By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Delivering an innovative style of heavy music that draws on elements of hardcore punk, ’70s progressive rock and sludgy ’90s metal, Atlanta-based foursome Mastodon has been making its unique style of pummeling hard rock for the better part of two decades.
Coming together when former members of noise-punk band Today is the Day Brann Dailor (drums) and Bill Kelliher (guitar) met Troy Sanders (bass) and Brent Hinds (guitar) at a High on Fire show in 2000, the musicians discovered they had a mutual interest in iconoclastic sludge-rock outfits Neurosis and Melvins as well as the twin-guitar classic rock of Thin Lizzy. Though the band originally had a singer, by the time the group issued it’s debut Lifesblood EP on Relapse Records in 2001, the band had trimmed down to it’s current quartet line-up.
Their first proper album Remission followed a year later, establishing Mastodon as a force to be reckoned with. Powered by the technically accomplished fury of Dailor (who plays like original Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo channeling jazz giant Elvin Jones) and featuring the labyrinthine riffs cooked by by Hinds and Kelliher, the group put out one of the most talked about metal albums of 2004 with their widely praised sophomore effort Leviathan. A conceptual recording that drew inspiration from Melville’s epic “Moby Dick” and Dailor’s avowed affection for progressive rock, the pulverizing album topped many year-end “best of” lists and is still hailed as a masterwork over a decade later.
The band would continue exploring concept albums on the next two recordings, branching out with a wider palette of sounds that embraced psychedelia on 2006’s epic Blood Mountain and its follow-up, the emotional 2009 opus Crack the Skye that found the band going even deeper. Inspired in part by the suicide of Dailor’s sister when she was only 14, the album unspooled an allegorical tale revolving around astral projection, Stephen Hawking’s wormhole theories, the exploration of the spirit world and the planned assassination of the mad monk Rasputin in Czarist Russia.
While Mastodon would depart from the concept album template for their next two efforts exploring a more traditional hard-rock sound — 2011’s The Hunter and Once More ‘Round the Sun in 2014 — the quartet’s latest salvo for Warner Bros. Records marks a return to using an album to tell a thematic story. A rumination on time and mortality that was heavily influenced by the battles with cancer being fought by several friends and family members — including Kelliher’s mother, who succumbed to the disease last year — the album follows the tale of the protagonist who has been sentenced to die in a malevolent desert by an evil sultan.
Emperor of Sand features some of Mastodon’s most intricate and pop-minded vocal performances yet, while still embracing the crushing riffs and complex time signatures that have become their signature. The effort became the band’s third Top 10 release in a row, placing high on several Billboard charts while marking Mastodon’s biggest international debut of the group’s career. CBS SF recently spoke with bassist Troy Sanders by phone about the album and their upcoming touring plans just hours before their current jaunt with the Eagles of Death Metal and Russian Circles was set to kick off with the first show in Missoula, Montana.
CBS SF: I was reading that this album had the band’s biggest chart impact of your career, so congratulations on that.
Troy Sanders: Thanks! I appreciate the way we’ve not only held it together and maintained our friendship between the same four guys who started the band back in 2000, but each and every album we’re not trying to write the same album twice. We’re very open to exploring the sounds that each one of us wants to hear and wants to play. We want to make something that’s great and will be timeless. That’s the aspiration and we set the bar high.
But what’s in our power is the riffs that we write, the lyrical subject matter, the melodies. We put the songs in a sequence and then once it’s released into the world, it’s out of our power. So when we get to that point, the four of us are extremely happy and proud of it, and that’s what ultimately the most important thing. If a record were to tank and the four of us love it, hey we give! We tried our best.
But the fact that it was released just last week and people care, that’s the most rewarding feedback we’re getting. We sold a bunch, and the radio is playing a lot of “Show Yourself” and the bulk of our tour dates this next month are sold out. We feel the love coming back. That’s what we hoped for, but we never expected this. We didn’t expect one of our most poppy songs of all time to be spun on modern-rock radio stations all over the country. So right now, everything feels very rewarding as if all the hard work has paid off. At this moment, things are very bright in our world.
CBS SF: I talked to Brann for the first time back when Blood Mountain came out and we discussed how having a concept or storyline can shape the music of an album and give the songs a direction as you’re working on it. Did you come up with theme first for Emperor of Sand?
Troy Sanders: No, actually the theme and the concept revealed itself as we were writing lyrics. We all had direct members in our immediate families that were all nailed with a cancer diagnosis last year in 2016 while we were writing the new record. So it revealed itself in a very obvious way as we were sitting down writing lyrics for the music that it was all about the same thing. There was this anger and open questions. We were writing about time and mortality and evilness; dark and evil circumstances that no one deserves and no one asks for.
