After Machine Head
received waves of critical acclaim and a Grammy nomination for 2007's The Blackening
, it was difficult not to first ask the question: How do you live up to that? So we quickly got that inquiry out of the way, and not surprisingly, vocalist/guitarist Robb Flynn
was ready for it. The pressure to raise the bar even higher was certainly a driving force for Flynn and his bandmates, but in the end it was not necessarily to appease the masses. It was actually Flynn's own personal desire to better himself as a musician that shaped much of what you'll hear on Machine Head's seventh full-length studio record Unto The Locust, which is set for a September 27 release.
Flynn took time out of his hectic schedule at this summer's Rockstar Mayhem Festival
(co-headlined with Megadeth, Disturbed, and Godsmack) to chat with Ultimate-Guitar.com about Machine Head
's latest musical direction. Much of the sound evolved as a result of Flynn's recent guitar and vocal lessons, but guitarist Phil Demmel
also played a huge role in the direction. Flynn declared that Unto The Locust
features the best leads of Demmel's career. Between the new record, rebounding from having several guitars stolen last year, and developing a new baritone Flying V for Epiphone, we knew that Robb Flynn would have plenty to catch us up on before grabbing his red-eye flight to put the finishing touches on his album.
UG: The Blackening was such a huge critical success for Machine Head. Did you feel a certain amount of pressure to live up to that album?
The last six months in touring with The Blackening, that's the only question we got. How are you going to top The Blackening? I was like, Psht, I don't know. We started writing in November of 2009. I don't know if it was a reaction against The Blackening and 10-minute songs and complex structure or that we had been watching Metallica every night with people losing their minds, but we brought in a bunch of riffs and wrote for about two weeks. To be honest with you, it was a total bum-out. We went back on tour for another six months and then took a break. It was great to be off tour and it was great to be with my family, but after awhile my brain was just going. I had really been getting back into classical guitar. I took lessons when I was in high school. I had gotten away from it, but I got back into it and was writing some pieces. The more I wrote, the more I really got into it. I finally got a song going, and I called up Phil and Adam. They were like, I'm not ready to practice. I need more time off. Dave was already there and said, I've got to get jamming with you! The first song on the record that came out of it was a song called This Is The End. It's probably hands-down the hardest guitar, drumming, and musicality. It's a great song. It's got good strong structures, good hooks, and great key changes but it was like a million miles an hour. The chorus is every single string all the way up to what is my 19th fret. It's like the last part of the chorus and it goes up to the 19th fret of the highest string. When Dave and I were done it was like, This is so fucking hard! But it's so awesome! It was great that we had made this song that was basically above our playing ability. It was like a goal. We literally couldn't play how it was supposed to be played. It was so freaking complicated. To have that as a goal it's like, Okay, we've got to achieve this. We now have to match this. It's such a high bar to set for ourselves right off the bat. We had covered now this is vocally we had covered Hallowed Be Thy Name for a Metal Hammer Iron Maiden tribute. Up until that point, those were the highest vocals I had sung. I honestly didn't know if I could even do it. I never had done it, and then I did it. I didn't really know how to control it, and I was kind of hit and miss with it. I was like, I want to get this. I can do this. I can fucking own this. So I started taking some pretty intensive vocal training back in New York. I would fly back to New York every two or three months and take three-hour blocks, three days in a row with Melissa Cross. Then I did some stuff with the guy who trains Mick Jagger. Also I started taking classical guitar lessons from this place called the New York Guitar School. I got into this learning mode. In learning was unlearning. I was taking vocal lessons for the first time of my life, and I had been singing for 17 years. I was unlearning all these bad habits. It was cool to get back to a place especially on the guitar where you say, I'm a retard. This is so hard! It was a cool, vulnerable place to write from. We just tried to write from that place. The Blackening was nominated for a Grammy, which is cool, but as an artist and musician the challenge is to push yourself. We didn't want, Okay, this is all you can write. You've got to write 10-minute songs. We just wanted to fucking write. So that was our mindset.
How long did it take you to master This Is The End?
"If you're going to dream, dream massive."
It was five months to get my wrist up to being accurate. I'm super intense on the picking. I practice a lot on my right hand to make sure it's super defined. I actually had to change my picking style and how I hold the pick. I had to change it from two fingers to three just to do what I needed to do. I had to change the way I played guitar since I started just to pull this off. In doing so, I became a better player.
Do you see improvement in your playing across the board with your stylistic changes?
By adding this finger into the mix, it makes the up tighter. Down is always tight, but it's my up. It's just as strong now. It makes it sound more fluid and more even.
Did you learn that technique at the New York City Guitar School or did you figure that method out on your own?
I was touring with James Hetfield and I was looking at him going, Hey!
Did you pick up a lot of techniques from watching Metallica?
They're amazing. They are a real band one of the last real bands alive. Lifers. The way they arrange their set and blend their set, it's the magnitude of everything. To me, it was a dream come true. I'm from the Bay and they were my idols. Just to see how much bigger that big could be and where things could really go.
Are you striving for that kind of magnitude?
With so many bands coming out of so many different labels and outlets, do you feel it's still just as possible for artists to attain that legendary status?
