Interview with Robb Flynn, lead singer/guitarist for Machine Head

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By Tyler Davidson

Machine Head’s Robb Flynn belts it out onstage at the Great Western Forum. (Christopher Ullyott)

By Tyler Davidson

What were some of the first bands to get you into metal as a whole growing up?

“Well, my friend used to record this underground metal & punk show in the Bay Area called Rampage Radio, and we were both living in Fremont at the time, which is like 50 miles away from San Francisco, and so, you know, this is like a tiny college station playing at 2 in the morning on Saturday nights. He would basically take his Radio Shack radio and aim the antenna over there and record it. You know, we kind of got turned on to, like, a whole bunch of bands all at once because it was a radio station, so we got, like my initial bands that I started getting turned on to were bands like Accept…punk bands like Discharge, Exodus, early Metallica, so that was kind of like the more extreme stuff. They would play also like other local Bay Area bands that were, like, horrible, and we were just like “These guys suck.” We were way more into the more aggressive, thrashy, fast, punk stuff. The first show that I went to actually wasn’t a metal show, it was a punk show. We knew these girls, their older brother was a metalhead, and so he was listening to like Mercyful Fate and Venom and sh-t like that, and they were punk rockers, so all they would listen to was like D.R.I. and The Exploited and G.B.H., and for us it was kind of weird, because we were so young, we didn’t really know what the difference was; we just thought, like…it was total “Beavis & Butthead,” like, they either sucked or they f–kin ruled, so for us, like, most of the bands that both of those, the brother and the two girls turned us on to, were just like cool. They took us, me & my friend Leroy, they took us to this D.R.I. show, and at the time, D.R.I. like pretty much drew nothing but San Francisco skins, like big, linebacker-sized f–kin skinheads that just f–kin wanted to beat up everybody in sight. Long hairs weren’t allowed, and we had long hair; we walk in, and we’re, like, f–kin pretty scared because these dudes are f–kin huge, and you know, we’re like 14, 15, so all gangly and skinny, and we walk up and we go and kind of sit down in the back of this club and this long-haired dude comes in, he pays his five dollars, starts to walk into the club, and this f–kin huge skinhead just walks up to him and f–kin DROPS him; “No long hairs!” and f–kin they just carry him out and I just look at my friend and we’re like “Oh my god!” f–kin like horrified, but like, these girls, they were kind of in with them, and so like, they just left us alone, and sh-t, they’re like “these guys are with us, so just leave them alone, so that was my first, kind of, show. That was the first time I ever saw slamdancing, stage diving; so it was pretty memorable. The first metal show I saw was this metal band from Canada called Exciter; that was really the first time I had ever gone up front for a band, headbanged, went in the circle pit. They were, like, pretty bad, but for us, it was just the whole idea of going to a show. I talk to kids that came to, like, the Lamb of God/Machine Head/Trivium tour and they’re like “Yeah, this is my first show!” and I’m like “F–k, dude, your first show was way better than mine!” (laughs)”

Speaking of Trivium, you worked with Matt Heafy on the Roadrunner United CD; what was it like to work with this giant roster of musicians for the All-Star Sessions?

“Well, I was a captain, and the captains actually didn’t work together; each captain assembled a team of artists, and then they had them play the songs that they had written, and so, even though he was a captain and I was a captain, we didn’t actually work [together.] My team was Andols [Herrick, drummer] from Chimaira, Christian [Olde Wolbers, bassist & guitarist] from Fear Factory, Jordan [Whelan, guitarist] from Still Remains, I played guitar, and then I got a bunch of singers; I got Howard [Jones] from Killswitch [Engage, a metalcore band from Massachusettes], I got Corey [Taylor] from Slipknot, and I got Max [Cavalera] from Sepultura and Soulfly, and Tim Williams from Vision of Disorder. It was killer, I mean it was really cool man, Howard came down and I produced his vocals; I wasn’t even supposed to sing on that song. Originally, “The Dagger,” I had written it just for him to sing, and when he came, he was just kind of like, we were just like bouncing around ideas, and he was just like “You know, you should sing on this,” and I was like “Eh, I’m already doing enough, I don’t want to like…I’m producing, I’m captain, I’m playing…I’m doing plenty, you know? Like, you be the guy,” and he was like “No, I want you to sing on this,” and so we just started throwing around ideas and anytime he was kind of like “I’m blanking here,” I just tried something, and it ended up being this really cool, just spontaneous f–kin thing. It was really f–kin cool. And as far as Corey Taylor’s involvement, I had written a song that I just kind of felt was, like really, you know, kind of like how the drony Slipknot stuff is, kind of like the song “Iowa,” where it’s like long and like, lots of building parts. I had taken a bunch of anti-war samples and I had thrown it onto the beginning and the end just to kind of bookend the song, and I was kind of hoping that, you know…I sent it to him, kind of just saying “Hey, if you wanna lose these samples because you’re totally down with the war and love George Bush (laughs), go ahead, I’m just throwing out an idea that I think would be cool” and he, like, he heard the samples and was like…he flipped, he was just like “I’m totally down with this, like, I f–kin…I think this war is bullsh-t” or whatever, and he wrote these really f–kin killer lyrics for it, so it was really, you know, this cool, creative…we didn’t actually, we just talked on the phone, we didn’t actually like, you know, he didn’t come down to the studio, whereas Howard was there at the studio. So, it was really cool, man, it was a great experience.”

