, and then we also go down to A. Those three tunings make for heavy riffage, for sure.

What’s your approach to the song in terms of creating bass lines and using effects?

I understand my role in Mastodon. I’m flanked by two wizards of guitar, and I’m fortunate enough to play next to a mountain of a drummer. So, there’s a lot going on. Ultimately, simplifying for the greater good works wonders in this band. However, when we go to slower, spacier parts, I find it easier to take the bass for a little walk or do my little movements here and there that add some layers to what we’re already doing. It needs to be tastefully done. I’m distorted a lot because we have a lot of heavy tunes, but I also use a little chorus, flange, or wah and apply them using baby steps. I enjoy it, but I’m not doing it for any reason other than to make the song more interesting and tasteful.

You can certainly hear that in the tune “Halloween.”

Yeah, if it makes sense, I’m going for it. I’m definitely not trying to outshine my bandmates or trying to show off. I’m a bass player—I just like keeping it low and rocking. It’s like the warmth of the guts around the bones of the band.

Do you have all the bass lines figured out before singing, or do the parts evolve together?

We always focus on the music first, and that does rear its ugly head later when the vocal becomes its own thing and you realize it’s a completely opposite pattern or melody from the music. Once the album is recorded and we start to gear the songs for the live environment, that’s where the repetition of practice comes in. It’s like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time. We have to practice our asses off to pull off these songs live, because we don’t record our vocals in the studio while we’re playing. We do it piece by piece, which presents a level of difficulty later, but that’s cool. It’s one of the things that makes us a multi-dimensional band. I take pride in the vocal challenge. Between Brann, Brent, and myself, we call ourselves the “vocal tag team.” It’s a fun challenge.

Do you remember the first song you ever learned to sing and play?

It was “Lick It Up” by Kiss, and I remember being so proud. I was like 10 or 12 at the time. It’s just riding eighth-notes on the A, singing, “Lick it up, Lick it up, whoa, oh, oh . . . .” So it’s pretty damn simple, but it was a big deal and it was a triumphant moment for me—sitting alone in my bedroom borrowing my older brother Kyle’s left-handed bass. It was a brief feeling of victory.

Would you consider Kyle to be one of your main influences?

Kyle is four years older than me, so when he was in high school he got this band together and they were covering Cheap Trick, Van Halen, Heart, and loads of other rock & roll songs. I would go see them practice down the street at John Connolly’s house, who’s now the guitar player for Sevendust. I remember watching them play and growing their hair long, and I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world. I knew that was what I wanted to do. I basically followed Kyle’s footsteps for the next several years and just did everything that he did. I picked up the bass and learned all of his favorite songs from bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Kiss. My younger brother, Darren, turned me on to punk stuff like Bad Religion and the Clash, so as far as musical inspiration goes, I got the best of both worlds.

I read that Thin Lizzy was a big influence.

Phil Lynott was an amazing player, an amazing vocalist, an amazing presence, and he lived too short of a life. In many aspects of life I’m a late bloomer; Brent turned me on to Thin Lizzy when we first met. They certainly are one of the many influences that we connected on when all four of us met and decided to form Mastodon.

You recently participated in the supergroup Killer Be Killed. How did you approach that, versus how you approach Mastodon?

That project was created for the simple pleasure of having some fun with friends—making music the way we did with our very first bands. The goal was simple: Find some friends whose company you enjoy, go into the studio, have no worries, no stress, and no previous releases that you need to live up to or do better than. We just got together because we wanted to write some riffs that felt good to play. We did it in a window of 21 days. It was super simple; we didn’t overthink a damn thing. It was a very therapeutic process for all of us to go through, especially for me, jumping back into Mastodon, which is very meticulously thought out and has multiple layers of music to learn and perform. Killer Be Killed was created for the pleasure of pure enjoyment.

How do you feel you’ve evolved as a musician, and where do you go for inspiration these days?

It’s a rare occasion that the same four guys stay together for as long as we have. Mastodon is almost 15 years old. It can be difficult to maintain relationships in life, whether it’s your best friend or fiancée or wife. We all had the idea that it was going to take an intense work ethic to get this off the ground. We were very eager to become road dogs and take our music to the people and not just sit at home and wait for good things to happen. That mentality still has not changed. We still enjoy each other’s company, we enjoy traveling the world together, and we find inspiration from various places, whether it’s food, or a beautiful mountain range we’ve never seen before. We’ll go visit the ocean in Greece and then the next day we all write a song together. So far, it’s been a great thing and we still feel it’s continuing to move onward and upward. We still feel like we’re ascending the mountain and have not yet reached the peak.

INFO

LISTEN

Mastodon, Once More ’Round the Sun [2014, Reprise]

EQUIP

Basses Fender Troy Sanders Jaguar, Warwick Streamer Stage II, Zon Sonus Custom 4
AmpsTC Electronic Blacksmith, Orange AD200B MK 3, Mesa/Boogie Big Block 750, Ampeg SVT-VR
Cabs TC Electronic RS410, Orange SmartPower SP410, Mesa/Boogie RoadReady 8x10
Strings Dunlop Nickel Wound (.045–.105)
Effects TC Electronic Corona Chorus, Wren and Cuff Tall Font Russian Distortion, Dunlop 105Q Cry Baby Bass Wah
Etc. TC Electronic PolyTune Classic tuner

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