Reluctant Hero: An Interview with Troy Sanders

Troy Sanders

Photo by Glen La Ferman

The idea of a metal all-star group can be hard to pull off, since so many of the genre’s leaders have incredibly distinctive musical voices. However, Killer Be Killed has once again proven just how perfect it can be with their second album, Reluctant Hero. The band features Soulfly frontman Max Cavalera, former Dillinger Escape Plan vocalist Greg Puciato, Converge drummer Ben Koller, and Mastodon bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders.

The album is a tour de force of intense vocal performances with three of the four members singing on each track. From its energy and creativity, it’s evident that this group is just four friends getting together and sharing ideas. It’s clear where their common influences lie as they pay homage to the music of their youths, bringing out aggressive riffs and even going full-on thrash on “Filthy Vagabond”.

While Mastodon has spent most of the year writing and rehearsing, Sanders also finished up a new album with another project, Gone is Gone, which features Queens of the Stone Age’s Troy Van Leeuwen, At the Drive-In drummer Tony Hajjar, and keyboardist Mike Zarin. If Everything Happens for A Reason…Then Nothing Really Matters at All will be arriving December 4th.

We caught up with Sanders to get the scoop on the new Killer Be Killed album, his Mount Rushmore of bass, and the status of Mastodon.

Reluctant Hero is available November 20th on CD, vinyl and as a digital download (iTunes and Amazon MP3).

Are you still down in Atlanta?

I am right now, yes. I was born and raised here, but five years ago, my family and I moved to the Gulf of Mexico in Florida to live the beach life. Atlanta is still my home base as far as Mastodon goes. This is where we have our rehearsal facility, our studio, and that’s where the band is based out of. Since Mastodon is my full-time gig, if you will, I’m here quite often. We just finished up an awesome practice.

Are you working on new material?

Always. We’ve been lucky enough to spend the bulk of this year writing music and as well as me personally with other things as well. It’s cool to be able to take advantage of a lot of downtime, having the ability to be productive and creative. It’s been a saving grace for an otherwise pretty bummer of a year.

You’ve said before that Mastodon always reacts artistically well to tragedy and bad situations. I was just wondering how much of that’s going to reflect in the music.

I think it’s the perfect place to put those emotions when they’re happening to you. Everything that we’ve ever dealt with, tragedy-wise… it’s very relatable to the rest of the world, so it’s not like we’re creating something that’s never been felt or experienced by any other human. I just think that collectively we’re able to sync those emotions of happiness, sadness, grief, whatever they may be and channel all of those emotions through to the art of this band.

It pulls us in and it lets us get really deep with things. The whole idea the entire time is to try to take something that’s dark or something negative and try to channel it into something that has brightness or positivity, or it changes the outlook because the music that we create is going to last forever, so let’s try to make something beautiful out of something horrible.

The Mastodon sound has changed and grown so much through the years. Has it been a big growth period in the last three years?

I think so. We celebrated our 20 years of being a band this year, and we’re still the same four guys. We’ve been working pretty hard creating new music for the bulk of this whole year. I’m very appreciative that we all still have this will and this dedication and this energy to keep stepping it up. We want to write another badass album. We’re trying to improve our sound and our vocal melodies and our songcraft.

I always say our band is still ascending the mountain, so growth is obvious – at least within my eyes and ears because we’re not just sitting back and being like, “Oh, we’ll throw something mediocre down and that’ll be good enough.” No, that’s not how we look at things ever. Growth is vital in our evolution, I believe. I can’t really pinpoint what that is exactly but it’s there.

Do you feel like you’re just pushing yourself with every new thing you do?

Yeah. Thankfully we still have the desire to better ourselves, not just for our fans, but for ourselves as well. We want to be proud of the new licks and riffs that we’re coming up with and the new song titles and the new vocal patterns and everything that’s involved within a riff, a song, and an album. We hone in on everything and we try to get every aspect of our music to a spot where all four of us are really digging it.

It would be a bum out if one or more of us was just getting too comfortable or too lazy and being like, “Hey, we could throw out any bullshit and somebody will like it.” That’s thankfully not the case.

Has your writing style changed very much over the years? How you write, I should say?

I don’t think so. The formula has remained intact so no, I don’t think so.

Comparing yourself from 20 years ago versus today, how has your artistic approach changed?

I’m constantly digging in deeper, continuing the exploration of cool notes on the bass guitar. Most of my time and energy is spent trying to write better lyrics or more fitting lyrics as well as matching and marrying the best vocal pattern I can find over a piece of music. That’s always the biggest challenge that I feel I face.

