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Mastodon’s Troy Sanders on ‘Blind Experiment’ of Gone Is Gone LP

Bassist/vocalist talks “different sense of fulfilment” that side-project supergroup brings, what to expect from main band’s new album.

“I like to think none of us needs this band, but we all dearly want this band,” bassist-singer Troy Sanders says of Gone Is Gone. Indeed, nobody in this all-star experimental rock project – Sanders (Mastodon), guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen (Queens of the Stone Age), drummer Tony Hajjar (At the Drive-In), keyboardist-composer Mike Zarin – is starved for extra gigs.

The quartet formed almost as a lark, a chance to make music without the looming deadlines and crammed itineraries of their main acts. Zarin and Hajjar, frequent collaborators on video-game and film-trailer scores, decided to embellish some of their moody soundscapes with the muscle of a legitimate band. They recruited Van Leeuwen, one of modern hard rock’s most atmospheric guitarists, who in turn sought out Sanders’ mighty roar. The process was seamless for their self-titled debut EP, released last year: no external label pressure, no expectation of a specific sound.

But the stakes were higher for Echolocation, the quartet’s brooding new full-length debut. This time around, they worked from what Sanders calls “the blankest canvas [he’s] ever witnessed,” convening for two weeks last January to start completely from scratch: jamming, bouncing around ideas and attempting to write an album like a traditional band.

“It was more of a giant question mark,” Sanders says. “We convened in Los Angeles, got in the same room, and it was just a writing session: ‘Let’s see what happens. Can we do this? Is this meant to be, or will we get roadblocks? That might be the end of it.’ We arrived, and the musical floodgates opened. Two weeks later, we had the skeleton of an entire record that we all loved. It was like a science experiment that went right.”

Days before the band’s second official concert, an album release show held Friday at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, Sanders spoke to Rolling Stone about the band’s unconventional birth, trying out new vocal sounds on Echolocation and the darkness of the next Mastodon LP.

You don’t have long until the album-release show, which will only be the band’s second live performance. With everyone’s jam-packed schedules, I assume you haven’t been able to rehearse much.
We haven’t rehearsed as a band since our EP-release show about six months ago. We played a show here in Los Angeles, our first and only show, at the Dragonfly, a little 400-capacity room. Surprising to us, it was a sold-out show and the crowd loved it, because at the moment, no one had ever heard any of our songs. We didn’t expect anyone to show up. We don’t put any great expectations on this band on how we’re received just because of the names involved. We want the music to speak for itself, but we were pleasantly surprised when 400 people showed up to see what this band was all about. It was a great show. The energy was high, and we vowed to attempt to do this again: getting together to play live. We finished piecing together the Echolocation record. We were all off tour with our other bands, so we dedicated the first week of January to getting together, rehearsing and playing our second show. Basically we play one show every record that comes out.

Do you feel like it’s going to be a challenge learning this set list given that this is your second show – not to mention your focus on other projects between the last this one and the last one?
I don’t think so. We’ve all done this many times before, so we’re not going to show up to the show unprepared. That would be out of all our characters to do that. I like to think none of us needs this band, but we all really want this band. When that’s the mentality, this is special to the four of us. Otherwise, we wouldn’t dedicate the first week of 2017 to working on this band. For example, Queens of the Stone Age, Mastodon and At the Drive-In have all been recording, and we all have new records coming out this year. We’ve all been extremely busy writing and recording, and we’re about to get super busy touring the world. So I believe we’re all fulfilled to a certain degree with all we have going on. That sets a special tone for a very special thing we all share. This band doesn’t bring us fame or money, but it brings us a different sense of fulfilment and energy that we all give each other. To answer your question, it’s a cool challenge because we have all these songs to revisit and relearn. We have four people on the same page, and it’s pretty special.

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“I believe we’re all fulfilled to a certain degree with all we have going on,” Sanders says. “That sets a special tone for a very special thing we all share.”

You were recruited into the band by Troy, and since Mastodon has worked with Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age, I assume you were a fan of theirs. But were you a fan of At the Drive-In? And did you know about Mike’s work before you joined?
I was a fan of At the Drive-In before I befriended Tony. And Queens of the Stone Age and Mastodon have shared many stages around the U.S. and Europe, so we were all pretty good friends before this all happened anyway. The camaraderie of a lot of downtime and backstage areas creates friendships, so that’s a good thing. I was unaware of Mike’s trailer work and composing, but I was exciting to meet someone in the same business but coming from a different aspect, so that was cool. His sense of writing and arranging comes from a slightly different background, so that’s always encouraging to jam and collaborate with someone who doesn’t come from the same thread as myself.

