Troy Sanders plays bass. He also sings. Not only that, he is the frontman of Mastodon, a band that is quite possibly the most exciting musical force of the heavy rock persuasion operating today. Joel McIver asks the questions; Tina Korhonen takes the shots.
It’s appropriate for a rock band as ambitious and grandiose in scope as Atlanta four-piece Mastodon that when we interview their bassist Troy Sanders, it is at Knebworth House, the Hertfordshire country pile that was once the domain of Led Zeppelin and other rock behemoths. Mastodon are here to play the Sonisphere Festival on the same stage as Metallica, one of a handful of metal bands who are bigger and heavier than they are, but Troy and his team aren’t nervous: they know that their incendiary live performances, plus the mind-blowing songs on albums such as their new one, Once More ’Round The Sun, are pretty much unbeatable.
Any gig where you’re playing in front of 100,000 fans is not an experience to be taken for granted. “Being on that main stage was overwhelming,” chuckles Sanders after the set. “When you’re seeing faces as far as you can possibly see, it creates an environment that seems unreal. It almost feels like you’re not there. It’s so much larger than anything we’ve done before, or at least since the last time we played the main stage at Knebworth, it’s really bizarre. It’s almost like a dream: on that stage, I felt really foggy and cloudy. It’s really hard to explain, but I really enjoyed it, and that was the end of our UK and Europe festival run for the summer. It was nice to go out with a huge bang.”
Asked how being lost in a ‘fog of rock’ on stage affects his bass playing, Sanders muses: “I lose perspective on what’s really happening. I know my bandmates are playing super-well, but it’s just so massive that it takes me the entire set length to know what’s really happening. That should make me concentrate harder, but I kind of levitate into this mental dreamscape and I probably make more mistakes than ever. But I don’t know if I did, and I’m not going to watch any footage of the set. I just have a good memory of it. I hope it was okay, and I’ll just leave it at that…”
Sanders can rest easy. Mastodon levelled the crowd at Knebworth, just as they do every time they play. This is partly due to their abilities as musicians, their utterly unclassifiable songwriting and the sheer power of their production, but also because they’ve been doing this rock’n’roll thing for a long time now and know what they’re doing. Formed in Atlanta, Georgia in 2000, the foursome – Sanders plus guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher and drummer Brann Dailor – have recorded six albums to date, all packed with densely-layered sound that somehow manages to be intimidating and catchy at the same time. See them live if you can.
Asked about the tools of his trade, Sanders reveals his new signature Fender Jaguar bass, a slinky-looking silverburst instrument that begs you to pick it up for a play. Much as we love Precision and Jazz basses round these parts, it’s refreshing to see a bassist using a different Fender for a change – especially as a signature model. While plenty of bass players love a bit of Jaguar, from Colin Greenwood of Radiohead to Stefan Olsdal of Placebo, you’ll be hard put to find someone with their actual name on the headstock.
“About five years ago I was in Kansas City, Missouri,” recalls Sanders, “and my younger brother Darren found a Jaguar bass in a store and bought it for me. I’d been playing loads of different basses, including a lot of P and J basses, so he thought it would be nice for me to try a Jaguar. I played it and fell in love with it. A year or two later the kind folks at Fender approached me, and they told me that they were interested in doing a signature bass, which was beyond flattering – because it’s Fender!”
Sanders didn’t take long to make up his mind, he tells us. “I was blown away, and told them that of course I would be beyond humbled and honoured to do anything with them, so we started going back and forth with signature Jazz and Precision basses. I told them I was really digging my Jaguar a lot, and they were interested in doing one of those, as there’s only a small number of Jaguar signature basses. I told them that sounded perfect.”
Anyone who has played these jungle beasts will know that the controls can be a little tricky, with several switching options available to the tone-hungry bassist. Sanders quickly got rid of all that, he explains. “I’m part-Neanderthal, and I like things simple! I have that caveman mentality. The Jaguar bass normally has two plate switches and two volume knobs, plus two or three EQ controls, so we made it more to my liking and simplified it quite a bit. Then we did the silverburst colour scheme. My guitar players Brett and Bill have always played silverburst guitars on stage together, and I was the only one without that finish. The Fender guys thought it was a great colour scheme, though. You know, I’m still in awe that they even approached me.”
Over the years Sanders has played several cool basses: a quick look back at his last appearance in these hallowed pages back in 2009 reveals that he was playing Yamahas, Fender P and Js and a Godlyke Deity at the time. Things have moved on apace since then, he tells us: “I bring three different basses with me on tour, because we have three different tunings throughout the set and I like to have one guitar for each one. I start with my Jaguar, and then I play a custom Warwick Streamer that I use when we tune down to A, because it handles the low tunings better than the other basses. It’s a phenomenal instrument – a Mastodon custom bass – and it looks and sounds beautiful. Warwick simplified the Streamer for me by setting the bass and treble to halfway and just leaving a single volume knob. I really enjoy the simplicity of that. The fretboard has the first four icons from the covers of our first albums on it. It’s such a warm-sounding bass – I love it.
“The third bass that I take on tour is a Zon, that I got last year. I’d always liked them but I’d never played them, and Liam Wilson from the Dillinger Escape Plan was always raving about his Zon to me. When I went through San Francisco in 2013, the Zon people came out and gave me one to try. They were kind enough to say ‘Play it, and if you like it, keep on playing it, and if you don’t like it, just return it’, and a year later I was still playing it. If I love my gear, I’m gonna play it, and that’s why I own it.”
