The concept of the double album has always been suspect. How many truly great double LPs can you name? Songs In The Key Of Life, Electric Ladyland, ‘The White Album’ perhaps, but beyond those, you’re stepping into “Why not take the best 10 songs and make it a single album?” territory.
However, the double album’s murky history hasn’t deterred Atlanta metal quartet Mastodon from the format, with their new release, Hushed And Grim, extending to 15 cuts. Fortunately, when we meet bassist Troy Sanders, he knows exactly what the pitfalls of a double entail.
“We know it’s a lot to absorb!” he chuckles. “There’s a lot of drums, and a lot of guitars on there – and even for our biggest fans, an hour and a half of a new record is a lot. Hushed And Grim is basically six years’ worth of albums for us, because we release an album every three years, so a double never seemed like a reality.
“We always tossed around the idea, though, and in March of 2020, when everything shut down, we were towards the end of our last record and touring cycle, Emperor Of Sand, which came out in 2017. That feels like such a long ago now...
“Anyway, usually we’ll go back home after a tour and collect new ideas for songs, record them and release them on the traditional cycle, which has been healthy and fabulous for us for 20 years. But when everything got cancelled because of the pandemic, we were like, ‘If those tours aren’t going to happen, how soon can we start diving into new material?’ Within a few months, we realized we had close to 30 song skeletons ready to go.”
Jamming on the new songs, the four musicians – Sanders plus guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher, and drummer Brann Dailor – soon realized they had the proverbial nice problem to have: too much material.
“We got to song 15,” says Sanders, “and we said, ‘Okay, we need to pump the brakes for a second.’ We decided to hone in on those 15 songs and pick the nine or 10 best ones out of the bunch – but I couldn’t think of one song to cut, much less six. We were all deeply attached to each one of the 15.
“Brann and I were sitting there, talking about it, and I remember saying, ‘Dude, I don’t even know one song to cut. I like them all very, very much.’ And Brann said, ‘Tell me one reason why we shouldn’t do a double album.’”
Instead of supplying the traditional answer – “because doubles are too long and no-one will buy it” – Sanders and his band opted to stay optimistic in the face of received commercial wisdom.
“You know what? In this time of short attention spans and EPs and singles, let’s just flip it and do a double album,” he reasons. “Hushed And Grim feels like a complete body of work, and what’s really important is that the material on this record ranges from odd to slow to dark to moody. It’s not a double album of in-your-face, heavy-as-hell Mastodon. That would just be overload, to even the most hardcore fan.”
You’d think with 15 tracks to play with, there would be room for a bass solo – and fans of Sanders’ deft playing will be delighted to learn that there’s one tucked away in the back end of the first single, Teardrinker. You might miss it, though, because it sounds a bit like a synth or heavily treated guitar.
“When we were writing the song,” says Sanders, “the guitar players wrote two bridge parts that would be perfect for guitar solos, one on each of them. We were listening to them, and trying to figure out which part would be better for each guy, and I jokingly said, ‘I’ll just put a bass solo on the first one, and one of you guys can do a guitar solo on the second.’ Everybody giggled, and that was it.
“Well, the next morning, I went to the studio early before everybody got there, and I tracked a loose bass solo on that first bridge part. When the guys showed up, I said, ‘Hey, I recorded that bass solo that I was talking about,’ and played it back to them. They all liked it, so now we had something that turned from a silly joke to an interesting moment that I’d never done in Mastodon before.
“Any time we can find new musical territory like that, it’s exciting for us, because we don’t want to ever repeat the same song twice, or have a similar album to the previous one.”
Find that solo, listen to it and then come back – Sanders is about to tell us how he got its cool, silky tone. “It was my custom distortion, which is a Wren & Cuff Elephant Skin, and the old Morley wah pedal. I’ve always considered pedals as your collectibles – you know, your toys! – but the only time I really have a lot of fun with them is in the studio, because we have the time.
“Live, my effects are very simple – it’s just a tuner, my distortion, the Morley wah and either a TC Electronic or an Aguilar chorus, which I swap in and out. So it’s four pedals. I’m a pretty simple person. That’s the way I am with jeans and shoes, too – it’s about comfort.”
As for basses, Sanders has a signature Fender Jaguar, which is still his go-to bass. “It’s been my dream bass for a good six or seven years. Fender stopped production on it, but I was happy that they gave it that long of a run. I think I was given 10 of them – but I gave quite a few of them away. I also use a Warwick when we tune down to A, because it handles it better than any other bass I’ve ever had.”
Stability and reliability in bass gear is important in this case, we suggest, because Sanders is required to play fast, complex parts while singing. He ponders this: “Well, I’ve always been a simple bass player. I’m definitely not flashy. That’s worked very well with Mastodon, because with two wizard guitar players and a beast of a drummer, there’s not much room to do anything except play the part, which I’ve loved doing. Over the past 10 years, I’ve probably put more focus on being a better vocalist than a bassist.”
- Hushed And Grim is out now via Reprise.