“Ultimately, anyone who has the energy or desire to listen to our band on any platform on any level at all makes me happy.”
There is heavy, and then there is Mastodon.
The four-piece post-metal masters from Atlanta have pooled the best of their heavy-meets-harmony instincts to forge their hard-hitting eighth studio album, Emperor of Sand, out Friday March 31 in various formats.
From the forceful propulsion of Sultan’s Curse to the gnarly thrash of Steam Breather to the balls-out finale Jaguar God, Mastodon continue to pull no punches in the studio. The band gladly gives a good amount of credit for Emperor’s multi-layered sound to producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Neil Young, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bruce Springsteen), who also manned the boards for Mastodon’s 2008 masterpiece, Crack the Skye.
“I’ve always felt Mastodon music is layered with multiple textures, but sometimes it’s stripped down at other points,” Mastodon bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders told Digital Trends. “One of the greatest compliments I receive is whenever people say, ‘I liked it — but the more and more I listen to it, I really liked it!’ They discover new sounds each time. It’s a grower, not a shower! Perhaps you can’t really sink your teeth into it on the first listen, but on multiple listens you can — and that’s a great thing.”
Digital Trends spoke with Sanders during his brief stopover in New York to discuss how Mastodon divvies up all their vocal duties, embracing the streaming culture with open arms, and writing a potential hit without the deliberate intention of doing so.
Digital Trends: The vocal performances by you, [guitarist] Brent Hinds, and [drummer] Brann Dailor are all super-strong on Emperor of Sand. You guys must have worked really hard to get them up to the next level.
Troy Sanders: We did. On the last three or four records especially, we spent more time and energy on the vocals, as well as finding the most engaging lyrical subject matter.
We would take turns between having Brent, Brann, and myself in the vocal booth. If we were unsure of what voice would match what vocal part, we would each take stabs at it. Then it would be like, “OK, Brent, your voice is the best one for that part, so you do it.”
It’s very selfless, because we’re always looking for the greater good of the song.
I may write the lyrics to one thing, but maybe Brann sings it. Or if Brann writes the lyrics, I’ll sing the part if it’s a more natural, better sound and a better fit. It’s pretty cool how we have this interchanging, tag-team vocal trio — but always with the goal to do whatever is best for the song itself.
Is there one specific vocal performance of yours that you’re most proud of on this record?
For me, it would be Ancient Kingdom, a song toward the end of the record.
Right — I like that chugging thing that you’ve got going on in the back half of it.
Yeah, that’s the one. I remember being really proud of the words I wrote and the melody I found for them. The next day, Brendan said, “I’ve been thinking about this all night, and all morning. It’s good, but it can be better. There’s got to be something else there.”
At first, I thought, “Damn, I really liked that!” But then again, you have to appreciate people you respect giving you advice and wanting to potentially bring out something better in you. So I said, “OK,” got back in the vocal booth, and tried a couple more patterns until I found one that I could see lit up everybody’s eyes when I looked through the glass of the recording booth. I could see that was the one. It was very powerful listening to the playback of that take. That’s the one I’m currently most proud of.
Obviously, a lot of people are going to stream Emperor of Sand. How do you feel about that?
Ultimately, anyone who has the energy or desire to listen to our band on any platform or on any level at all makes me happy. They’re spending a few moments of their life diving into what we’ve created, and to me, that’s rewarding right away — that anyone has that level of interest and care.
“Our interchanging vocal trio is pretty selfless, because we’re always looking for the greater good of the song.”
Any shape or form that anyone wants to listen to Mastodon in is very pleasing to me. I would be constantly dizzy if I didn’t embrace the idea that people don’t always buy a physical product to listen to it in the best way possible. Of course, I love the headphones experience with vinyl, but ultimately, I’m just stoked if anyone gives our band any attention whatsoever.
So, streaming doesn’t affect me negatively in any shape or form. I’m just happy anyone gives a damn about our band in the first place.
Emperor of Sand may just be the top-tier result of the 17 years of collaboration between the four of you guys to date. Is that a fair assessment?
I’m extremely proud, as are my bandmates, of the effort put in for each album we do, because there’s so much time, energy, and thought that goes into it. We try to get to a point where all four of us are as extremely happy as we possibly can be with each lyric and each song, the sequence, the artwork, and the entire package.
The most important thing is that the four of us are in love with it and are proud of it, which is all that’s truly within our power once it’s released out into the world. We’ve always wanted people to embrace it, and like it, and love it. Hopefully, it will touch people in a positive way, but that’s out of our control. The only thing in our control is to put out music we feel strongly about and that we’re proud we created.
