"I'm the type of dude, I wanna go out there and kill it, every time," says Robb Flynn. Which is more or less what the singer, songwriter and guitarist has been doing, to varying degrees of critical and commercial success, for the last quarter century as the leader of Bay Area neo-thrashers Machine Head. From their seminal 1994 debut Burn My Eyes, to controversial nu-metal excursions like 1999's The Burning Red, to avowed 21st century classics like Through the Ashes of Empires and The Blackening, Machine Head have forged a long and winding path through the modern metal landscape.
But while for the past decade or so they've been steadily churning out, much to fans and critics' pleasure, some of the heaviest music of their career, Machine Head's new and ninth studio effort, Catharsis, takes a different approach. There's still plenty of insanely aggressive, balls-out metal (see: the raging opening cut "Volatile," written about the far-right rally and subsequent counter-protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer; the whiplash thrash-rocker "Razorblade Smile"; and the crushing "Hope Begets Hope"), but Catharsis also finds Flynn exploring quieter acoustic music ("Behind a Mask"), Alice in Chains-y grunge ("Screaming at the Sun"), textured, ethereal sounds ("Eulogy") and groove-heavy rap-metal ("Triple Beam"). Then there's "Bastards," a folk-punk-arena-rocking socio-political rant that is arguably the most un-Machine-Head-like composition Machine Head have ever put to tape, and that has already garnered plenty of attention from the metal community, both positive and negative, since its release a few weeks ago.
As for whether Flynn is concerned about how people will react to the music or views he expresses on Catharsis? The answer, in characteristic Flynn fashion, is a firm no. "I know a bunch of people don't agree with me," he tells Revolver, "and that's okay. You don't need to agree with me. And you don't need to buy my records. But I also don't need to please you."
Ahead of the release of Catharsis, Flynn sat down with Revolver to discuss early morning songwriting, the influence of hip hop on his lyrics, his violent drug-dealing days, and how his resolve to follow his own path has enabled Machine Head's continued success. "You're never gonna appeal to everybody," Flynn says. "But that's the price of being an artist. You've just gotta trust your gut and follow your heart and let your art speak for you. And that's where are with this record."
YOU TRY OUT SOME NEW SOUNDS AND STYLES ON CATHARSIS. WERE YOU WORRIED AT ALL ABOUT HOW LONGTIME MACHINE HEAD FANS WOULD RESPOND TO THESE CHANGES?
ROBB FLYNN Well, I think that a lot of people don't like change. And people in metal seem to really not like change. But at the same time, they also don't like it when you stay the same. Because then you just become boring and predictable. So I feel like you've gotta kind of walk this line. And I think it's good to walk that line. Because it's really easy to get into just doing what your fan base might like. Some bands, when they've been a band for a while, they want to keep their fan base satisfied. But, you know, we're nine albums deep, man. I don't even know what our fan base is at this point. So who is that fan base we're trying to appease? And then if we are trying to appease them, are we really writing from the heart or are we writing from someplace else?
THE BIGGEST CURVEBALL ON THE ALBUM IS OBVIOUSLY "BASTARDS," WHICH YOU RELEASED A WEEK OR SO IN ADVANCE OF THE ALBUM. WHAT HAS BEEN THE REACTION TO THAT SONG?
The reaction it's gotten is … about exactly what I thought it would be! [Laughs]
I figured it was gonna ruffle a few feathers. Because it's not really … I mean, I don't consider it a metal song. It's a heavy song, but it's more like a folk song to me. And there was a lot of discussion that went into "Bastards" because of that. There was some concern amongst some band members about how people would react to it. And my thing was, I wrote that song in an hour. I was in a really dark place and I just had this really intense conversation with my kids and I was really affected by it. It's a really pissed off, angry song, and everything in there is real and genuine. And even though it's extremely melodic, the message of it is so important and the lyrics are powerful. To me, that's what music is about. That's the only thing that music is about. It's about relating to something. I remember the first time I heard the lyrics to "Paranoid": "Make a joke and I will sigh and you will laugh and I will cry / Happiness I cannot feel and love to me is so unreal." Granted, when I heard it I was stoned as fuck for the first time in my life. [Laughs] But I was like, "What the fuck is this?" Like, "This is the most depressing shit I've ever heard … and I love it! I wanna hear more!" You know, it was that kind of thing.
