Machine Head's Robb Flynn: "I Wasn't Allowed To Listen To Rock Music...
Machine Head's Robb Flynn talks Unto The Locust, defending Supercharger, overnight success, critics, strange guitar players and how he never once wore a tracksuit...
This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer Presents: Unto The Locust By Machine Head.
It is undeniable that all four members of Machine Head have important roles to play in the group, both personal and musical, but there is no avoiding the fact that this is Robb Flynn’s band. Almost 20 years after deciding to leave his former outfit, Bay Area thrashers Vio-lence, and start a new project of his own, Flynn remains one of metal’s most charismatic and enigmatic frontmen.
Today, as he takes a seat in the back lounge of Machine Head’s tour bus, a few hours after opening up the main stage to a huge Rockstar Mayhem Festival crowd at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park, Illinois, he is on fine form; relaxed, talkative, brimming with confidence and very obviously excited about the imminent unveiling of Unto The Locust, the seventh and maybe even greatest Machine Head album to date. Thanks to the huge global success of their last offering, The Blackening, Robb’s crew have never been in such rude collective health, and expectations surrounding their next move have never been higher.
Given the events of the last few years, not least the three years of touring that followed the release of The Blackening, took the four of them around the world several times and pushed them from moments of triumph to the brink of disintegration and back, there is a tangible sense that Machine Head have earned their current status as one of the biggest metal bands on the planet. Robb has steered this ship through all manner of turbulence, tribulations and choppy waters to arrive at this point, but one thing that has never changed along the way is his fierce determination to succeed. “This is all I’ve known since I was 15 years old,” he tells us. “I’ve never had a plan B!”
WHEN DID YOU REALISE THAT MUSIC WOULD BE THE PRINCIPAL DRIVING FORCE IN YOUR LIFE AND THAT YOU HAD A GIFT FOR WRITING IT?
“My earliest memory is of folk artist Jim Croce. He had a song called Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, ‘…baddest man in the whole damn town’, and I had my parents buy me that record so I could sit and with it. Bizarrely, my second earliest memory is me reaching into my diaper in front of my dad in the living room and grabbing some poo and saying ‘Caca!’ and my dad saying ‘Whoa!’ But that’s another story! Ha ha! For me, it was always music. I loved being on stage. I was always singing for the talent show in school, or the play. I took piano lessons and played some trumpet. But at the same time I was really introverted as a kid, very quiet. I honestly don’t know when it dawned on me that I could do this. For so long I just worked on getting good. When I started playing the guitar at 14 and taking it seriously I had a guy in my neighbourhood, my arch rival Mark. We were in a band together and he was good, much better than me, and his parents bought him this stack and he had a nice Carvin guitar, and my dad was renting me a guitar and a little amp, a little 2-12, and we used to jam cover songs. Even though I couldn’t play very well, I’d listen to him playing and say ‘You’re not playing that right!’ and he’d be like ‘Fuck you! You can’t even play!’ But I just knew that I had an ear for those things. And then, of course, when I got good enough I fucked his girlfriend! Ha ha! But I just knew I could hear music differently. I would jam cover songs with dudes and even though they may have been above my ability, I knew I could figure songs out and if I heard a wrong note, I knew it was wrong and for whatever reason the guys I was learning with couldn’t hear that.”
WERE YOU EXPOSED TO A LOT OF ROCK MUSIC AS A CHILD?
“I wasn’t raised on rock music at all, actually. I wasn’t really allowed to listen to rock music. I could listen to the nice Beatles, but I couldn’t listen to the hippie Beatles! My parents listened primarily to a lot of black music, like the Commodores and Earth Wind & Fire and Chaka Khan, old soul records and rhythm ’n’ blues and stuff like that. My dad listened to a lot of oldies from the 30s and 40s. It was folk or pop music. That’s what I grew up on. I’m glad I was exposed to that alternative way of thinking. Around the time I got into junior high school, that’s when I started hearing Van Halen and Dio and AC/DC, then my friend Jim Pittman, who basically was the friend who got me into metal, turned me onto this whole huge underground metal thing with Metallica, Exodus, Accept, Exciter, Discharge, DRI, Mötley Crüe, Witchfinder General and all that stuff. He said we should start a band and I should play guitar, so I was like ‘OK…’ I started writing, and metal was all kind of new to me, but I knew it went verse, chorus, verse, chorus, then you’d go somewhere else and then bring it all back around. Our first band was the horribly named Inquisitor and then later it was Forbidden Evil. The first songs that I wrote were very Mercyful Fate-inspired, with lots of changes, but for me Mercyful Fate always had an almost pop-like sensibility to their music. They had hooks and choruses and verses and things always came back around. Even a song like Satan’s Fall [from Mercyful Fate’s classic debut album Melissa] eventually comes back, 10 or 11 minutes later, to the riff that opens the song. That made sense to me.”
MACHINE HEAD SEEMED TO ARRIVE FULLY AND PERFECTLY FORMED, AS IF YOU HAD COMPLETELY REDESIGNED THRASH METAL FOR A NEW ERA. HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE YOUR ORIGINAL VISION FOR THIS BAND?
