On 'Hushed and Grim,' Troy Sanders & co. prove yet again that Mastodon’s well of creativity is far from dry
Even though Troy Sanders is simply gearing up for another tour, something he’s done “over 1,000 times” with Mastodon, he admits that packing for this upcoming three-and-a-half-week trip was a little odd, post-pandemic. “I kind of forgot how to do it,” he chuckles. “The most basic of checklists — ten socks, ten underwear, two jeans, four shirts, toiletries — it’s pretty simple, but it was odd. It was nice to do that task.”
Thankfully, two years of pandemic-induced sequestering hasn’t caused Sanders to forget how to play bass, and his fiery 4-string attitude is still anchoring Mastodon, and on their latest release (and eighth overall), Hushed and Grim, he delivers his kinetic bass lines with equal parts bombast and finesse. Sanders comes crashing in with his unmistakable roar right from the get-go on the opening track “Pain With an Anchor.” The ferocity continues on songs like “The Crux” and “Sickle and Peace,” where the band deftly melds heavy riffing with psychedelic guitar work, intense polyrhythmic grooves, and sonorous vocal harmonies, creating the kind of enigmatic union of sounds that has become synonymous with the Mastodon name. By the time you get to the end of this double-length magnum opus, it becomes evident that Mastodon has once again delivered the kind of subgenre-melding record that has become their hallmark. They may continue to be categorized as heavy metal, but Mastodon records tend to embody musical growth without sticking to any one particular rock subgenre. Hushed and Grim is no exception, drawing equally from classic rock, psych, stoner, doom, prog, thrash, and straight-up metal. As with every album released in their 18-year career, Mastodon remains more committed to expanding the boundaries of their playing and songwriting abilities than trying to fit into a musical category.
Hushed and Grim was produced by Dave Bottrill at Mastodon’s West End Sound studio in Atlanta during the pandemic lockdowns, and as with many Mastodon records, it carries a theme. The album serves as a tribute to their close friend and manager Nick John, who lost his battle with pancreatic cancer in 2018. “He was our best friend, the biggest Mastodon fan in the world, and the most badass person, who swooped us up in 2004 and allowed us to travel the globe — he made all of our musical dreams come true. He was the best guy ever,” proclaims Sanders. “Upon our last few times seeing him, it was like a nightmare, because he wasn’t the grounded, energetic, positive guy we all knew. He was suffering, and it was horrible. When we left his house after seeing him the last couple of times, it was like everything was just hushed, and it was grim.”
The day before he hit the road (he really was packing!) in support of Hushed and Grim, we talked to Sanders to discuss the new album, the band’s songwriting approach, playing and singing, dialing in a tone, and the loss of their dear friend and colleague.
First let me extend my condolences about Nick. You all crafted quite the tribute to him with Hushed and Grim.
It is very deep, and it’s very sad — this entire album is for Nick. He had such an impact on our lives, personally, for all four of us, individually as well as a band; we knew we were going to attempt our best to create a musical memorial of an album for Nick that would hopefully live beautifully forever. It’s layered with anger, sadness, frustration, and grief, but now that it’s been three years and we’ve been able to process it, we realized that having him in our life was beyond the most incredible thing that could ever happen to us. To say that we’re forever grateful almost feels like an understatement.
When you go into making a new Mastodon album, are you each individually showing up with demos or ideas, or do you get in a room together and hash things out from the beginning as a group?
It’s always been all of the above, but for this particular record, a lot more attention was done individually and brought in. Putting in the effort away from our actual practice space is great, because that shows everyone’s enthusiasm to create. It’s really effective because when someone comes in with an idea that’s already had a lot of thought and energy put into it, it’s usually pretty great. It’s more presentable. But most importantly to me, it’s like, “Oh, wow — you did all that on your own?” It’s not just like, “Eh, I’ll do everything when I get to band practice” [laughs]. So, most of the ideas for Hushed and Grim were created in bits and pieces at home, and then presented to the band when we all got together.
Do you write on bass?
Most of the music that I contributed to this album was written on bass. I wrote one on an acoustic guitar. It was slow and dark, and I felt it had really good potential. That was a scary moment, because I play with two guitar wizards — so, for me to walk into a room and say, “Hey, listen to this idea,” and it’s me barely picking my way around an acoustic guitar, I thought the idea was going to get shot down immediately. But it turned out to be a song called “Had It All,” and it made the record — and that was really cool.
Sounds like a leap of faith is rewarded in Mastodon.
I love the fact that my bandmates will be open-minded to something, even if it’s in the simplest form, like, “Hey man, I can see this going to a really great place. Just bear with me.” It’s usually never shot down right away. We have enough trust and respect for each other to give the simplest idea some attention, and help that person find the vision that they hear in their head and help them get that to the finish line.
How do you continue to inspire one another as an original band after so many years together? It sounds like you have a pretty open working relationship, which must help.
It’s excellent that we’ve not hit any type of writer’s block. I think I’ve used words like, “The well of creativity is far from dry,” and that’s wonderful that we recognize that, and it’s important for Mastodon and our longevity that all four of us are contributors to some degree. Everyone definitely has their part, and in my ears, I’d like to think that we’re a unique band in the sense that every song on each record doesn’t sound too similar to one another — we’re able to evolve from album to album. With this new one, Hushed and Grim, even though it’s a long listen, each song has its own color and its own personality, and I think that’s a direct result of Mastodon having four songwriters.
