has come full circle over the course of only a few years. Back in 2002, the Oakland natives parted ways with Roadrunner Records and were subsequently told by a bevy of other labels that record deals were around the corner. When it quickly became apparent that the labels' promises were a bit hollow, the band had to refocus their attention on the most important aspect, the music. After putting forth a solid promotional effort to once again get the band's name out there, the international division of Roadrunner signed the band and the critically acclaimed Through The Ashes Of Empires
soon followed. The album's success was undeniable, and the American division of Roadrunner once again brought a deal to the table.
The latest Machine Head offering is The Blackening
, an album which vocalist Robb Flynn
calls one of the most challenging endeavors in his 15 years with the band. Flynn recently talked with UG writer Amy Kelly
to discuss the making of the album that has already been given perfect ratings by the likes of Kerrang! And Metal Hammer.
UG: You once described your album Through The Ashes Of Empires as coming back from the dead. How would you describe The Blackening?
We toured for about 2 years with Through The Ashes when we went into it and started writing again. The thing that was kind of on our minds was that, in those 2 years since then, a lot of bands have kind of come out and started doing that sound. If we were going to stick with that formula, it probably wouldn't be as fresh. So we really needed to challenge ourselves and make something just extraordinary. Even though the safer thing to do would have been to just play it safe and stick with the Through The Ashes formula, we were like, We can't do that. We've got to take this some other direction.
We're trying to bring something new and exciting to the table, kind of get out of the safety zone and do and try some scary stuff!
What were some of the songs that you felt really pushed the band and brought out that scary side?
I think just the long songs. We have two 10-and-a-half minute songs and two 9-minute songs, and we were actually wondering if our fan base or other bands could wrap their heads around what we were doing. Will our fans be able to get their heads around what we're doing here? I think that in the end they do believe in us and they can get it around it. It's not like pop music, where you've got to have just 1 riff for 3 minutes. We can kind of do a lot.
I think our fans have learned to always expect something a little different on each record. I think in many ways they kind of demanded it of us as well. We've never tried to make the same record twice. In the end, it was a great feeling, having that kind of confidence. For many, many parts, we were just kind of writing and seeing where things were going. When we finally sat down, we were as surprised as anybody to find out that we had two 10-minute songs!
There is an incredible acoustic intro on Clenching The Fists of Dissent before the metal takes over. Did you write the acoustic line first?
The acoustic thing was actually the last thing that was written. We used to have this really dumb intro, which I hated. It was the main riff and it was all heavy parts. It was just lame! One day I was fucking around at home on my electric guitar, but not plugging it in to anything, and I had those harmony notes. We tried to write the saddest notes you'll ever hear. Then it came about in the studio. We were going into record the record and on the second day I told Dave, I'd like to try it. I've kind of been doing this whole other intro, but I think it might be better.
So we tried it. When I played it for the rest of the guys in the band, they were like, Oh, my God. That's fucking killer, dude!
I went ahead and said, I want to add bass under here. I want to add this Middle-Eastern intro or whatever.
We had basically been trying to create this Dead Can Dance vibe.
Did you worry about opening the album with something a little bit more acoustic-oriented, not to mention a 10-minute-long song?
|"Will our fans be able to get their heads around what we're doing here?"|
Yeah. The record company was like, Are you sure you want to open up with a 10-and-a-half minute song? Are you sure you don't want to get into something a little more direct?
The more we thought about it, it was like, This is the only song that can open the album.
It just sets the tone lyrically. It sets the tone musically. It's this piece of music that's pummeling. It's one of the brutalist, heaviest songs we've ever written and it's fun to play! We were like, This is it.
It was a challenge, I can tell you that. That intro alone was 86 tracks. There are military snares. There are like 20 tracks of military snares and 4 tracks of kick drums, marching cymbals. There are 4 tracks of acoustic guitars and 5 tracks of electric guitars. Then it comes in with the vocals and the bass - it was a nightmare!
Have you used that many tracks on past records?
No. It was essentially the equivalent of a classical movement. There were a lot of things and we were honestly trying to get all of it to fit into one thing. It served its purpose, that 1 or 2 minutes. It set the tone and I had to set it right.