Again, there are a million notes to play and there are a million songs to create. I think it’s just how dedicated you are to digging in deep and trying to create something that like I said, that I’m happy with on my parts and then my bandmates are stoked with as well. Once it gets to that point, that’s a done deal. Creating music, like many other art forms I feel, should be done initially in a selfish manner where you need to be happy first and foremost.

That will lend itself to translating to other people as being authentic and interesting and cool, hopefully. But once it leaves your hands and it’s out in the world, if the entire world just loves it but you are not happy with a lot of things on there, then that’s where you’re going to feel, period. It’s how you create it or how you feel when you’re done creating it.

The opposite of that is we can work super hard on something and we are just super excited about it and we’re absolutely stoked on the way this entire new album comes out. Well, if it doesn’t get received very well in the rest of the world, that’s all right. We hope people love it and we want people to dig it, but we don’t expect that ever. Once it leaves our hands, we’re stoked on it, we love it because we’re the ones that live and breathe what we’re doing. I feel that’s the way it should be with all artistic platforms, you need to be in love with it and happy with it once it leaves your hands and enters the world.

So you’ve got to have your own connection to it and whatever else happens is not your business, really.

Well, it’s just out of your control. Everything that’s in your power and in your control, that’s up to you and how you pursue that, but once things are out of your control, there’s not much you can do about it. That’s why we try our best to be super stoked and pleased with everything that we can be.

Has recording started on that yet?

No. In March, when our summer European travels and the handful of one-off festivals that we were booked for this year all got wiped out, we said, “Okay. Well, we’ve already toured the last record, Emperor of Sand, for nearly three years.” We wanted to do those shows, but they got canceled. Nothing we can do about it except stay productive.

We just started digging into new ideas.

We’ve been working on that pretty hard for the bulk of 2020. We have loads of demos that we’re really digging in on but no official recording has begun.

Well, I’m excited to hear anything new. Are you doing anything new with your bass sound? Are you a gear head?

I guess I would be a lightweight gearhead. Right now I’m looking at a shelf. I’ve got about 40 pedals on it because those are like toys and I enjoy that. I’m using my Moog Taurus bass pedals a lot more this year to incorporate cool sounds within a lot of stuff that we’re doing, so I’ve definitely elevated the Taurus pedals into our sound much, much more than ever before. It’s thick, and it’s low, and it’s hairy, and it just sounds great.

As far as other pedals go, I enjoy playing around with them but I try to simplify and I don’t get too crazy with my sounds because I play with other guitar players and synth players. I just want to lock in and be simple and classy and tasteful with the bass. A lot of the pedals that I have and play with in the rehearsal spot really never make it onto many songs on an album or in a live environment because I try to keep it locked in. Keep it low, locked, and simple.

I’ve been checking out the new Killer Be Killed album and I’m really blown away by the way that you guys all mesh together. Each member has their own voice, but they fit together so well. What is the writing process like for you all, and was that recorded this year pieced together over the last few years?

Two excellent questions. The triple tag-team vocal attack was something that [we agreed on] when we got together with the idea of putting this band together. The one thing that we had said beforehand was that all three of us – meaning Greg Puciato, Max Cavalera, and myself – were going to contribute vocals on every song to some degree.

We tried that on album number one not knowing if it would really work or not. Just because you have three relatively famous voices in the world of heavy music doesn’t mean that they’re going to go well together necessarily. We got in the studio and we didn’t do any vocal stuff until we were actually in the studio. We got super excited and were all feeding off each other’s energy in the vocal booth and just piecing together vocals for the whole album. Thankfully, listening back, we thought it sounded great. A lot of other people really liked it too. We felt like, “Wooh, all right.” We avoided career suicide on that one. We knew that would be the same thing when album number two became a reality.

As far as the songwriting goes, we’ve been chipping away at this for five years. The main reason being is that the four of us in the band meticulously live by our calendars. Between the four of us, we’re in 12 active bands at the moment, but if it’s time to rehearse in a room together – which was crucial to our agenda – we would just look on the calendar and say, “Hey, everyone has the first week of April off. Let’s get together, sounds great. Pencil it in.” We did that for the past five years. We had a writing session in Phoenix four years ago, we had another writing session in Phoenix two years ago.

We had a couple of weeks of a window to record the music for the album last year, and we had 10 days or so together at the beginning of this year before everything hit the fan. We just did it in pieces. It was mandatory that we do it like that because we were not going to file share or do the recording remotely. Everything was to be done with all of us together in the same room the way we sat out to do it initially when this band started.