I know you’re all involved in outside projects. Do you think any of that ever comes back and filters through as another influence?
I think it does. I get asked about my other bands from time to time [Killer Be Killed and Gone Is Gone], and I do those bands because I love them. Mastodon keeps me busy enough to be just in one band, for sure, but ever since I turned 16 and started playing with other people, I always recognized that the more people you play with, the more you learn and grow. Any time I do anything outside of Mastodon, it ramps up my confidence and continues to ramp up my personal excitement. And then I can’t wait to get back into the world of Mastodon and take that momentum and keep it going. My other bands inspire me because that time with other writers is refreshing, it’s healthy, and it’s all a positive experience. So, I definitely take all that and come back into the Mastodon world with a fresher outlook.
I always ask singing bass players, since I think it’s one of the harder skill sets in music, do you have any secrets for working that stuff out?
Not a secret. It’s putting in the work. It’s repetition. Right now we’re relearning all the songs that are the bulk of Hushed and Grim, so we’re going back, and relearning the songs since we haven’t played them in several months. My wife will ask me, “Why don’t you guys just get together for two or three days before a tour and do four six-hour sessions?” It doesn’t work like that. I have to do a lot of small sessions to build that muscle memory.
Do you write and record music first and come up with the vocals later?
A lot of times the music’s written, and we record it, because we’re players first, and then we focus on lyrics and recording vocals last. So, I never know if a vocal pattern is going to be easy to do at the same time or not; we don’t think like that. It’s like, whatever vocal pattern is best for the song — we can put in the work later. It’s patting your head and rubbing your belly. So, we rehearse a lot, weeks and weeks leading up to a tour to build that muscle memory.
The playing probably has to be automatic, so that you can sing. Is that correct?
It’s kind of like splitting your mind in half and just getting comfortable to where you can play without thinking too much or overthinking it, and then let that take over on automatic pilot. Then you can focus on pitch, remembering the lyrics, and how to be a decent vocalist at the same time. I accept that challenge with great pride in Mastodon, because anytime I have a vocal idea, those guys say, “Yeah, go for it.” To have that trust from them is fantastic.
When you’re recording, do you dial in a bass tone and say, “Okay, this is what I’m going to use for the entire record,” or do you craft your tone song by song?
In the past, it’s always been dial something in and roll with that the whole time. Time is money, and usually there’s a set schedule with whatever producer we’re working with and the studio that we’ve blocked out. This album was different because we were able to record it at our own facility, West End Sound in the basement of our building, Ember City, here in Atlanta. We were able to explore a little more, and I was able to use multiple basses because I wanted to play around with different sounds. Our producer, David Bottrill, was very patient and excited about me wanting to try other sounds — he was very excited to explore new musical territory, even just with the bass guitar. I was able to use a lot of different stuff on this album, and it was definitely enjoyable.
What was your signal chain? Were you using miked amps or DI, or both?
Both. We’re distorted a lot, and again, David Bottrill was very welcoming to me, allowing me to be like, “Let’s try this distortion pedal. I’ve never used it, but I’ve always wanted to” [laughs]. So, it was a perfect setting and opportunity to explore, and it was fun. I don’t remember how many different pedals I used, but I was able to use a wah, for example. That was a tip of the hat to Cliff Burton, because that’s how I learned to play bass — by learning the first three Metallica albums. Making this record was far more enjoyable than any other time we’ve been able to do it, because we had the time and the freedom, and it was a little looser.
Being that you used so much different gear, when it comes to playing live, you have to scale things down, right?
We try to go through our live show pretty seamlessly. We only change guitars when we have different tunings, and we have three: a drop D, drop C, and drop A. So, I just change basses for the sake of not having to stand onstage tuning. My setup live is pretty simple because, again, in the world of Mastodon, every time I want to get clever, I realize that I’ve got two badass guitar players flanking me on right and left, and I’ve got one beast of a drummer behind me. The more I simplify, the better the result.
Circling back to Nick, it’s kind of amazing how, as young musicians, we’re often consumed with being good by practicing technique and whatnot. Then as we get older, we realize how equally important life circumstances are to our creativity and growth as an artist.
True. That only makes it more pure. It stems from a very authentic place when you’re using your inspirations and your feelings, and you’re channeling it through your soul and into your music. One thing I’ve always believed is great about Mastodon, is that we’re pulling straight from the heart. And if people like us, I feel they can tap into it, and for those that don’t like us, that’s absolutely fine, but we’ve never just thrown out a bunch of nonsense or tried to write stuff to be cool or to gain a certain type of new fan base — superficial in any way, we are not. That’s one thing that makes me really proud of my bandmates. –BM
HEAR HIM ON
Hushed and Grim, Mastodon [2021, Reprise]
Basses Fender Troy Sanders Jaguar, Warwick Streamer Stage II
Amps TC Electronic Blacksmith, Orange AD200B MK 3, Mesa/Boogie Big Block 750, Ampeg SVT-VR
Cabs TC Electronic RS410, Orange SmartPower SP410, Mesa/Boogie RoadReady 8×10
Strings Dunlop Nickel Plated Steel (.045–.105)
Effects Moog Taurus 3 Bass Pedals, Wren and Cuff Elephant Skin Troy Sanders Signature Fuzz, TC Electronic Corona Chorus, TC Electronic PolyTune Classic
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