Did it take months of writing to complete Clenching The Fists Of Dissent?
We kind of wrote in chunks. We write songs like that a lot. We had the main verse and chorus, riffs, and then into that next riff right after the second chorus. We had that for a few months. Then for the next parts, we went back to the verse and we wrote the ending. Probably in total, it took like 3 months.
You produced this record, too?
Producing on top of just writing the songs like those must have been a little insane at times.
I think in many ways, it was the only way to do it. I got my long-time engineer, Martin Birch. I call him my left brain because he knows how to do everything on the other side of the production. He pretty much pulled me aside a couple times and was like, I have no idea what we're doing. I feel like I'm making a puzzle and I don't know what the image that I'm even making looks like!
There were just so many different things. He couldn't even get an idea where all the songs were. Some days he'd be in there producing it, helping guide the whole trip. It was challenging at times, but then you'd get over a hump and go, Oh, my God. This is what it's gonna fucking sound like!
For me, the production is just a means to an end. It's a labor of love. It's not something I enjoy and it's not something I want to pursue. I like being in a band and I like writing music and I like creating. I don't like producing. I don't want to produce other bands or anything like that. It's just with Machine Head, it's a means to an end to keep the creativity of the band true to what the 4 of us want.
Is there just as much jamming as individual contributions in the songwriting process?
Oh, yeah. There's tons of jamming. Essentially, that's all it is. Someone will come up with a riff, or I'll stay after with Phil (Demmel, guitars) and we'll just kind of jam it out to see how it feels. I'd love to sit here and be like, Yes, yes, this is the complete vision of us.
It's just so not like that! In the rehearsal room when we're jamming, it's just so Beavis and Butt-Head. That part sucks. That part's cool!
When you look back at the first incarnation of the band in 1992, is it amazing to think about the evolution of the band? Did you ever think you'd reach the level of composition you have today?
|"We're trying to bring something new and exciting to the table."|
Never in our wildest dreams did we think that we'd still be here in 2007. There were people that told us, Hey, you'll probably last about 5 years.
They told us that when our first album came out. Yeah, I can see you lasting about 5 years.
No one had us lasting much longer than that, let alone ourselves. The fact that we're still here, hitting creative highs, and probably doing the best we've ever done on a worldwide scale, internationally - as well as America - on one of the coolest tours you could be on, it's incredible. It's really cool. That's kind of due to the fact that we just write from the heart. We've been consistent at doing that one thing. Our goal has always been to never have a record sound the same.
In 2002, you went through some tough times when your deal with Roadrunner dissolved. Did you ever consider ending Machine Head and moving on?
We asked to be released from Roadrunner and eventually they obliged. At the time, we had just all these labels blowing a bunch of smoke up our ass about how they were going to sign us. As soon as you're off Roadrunner, man, you're on blah, blah, blah records.
Maybe it was nave of us on our part to fall for it. That period was just the 3 of us in the band. It was Adam (Duce, bass), Dave (McClain, drums) and I. We didn't really know what we were going to do, but we loved jamming together. We loved making music together.
Once we started writing again, it really was just about writing music very selfishly. We were getting off on it. Basically we were writing the record that we wanted to hear, but we weren't. That's what Through The Ashes was. We got Phil, and Phil came in about the last third of the writing process. We just took it to a whole different place there. We have a lot history, we grew up together, and we learned how to play guitar together. Our aspirations, even when we were a kid, was to be that kind of guitar team like Gary Holt, Rick Hunolt of Exodus. Especially in the Bay area and all those big guitar teams, the thrasher, when we were coming to see those shows. That kind of sensibility was the writing for it, which carried on to The Blackening.
Did the fans play a big part in keeping you motivated as well?
Absolutely the fans carried us through. There were definitely times when it was tough, and things were getting longer and longer. We hadn't been signed. We had kept it kind of quiet from people who didn't know, but I think people had an idea of what was going on. They would be like, You have to keep going. You have to make music. This song saved my life. This record saved my life. Don't ever stop. You can't stop.
