Metal-on-Metal


by David Ellefson

This Article was published in Issue 18 in winter 2016.

Welcome to our latest installment of “Metal on Metal,” a column by Megadeth bassist David Ellefson. In this column, David sits down with some of the top metal bassists in the world and asks them the kinds of questions which only a seasoned pro like David can articulate. In addition, the interviewees get a chance to fire some questions of their own back to David.

For this issue, David talks with, Mastodon bassist/vocalist, Troy Sanders.

DE – You come from a very musical family. You play in Mastodon, your brother plays in Hellyeah, and another brother is out on the road with you a lot as a tech. So what was it like growing up in the Sanders household, with so much musical blood floating around?

TS – It was pretty radical. My mother was deeply rooted in classical music. She played, and still plays, French horn in a wind quintet at church, and she always has. So that’s where the Beethoven and Mozart would creep in, and I was always fascinated by classical music. She was also into classic country, so Willie Nelson has been in my top three favorites of all time for many, many years. That opened up the floodgates of the classic country era to myself. George Jones is my hero. Willie Nelson’s voice has driven me to better places, many times throughout my life. A lot of times people will ask me, “What’s some of your favorite music?” And I will say, “Well, classic country.” They giggle, “That’s good, that’s good. No, what is it?” And I say, “No, man. It’s classical music and classic country.” That really started it all in my household, and that’s all due to my Mom. She still plays her French horn weekly, to this day, and that’s a great thing. The best piece of advice she ever gave me was, “You can do anything in your life,” – and I was really big into sports as a kid – “You can play sports if you want to, but as long as you have your health, you can play music until the day you die, whereas other things, like sports, will wear down your body.” And I was like, “Wow, what a great piece of advice!”

It was around the same time my older brother, Kyle Sanders, was in high school, growing his hair long, and there was girls kinda hanging out around him and his friends, and I thought that was amazing. They were in high school in a band, and they were doing Cheap Trick covers, and Heart covers, and Van Halen covers, and I’m thinking, “That looks amazing!” They’re growing their hair long, they’ve got really tight jeans on, and they looked like up-to-no-good hoodlums, with girls everywhere. I was like, “That’s pretty amazing; I think I want to do that.” Being four years younger than him, being fascinated and supported by my parents of music, I basically followed his footsteps in everything he did, and just mocked him, mimicked him and wanted to be exactly what he was. I wanted to do everything that he was doing, and I just copied him and followed his footsteps. I was a good student, and would do all my chores, and mowed the grass and everything on time, so my Dad was cool enough to buy me my first bass and practice amp. With my Mom’s musical inspirations, and my brother Kyle leading the way, it kinda all fell in place quite naturally, and very fortunately.

DE – So, did you guys ever fight over basses or amps, or covet what the other one had, as far as gigs and things like that?

TS – No, thankfully not. My brother Kyle’s a lefty, and I’m a righty, so there wasn’t much competition, there. Plus, he was in high school and bigger than me, and would always take his two knees and pin my shoulders down, and just torture my face. So I couldn’t do much, and I was just waiting so that I could grow and be the same size as him.

DE – How did you become a singer/bass player, and who were some of your idols and influences into that realm?

TS – Good question, Dave. Mastodon formed the first week of January, 2000, and Y2K didn’t kill us all, so that worked out well. The four of us met, and immediately, before we had a song, we felt that the chemistry in the band was great. We just made noise in a room; we’re like, “Oh, this is going to be a band!” We started talking about band names, and I started booking and grabbing the phone. There was a book called, “Book Your Own Fucking Life.” I bought that book, and I started booking house shows, basement shows, VFW halls, anywhere that would have us. So we were booking a tour, and had a band name, before we had one song, back in January, 2000. So the four of us were obviously completely driven to give this thing a shot, a proper shot. We had a singer at the time, a fifth member, who was just a vocalist. Turns out, he was not in the best head space in his life, and he had to bow out immediately before we ventured out on this three-week basement tour. I was like, “Guys, I’ve been on the phone hours and hours, and I’ve sent so many demos of a cassette of us jamming in a room on a ghetto blaster… You know, I’ve worked really hard. We have to do this tour. We’re gonna lose money; it’s gonna be great.” “Well, who’s gonna do vocals?” Eric Saner, he just backed out. So Brent, my guitar player stage right, and myself said, “You know what? We’ll just step up and see what happens. No one knows our songs, anyway, so we can just make it happen.” And through time, we just never spent the energy to find a proper front man or lead singer. So, through time, we just started stepping up and attempting stabs at vocals. It took a long time, but I think we finally got to a point where we’re decent at it.

DE – Cool. So, if you had to list one Mastodon song that is sort of your bass/vocal “moment” together, what would that be?

TS – A vocal moment, together?

DE – Well, like bass and vocals. Kinda like where Geddy Lee has La Villa Strangiato, or something like that. Where there’s that moment … I guess sometimes there’s two moments; there’s the moment when we, as the artist think it’s cool, and then there’s also that moment when the fans are just blown away.

TS – Right. Yes, I understand. Playing an instrument and doing vocals is kind of like rubbing your belly and patting your head. But when you can get them to work together in unison, it’s a magical thing. It’s a wonderful marriage. For me, personally, it’s the first track off of our most recent album, Once More ‘Round the Sun, it’s called Tread Lightly, and there’s a chorus that just warms my soul every time we get to play it. It’s very grounding, and a beautiful moment for myself. So that’s my favorite moment over the past two or three years touring on our current record. But as far as the fans go, we have what would be our most famous hit, if you will, it’s a song called Blood and Thunder, that’s like, ten years old. A simple meat-and-potatoes song, as far as Mastodon goes, and it’s by far, our most popular song. Anywhere that we play that – whether there’s twenty people, or two thousand, or twenty thousand, or a festival setting – people always gravitate towards that song and that’s the most energetic. So, from a circle of energy – being the performer on stage, out to the crowd, and back to us – it would be our go-to song, called Blood and Thunder.

DE – Cool. What does Mastodon mean? Where’d you get the name?

TS – Well, the mastodon is the now-extinct cousin of the woolly mammoth. They’ve been dead for over 10,000 years; during the Ice Age they were faded out. It is an epic beast. It lumbers slowly through the ice, and it’s a prehistoric beast of epic proportions. And that matched the kind of music that we wanted to make. And, in 2000, that was pretty much the only one-word band name that wasn’t taken. Mastodon. So we got lucky; we got real lucky.

DE – Alright, so that’s it for my questions for you.

TS – Okay, can I ask you a couple of questions, Dave?

DE – Please do. This is Metal on Metal. [Laughs]

TS – Right on. I even wrote these down, earlier, as I really wanted to make this happen. I’ve recently had the pleasure of sharing the stage with you, performing with Metal Allegiance. You were on bass, and I was on vocals. Do you think that you are a better bass player than me?

DE – [Laughs]

TS – [Laughs] You can answer later, ‘cause this is kinda ridiculous.

DE – No, no… You know, it’s funny, because “better” is all in the ears of the beholder. What I’ve found, I’ve stood on stages with guys who can double-hand and double-tap, and manage to do everything short of standing on their head while playing the bass. And one guy goes over everybody’s head, and the next guy, it’s so amazing that it just wows the crowd. To me, bass playing is all about charisma. The thing that I noticed right away in your bass playing was that you have this very simple, very violent approach to your bass playing. You don’t need to play very many notes, and you know that Troy Sanders is in the house. To me, that has always been more impressive than the almighty shred-dom. I say that because I grew up in the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s, honing my craft when guys like Eddie Van Halen and Jaco Pastorius and, you know, the “King of the Fingerboard Acrobatics” and shred-dom came into being. It took me only a couple of times in the studio when the engineers and producers were looking at me and going, “That’s great; can you just play some 8th notes, now?” That’s when it really drove home to me, how difficult it is to be simple, and you have “simple” written all over you in a way that really just shakes the rafters, and I love it!

