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"Hanging out is a big part of why I do this." That's Mastodon bassist-vocalist Troy Sanders talking about his involvement in Killer Be Killed, the all-star band he's in with living metal legend Max Cavalera, Converge drummer Ben Koller and former Dillinger Escape Plan vocalist Greg Puciato. After dropping their self-titled debut in 2014 (on which Dave Elitch played drums) and playing a handful of shows in Australia the following year (with Koller), Killer Be Killed has remained silent until the recent surprise announcement of their second album, Reluctant Hero.
"This isn't a super lucrative thing that we do, and we don't do it for musical success," Sanders says. "We do it because it brings us back to the way we felt when we had our very first bands: You get together with a group of friends that you appreciate, respect and are inspired by, and you have a great time creating music — period. Everything else is a reward or a compliment afterward. It has to be a rewarding adventure every time we get together, and it always is."
RELUCTANT HERO WAS WRITTEN AND RECORDED IN SECRET. WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO DO IT THAT WAY?
TROY SANDERS We didn't know how long this would take when we started writing in 2016. There was basically one chunk of writing sessions each year for the last four years. We were super excited about it, so it wasn't a matter of would there be another Killer Be Killed record — it was a matter of when. So to keep any questions at bay and zero hype, we kept it to ourselves and decided that when it was ready to be birthed into the world, we'd let people know.
I UNDERSTAND THAT YOU, BEN AND GREG SHARED AN AIRBNB TOGETHER WHEN YOU WERE WRITING OUT AT MAX'S PLACE IN PHOENIX. DID THAT COMMUNAL LIVING SITUATION HELP THE PROCESS?
Absolutely. An enormous part of why this band exists is that we enjoy each other's friendship. The camaraderie and the chemistry is first and foremost before the actual result of the music. I've always felt like it's gotta be so meaningful on so many levels before I would wear myself too thin and overcommit myself, because we all have other bands, we have homes, we have families, we have relationships. So to be a part of something and to be so dedicated to this band, it has to mean the world to me. And I can say that it's that way for all four guys. Otherwise, it would defeat the purpose of having this as a band.
I have enormous respect for Greg, Ben and Max on a personal level and I enjoy being with them. They're great individuals. They make me laugh and they're super-productive and driven. I just get along so great with them, so anytime we were able to get together for three or four days — up to 11 days for one of our studio sessions — we would mark the calendars and move forward with persistence to make it happen. So the mutual respect is beyond obvious in my eyes.
WERE ALL OF THE SONGS ON RELUCTANT HERO A COLLABORATIVE PROCESS, OR WERE SOME FULLY FORMED BY ONE MEMBER?
It worked a few different ways. Ben and Greg got together a few times. I had a day off in Los Angeles in 2017 and met up with Greg at his spot to work on a song that became "Left of Center." But the bulk of the record was hashed out with all four of us in the room at Max's practice pad out in Phoenix. And actually, Ben and Max wrote the song that became "Animus" while I was shoveling a taco salad down my throat during my half-hour lunch break. So it was a super collaborative effort. It was the truest sense of the word "band" — that's what this is. It's amazing to be a part of.
HOW DO YOU FEEL THIS RECORD TURNED OUT DIFFERENTLY THAN THE LAST ONE?
The first thing that sticks out to me is that I was beyond shocked at how incredibly tasteful Greg is on guitar. I've worn this record out because we've been sitting on it for so long, and I'm still pleasantly surprised with Greg's choice of guitar tones and melodies and leads throughout the whole record. For the 20 years I've known Greg, he's an incredibly talented musician but he's known first and foremost as an incredible frontman and a really great singer. But to hear him whip out a guitar and blow my mind was shocking in a wonderful way.
I'd also put Max's performance up against anything he's ever done in his career. He is the essence of what our band is. To say he is a lifer in this business is an understatement. And he's so much fun to be around. He makes me laugh, and he's the most calming and relaxing gentle soul. When he plays guitar and roars, the contrast is amazing. I can't believe I'm in a band with him. He's always trying to up his game. He's always asking if you like what he did and if he could do it better. And it's always like, "Dude, that was fantastic."
