Looking Back to Go Forward: An Interview With Max Cavalera
Put together a short list of the titans and pioneers of metal — Max Cavalera's inclusion is a no-brainer. Max and his brother Igor founded the legendary Sepultura in 1984, bringing the band to the forefront of metal with several classic LPs, including the trio of Arise, Chaos A.D. and 1996's genre-bending Roots. Mixing Sepultura's grooves, thrash, and punk with traditional tribal drumming and world music structures, Roots was a critical and a fan favorite upon its release, catapulting the band into stardom. Shortly after, Max parted ways with Sepultura to focus on his own project, Soulfly.
2017 sees Max and Igor returning to their Roots, this time roping in N.Y. death metal gods Immolation and a brutal noise attack from Full of Hell for a full U.S. tour. We cornered Max, who has never played some of this Roots material live, to comment on the record, the state of metal and revisiting old material. The results of our conversation are below.
Let’s start with the idea behind doing Roots with your brother. There are many people that really revere Beneath the Remains or Schizophrenia or Chaos A.D. What about Roots makes it the most important statement for you to want to do in its entirety?
Well, it wasn’t really about being the most important. I think it just kind of happened like that. It was a very successful record. The idea is actually not mine; it was actually Gloria’s, my wife and our manager. She was really the one that came up with the whole plan about us going back and playing the Roots album. I wasn’t even thinking about that. She mentioned it to me and Igor, and we thought a little bit about it, and it sounded like a cool thing that we’ve never done before. We had a festival in Canada [where] we tried it out, and it was so explosive, it was crazy. Everybody loved it, and from that point on, it just took off.
I mean, it could’ve been any other album — I’m actually a big Arise fan. I think [that out] of all the Sepultura stuff, probably Arise is the closest one to my heart. I think we did the best with the mixing of death and thrash metal. I think that album is classic with that kind of stuff, and it would be a lot of fun to play that live. But we had to start with one, so we picked Roots, and Roots, actually, honestly, is a bit easier to learn how to play because it’s a little bit more simplified. The approach we took on the album is a bit minimalistic, going back to more of a simple foundation on the songs. A lot of the songs are really kind of more simple — more back to basics — so it’s a bit easier to relearn and play them live. I think that helped a little bit. We still have a lot of work to do learning the songs and making sure they get played the right way. If it was an album like Schizophrenia, it would maybe take a little longer to relearn it, because there’s so many riffs on Schizophrenia. It’s a crazy album.
But I love the idea. It’s a cool idea that works, and a lot of people really love it. The tour was very successful in the States, and Europe was, too. It was sold out everywhere. South America, too, was great, and now we’re doing another run in the U.S. with Full of Hell and Immolation. I think people just love to hear the whole record like that. It’s an idea that I heard other bands were doing. I never thought that I could do it, but the idea got presented to me and we went for it, man, and it’s a lot of fun. I love it.
I think sometimes it's kind of nice when you can actually go back a little bit in your career and revisit some of your old work in order to go forward. I think it’s important for an artist to do that — to sometimes look back at what you did. It’ll help you go forward in the future. It’s good. It works in a lot of ways, but it’s a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to the tour.
It’s funny because I always kind of saw you specifically as being an artist pushing toward his next project. If there’s ever been an artist that's always cranking out new material, it’s definitely you — between Soulfly and Sepultura and Nailbomb way back when, and even doing Cavalera Conspiracy. Did you have any hesitation about looking backward at any point?
No, I think it’s good. It’s important to do that. I mean, I just like to stay active. That’s why I do so much stuff like Nailbomb. Nailbomb was created because Sepultura went on vacation, and I didn’t want to go on vacation. I was like, “Fuck this.” I wanted to do more music. The guys were all laying on a beach in Brazil, and I was here in Arizona, and I got together with Alex [Newport] from Fudge Tunnel. We did the whole Nailbomb record, which some of the Sepultura guys got jealous about. They thought the album was too good and that I should’ve saved some of those riffs for Sepultura. [Laughs] But, you know, I just like to stay active. That’s why I did Nailbomb, Cavalera Conspiracy — Killer Be Killed is one of my favorite things, and I hope I can do another Killer Be Killed this year. I’m trying to get in touch with those guys [Greg Puciato, Troy Sanders, David Elitch], trying to work on something. I love to stay active, you know?