“I had basically watched the thrash scene die in the Bay Area. The funk-metal thing was crazy for a minute, with bands like Primus and Mind Funk and Mordred and all these bands going that way. Either that or they were chasing after the Black Album by Metallica, which is what most of the metal bands started doing, and I didn’t like that at all. Even, to some degree, my old band started doing that. I'd written some stuff that I thought was strong and really different. I’ve always kept up on current bands and I was really starting to get into Godflesh, the Streetcleaner record. There was this whole new thing coming in with grooves, and Chaos AD [by Sepultura] came out and it was a lot more groovin’. I’d always been into rap, so to see bands like Biohazard come in and take hardcore, which was part of my background, and combine it with rap, which I loved… it sounds absurd to say it now, but back in 1990 no one had done that! So it was like ‘Holy shit! What is this?’ I was totally inspired by that and I was very much wanting to do my own thing. I felt quite trapped in my old band and I was pretty low on the totem pole. I knew I could sing and I wanted to go and forge my own path. I had a few songs and I asked Adam if he wanted to do it. He was 19 at the time. I was like ‘Hey, I’m starting another band and I’d like you to play bass…’ I actually asked him to join at a Metallica show. Metallica played Day On The Green and it was them, Faith No More and some other people, Queensrÿche or something, and it was September ’91. I was planning on doing Machine Head as a side-project at that point but very soon after it became my main thing.”
EVEN NOW, BURN MY EYES SOUNDS ABSOLUTELY FUCKING FURIOUS. WERE THOSE SONGS YOUR WAY OF RETALIATING AGAINST YOUR ENVIRONMENT?
“Maybe subconsciously, but I wouldn’t have thought about that. I just had to make music. We wanted to be really, really heavy, and we were starving and angry and young and needed a way to vent. I also felt a little burned by the whole Vio-lence thing. But a little bit of the intensity we – or at least I – had at the beginning of the band was inspired by an unspoken rivalry with Vio-lence. I wanted to crush them into the dust."
YOU NEVER REALLY EXPLOITED THE FACT THAT YOU HAD BEEN IN VIO-LENCE. WAS THAT BECAUSE YOU WANTED TO BE ASSESSED ON YOUR OWN TERMS?
“When I started Machine Head I refused to even talk about Vio-lence. It wouldn’t be mentioned on flyers and there was never anything on the demo or anything saying ‘featuring so-and-so’. I wanted to stand or fall on my own terms and I didn’t want to have that attached to it. I wanted a clean break and I was just totally into Machine Head. I’d go to the copy centre and I’d sit there for six hours making flyers and demo inserts. You know how when bands start out they always have that one crew guy who does everything? Ha ha! Yeah, I had my own one-man road crew, Mike Scum. He had a tape-to-tape machine, so I’d have him dub a hundred tapes at a time. We’d go and steal tapes or buy them in bulk and he’d duplicate them. I’d make the inserts and get stickers to put on the blank cassettes and print out lyrics and take photos and put up flyers. Before we were even signed I took all the money I had, which was about 150 bucks at the time, and spent it all on stickers. Everywhere I went I’d sticker. We’d go on the subway or on buses and we’d be passing out stickers constantly. Don’t get me wrong, I kinda stayed friends with Phil [Demmel] after Vio-lence, but we weren’t close anymore. I had to just make a clean break. But we were still cool. I’d get his new band Torque on at our shows and he came to our first show. I was just mad at the world, mad at everything, and we were hell bent on being assholes. We were drunk and fighting all the time so we got a rep, a bad rep. We were banned from three clubs in the Bay Area because all we’d do is go and fight at shows or fuck chicks. It was either one or the other! Ha ha!”
IT WAS THE POWER AND PRECISION OF BURN MY EYES THAT MADE ALL THE DIFFERENCE, PARTICULARLY WITH REGARD TO THE WAY THE DRUMS SYNCHRONISE PERFECTLY WITH THE RIFFS. THE FINE DETAILS ARE OBVIOUSLY VERY IMPORTANT TO YOU...
“It’s the details that make it, the little transitions, the little segues, how you double something one time or the drum fill that goes into something to make it flow better, all that stuff. When I write songs, I hear the drum beat, the bass lines, I hear everything. I don’t always hear vocals, but generally when I write something, I hear a groove and I’ll throw it across… in the case of Burn My Eyes, I’d throw it to Chris [Kontos, drummer on the band’s debut] and he would take it and add his flavour to it or do something different.”
ONE OF THE BAND’S MOST RECOGNISABLE TRADEMARKS IS THE HARMONIC NOTES THAT YOU PUT INTO YOUR RIFFS. WHAT INSPIRED THAT IDEA?
“The harmonics thing is one of those beautiful accidents. When I started to learn guitar, my dad rented me an Aria Pro, $45 for three months, and it came with a little pug-nosed, six-inch amp. There’s not a lot of distortion on those amps! I’d sit there and play along with Paranoid by Black Sabbath, DRI and Morbid Tales by Celtic Frost, and they did all those riffs that stop and go eeeeeeee [makes high-pitched squeal] and it was feedback, but I couldn’t get feedback on a six-inch amp, I didn’t even know what it was. So I’d hit the harmonic instead, because that’s what I thought Celtic Frost were doing. Later on I learned it was feedback, but by then I’d learned how to do that and I thought it sounded cool, so I started incorporating harmonics into riffs and it just stuck around”
BURN MY EYES PAINTED A PRETTY GRIM AND BRUTAL PICTURE OF LIFE ON THE STREETS OF OAKLAND. HOW TRUE TO LIFE WERE THOSE SONGS?
