Max Cavalera on Sepultura's "Really Strange," Groundbreaking Album 'Chaos A.D.' | Revolver

Max Cavalera on Sepultura's "Really Strange," Groundbreaking Album 'Chaos A.D.'

How Misfits, drug gangs, prison riots inspired metal classic
maxcavalera1994getty.jpg, Brian Rasic/Getty Images
Sepultura's Max Cavalera, Leicestershire, England, 1994
photograph by Brian Rasic/Getty Images

With the release of their fourth full-length album, Arise, in March 1991, Sepultura established themselves as one of the most significant thrash bands outside the U.S. or Germany. The album balanced the rhythmic complexity of Metallica with the raw ferocity of Slayer and helped the Brazilian band earn international exposure as well as deal with major label Epic for their follow-up.

However, instead of following the successful template of Arise, Sepultura went into the studio in 1993 with producer Andy Wallace, and came out with Chaos A.D., a completely different kind of record — one that revealed a musical depth and creativity they had only hinted at before. The songs were slower and less rigid, relying more on propulsive groove and less on traditional palm-muted thrash riffs, and they were flavored with more of a punk/hardcore vibe, both musically and lyrically.

In addition Sepultura experimented with texture and structure, adding the in-utero heartbeat sounds of frontman Max Cavalera's son Zyon (who now plays with his father in Soulfly) before the primal, lunging "Refuse/Resist, and recording "Kaiowas," a spiritual sounding folk instrumental performed over a bed of Brazilian beats (just one of several songs to incorporate tribal drumming). Sepultura further stretched convention by inviting Dead Kennedys vocalist Jello Biafra to write lyrics for "Biotech is Godzilla" and by adding operatic vocals to "Amen," a nod to one of Cavalera's favorite bands, Celtic Frost.

"We could easily have made Arise II and plenty of fans would have been happy, and we probably would have been OK with that, too," Cavalera says today. "But it was much more exciting coming up with fresh, new stuff like 'Refuse/Resist' which had this crazy, heavy groove on it and 'Territory,' which just had these tribal beats and catchy, weird riffs. It wasn't exactly thrash, it was something different."

As much as Chaos A.D. was a groundbreaking album for Sepultura, it was a watershed for metal, introducing sounds and styles that would influence generations of bands that followed. Yet Sepultura don't deserve all the credit for the innovations on Chaos A.D.: Cavalera freely admits that Wallace played a major role in helping the band shed its skin and evolve. Sure, Sepultura had already begun writing slower, more inventive songs, but they significantly benefitted from the produder's guidance when it came to arrangements, musical approach and recording techniques.

"He took the whole record under his wing and made it his, in a way," Cavalera says. "He went, 'OK. I'll tell you what I will do. I will record it, produce it and mix it, but you guys gotta go with my program. We're going to go to Wales and record at Rockfield Studios, then we'll go to Bath, England to mix.' The thing is, we were fine with all that. It was cool. It was new. It was exciting and Andy is a legend. Who better to trust than someone who's done fucking everything from Rollins Band to Slayer's Reign in Blood.' So we took his lead and he really helped us grow."

One of Wallace's first moves was to mildly reconstruct "Territory." Originally, the band members all started at the same time. Wallace felt the song would build more powerfully if it starting with a tumbling drum intro and built gradually into a more traditional metal song. He also suggested drummer Iggor Cavalera play syncopated backbeats throughout, giving the song a more tribal feel.

"Andy and Iggor should get royalties for that drumming in the beginning of 'Territory,' because I heard so many other bands do it later," Cavalera says. "Even Soundgarden did that kind of tribal drum beat on 'Jesus Christ Pose.'"

In the end, Sepultura and Wallace used a variety of locations, themes and inventive techniques to craft one of the most creative and enduring albums of the Nineties. Revolver talked with Cavalera about his hunger for invention, thirst for revolution and inability to stay out of trouble during the Chaos A.D. cycle.  

CHAOS A.D. WAS A GROUNDBREAKING RECORD FOR SEPULTURA. WAS IT DIFFICULT FOR YOU TO MAKE THE TRANSITION FROM FULL-ON THRASH TO A MORE EXPRESSIVE, EXPANSIVE STYLE OF METAL?
MAX CAVALERA
It was like an unspoken thing. We never told Andy we wanted to do something that wasn't like Arise or Beneath the Remains. And he just wanted to hear whatever ideas we had. So it was a magical record and everyone ended up being on the same page and creating this really powerful thing.