I was especially attracted to Mike’s input to the band right away because it stems from darker, more atmospheric sounds and textures. I was already good friends with Troy, and I had much respect for what Tony had done in the past. Once I was invited out to come out to L.A. to see if I’d be interested and if it’d work out, I flew out immediately. We all befriended one another right away. The EP was all instrumental at the time, and I jumped in the vocal booth right away and laid down the first vocal idea for one of the tracks. They immediately liked the direction I was going – it just clicked, and we never looked back.

This album was different because the process shifted. Where the EP was constructed by recording onto what Mike and Tony already started, Echolocation began with a clean slate.
With Echolocation, we were excited to quickly progress what this band could become. This new record really reflects all four of us writing together with all of our inputs, and it was super collaborative. I think it exceeds the quality of the EP and really sets a higher springboard for us to move on to the next one.

On the first EP, you flew in periodically to write and record your vocals. Was that more challenging to fit your parts into pre-existing tracks?
I absolutely loved it for many reasons. The first reason is that they had the respect and appreciation or me and my voice to have me come in and be the only vocalist. [I’m part of] a tag-team trio of vocalists within Mastodon, and that’s one of the things that makes us different. But coming in, it was a beautiful challenge to do the best as I could since I wanted to please these guys who had the trust in me from the beginning. It was an absolute honor. With Echolocation, it wasn’t really a challenge – it was more of a giant question mark. The EP went along great, and we liked hanging out and collaborating with each other, so we set aside two weeks we had off from touring at the same time. We convened in Los Angeles, got in the same room, and it was just a writing session: “Let’s see what happens. Can we do this? Is this meant to be, or will we get roadblocks? That might be the end of it.” We arrived, and the musical floodgates opened. Two weeks later, we had the skeleton of an entire record that we all loved. We kept finding small windows of time to complete Echolocation, and every time they were home, I’d fly out to Los Angeles. I don’t think the new record was a challenge – it was just more of a blind experiment. “Is it gonna mesh and jell, or is it gonna contrast and die with creative ideas?”

It completely exceeded our expectations because we had zero expectations. I don’t think we would have been bummed if we got in a room and we couldn’t put two riffs together. If that were to have happened, then so be it. We weren’t going to force it. That could have been a giant red flag that maybe this band wasn’t meant to be. But luckily it was the exact opposite: Music just spilled out from all of us, and we all liked the sounds that were coming out. We just built on it and built on it.

“Gone Is Gone completely exceeded our expectations because we had zero expectations.”

Gone Is Gone is a fairly direct split between hard and soft, heavy and delicate. You show a lot of range vocally – on “Sentient,” you’re literally whispering. On “Roads,” you’re basically crooning – not an approach you take often with Mastodon. Do you feel like you’re pushing yourself into new spaces as a singer?
I definitely always try to push myself and exercise whatever range of options vocally I can ever do. I think most musicians feel that way – they’re always trying to find new techniques, sounds, patterns, energies. I go that way with whatever band I’m involved in, but especially with this band, since we’re trying to carve out our own identity. This isn’t Queens of the Stone Age part two or Mastodon part two. We’re not attempting to ride on any of our own bands’ coattails – we’re trying to deliver our own. This band was put together so incredibly naturally that we exist for all the right reasons. We enjoy the camaraderie and the chemistry that we share. It’s the intangibles. The most common question I get is, “Why do you do this other band?” because I travel a lot, and I’m very fulfilled and happy with Mastodon. The broad answer is that this band is a different adventure, a different energy.

Another reason this band was born is from opportunity: We don’t want this opportunity to slip between our fingers. Gone Is Gone offers the four of us a very different reward than we usually experience, so it’s obviously worth us pursuing because we absolutely love it.

One highlight from Echolocation is “Colourfade,” which features some of your most intricate bass playing. In general, Gone Is Gone allows you to showcase your instrumental skills, which occasionally get a bit buried on the Mastodon albums.
The role of the bass guitar in Gone Is Gone is definitely something different than anything I’ve ever been a part of. And that’s due to the overall structure of the band: Troy Van Leeuwen has an almost ethereal approach to his guitar sounds and tones, and it opens a lot of room for more prominent bass lines like “Colourfade.” That’s just one of the songs that spilled out during this writing session last year. I’m especially proud of that one because it was written on the bass guitar and bloomed into the song. That’s a little different than what I’m used to, but it’s a bit refreshing for me.