Talking about the latest album, “The Blackening;” how did your approach to writing and recording “The Blackening” differ from that of “Through the Ashes…” [“…of Empires,” Machine Head’s previous album, released in 2003] or the other albums?

“As far as the writing went, I mean, we really just wanted to push ourselves as musicians. You know, I’d love to sit here and say that we had this like huge, grand vision for “The Blackening,” but we didn’t, you know, we went in there, and we didn’t say “OK, we need to write two ten-minute songs,” you know…we were just jamming and the songs kind of went the way they did, and you know, again, it was just like a very “Beavis & Butthead” mentality, you know, like you know, when we were in the room, it was just kind of like “Yeah, that riff’s cool…that riff sucks…” You know, there’s no like rocket science about it. The one thing that was probably a little bit different is that, you know, with “Through the Ashes…,” about two-thirds of it was written as a three-piece, just Dave [McClain, drummer], Adam [Duce, bassist], & I, with Phil [Demmel, guitarist] coming in for the last third, whereas this one, Phil was there for the whole time, so there’s a lot more kind of guitar, you know, lots of detailed work going on with the guitars, you know, like lots of staying after practice and just fine tuning leads and fine tuning harmonies. You know, we grew up together, and we learned how to play guitar together; we used to be in a band prior to this [Demmel & Flynn were both members of thrash metal band Vio-lence prior to the formation of Machine Head], and you know, our whole goal even back then was to be, like, that classic Bay Area thrash guitar team, you know, like the Holt/Hunolt Exodus guitar team, or the, you know, Judas Priest K.K. Downing/Glenn Tipton guitar team. Definitely a lot of t
hat came into play when we were rehearsing and stuff, ’cause we were just trying to do lots of stuff like that, you know, and just challenging ourselves as musicians, challenging ourselves to not do “Through the Ashes… 2.” As much of a landmark as that album was, you know, it was also because of the time, you know, like when it came out, there wasn’t a lot of bands sounding like that. In the two years after its release, there was a lot of bands starting to sound like that, and we needed to stay one step ahead of them, so we really tried to bring in new elements or challenge ourselves and our ways with things we had never done before.”

Would you say there’s a lot of similarities between the sound of Vio-lence and the sound of Machine Head?

“No…I mean, we’ve got thrash elements, and we’ve always had thrash elements, but Vio-lence was a straight up f–kin thrash band. There was no melody, there was no singing, there was no mellow parts, it was just f–kin fast beats all the way. With this, there’s a lot more light & shade. Even on “Burn My Eyes,” [Machine Head’s 1994 debut album] songs like “I’m Your God Now” or “None But My Own,” it’s like, those were never like thrash songs.”

So you wouldn’t see Vio-lence covering The Police or anything? [Machine Head covered The Police’s “Message In a Bottle” for their 1999 album, “The Burning Red.”]

“(laughs) You’d be surprised what songs Vio-lence covered, though. We covered like “Live Wire” by AC/DC AND “Live Wire” by Mötley Crüe, so we actually did cover some, you know “Woah, where’d that song come from?”‘

“The Blackening” has garnered so much praise and acclaim, but out of all the tracks on it, which track do you really think that fans should look out for? Are there any stand out tracks to you that you kind of have a closer relationship with?

“It just depends on what you like, you know. Some people love the song “Halo,” they think f–kin “Halo” is the greatest song off there. Other people love “Clencing the Fists of Dissent,” other people love the thrash of “Aesthetics of Hate.” Other people love “Now I Lay Thee Down,” like, the mellower stuff, so it’s kind of just like what you like as a fan, you know, and we have a pretty broad base, like we get a lot of thrash kids, but you know, we also get a lot of kids that would listen to mellower sh-t like Deftones or whatever.”

Speaking of “Aesthetics of Hate,” you wrote it in response to William Grim’s essay on Dimebag [Darrell, former guitarist of Pantera that was shot & killed onstage in 2005]; reading stuff like that, why do you think critics like that misunderstand the metal community as a whole and kind of look down on it like they do?

