In 2012, film and video game composers Mike Zarin and Tony Hajjar – also the drummer for At The Drive-In – realised they wanted to turn some of their compositions into a band. They added guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen (Failure, Queens Of The Stone Age, A Perfect Circle), before recruiting Mastodon’s Troy Sanders on vocals, and convened in an LA studio to record an EP of atmospheric metal tracks under the name Gone Is Gone. But why is this mysterious music only just materialising, and what does it mean for the next Mastodon album? We tracked down self-confessed ‘caveman’, Troy Sanders, to find out…
Where were you when you got the call to join Gone Is Gone?
“Troy Van Leeuwen reached out to me while I was in a miserable line at the DMV, which is the Department Of Motor Vehicles, in Atlanta, Georgia. A depressing moment turned into glory as he called me up and asked if I’d be interested in listening to some songs and perhaps lending vocal ideas to this project. That was just one of the many incredible opportunities that have stepped right into my life. I was fascinated with Troy’s work years and years before I even befriended him. So to have him call me on the phone and invite me into one of his projects was… I am not a sceptic of fate, I believe in stars aligning, and that was a moment where I knew I had to do this. I went to Los Angeles as quick as I could, took a few stabs at some vocal ideas, and they said, ‘Wow, that’s kind of the voice we’re looking for.’”
Tony told us that the band has “always pictured space and Iceandic landscapes when writing our music”. Did you picture anything when you heard the tracks?
“Yeah, a lot of times, it’s like when we hear a song, we wonder what kind of movie is playing in our head, as if the soundtrack were to determine the actual cinema, the scenery of it. So that’s the way our brains work. And if you think of Iceland, you think of fire and ice. It’s a land that was built from fire and there are these chunks of ice that wind up on this black Icelandic beaches, so it’s just this magnificent contrast. And we feel like our music can go both ways. We can get very delicate with compositions, and we also have the ability to get twisted and dirty, and heavy. And we feel like we can touch on everything under that spectrum.”
Where did you record?
“Those guys are such pros that Mike had a home studio at his place. We jumped right in, and you just listen to the music over and over and over, see what kind of movie runs through your head, and then you go from there. So I just listened for hours and hours and hours, and did my best. And slowly chipped away. I would go out there in chunks, and I probably went out there eight or nine times, even for just one day or two days at a time, whenever we could find the time to do this.”
When did this happen?
“They called me in 2012, and I went out as quick as possible. I jumped at the opportunity, as I didn’t want to let this one slip through my hands. All the best things in my life have walked right up to me, right in my face, and I’ve learned to take advantage of them before time erases that opportunity.”
So was this before you made Mastodon’s Once More ‘Round The Sun, then?
“Yes, it was. I’d shoot out there for a couple of days at a time whenever I could, and they were there whenever we could, and I spent loads of my personal money just flying back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. Nothing will ever just fall into your lap without putting in the effort, so I was very excited to get out there. It’s got to be incredibly sincere and valuable to me from the inside out, otherwise I wouldn’t want to leave my house any more than I already do.”
Putting your own personal money in is a big deal. Do you expect to make money from it, or is it more like a passion project?
“No, I do not expect to make money off this. Just like with my other band, it was never started with that end result. For me to be a part of Gone Is Gone is a very unique and different expression. I use the word ‘therapeutic’ a lot in this situation, but it just awakens every positive angle of energy that I have. I spent ridiculous amounts of money, but that was not the issue, at all. That meant nothing. I need to get there, and how quickly can I get there? And eight round-trip plan tickets later, over the course of two years… that meant nothing to me.”
What was so therapeutic about it?
“I need to find synonyms of that word. I need to broaden my vocab, basically. It means to excite and please all my emotions. Like most creative things people are involved in, you do it for the right reasons, and the result is not a paycheque down the line – there’s immediate reactions and feelings to this. When we write a song, it’s just got to mean it from the heart, and it’s making your hairs on our arms stand up. It just brings me pleasure.”
Is it a vanity project, then?
“You mean like when the word ‘supergroup’ gets tossed around? I think it’s a misconception, and I don’t really care for that word, because that seems like it was put together for that reason, and ‘Hey, if we get a bunch of semi-famous people together, we could exceed the potential, just because we have these names attached to it.’ But the reality is that all of our bands, we tour and travel all the time. And what do you do on tour and at festivals and all the downtime you have at shows in clubs? You mingle with other people that are doing the same thing. So if you tour for five, 10, 15, 20 years, you know a lot of people in a lot of bands. They wanted me, they respected my artistry and companionship and the positives I could bring to this band. That’s why they called me. And not because I’m good-looking and am gonna help sell records. I’m part caveman, and they knew that! So… I can see how people think all these bands with all the members of other bands are put together for the wrong reasons. I know for a fact that we are not.”
