Max Cavalera clearly remembers the phone call that changed his life. It was the spring of 1988 and Sepultura's founding singer-guitarist was back in his hometown of Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The young musician had recently travelled to New York City for the first time ever — armed with a few copies of his band's sophomore album, Schizophrenia, and an unwavering resolve to ink an international record deal.
Since their formation in 1984, Sepultura had made a name for themselves in their native country for their primal, politically tinged extreme metal. But outside of the underground tape-trading scene, they were largely unknown in other parts of the world. Plus, they were broke. Cavalera's 4,000-mile-plus trip north was a scrappy attempt to remedy both situations. An avid tape trader himself, the musician reached out to his international network and was able to land meetings with some of NYC's biggest metalhead movers and shakers: from taste-making journalists and zine publishers to radio DJs and label reps. One meeting in particular, with Roadrunner Records A&R rep Monte Conner, seemed particularly promising — and Cavalera returned to Brazil with high hopes. But as each week passed, and the phone stayed silent, he was starting to worry.
"The seed was planted and we just had to cross our fingers [and hope] one of those labels called," Cavalera says today from his home in Phoenix, Arizona. "Finally, Monte called, and it was the greatest feeling. I was doing backflips in my kitchen! [Laughs] It was insane. We were finally going to get a real label, real producer, real studio. Things were happening … and it was up to us to write the best material possible. And I think that charged everybody up and we went into the jam room with an attitude of let's not fuck around. This is our shot. You only get so many shots in this life, and you gotta make it count."
Cavalera and his band — which also featured his brother Igor on drums, bassist Paulo Jr. and lead guitarist Andreas Kisser — rose to the occasion. When they emerged from the rehearsal room they had the raw material that would eventually become a defining moment in Eighties thrash: Beneath the Remains. Released on April 7th, 1989, the nine-song album is a maelstrom of death-metal fury, thrash attitude and piercing personal lyrical themes of alienation and exploitation — epitomized on standout ragers like "Inner Self," "Primitive Future" and the title track.
"I think out of everything we've ever done Beneath the Remains is our rawest record," he says. "You can feel some kind of urgency in the songs. It's a little bit of desperation mixed with hunger — and all those feelings made the album really raw."
With Roadrunner's resources behind Beneath the Remains, Sepultura soon found themselves living their dreams: playing a high-profile Manhattan gig supporting King Diamond and touring Europe with Sodom. In the years that followed Cavalera and his crew would continue to evolve their sound — infusing it with groove-metal riffs and world-music vibes — and go on to greater international acclaim with bigger records like 1993's Chaos A.D. and 1996's Roots. But Cavalera still points to Beneath the Remains as the game-changing moment for the Brazilian group. "It's the beginning of discovering we're a different band," he says. "We're not an American band, or a European band. We're a Brazilian band … Beneath the Remains is the portal. We opened the floodgates!"
BY 1988 SEPULTURA ALREADY HAD ACHIEVED SOME FAME IN BRAZIL, BUT WERE STILL LARGELY UNKNOWN IN THE STATES. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE EVENTS THAT LED TO YOU VISITING NEW YORK AND MEETING WITH ROADRUNNER RECORDS?
We were doing a lot of tape trading in those days. Schizophrenia was a big deal for us because the label we were on, Cogumelo — it was the Brazilian label we had done [Sepultura's 1986 debut] Morbid Visions with — put all the chips on Schizophrenia. It was a big production. It had a gatefold that opened up with a big picture, stuff we never had before. I think they got some TV commercials for it on our TV station in Belo Horizonte. So we thought it was a great opportunity to step up. ... So I was doing tape trading with Chuck [Schuldiner] from Death and the guys from Morbid Angel and Possessed and a couple radio guys, Monte [Connor] and Don Kaye … Our name was getting out there and Schizophrenia got really good reviews from Kerrang! and the underground publications. So it was all set up, we just needed to get an extra push to get signed…
SO DID MONTE FROM ROADRUNNER INVITE YOU THROUGH YOUR TAPE-TRADING CORRESPONDENCE?
It was kinda like that, like, "If you have a chance to come to New York that would be really cool." But we were really poor and didn't have any money. So I had a friend, this guy that would go to New York and L.A. and bring records back to Brazil and sell them. He had a ticket, and he offered it to me. … But he worked for Pan Am airlines, so he was like, "You have to go as a Pan Am employee — so you have to wear a suit and tie." [Laughs] Fuck yeah, I'll do that! That ain't going to stop me from going. [Laughs] It was only for two days. So I took the chance. I had like 20 Schizophrenia albums with me and for those two days I went to see Monte, I went to Combat, Noise, all the metal labels that I could find.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE COMING TO NEW YORK FOR THE FIRST TIME? WAS IT OVERWHELMING?
A lot happened in those two days! [Laughs] I got mugged in Manhattan. This black guy had a knife in my throat. I had five dollars in my pocket and I gave it to the guy. I came all the way from Brazil to get mugged in New York. That's fucking crazy. [Laughs] I also remember meeting Harley [Flanagan] from the Cro-Mags on the street. I saw him, like, "Fuck! You're Harley, right?" He's like, "Yeah." I was a total fan boy, like, "Can we take a picture?" I remember there was snow on the ground and he's like, "Hold on," and he took his jacket off to show off his chest tattoo. We took a picture and that was really cool. I don't even know if Harley remembers that, but for me it was huge.
AFTER YOU FINALLY GOT THE ROADRUNNER DEAL, YOU HEADED TO NAS NUVENS STUDIO IN RIO TO RECORD. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT EXPERIENCE?