“My commentary on society was just what I viewed at the time. Were the times we were living in as brutal as we made them sound on the record? Yes. We were living in west Oakland in an extremely black part of town and we were a bunch of long-haired white kids. There was a lot of struggle and a lot of guns and drugs. I remember we moved into this house on 33rd Street, me and my girlfriend who is now my wife, and there was a project right next to us. We were just renting the place. People saw us moving in, and when we were done moving in we were having a few beers and some pizza, and a group of four or five dudes started standing outside of our house. We were like, ‘What’s going on over there?’ We were on the second floor of the building so we could see it all through the window. These dudes were smoking blunts and drinking 40s, and the next thing you know, a dude pulls out a gun and starts shooting it into the air. We were like, ‘Oh fuck!’ They dispersed then, but it was like ‘Welcome to the neighbourhood!’ So I went and grabbed my own gun after they went away, and I went and stood right outside my house, where they’d been standing, and I looked right up at the project and fired off my gun a few times and then went back inside the house. We were cool in the neighbourhood from then on. There were no more problems after that. But it was a pretty intense time. My wife got mugged. We’d get held up. We’d have random room-mates come and they’d have a girlfriend and she’d bring her friends over and all these crazy drugs and gang-banger boyfriends and shit, so it was a pretty crazy time.”
LIVING LIKE THAT MUST HAVE HELPED TO FOSTER AN “US AGAINST THE WORLD” MENTALITY IN THE BAND...
“We were like a four-man gang, you know? As our manager Joey says, we weren’t necessarily troublemakers, we were trouble magnets! Somehow we had an incredible knack of getting into trouble without really doing anything. There was a lot of fighting and lot of drugs. I was selling speed and watching people stay up for seven or eight days straight. They’d come to my house for a ninth day and I’d be like ‘Hey man, I’m out of drugs…’ and they’d say ‘No, you’re not!’ and I wouldn’t be, but I’d just lie. ‘Sorry man, the party’s over! Go and get some sleep…’ It was that kind of stuff. I was conflicted about it too. I was selling a lot of drugs and it got to the point where my dealer was offering me large amounts of it through pretty shady people, and I came to a crossroads. It was like ‘OK, dude, if you go down path you may never get out of it and you’re gonna be in that life!’ And I didn’t want that life. I never wanted that life. I just started dealing to make ends meet, and I was really good at it and made a lot of money. But I stopped there and I just focused 100 per cent on Machine Head at that point, like ‘This has to work!’ There was no plan B and I’ve never had a plan B. I had odd jobs here and there that would pay the bills, but I was never gonna do that. I just wanted to make music and here I am. It’s all I’ve done since I was 15 years old. I don’t know anything else.”
WERE YOU PREPARED FOR THE INSTANT SUCCESS YOU HAD IN EUROPE, AND IN THE UK IN PARTICULAR, WHEN BURN MY EYES WAS RELEASED?
“We had two goals, to sell 20,000 records worldwide, which I thought was a modest and reasonable goal, and to open one show for Slayer at the Henry J Kaiser Center in Oakland. If we achieved that then we were the fucking kings of the world. The record dropped and we sold half a million records, mostly in Europe and the UK, and we opened for Slayer for five months, including at the Henry J Kaiser Center. I don’t know if we were all prepared for it. We felt we were good and that we were doing something different. I had a strong vision for what I wanted it sound like and how I wanted us to present ourselves, but I don’t think that any of us thought that it was gonna take off like it did. At all.”
THAT FIRST SHOW AT BRIXTON ACADEMY SUPPORTING SLAYER WAS A GOOD INDICATION OF WHAT WAS TO COME. PEOPLE WERE CHANTING ‘MACHINE FUCKING HEAD!’ EVEN THEN… AT A SLAYER SHOW! WHY DO YOU THINK WE EMBRACED YOU SO INSTANTLY AND SO PASSIONATELY OVER HERE?
“Yeah, that was our first UK show ever. A lot of people said we blew Slayer off the stage. We were blown away because for us, Slayer were gods. They still are. I don’t think about it, man. We do what we do and if people dig it, cool. I don’t want to get into why. If you start thinking about why, it fucks things up! I don’t know what it is, but it’s awesome over there. That’s all I can say!”
TOWARDS THE END OF THE BURN MY EYES TOURING CYCLE, CHRIS KONTOS GOT KICKED OUT OF THE BAND AND WAS EVENTUALLY REPLACED BY DAVE MCCLAIN, WHO HAS SINCE BECOME YOUR CHIEF MUSICAL SOUNDING BOARD. YOU OBVIOUSLY HAVE A GREAT CREATIVE RELATIONSHIP AND THESE DAYS HE’S AN INTEGRAL PART OF WHAT MACHINE HEAD IS. WHAT MADE HIM THE RIGHT GUY FOR YOUR BAND AT THAT EARLY STAGE IN YOUR CAREER?