NOT ONLY IS IT A GREAT ALBUM ON ITS OWN, IT OPENED THE DOORS FOR MORE EXPERIMENTATION FROM YOU IN THE FUTURE.
It was a really strange record, if you think about it, because it had a lot of instrumental songs. It had "Kaiowas," which was an instrumental piece we did for the Kaiowas Indians in Brazil that committed mass-suicide to protest the government, which wanted to take away their land and religion. We recorded it in Chepstow Castle in Wales. That was my idea and it was totally crazy, but I thought it would be so cool recording in a Welsh Castle and it was. The place we did it in didn't have a ceiling and when the song starts, when you listen with headphones real loud, you can hear all these fucking seagulls flying around. It sounds so cool. Even though it doesn't make sense — a Brazilian band recording a song about Indian tribes in a Welsh castle — it came out great and definitely sparked the fire for the kind of more Brazilian things we did on Roots.

"WE WHO ARE NOT AS OTHERS" IS DOOMY AND REPETITIVE — ESPECIALLY THE LYRICS.
I pretty much consider that a crazy instrumental, as well. All I'm saying on the song is "We who are not as others," which is from a book about freaks that I had laying around. It had all these pictures of carnival freaks and outcasts and that phrase was in the book so I decided to use it. "Manifest" is a punky instrumental in the same way. It has words, but they're not lyrics.

WHAT'S THAT ONE ABOUT?
I'm talking about the Brazilian jail riots in São Paulo that turned into a massacre by the police. I got all these newspaper articles about the riots. And I spoke most of the lyrics like some kind of reporter. It's not really singing. It's more like this talking radio voice over all this feedback. So that's like yet another instrumental.

WERE FANS OF ARISE THROWN OR SURPRISED WHEN THEY HEARD CHAOS A.D.?
I think so. It's got a really unconventional design — very strange — not like a regular record should be. A regular record has nine songs, like Arise, and all of them have verses and choruses. Chaos A.D. starts normal, but then it breaks into all these crazy fragments. But the things that surprised people is what makes the album cool. It's hard to get at first. I think the first time you listen to Chaos A.D., you're not sure exactly what you just heard. You're just kind of confused. I don't think people fell in love immediately with the album. It was a learning process. The more they heard, the more they got into it and now I hear all these other bands and I can detect the influence of Chaos, even now. If you listen to Code Orange's new record [Forever], there are all these "Clenched Fist" kind of riffs in there. I think that's great and it doesn't hurt that there are some great musicians that love the record. Joe [Duplantier] from Gojira says it's one of his favorite records and they even did a cover of "Territory" a couple months ago, which was really cool.

DID THE TITLE CHAOS A.D. COME FROM THE FACT THAT IT'S A CHAOTIC RECORD?
It was a bitch to find the name. The album was going to be called Propaganda for a long time. I thought that was an OK title, but I wasn't totally crazy about it, so I kept thinking about it. Then one day it just clicked — like a mix of Misfits' Earth A.D. with the word "Chaos." Just a little borrowing from Misfits to make it sound cool, and "Chaos," which is the state of the world that we were in, and still are. It was a good name, and I turned it in at the very last second. The label was freaking out. I told Gloria, "OK, I have a new name. Let's call the record Chaos A.D." And she agreed that's a great name — much better than Propaganda.

BETWEEN THE SOUNDS OF SOME OF THE RIFFS AND THE CONFRONTATIONAL AND UNCONVENTIONAL NATURE OF THE LYRICS, CHAOS A.D. SEEMS INFLUENCED BY PUNK ALMOST AS MUCH AS METAL. YOU EVEN HAD DEAD KENNEDYS' JELLO BIAFRA WRITE LYRICS FOR "GODZILLA IS BIOTECH."
We were big fans of Jello and Dead Kennedys growing up, especially me and Iggor. We always had this punk side of us. We love the New York hardcore bands like Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, Gorilla Biscuits, Sick of It All — the whole thing. And we loved a lot of other American bands like Black Flag and Bad Brains, but Dead Kennedys for me was so great because of Jello's lyrics. He was so sarcastic and smart. Listen to "Kill the Poor," "Holiday in Cambodia" or "California Über Alles." They're dark, sarcastic, great lyrics. So I came up with the idea to ask Jello to write the lyrics and I would just sing it instead of asking him to sing on the album. He said, "What do you want me to write about?" and I said, "Write about whatever you want to." So he came up with "Biotech is Godzilla," which is about the 1992 Rio Summit, where all these politicians got together and talked about technology. Jello's theory was that AIDS was invented by scientists in laboratories. It was a disease created by us. He sent me this cassette with him singing the way he kind of imagined it to go. And he growled on it, which I really liked, so I took the growl right from that cassette and put it on the record. He got mad at me after. He said, "I could have done a better growl," and I told him, "No, that one was perfect, man. You recorded it on on your cassette player and it's got the right vibe. Don't worry about it. It's great."