You already had a good in-studio shorthand with Brendan O’Brien, since you worked with him before.
We did, yes. We really like Brendan on both levels — as a friend, and as a producer. First and foremost, he’s a fun guy who’s fun to be around, and fun to work with. When you’re working that closely in tight quarters for that long, we really come to appreciate who that “fifth member” is in the room with us, the producer or the engineer.
We loved our Crack the Skye experience with him. He’s very knowledgeable, and he’s an incredible musician himself on guitar, piano, and keys. Brendan understands us completely. We’re in love with his body of work. He’s a top-tier rock & roll guy. To be able to work with him is a thrill. He wanted to work with us again, and that’s incredibly complimentary coming from someone at his level.
Did you map out the sonic template for the record beforehand with him? The album has a wide stereo image, for one thing.
One thing about Brendan’s work ethic — he just tries to take what the band is and capture that in a big, bold, badass sound.
We went in the studio where we were 95 percent solid on all the songs, all the arrangements, and all the parts because we had spent a solid six months on preproduction. We knew the songs inside and out, and we knew exactly what we wanted for nearly the entire thing.
“Producer Brendan O’Brien tries to take what the band is and capture that in a big, bold, badass sound.”
What Brendan is great at is not only capturing the raw sound of the band, but being able to enhance that for the sonic experience. He knows how to get good performances out of us, and that’s also important because after several hours of working on a song, it’s easy to become lazy … That’s because he knows us. He’s great at working on all cylinders with us. We just couldn’t be happier working with Brendan O’Brien.
I love the prog-rock elements of Clandestiny. It made me feel like you guys were in Yes for a moment there. Actually, it’s the one track I’ve had on repeat the most.
Excellent, thank you. I love that! The four of us are from the ’70s and Yes is from the ’70s, and they’re up among our top bands of all time. Any comparison or relation to our forefathers is super-complimentary!
The last song on the album is an all-out epic — Jaguar God, which would have been a massive airplay hit back in the days of FM radio.
Right, that’s cool. That’s a song Brent brought in. It’s the kind of thing he’s really good at — composing those odd adventures. It’s a song that has its own magnificent journey from start to end. You almost think it’s one side of an album, but nope; it’s just one song. We enjoy taking ourselves on a ride like that as well as anyone who wants to take a listen. And it seemed like a very climactic part to end the record.
Some songs, like Scorpion Breath and Andromeda, have what I’ll call “guest growlers” as vocalists. How do you deal with adding different vocal tones and textures like those into the Mastodon mix?
The music kind of reveals itself as to who and where a guest spot can be taken. As far as getting that right in the mix, it’s a matter of getting them to be prominent and not dominant, because we don’t just have three guys playing and one lead singer. We will literally sit with our producer and mixer and go, “No, that’s too loud in the mix,” or “That one sits just right.”
Our two friends who joined us on the record — Kevin Sharp from Brutal Truth on Andromeda, and Scott Kelly from Neurosis on Scorpion Breath — are two people we care a lot about. When we have a piece of music that would be a good spot for a good friend of ours, we like to collaborate with them and have that special moment on the record.
Show Yourself could almost be a hit single, if we were living in different times.
That song is currently receiving a lot of love at modern rock radio — and I think that’s incredible, because we didn’t set out one morning to say, “Today, we should write a song that’s really catchy and will fit on commercial radio.” That didn’t happen.
That was a guitar riff Bill [Kelliher] had, and I went, “Dude, that’s fun!” It reminded me of Kyuss or Weezer — one of those fun, roll your window down, smile, and sing-along kind of songs.
And I think it’s totally OK for Mastodon to embrace a song like that. We’ve got 90 songs in our catalog, and over 50 of them are difficult to play and are quite odd, and maybe there are five that are more simple and catchy. That’s just part of who we are. There are many ingredients that go into a giant album’s worth of musical tastes.
In some ways that reminds me of Rush, who tried to display all the many aspects of the bandmembers’ personalities on their records. Some things would be complex, and some you could sing along to. And Mastodon is carrying that mantle on, though perhaps in a different way.
Yeah, cool, that’s great. It makes me happy to hear you say that. We’re trying. (chuckles) We hope that this record will find its way to enlighten some peoples’ ears, and touch them. The music on this album came directly from our hearts, and we hope it touches people around the world in a great way.
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