The studio was really famous in Brazil. We worshipped that studio because a lot of my favorite Eighties records of huge Brazilian bands had recorded at Nas Nuvens. I was super excited. … Then we found out we only got the night sessions. [Laughs] There was a pop band recording during the day. So our sessions were midnight to 7 a.m. We recorded all night, slept for most of the day. It was hot, still in the Brazilian summer, and Rio is hot. We were in this one-star hotel in this very dangerous area and you didn't want to get out much. In fact, when [Florida-based producer] Scott [Burns] came, the second day he was there somebody broke into his room and stole all his shit: his clothes, a boombox to record shows ... It was, like, his welcome to Rio! [Laughs] None of that phased us. We were on a mission. We knew it was a great studio, like, the sound was going to be good. And we had Scott Burns. I really dug his production on the stuff he'd done with Obituary, Death and a lot of Florida death metal. Scott was great and really motivated to work with us.
DID YOU FINISH THE ENTIRE RECORD AT NAS NUVENS?
We didn't finish the record all at one time. I ended up going to Tampa to finish the vocals. I stayed in Scott's house for like a week. I ended up hanging with the Obituary guys a lot. We went to see some motocross event and I got totally fucking shitfaced. [Laughs] It was crazy. And it was awesome. That was my second experience in America. Scott was always a big punk fan. But he used to get super mad at me because I would write something and then I would go in the booth and sing something different. [Laughs] And that drove him fucking crazy. I thought that was punk rock, but he's like, "That's not punk rock. That's unprofessional!" [Laughs]
LET'S TALK COVER ART. YOU ORIGINALLY WANTED MICHAEL WHELAN'S "BLOODCURDLING TALES OF HORROR AND THE MACABRE," BUT ROADRUNNER PUSHED FOR "NIGHTMARE IN RED" — AND THEN ULTIMATELY USED "BLOODCURDLING" FOR OBITUARY'S CAUSE OF DEATH. DID THAT PISS YOU OFF?
I was disappointed, but at the same time I was happy it was one of my favorite bands that was using it. I'm a huge Obituary fan. It would be maybe harder to deal with if it was a strange band or, worse, a band we didn't like. But they were our bros. I was always in love with the Cause of Death art, but the Beneath the Remains album cover is cool.
I discovered Michael Whelan — who ended up doing a lot of the Sepultura covers for us — through a series of H.P. Lovecraft paperback books that I found in Brazil [that had] Michael Whelan's [art on the cover]. I suggested to Monte that we should try and get in touch with this guy for the cover. Then when Monte got a hold of Michael, Michael sent him a bunch of different paintings, including ["Nightmare in Red"]. And now that I think about it, I think it fits Beneath the Remains better.
ROADRUNNER GAVE YOU A BIGGER RECORDING AND ART BUDGET. BUT I'M WONDERING: DID GETTING SIGNED HELP YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LIFESTYLE?
Nah, that didn't happen until Gloria [Cavalera, Max's wife] got in the picture and started managing us and changed our contract. That's when we started making money from touring, but it took a couple years after that. When we were making Beneath the Remains we were broke as fuck. Didn't have any money. There was a little more budget for the record, so I was like, Hell yeah, we get to make a good-sounding record. That's all there is. We just kept working. But we knew that was our shot. Without even saying to each other we knew in our heart it was our shot — a make-it-or-break-it album. If we would have released something shitty and nobody cared that would be the end of it. Done deal. We needed to step up on the music side, and we did. We practiced a lot. A lot of thought went into the album. I think the lyrics step up, too, from Schizophrenia, when I was barely speaking English. … Beneath the Remains was catchy, heavy, powerful. We just wanted to sound like our heroes, and that record does that.
YOU MENTIONED THE LYRICS. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THEM?
Yeah, I always had the habit of translating a lot of Black Sabbath records — that's kinda like how I first learned English, translating records. So I ended up translating a lot of the early U2 records, especially War. I found out that I was extremely influenced by some of Bono's early lyrics, which are fucking amazing. I like the music, too. I'm a big old-U2 fan. And Beneath the Remains is also influenced by COC. I think there's a COC shirt that says something like, Tell Me Who Has Won When Nothing Remains [which is a line from Corrosion of Conformity's "Tell Me"]. A friend of mine had that COC shirt — I think it was from the Eye for an Eye era. That always stuck with me. I think I got the name, Beneath the Remains, from that. "Mass Hypnosis" is about the brainwashing of a lot of people, which I think is really relevant today. [Laughs] You can say "Mass Hypnosis" is what's going on on the internet these days.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE TRACK ON BENEATH THE REMAINS?
If I had to pick one it would be "Inner Self." I always have a huge soft spot for "Inner Self," because I think it is like the beginning of discovering we're a different band. We're not an American band, or a European band. We're a Brazilian band. We're different, we're singing about different stuff. Especially the opening lines, "Walking these dirty streets with hate in my mind. Feeling scorn of the world." That's like a diary passage ... of how I felt about living in Brazil at that time. Dirty streets, pissed off all the time, broke. I like that about "Inner Self" — real lyrics about the real shit.
But Beneath the Remains was definitely cool. It gave us our first video ["Inner Self"], our first tour, and the opportunity to come to the states. We had the show at the Ritz opening for King Diamond on Halloween. And that's when we met Gloria. She took over and worked for free for a whole year and changed our contracts and that's when life got good. We started to make money off our music and didn't have to have a second job, and that was an amazing feeling. … But we never went into the studio, like, "We're gonna make a classic!" [Laughs] Those things just happen man. It's out of your hands. The fans are what make those records classic …. We just wanted to make something we enjoyed that was close to our heroes, our gods, which at the time was Slayer, Voivod, Celtic Frost. If we did something even near the gods, we'd be OK. [Laughs]
Below, Max Cavalera looks back on the early days of Sepultura and talks about his homemade battle jackets: