INTERVIEW: Machine Head’s Robb Flynn
The Blackening was an unstoppable juggernaut of metal power for Machine Head. Conceived in 2005 and released in 2007, it kept the band on the road for quite literally years. But all good things must come to an end. And so finally, in the year of our lord 2011, Machine Head present Unto The Locust. Produced by Robb Flynn at Green Day’s Jingletown Studios, it’s a surprisingly diverse album which tempers its thrash edge with classical influences, wild mood swings, laser-focused precision, blunt-force-trauma riffage and some of Flynn’s best ever vocal performances. It may be hard to ever forget The Blackening and the way it captured the charred hearts of both modern and old-school metal fans in equal measure, but Unto The Locust its own animal and it makes neither concessions nor apologies for its history-making predecessor. It simply gets on with it in its own kickass way.
So I guess the question everyone wants to know the answer to is, did you have The Blackening‘s success in mind when you started working on this one, or did you try to ignore it?
We definitely didn’t have The Blackening in mind at all. We lived that moment for so long. It was an amazing moment, but when it was done, we were really excited to start writing again. You’ve got to remember, when we started writing The Blackening, it was August of 2005. And we started writing for this record in June of 2010, so five years had passed. We were ready to write, and we were ready to create a new moment.
It was almost like that album wouldn’t let itself die, y’know? It just kept going and going.
Yeah! It was amazing. It was an incredible moment. The Slipknot tours, Metallica tours, Grammy nominations. It was an endless stream of good news! It was really amazing, but it just went on for a while. We were lucky enough to finish the tour in Australia. That was the last dates of the whole album cycle. The last show we played in Sydney. It was killer, a great way to end it, and we totally went triumphant into the writing sessions. We were really charged up.
I really dig the classical guitar influence on the new album. I understand you actually took classical lessons?
I did. I actually took classical guitar in high school. It was an elective I had to take and I mainly just smoked a lot of weed and played Black Sabbath songs. Haha. I got a C minus, which isn’t a very good grade. It’s below average. I guess I showed that teacher, huh? Haha. But it really got my mind into that mindset of playing it, and once I really started playing I always leaned towards classical players. Like, I always liked Richie Blackmore, and Randy Rhoads in particular was a massive influence. Randy Rhoads on the first two Ozzy albums brought a lot of classical vibes and that was a huge influence. So between that and Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, those were pretty much my main masters.
And it’s a cool thing that classical-style pedal tones work so well with metal lead guitar.
Yeah. It really works well in metal. When we went in to do the record it wasn’t like ‘Oh, let’s write some classical stuff.’ But the first things that I wrote were these classical bits and I was digging it and I started writing riffs around it and I was like, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool.’ And I knew, I could tell that I was just doing it wrong. So I thought that before I started getting into some bad habits I should really try to break them early.
Did you go all the way and grow the big classical guitarist fingernails?
No, because I still play regular guitar and I’ve got kids, so that wouldn’t really work!
I really dig “I Am Hell.” It’s such a huge opener and there’s so much going on.
Ah, let’s see. We actually attempted writing in November of 2009 and nothing much came out of it. The actual beginning of “I Am Hell” came out of it, but it was more just a symbolic moment for us, like ‘Wow, we’re really moving on from The Blackening.’ I wrote the end outro riff while I was in Norway, the tremolo picking (sings riff), again geeking out on classical. And then for a while that song just kinda hung around with those two parts connected with nothing in the middle. That intro had been on a few different versions and I had written that guitar melody probably around the same time as I’d written the very beginning, and I had always heard it as this a capella thing with all these layers and all these different vocals, and I thought, ‘Man, if I can ever get a goddamn song around this it’s gonna be really cool!’ But for about a year, a good year, it didn’t materialise. I just kept those riffs because I liked them and they were really cool, but I didn’t have anything else to go around it. We rarely played it at practice. At one point it was actually the beginning to “Who We Are.” Then about three weeks before we went in to record the album I was demoing a bunch of songs because I was going to play stuff for the label back in New York, and the ProTools rig went down and I was like, ‘Fuck!’ I was super-pissed. So I sat there and I was like, ‘Y’know what? I’m just going to play guitar and see if I can write.’ So I started messing around with ideas, and I stumbled on that trash riff, and then I thought ‘maybe if I take that end part and use it as a chorus…’ And just the whole thing, in 45 minutes I wrote the rest of the song. I brought it to the dudes and they were like ‘Holy shit!’
Another song I really want to talk about is “This Is The End.” Good lord, what’s going on there!?!
Hahaha. Well that was the first song that was written for the record, actually. I wrote the riff, the main chorus riff, in Auckland, New Zealand on the Slipknot tour. That’s the first riff I remember writing for the record, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to bring it to Machine Head at that point. And then the classical bits happened and then the other stuff happened. The thing that was really cool about it was that especially because that was the first song written for the record, it just set the bar so high, right off the bat. It was like, ‘Wow, man, this is a hard fuckin’ song to play.’ I mean, we could have sat there and been like, ‘We’re the fuckin’ dudes who wrote The Blackening. Everyone can suck it.’ But we went in and we came up with that song right off the bat. It was a pretty humbling experience, like, ‘Jesus Christ, man, we’ve got to fuckin’ step up our game here. This is really some fuckin’ tough shit to play!’ It was a really positive mind frame to write from, this very vulnerable place to write from, to try to better ourselves and constantly push ourselves to be better and tighten up our playing and improve ourselves. That was a big motivator for this record, to push ourselves and challenge ourselves as we were writing the riffs and the arrangements.
