Unto The Locust
, Machine Head
's follow-up to the massively successful Grammy-nominated The Blackening
, propels the Oakland, California-based quartet down the road of heavy metal thrash. The new record is full of muscular grooves, dark melodies and the crushing twin spires guitar assault of Phil Demmell
and Robb Flynn
. Demmel throttles the hell out of his Jackson guitar and on songs like "Darkness Within
" and "This Is The End
" he establishes why he is one of the most inventive metal players around. Just hours away from a gig, he talked about the adventure that was the making of Unto The Locust.
UG: Were the seeds of Machine Head sewn in Vio-Lence when you first played with Robb Flynn?
Well yeah, I mean we were kids when we played in that band and we were right out of high school and we learned to play that way. It's when we were introduced to each other but I think we wrote angry stupid songs [laughs] but I think we became musicians 10 years ago when we reconnected in this band.
Did you think you'd cross paths with Robb Flynn after that Vio-lence period?
Umm, I didn't know that I would. When he started Machine Head, I was always a fan of what he was doing and would follow it closely and wanted to be in that band. I started in my band after the band we played in together and we started down tuning. I mean I had down tuned before when I'd play along with Savatage records or some Sabbath tunes. In the beginnings of Vio-lence I was down tuning; not drop tuning but down tuning to D. I had a Floyd Rose, man, and I had to play along with that Savatage record and that was in D. How are they playing so low? Oh, that's how they're doin' it. I'd come to practice and my guitar was already down tuned so it's like, Hey, let's just do this.
Torque is the band you formed after Vio-lencewas that a step forward in your guitar playing path?
Right. I was playing with Ray Vegas and he was more of a punk style; he came from a band called Social Unrest and Slambodias and stuff like that. So he was a very good rhythm player too and he actually wrote the riff for Dead You Lay but I did most of the writing and almost all the lyrics in that band too. So it was just kinda me singing and it was pretty much my band. And you're right, I did kinda hone my skills in that sense doing that band so it was neat to have that and have a record with me singing on it.
Did you dig the singing aspect of it?
I loved it, yeah, I thought it was great. I loved trying to separate the singing and the playing, which is extremely hard, man. I don't know how Robb does some of the Machine Head riffs and sings itI don't know how he does it.
You also sing in Machine Head.
Yeah, Adam Duce does most of the harmony stuff and I do like if there's a third vocal on the record that needs to be done. I did some singing on the last record, a couple parts, but usually it's stuff that Robb sang on the record and it's usually the shouty stuff or the real low vocal or stuff like that. Adam and Robb harmonize well together.
Did you listen to Logan Mader and what he did guitar-wise on Burn My Eyes and The More Things Change?
I was more aware of what Logan was doing because I knew them before they got signed and before the record came out. He has such a weird style and such a unique way of playing and the stuff I have the most difficult time learning is his leads from the first couple records. So Robb is really helpful in that area because he was around it so much.
What about Arhue Luster's guitar playing on The Burning Red and Supercharger albums?
I liked The Burning Red when it came out but I didn't really get into Supercharger that much so I wasn't really aware of what Ahrue had brought to the table. There wasn't a lot of leads on those records. On those first couple records there's like two solos each back from the old school thrash days kinda carrying over a little bit to where, OK, I go and then you go and it's that guitar team kind of mentality. I think they got away from that on those two middle records. When I first joined the band, I would take the signature part of one of Logan's leads and kind of put my own flavor to it. Unless it's like a lead like the Davidian solo, which is pretty definitive where you just stay kinda true and play it note-for-note. I never felt like any of his leads were like Kirk Hammett or Randy Rhoads-type leads where people could hum the whole solo. So I would play the signature, kind of hooky parts of the solos and then kind of put my own little twist on em.
When you joined the band for Through the Ashes of Empires you didn't participate in any of the writing?
"It is such a weird thing to go and look at our festival and see us headlining Wacken, Hellfest, With Full Force and all these festivals over there."
Yeah, I think 75 percent of the record had been done at that point. So I kinda was in on the last quarter of the writing process and contributed to three songs. I had a Torque leftover riff that ended up being the beginning of In the Presence of My Enemies and Robb gave me credit for writing part of Days Turn Blue to Gray although I don't know what I did. I think I added a harmony part. After Ashes came out in Europe about five or six months before it came out in the States, so in that meantime we wrote a song called Seasons Wither that me and Robb had kind of written in soundchecking during the touring of Ashes like the first couple of runs we did in Europe.
You've pointed to Seasons Wither as a real harbinger of where the band would head on The Blackening?