The Roots thing is also staying active; it is just a different approach. It’s not much on the creation part, because it’s already been created, so it’s like playing something that already exists and changing it a little bit to make sure it works live. What we did for the Roots tour that I think is really cool is we played the whole record first, which is an hour and two minutes. We played every song just like the album, in the order of the album — even the tribal songs like “Itsári.” We did the percussion on “Ambush.” Then we come back with something I call the Max and Igor Garage Jam, and it’s just us playing what we love — the cover songs we all love to play, like Motörhead, and Celtic Frost, and Sabbath, and little pieces of Sepultura songs that people love: “Desperate Cry” and “Troops of Doom” and stuff like that. That’s kinda like the end of the show. You go see a show, you see the whole album, and you see a little bit of jam, too. It’s a lot of fun. It was invented around those two ideas of playing the whole record and then the jam session.
But I’m looking forward to future stuff. I’m looking forward to the new Soulfly. I’ve got a lot of cool stuff written already. I think it’s gonna be a great record, because I’m listening to a lot of new stuff I’m really digging lately, like Bölzer and Dead Congregation. I’m a huge metal fan. [Laughs] I listen to metal all the time, all day long. I’m very inspired right now, so I think Soulfly is gonna be a cool album. Killer Be Killed — I’d like to do another thing, another album with that. It’s real fun to do a little bit more melodic stuff with the guys and changing vocals with Greg and Troy. I really loved the first Killer Be Killed, and I think we can do a better one. I think the second one can be even bigger and better and more exciting than the first one. And then at some point, we have the new Cavalera [Conspiracy] to work on, and I would like to, for the first time, bring a killer producer for Cavalera. We never had that. Most of the Cavalera stuff is our own production, and it’s more underground, especially the last record, Pandemonium, which we produced ourselves. I always wondered what would a Cavalera album sound like with a producer behind it. This idea has been around my head, and I’d like to do that with the new Cavalera, so at some point we’re going to get that going. So, those three things are in front of me — new Soulfly, new Killer Be Killed, new Cavalera — and touring. [Laughs] I balance all that, so, yeah, there’s a lot of work to be done, man, which is good. [Laughs] I like to keep moving.
Obviously, you’re playing this new album in full, and you’ve got all these jams — all these tribal jams. A lot of this stuff, I would imagine, you’ve never done live before. What was that like, to basically relearn your own material?
Yeah, I think relearning the album was really fun. Especially the stuff that we never played before, like “Lookaway” and “Ambush,” which has a drum jam — me and Igor doing a drum jam — and then “Itsári” is just kinda Igor doing a drum on top of the Indian’s voice, and it’s killer. It’s almost like a tribal drum jam, drum session, drum solo. It’s not as fancy as a drum solo, just because it doesn’t go super fast, but it’s really hypnotic and really tribal-sounding.
My favorite stuff is kinda like the punk side of Roots, which is “Spit,” “Cut-throat,” “Straighthate” and “Dictatorshit” — the real hardcore side of Roots. And there’s always the classics, too, which is always great because everybody sings “Roots [Bloody Roots],” “Attitude.” “Ratamahatta” is always fun; it’s a great, great jam and fun song. It came out kinda a jam in the studio. So, yeah, it’s a fun record to dig in. There’s a lot of stuff to recreate, and we’ve managed to recreate them; like, “Ratamahatta” is a big difference from the original. We do it a little bit different live. “Lookaway” also. “Lookaway,” we have almost like a dub ending jam that goes on for a while. I do some cool guitar stuff and Igor does some cool drum stuff. It’s fun. It’s fun stretching the songs a little bit, making them a little bit more exciting to play live. Everything else is really very close to the record itself, and I think the other thing that really works is the order of the songs that were created for the album. Seriously, it’s great live. I don’t know if it was luck or whatever, but this order really flows live. It’s like, you have the classics first, then the punk stuff in the middle, then experimental stuff like “Lookaway,” then “Itsári” with the tribal stuff. [It's] almost like, at that part, everybody just stops. There’s no circle pit — people just watch the show, and then go back to the circle pit on “Ambush,” “Endangered Species,” “Dictatorshit.”
So, yeah, it’s a fun record to play, but I’m excited to see what else the future brings. Like I said, Arise would be my favorite record to play. I don’t know when we’re gonna do it — there’s no plan for any of that yet — but seeing as the idea really took off and it was really well-accepted, I think we’re probably going to do some of the other records as well. I hope, I don’t know. There’s nothing concrete yet, but I’m hoping we can do something like that, because I would love to do Arise — that would be the album that I think would be the most fun to play live.
One of the coolest things about you is how hard you ride for young bands. You've worked with Todd Jones from Nails and the Full of Hell guys recently, and we were just talking about Dead Congregation a second ago, which is an obscure band to 90 percent of metalheads.
[Laughs] I love metal. Guys like Todd and Dylan [Walker, Full of Hell] are carrying the torch of metal into the future, which is great. I think it’s so cool because they also respect what came before them. One time, Todd sent me some merch and wrote me a letter — and the letter said that on the “Unsilent Death” song, they borrow a piece of “Territory.” [Laughs] I thought that was so cool. He was totally just saying, “We took a piece of your song and put it in our song. That’s how much we love your work.”