So the storyline started of revealed itself at that moment when we realized we were all on the same page without even trying to be. Mastodon tends to pull and reflect off of our immediate and daily experiences with how we create our music and lyrics. It’s very open and very honest and very true. We’re not afraid to dive into the depths of our emotions because that’s an authentic way to create art, and I think it shows. Especially to the people who have followed us for a long time. We’re just four humble and human dudes who are able to channel grief and anger and confusion — the entire spectrum of emotions — through this art that we call Mastodon and attempt to create something beautiful out of something that is very dark.
CBS SF: You definitely went beyond yourselves as far as the vocal performances and the complexity of the vocal arrangements on this album. How early in the songwriting process did you start working on the vocal melodies for the songs on Emperor of Sand? Were the instrumentals essentially done before you started coming up with scratch vocals or were they developed at the same time?
Troy Sanders: We definitely wanted to pay more attention to vocals on this record; more so than ever before. So as each song started getting fleshed out in the demo stages, Brann and I would get together and take turns at humming vocal melodies — whatever came to our head — over each and every part without words. Just humming patterns to each other until we locked in on something that was cool or different or interesting. And once we found patterns that we thought were strong, we’d start filling in the blanks with all these words that were spilling out of us.
For the past several records, we’ve been paying more and more attention to the vocals. The four of us are players first, and we tend to put the vocals off towards the end without as much importance. But for the past few records, and especially on Emperor of Sand, we spent more energy and time trying to get the best voice for the part between Brent, Brann and myself. Trying to get the best lyric and the best phrasing and, most importantly, the best melodies that we could find. We wanted to make this our best vocal record ever.
CBS SF: Is it difficult to determine who sings what? Are there points where you might feel some ownership of lyrics that you wrote with yourself in mind?
Troy Sanders: No we’re a true band in the proper sense of the word. As far as who sings what and where, that’s one of the many things I love about my bandmates is that we can be very selfless. Meaning that I can write the lyrics, but maybe Brent’s voice is best for the part, so he’ll take that part, or maybe Brann writes a lyric but my voice is better for the part. Or any combination thereof. We have three distinct voices between Brent, Brann and myself, so we try to match and marry each voice to a part ultimately for the greater good of the song itself. Sometimes we’ll go in the vocal booth and each take a stab at something and see whose voice is the most fitting. It’s good teamwork.
CBS SF: It seems like you expanded the instrumentation on this album too. In addition to more keyboards and synthesizer sounds, I’m also hearing some exotic instruments, like what sounds like cymbalom or hammered dulcimer on “Clandestiny” at the bridge of the song…
Troy Sanders: Yep. It’s a Hammerchord. We had a surplus of percussion toys to play with and that’s from our drummer Brann. That’s like recess, when you get to dive into a big tub of various percussive instruments. When we can put in more layers, we paint with broader strokes. You go from a two-dimensional drawing, so to speak, and add these layers and other instruments that makes a song more three dimensional. It brings more depth and more life to each song.
Other times we’ll put various layers and realize it’s not necessary, and they come out. But it’s fun. That’s one of the most fun parts about recording in a nice studio when we have time is to put in various sounds and elaborate on the emotion of the song itself and create a bigger and better song. We were working with Brendan O’Brien and he’s a big fan of percussion and he understands our band well. We’re all open to different ideas and if it makes the song better, we’re all for it.
CBS SF: I was also curious what spurred the inclusion of the robot voice on the same song? Is it an ELP nod? It reminded me of the climax to Brain Salad Surgery…
Troy Sanders: We try to incorporate our robot friend on each album if possible. We try to allow some space for him to be involved. It’s a nod to the ’70s, it’s a nod to sci fi and it’s a nod to the future. Basically if it’s robotic, it’s awesome. And we want our robotic friends to collaborate with us whenever possible.
CBS SF: Who’s ever heard of a sh–ty robot, right?
Troy Sanders: Exactly. Who doesn’t love a robot?
CBS SF: “Jaguar God” starts out in a way that reminded me of “Pendulous Skin” from Blood Mountain and made me think it was going to have a similar kind of sweeping denouement for Emperor of Sand, but then it veers off into a couple of the heaviest parts of the whole album. How did you come up with the structure of that tune?
Troy Sanders: Good question. That’s a song that Brent brought in while we were recording. It had this epic peak that had the potential to light a fire for the climactic moment at the end of the record. That’s one thing that Brent is phenomenal at is writing these adventurous pieces that kind of make our jaws drop when we’re in the studio and he’s trying to put it together. It’s like, “Wow, where does this come from?” It’s just something that make Brent so unique. We felt this would be the perfect song to end this journey, both sonically and emotionally.
CBS SF: So when he brought it into the studio, it wasn’t full formed?