“What’s really funny about that is at first I didn’t really like Dave! And Dave didn’t really like me either. He always tells the story of how when I picked him up from the airport, I was like ‘Alright, get in!’ and he had all his stuff, like pedals and everything, and I didn’t help him with anything. Ha ha! I went to lunch and I left my Burger King wrapper on the table and he was like ‘Man, what a dick!’ He tried out and he did really good and then we went out drinking at a show. I wanted to see how he’d hold up, but he was really quiet and hardly said anything and didn’t seem to be having a very good time at all. I was like ‘Fuck this guy!’ you know? Even before all this, we had begun talking with him to come try out on a recommendation from [then Sepultura drummer] Iggor Cavalera and [journalist and Blabbermouth founder] Borivoj Krgin, so I called Dave up a few times and we started talking and he seemed cool, and then we asked him to come try out and he said no! He was gonna stay in Sacred Reich. I thought he was crazy. My feelings for Sacred Reich aside, I was like ‘Why did you go through all of this then?’ He thought his band were going to recommit themselves to everything and although I was pissed at him at first, in the end I respected him for that. It was a pretty fucking rad reason. We moved on and got a fill-in drummer for a tour we were doing, and then during the tour he started calling me, saying ‘Hey dude, the band isn’t working out and I want to come and try out for you guys!’ I was getting weary of him by then, but he came out to the Phoenix show and the Tucson show and we hung out and met him, he came and tried out and he fucking killed it! The problem was, we had another guy that was in the running that we really liked. He’d been in one of the bands we’d toured with and we really liked this guy. He was a great dude and a really fucking solid drummer, but then as I was grilling him after his try-out, I asked ‘Can you play Raining Blood?’ and he was like ‘Well, if I hear it I can learn it really quick!’ I was like ‘If you hear it? You haven’t heard Reign In Blood?’ That was the fucking guillotine right there! I purposefully held out from calling Dave for a week. It was the day after Christmas, December 26, 1995, I called him and said ‘You’ve got the job, dude!’ We were stoked.”
YOU OBVIOUSLY MADE THE RIGHT CHOICE BECAUSE DAVE’S STILL AROUND AND HE HAS BECOME FUNDAMENTAL TO YOUR WRITING PROCESS…
“He’s got an incredible ear. He has great ideas. He actually plays guitar and because of that he gets a riff. The dude matches my musical energy. We write very differently, but he is down for the fuckin’ long haul. A lot of the credit for turning the band around belongs to Dave. It’s Dave’s name on the co-write for Imperium and Descend The Shades Of Night, you know? I’ve got this energy that’s going all the time and he just gently guides it along. Sometimes I veer off course and he helps me back on track. I know I need that! I love what he brings to the table. He’s awesome. He’s completely the most underrated drummer out there. The dude’s a fucking beast. He’s fun to watch. He’s so entertaining! He has that bizarre kit set-up, really low, and he looks like fuckin’ Animal from The Muppets with his long arms going everywhere. Drumming fills a void in his soul somehow. He genuinely loves playing the drums and he genuinely loves learning and practising and getting better And he’s probably the funniest guy I’ve ever met in my life. He’s fucking hilarious."
WITH HINDSIGHT, AHRUE LUSTER SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN A STRANGE CHOICE OF GUITARIST FOR MACHINE HEAD…
“He was an oddball, for sure. Logan had fallen off the deep end so hard, with 18 valium a day and booze every day and an eighth of weed every day and coke every day. It got to the point where the dude couldn’t play. We’d be starting a song and he’d be playing the wrong song and we’re looking at him like ‘What are you doing?’ It was bad. With Ahrue, we went to someone totally normal. He used to be in a death metal band called Horde Of Torment, who I loved. They had a buzz right at the beginning of Machine Head. They had awesome demos and they were super brutal and I loved the riffs. I knew the dudes and I asked them who wrote the riffs, and all the cool death metal riffs were ones that Ahrue wrote, so for us, or at least for me, that was who he was, this guy who wrote these rad death metal riffs. I thought we could bring that into Machine Head. But as it turned out he didn’t really feel like writing death metal riffs anymore! I was constantly pushing him to do that, to write riffs like the awesome jams on those demos, but he was going into this whole melodic thing so we kinda just went with it.”
THE BURNING RED WASN’T A MILLION MILES AWAY FROM THE PREVIOUS ALBUMS BUT IT CLEARLY MARKED A PARTIAL CHANGE OF DIRECTION. WAS THAT A DELIBERATE DECISION?
"We felt that with The More Things Change that we’d boxed ourselves into a corner and we needed to mix it up a little bit to get out of that box. I don’t want to ever be boxed into a corner. I want to be able to go wherever I like, so we started trying some different stuff and Ahrue helped bring that. He wrote the main riff in The Blood, The Sweat, The Tears. He wrote the first riff for Silver, which was eventually scrapped but it helped form what the song would become. He wrote some of Five. For me, sometimes we’re a little thrashier and sometimes we’re a little groovier, but Exhale The Vile, Devil With The King’s Card and I Defy were the first things we wrote and so we had this heavy, grooving template with the harmonics.
