“It’s opportunity,” Sanders reasons. “That’s what fuels it. I’ve never sought to do more than I already do with Mastodon, honestly. We put out our Once More ‘Round the Sun back in 2014, and then did a solid amount of touring in support of that. We had to take some time off to deal with some illnesses in our respective families, but then we took about six months to write Emperor of Sand; which we recorded back in October. Mastodon has been busy, but other opportunities that have been too good to pass up have definitely come my way. I’m thankful for all of it, because it kept me very creative in the world of music. It was just by happenstance, and I think that’s a good way to create. If some of my best friends are inspired to create something with me, that can only be a positive thing. Those are all the ingredients to create art right there.”
Emperor of Sand arrives at a tumultous time within the band’s personal lives. After the aforementioned family illnesses, a concept record began to form around mortality, redemption and survival. Sanders, who wrote a fair amount of the album’s lyrics, says that it’s at once the most abstract and conceptual Mastodon record as it is the most forthcoming and explicit. “This has never been a band to shy away from its emotions,” he says.
“Take an album like [fourth album, 2009’s] Crack the Skye, where we dove into an extremely personal story that we were willing to share with anyone that was interested. The four of us are very proud of things like that – if it felt vulnerable or like we were sharing too much, we pushed forward. It’s very therapeutic for us. We knew very well going into this record that there was going to be a very emotionally heavy theme. The entire band was affected heavily by our various family members being ill. There was a lot of cancer going around, and we were watching our loved ones go through horrific therapy and even death. When we were creating this record, that’s what was weighing on our mind. Mastodon writes from the heart – we channel everything into this band.”
The album was produced by Brendan O’Brien, who coincidentally also worked on the aforementioned Crack the Skye. Mastodon appear to have developed a strong bond with the acclaimed producer behind records by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Pearl Jam, making it a no-brainer to work with O’Brien on Emperor of Sand. “We’re very happy to work with Brendan,” says Sanders. “He’s very knowledgeable of us as both musicians and as people. To work with him again meant we knew we could dive in deep and really achieve the sonic feel of the kind of record that we wanted to make. To approach this deep subject matter, the same way that we did together on Crack the Skye, meant that there was a real trust there. He has a lot of really cool gear that assists in achieving the right sound, too. We’re on the same wavelength – he’s from the 70s, we’re from the 70s, we love gear from old to new.”
Emperor of Sand was recorded between The Quarry in Kennesaw, a city in north-east Georgia; as well as Hollywood’s Henson Recording Studios. The band went all out for the recording, with Sanders locking down some key gear to create his distinctive, thick bass sound. “Bill [Kelliher, lead guitarist] and Brent [Hinds, guitarist/vocalist] brought about a dozen guitars each, and I brought eight basses,” says Sanders.
“I have a signature Silverburst Jaguar through Fender, which I used on a lot of songs. There was also my Warwick [Streamer], which handles the lower tuning really well. I also got to toy around with my Moog Taurus bass pedals more than I’ve done before – I was trying to find tasteful moments throughout the record to have that enormous, super subsonic sound. I try to use as many pedals as I can in the studio because it’s fun to explore those sounds. I have a signature distortion pedal now, actually. It’s made by Wren and Cuff and its called Elephant Skin, which I helped create. All the distortion is done through that pedal on this record. There’s always a lot going on when Mastodon play, but I like to leave my mark.”
Emperor of Sand Mastodon is out now through Warner Music Australia.