Troy Sanders: He brought in these three massive pieces. He’s like, “I’ve got all this. Let’s put it together!” It’s dumping a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle on a table and saying, “OK. let’s make this work, quick!” Trying to wrap your head around it immediately is difficult, but it’s a pretty beautiful challenge. So that was pieced together at the very end of the writing process and right as we were in the studio recording. We showed up that day not knowing what the day would bring and we left having “Jaguar God” recorded.
CBS SF: With this return to recording a full concept album, have you considered playing Emperor of Sand it front to back like you did when touring Crack the Skye?
Troy Sanders: You know, we talked about doing that because we felt it would be a great way to showcase this record, by playing it in its entirety. We’re not doing that tonight, but we’re very open to doing that at some point. Because when we did that with Crack the Skye we thought it was special, and we’re fans of when other bands come through town and play seminal records in their entirety. So we’re open to the idea, but we’re not doing it yet.
CBS SF: Will there be a similar visual component that you had for the Crack the Skye tour where there was different video synched to go with each song?
Troy Sanders: Yes we do. We’re excited about kicking this off tonight, because we have more production than we’ve ever brought with visuals. We feel that it’s very complementary to the music itself. We like watching movies so essentially we have a movie playing behind us. So yeah, it’s all brand new stuff. We actually collaborated with our friend who is from the Bay Area, out of Oakland. He’s this artist known as Skinner who did the album artwork for our last record. We collaborated with him to create these visuals that will be playing behind us every night. The bit that I saw today when we were doing soundcheck was very trippy. If you like outer space and you like psychedelic adventures, I think you’re going to like what we’ve got.
CBS SF: Speaking of visuals, I did have a question about the video you did for “Show Yourself.” While the album’s theme is pretty dark, the video for that song is a really comedic parody of Glengarry Glen Ross. Was that an idea you guys had or did a director come to you with the concept?
Troy Sanders: I think we love the reality of this contrast; the juxtaposition of how we approach are music and how are in real life. The four of us are grounded dudes and we’re quite goofy. We like to crack a smile and have a laugh. When we get together and work on Mastodon, that’s where we sink our emotions and heart and soul. It’s very serious and it means the world to us. But outside of the band, we’re goof offs.
The “Show Yourself” video concept was something that Brann had come up with and we though it sounded hilarious. We went to our video director Robert Schober, who goes by the name Robo Schobo. He’s done five or six videos for us in the past, so we just kind of put it in his hands and let him roll with it. We knew it was going to be great. He did a fantastic job. We want to bring some humor into our music videos, and hopefully people will latch onto it so they’ll watch it again or tell somebody they should watch it.
CBS SF: How did you guys settle on the support acts on this tour? I know you have connections with Eagles of Death Metal through Josh Homme since he’s a past collaborator, though I imagine he’s busy with the new Queens of the Stone Age record. Do you four just start kicking around ideas of who to go out with and then find out who’s available?
Troy Sanders: Yeah, we always have a short list. When we go out on a Mastodon headlining tour and we’re able to choose who we want to bring, we have a short list of bands that we respect and admire and are friends with. If the time frame is aligned, then we can make it work. First and foremost, we want to have people we appreciate being on this bill that we carry around. We want people who buy a ticket to the show to leave extremely satisfied.
We’ve crossed paths with Eagles of Death Metal a bunch of times. We played a bunch of shows with them last summer in Europe doing the festival circuit. Good guys and a fun, talented rock band who just like to bring music to the people. It’s also nice when we bring a band as direct support so we can’t go out there and just phone this s–t in; these bands are talented and they get the crowd going. They’re very capable of headlining on their own. It only ups the bar for us to go out there and be even better and hopefully bring a full package of solid music to the fans.
CBS SF: When I saw that your tour was hooking up with Opeth and Gojira in Philadelphia next month, I was sorely tempted to book a flight. It isn’t billed as another Missing Link Festival like the 2010 show you played the Fox in Oakland with High on Fire and seven other bands, but it seems like that’s pretty much what it is. Has the band considered trying to mount a similar kind of regular festival either in Atlanta or a big day-long touring package like that?
Troy Sanders: Yeah, we’ve talked about the idea of curating our own festival somehow on an annual basis, but it’s still on the back burner. This Philadelphia show just came together when the promoter said, “Hey, this other tour is asking for that same night too. Do you want to combine these two and take it to an outdoor stage with twice the capacity?” We’ve toured with Gojira and with Opeth before and we’re all friends. It was just timing. It’s the tours and the promoter working together to make it one epic night of f–king excellent heavy rock.
Mastodon plays the Warfield in San Francisco with Eagles of Death Metal and Russian Circles on Tuesday, April 18, 6:30 p.m.