"We were starting to dabble in a lot of drugs at this point, a lot of Vicodins and drinking all the time, so this whole psychedelic, Sabbath-y thing started filtering in. I had a half moon of pedals all the way around me at practice, all these analogue pedals, and I’d be fucking high, sitting there making all these weird sounds. I don’t think it necessarily translated that way, but the whole ides of The Burning Red was to have this totally drugged-out, dark sounding record and get away from the bright, clickier tones and go for this darker, saturated, psychedelic Jimi Hendrix meets The Cure kinda vibe. It’s a shame that sometimes that record is seen as just a hip hop kinda thing, and yeah, there’s rapping on the first song, but that’s three-and-a-half minutes of rapping on a 50-minute album, and if you really get into the rest of that record, it’s a big drug trip!”
THE COMMON PERCEPTION SEEMS TO BE THAT MACHINE HEAD “WENT NU METAL” AT THAT POINT, INSPIRED BY KORN AND THE DEFTONES…
"I love the Deftones and the first Korn record is great. Christ, Deftones opened for us at the Davidian video shoot. When Machine Head changed from being a side-project to my main focus, I was leaving a Deftones show and then we got into that gang fight that I’ve spoken about a few times before. We were all drinking from the same bottle of wine. We were all pooling our influences.”
DO YOU HAVE ANY REGRETS ABOUT RECORDING THE BURNING RED WITH ROSS ROBINSON? HIS ASSOCIATION WITH NU METAL SEEMS TO HAVE COLOURED SOME PEOPLE’S PERCEPTION OF THE RECORD…
“I have no regrets about using Ross, because I personally learned so much. The reason I was able to produce Through The Ashes… and The Blackening and Unto The Locust is because of what I was able to learn from him. The problem with working with Ross is that you get the Ross sound. No matter how hard you try, he’s a very effective communicator and he’s gonna put his sound on it no matter what. But in my opinion, my vocals on that record and what he was able to bring out, there’s some really open wounds on that record. I can’t even listen to some of the songs now, because I don’t wanna think it. I don’t wanna hear that. I don’t want to go back to that place in my mind. But he’s able to bring out these very ugly feelings and these ugly performances and he’s awesome for that. The main reason I wanted him was because I loved what he did with vocals. I still love what he does with vocals. It’s psychological warfare and it’s awesome, but the downside of it was that we got the Ross sound. What I learned from him… if we hadn’t had that experience, we wouldn’t have Through The Ashes… or The Blackening.”
DOES IT ANNOY YOU THAT PEOPLE REGARD THE LATE 90S AS A BAD TIME FOR MACHINE HEAD, WHEN IN FACT THE BURNING RED AND SUPERCHARGER WERE BOTH RELATIVELY SUCCESSFUL RECORDS AND YOU WERE STILL SELLING OUT VENUES SUCH AS BRIXTON ACADEMY DURING THAT TIME?
“Supercharger sold 250,000 copies. If that’s a disaster, I’ll take it. We played nine shows in the UK, all sold out, and the US tour was mostly sold out, which was a first. Every night when we play Bulldozer, that whole theory that everybody hates Supercharger gets completely stomped into the ground. We play Bulldozer and it’s one of the top five reactions of the night, every time. People go fucking bananas for that song. Again, that was another producer [Johnny K] coming in to produce the record and I love the guy, but I really feel that we got the producer’s sound on it again, and for me that was the last time I was gonna let that happen. We were just rolling with it. Part of it for me was that I can be a bit of a control freak, so to be able to let go and let someone else go with it was a huge step, whether I liked the results or not. And I didn’t, but it was a huge step for me. There are songs on there that we still play live.”
THOSE SONGS SEEMED TO COME INTO THEIR OWN WHEN YOU PLAYED THEM LIVE…
“Yeah, the live version of Crashing Around You on Hellalive, I don’t know what we did differently but it fucking destroys the album version. That intro really helped, that long intro, it set the song up. I wish we’d had that version on the album because it’s so much heavier and more fucked up. It’s a weird phenomenon. In the UK in particular, that live version of that song, I get kids whose parents had put them in a mental facility because they were self-harmers and I hear it all the time, that they pinpoint that song and that version and they say how it helped to carry them through that point in their lives, and that’s amazing to me. That’s all you can hope for, that your music affects somebody like that.”
YOUR IMAGE CHANGED QUITE RADICALLY AROUND THE TIME OF THE BURNING RED TOO… MOST FAMOUSLY IN THE VIDEO FOR FROM THIS DAY WHEN YOU’RE WEARING A TRACKSUIT AND HAVE SPIKY HAIR. DO YOU EVER LOOK BACK AT THAT AND CRINGE?