BETWEEN SONGS LIKE "REFUSE/RESIST," "MANIFEST" AND "PROPAGANDA," THERE'S A POLITICAL, ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT TONE TO CHAOS A.D.
There's an interesting story to "Refuse/Resist." I was riding the subway in New York and there was this Black Panther on the train and he had a black jacket on with what must have been a Malcolm X speech written on it. I read the whole thing and the last line was "refuse and resist." That stuck out in my mind, so I used the last line on this guy's jacket and then I wrote very simple lyrics: "Chaos A.D./Tanks on the street/Confronting Police/Bleeding that plebs." They're Discharge-oriented lyrics. I listened to a lot of Discharge at the time and they're as simple as it gets. The songs are, like, two lines that are really powerful and fucking killer and they don't have 1,000 lyrics. Even today, "Refused" feels like riot music to me. It's almost its own kind of music without a label.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE OTHER POLITICALLY-MOTIVATED SONGS?
"Territory," of course, was about all different territorial wars, from LA. gangs like Crips and Bloods, to drug wars in Brazil, to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. We ended up going to Israel to record the video for the song, which came out really cool. It's funny, "Territory" was one of the few songs I worked on with Andreas [Kisser, Sepultura guitarist]. We played acoustic guitar in my backyard. We actually wrote that heavy chorus on acoustic guitar, which is hard to believe now. But when you listen to the chorus of "Territory," it has a lot of melody on it because it was written on acoustic first and translated to electric later.

YOU GUYS ALSO MADE FOR VIDEOS FOR "REFUSE/RESIST" AND "SLAVE NEW WORLD." WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE LATTER SONG?
"Slave New World" is about censorship. We were living in the age of Tipper Gore. There were all these records with "Parental Warning" stickers and all this bullshit that was all censorship, so we did a song about that, saying we're not slaves. For the single, Iggor made a barcode tattoo on his wrist and we took a picture of it. We liked it, so for the video, we had all these skinhead guys with barcodes on their necks. It looks kind like something out of [George Orwell's dystopian novel] 1984, which was really cool.

YOU TAKE A STAB AT RELIGION WITH "AMEN."
I always had a thing with religion. I'm spiritual. I believe in God. I believe in the spirits, but I don't believe in organized religion, especially when they just do it to make money. So that's why I wrote songs like "Religious Cancer" [with the side project Nailbomb] and "Amen," which has quotes from The Last Temptation of Christ that I really liked. In the beginning, there's this part about the soul being the arena where the army's clash.

YOU WERE ARRESTED FOR DESECRATING THE BRAZILIAN FLAG AT A FESTIVAL IN SÃO PAULO IN 1994 WHILE YOU WERE TOURING FOR CHAOS A.D. WHAT HAPPENED?
It was a big misunderstanding. We played this huge festival and someone threw a flag on the stage so I held it up to the crowd. I got arrested for that because someone at the venue said I stepped on the flag as a protest against Brazil. I thought all this kind of persecution by the police was way behind me, and suddenly there are 20 cops in my room and I'm being taken to jail. I was being charged for being anti-Brazilian and that was it. But the story kept growing and growing. People starting saying I spit on the flag, and then I pissed on the flag, and finally, they were saying I shit on the flag. It was ridiculous. All these fucking talk shows in Brazil had guys on saying how I should be lynched. One guy said I should get the death penalty. I was like, "Are you kidding me, man? What the fuck?" I called my grandmother and she said, "Why did you have to do that with the Brazilian flag?" And I said, "Grandma, I didn't do anything with the flag. I just held the flag. Everything else was all invented!"

WHAT ENDED UP HAPPENING?
I went to jail and I stayed there for four hours. [My wife and manager] Gloria went with me. It was scary when I got hauled out of the dressing room because they came out as a brute police force and handcuffed me. That was fucking scary. I was like, "Fuck, man, this is fucked up. I just got done playing in front of 40,000 people and I'm in handcuffs being taken away from the stadium in a police car." But when I got to the police station, the captain was kind of like, "Don't worry about it. This is gonna be all cool. You'll just stay here a little bit and then when you'll get out you do a couple interviews and tell them I treated you really good and was nice." And I said, "I don't care. I just want to get the fuck out of here." And it turned out that he liked the same soccer teams as me so we got to be a little bit of buddies while I was there.

WHAT DID YOU DO WHEN YOU GOT OUT?
There were a lot of reporters and I told them I was not mistreated. But for the whole week, that was all that was in the newspapers. There were all these pictures of me. Two days after I got out, I went with my booking agent and Gloria to meet Robert Plant backstage. I always loved Led Zeppelin and was excited to meet him. So we went to his dressing room and the first thing he says to me is, "Oh, man, you're the guy that's everywhere. I've seen your picture on TV. I don't know who you are but your face is all over the place." And I said, "Ah, man, I just play in a metal band." It was so bizarre hearing that from him. But to be honest, it was a hard week. I was stressed big time from the whole thing. I was just a giant stress ball. And I think from that time on is when shit started going downhill for me and Sepultura. I could tell. I just thought, "Yeah this is the beginning of the end for us." And I was right.

Below, Max Cavalera shows off two of his oldest metal vests and discusses the inspiration, process and meaning behind his "battle jackets":