Mastodon's Troy Sanders: "We Went From Crashing On Cat-Littered Floors To Playing The Biggest Stages With All Of Our Heroes"

Troy Sanders looks back on 20 years of Mastodon and how his wildest rock'n'roll dreams were realised

Mastodon's Troy Sanders: "We Went From Crashing On Cat-Littered Floors To Playing The Biggest Stages With All Of Our Heroes"
Sam Law
Header Photo:
Nathaniel Shannon

While the rest of the world has been stuck on standby, filling time with Zoom meetings and endless Netflix binges, Troy Sanders has barely had a second to spare. As summer bleeds into autumn, a trickle of new music has turned into a stream.

Gone Is Gone – his collaboration with Queens Of The Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, At The Drive In drummer Tony Hajjar and multi-instrumentalist Mike Zarin – singles Everything Is Wonderfall and Sometimes I Feel have prefaced a long-awaited second album, exploring the dreamy, ethereal side of Troy’s psyche. Alongside Greg Puciato, Max Cavalera and Converge drummer Ben Koller, he’s resurrected Killer Be Killed, too, with second LP Reluctant Hero scheduled to drop on November 20.

Oh, and let’s not forget his primary concern…

Mastodon is and always has been my main drive,” he flashes a knowing grin. “It’s just that I’ve been fortunate in so many other opportunities that I can’t say no to.”

With new single Fallen Torches (alongside Rufus Lives, their most excellent contribution to the Bill & Ted Face The Music soundtrack) already in fans’ heavy circulation, and offcuts collection Medium Rarities out now, there’s plenty to tide the hardcore over until their eighth LP proper arrives at some point early next year.

It’s hard to believe that there was a time for Troy when this sort of success was beyond his wildest dreams. Having recently celebrated 20 years since Mastodon first came together, though, he’s in nostalgic form as we catch up on a sun-drenched afternoon against the backdrop of his home on the Florida panhandle. The longest days and hardest nights might’ve long since faded into the rearview, but the humbleness, the appetite and the unstoppable drive to create are still intact.

“I’m very thankful to have discovered this thing that truly represents the essence of what I am,” he stresses, with clear-eyed certainty. “Whatever ignited the flame in my belly is still burning – and I don’t ever see it going out!”

If you were writing an autobiography of your life, what would be the title?
“I’d call it ‘The Times Of Tusk’. I’ve been given the nickname Tusk over the years. He’s an alter-ego that comes out on ‘fun’ evenings where I just bust through doors and stomp into rooms. Sometimes they’ll refer to me as The Loveable Tusk. It’s a friendly Tusk, which is why I embrace the moniker!”

And would you call this current chapter?
“I’d call it Living Through The Paste. We’re all going through a situation right now, which is doable, but it’s sticky, and it’s going to take a minute to wash off.”

You’ve certainly been staying busy, with new material dropping from Mastodon, Killer Be Killed and Gone Is Gone.
“I think that 2020 has proven that I’ve got a lot of material in my gut. I’ve got a lot of things to say. I’ve got a lot of riffs to write. I’ve got a lot of contributions to make. At the bottom of it all, Mastodon is enough to keep me very happily fulfilled. Period. That band is fantastic. We’ve been going strong for 20 years. Musically, I don’t need to do anything outside of that. But I also believe in the magic of opportunity. I’m fuelled by that. I don’t go out looking for other bands to be a part of, but when something really intriguing and special comes my way – when I’m asked to be a part of that – it’s very hard for me to turn it down. I believe real opportunities are very rare and very special. I’m very fortunate to have had these three things going on this year, in these three separate worlds.”

What first switched you on to heavy metal?
“My brother, Kyle Sanders. He’s four years older than me, and he was in this band who would be covering KISS, Van Halen, Iron Maiden, Cheap Trick and others of that ilk. I was 10 years old, looking up and thinking how cool these guys were: growing their hair long, playing cool songs, hanging out with girls. I wanted to do that. Simultaneously, MTV was born. Suddenly, I was consuming everything from pop to dance to heavy metal. Within a very short time, my life changed course and I became focused, obsessed and driven to be like [those figures on my TV].”

The bass guitar seems like an apt accessory for a person now nicknamed Tusk. Did the instrument shape you, or was it a predestined match?
“The relationship between me and the bass guitar has been very sincere since day one. I deeply loved it right from the beginning, and I felt that it loved me back. Hence the long and healthy ‘marriage’ we’ve had.”

How did you first pick that four-string up?
“Ultimately, it came back to following in Kyle’s footsteps. He was a bassist, and although he was a lefty – I’m a righty – I would pick up his bass around the house, flip it over and start to learn things by ear. The first song I ever learned was Lick It Up by KISS. I was initially drawn to the imagery of ‘The Demon’ Gene Simmons. Then the ferocity of [Metallica’s] Cliff Burton locked me in.”

If you hadn’t found your way into music, what might you have ended up doing with your life?
“I remember watching the sanitation workers riding on the back of their trucks as a kid. I just thought that looked so cool. You got to work outdoors and pick up heavy trash-cans. You could feel the breeze in your hair. I remember telling my mom that I wanted to be a trash-man when I grew up. I look back now and remember the look in her eyes – maybe it wasn’t her proudest moment.”

You grew up in Atlanta. In the early 2000s, that city and the broader state of Georgia seemed to be overflowing with innovative heavy acts, with the likes of Kylesa and Baroness coming up alongside Mastodon. Was there something in the water?
“There was just this really big, super-cool underground scene of punk and grind and doom bands. At the time, it almost felt like a meeting of the post-grunge and swampy New Orleans movements. Brent [Hinds, Mastodon guitarist] and I were in a band called Four Hour Fogger, and we played with a bunch of other badass local bands. We all influenced and fed off of one another, getting real heavy and super dirty. I loved that scene. I still do.”