Did all of you come into the writing process with musical seeds, or did all of the material bloom through jamming and being in the room together?
Great question, man. It’s nearly 50/50. You said “seeds,” and that’s a nice way to put it. All four of us came in with bits that we were excited to show each other, and a lot of those did become songs. And the other 50 percent was the old tried-and-true formula of plugging in, hitting record and jamming for a long time. It’s a very tedious, time-consuming method, but you go back and weed through an hour-and-a-half of nonstop jamming, and you pick out the pieces where all four members locked into something. Those were obviously universal feelings between the four of us, and you build on that particular part.

The opener, “Sentient,” started as a series of keyboard notes that Mike had, and we were like, “Wow, that feels dark and moody. Let’s hone in on that.” Track two, “Gift,” started as a riff or two that Troy was rocking out while checking his guitar. It turned into this fun, upbeat rock & roll song. With “Dublin,” I was playing this sad little bass line, and the other guys were attracted to it. It was very collaborative, an entire group effort. This was a brand new experience. None of us came in and said, “I’ve got this whole song” because we weren’t even sure of the entire direction of where we wanted to head. There was no conversation prior regarding what we wanted to sound like or what we should sound like. It was the blankest canvas I’ve ever witnessed, that writing session.

The musical relationship between a bassist and drummer is pretty crucial. You and Brann Dailor work really well together in Mastodon. What’s the chemistry been like with Tony, and do you think he’s brought out anything new in your playing?
Tony’s an incredible drummer. As a bass player, I’m incredibly spoiled with rhythm sections I’m a part of. He’s so incredibly solid, and he’s a fun dude to be around, and if you put those two things together, that’s a winning situation to be a part of. What I dig most about Tony is that when we got together for the very first time, Troy and Mike were out of the house at the time, so I started busting out a couple ideas I had, and he gravitated toward them immediately and started putting these beats to my parts. It was an immediate, refreshing wave that came over me because A) it was all new and different, and B) he was very receptive and happy to put his drums over these parts I created. Within 60 seconds of being in a room together, it was rocketing into an incredibly great direction.

For a lot of bands, friction is a crucial element in creativity – people arguing and defending their parts and butting heads for the sake of the music. In Mastodon, that seems to happen quite a bit. But Gone Is Gone seems to have been a very seamless process. Did you feel like you were less likely to argue or butt heads since you didn’t know each other as well?
I think you nailed it when you said what we created was done seamlessly. Also, this band has zero history and zero pressure on our shoulders. That’s liberating. It’s like a throwback to 20 years ago when we’re finding kids in the neighbourhood to jam with in somebody’s garage. Just for fun, with no expectations – if it feels good, do it. Flash forward to the situation we’re in here, and it’s quite similar. If this band were to encounter massive friction or musical head-butting, we wouldn’t have any desire to do this. That would be counterproductive to the reason we want to be together in the first place.

Previously, Tony has he mentioned that he envisioned Gone Is Gone as a vehicle for all kinds of different projects: albums, film scores, trailers. He also mentioned that some tracks were already earmarked for scoring work. Have you lined up anything yet?
We have a handful of really cool ideas. With this band, we want to play unique and special shows, and we’re seeking creative opportunities with other artists and platforms. We have a couple things we’re honing in on at the moment that will hopefully come to fruition in 2017. It will be thriving in music but without the traditional write-record-tour-tour-tour [approach]. We’re putting in a solid effort to finding unique opportunities, little moments that are special to us. I know that’s a vague projection of what we’re doing, but nothing is solidified at this moment that I can tell you and be excited about. But we’re moving forward full-throttle.

You and the Mastodon guys recently finished recording your seventh LP. Brann told Rolling Stone last month that the album is due out in the spring and that it’s a concept album about cancer.
Mastodon tends to reflect on what we are living and experiencing between album cycles. That’s what we use as energy, for better or worse; then we write stories and songs that become full albums. That’s an honest reflection of what the four of us have been living and breathing for the entire year of writing and recording the record. We tend to channel our energies through art to attempt creating a positive from darkness. We’re incredibly excited to have a record coming out in the spring and then continue touring the world.

What can we expect from the album sonically? What sets it apart musically from your past work?
Mastodon is an incredible band effort and always has been. And we always want to up our vocal performances with each album, but we’re players first and foremost. The current highlight of the new record for me is the way Brent [Hinds], Brann and myself approached the vocals and honed in on the best patterns and tones and melodies we could find. When we walked out of the studio in November, we were all high-fiving because we’re proud of one another. That’s a certain amount of success already achieved.

I think what sets us apart is that we have these four characters who blend to make this unique chemistry. The fact that 17 years into it, and eight records later, it’s still the four of us trying to ascend the mountain that we’re building, trying to further this unique path that we’re carving in the world of rock & roll.