AS FAR AS YOUR PROCESS WITH LYRICS, YOU'VE SAID THAT YOU LIKE TO GET UP EARLY IN THE MORNING TO WRITE.
I always do that. For this album, I would wake up at 4:30 every day and just write. And most of it was just poetry. Violent poetry. Most of it was just garbage. But out of that garbage there'd be a couple lines that were really good. And most of them weren't even to music. Most of them were just kind of like a freestyle. And then I could take those and throw them around. I know that I have to do that. I have to get up and write and write and write. And even if most of what I write never gets used, it keeps my juices flowing. And some of these songs, not "Bastards," but some of them, a month or two later those lyrics came into play and a song that was nothing became something. I mean, the chorus to "Catharsis," I was fucking vacuuming my floor when I wrote that! I have a bunch of animals so I had to vacuum, and that chorus was just going through my head the whole time. So there's no process to it. It just happens.
YOU USED THE PHRASE "VIOLENT POETRY." TO ME, THAT BRINGS TO MIND THE CATHARSIS SONG "TRIPLE BEAM," WHICH CHRONICLES A PERIOD OF TIME EARLIER IN YOUR LIFE WHEN YOU WERE DEALING DRUGS. THE LYRICS TELL A PRETTY HARROWING STORY.
Again, that was just one of those wake-up-at-4:30-in-the-morning-and-just-start-writing things. And somewhere in that process I wrote, "I used to dream about the end and when it would come / Drug dealers die young at the end of the gun." Those were my two lines. And I just kind of poured it out from there. And when I was done I was like, "This is some crazy fucking shit …"
WERE YOU STILL LIVING THAT LIFESTYLE WHEN YOU STARTED MACHINE HEAD?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, that was all leading up to the beginning of Machine Head. What did our manager call us? He used to say, "You're not troublemakers … but you're trouble magnets." I mean, we were banned from three clubs here in the Bay Area for fighting. We were just out of our fucking minds. And you know, I wrote ["Triple Beam"] not to necessarily glorify any of that. If anything, it's more like a warning. But all of that happened, and somehow my life just snowballed into this crazy two years where by the end of it I was like, "I'm never gonna get out of this … and I gotta get out of this." It was like, "Machine Head has to work." It was a huge driving factor in the beginning of the band. And maybe even now, to some degree. But especially in the beginning. Because there was no Plan B. There was no backup plan. I never had a backup plan.
IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU DID HAVE A BACKUP PLAN. IT WAS JUST A BACKUP PLAN THAT WOULD PROBABLY GET YOU KILLED.
[Laughs] Yeah. It was a really bad backup plan.
WAS THERE ANY PARTICULAR MOMENT OR INCIDENT THAT LED YOU TO FINALLY GET OUT OF THAT LIFESTYLE? OR WAS IT JUST A GENERAL RECKONING THAT THINGS HAD TO CHANGE?
I think it was just that everything was taking its toll. It was a really intense life — very violent and very intimidating. I mean, I made some good money at it, but it was just … I had too much of a conscience. I was like the worst drug dealer ever. Dudes would come over and they'd have been up for, like, five or six days, and I'd think, This motherfucker's shot. I can't sell him anything. Even if I had stuff I'd be like, "No, bro. I ain't got none." And they'd go, "I know you got some, man! I know you got some!" But my thing was just, "I'm out. Go get some sleep, for god's sake." [Laughs] That's a bad mentality for a speed dealer.
ON A FEW OF THESE SONGS, AND MOST OBVIOUSLY "TRIPLE BEAM," YOUR VOCAL APPROACH BORDERS ON RAPPING. AT LEAST IN TERMS OF THE PHRASING AND CADENCES. IS HIP-HOP AN INFLUENCE ON YOUR LYRICS AND VOCALS?
Absolutely. The great MCs, if you really break it down, they've got some pretty complicated rhyme schemes. And I love that. And it's not like I tried to get into it. I mean, I was in the Bay Area at the very beginning of the golden age of thrash. I was seeing Metallica open for Raven at the Keystone in Berkeley in front of 250 people. But at the same time, hardcore punk was coming out, and also hardcore rap. We were just some skater kids living in Fremont [California], and when we first started hearing that early rap stuff my friends and I were like, "This is fucking pissed!" It was Public Enemy and NWA and Ice-T — the really gnarly shit. We all got into it. And we wanted to learn all those rhymes. So when I started Machine Head it was very natural to be influenced by that, especially because I was living in Oakland and that music was everywhere. The culture was all around me. It just seeped into what we were doing. And I knew I could do it. I knew I could flow. If you go back and listen to Burn My Eyes, there's a lot of rapping on there. Songs like "A Thousand Lies" and "Block." Even "Davidian," I'm wearing cornrows in that video! That was not some coincidence. We were emulating a rap video.