When Roadrunner International asked the band to be on the label, did it come as a huge surprise?
We had always had a good relationship with them. The problems came more from the American side. It's kind of a different setup over there anyway. To us, it was a bit of a surprise, but it also seemed to make a lot of sense. We also went into it at the time thinking that the American label was also going to be signed as well. We were talking to both of them at the same time, and at the end the American label passed originally. Through The Ashes came out and fucking to almost everyone's surprise ended up becoming the second biggest-selling album internationally that year for them. The only record that was bigger was Nickelback. Damn you, Nickelback!
Did the American side of Roadrunner get in touch with you immediately after the massive success of Ashes?
All the labels did. All the labels that had passed on us wanted to sign us in America. We were yesterday's news and everybody was just like, Fuck you, guys.
Then all of the sudden all the labels were like, Hey! Dude, I listened to that record!
We started talking with a couple labels. Lo and behold, Roadrunner came in and made us an offer, and pretty much blew everybody else and their offers out of the water.
Did you experiment with new equipment when you were making the new record?
|"I think our fans have learned to always expect something a little different on each record."|
No. No, we've got our tone, that Machine Head wall of guitars. It's basically my 5150 from like the first year of production. His name is Bubba! Bubba is one of those heads that you come across, and for no reason in particular, he just sounds fucking 10 times better. I've got eight 5150s, and he twice as good as any of the other ones. I've got a metal case that I keep him in. He comes out for recording and that's it!
I've got an ESP SP120, which is a baritone model they made for me, which is a prototype actually. They made it into production as just as one of the prototype models. It's a killer-sounding tone. I've got an EMG in there that's one that they put in. For whatever reason, this particular EMG is just like the one. I've traded it out and gone down multiple times and tried to swap it out. Every time I swap out for it, it just sounds completely different. I've always got to keep that one pickup in there.
We've got our tone, we've got our Marshall cab. I've got a lot of effects. I play through a Bradshaw unit. Bob Bradshaw made me a custom unit. I prefer the sound of stomp boxes. I've got a Phase 90 that like every 20 seconds makes this fucking horrendous clunk sound. I put on my fucking Phase 90 and it sounds fucking incredible! I've got an Electric Mistress, a Jimi Hendrix Fuzz, Boss pedals, a Line 6 green delay that they have. And they have the blue flange modulator thing. I've got it all set up so that I can run any combination of pedals. I can program it so that I just click on one button and I can turn on like 11 pedals.
What acoustics do you use?
The acoustics were the Eric Clapton Yamaha acoustic. It's the $4,000 acoustic. It is really just nice, warm, not too tinny on the high end. There was a neutral sound. It wasn't very loud. It wasn't too bassy. It was just very warm.
Do you usually know off the bat which equipment will work best for a particular song?
It took a little bit of experimenting. Phil and I play the same rig, the same guitar, the same head. So we've got that uniform wall of guitars on both sides of the speaker. With his parts, because he plays with a slightly different rig in the rehearsal studio, we've got to experiment with his stuff. We try different stuff. I just love that stoner, psychedelic sound. I want it sound like you're fucking stoned out of your fucking mind! As long as it sounds like that, we'll just keep on trying to get it that way.
How is the latest tour going with Trivium and Lamb of God?
We've been out now for about 5 weeks. It's unbelievable - every night is sold out. We get the Machine-fucking-Head chants every fucking night. This is incredible because the longest we had ever toured before was about a week and a half. To have 8 weeks of solid touring on one of the biggest metal tours, if not the biggest metal tour going out, it's amazing for us. We're stoked and we're having a great time.
The Blackening was leaked a few weeks back. What was your reaction to that?
It's unfortunate that it had to happen. Our label tracked it and it was an American journalist who got an advance CD. He just had to be a dickhead and put it up on the internet. It's lame, but I guess if there is any silver lining to it, it's the reaction that it's been getting. It's like nothing that we've ever had before. They are saying some unbelievable things about the record. We just got a 10 out of 10 at Metal Hammer UK. It's awesome, man.