And whatever the hell Dave McClain is doing in the chorus, you don’t hear drums like that in metal.
Yeah, McClain’s definitely channeling his inner Keith Moon, for sure. It’s just that chaotic anything-goes thing that I love, y’know? He adds this chaotic vibe. Granted we’re not playing rock music like The Who, but if you apply that same theory to metal it really just makes it more random, and that’s what I like about it. We’re really bummed out by a lot of metal bands right now. Every band plays to a click track, every tempo is the same, they snap all the drums to a ProTools gig, they record the guitar parts and fly them all in. And it just all sounds perfect, and everything is perfect. Every roll is perfect, every hit is perfect, everything is just perfect. And that sounds like shit to us. Because to us, part of the charm, and maybe this comes from our punk rock roots or our hardcore roots, but there’s something about when it isn’t perfect and it’s feeling like it’s about to run off the tracks and the drums are speeding up and the vocals are starting to crack and you’re just getting that fucking chaotic energy – that is what sounds perfect to us.
Yeah! Well there’s no ProTools plug-in that can give you the sound of everyone all stamping on the beat as they play, and what that does to how they attack the note.
Yeah! Most of our friends and peers would tell us they play to a click track live and it’s awesome, and I mean, Dave and I would get drunk then come in super hungover the next day, and we’re like, ‘We’ve never done this, let’s give it a shot. Let’s try it. Let’s see what happens. It might suck, it might be rad. Fuckin’ who knows?’ And we tried it and we made these very elaborate tempo maps, with tempo changes, and it sucked! It just completely sucked the life out of the song. All of the natural speed-ups and slow-downs, yeah sure, the fuckin’ song starts at one BPM and finishes ten BPMs faster, but y’know what? Who cares? The energy is building! So we were like, ‘Fuck this. This is lame. This is just so fucking lame.’ Because then it became about trying to recreate a natural feel. And it was like, ‘Man, let’s just capture this moment.’ Once you capture that moment right, it’ll be perfect. I mean, yeah, it’s flawed. It’s got guitar fuck-ups and it’s got vocals cracking, and I left them in there. I purposely left them there because it adds this emotion, whether it’s anger or sadness or pain or whatever, that’s what people feel, and you can’t make it perfect, and that’s what makes it perfect!
Those are always my favourite moments, like Jimmy Page flubbing a note or David Bowie’s voice cracking. And those things lodge in your head and make you pay attention to everything around it, and it makes the whole recording more memorable.
Yeah, and then you learn those little things. And there’s a charm to that, like ‘Hey! I caught it!’ I remember when I first started getting into the guitar, on the song “Crazy Train” by Ozzy, like I said I’m a Randy Rhoads freak so I learned every fucking Ozzy song with Randy Rhoads on it. And when that main riff comes around after the solo, it goes back into [sings riff] and then it slows down. And you can hear it. When I was learning it I was like, ‘Holy shit, that just slowed down!’ For me I felt like I’d just found the fuckin’ lost ark from Raiders Of The Lost Ark. ‘Holy crap! That’s so cool!’
I saw your signature Epiphone Flying V at NAMM. That’s a cool instrument.
The whole purpose of the guitar is just to be the heaviest freakin’ thing. It is a 27″ baritone scale 6-string Flying V. It’s got an EMG 81 in the bridge and an EMG HA in the neck, which are a single coil pickup in a humbucker casing, so it really gets that Jimi Hendrix, Richie Blackmore kinda tone, which I love. It’s got one toggle switch, one volume knob, very simple and straight-ahead. I mean, the whole purpose of the guitar is just to be a dense, heavy guitar. It’s for young, up-and-coming players who want to drop-tune and play metal. And if you want to play jazz or blues or something else, this guitar is not for you! It is not a versatile guitar. It’s for playing heavy!
And the look certainly reflects that too.
Yeah, y’know, I’ve got a friend who had designed that piece of art, a merch guy. I wore the shirt a lot because I really loved the symbolism of it. The symbol is called Love/Death, a skull inside of a heart, and I love the symbolism of that. There’s some tribe in Africa that wear skulls, like a real human skull, around their neck at certain times of the year, and it teaches them to love death because by loving death it makes you live life further. That’s the theory behind it for these people. And that whole concept for me was very interesting, that by loving death it makes you live your life harder and enjoy your life more than people living in a fear of death who often don’t live their life to the fullest. So that’s the whole concept of that. I wanted to tie that imagery in, and Epiphone did an amazing job with the inlay work on the fretboard. It’s beautiful, it’s amazing. Another thing that’s cool about it is, we worked on this thing for a couple of years and it went through four or five prototypes before I was happy with it. The weight was correct, the wood was heavy enough. I play it live – I played it on the whole Mayhem tour and it’s just killer, man!
And the thing with the Epiphone stuff is it’s affordable but it’s a lot better than the crap I started out playing!
Yeah. I mean, I started off on a guitar my dad rented for me for 45 bucks a month, with a little six-inch amp. I learned to how play Black Sabbath songs, Judas Priest, Slayer… and this guitar [the Epiphone] is great for someone who’s already playing a little already. I mean, the baritone makes it super-heavy. I tune down to B, so anything down in that range, it’s going to really keep a warm, deep, tight, metallic… it really gives you that attack.
Unto The Locust is out now on Roadrunner.