I think it's a hell of a goal. If you're going to dream, dream massive. To be honest, I saw how massive it could be. This is a reality. This is totally a reality. They did it by their own rules. They did their own music. You hear a song like Master of Puppets every night. It's eight-and-a-half minutes of super complex, weird, off-time rhythms. This is not pop music. This isn't Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift. This is very different, very heavy, brutal music. People identify with it. Sure, you've got the Enter Sandman. I love the Black album. To see songs like Master of Puppets go over that is what is incredible. It has a bizarre structure, eight minutes long, super heavy, drugs, snort your breakfast! It's awesome. I love that.
I hate to bring up the subject, but I did want to talk briefly about the guitars that were stolen last year. How many did they take?
I had five guitars stolen.
Were any of them recovered?
No. They got the one Dimebag gave me. They got the guitar that I wrote and recorded my first album, Burn My Eyes, with. I had an Epiphone coming out and they got my prototype. I bought my son a little Epiphone Flying V. They took that. They took my son's fucking guitar. There's been focus on the guitars, but they actually got up to $30,000 worth of stuff videos, laptops, computers, cash, my wife's jewelry, her grandma's jewelry. It was pretty fucked. The hardest part was when we discovered it, it was me and my two sons. They were six and three and a half at the time. It was really traumatic for them. Every night before they went to bed it was like, Dad, are the robbers going to come in and kill me? I was like, No, I'm not going to let that happen. To them it's like Scooby Doo and they're going to come through the window. They can't process it like we can process it. That finally went away, but for those few months it was fucking hard. Times are tough and people are desperate and doing fucking crazy shit. I get it. I'm a target. We were cased, and I was followed. I know it was a crew that did it. That's a tough thing to deal with and it shakes your faith in humanity. It's like, What the fuck? You stole my fucking son's guitar. It shakes your faith in humanity, but I tell you that within two or three days my friends and other musicians loaned me computers and gave me guitars to play on so I had something to write on. A bunch of our fans got something going and bought both of my sons guitars. On one hand it shakes your faith in humanity, and in the same breath you see all these people do these fucking amazing things.
At what point did you start developing the prototype for the baritone Epiphone?
"They're all like babies to me. It's a seven-song record, which is a little unusual."
That's been underway for awhile. I've been with Gibson since 2007, and they were making me guitars. Gibson made me the first baritone Flying V they've ever made for any artist. We tune down to B, so I like the baritones. It makes it tighter on the low end and the low strings in particular. For them, it was a first. I was super honored. Then we decided we'd want one to come out through Epiphone. We had talked initially and said, We can make this guitar and it will appeal to everybody if you're a rock player, blues player. We pioneered drop tuning. We were the first band to do drop tuning in metal, tuning down to B. It was Burn My Eyes in '94. Other people were tuning down, but the drop tuning that was us. Other people caught on because it's a really cool tuning. The more I thought about it, this was a fucking metal guitar. This isn't for jazz players. This is not for blues players. If you are a young metal player who wants to down tune, this is your guitar. If you're not, then you should look into another guitar. I wanted to narrow that niche down. This is our lane. When I was first starting, that's what I wanted to play. I tried to look at it like when I was a kid. I went after the metal guitar. I wanted to play like Eddie Van Halen or Randy Rhoades. I went for that guitar. My first guitar was a candy apple red Ibanez Flying V. It was like, Look at me!
That's fantastic! Do you still have it?
I don't! I upgraded. I sold it.
What specific methods or techniques would you suggest to someone who hopes to be the tightest rhythm or lead player possible?
As far as rhythms, it's about your right hand. It's about getting that muting technique so that the other strings aren't ringing out when you're playing. It's about putting your hand in the right position. Sometimes it's as simple as how low or high you hold your guitar, the way you put your hand, your pick. I play with that. Even now I still adjust. You've got to look cool, too! I saw the first couple of YouTube clips when I got my new guitar, and I had a new tech and he set up my strap really high. I looked at the video and I looked like Buddy Holly! You've got to look cool, too. For me, I'm completely self taught. I was lucky enough to have a really good ear. I was able to listen to things and emulate them. One of the first songs I learned was Sweet Leaf by Black Sabbath. The first lead I ever learned was Bonded By Blood Gary Holt's lead by the band Exodus. I just really tried to focus on playing. It's really about the muting and making sure other strings aren't ringing out and being really accurate with your picking. As far as leads, I'm not the shreddiest dude in the world. I can play some stuff. I was really inspired by the classical dudes like Randy Rhoads, Gary Holt, and Kirk Hammett. In particular I love Kirk Hammett because he has singable leads. It's a lead that people can sing and it's memorable. I think that's the most important thing. It's easy to get caught up with shredding and doing a million arpeggios. That's cool and it's more than I can do. Zakk Wylde, he can make the vibrato sound so fucking heavy. He was another big influence. I love his vibrato. I love his note choices, especially in the early Ozzy stuff. Phil is definitely the better lead player and is more shreddier. I have enough to do with singing and playing guitar. I don't even write my leads until like the day I'm going to play them in the studio. If we're practicing a lot I'll get something going. Lyrics, vocal melodies, riffs my priorities are that. His are the leads because he the main lead player in the band. Dave, our drummer, and I were talking and said, You should really consider making them a lot more hummable. He really went for it. He went for it so hard on this record. His leads are going to fucking blow people away. They are the best leads he's ever done. They're so good and tasty. Very memorable, slow. He's incorporated this new style. I produced the record and I said, More of that! That's awesome. I don't even know how to describe it. A lot of it is just him playing without any picking. So it's a lot of hammer-ons and stuff. The way he's doing it is very different. I don't know anybody else doing it. It's cool that he's on to this new style after playing guitar for half his life.