Yeah, it was written nine months after we had finished writing Ashes so it was more of, Hey, we've been together. This is gonna be more of a preview as to what The Blackening would become. I think it's pretty accurate. If you listen to that tune you can hear there's more of the riffing and a lot of harmonizing going on and pretty brutal riffing that's happening too.
Then there's also a heavy ballad like Now I Lay Thee Down.
Yeah, a little bit. I think it kinda sounds like Tool when I wrote it [sings the riff]. Like the beginning is something that I came up with and then Robb threw the chorus part in between. That song kinda bridged the writing process for The Blackening. We had a couple songs in the beginning that we'd just come to practice and run through the tunes and it was kind of a dry spell. I came up with that one riff and Robb really went off on the chorus part and it just kinda bridged into the next patch for The Blackening.
The bonus disc in The Blackening included covers by Nirvana and Bad Brains. You were a fan of those bands.
A lot of those covers were done before I was in the band [said angrily]. That was a collection of all the B-sides they had done previously so some were down with Logan, some were done with Ahrue and some were done with Chris Kontos.
I'm sorry about that.
Yeah, the covers that we did since I've been in the band were Battery, Hallowed Be Thy Name and Fucking Hostile.
Unto the Locust is your third album with Machine Head. Has the recording process changed for you.
Most of the stuff is done in the jam room before we go in. Some arrangements get changed and little bits and pieces here and there. We brought the string quartet in after everything was recorded. On the first record I did, I tracked two tracks on my side and Robb did two tracks on his side and we did two rhythm tracks. The Blackening came around we got really pressed for time so Robb did most of the rhythms on that because Robb's a way better rhythm player than I am. And then we just discovered it sounds better with one guy doing it and he's definitely the guy to do it. So I did my leads and little ambient parts and stuff that I do differently that strays from the main rhythm track. For The Blackening I was kinda like, Hey man, I wanna do my parts or whatever and then it just came to the conclusion that it sounds better with one guy doing it and he's definitely the better rhythm player and has a better sense of timing. He and Dave McClain play so well together.
So what is the guitar situation on Unto the Locust?
On Locust we're not doing four tracks, we're doing only two guitar tracks with one on each side and it sounds amazing. Robb is really honing producer skills and hearing the tones properly. We write the tunes in the studio and get in the studio and Robb will track with Dave to get the drum track and they just jam together and it's just Robb and Dave in the studio. They get the drum track and Robb goes back and lays the rhythms down.
There are cool guitar sounds on Locust ranging from the clean picked guitars on the intro to the really meaty tones of the main riff. Are you seeking out new guitar sounds on the album?
I do sometimes but that's Robb's triphe loves pedals and he doesn't like rack effects. He loves the more noisy, dirty pedal-type stuff and I agree with him. It's great. It's funny because I was working construction and I had this melody line come in my head and so I went into my Voice Memo on my phone and hummed out this thing. I had an idea for this bass line that was kinda how that was and actually in the beginning we were having Adam do that bass line in the beginning of the song. Adam wasn't at practice one day and Robb started playing it on his guitar and I threw the little stringy stuff over the beginning. It's all experimentation and it's all stumbling across stuff. Hey, let's try this here. Songs will go through a ton of metamorphoses before they are what they actually are.
Robb said that This Is the End was a particularly difficult song to play. Why?
This Is the End is the hardest song on the new record to play. It's tremolo picking and it's really fast. It's a riff that starts at zero fret and goes all the way up to the 25th fret [laughs] so you're all over the place and it's hard. It has to be clean and tight and it's really fast. Yeah, we look to kind of pushespecially on this recordour musicianship and kind of set the bar really high to kind of take us in a new direction.
Your solo on This Is the End was pretty complex. Can you talk about that?
"'This Is the End' is the hardest song on the new record to play. It's tremolo picking and it's really fast."
We'll jam on it a few times and I'll play a certain part or a certain hook the same every time because it just feels like it sits in there perfect and I'll work around that. This Is the End solo section is the hardest solo section that I've had to write over since I've been in the band. It took me forever to come up with something and part of it got written in the studio. The very end part is where I reach over with my right hand and mute all the strings on the neck and it's just a left-hand only kind of arpeggio-type deal and that opened up some other stuff like the Darkness Within solo. I started doing like this left-hand pickless kind of technique on some of the stuff and it sounds really clean and it sounds a little bit different so it fit in really good.
Do other solos come quickly?
Yeah, certain solos are almost written right out of the bat. Like the Pearls Before the Swine solo is one of my favorites on the record and it's kinda really melodic but kinda burning too. There's a kind of a Zakk run leading into this Glenn Tipton part. I am paying homage to a bunch of my dudes. There's a Michael Schenker part in the Darkness Within solo too. They write themselves sometimes and if they don't then I have to take em section by section.