Your name’s pretty powerful, though. Mastodon are a big band!
“Yeah, but I don’t know… that’s part of the reason why I can understand if people were like, ‘Oh you guys are looking to cash in on a certain angle’ and I can see that seeming valid from an outsider’s perspective. But from the four of us who have been working slowly, bits and pieces at a time, over the course of four years to put out an album next month, it’s like we’re doing this for the right reasons. This was not put together four years ago to release a record in July 2016. Outside of personal pleasure, what’s in it for us? Zero money, unless we go on tour for a long, long, long time, which we’re not. If you look at the bigger picture, I hope people realise the sincerity that is involved from the four of us, and for the four of us.”
It sounds like the band has been very transformative for you. What do you get from playing with them that you don’t get from playing with Mastodon?
“That’s a great question, because I didn’t ever feel like I would need anything more, because Mastodon fulfils pretty much my entire existence. It’s hard for me to put into words. It’s like it’s the same sport, but I’m playing with a different team for a minute. How do you word that? I guess it further pleases me. It’s kind of like hitting the refresh button, because I enjoy every time Mastodon makes an album, and I’m neck deep into the one that we’re making right now, but with this Gone Is Gone band, it’s the same trajectory but it’s just a different energy. I had a different and renewed fresh energy to jump back into the Mastodon world, and dove in headfirst. So it’s like smashing a reset button in a very healthy way. I found words – yay!”
What have you been bringing to the new Mastodon album, with hitting your reset button?
“It’s almost like the more I work, if you can call it work, the ball of excitement just gets bigger and bigger for me. It’s the opposite of getting burnt out. I’m always trying to draw from whatever strengths I believe I have, and become a better lyricist and find better vocal patterns and find the most fitting bass and lyrics that I could possibly lend to my band.”
You’re also in Killer Be Killed. What would you say to people who are worried you’re using all your creative ideas doing side-projects, and that the next Mastodon album isn’t going to be as good?
“I know for a fact that it’s an amazing creative process to be involved in. Recently, when people ask me, ‘What are you listening to now?’ I’m like, ‘You know what? I don’t know what great music is out there, because for the past three months I’ve been listening to nothing but the Mastodon demos we’re working on.’ I’m super excited about it. If someone had that thought, it’s like, don’t worry. We all believe that jamming with other people is a healthy thing to do. With families sometimes, it’s like, ‘Okay, the mom’s going to go out on a girls’ weekend.’ You go out there, you get this out of your system, you refresh yourself, and you come back, and you’re a better lady! Or with dads, the guys are having a dudes’ weekend, he comes back, he’s refreshed, he’s happier, he’s healthier. It’s kind of the same thing with a member of a band. Get it out of your system, write something great, have a good time doing it.”
Can you tell us what the new Mastodon songs sound like?
“It’s too early to do that. There’s so many ideas… it’s almost overwhelming at the moment. We’re plugging away every week. It’s continuing to take on its own shape, but it’s entirely too early to even go there at the moment. We’re got loads of skeletons of songs all over the place.”
What about Gone Is Gone – are you guys making a full album?
“We intend on staying creative for a long, long, long time, and we intend on finding avenues to keep our band alive around the world, even when we’re busy with our other bands. We have some really cool stuff lined up that we hope comes to fruition this year. We’ll make it very well known once it happens. Otherwise, I’ll spew off four or five really potential cool things, and if they don’t ever come to fruition, then it’s like, ‘That guy was full of shit’. So I’ll wait until things get a bit more solidified. We’re going to get this record our first, and we’re doing small bits of touring and putting together more live shows as well. We’re hoping to come over and visit you guys soon.”
You have other bands, guitarist Brent Hinds has Giraffe Tongue Orchestra… what is it about Mastodon that means you guys do many side-projects?
“I don’t know. We’ve got a lot of musical territory we enjoy exploring, and it’s totally okay to do. And if it helps your personal energy, or your personal music outlook and your personal creativity, then please do it, because it just further completes you as an individual. And as Mastodon, we need four healthy excited individuals at all times. So, it’s okay to take a break. Even married folk do that from time to time – you go out with your buddy for a few days. Nothing wrong with that at all.”
Gone Is Gone’s self-titled EP is out on July 8 via their imprint label Black Dune Records in partnership with Rise Records/BMG