Progress Report: Mastodon
During the course of more than a decade, Mastodon has morphed from a small metal band with a dogged work ethic to one of the biggest heavy bands on the planet. Their breakthrough moment was the brilliant 2004 album Leviathan, which turns 10 this year. With each year, the band has both built their audience and diversified their sound. Mastodon recently entered Rock Falcon Studios outside of Nashville to record with Grammy-winning producer Nick Raskulinecz, who has worked with some of the biggest names in rock (Foo Fighters, Alice In Chains and Rush). Bassist and co-vocalist Troy Sanders caught up with Stereogum from the band’s rehearsal space in Atlanta to discuss the album and tell us what to expect.
STEREOGUM: Where do things stand with the record?
TROY SANDERS: It’s in the mixing process. We wrapped up recording early in February at Rock Falcon Studios. I think it’s going to be great but you don’t approach it as a whole until all the mixes come in. In the studio you’re just working on one song for hours and hours, then moving on to the next one. You get your appetizer, entrée and soup and salad but you can’t digest it all until the meal is over. That’s where we are now. I like food analogies.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a working title?
SANDERS: We have a few ideas, but no, I don’t think so. [UPDATE: The title will be Once More Round the Sun. -Ed]
STEREOGUM: When you weren’t recording in Nashville, what did you do?
SANDERS: We did a whole lot of nothing. Franklin is about 15 miles outside of proper Nashville. We woke up, went to the studio, stayed till about 10 at night and then went back to the hotel, then repeat. None of us had any desire to go out and throw down so to speak. We did what we needed to do and got out of there. The coolest thing that I did was visit George Jones and Johnny Cash’s grave sites. I’m a gigantic fan of classic country. It was a beautiful couple of moments. Other than that, no one had any desire to open the party box. We had 15 songs and wanted to see where they would take us.
STEREOGUM: What was the experience like?
SANDERS: George Jones changed my life. I’m fascinated and deeply in love with classic country but George Jones is my favorite artist of all time. I got to see him perform five times and wanted to go visit his grave. It wasn’t a sad moment but a celebratory moment. When I got turned on to George Jones in the 90s, I just dove in headfirst. It spiraled from there and I dove into Ray Price and Porter Wagoner and all the country legends. That was a highlight outside of the actual recording. It was very enlightening.
STEREOGUM: Did you leave anything for him?
SANDERS: I did not. Nashville obviously has a giant history of bluegrass and country and the Grand Ole Opry is there. It was just a cool visit.
STEREOGUM: What was it like working with Nick? He’s done a lot recently, including his work with Ghost B.C.
SANDERS: Nick is a kickass dude, and when it comes to engineering and producing, he is the rock and roll guy. We bonded with him before on a personal level, which you need because you will work with [producers] for days on end. He’s a very hands-on kind of guy, there every moment. I think he truly brought out the best of our ability. We feel like something is good enough, but he is always saying we can do things better. He wanted to capture us at the best of our ability. He also helped Brent [Hinds, guitar], Brann [Dailor] and I get good vocal performances. We know our instruments well but when it comes to vocals he was a trusted and respected fifth member. He helped us explore ideas.
So Nick was wonderful. He’s a friend and a fabulous rock and roll record producer. We’re also fans of the stuff he has done with Queens Of The Stone Age, Alice In Chains, the past two Deftones, the recent Rush and the recent Ghost record. It was great to pair us up.
STEREOGUM: Were there any suggestions about tweaking your sound?
SANDERS: We brought up all our gear. Here and there he would say something like: “I hear this particular amp.” We’re always open to trying something musically and vocally. There was a lot of open communication, a lot of trust and respect. He honed in on certain sounds, especially on vocals, and let us know when something was a good take. Or he’d say, “You have something better in you, keep going” and push us for the greater good. It’s easy to get burned out on a song you’ve been doing for months. He’d keep working until things got better.