I’d venture to say that hardcore wouldn’t be where it is nowadays if it weren’t for the Chaos A.D. record. That, to me, was a crossover record for a lot of hardcore guys. That and Slayer in general were very pivotal to that movement.
Because I’m such a metal fan, I love discovering new bands, and I love to promote them. I think that’s a really big part of it. That’s the basis of metal; it’s always been like that. I remember when we first started, back in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. It was tape-trading in those days. I was tape-trading with Chuck [Schuldiner] from Death, and Mille [Petrozza] from Kreator, and the guys from Dark Angel and Morbid Angel, and it was so cool to be part of that underground world. I remember the first time I saw the note section and Sepultura was on the Death Scream Bloody Gore record, and I almost shit my pants! That was the coolest thing ever [laughs], just to see our name on somebody else’s record. Something as simple as that means so much to us. To me, that’s almost as cool as winning a Grammy — probably cooler. I take more pride in that than winning a Grammy or something. It’s really part of my system to dig new bands and discover new stuff, and then try to help them by wearing their shirts and spreading the word.
And bringing them out on tour with you.
And I go to concerts, too. Just the other day, we went to see Genocide Pact and met the guys from Gatecreeper there, and Homewrecker. The other thing that’s really cool is my son Igor — he’s really into a lot of those bands. He’s actually the one that got me into Full of Hell. He made friends with them and became friends with the guys at A389 Records, and Travis [Stone], who used to be in Noisem, is actually playing guitar for Lody Kong, which is Igor’s band. Igor’s a lot like me. He’s a huge metal fan, knows every song, and he’s serious about it. It’s not just a thing of the moment — it’s for real.
Zyon [Cavalera] is more kinda classic, like Black Sabbath. The other day, I caught Zyon wearing a Suffocation shirt, and it almost gave me a heart attack because he’s a purist, kinda Black Sabbath kinda guy — but here and there he surprises me. Igor is full-on into the heavier side of things — Full of Hell and, you know, all the heavy stuff — and he got me into a lot of that stuff.
I’m so glad I have them in my life to keep me up there with a lot of the stuff that’s going on. Sometimes you talk to other musicians, and sometimes I ask, “What’s new? What are you listening to?” and some of them have nothing and don’t know anything new. They only know the old stuff, you know. It’s like the world — time — stopped for them. They don’t know anything that’s going on right now, and that’s kinda sad. I don’t want to be like that; I’d rather try to keep up as much as I can, because there are a lot of bands. You just go to Spotify or whatever it is and there are a billion, billion new bands. You find a lot of cool stuff, too, which is great.
You’re a huge advocate for metal and underground music, and some of the darker regions of hardcore, but outside of that, what do you listen to?
A while back, I used to listen to a lot more dub stuff. There was a really good label from France called Hammerbass, and they put out a lot of cool dub stuff, but that kinda has died out a little bit. That stuff is also really underground. But then came the dubstep, which I didn’t like very much. I like more purist dub. And I’m interested in people that do stuff with other cultures — like, Dead Can Dance is one of the things I really like. One of my favorite records is Peter Gabriel’s Passion: Music for The Last Temptation of Christ, which had a lot of Middle Eastern percussion. I thought it was magical what he did with that soundtrack, and that’s awesome. I love that. That’s pretty much it. Apart from that, it’s all metal. [Laughs] Back to metal and hardcore, which are the two things I love.
I just finished John Joseph’s biography. I loved it.
It’s insane. [Laughs]
And I’m trying to get a hold of [Cro-Mags'] bass player, Harley’s [biography], also because I heard his is really cool, too. I’m kinda from that world, so … I loved that Bad Brains documentary, Banned in D.C. I think that was really cool, that was really well-done. My punk rock roots are still very much alive. That’s something that me and Igor share that’s really cool, too: He loves a lot of punk stuff that we grew up on. We still love all that and we talk about it on tour all the time. It’s cool that we both never forgot that, and that part of our lives is still alive and kicking. A lot of those artists from that era are still doing stuff, like putting books out and stuff. I think that’s really cool.
Here’s an interesting question for you — I’m sure you’re familiar with Youth of Today. I interviewed Ray Cappo, and when they were in the van driving around, they’d listen to showtunes. And if you think about the way a Youth of Today song is structured, the music stops, and it’s just vocals, and it’s kind of this big showtunes moment. Obviously, you play metal, but it has to be rooted in pop song structure, I would imagine. Is pop any part of your lexicon as well? Even older pop like Elton John or something like that?