TS – [Laughs] That’s amazing! You’re too kind, Dave. And that’s also why I think I embrace the half-Neanderthal in me. You know, I want simple. The less knobs, the better. I only like to eat at restaurants that show the pictures of the food, so I can just point at it.

DE – [Laughs]

TS – I like to embrace the simplicity of things. You have an amazing attitude, so none of these questions will rattle you.

DE – Okay. [Laughs]

TS – I have another one … I thought it was going to be good, but it’s the same question, really. You have written a book about your life, and your band, Megadeth, has sold millions of albums. I have only written guest columns for a bass magazine, and my band has only sold thousands of albums. Do you think that you’re better than me? [Laughter] Same question … Or…

DE – [More laughter] Finish your question…

TS – And my third question, because those two were similar, was that I just recently finished your book, and I thought it was very insightful, and very strong of you to come out and share your life with the world. However, I rented it from my local library; I did not directly purchase it. Does that upset you?

DE – [Pretty much a steady stream of laughter] Okay, well I tell you what, the last question first. I am honored that a library would have a book that I wrote in its shelves. So, for me, to be able to go over to the catalog index and see my name and my title in there is cool. I never got into this for the money, anyway. I think anytime that I’ve gone into music with money, I ended up not getting enough money, and I hated the music. What I’ve learned from that is, just go have fun doing it, and somehow or another, the bills will get paid. That’s probably the follow-up to Making Music Your Business – which is the first book that I wrote – that I should probably write, and call it, Don’t Do Any of This for the Money, and You’ll Probably Make Just Enough Money, and Your Life Will Be Wonderful. So no, I’m not mad at you, and thank you for borrowing my book from the library. What was the first question? [Laughs]

TS – It had the same tag line, “Do you think that you are better than me?” [Laughs]

DE – Well, there’s hope, because I started as a guy who wrote columns for bass magazines. Actually, I wrote my first column for a rock fanzine out of LA called Screamer Magazine, and the next thing you know, the phone rang, and it was Bass Player Magazine, asking me to write a column for them. While I was on the phone talking about the column, I sort of slyly snuck in with Jim Roberts, the Editor, “Hey, by the way, I have a manuscript for a book I’m writing, would you be interested?” So, I think it was probably not about how many records I’d sold, but probably just having big enough balls to pitch him on the manuscript at the right time. It just felt right in my gut. And he said, “Sure, I’d love it. Send it over.” He ended up not only publishing it, he became the editor of my book, and got it published. That, of course, led to the second book which you’re referring to, My Life with Deth. My attitude on it is, if we don’t die, and we don’t quit, we have a chance of writing a book. As the saying goes, there’s at least one book in all of us, and that book is our life story. So I was just lucky enough to stay in the game long enough and survive long enough that I was able to get that book out.

TS – Amazing. So you think one day, when I grow up, I may have the potential to write a book?

DE – I would suggest writing it before you grow up.

TS – Okay, okay…

DE – Or wait until you grow up, and then look back. Maybe they’re funnier when we grow up. I know, writing an autobiography, a memoir, I first thought, “What am I gonna write about?” Because I am kinda grown up. I’m married, and have kids, and I have this kinda Ward Cleaver life when I’m at home. Yet, I go on the road with one of the most ferocious thrash metal bands in the world, so I have this duality in my life. As it turns out my co-writer, Joel McIver, actually thought “that’s the hook!” As I know you, you’re like the stay-at-home dad, married with children … you’re that guy. You’re me, in a lot of ways. You go on the road with what I would consider one of the hippest, coolest, most kick-ass bands, who travels the world. So you, too, share in the duality.

TS – Yes.

DE – So I say, whenever you get bored on the road, break open your laptop and start writing the book.

TS – You’re an inspiration, as you speak, Dave.

DE – Cool, thank you! That was Troy Sanders, of Mastodon, and David Ellefson, of Megadeth, for Bass Gear Magazine.

TS – Amazing.