“I wasn’t wearing a fucking tracksuit! I had an orange nylon jacket, and orange camouflage pants, fucker! Ha ha ha! Do you know the comedian Dave Chappelle? He has this skit where they’re talking about R ’n’ B artist Rick James, and how Rick James is talking about how ‘cocaine is a hell of a drug’... and you know, I can relate. Like I said, The Burning Red tour cycle was by far our most drugged out, with Vicodin, cocaine, booze. We were in that mode and if you stay up for four days straight on coke and you’re staring into a mirror and next thing you know you’re twisting your hair into spikes, thinking ‘That’s fucking cool!’… it’s fucking rock ’n’ roll, you know? Ha ha! I’ve been in a fucking band for 25-plus years, so between mullets, cornrows, spiky hair, side-partings, shaved heads… what can I say? We probably haven’t had some of the best clothing or hair styles that the world has ever seen, but I don’t wear a suit and tie and I don’t have to go to a nine-to-five job. To me, that’s fucking great.”
EVERYTHING CLICKED BACK INTO PLACE WHEN YOU MADE THROUGH THE ASHES OF EMPIRES AND PHIL DEMMEL JOINED THE BAND. YOU SEEMED TO EMBRACE THE WHOLE NOTION OF BEING A FLAT-OUT METAL BAND WITH RENEWED ENTHUSIASM, BOTH MUSICALLY AND VISUALLY. WAS THAT DELIBERATE OR DID IT JUST OCCUR NATURALLY?
“I think when Phil came to do that tour, because of the way it happened and the fact that he was going to retire, it was really just the right time and the right moment. It was serendipity. We needed someone to do a tour, Phil was going to retire from his band Technocracy and from music in general, so it was perfect. No strings attached. It was just ‘We need you for this, you need us for that…’ Even from the first rehearsal – but really from the first show in Dublin – it was so good. I’d just look over to Phil and laugh because it was so ridiculously good. We hadn’t sounded this good in years. Ahrue was very reserved with the audience. Adam and I are up front and way in everybody’s faces, so there was always this hole on that side of the stage, but once Phil was there it was killer. We did that tour and then it ended and it was like, ‘Well, uh, alright, see you around!’ and he was like ‘OK, I’m gonna go and retire now...’ We continued on writing, and I’d run into him at shows and [Oakland] Raiders games and stuff, and we’d get hammered and he’d say ‘When are you gonna let me in the band?’ and I’m like ‘You’re retired, remember?! You’re the one that doesn’t want to do it!’ That went on for about nine months and then he got to a point where his marriage wasn’t working and he was like ‘You know what? That fucking two weeks made me realise why I want to do this!’ I think I always knew it was gonna happen but I just didn’t know when. He came in, an awesome lead player. He writes great leads, and he’s a much better lead player than I am. Having a guitar player who I knew I could throw all my crazy riffs at and he’d be able to play them, that was awesome.”
WAS IT GREAT TO HAVE SOMEONE ELSE CONTRIBUTING TO THE CREATIVE PROCESS?
“Oh yeah, I welcome it, in fact I found myself riding him, like ‘Bring in some more riffs, fucker!’ He wrote a few of things on Through The Ashes…, like parts from Days Turn Blue To Gray and In The Presence Of My Enemies and a couple of riffs in Vim. Obviously that role became expanded on The Blackening and again with Unto The Locust, especially once we were in the studio. He contributes lyrically, too. He has a great way of describing little details. He’d come down an hour before I sang and we’d bounce lyrical ideas around, or there’d be text messages back and forth before I would jump in the vocal booth, like ‘What about this?’ or ‘I need four syllables here, what’ve you got?’ Obviously I write a lot, the lion’s share of lyrics and music, but if someone has another way, another thing to contribute, fuck yeah, and I’m grateful for that. These guys trust me, they let me do my thing. Both Phil and Dave just throw riffs at me and go ‘Have it!’ and I’ll sit there and say ‘OK, this riff’s good and the rest is less good…’, and I can take a part and put it together with a different part. It puts me in an awkward position too, though. I can take those riffs and make ’em into cool songs, but I’m also the guy who is [dramatic voice] the denier of riffs and lyrics, so as you can imagine, it sometimes ruffles a few feathers! But when the others bring in riffs, I totally welcome it. One of the guitar magazines rated Halo one of the best riffs of the new millennium, and it’s not even my riff, it’s not even Phil’s riff, it’s Dave’s riff! The guitar players in Machine Head didn’t even write it?! Ha ha!”
THROUGH THE ASHES OF EMPIRES FELT LIKE THE CATALYST NEEDED TO REVIVE YOUR CAREER AND THE BLACKENING WAS THE RESULT… DID YOU HAVE ANY SENSE THAT IT WOULD BE SUCH A HUGE RECORD FOR YOU?