It took a long time but we were okay with that because again, we have 12 collective bands going on that are active. It wasn’t a matter of will we ever put out a second album, it was more of a matter of when.

That’s cool to hear you say that, especially about the working together thing because I was listening to it and so many bands are doing the remote recording thing right now. It doesn’t sound that way. It sounds like you guys are just all rocking out together.

Yes, that was really important to us. I’m glad we were able to see that vision through. Thankfully, we finished this record. I don’t know if it was January or February but it was super close to the March meltdown and we were able to get it done before this stuff hit. Now, it will finally see the light of day in 2020. Hopefully capping off a rough year for a lot of people and putting some fun, heavy, energetic music out there that hopefully fans of heavy rock will really dig in and enjoy.

Killer Be Killed

Photo by Jim Louvau

Every member has their own lyrical style, so were you writing lyrics together or separately?

Yes. Between Max, Greg, and myself, we’re really anxious to start grabbing and claiming parts like, “Oh man, I love that chorus. I want that.” Greg will be like, “Dude, I want those verses, I have an idea.” Max would say, “Dude, that whole ending part, I have an idea, I want to do that.” It’s like very selflessly whoever’s got the energy and an idea for a part, go in and take it.

It just escalated for the whole album like that. We started writing lyrics earlier in 2020 when we were in Santa Ana, California at Hybrid Studios. It was time to really focus and hone in on lyrics. We just got there and that’s all we did for a solid week. Greg, Max, and myself, we just kept taking turns in and out of the vocal booth, trying ideas, letting them grow, and nailing them until the three of us were super happy on it.

It was really cool because the energy was so damn high. We were feeding off each other. Greg would lay down a really great verse, and I’ll be like, “Oh, man, I had this chorus idea, but his verses are great so I need to make my part–” It allowed us to push each other in a great way. It’s an incredible way to collaborate with people when everyone’s that into it and that excited about it because it’s only going to push you and have a better result from it.

When you’re approaching Killer Be Killed or Gone Is Gone, do you change your bass tone or your playing style?

Well, as far as the Killer Be Killed Reluctant Hero record, we worked with Josh Wilbur, who’s done a lot of great heavy records. I love the work that he does and we wanted to work with him again. We were glad that he was willing and able to work with us again too. He captures bass really great and I didn’t want to try anything wild or wacky because KBK is very heavy, fun, and full of meaty riffs.

I just kept it simple. I generally enjoy the sound of distortion with a little chorus on it. I had my Fender Jaguar and I had my Warwick out there and played both of those on every tune.

I really loved the bass tone at the beginning of “Inner Calm from Outer Storms” where it’s just such a menacing bass sound.

That was a happy moment. It was cool because when we were listening back to that, one of the guitar players had the idea that the bass sounds so cool and the drums sound fantastic that they weren’t going to come in with any guitars until the first verse. Sometimes the tone of something will slightly change the overall structure or arrangement of a song. Just because it’s a great tone, you want that to shine and have a little moment to breathe and be heard.

These songs just sound like you are having so much fun. Listening to Filthy Vagabond, it’s just straight hardcore and thrashy stuff that I feel is maybe part of your influences, too.

This band was put together to thoroughly enjoy. We respect and admire each other as individuals and we’re friends. We like to get together and it’s fun, it’s uplifting, it’s energetic. It’s all the good stuff. It’s all the right reasons to have a band in the first place. Otherwise, with all the other projects that we’re involved in, we have to reap some healthy reward otherwise, why would we leave our house?

I’m glad that translated to your ears because we are having fun and we do enjoy it. It’s not like we’re in this band for anything other than the purity of it. It’s not a giant paying gig or anything like that, it’s the experience and the reward.

Who would be on your Mount Rushmore of bass?

Well, taking it back to what led me to get into this and ultimately who showed the way and why I’m sitting here in a very fortunate position to be talking to you about it right now, I would have to say it was the sight of the demon, Gene Simmons, with the hand of the ferocity of Cliff Burton, and the accessibility from my older brother, Kyle Sanders who was playing bass, and he’s a couple of years older than me.

He was in high school and he had a bunch of long-haired friends that were jamming, Van Halen, and Kiss, and Heart, and Cheap Trick and I was like, “That is amazing. I want to do that.” It’s a combination of those three pieces that I said my brother was doing something awesome and in between the first two guys that came into mind was Cliff and Gene. Those three would be on my Mount Rushmore.

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