Three days before launching a tour to support their new album, Crack The Skye, Mastodon is on top of the metal world. There really is no other band that can touch them. It doesn’t seem like a band from the Southern rap mecca of Atlanta could make that claim, but the members of Mastodon are at the top of their game. Bad ass? Yep. Innovative? Certainly? Changing their sound, and preconceived rules that metal heads insist upon? Hell yeah.
There are several reasons for the change in direction. Their Birmingham, Alabama singer and guitarist, Brent Hinds, was sucker punched after an awards show in 2007. He was in a coma for three days, and unable to muster the previous growls he had become known for. So instead, he…sang. When the rest of the band heard what he was doing, they shelved the heavier material that had been written, and a paradigm was shifted. The rest of the band, drummer Brann Dailor, guitarist Bill Keliher and bassist Troy Sanders have made a more accessible, but still undeniably metal record that they insist is the best they’ve ever done. With Hinds’ recovery complete, the men in Mastodon are ready to smack fans over the head with the crown they rightfully wear as the best metal band in the world.
The record is out, fans are blasting it, and Troy Sanders is at home in Atlanta, using those last three days to do interviews about the new record and upcoming tour.
He’s an articulate guy, and genuinely excited about the new material.
Q. Your band has some Southern roots. Who is from where?
A. I’ve lived in Atlanta my entire life. The singer and guitar player, Brent Hinds is from Birmingham, Alabama. He came over fifteen years ago, and we started creating music.
Q. While you were growing up, were your parents musical people?
A. My mom has always played French horn and piano. She was in a wind band. She played a lot in church.
Q. Do you play other instruments?
A. I don’t. I play a little guitar around the house. I piddle with keyboards, but I don’t consider myself a proper guitar or keyboard player. I stick with the bass, and try to employ it decently.
Q. What else did held your interest as a kid?
A. I was a sports freak until I was thirteen. My older brother, Kyle, was playing bass in a high school band. I saw him play live doing covers of Van Halen and Kiss. In that same month, I was watching TV and saw Cliff Burton playing bass. Then I saw a Kiss video. So in a couple of weeks, my life took a 90 degree turn and I realized that music is the coolest thing ever and I want to be a part of that. I dropped the sports and grew my hair long. Between Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and Kiss, that’s fifty percent of the inspiration for all bands out there.
Q. How did Mastodon get together?
A. Brent moved from Birmingham in 1994, and we started jamming. Brann and Bill were playing in Rochester, New York in a band called Today Is The Day. They moved to Atlanta to start something fresh. Within two weeks, we all met and the chemistry began. We went down to the practice room, and after ten minutes, we put our instruments down and started thinking about band names. It felt so right we thought about band names before we had written a single song.
Q. Who came up with the band’s name?
A. Brent. Our guitar player, Bill, has a Boba Fett insignia tattoo on his arm. It has tusks coming down from it, and we asked about if it was a wooly mammoth. He told us, “No, it’s for a mastodon”. We thought it was great, and went with it. It’s a lumbering, prehistoric, powerful name. It’s short, and sounds tough as nails. And the best thing is, it hadn’t been taken yet.
Q. How about the big change in the band’s sound?
A. It is quite a departure from our previous material. It came out totally organic from the band. We started writing more spacious and going for more of a classic rock feel. Whereas the last three had been more aggressive and over the top. We wanted to create textures and breathe new life and sonic soundscapes into the material. The music started to spread out and become deeper and darker. We realized that we needed to step up our vocal styles, that would elaborate with what the music was saying. We started finding vocal patterns, hooks and layers that really fit with the new music. We feel it is the most sincere, honest positive music we’ve ever created. We’re beyond thrilled with it, and we’re behind it with our blood and guts.
Q. What would you say to the fans that are having trouble with the new direction?
A. We want people to join us in this journey, and if they love the music, that’s the greatest compliment in the world. If they don’t care for it, that’s also fine. There is plenty of other music in this world for them to listen to. We love it, and if you don’t, that doesn’t hurt our feelings.
Q. The title of your new album, Crack the Skye, is about Brann’s sister. Are there any other themes on this album that may not be as recognizable?
A. The entire story line is created in metaphor to include band experiences. There are a lot of hidden truths on it, we aren’t as literal with our lyrics. Therefore, we’re not always wearing our hearts on our sleeves. There is lots of deeper meaning in the story, but we like to maintain a level of mystique.
Q. Most people consider Atlanta as a rap only city, but you have dispelled that notion.
A. Being from Atlanta doesn’t influence our band at all. The other guys might have different opinions on that. While this is the hip -hop capital of the world, there are tons of clubs that support different kinds of music. There are a lot of indie bands, a lot of garage bands, radio and metal bands here. We have blues and country. Maybe the notoriety has helped us break through, because there are more rappers and not 300 metal bands here. We have been more influenced by the Southeast in general, maybe not just this city. We listened to Soilent Green, Eyehategod, Crowbar and all the bands that deal in sludge and doom. All of those bands have a crust factor, and that has certainly helped.
Q. Now that Mastodon is an established name, how does it feel when you are playing a show or walking down the street and see a fan in a Mastodon t-shirt?
A. I get a huge kick of it. When it first starting happening, it made me realize that they had to spend their money on that shirt to make that statement, and they wear it with pride. When I used to wear band shirts, it was because they had impressed me in some way. It’s a very rewarding feeling when you have touched someone with your art.
Q. What are you guys doing the rest of the year?
A. We’re touring. We’re starting in Birmingham, and going until May. In June and July, we’re going to support Metallica. In August, we’re going to Japan. In September, October and November we’re going to New Zealand and Australia, then back over to Europe and then more US dates. We’re playing in Atlanta on May 15, and taking two weeks before we tour for the rest of 2009 and get to come home.