“I’ve always felt that we were really good and better than most of the metal bands out there. One thing I’m really proud of is that we’re able to kind of block out the outside world a lot of the time and just find our lane, and that applies to any of the records. We’re still aware of what’s going on and music is constantly evolving. New styles come along and I love new music. I love all the old bands that I got into, but I love hearing new bands and hearing new things. I think that every artist reaches a point where it’s like ‘Do I stick to this template that I started off with in the beginning or do I try and branch out?’ A lot of times there’s a lot of fear so you don’t branch out. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and all that. But for me, personally, the bands that interested me and that still keep my interest are the bands that evolved. I know that Slayer like to say they’re the AC/DC of metal but I totally disagree with that! To go from Show No Mercy to South Of Heaven, there was a huge evolution, from Maiden and Priest-style stuff through to this super thrashy stuff but with hooks and melody, and then on Seasons In The Abyss it was even more so. Metallica too. Hit The Lights is cool, but fuckin’ Damage Inc is way cooler! There’s an evolution. I felt that with The Blackening we had challenged ourselves with the songwriting that we’d done. When it was getting ready to come out, there was definitely a feeling, like ‘Is everybody gonna think that we’ve lost our fucking minds? We have four 10-minute songs on this record!’
FAR FROM FREAKING ANYONE OUT, THOSE 10-MINUTE SONGS TURNED OUT TO BE EXACTLY WHAT THE FANS WANTED TO HEAR…
“When we started writing for The Blackening, the first song we finished was Slanderous, then Beautiful Mourning, then Aesthetics Of Hate, so we started with all the shorter songs on the record. There was no indication that we were gonna have all these long songs, for the first four or five months of the writing process. Then, I don’t know if it was Clenching… or Halo, but the songs kept getting longer and having more parts. But they didn’t feel long. I thought Halo was like six minutes long, but then we timed it and it was like ‘Holy fuck, it’s 10 minutes!’ Part of me felt that we had something special. Part of me thought people would think we’d lost our minds. We didn’t care either way, we were like ‘You know what? We can’t be worried about this. I think this is fucking rad!’ The four of us had goosebumps and that’s all that matters. Maybe it’s not going to be on the radio or MTV or whatever, but that’s fine. It’s a tricky gauge because you never know how people are gonna react to something. When we wrote Burn My Eyes, we were so the wrong thing. Nothing about what we were doing was fitting into anything. The Bay Area metal scene was completely dead. We were playing shows with punk bands like Rancid and with funk-metal bands. We weren’t playing what was cool and we weren’t fitting into anyone’s genre. Some of those audiences were fucking hostile. At that time, Rancid were pure fuckin’ punk with this skinhead, crusty punk vibe, and we were opening for them and dudes were not feeling it at all! It took almost the whole show to win that crowd over. At the end of it, punk rock dudes were coming up to us, all leather, bristles, studs and acne, and saying ‘You guys are pretty good...for a metal band!’ Thanks, I think! Ha ha! That helped us to get a fire going. We had to adapt to these situations and I feel like we’re still doing that. What we do doesn’t fit in even now, but somehow we found our lane and we’re fuckin’ riding it. I’m really proud of that. It's probably the hardets thing to do when you're in a band."
THE THREE YEARS OF TOURING THAT FOLLOWED THE BLACKENING WERE EVENTFUL TO SAY THE LEAST. WAS IT THE BEST OF TIMES AND THE WORST OF TIMES?
“For sure, it was a crazy ride. I had my second son and then I went on tour for three years. The wife was at home with a two-year-old and a newborn, so I nearly got divorced a couple of times. I nearly got divorced during the recording of the record! So yeah, it was eventful. It was a rough ride at times. We got through it by any means necessary, some more conventional and others more unconventional. But yeah, totally, it was the best of times and the worst of times, it was unbelievable. It was dream come true, once in a lifetime shit. But also Phil’s dad died, Dave’s mom died, Dave got divorced, Adam and me had our problems. I think if you stick any band on a tour bus for three years solid, guess what? Shit’s gonna happen. Switch on your video camera and make a movie! People are gonna argue, people are gonna get sick of each other, you know? Little things like the fucking weed ashes on the table every fucking day are gonna start driving you fucking crazy. I was joking with Adam back when we were going through therapy that this is a sexless marriage. Playing live, that’s our orgasm and it’s one hell of an orgasm! But it’s cool. I look at what we went through at that time and I feel like we’re actually stronger now, having gone through all of that, and I don’t know a whole lot of bands that would have survived it. But when I look back at it all I don’t think ‘Oh man that was bad!’ Fuck that. I look at the good stuff and I know we were so fuckin’ lucky to have lived it, because most of it was incredible.”
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH ADAM NOW?
“People think it was this huge fallout, but that whole thing has been blown up into more than it was. We’ve known each other for 20-something years and we’ve been in a band for 19 of those years and I love that dude. I genuinely love him. When he’s in a great mood, he’s one of the funniest people I know. And he’s an amazing bass player. He has unbelievable timing, damn near perfect. It’s seriously amazing how flawless his timing is. He’s used to me throwing random shit at him and he can just do it all. I don’t want to jam with anybody else. Sometimes Adam struggles with enjoying being in Machine Head, I think, and that makes things difficult at times, but I love the dude and I totally appreciate what he brings to the table.”
IS THE FACT THAT YOU WERE PREPARED TO GO TO THERAPY TO RESOLVE YOUR DIFFERENCES A TESTAMENT TO HOW MUCH THE BAND MEANS TO YOU ALL?
“There is something that we have, the four of us, that no other band has. And we know that and it means a lot to us, so we cherish that. Some people lose focus from time to time and sometimes dudes will put other things more as a priority, but I’m always steering the ship so eventually they’ll be like ‘The ship is taking off! I’d better catch up!’ I think they appreciate that too.”