STEREOGUM: Crack The Skye was a more ambitious effort and people threw around the word prog. The Hunter was leaner and tighter. Where does this record fit in?
SANDERS: Good question. I’ve been asked if it’s taking over where The Hunter left off. We don’t have any preconceived thoughts and notions when we write. We don’t think that we need to have some long, epic songs or we need to have short, upbeat songs. Everything comes off natural through our minds, bodies and fingers. I believe it’s the next honest step in the Mastodon evolution. We’re continuing to carve our own niche. It’s another platter we’ve come up with and it seems to be piecing itself together as a badass rock and roll record.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned you were going from hotel to studio. Is there a different outlook and way to approaching music in the band now that you’re older?
SANDERS: What’s becoming more focused is that we know what we love. The end result has to be that we love it. It’s been this way for a while. If the four of us are in love and married to what we’re doing it’s complete and is a success. We’re the ones who need to live with it and perform the songs for one to two years straight. That’s the most important thing. Hopefully when it’s all said and done, people around the world will love it too.
STEREOGUM: When Jeff Hanneman of Slayer passed away last summer it occurred to me that one of the first times I saw Mastodon was opening for Slayer.
SANDERS: Over the years we were part of nine Slayer tours and we’re friends with them. Jeff was a total sweetheart, like the dude you knew in high school who loved heavy metal and having a good time. His life was wake up, play music, sleep. It was very tragic. I remember being extremely stoked the first time they took us out because it was a giant leap forward for the band. Ever since 2000 we’ve been slowly ascending the mountain. When Slayer took us out it helped expose the band to thousands.
STEREOGUM: Did you talk to him at all about songwriting or music?
SANDERS: No. It was all laidback backstage banter, a bunch of goofing off and drinking and laughing at the silliest things. That was the majority of the conversations. It never entered the deep end, at least I didn’t. He was obviously a huge part of Slayer and had such an impact on the world of heavy music and it was very sad. But he will live on.
STEREOGUM: This summer Leviathan turns 10 years old.
SANDERS: I was just told that we could do a handful of shows this summer where we just play Leviathan live. I think [the record] is great and I’m certainly a fan of longevity. I don’t know many bands that have stayed with the same four guys for the last 14 years. I’m proud of that and think it’s great we are still friends and have the same focus and drive. I remember the four of us were prouder of that record than any of the previous ones. And I’m still really proud of it. It’s still classic in my opinion. But it’s more difficult to create a set list for live shows when you have more material under your belt. This will be our seventh record. That’s sixty something songs and all of us have favorites. Some of us are maybe a little tired of some of them.
I don’t think any of us would be opposed to playing a Leviathan show and a handful of other songs. Today, I’m at my first band practice in nine months. We haven’t played old stuff and we leave soon for Australia. When the guys get here we’ll create a set list.
STEREOGUM: Why am I imagining the members of Mastodon throwing darts at a board with song titles trying to pick a set?
SANDERS: It’s more like baboons throwing feces at each other (laughs). That’s how we operate.
Mastodon will tour later this year with Gojira and Kvelertak. Here are the dates:
04/28 Seattle, WA @ Showbox SoDo
04/29 Portland, OR @ Roseland Theater
05/01 Oakland, CA @ Fox Theater
05/02 Los Angeles, CA @ Nokia Theater
05/03 Las Vegas, NV @ House of Blues
05/04 Salt Lake City, UT @ The Depot
05/05 Denver, CO @ Ogden Theater
05/07 Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue
05/08 Chicago, IL @ The Riviera Theater
05/09 Pittsburgh, PA @ Stage AE
05/10 Toronto, ONT. CAN @ The Sound Academy
05/12 Buffalo, NY @ The Town Ballroom
05/13 Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
05/15 New York, NY @ Terminal 5
05/16 Boston, MA @ The Palladium
05/17 Philadelphia, PA @ Electric Factory
05/18 Columbus, OH @ Rock On The Range Festival