The title track to Mastodon’s new album “Once More ’Round the Sun” (Reprise Records) includes a few subtle hat tips to “Cowboy Song,” a 1976 classic by the Irish blues-rock band Thin Lizzy. “Sun” borrows just enough phrases for Phil Lynott and company to get an actual co-writing credit; and the band did that because Thin Lizzy is one of Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds’ favorite bands, according to bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders.
And who is Sanders’ favorite band?
“Men at Work,” Sanders said by phone recently from his home in Atlanta, bringing the conversation to a halt as his interviewer’s jaw crashed to the floor.
“No, really,” Sanders continued. “I love that band! My top three would be George Jones because I love classic country; Neurosis, who are so bold and beautiful in such a dark way; and Men at Work, which was my first album and concert.”
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Who knew that, deep within Mastodon – one of the most musically aggressive acts ever to crack Billboard’s top 10 – beats the heart of the band responsible for “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under”?
“Yes it does,” Sanders said, “and it always will. But when I joined my first band at 16, I was very much in love with Van Halen, Cheap Trick, Motley Crue, Kiss, Metallica, Judas Priest – all the hard hitters. That’s what I gravitated toward. I enjoy all types of music, but getting out my aggression in the world of heavy music has been the bulk of my life. And it’s fun to play.”
While Mastodon has always been heavy enough to live up to its name’s epic proportions, the group’s music has become undeniably more accessible in recent years. That especially goes for “Sun,” on which the first and last songs start off with strumming acoustic guitars (that first track is also called “Tread Lightly”). But Sanders said the band never approaches its records with any sort of heaviness metric in mind.
“Not much is ever predetermined among the four of us,” Sanders said. “We always try to let it come very naturally, without trying to please any certain genre of fan, and we never write the same album twice because we don’t want to repeat ourselves. So anyone looking for that same brutal raw heaviness of (2002’s) ‘Remission’ 12 years later, you’re not gonna get it. Every two-three years, we’re in a different place physically and emotionally and those feelings come out. Things are always changing and you cannot please everyone.”
“Once More ’Round the Sun” is lighter in other ways, too, including thematically. It’s particularly straightforward compared to past Mastodon epics like 2010’s “Crack the Skye,” a concept album in which astral time travel through wormholes, Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin and the long-ago suicide of Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor’s sister all figured prominently. It might have been the tallest mountain Mastodon ever tried to climb.
“We’re all very proud of what we accomplished with ‘Crack the Skye,’ which was pretty epic and very hard to play,” said Sanders. “We’re also happy not to do a record like that again because we totally exhausted ourselves on it, in a good way. Brann had made this trip to Russia and was fascinated with their culture and history. He came back saying that the colors and imagery and storylines he experienced over there were mind-blowing and could make for an interesting, bizarre, cool concept for a record. He spelled it all out with Rasputin and wormholes and everything, and we had been writing this music that was also pretty deep and complex. So we decided to sandwich all that together with Russian bears, gnarly Rasputin and all the rest of it.”
Not the easiest thing to pull off, getting all four members moving in the same direction. But it was all part of the democratic process.
“When it comes to songwriting, we try to get everyone to a happy place with every riff, pattern and vocal idea,” Sanders said. “A record lives forever and we’ll be playing it for a long time, so everybody needs to be as happy with it as possible because you end up kind of married to it. With every record, you do go back and wish you could have done this or had more time for that. Creating music for a new record is like a giant canvas you keep throwing paint at until someone says, ‘You have to stop.’ I don’t know if it’s true democracy, but close.”