As producer, does Robb point you in a direction solo-wise?
I'll go in the studio and play with Robb and just go, Hey, I've got this here and we'll run through about 10 or 12 and then we'll listen to em and kinda comp em in [insert them in the track.] He's say, This part sounds good here so why don't you try something here. So he's really helpful in that sense.
Will you provide the same type of feedback when Robb is cutting one of his guitar parts?
We do that with each other. When he's doing his solos I'll kinda sit in and go, Hey, why don't you try that? So we help each other out a lot as far as the solos are concerned.
Who plays acoustic guitar on a song like Darkness Within?
Robb plays acoustics; he's really good. Actually the beginning part of that was off a demo we did of him singing and playing at the same time. He tried to match it for the record and he could never really match that angst and emotion he captured on that demo. So that was actually a demo tape that got used on the record.
Machine Head aren't afraid to embrace acoustic guitars, strings, and be very melodic in the approach. Other bands in the genre tend to avoid those elements.
Yeah, there's other bands that aren't as melodic but that's also their stylethey don't want the melody or they use as much as they want. There's some real melodic bands out there: Trivium and In Flames are really melodic as well. There are bands like Lamb of God who are more of a brutal band and with a singer like Randy you can't get too melodic. But that's not what they're about; they're fucking brutal and they're good at what they do.
Have you heard The Hunter by Mastodon?
Yeah, I heard the new record and I don't even know how to describe that band [laughs.]
They really pushed the boundaries on that album.
For sure; they definitely do that. They do what they want and I admire the shit out of that. They don't to go, Hey, we're gonna write the hit here. There's definitely more of a Queens of the Stone Age-type vibe and on this it's not as brutal as some of their other stuff but that's where they're at and I respect that.
There's an amazing guitar tone on the intro of Be Still and Know.
"I pop on the website every once in a while to learn like a Van Halen tune or an Ozzy tune or something like that. I enjoy Ultimate Guitar."
It's just compressor, chorus and delay; it's just my wet signal. I had a series of riffs that went in this waltzy time-signature that almost got shelved. It got put away for a minute and then Dave came up with an alternate drumbeat. You play in certain signatures like that and it's hard not to say, Oh, well that sounds like Lamb of God. That's one that they use. That's not the one that they use but you don't want to come off sounding like a band just because of a drumbeat. So we found an alternate beat and salvaged the song that I wrote a large portion of and it was cool to have it be a part of this record.
You play with Black Sabbath and Metallica at the Download Festival in Donington in June. What does that feel like sharing the stage with those kinds of bands?
I never thought I would be [laughs] back in the day playing Donington with Metallica and Sabbath. We're actually playing on the Friday with Prodigy; we're the metal band for the Friday night and Metallica is the next night and Sabbath is Sunday. Man, it is such a weird thing to go and look at our festival and see us headlining Wacken, Hellfest, With Full Force and all these festivals over there.
It is unbelievable.
Yeah, I can't even tell you how blessed I feel and what the feeling is being a festival headliner. It is weird.
It is encouraging to see a musical band like Machine Head receiving such positive response from metal fans.
Right on, man. When we wrote the record we knew and we felt like we wrote the record that we wanted. We felt that we had our most brutal moments but we also had our most beautiful and melodic moments captured and that's what we wanted to do for ourselves. When it came out people were saying, Hey you guys, I don't know how you were gonna top The Blackening but you did. And to have that be justified it feels very vindicating. I mean we're artists and people that create art, a vast majority of them want their art to be appreciated [laughs.] I get more satisfaction getting the respect from our peers in the industry. When people from other bands come up and say, Hey man, nice. It's really good and I enjoyed this, it means a lot and I take it to heart. Because sometimes a lot of the people that buy the records or don't buy the records or blast you on the Internet, you don't know what their intentions are or what their motives are. So I take it more to heart hearing it face-to-face from the people we know.
Are you playing a gig tonight?
Playing in Portland, Maine for the first time ever in the band's history.
You've played a million shows all over the worlddo you ever step out onstage and think, Oh god, where do I put my fingers?
[Laughs] Yeah, sometimes there are freezing moments when you're out on the first week of the tour and you don't have your bearings set and you're not on muscle memory as far as the set is concerned. It's, Oh yeah, one cymbal hit and then you're in. Yeah, you have moments of that.
Play all the good notes, Phil.
Thanks. I pop on the website every once in a while to learn like a Van Halen tune or an Ozzy tune or something like that. I enjoy ultimate-guitar.com.
Interview by Steven Rosen