The story of the coming together of Mastodon – with guitarist Bill Kelliher and drummer Brann Dailor meeting you and Brent – has been well told. Going back further than that, how did you and Brent first come together?
“One of my first bands out of high school travelled from Atlanta, GA to Birmingham, AL to play a show at this really cool dive bar called The Nick. There were maybe a dozen people there, and one of them was this local kid called Brent. After the show, as we were loading the van, he came up to me and told me that if I ever wanted to jam with a good guitar player, he was my dude. We swapped phone numbers and addresses. Maybe a week later, he knocked on my door in Atlanta, told me he had packed all his stuff up and was living in his truck, then asked if I wanted to jam. That was 1993, and we’ve been jamming together ever since.”

Speaking about Mastodon’s 20th anniversary earlier this year, Bill and Brann described their first impressions of you as this quiet man with a van behind Brent. Is that a fair description?
"It was, yeah (laughs)! Bill and Brann had just relocated from Rochester, NY to Atlanta. They met Brent a few days before they met me and agreed to jam. When they mentioned looking for a bass player, Brent told them ‘I already have a bass player – and he has a van!’ There’s a running joke that I was in the band before those guys even met me because I had my bass and that van!”

What were your first impressions of those guys?
“I had known of them from their time with Today Is The Day and their 1999 album In The Eyes Of God. That record scared the hell out of me. Although Bill is a guitarist, he was playing bass in that band, and I was very familiar with his work. I was ready to go as soon as they said they needed someone in the band. We met in a room on January 13, 2000, got in a room together and just started making noise. Before we even had one riff locked in together, we knew that we could all play our instruments, we all wanted to put the same type of music together, and we all wanted to get in a van to get out there and make it happen. It’s quite rare to have that shared purpose right out of the gate.”

At the time, mainstream heavy music was dominated by nu-metal. Did Mastodon’s music feel like a remedy to that?
“I think that’s why we wanted to create this style. All four of us had a wide range of music in our collections, but we all wanted to make music in the vein of Melvins and Neurosis and Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden. That music wasn’t super-popular, but we had a shared love of it. There was really no preconceived notions of what we were or would become. It was pretty much a caveman mentality of looking at each other like, ‘Yeah, okay, that sounds good, let’s do it!’ There was no grand plan in place.”

Over the course of seven albums so far, that path has taken some unexpected turns and carried you to great heights. If the 27 year-old you could see you now, what would he think?
“I think his cranium would explode. Through hard work, dedication and good fortune, I’ve been able to do every dream tour imaginable and have shared stages with every musical inspiration I’ve ever had. I’ve befriended a lot of those people along the way – and I’ve got their numbers logged into my cellphone. It’s still mind-blowing the things that have happened. A couple of years ago Mastodon won our first GRAMMY, but more important was the story leading up to that point: that you can go from crashing on cat-littered floors to playing the biggest stages with all of our heroes. That’s the real trophy.”

Aside from that professional success, Mastodon are a notoriously private band, but several of your creative highs have been fuelled by personal tragedy. To what extent has that ability to process and plumb personal difficulty been pivotal to your success?
“Sometimes friends will come to see Mastodon and they’ll observe a totally different person up on that stage to the one that they know. When I’m playing music, I’m given the freedom to explore the inner-Tusk in me, get wild, and let out whatever it is that I’m letting out. I don’t want to say that it’s a religion to me, but it’s the just purest feeling.

“A while back, I had to cancel a whole European tour because my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. To get that sorted out and understood, we had to cancel a whole summer. My bandmates had no qualms with that at all. A few years ago Bill got sick on tour supporting Slayer, too, and we had to go on as a three-piece. Any problems and challenges we’ve faced, we’ve overcome as a band – as this group of individuals that we are. There’re always going to be curveballs thrown at you in life. It’s how you deal with those that defines you.”

Beyond that, why has Mastodon endured with this same, ever-stable line-up where so many other bands – even your heroes in Metallica, Iron Maiden and Thin Lizzy – never managed the same?
“There are two main things. Number one, we’ve been lucky enough to grow together when it’s perhaps more normal – and natural – for humans to grow up and apart. Secondly, we have this deep trust and respect for each other where we’re able to handle those problems and bumps in the road like any other rational adult. We’re able to talk about things and fix them before they spiral into a bad place. It’s something you’d expect to be able to do between two people – with a best friend or a child – but we’re lucky to be able to make it work between four. I believe that we’re still ascending this Mastodon mountain. We’ve not yet reached our peak. We’ve still go a ton of creativity within ourselves. That attitude and mindset lends itself to that. It’s allowed us this natural growth and unique path we’ve carved through the world of rock’n’roll.”

Investing as much time as you have with Killer Be Killed and Gone Is Gone in recent times, is there any risk that your attention could be overly-divided, or that focus diluted?
“I’m working on these different projects, but my perspective on each is entirely separate. If I didn’t feel like I was able to contribute something unique to each band, I wouldn’t do it. I’ve got a relatively small circle of real friends. Eleven of those are people that I share bands with. The experiences and the song-crafting and the time that we spend together are things that I value highly. I have a little house. I have a cool little family. In order to leave my home and my family as often as I do, these projects need to be super-beneficial to me as a person; as a man; as a bandmate; as a songwriter.”

And, finally, what should be written on your tombstone?
“Not far from me here, in Fort Lauderdale, FL is the tombstone of the actor Leslie Nielsen. It just says ‘Leslie Nielsen – Let ’er rip!’ (Laughs) That’s amazing, but it’s already been taken. Honestly, I’ve never thought I’d need a tombstone because I’ve always presumed I’d end up as a pile of ash!"

Mastodon's Medium Rarities compilation is out now via Reprise

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