Any creative person (or Lego enthusiast) will tell you that not every combination of elements yields positive results. Sometimes even the best towers—proverbial and actual—will tumble given the wrong amalgamation. That’s why the Atlanta-born hard rock band Mastodon is such a remarkable entity. The group is one of those in which the pieces just fit. Since its inception in 2000, the four-piece band has amassed eight studio LPs, including its most recent, the Grammy-nominated Hushed and Grim in 2021. And Mastodon’s album prior, Emperor of Sand (2017), earned the group its first Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance. Today, Mastodon is set to get back out on the road with a co-headline tour in March (followed by one in Europe in the summer). After two-plus-decades together, they’re still building and growing. It’s a testament to the chemistry that bonds the band’s four members.
“All four of us were dedicated to finding a way,” Mastodon bassist and singer Troy Sanders tells American Songwriter. “All four of us recognized how fate was on our side and how the stars had aligned.”
Mastodon got in a room first to make noise together in January of 2000. One of the first things they did was talk songs. Collectively, there is a love of hard rock and metal like the Melvins, Iron Maiden, and Thin Lizzy. But amidst the four, there is a love for an eclectic number of genres, including bluegrass, prog rock, hardcore, pop, and country.
“Combine that,” Sanders says, “with the fact that all four of us were willing and able to get in a van to play shows however long it took to get it ourselves and not just sit back and wait for a great opportunity to come knocking on our door.”
Sanders and his bandmates knew that the only shot Mastodon would have would be what they gave themselves—at least in the beginning. So they built. Since forming in 2000, the band has gone on to play in more than 35 countries. One show that particularly sticks out for Sanders is one in Norway with artists like Patti Smith, Ringo Starr, Eagles, and Eric Clapton (see show poster below). All of this, Sanders says, has been unexpected when thinking of the group’s humble origins. Mastodon has also toured or opened shows with Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Slipknot, Tool, Judas Priest, and more of its heroes. They even recorded a song for the popular cartoon, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, on June 6, 2006 (6-6-6).
“It was so funny,” Sanders says, “when we were getting direction from Dave [Willis], we told him to give us his thoughts only in [the character] Meatwad’s voice. We never laughed so damn hard!”
Growing up, Sanders says music was always part of his life, from hearing his mother early on playing the French horn in her church wind quartet to around 10-years-old in the early ’80s when he discovered the beacon that was MTV and its channel of 24-hours-a-day-seven-days-a-week music videos. Those songs, which he could now view, sunk their claws into Sanders. Next, he saw his older brother, Kyle, playing music. Sanders would borrow his brother’s left-handed bass and plunk around. He taught himself the two-note bassline for the KISS song “Lick It Up.” Eventually, after earning it, his parents bought him his own right-handed instrument.
“Doing my chore list and getting decent grades,” Sanders says. He got to work. Sanders was born and raised in Atlanta and, later, the band’s other three members—Brann Dailor, Brent Hinds, and Bill Kelliher—moved to the city. The chemistry just fit, Sanders says. And that led to the quartet of “road dogs” to dive in head-first. Fast-forward to modern times and Sanders says Mastodon’s latest LP is his proudest moment with the band. To him, the record marks the culmination of everything that led to this point. It is the sounds of a band that’s been together for two-plus decades, toiling away, getting better every day.
“It’s a far cry from anything we could have ever touched on the first record,” he says. “I feel like we’re continuing to crescendo. I can speak for all four of us that we’re beyond proud of ourselves. In our hearts and minds and ears, we think this record is incredibly special. That’s all that really matters.”
That his bandmates, family, and friends appreciate the sounds is paramount, Sanders says. But it’s also nice the Recording Academy has acknowledged the album, too (That never hurts). With each nod from an awards body, new life invigorates the group, Sanders says. While it’s not necessary, it certainly is welcomed. Thinking on the achievement, Sanders recalls sleeping on pavement, in driveways, on “dirty cat litter” in the band’s early years. To get through those formative stages, love must abound. Sanders knows this. For him, in this way, music is love.
“It’s the universal truth,” Sanders says. “It’s the great unifier. It’s not meant to be described. It’s meant to be felt.”