Mastodon's Troy Sanders on the Importance of Album Art, Thin Lizzy and "Gig Nightmares"

Mastodon's Troy Sanders on the Importance of Album Art, Thin Lizzy and "Gig Nightmares"

By Chris Steffen

Jun. 24, 2014

Today marks the release of Once More 'Round the Sun, the sixth full-length album from Mastodon, the Atlanta-based band that's metal on the surface but clearly aspires beyond the label. From their sludgy roots on Remission to the proggy, literary leanings of Leviathan to the space rock meets disco of Crack the Skye, the band is famous for keeping its fans guessing about where it will go next. Once More 'Round the Sun continues this trajectory by showing the band embracing straightforward hard rock more wholeheartedly than ever before, with plenty of sung melodies instead of barked vocals, compact song structures, and big hooks.

In our four-star review, editor Thom Jurek called the album's sound "an integrative hard rock that doesn't leave metal out" and points out the band's Thin Lizzy influence, something that bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders unashamedly agreed with when we spoke to him recently. He also told us about how heavy doses of Neurosis informed his acceptance of heavy music and the sorts of nightmares him and his band mates routinely have on the road.

AllMusic: It took a long time for me to get into your last record, The Hunter, but after being on Mayhem Fest last summer, which you played, and hearing the songs every night, they finally clicked for me. Do you find you tend to enjoy music that reveals itself more over time?

Troy Sanders:
My favorite records are growers. A lot of people’s favorite records take time to become their favorite records. They’re not 100 percent accessible where you can just immerse yourself completely and get it on the first pass, and I feel every one of our records is a grower, not a show-er. There’s so much that goes into it, so many textures and layers and riffs and melodies and patterns that it would be sensory overload on the first pass. I don’t think you can listen to a Mastodon record and be like, “Oh, I totally get it,” for 97 percent of the music fans around the world. There’s a lot going on, there’s a lot to ingest on a 45, 60-minute record, just like in our live show. The first band that comes to mind is Neurosis, one of my top five artists of all time, I still spin all of their records, and I've had some of them for 20 years. In the world of heavy music, they’re easily my heroes. A lot of times we’ll read in publications that we’ll get a six out of 10 when a new record comes out, and then it’s album of the year. So it does take time, but that’s a good thing. We put a lot of time and effort into each song, every riff, and I’m very happy if they become growers. They need to be listened to and ingested to multiple times.

AllMusic: Neurosis is a pretty intimidating catalog to dive into, can you remember where you started with them?

It was Enemy of the Sun, shortly after I met Brent [Hinds, Mastodon guitarist/vocalist] when he moved from Alabama to Atlanta, he and I started a band called Four Hour Fogger together, and it was right around then when Brent was turning me on to all kinds of music, and Neurosis were the top of the list. I think it was Enemy of the Sun that I was presented first, and my life made a dramatic turn for the better after being exposed and indulging into everything Neurosis.

AllMusic: And [Neurosis frontman] Scott Kelly has been on almost every Mastodon release and approved the band's name.

After we'd been playing for a couple of days, we came up with Mastodon. We called Scott, we had to run it by him first, and he turned to his son and said, “Mastodon, yes or no?” and he said, “Yeah,” and we've been that way ever since.

AllMusic: The artwork and layouts for your albums are always pretty intricate, not just a picture of the band by some train tracks. Was that an important decision from the beginning, to put more effort into the design?

The four of us all shared the same love for what we call the art of the album, meaning the four of us fell in love with music by holding a tangible piece of music. Growing up we would sit down with the vinyl jacket in our hand, listening to the music, immersing ourselves into the artwork, the liner notes, the lyrics, the whole package, we’d become one with what we were listening to. We've always made sure that we can press vinyl and always go the extra mile to find what we believe would be matching artwork that would really marry how we feel about the music that’s on that particular album. We put so much blood and sweat and time into creating albums that we’d be cheating ourselves if we just wanted to slap something on there. We feel we need to load the bases with everything, go full on with every riff, every lyric, every vocal pattern, every piece of artwork, it’s what becomes the art of the album to us. That’s very important to us, and always has been.

AllMusic: Do you think there's a song you've heard more in your life than any other?

I think about Thin Lizzy, “The Boys are Back in Town.” Then I really became aware of what body of work Thin Lizzy had created and that they had so many more amazing albums and songs than just that one main hit that the majority of the world associates with them. But somehow that just propelled into the world of commercial rock, and they have a hundred other hidden gems in their catalog, and so that one always comes to mind, but also knowing they have so much more quality material.

AllMusic: As a kid, did you have music you'd use to try to drive your parents nuts?

My rebellion was different, because my parents were supportive of me as a kid, I was probably a wonderful kid in the sense that during my teenage rebellion years I’d basically close my door and sit down and attempt to learn bass lines from Kiss, Van Halen, Cheap Trick and Metallica records, that’s what I wanted to do. I dove headfirst into learning how to play bass and wanting to be in a band. I was completely driven, I got my driver’s license and immediately looked in the classified ads to find a band I could join now that I could drive to band practice. I joined a band and got my license all on my sixteenth birthday.

AllMusic: Do you have music-related dreams?

We call them “gig nightmares.” Last night I had one where I’m in my bunk on the bus and I was stuck in webs of slime. I was in a cocoon, I couldn't get out of my bunk and my band was onstage, and I needed to be pulled out and rescued from this cocoon of slimy web shit in my bunk. We all have those sprinkled throughout the tour, it's a regular occurrence in the Mastodon world.