Let's talk a moment about the business side of the music world. It's been publicized that your band struggled through some label woes in the early 2000's.
They weren't that too tumultuous. Contrary to popular myth, we asked to be let go. We weren't dropped. They wanted to keep us. Back then we were still headlining with full force for 30,000 people. It was just a transition. That's kind of what music was doing. The whole fucking world was transitioning. The Internet was really starting to take off, and we jumped on that. Up until then it was like, Oh, you've got to have a radio hit. We never fit that mold. That was a difficult period to swim through. We're not a radio band. We're a fucking heavy band. So labels were like, Whatever. We saw the Internet happening. We were the first band that I saw back then doing a video diary, making a five-minute thing, telling people what we were doing in the studio. It sounds absurd to say, but we're going back to the beginning of 2003. We really ran with that. The media didn't want to talk with us, the radio wasn't into it, and so we chose this other avenue that we could control a lot more. It made an even bigger connection with the fans. That snowballed into the record coming out, and the record was our highest fucking record ever with literally a zero push.
What advice would you give to someone who has no label and no means of marketing?
Just get out and play. Tour and link up with bands, even if they're not your style. When we first started playing out, in the Bay area there wasn't a metal scene anymore. It had pretty much all died. We were playing with punk rock bands like Rancid and Neurosis. We played with a metal band every once in awhile, but they were death metal bands like Napalm Death, Obituary, Possessed, and things like that. They weren't necessarily our genre. At the punk rock shows people would come up to us like, Wow, you guys are a good metal band! Like, Is that possible? We were like, Thanks.
Do you feel in this day and age that going independent is the way to go?
"One of my favorite bands of all time is Coldplay. I fucking love them to death. The reason I love them is because they're so passionate about what they do and the music they make."
You still need a record company. They give you money and they go knock on the door. You can do a lot yourself, and we do a lot ourselves, too. This far into our career we have a lot of say in how we're presented. We want that control. We want to have that say. Every band should aspire to that. This is your art. This is your soul that you're putting out there. Don't let someone else control it. You control it. That way, you can always be you. No matter what kind of music you play and I like all different kinds of music. One of my favorite bands of all time is Coldplay. I fucking love them to death. The reason I love them is because they're so passionate about what they do and the music they make. You see them onstage and you can feel it. You can see it. It's real. There is energy coming off. They're not playing the heaviest music ever, but they're playing the music they truly believe in. That goes for Metallica or Slayer and other bands like that. As long as you're being true to yourself no matter what kind of music you're playing it will connect. As hippie as this is going to sound, I think when you're up there and being yourself, people can see your soul.
Is there one song off the new album that you're particularly excited for the fans to hear?
I don't know. To be honest, I'm so just into this thing at the moment. They're all like babies to me. It's a seven-song record, which is a little unusual. It's a 50-minute record. There are no 10-minute songs. I can't write a damn song under six minutes.
I read there is one that is primarily acoustic.
Yeah, The Darkness Within.
Did you bring that one in?
Actually the whole premise came about from a riff that Dave, our drummer, wrote. He had written this riff that I loved that had a very Pink Floyd vibe. I was sitting in my room playing it on guitar for like an hour and a half, just hypnotizing myself. I had just seen that movie Crazy Heart and I was singing in this croaky, cigarette and whiskey voice. I came up with this cool cadence. I didn't have any lyrics, but I was just making up things as I went. The next day it was a miserable, rainy day. I was dropping off my son at preschool and was coming back. There was this virus going around that was killing all the oak trees. So there were all these dead or dying, leafless oak trees everywhere. It was the perfect miserable day with all these dying, dead oak trees. I was like, Okay, let's see what happens here. So I pulled over, pulled out my iPhone, opened up my notes, and just started typing. At first it was very Lovecrafty with cobwebs and whippoorwills and fog rolling over hills. I got my H.P. Lovecraft out of the way, and then I went into this thing about depression, music, and how much music means to me in my life. It's carried me through my highest highs and lowest lows. When I think of moments in my life, there's always this soundtrack to it. It's music not my own music. It's someone else's music. I wrote for a half an hour this huge burst of lyrics and I had this other melody coming out of my head, and I wrote the chorus. I called up Dave and said, I've got practice right now. It kind of changed around a little bit. Phil had written this other riff that we had partially in there. Then I rewrote the verses around this other riff. It's out of left field.
Is there a big tour planned to support the September album release?
Yeah. We've got dates all the way up until January.
Interview by Amy Kelly