“I just think they’re looking at it from an incredibly shallow standpoint. This is a music that, like…it IS neanderthal in many ways, and like when you go into the pit, the purpose of that is to, you know, bash the hell out of each other, but in a sense, it’s a huge release for people. It’s a huge release for kids. At least, my experience as a kid, like going to punk shows and going to metal shows, it’s like, it wasn’t, you know…I mean, fights happened, and I got in fights, and we all got in fights or whatever, but like it was more about like, you know…if somebody fell down in the pit, you picked them up, if somebody wanted to like crowd surf, you f–kin did the hand clasp and like helped them launch. It was about like a community in there, too, you know. It was as much a release as it was a community. I walked away from Slayer shows with like broken ribs; broken ribs, and then stayed in the pit during the whole show. I walked away with broken noses, you know, sprained arms; to me, it was like a rite of passage, you know? It was a war wound. I went and bragged about it to my friends, you know “Oh, dude yeah, I broke my rib.” I think it’s kind of almost like the same sense of what people get out of sports, you know, I think it’s like this active, physical activity. It makes you feel alive, man, it makes you feel like you participated in something, it makes you feel like you belong in something, and that’s what I don’t think that any of those people get. They’re just looking at it like “Oh, they’re just going in there, beating up,” and it’s just a f–kin totally ignorant and fear-based mentality that they have, just looking at it from this incredibly, you know, brief glimpse, and going “OK, you take this little part of this whole gigantic music scene,” and this is the only thing you see and like completely ignore everything else.”

“The Blackening” leaked onto the Internet back in January. With the advent of the Internet, Napster, stuff like that, do you think it’s been kind of a benefit or a detriment to the metal community?

“I don’t really see anybody talking about Napster, I mean, I see torrent sites and other names and stuff, but Napster’s kind of like irrelevant. I think that it’s, you know, in some ways for the music business, it is bad, I mean, record sales are dramatically down from where they were in the past, and whether that’s because of the Internet or other factors like the economy going to sh-t or whatever, you know, who knows? You could argue that it’s hurting it. On the other hand, in many ways, it’s kind of become the great leveller, you know, it’s levelled the playing field for a lot of bands. Record company hype can now be sidetracked by Internet buzz or street buzz. The thing that’s kind of crazy is that I’m seeing a lot of records get released now and the record company’s hyping it as one way, the greatest thing ever, f–kin amazing, but then like the Internet and the street buzz from it is like “This record sucks,” (laughs) you know, like f–kin “I’m not feelin it,” and you’re like starting to see that happen on bands’ first weeks and stuff. It also goes the opposite, like you could have a record company that isn’t really doing much and street buzz on the record is f–kin phenomenal, people are flipping like “Oh my god, this is amazing,” and you’re also seeing that with bands that you’re not really seeing much of, all of a sudden come out and you’re like “Woah, f–kin killer.” So, in some ways, I mean, I do think it’s cool. And it’s not like it’s never been there, you know, like I used to trade tapes as a kid, my friends and I used to trade tapes and we had bootlegs and we had other stuff, but it was also a different thing, it was more about like live shows and demos and stuff, and not necessarily just about trading the album. It was like a whole culture behind it, you know. We were from the Bay Area, and my friend had like 25 Exodus bootlegs from just Bay Area shows, you know, so sh-t like that. We’d listen to all that, we had like the Exodus demos, we had rehearsals, we had outtakes of stuff, so there was kind of like more of that, and I don’t really see that so much anymore. That is the one thing that seems to have been kind of lost, you know, like you see a lot of albums getting traded, but it’s just an album for an album. It’s no longer the live shows and the bootlegs and the demos and the rehearsals and all the kind of like nitty-gritty stuff that was like really cool to like “Wow, listen, they made that part totally different.” And that’s sh-t that I still get off on, I still love hearing bands’ demos. I think that’s one thing that’s really cool about Metallica, is they always have like earlier renditions of songs that basically suck. (laughs) Or like, the thing that came out, love it or hate it, “St. Anger.,” [Metallica’s last, and most negatively received, album] I did think it was really cool that live DVD that was like a rehearsal jam; you know, like the songs were a little different, and in some ways, better, you know, than the actual album version, and just sh-t like that, I dig that. I mean, we’re gonna be releasing a special edition here in America and we’re putting the demos for “The Blackening” on there as we’ve done with nearly every single one of our releases, put the demos on there. Our demos for “The Blackening” are f–king horrendous. I mean, like they’re WAY different than like how the songs ended up o
n the record. I think putting stuff out like that, cover songs; that’s the thing that I think is cool that is sometimes getting lost with the Internet trading thing, you know, that whole kind of culture behind, you know, being a fan.”

Anything else you wanna say?

“Just, you know, tour’s been going killer, we’re having a great time, getting treated like gold by the Heaven & Hell camp, it’s pretty cool. It’s trippy, because like all our fans are basically in the top tier where the cheap tickets are! (laughs) So we’re rockin WAY up to the balcony, and people in the front are like “Who the hell are you?” It’s cool though man, this is our third night, so it’s been f–kin really, really cool. Met [Ronnie James] Dio on the first night, and I mean, like, they’ve got security guards in front of their dressing rooms and sh-t but I just like snuck in there and was like “Hey, what’s up?” I was all hammered and sh-t, but I was like “Hey, what’s going on, man?” He was f–kin super cool, dude, like totally f–kin cool. Just really mellow; it was cool to like…and he sounds, Jesus Christ, his voice sounds f–king unbelievable. I mean seriously, seriously unbelievable.”

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