Dear 14-year-old Robb…
Music will be a way for you to make sense of your life, good and bad. Your life will take a path, and you’re going to learn whatever you need to learn, and do whatever you need to, and then take those lessons and apply them.
Your parents don’t want you to play music. Well, in one sense they’ll be supportive. Your father will rent you a guitar for three months for $45, and promise to match anything you save if you keep on playing. You’ll keep on playing, save up $200 and get a $400 Ibanez. In that sense it’s cool, but he still won’t get what you’re doing. By the time alcohol and drugs and girls come into it, him and your mom will be divorcing and you’ll be totally out of hand, fucking girls in your bedroom until 1am.
But you practise a lot.Metallica are a huge reason you start playing, and you’ll see them opening for Raven in front of 250 people. As a teenager from the Bay Area, you’ll never believe it, but you’ll support them one day.
In your early 20s, you’ll still love playing music and want to make it. But when your band Vio-Lence is ending, you’ll start selling drugs to make money – and you’ll be good at it. You won’t get high on your own supply. Even though you’re addicted to it, the logic will come over you that if you’re gonna sell it, you shouldn’t do it. You won’t be in a street gang, but you’ll be out of your mind on the streets. Cops will bust everybody, but you’ll miss them by five minutes. You’ll go to Slayer shows and make $2,000 selling speed – it’ll be like the jackpot at Slayer shows. Listen: in a few years you’ll be supporting them, and it’ll be the first time you’ve ever left America.
This will be your life; parts of it will be fun, and parts of it will be terrifying. Some bikers will offer to front you a shit-ton of speed because they’ll think you’re some rising star, and it’ll scare the fuck out of you. You’re just trying to make money between being in a band, and it’ll make you wanna be in a band more. Dudes will want you dead. For a good six months you will not be safe anywhere you go. Every step you walk out the door, you will have a gun and a knife. It will be a twitchy way to live. And then Machine Head will happen.
At the beginning of Machine Head, you will be pretty negative. In the band, you will have a saying: ‘This is the worst!’ You’ll have these neighbours who are college kids, always complaining about you playing loud music. You’ll think, ‘These fucking neighbours are the worst!’ Then they will move out and a Middle Eastern guy will move in who is about to get deported. In a rash decision he will marry this lady who is the fucking scum of the earth, and she’ll move in with her teenage kids who are in a gang. Then they’ll get divorced and she’ll file something so he can’t come in the house, and this family will still be living there. They’ll threaten your wife, steal your mail, have screaming matches and they’re not even paying rent. They will finally get evicted. You’ll never utter the words ‘This is the worst’ again, because the world will show you just how bad it can be. It is a big lesson.
In Machine Head’s early days, some dude in the Bay Area will say: ‘I can see you guys lasting five years.’ He won’t be saying it as a compliment, but in your head five years will sound like a long time. It won’t be easy, but it doesn’t need to be. We’re conditioned to believe that life is supposed to be easy, when we should be conditioned to know that life is gonna be hard with easy points. And that’s OK.
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You’ll put a lot of your life into your first record, Burn My Eyes, and it will be this crazy, insane time. You will sign to Roadrunner, who have Sepultura, Biohazard – all the best bands. Fuck yeah! There is so much happening that you won’t stand back and take stock of it until literally years later. You will hold your own against a Slayer crowd at its most vicious. I mean, you can open for Slayer now, but in ’94 it will be like life or death. You’ll walk out to the entire front row flipping you off, but you will take that energy and turn it around and make it work for you.
It’ll be a big fucking deal, a huge break, and something you’ll never take for granted. You and your bandmates will be self-destructive and going down your own drug and alcohol paths. Some of you will feel like you’re selling out because you’re too big. You will wrestle with your own success.
But, in a few years, you will call up a guy who reviewed your third album, The Burning Red, and give him a bunch of shit for giving you a four out of five. It’s the right call, but it’s the call you don’t wanna hear. You’ll look back one day and see it was one of the best reviews there was!
Now, some people will hate its follow-up, Supercharger, because they’ll base their opinions on what’s comparative at the time, rather than its own merits. But everything happens for a reason. Songs from Supercharger, like Crashing Around You or Deafening Silence, will lead to songs like Darkness Within and Be Still And Know on Unto The Locust, 10 years later. So much of music is about what someone thinks about it at the exact moment it drops, but music is more often than not this butterfly effect. When you play songs off Supercharger years later, people will lose their fucking minds, because it’s a ‘classic’.
You won’t believe this. After releasing your sixth album, The Blackening, you’ll tour with Metallica and James Hetfield will ask to play one of your songs! You will be warming up in the dressing room, where there’s a little electronic drumkit that your drummer, Dave McClain, uses to warm up. James will come in and jump on the drumkit. He will ask if you know any Metallica, and you will jam a few songs. Then your bandmates will come in, and you’ll jam a few Iron Maiden songs. Then he’ll say, ‘Let’s play Aesthetics Of Hate’, and he’s on the drums! Next thing you know, it’ll be like: ‘Hey, James wants to play Aesthetics Of Hate with you onstage!’ It will be amazing.
You will try and be cool, but a couple of days later, you’ll be doing it again. During the chorus, you’ll be trading vocals – him banging with you, and you banging with him – and you’ll grab him by the shoulders and say, ‘This is fucking awesome!’ It will be so much fun, and you will feel honoured. You have to be able to show that gratitude, because those are the moments you’re gonna carry with you forever. All that bullshit and the struggles of your life, that one amazing moment is gonna carry you past all that.
Listen, you don’t want kids now, but you’ll love having them. You’ll be so glad you didn’t listen to whatever dumb shit you were telling yourself at the time. It’s not like what they tell you, in any way, shape or form, and it’s gonna change your life forever. It’ll put it in perspective. You’ll become more aware that you’re gonna die, because you used to have this little baby, and now your oldest is taller than you. It goes by so fast and you won’t be here forever. You won’t know what you want to leave, but it’ll make you look at life differently.
At age 50, you’ll put a different side of your life into music, and some people won’t like that. People will criticise or talk shit, but remember your skin’s three inches thick. You’re just a dude making music, and once you put it out, it’s not even yours anymore. There are songs you wrote 25 years ago that you don’t believe in, but those songs are part of the journey. Luckily, people will keep supporting it. You might not be remembered like The Beatles and Zeppelin, but to the few people it mattered to, it will matter.
This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer issue 308