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Writing Songs When You’re Not Alone

-Into the song writing sanctum with Mastodon’s Troy Sanders

Have you ever imagined songwriters as solitary figures, perhaps working by candlelight late at night, finding inspiration while looking out at the stars?

Mastodon blows that image apart.

They’ve been influenced by everything from Beethoven to Björk – and share these influences together in their unique songwriting process.

What do the scraps look like on the figurative floor of your song writing room – how much stuff do you throw out?
If the four of us aren’t completely happy with it, it goes on the floor. It’ll sit on the floor until it collects enough dust where we can’t see it anymore or until we find a friend for it! If we find a friendly riff that might want to be friends with this other scrap we’ll pick it off the floor and put them together and see if they want to be friends.

What’s the longest time it’s taken you to write a song?
We actually have bits and pieces from our ‘Crack the Sky’ record that never made the record from 2009. We were able to finally come around and put the final touches on it for this last record – that took three years to write a song.

The Shortest time?
Other times Brent or Bill will strike up a riff, and then we kinda dive right into it; thirty minutes later it’s like, “Wow! Done! It doesn’t need anything else.” Our single ‘Curl of the Burl’ came together in probably an hour. So it can take anywhere from one hour and three years.

Is there some place or time of day that works better than another?
We have a massive rehearsal space where there’s over 100 bands that practice in different rooms. In the evening it’s packed; it’s all of our friends, there’s noise and music coming from everywhere… but when we go down in the daytime, we’re the only ones there. It’s very peaceful. We get together, do whatever we can, or need to, and then we’re all at home for dinner and hanging out with our dogs and families.

Do you start with a vocal riff that the instruments might get ideas from – the other way around? Both?
In Mastodon’s history, vocals have always come last. We work on the music first and foremost and then lyrics and vocals follow. This is probably because of the four of us are playing instruments and there’s not, like, a lead singer per say. And then, when we’re done, we put down our instruments and bounce ideas off each other about vocal patterns and melodies.

Do you record everything and archive it or is it just whoever remembers the riffs?
We have a pro-tools setup at our rehearsal space, where everything is mic’d up all the time. So if it’s just one part that we think has potential, we’ll record it. Or if we just start jamming out part after part after part, we record – we always hit record.

What’s your response to a young artist who says: I want to write my own songs – but what do I write about?
That question needs to be answered in a place that’s deep inside of you. I feel, and my band feels, that art is best created from yourself and for yourself. The four of us in Mastodon write all of the music; we create everything Mastodon from the four of us for the four of us, because this is the music that we’re married to. And then the rest of the year, the rest of our career and the rest of our lives, we live, eat, breathe and sleep Mastodon. So we need to be in love with what we create, deeply. It’s a selfish standpoint, but that’s the best way in our opinion art should be created.

Do you ever take song-writing inspiration from other musical genres?
Absolutely. That’s one thing that brought the four of us together to start a band, back in January of 2000. We were very intrigued that the other three guys had a vast catalogue of music they have always listened to.

Why is this musical diversity important to you?
We never wanted to join with strictly like-minded people because we wanted to be able to go outside of the box or have no boundaries. We’ve been influenced by many styles of music over the past 300 years, everything from Beethoven to Björk, and everything in between.

What are some of the genres that have influenced you?
When we all met, Brent said, “I’m really big into Bluegrass and classic country” and I was like “yeah, I love classic country and I love 80s pop, and I love 90’s electronic music” and Bill was like “yeah dude, I love heavy metal and I’m so into hardcore and punk rock”. And Brann was like “I’m super into jazz and 70’s prog”… like, wow. This is just a few of the titbits of each of us have said to each other. Cool! We have a massive canvas that we can paint, you know? Potentially.

What do you do to keep fresh with your songwriting?
We are highly inspired by not only the music that we have lived and loved, but we pull inspiration from travelling to new countries, meeting a very special person, having wonderful food in a third-world country that we thought we’d never visit.

Give us an example.
Seeing a mountain range in Switzerland that we never thought we’d see. Swimming off the coast of Greece on a day off…you know, many things that are beautiful and inspiring to us besides music itself. We let life inspire how we feel and let that be energized through our heart and soul, out of our fingertips and onto our instruments…I’m getting deep!

Troy Sanders is a bassist and vocalist in Mastodon. Hailed by Rolling Stone as the greatest metal band of their generation, Mastodon pairs complex songwriting with a clear 70s hard-rock sensibility that has been a hit with critics and fans alike. Recent albums “Crack The Skye” (2009) and “The Hunter” (2011) has seen the band focus even more on stripping down and tightening the compositions with major critical and commercial success following suit. www.mastodonrocks.com
Photo by Cindy Frey

  • G_Alexander

    This isn’t an original song, but here’s a charity that just did a really cool adaptation of call me maybe – http://youtu.be/1oMMkbl9ltA