Few forces in heavy metal have been more steadfast over the past two decades than Mastodon.
The Atlanta-based metal band is a reliable anchor for each year's most exciting metal tour and festival bills, and it has authored several of the most consequential heavy albums of this century.
There's little secret to Mastodon's success. The band's uncompromising creative work and relentless touring earned it a reputation as a workhorse in its early career. Bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders tells Q104.3 New York's QN'A that he and his bandmates wore out multiple vehicles during their independent years.
"We went through three vans, just circling the country, playing anywhere that would have us," he recalls. "A basement, a house party, a VFW hall, a dive bar, a sh---- club. Wherever it was, we’d play anywhere for anything."
While Mastodon tours in more comfort these days, the road is still a home away from home, and the imperative to blaze new trails and explore new sounds remains at the forefront.
To that end, Sanders just released his second signature bass with Fender, the Troy Sanders Precision Bass, an updated take on Fender's most revolutionary instrument. He'll tour this spring and summer with his new No. 1, and proudly put it to work in the studio next year, when he expects the band will get around to making its ninth studio album.
"Collectively, we’re always writing music, and that’s fantastic," Troy says. "There are a lot of new songs already that are off to the side. Once the touring cycle wraps up for [2021's] Hushed & Grim, probably at the end of this year … it’ll be like, 'Hey, guys, it’s been two years, are we ready to truly start honing in on new music?' And I know the answer is just going to be yes from all four of us."
Check out the full QN'A below!
Last time we met spoke at our old Q104.3 studios in TriBeCa; Mastodon had just been nominated for a Grammy and you and Bill [Kelliher] came up to speak with Jonathan Clarke. You ended up winning that Grammy! I only bring that up, because a year earlier, the same thing happened with Dave Mustaine when Megadeth won its first Grammy.
Right! I remember seeing Dave Mustaine shortly after that. He pulled me aside and he asked, "Hey, man, when you won that Grammy, what music did they play when you walked down to accept the award?’"
I was like, “Actually, it was ‘Enter Sandman’ by Metallica.”
He was like, “Okay, that was what they played when we won ours, too, and I thought they were f---ing with me.” [Editor’s note: Mustaine and co. walked to the Grammys stage to the tune of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.”]
But that house band, they have to know over 100 little ditties — 10 – 15 seconds — for each genre. So when it’s jazz, they’ve got this little jazz bit that they play. The metal category, they play "Enter Sandman,” it’s one of the easiest riffs of all time.
[The house band doesn't] know who wins, they’re going to play the same song no matter who wins. ‘Cause [for Dave], obviously, being in Metallica 40 years ago … it was a little personal.
So you’ve worked with Fender for a long time with your signature Jaguar bass, what are you cooking up this time around?
It’s this *holds up new Precision Bass*. I just carry it around at all times.
Actually, when I first met you was when the idea of collaborating with Fender on a P-Bass began, so it’s been quite a long time coming. Lots of back and forth.
When I approached Fender with a silverburst P-Bass idea, they were very fond of the idea. Whenever there is enthusiasm on either side, that’s the best recipe for a relationship to bloom.
Slowly but surely over the next six years we went back and forth. Covid threw a curve ball in for two, two-and-a-half years with supply chain issues, postponing the release of this bass.
But like writing an album, once you put all the hard work and time into it, once it’s released, it’s out there and it kind of lives forever. Time’s not going to work against me on the release of an album or an instrument or whatever.
It’s been a long time coming. [This month] is when it’s truly birthed into the world and hopefully people who are in the market for a new bass guitar will be stoked on it.
... It’s cool that this is happening. Fender and I, thankfully, built a relationship 15 – 20 years ago, and it’s been healthy and strong ever since. That’s pretty vital in order to work with somebody. Their roster is chock full of legendary artists — Flea, Paul McCartney, Sting, Steve Harris. I know where I fit in, and I’m thrilled they invited me into the family 10 years ago when we released the Jaguar bass. It did really, really well, which was awesome. That was the icing on the cake. I love the Jaguar, I’ve been playing it at every gig for 10 years.
Is your enthusiasm about Precision Basses a recent development? I feel like I've seen more modern metal bands employing P-Basses or Jazz Basses in recent years.
[Early in my career] I started noticing a ‘70s P-Bass in every recording studio. I would walk in with my one or two favorite basses and the engineer/producer … and I promise you this — 9/10 times they would say, ‘Okay, that’s pretty good. Let’s try this one.’ And they would hand me the house bass, a 40 – 50-year-old Fender P-Bass, and they would say, “I’d prefer this one.”
I would always ask, “What is it about these ’77, ‘78s that are everywhere in a high-end studio?” And I don’t know what the answer is beside this 50-year-old piece of wood that over time has just solidified into this most beautiful warmth of a bass tone ever. There’s something there for sure.
You’re coming up on 20 years since the  Leviathan album. Does Mastodon have any special plans to mark that occasion or is it too soon to say?
We’ve talked about a few things to do, yeah. That record was a bold move that we made. [We] didn’t really know if that was going to propel our career. That was our second studio album, so it was either going to be a dealbreaker or put us on the map … ‘cause it was bold to go out there and write a parallel to the story of Moby Dick in a brand new metal band.
That thing kind of blew up in our world and then these massive tours started happening. We definitely spread some ideas to some other bands to get together to do some special things. I hope something cool happens, I think it will.
We don’t want to do just a reissue with a tweaked cover, we’d like to go play the album in its entirety or go out with a band that’s got something similar going on, a package that would just be exciting and celebratory of that record.
That was such a fresh time. I remember I was fascinated and furious at the same time at how my bandmates could write those types of riffs and songs. It was mindblowing in the most beautiful way ever.
Internally, we felt we had something special going on. We always felt like if the four of us love it, that’s really all that matters. Thankfully we all the mindset of waiting for the doorbell to ring with like, “Hey, here’s a tour. Here’s an album deal.”
We went through three vans, just circling the country, playing anywhere that would have us. A basement, a house party, a VFW hall, a dive bar, a sh---y club, wherever it was, we’d play anywhere for anything.
That kind of mindset with that unique chemistry of songcrafting that we were doing at the time was super special and unique.
But to answer your question, I remember, internally, being like, “This is awesome because all four of us are on the same page mentally. And we’re all will to jump in a van and live in a van for no money, in order to get the word out there and bring it to the people.”
It was a very rare, four-way marriage, where we were all firing on all cylinders, wanting to give us the best shot possible to take it to the next level. We wanted to eventually earn a living at traveling and playing music.
That Leviathan time period was vital. We were a workhorse, ‘cause we would be gone for like 200 shows a year for a couple years in a row there. It was nuts. It was great.
The Hushed & Grim album in 2021 was the band's eighth studio album. With this much material in your catalog, how much is writing new music a focus these days?
I think we’re still in that cycle mindset. Collectively, we’re always writing music, and that’s fantastic. There are a lot of new songs already that are off to the side. Once the touring cycle wraps up for Hushed & Grim, probably at the end of this year … it’ll be like, “Hey, guys, it’s been two years, are we ready to truly start honing in on new music?” And I know the answer is just going to be yes from all four of us. We don’t want to sit idle for too long.
There’s lots of music being created on tour. We’re very mild-mannered and there’s a lot of downtime. Bill Kelliher brings his ProTools rig out there, and any idea we have just goes right in. We collect it all. So when a tour cycle wraps up we have this library of ideas to start digging in on, putting together and learning as a band and getting ready for the next record. So we get excited about writing new music.
I can see that happening much sooner than later, for sure.