I remember Greg saying that it was important that all four of us were super happy with everything on this record — every riff, every arrangement, every lyric, every song title — so that when it comes out we're all proud of it. As you put more and more records out under a certain name, you always want to improve. So we did want to make this one better than the last, and this time we had much more time to focus. The first one was done much more quickly and it was our first time doing it.
YOU HAVE MORE EXPERIENCE SHARING VOCAL DUTIES THAN THE OTHER GUYS, BUT OBVIOUSLY THE WAY YOU DO IT IN KBK IS DIFFERENT THAN IN MASTODON. DID YOU BRING ANY INSIGHT TO THE TABLE AS FAR AS THAT GOES?
In everything that Greg and Max have ever done, they have the full responsibility of the lyrics and they control their own vocals. I could definitely sense a welcoming attitude of "Hey, this is gonna be teamwork!" from both Greg and Max because they've never done this except for the one Killer Be Killed record that we did before. I think it's less pressure and more enjoyable when you're working with friends and you're collaborating and you trust one another. The first time, we didn't know if it would work or be a disaster, but this time we knew that we were all going to contribute lyrics and vocals to every song on this record.
WHAT'S THE ORIGIN OF THE ALBUM TITLE, RELUCTANT HERO?
Greg had the opening riff for the song that would become the title track. I had part two and Max had part three. When I started writing lyrics for the song, it was May of 2019 and I was still reeling from the passing of my dear friend and manager of the past 15 years, Nick John. So I started to write words for Nick. After I got a couple verses down, I got a message from someone in my extended family that my friend and brother's father-in-law, who had been battling lymphoma for many months, had passed away the previous night.
He was an incredible man with an enormous heart and a deep love for his family and for music. Seeing him side-stage bouncing up and down as Mastodon played Central Park in New York City is an image I'll never forget. When he got sick, he would send an email every week to his circle always giving updates, good or bad, and he would always sign off, "Your reluctant warrior, Eddie Merrigan." And the message I got from that family member was, "We lost our reluctant hero." So I knew that was the title of the song because the music itself was triumphant in a dark way and it seemed to fit. When I told the guys the title, they all liked it and then someone said we should call the record that.
YOU'VE GOT THREE ACTIVE BANDS: MASTODON, GONE IS GONE AND KILLER BE KILLED. DO YOU FEEL LIKE BEING INVOLVED IN MULTIPLE PROJECTS IS AN ARTISTIC NECESSITY FOR YOU?
Yeah. It also ties in with our livelihoods and our relationships. On the one hand, I'm fortunate enough to have been full time in Mastodon for 20 years now. That alone is enough to keep me happy and occupied. However, like many other artists, I have a lot of other material I'd still like to get out and other ideas I'd like to collaborate on. I have more to say, more to contribute to the musical world. And I'm fortunate enough to have found people to do that with. So as long as I'm not spreading myself so thin that I lose my family and my house, I think it's extremely healthy and important. Because when I come back from any writing or recording session that Killer Be Killed has had over the last four years, I return even more rejuvenated and refreshed and ready to attack the next thing with more vigor. It keeps fueling the fire and I think it contributes to making me a more well-rounded musician and bandmate — I hope.
THE TERM THAT INEVITABLY COMES UP WHEN PEOPLE TALK ABOUT KBK IS "SUPERGROUP." YOU'RE OBVIOUSLY NOT A STRANGER TO IT WITH GONE IS GONE, BUT HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT TERM?
I get it. It's like … I've never thought of Mastodon as just a metal band, but when I go to Amoeba Records, there we are in the metal section. But I would never walk around and publicly say that we are "super." [Laughs] To me, that's kinda like the idea of, 'These guys think they're a little better than you.' I do think that we're super, but I wouldn't want that to be the big pullout quote in the magazine, you know? But I get it in the sense that our individual names are bigger than this band, I suppose. But I don't prefer it. Then again, this band wouldn't exist if we hadn't shared the stage so many times together in our other bands.