It’s interesting to note that Sanders, a man who likes to keep things simple, is an effects freak, with more wacky sounds under his right boot than most of us acquire in a lifetime. “I have 40 pedals in my practice room,” he laughs. “The reason I own so many is because I look at them like toys: I like to get a couple out and play with them every time we practise. They’re fun. I take the majority with me when we go to record an album, in case the producer thinks they might be useful.”
Obviously Sanders strips down his signal chain a bit when he hits the road – a wise decision, given stage constraints, airfreight costs and the delicate touch of baggage handlers. “I travel with a simple pedalboard,” he explains. “Live, I have a standard TC Electronic tuner, and a TC Electronic Corona chorus, which I use about 25 percent of the time or less on the softer, spacier bass parts. Then I have a Dunlop wah for two or three parts, and finally I have a distortion.”
Bass distortion is a subject close to his heart, says Sanders. “I own a lot of different distortion pedals, and I bring out a different one for every tour. My go-to is called a Tall Font Russian, made by a small company called Wren & Cuff in California. It’s based on the old Big Muff: in fact, I once A/B’ed them together and I couldn’t tell the difference. They’re both beautiful, but the Tall Font Russian is a smaller pedal. I also have a Rottweiler distortion, made by TC Electronic, and then my classic Russian-made Big Muff. Those three are my go-to distortions, and they’re all phenomenal.”
“I know it’s kind of ridiculous that I still go to stores and want to buy pedals just to play them and see what they sound like,” he sighs. “On the other hand, it’s cool that the fire is still burning in me, that I still want to want to jam with my bandmates and that I look forward to writing new songs and going on tour. I hope that ambition and that fire continues to burn. I still consider Mastodon my hobby and my passion, and at the same time it’s a dream job. My attitude towards it is still to have fun, so I have loads of bass guitars, loads of pedals – and I’ve got way too many amps and cabinets.”
On which note… “I always take three heads on tour,” Sanders explains, contradicting his earlier ‘simple is good’ claim even more. “Overseas I’ve got two Mesa Boogie Road Ready cabs for Europe and the UK. The three amps are an Orange AD200B, an Ampeg SVT VR and a TC Electronic Blacksmith, a gorgeous solid-state amp that’s got the warmest sound I ever heard. Between those three amps, I’m always running two of them randomly: one runs a cabinet clean, and another runs a second cab dirty, and there’s always a third amp as a backup. Which two of the three I run changes every night. When we’re playing in America, I run Fender Bassman 8×10 cabinets and more Mesa Boogie Road Ready cabinets, they’re solid as hell. The three amps are another Ampeg SVT VR, a Mesa Boogie Big Block and the Orange AD 200B again. Same deal: two of the three amps are always in the mix.”
Hang on, we cry! Sanders was going on about how he likes things simple, and now he’s just told us that he goes out with three basses, four pedals and a combination of three different heads and cabs. What gives, headbanger?
Sanders laughs. “Well, I’ve been beyond spoiled for many years to have my brother Darren working for me. He knows about looms, and stringing pedals together properly, and changing fuses and voltages and biases and other stuff. His knowledge far surpasses mine and he has helped to build me a proper, intricate rig over the years. My touring rig has gone way beyond what my small monkey brain can comprehend, but he sets it up, tears it down, packs it up and loads it in. In fact, a while ago he couldn’t make it to one of our shows in Canada, and I said to him, ‘Dude, I don’t know how to set the rig up!’ so he had to diagram it out so I could play the show. But in the practice space here in Atlanta, I go down there and set it up. It’s just my pedalboard and a little amp. I can just about go to practice on my own.”
So, the million-dollar question: how does Sanders hold down the majority of Mastodon’s vocals while laying down the bass parts, which are often complex even when they’re in unison with the guitars? Restraint is the key, he tells us: “As the bass player in a heavily guitar-driven band, I don’t need to shine: I don’t need to be the spotlight any more than I already am. I love being the warmth around our drummer, Brann, who is a phenomenal drummer. I love wrapping my bass around his drum. Then there are the moments when we have the statelier, more chord-ringing parts, so that’s when I have the opportunity to move around a little bit, and put in whatever feeling I can add. I enjoy that a lot: it’s my time to move around a bit. I try to get some feel when the time is right, but because we have two guitar wizards and a mountain range of a drummer back there, my role doesn’t usually need to be any more than just rocking out.”
He adds: “I essentially live two lives in Mastodon. Lyrics and vocal patterns come last because we record all the music first. At that point, I try to be as tasteful and consistent as possible on the bass. Then I go into vocal mode: we have a vocal tag-team between Brann, Brent and myself; we bounce ideas off each other to see what the strongest one is. Then it takes loads and loads of practice and repetition to get it all right, because playing bass and singing is a lot like rubbing your belly and patting your head. There are two different rhythms going on at once!”
Sanders concludes: “In January we will be 15 years old as a band, and I’m so glad that we can still do it and that it’s the same four guys. Relationships are difficult to sustain, whether it’s a friend or a girlfriend or whoever, so I’m proud of the fact that we’ve stayed close for so long. It never ceases to amaze me that we’re still able to do what we do, and I’m blown away by my bandmates’ ability to craft the songs. I’m thrilled to start touring this record heavily, because I love it, just as I’ve loved all our albums.
“I see no reason why we can’t continue forever, because we have so many musical loves between us. Our sound has changed drastically over the last 15 years and I’m sure we can continue to evolve. We could easily record a country album, for example. We love classic surf-rock and we love bluegrass. We love everything from 1970s rock’n’roll, so I believe that the four of us could continue forever. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it!”
Once More ’Round The Sun is out now on Warners. Mastodon is playing UK dates between 19 November and 2 December. Info: www.mastodonrocks.com. Thanks to Henry Lytton-Cobbold for permission to shoot at Knebworth House.