Troy Sanders: “I Still Feel That Fire In My Belly Being In Mastodon”
2019 was a year of triumph and tragedy for the Mastodon bassist and vocalist – all fuel for a busy 12 months ahead…
How did 2019 treat you, Troy?
“A little good and a little bad. Focusing on the good, Mastodon continued to be happy and healthy. We did an overseas tour with [Neurosis frontman] Scott Kelly early in the year, which was really enlightening. Then we did a six-week run across the United States, sharing stages with the excellent Coheed And Cambria. It was our third time around the States on [2017 album] Emperor Of Sand and we didn’t know whether the interest was still there, but the crowds kept growing and growing. We don’t ever take that for granted. We get home, hug each other and say, ‘I love you guys, that was amazing.’”
Tell us more about that enlightenment…
“You’ve got maybe 75 minutes onstage each night, but you’ve got about 23 hours off it, and we very much enjoy Scott’s company. Neurosis are influences on us as a band and as people. Scott’s so thoughtful, deep and open. He’s very much still a growing person who loves to speak to and learn from other people. He’s a beautiful soul. It felt like we’d come full circle, where he’d gone from being an important artistic influence to a profound personal one. When we realised he’d done six single songs across six albums with us, and that we had that 30 minutes of material we could perform as a set, it felt like a magical opportunity to take him out with us.”
Speaking of hero worship, how cool was it getting asked to play bass with Thin Lizzy?
“I was in Hamburg, Germany in February, having just finished a show, when my guitarist got a message from [guitarist] Damon Johnson, asking if he could have my number because Scott Gorham was firing up the band for a few shows over the summer, and they wanted me to play bass. I had to sit down for a second and ask if it was real. I’ve known Damon for a long time, but I never take anything like that for granted. Mastodon will be 20 years old [in 2020], but every time we get together to rehearse I still feel that fire in my belly as a band. That’s special. But to be actually asked to play for Thin Lizzy is a different kind of special. It’s humbling on a personal level, too, because I know there are hundreds of excellent bass players out there they could’ve asked. How and why my name got called first, I don’t know. They’re one of the greatest rock bands ever, so it really warmed my heart to get that call.”
What was the best show you played this year?
“That first night with Thin Lizzy, on a mountaintop in Wales [at Steelhouse Festival], was hard to beat. It was this beautiful setting, this special occasion with maybe 5,000 people watching, and I got to go out, have a good time and smile while watching thousands of people smiling back. The intangible circle of musical magic that’s created from a band into a crowd and back felt like it culminated on that mountaintop. I was grinning ear to ear. It was like a dream.”
You’ve been working through some grief, though, too…
“We lost both our tour manager and band manager last year. Nick John had managed our band for 15 years, and he died of pancreatic cancer. He was our best buddy and our biggest fan. He was really our friend before he was our manager. After seeing us play at this little show in New Jersey in 2004, he took us from nothing to being on Ozzfest within three months. I wouldn’t even be talking to K! if it wasn’t for him. Our tour manager Bob Dallas passed away, too. Artistically, we usually respond well to tragedy. It’s all part of life. It’s going to happen one way or the other. The four of us are brutally thankful that we have Mastodon to channel that energy through, to find something beautiful and to create something that lasts forever.”
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So you’ve been making new music?
“We’re constantly creating. When we’re out on tour, we’re always coming up with lyrics, riffs or half-songs on voice notes and the Pro Tools rig we take out with us. The long touring process for Emperor Of Sand ended in July, and we all took a couple of months off. Then we all started calling each other with the itch. Through November, we’ve been in Atlanta sifting through ideas. We’re always moving forward.”
The one Mastodon release in 2019 was your cover of Stairway To Heaven. Although it was a tribute to Nick, that felt like a daring move. How was the reception?
“We’re more than aware that the majority of the music world would consider covering Stairway To Heaven borderline illegal. You’re shooting yourself in the foot if you think you’re going to do it any kind of justice whatsoever. But Led Zeppelin was Nick’s favourite band, and Stairway was his favourite song. We played it there at the end of the service in a church, in front of his open casket, and it felt like the hardest thing. Joe Duplantier from Gojira was in the congregation, and he hit record on his iPhone. Later that night, we were sitting there in horrible moods, feeling gutted, but when he played it back, we felt proud of how it sounded. Then the idea was floated that we could record it properly, put it out for Record Store Day and give all the proceeds to the Hirshberg Foundation For Pancreatic Cancer Research. To be given that chance to help independent record stores and raise a lot of money for this great foundation was just a win/win situation.”
So, finally, what’s on the horizon in 2020?
“I’m gonna go skiing in Utah, I’m going to put out a new Gone Is Gone record, and hopefully there’ll be a new Mastodon album, too. Onward and upward – that’s the motion!”
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