Well, I kinda missed out on the whole pop thing. When we were teenagers, when metal came in, we hated everything that was pop. Only a few bands happened to break through. U2 was one of them. If you listen to the words, a lot of the lyrics on Beneath the Remains were fully inspired by U2’s War record, which nobody would ever guess. I was actually listening to a lot of old U2 at the time, and they’re one of the bands that I really like from that kind of movement.
I like kinda crazy stuff like Sigue Sigue Sputnik, and shit like that. [Laughs] That band was really crazy, really wild with electronics and weird shit like that. And of course, Devo. I always liked some of the Devo stuff.
Yeah, Igor is more of a bigger fan of that stuff because he does also Mixhell with his wife, which is more electronic. So, he’s more into that than me.
But some of the structures of the songs are actually pop-influenced, for sure. I think if you grab a song like “Roots,” it’s a metal song and all, but I think the structure is very kinda pop. It’s like verse-chorus. I think we twist it a little bit — there’s like a chorus again, and then a breakdown, and then back to the verse and chorus — but it’s pretty close to a pop structure. [Laughs]
Are there any other bands you want to talk about that are kind of younger and cool that you’re into and touring with?
Yeah, I’m looking forward to this and very excited having Full of Hell on the bill. We fought very hard for that, and they’re a band that deserves to be seen by more people, and I think this tour will give them a chance to do that, and that’s gonna be great. And of course, Immolation, too. I love a lot of the death metal stuff, like Suffocation, Incantation and Immolation. They’re all great bands, and I even heard something about they’re recording some kind of Sepultura song somewhere, and they want me to sing on it, so we have to find a studio on the road to do that — I don’t have all the details, but it’s an old classic, old Sepultura classic that they’re going to put on one of their albums, so I’m looking forward to that, too.
Lody Kong is going on a killer tour. They’re going out with Discharge and Eyehategod. I’m looking forward to that. [Laughs] Hopefully, we can make it to a couple of those shows. That’d be great. Apart from that, just more touring.
You've been an essential part of the metal scene for decades, and your list of accomplishments is staggering. Do you have any goals you still want to achieve?
You know, one of my dreams is actually to stage a kind of mini-underground festival tour because we could never get on Mayhem or any of those tours for some reason. I always thought, “Well, fuck it, let's just make our own festival,” and I’m working on it still. We haven’t got it totally down yet, but I would love to have a festival with a lot of those bands — Bölzer, Dead Congregation and Nails — and get all those people together on one festival and go across the U.S. It’d be so fucking fun, and sick and awesome. [Laughs] I’d love to be part of that at some point.
Apart from that, just keep raging and keep working. I love playing metal and doing more work. I’m excited for the new stuff. I think that’s going to be a very cool one, because I’m under the influence of all those new bands. I’m very curious on how that’s going to pan out, and when it bounces back into the Soulfly camp and what happens to it. It should be pretty intense. [Laughs]
I’ll ask you one last question since you and I have talked so much about U.S. death metal in this conversation. Recently, I was hanging out with a friend of mine, and we had a deep debate on what was the better scene in death metal: the Americas or Europe. Which do you think had a better scene — and currently has a better scene — and why?
I mean, who doesn’t love Entombed and stuff like that? Carcass and Napalm [Death]. So, I think older stuff, probably like more European, like Celtic Frost. But, newer ones with Full of Hell, and Nails, and Homewrecker — I kinda like more American stuff from the newer generation. It’s better here now. What’s going on here right now is very strong, and I’m very, very happy for it.
MAX & IGGOR CAVALERA: RETURN TO “ROOTS”
W/ IMMOLATION & FULL OF HELL
2/9 - Las Vegas, NV @ Vinyl @ Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
2/10 - Tucson, AZ @ The Rock
2/11 - Lubbock, TX @ Jakes Sports Cafe
2/12 - Houston, TX @ Scout Bar
2/14 - Dallas, TX @ Trees
2/15 - Austin, TX @ Grizzly Hall
2/16 - Little Rock, AR @ Revolution Music Room
2/17 - Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade
2/18 - Columbus, OH @ Alrosa Villa
2/19 - Baltimore, MD @ Baltimore Soundstage
2/20 - Boston, MA @ Brighton Music Hall
2/21 - New York, NY @ Gramercy Theatre
2/22 - Rochester, NY @ Montage Music Hall
2/23 - Chicago, IL @ Portage Theater
2/24 - Kansas City, MO @ Riot Room
2/25 - Denver, CO @ The Summit Music Hall
2/26 - Salt Lake City, UT @ Metro Music Hall
2/27 - Billings, MT @ Pub Station
3/1 - Seattle, WA @ Studio Seven
3/2 - Portland, OR @ Hawthorne Theatre
3/3 - San Francisco, CA @ Slims
3/4 - Santa Ana, CA @ Observatory