IF ANYTHING,* UNTO THE LOCUST* SOUNDS EVEN MORE LIKE MACHINE HEAD’S DEFINITIVE STATEMENT THAN THE BLACKENING DID. WHEN YOU AND DAVE STARTED WRITING TOGETHER, DID YOU HAVE A STRONG SENSE THAT YOU WERE ABOUT TO TAKE THINGS TO ANOTHER LEVEL AGAIN?
“When I finished This Is The End, I remember showing it to Dave and it was just so fucking hard to play, ridiculously fucking hard. I was bouncing these insane ideas around and the shit I was throwing at him, the fuckin’ blastbeats and super syncopated snare rolls, he was like ‘What the fuck?’ It was pretty funny! And then when we were done, Dave said ‘This song is so fucking hard but it’s so fucking amazing and from that point on, I knew we’d set the bar. This was a level that we weren’t even at yet. We weren’t good enough to play that song. It would take us another four months to get to where that song was not gonna cause a death at practice, but that was awesome, to be to step my fucking game up! I need to kill this! I’ve got to sing over this fucking chorus? What was I thinking? From the lowest note on the guitar to the highest note on the high string? How am I gonna do this?’ But eventually you work on it and it gets better. For me personally it was very important to have that goal, that we needed to be better, that we needed to step it up and that we needed to challenge ourselves and get to a place that we weren’t at yet. Lyrically, melodically, to just be completely fearless. Stupidly fearless. Let’s see where we can take things and if we go too far, OK, go back, but push it and see where it goes.”
EVERYONE HAS EXCELLED THEMSELVES ON THIS ALBUM. SOME OF PHIL’S LEADS ARE ABSOLUTELY MINDBLOWING…
“On this record, Phil’s almost developed this whole new style, this pickless technique where he’s doing nearly all fingering on certain parts. He brought in a couple of leads like that when we were recording the album and it was so cool. I said ‘Do more of that, man!’ and I really pushed him and he really went for it and totally excelled. He’s been playing the guitar for so long, but after all that time he’s found a new style and it’s really cool and doesn’t sound like anyone else out there, in metal or anywhere else. It’s so exciting. I hear his leads and I’m like ‘Fuck! Now I’ve got to write some really good leads!’ I often get Phil to help me come up with ideas, because leads are always the last thing I think about.”
YOU BEGAN THE ALBUM WITH COLIN RICHARDSON AS CO-PRODUCER, BUT SADLY HE HAD TO WITHDRAW FROM THE PROJECT AFTER HIS WIFE PASSED AWAY. HOW IMPORTANT HAS COLIN BEEN TO MACHINE HEAD OVER THE YEARS?
“We’ve done six of our seven albums with Colin. He mixed Supercharger but he definitely wasn’t handed anything too great. He had a challenge, let’s say that! I love Colin. We actually used his templates for this record. Colin, Carl Bown [studio engineer] and Ginge [studio guru and former Skindred drummer Martin ‘Ginge’ Ford] helped set up the templates that we used for this record I love that Colin still uses technology to its fullest and he’s up on every current technology, but he still has his foot firmly planted in quality analogue stuff too. That’s what I love, because so many bands now make records that sound like they were made on a computer and I fucking hate it. I hate the sound of most metal records now. I don’t want to listen to a computer. I want to listen to a human, because humans are flawed and I love those flaws. I don’t want to hear perfect. Colin definitely has a way of making technology work in our favour, because obviously we’re not fucking crazy, but he gives it that natural warmth too. He’s killer, man. He calls himself an anorak, which is a word I’d never heard until he said it. He’s a nerd and he knows everything about all the metal bands. He’s very eccentric and I love that. There’s such a charm to that. He’s got this dark streak to him too and he’s awesome. Despite what happened, he still played a big part in this record.”
IS THIS THE BEST ALBUM YOU’VE EVER MADE?
“I’m really proud of it. I feel like we’ve done something special and I think our fans deserve something special. And I think the metal world is ready for something special.”
DO YOU EXPECT UNTO THE LOCUST TO SURPASS THE SUCCESS OF THE BLACKENING? WILL YOU BE ON THE ROAD FOR ANOTHER THREE YEARS STRAIGHT?
“On the road for three years straight? Man I hope not! Ha ha ha! I don’t think I could do another three-and-a-half years on the road. In the same breath, I think all of that touring we did is what allowed us to make this record. It allowed us to live in The Blackening moment for a long time that it gave us distance away from The Blackening too. If we’d written this record a year-and-a-half after The Blackening, who knows what it would’ve been? All those experiences, like watching Metallica play Master Of Puppets every night, an eight-minute song with weird time signatures, a crazy middle section, that never had any radio play, and it went down like it was the greatest song in the world every night... all of that is a testament to the fact that things can be done a completely fucking different way. People keep asking us ‘Do you want to be the next Metallica?’ and I’m like no, there will never be another Metallica. That was a moment they created, and this is a different moment, this is our moment. Do we want to be the next Metallica? Nah, we want to be the next Machine Head.”