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Exclusive Interview with lead singer/guitarist Robb Flynn By Chad Porter
Being the aggressive, in-your-face metal band that they were, West Coast quartet Machine Head never expected the radio or MTV to come knocking down their door. Instead, hard work, relentless self-promotion and countless hours spent at Kinko's helped prove their worth and make their debut album, Burn My Eyes, Roadrunner Records' top selling album at the time. Fast forward 15 years and the band is now one of the heaviest and best in the genre. The long anticipated eighth release, The Blackening, does not disappoint. Its thundering bass drums, shredding leads and brutal "molten" riffs tell their own story behind the raw power and emotion of MH singer/guitarist Robb Flynn's vocals. CONNECT Music recently had a chance to talk with Flynn to reflect on the "epic" new album, the band's success and how they built their fan base from the ground up, winning over fans one by one.
CONNECT: What was it you were trying to accomplish with The Blackening?
ROBB FLYNN: Our initial goal was to make the Master Of Puppets of this generation. I know that this is an awfully high standard to set, but we really wanted to push ourselves to a level that is a high point in the history of metal. Not that we want to be as big as Metallica or anything like that, or even make a record how Metallica would make a record. What we mean is an album that has the power, influence and epic grandeur of that album - and the staying power - a timeless record like that. You can put on Master Of Puppets today and it will still sound better than a lot of the metal that's out there currently. That was the goal in that timeless sense, and right off the bat we started writing these really long songs, like four 7-minute long songs, and we had to be like, "Whoa, we need to hold back here. What are we doing?" And saying those things like, "Do we really want to mix it up this much?" and "If it ain't broke then don't fix it." We just got to a point where we trimmed the songs back just to see what it would sound like and it sucked. It wasn't that fun kind of roller coaster ride that we were on. It just didn't have that fire. In a large degree we were writing very selfishly and just kind of doing what we have fun playing. In the end we ended up with two 10-and-a-half-minute songs and two 9-minute songs.
CONNECT: That's one of the things that I noticed with this album, that you had some pretty lengthy songs that seemed a lot more complex than songs on previous albums. Is that something that came naturally or was there a particular reason for that?
RF: It was kind of just a short attention span. [Laughs] We were just like, "This song is going on for too long, we need a new riff." It wasn't really anything other than that. It's not like the song needed something there, or needed to go someplace else. Initially the people who haven't heard the record that I've told we have a 10-and-half minute song, they're like, "Oh, Jesus!" Their first reaction is that it's a hippie space jam for 10 minutes, or they think like St. Anger where it's three riffs for eight minutes. But it's not like that. It's riff after molten riff. It's all over the place. It's not to say that it's "riff soup" - it isn't a bunch of riffs thrown together for no reason. It's still in that classic Rush sense where Rush had these really long songs, but they were in the context of the song. That's what we really tried to keep in mind; that it still needs to be a song, it still needs to have a chorus, it needs to have a hook, a thing you revert back to, a melody, a title, something that makes it tie into being a song in that classic structure of sense.
CONNECT: Now [guitarist] Phil [Demmel] was only in the band long enough to contribute to a few songs on [the band's previous album] Through the Ashes of Empires. How did he contribute to this new album?
RF: I think there's just chemistry. We grew up together, we played in thrash bands when we were younger, and we basically learned how to play guitar together. I think a lot of that chemistry was very prevalent on Through the Ashes but it's much more prevalent [on The Blackening] as he was there from day one writing songs. There was a lot of time spent staying after practice and working on leads and fine tuning stuff, fine tuning little details and harmonies, and climbing higher and higher up the neck. It's definitely really cool. To us, it feels like Phil's been in the band forever. It doesn't feel like it's just been four years.
CONNECT: Do you do any writing while on the road, or is it all done back home in the practice studio?
RF: We generally don't write on the road very well. We have a lot of other things to do. It's mainly in the practice room. Dave [McClain] always does the riff CDs and riff mp3s where he'll send me four or rive riffs on mp3 or he'll give me a CD with riffs. Dave, our drummer, actually writes a lot - most people don't realize this. He wrote the main riff in "Imperium," he wrote a lot of the stuff in "Clenching the Fists," and the main riff in "Halo." He is actually the other primary writer in the band - him and Phil.
CONNECT: Can you share the story behind the lyrics to a couple of the songs and how they came to be?
RF: "Halo" is about organized religion and what we view as its negative influence on America, like the Christian right belief becoming powerful and trying to ban abortion again and introduce things like intelligent design in schools, and just all the stuff we strongly disagree with. "Clenching of the Fists of Dissent" is an antiwar song, kind of inspired by songs like "War Pigs" [by Black Sabbath]. It's a song that it is very much inspired by what is going on today and the current state of the world and the war, but it's not written specifically about this war. We wanted it to be more of a timeless statement than anything specific to this moment. "Now I Lay Thee Down," which is going to be our first video, is a Romeo and Juliet tragedy, basically. It's loosely based on a true story about a guy who wanted to kill himself and the girlfriend helped kill him and after she lost the love of her life she killed herself. It's not exactly MTV-friendly fodder [laughs], but it just kind of poured out of me. Then "Aesthetics of Hate" is about a story that came out on a conservative website, The Iconoclasts, called "Aesthetics of Hate: Goodbye Dimebag Darrell and Good Riddance." It basically went on to call Dimebag untalented and that he reaped what he sowed and that anybody that was mourning his death was pathetic, ugly, and soulless. It was pretty vile to read two days after the murder of someone who you have been fortunate enough to tour with. I'm not going to sit here and say that Machine Head or I were best friends with Dimebag, but at the very least I would say we were friends, and to read that about your friend two days after their murder is extreme.
CONNECT: What's the first word that comes to mind when you think of The Blackening?