THESE DAYS, HIP HOP SEEMS MORE OPEN TO COMMENTING ON CULTURAL AND SOCIAL ISSUES THAN METAL. AS SOMEONE WHO IS KNOWN TO SPEAK HIS MIND, I WOULD IMAGINE THAT'S ANOTHER THING ABOUT THE MUSIC THAT YOU FIND APPEALING.
Well, doesn't everybody speak their minds now? [Laughs] I don't think there's a thing that anybody doesn't speak their mind on at this point. Fuck, everybody's on social media and everybody's talking shit about everything. But I think that somewhere in there, metal musicians got into a place where they just decided not to do that. But, I mean, look at John Lennon. Look at Bob Marley. Look at Black Sabbath making a song called "War Pigs" at the very height of the Vietnam War. Look at Rage [Against the Machine]. Look at all of that. I mean, I don't know, maybe everybody else just wants to hear a bunch of fluffy stuff. Or maybe they just want to hear metal songs with lyrics about something from the past. I guess it's easier to write about something from history that happened 150 years ago. Because what fucking bearing does it have on our lives now?
Exactly. The Charlottesville of 150 years ago doesn't really fucking matter like the Charlottesville of today does.
YOU GUYS ARE BACK OUT ON THE ROAD, AND ONCE AGAIN YOU'RE DOING "AN EVENING WITH" SHOWS, WHERE YOU PLAY LONGER SETS WITH NO OPENING ACT. IT SEEMS LIKE THAT APPROACH HAS BEEN WORKING FOR YOU.
It has, man. It's huge.
WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED DOING IT A FEW BACK, DID YOU QUESTION WHETHER IT WOULD BE A GOOD IDEA?
Oh my god, yeah. I think there was probably about 20 people that tried to talk us out of it. They were just like, "This is what hippie bands do." "This is what jam bands do." "Metal bands don't do this — metal bands are about packages. Metal fans are about packages." And we did that whole game forever. We did the package tour thing to the fucking death. It just got old after a while. And it didn't necessarily make our tours better. And you know, when Bruce Springsteen comes to town, when Paul McCartney comes to town, when U2 comes to town, it's just them. And nobody goes, "Why isn't there seven bands playing with Bruce Springsteen?" I think a lot of times in metal you just get used to something the way it is. That's a good thing for some bands, but I just didn't feel it was a good thing for us. It wasn't working for us. Especially because we have nine-minute, ten-minute-long songs. Some of these package things we were doing, we were playing four songs! It was a bum-out. Our fans were just like, "Really?"
So we had to step back and go, "All right, this is what we've done. But does that mean that's what's best for us?" And if we were on album number two, yeah, I probably wouldn't be doing "An Evening With." But we're not. We're on album number nine. We can do this. And we can kill it. So we started trying it, and on every level — financial, artistic, fan — it worked. It was a huge success. And sure, we're not playing to 50,000 people at the fucking raceway or whatever. We're playing to a thousand people, 2,000 people. But it's fucking great because those 2,000 people fucking live, eat and breathe Machine Head. And that's all I want.
DO YOU STILL LIKE TOURING AS MUCH AS YOU USED TO?
I think I enjoy it more. Because I feel like … I think what I learned along the way is that, I look back to those early videos, when I was in my early 20s, and I'm like, "That motherfucker is trying way too hard!" [Laughs] I'm jumping around, everything's a head bang … you know, it's 20 years old. And that's what 20 years old should be. But now that I'm older I look at it and I'm like, "I can chill out here for a second, and I can just play." And another thing about the shows we do now is that when you have long shows you can pace yourself better. You can throw in mellow songs that you would never play if you only had a half-hour set. You can do all kinds of cool stuff. It's like in that one movie [the 1988 film Colors] where the two cops are talking and one of them tells the story about the two bulls. The younger one says, "Hey, let's run down and fuck that cow." And the older one tells him, "No. Let's walk down and fuck 'em all." [Laughs] When we're onstage now, it's that kind of vibe.