CONNECT: You're about to kick off the big tour in a couple of weeks. Aside from the intense practices, do you have any pre-tour rituals?
RF: You know, just like getting stuff ready, like toiletries and crap you are going to need a month's worth of because you're going to have to pack your entire life's stuff into a suitcase and go live in a bus. I'm kind of a freak in the sense that I always need to get a new pair of stage shoes before I go on tour. [Laughs] It's like a retarded quirk of mine. Other than that, it kind of depends what kind of season it is. If you are going to Europe or Canada in the winter time, you have to make sure you have enough clothes that will get you through 10-below weather.
CONNECT: I read that you brought in a group of fans to sing backing vocals for one of your songs. How did this come about?
RF: Well, we knew that we were going to need people for this part. I had written this part in a song where I wanted to have this huge gang. We started talking about bringing a couple of our friends and I was like, "Man, that's not going to be big enough. We need more people." We've always had a very close relationship with our fans and we often invite them into our lives, especially through the website. We've been doing video diaries and stuff for the last five years. So we were just kind of trying to find another way to incorporate them into part of the band. So we invited a bunch of kids and we just busted out the gigantic bottle of Grey Goose vodka and, like, seven cases of beer and everyone got trashed and we went in and did the backup vocals and it was f*ckin' rad! They did really good. We broke them up into groups and we even had an all-girl group. They were bad ass! I've got to say it was really cool. It made the part a lot more intense. That's in the song "Clenching," which is that one antiwar song which made a huge statement, and we made a conscious decision to tell everyone well before what the song is about so if they felt differently don't feel obligated to come down and you're not going to offend us if you don't. And everybody came down and everybody was like, "I'm totally down, dude."
CONNECT: Machine Head has been together for, what, 15 years now? This seems like a long time for a band. What's kept Machine Head going for so long?
RF: I think we're a good band. I think we're better than 95% of the metal bands that come and go. But we might have gone an alternate route as far as achieving success. We knew from day one the kind of music we play wasn't going to be the type of thing that radio or MTV was going to get all over. We knew that we were going to have to build our fan base in a different way. That way was by touring and by reaching people on a grassroots level and on that kind of street level. We've been very active in that from day one. When we first started playing shows, we were at every punk rock show, metal show, flyering, stickering, just making a presence at every bus stop and every BART train. I would spend six hours at Kinko's making demo J-cards to insert into our cassettes and printing up flyers. We would take any money we could scrounge up and we would put it into getting awareness out there because we knew we were going to have to use different avenues. We toured - we've made our living off of touring. We tour on average a year off of every release. On Through The Ashes, we toured for 22 months behind that record. We know that getting out there and doing that is the tougher way, but we knew that from day one. In the end we built a more solid foundation than most of the bands out there because we haven't had that kind of instant magazine success, or instant MTV or radio success. We've built every fan one by one, by people seeing us and being like, "Goddamn, they're so f*cking cool! How come we've never heard of them?" And by trying to keep a level head on things and just remember that we sh*t in the morning just like everybody else does. [Laughs]
CONNECT: You guys have quite a history. Among numerous other successes, your first album, Burn My Eyes, became the biggest-selling debut album in the history of Roadrunner Records at the time; you've performed at Ozzfest; headlined numerous tours in US and all around the world, including Germany's Wacken Festival; your last album Through the Ashes Of Empires debuted at #88 on Billboard's Top 200; and the follow-up live DVD Elegies debuted at #13 in the States and #4 in U.K. Did you ever think you would be become so successful back when you were in the early thrash bands before Machine Head?
RF: Our goal before Burn My Eyes came out - and this was like to the sky for us, it was like the highest thing we could imagine at that point - the goal was to sell 20,000 albums worldwide and get the opening slot of the Slayer show when they played the Henry J. Kaiser, which is the big hall in Oakland. If we got those two things, that was it, we were the kings. And now here we are - we've toured with Slayer five times, we got that opening slot at the Kaiser, and we've sold like 1.8 million records. It kind of spins your head. There have been many peaks and many valleys but it's been a "life less ordinary," and there is definitely no question in any of our minds that we are one of the lucky ones.
CONNECT: I know you guys dig bands from punk rock to Metallica, Pantera, and Lamb of God, and I've even heard references to The Cure. What are some the other bands that have influenced you or that you're listening to now?
RF: Early Biohazard, or pretty much all Biohazard. We were very much influenced by them. A lot of hardcore bands, especially the punk hardcore bands like Poison Idea, Attitude Adjustment, Kromag, were big influences. Growing up in the Bay Area, The Dead Kennedys. As far as other styles of music, I think The Cure is incredible. I like mellow stuff like Coldplay. The first two Coldplay records - the new one sucks - but the first two are good. Early Soundgarden, stuff like that I thought was really cool. Right now my favorite band is this band called Scarlet. They put a record out called This Was Always Meant to Fall Apart. It's pretty whacked out. It's really unique. One minute it's like Louder Than Love era Soundgarden, and in the next minute it's like just raging thrash Converge, just crazy and all over the place modern mathcore. I don't even know what mathcore is, but it's pretty cool man. It's really different. I love the new Lamb of God record. The classic influences are definitely early Metallica, Rush, Pantera for sure. I'm a huge Jimi Hendrix fan. My guitar rig is just - I've got nothing but all the old [guitar] pedals. I don't have any of the new digital processors. I've got all the old pedals, like the old MXR pedals and the old Small Stone and the Electric Mistress and all that stuff you hear on the early Hendrix records that made it all fuzzy and fucked up. They're great because they're just so f*cked-sounding. I find all this digital stuff a little too clean and a little too nice. My Electric Mistress makes this f*cking horrendous hum in the background and this clunk every three seconds. It sucks, but it sounds amazing. Nothing comes close, and I bring a lot of that in.