Machine Head: From breakup to resurrection in less than a year

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

"We’d been touring for over a year. And then, as the British say, things went tits up!”

2018 was a rather eventful year in the life of Machine Head. Despite a history that’s had no shortage of drama, the news that guitarist Phil Demmel and drummer Dave McClain were quitting the band took everyone by surprise. 

Announced by frontman Robb Flynn in a very raw and emotional Facebook Live post last September, the split occurred just before the band were to embark on a major tour in support of latest album Catharsis

Machine Head completed the tour, using the last dates to celebrate Phil and Dave’s contribution to the band and bring that era to a close in the right spirit. Nonetheless, the future for Robb’s band – now reduced to him and bassist Jared MacEachern, who joined in 2013 – looked uncertain.   

“The world got to watch me get divorced on the world wide web,” Robb notes with a weary chuckle. “That’s the price of living your life in public. Sure, you get to share your travels around the world and all the high points, but you also get to share all the bad points, too. I didn’t want to pretend it wasn’t happening and then, at the end of the tour, announce that they were leaving. 

"We’ve had a painfully honest relationship with our fans and that’s been an amazing thing. It’s really created an incredible bond. We’ve gone on this journey together and there’s no way I could look myself in the eye and pretend that this didn’t happen for six weeks, just to protect the fanbase. So we dealt with it and put it out there.”

An already raw and emotional situation wasn’t helped by an interview Phil Demmel gave to Sirius XM’s Liquid Metal earlier this year, in which, among other gripes, he complained that the band had turned into Robb’s solo project. Today, Robb is philosophical about the split and declines to discuss his former bandmate’s comments. 

“When you step back you can see that everybody was a part of this,” he muses. “I don’t know exactly what brought it to a head, but I know that I’d been writing new music for a while and those guys didn’t want to work on stuff. 

"So I started demoing some stuff, just so they could hear what I was writing, and then I think there might have been a conversation about the future, because we knew that that upcoming tour was the last thing that we were doing for the tour cycle. Then it went pear-shaped.”

I was America’s punching bag for nine months

Rob Flynn

Did they make a big announcement?

“Nah, we talked. It happened over a two-day period and then that next day was when I announced it. It was tough.”

The most enduring of all Machine Head line-ups played their final show in Santa Cruz on November 24, 2018. Robb remembers feeling relieved that he’d avoided crying onstage during the tour. This was the end of an era.

“There were definitely emotional moments” he adds. “But we did it. I tried to keep it classy. Every night on that tour, I got people to chant the guys’ names and that’s the way it should be.”

Losing two band members wasn’t Robb’s only problem in 2018. Released in January of that year, Machine Head’s ninth studio album, Catharsis, divided opinion like nothing they’d released since The Burning Red in 1999. 

Despite having made several advance statements about the album’s lengthy, experimental nature, Robb was confronted with a tsunami of online negativity, most of which seemed to focus on either his socially aware, politically charged lyrics or the album’s numerous stylistic detours. 

“I was America’s punching bag for nine months from when the first song from Catharsis dropped,” he recalls. “I couldn’t put up a single fucking post without
a hundred trolls raging at me. Being the leader of a band can be lonely. When things aren’t necessarily received well, it’s even lonelier.”

As he points out, Catharsis has actually done remarkably well by contemporary sales standards and the band’s subsequent tours almost sold out. However, the perception remains that Catharsis was, at the very least, a divisive record that infuriated as many fans as it pleased. Robb is having none of it.

“I’m proud as fuck of that record. I knew it was going to piss people off. Somehow it’s become the mythology of Catharsis, ‘It was a very divisive record!’ Every fucking article I read! Yeah, it was divisive to white supremacists and racist pieces of shit, it was divisive to the fuckin’ alt-right. 

"But our fans loved it. People love that fucking record. A bunch of asshole trolls who got their fuckin’ panties in a bunch about it. Fuck ’em! I feel like certain groups, the press in particular, want me to apologise for that record. I ain’t apologising for shit!”

He laughs, pauses, takes a deep breath and addresses the fans…

“To the extremely vocal minority that didn’t like it, hey man, that’s cool! I’m not mad at you. I’m grateful that anybody liked any moment of Machine Head. If you ever liked one song that I’ve written in my life, I’m unbelievably grateful. Thank you so much for enjoying something that I did. 

"I think it’s unbelievably arrogant and naïve and fucking stupid to think that everything I write is going to appeal to every single person that ever bought even one album of ours. I don’t expect everybody to stay on this journey, but if you do stick around, it’s gonna be fucking crazy because that’s what life’s like.”

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

Seven months on from that Facebook Live video, Robb is not just back to his usual, ebullient self, he sounds more fired up than he has in a long time. Against the odds, things are going fucking great in the Machine Head camp and as happy as he is to talk about 2018’s events, he’d prefer to focus on the here and now.

Today he’s buzzing from the response to his latest announcement: a Burn My Eyes 25th Anniversary tour that’ll see the return of guitarist Logan Mader and drummer Chris Kontos, alongside Robb and bassist Jared MacEachern, playing the band’s classic debut album front-to-back. 

Not only that, but these forthcoming An Evening With Machine Head gigs will also feature a 90-minute set of classics and deep cuts from all the band’s post-Burn My Eyes albums, performed by a new Machine Head, for which Robb is currently auditioning guitarists and drummers. 

Shows in Paris, London and Dublin sold out and, as Robb cheerily notes, the online response to the announcement has been overwhelmingly positive. Meanwhile, he has already started recording new material, including new song Do Or Die: a brutal and intense response to anyone who thought Robb might be considering knocking this Machine Head thing on the, um, head. 

“I wrote the music for Do Or Die back in August, just before everything happened,” he recalls. “Two days after that announcement on Facebook Live, I was back in the studio and working on ideas and the lyrics came out while I was freestyling. 

"I guess I was just really pissed off that day. After all the haters and all the negativity, all the bullshit and getting divorced on the worldwide web, I just fired it all back, man. 

"It’s vicious. I know a lot of our popular songs are very metaphorical, like Now We Die and Halo, and I love that. I love writing violent poetry, if you will. But other times I’ve just got to get shit off my chest. Like Jamey Jasta always says, it’s ignorant-ass Oakland metal! Ha ha ha!”

For all Robb’s renewed positivity, it’s hard not to view recent good news through the prism of what happened less than a year ago. Phil and Dave had been an integral part of Machine Head for a long time, participating in most of the band’s biggest triumphs – not least the all-conquering brilliance of 2007’s The Blackening – and countless world tours that further strengthened the formidable bond between Machine Head and their fans. 

Losing them was clearly a massive shock to the system, but while Robb admits that the split was emotionally draining, he has nothing but positive things to say about his former bandmates’ contributions.

I write Machine Head songs. I’m pathetically unqualified to do anything else

Rob Flynn

The Beatles lasted 10 years! Led Zeppelin? Ten years!” he bellows. “From Kill ’Em All to The Black Album was fucking eight years. We lasted twice that! Phil was in the band for 16 years, Dave was in the band for 23? Dude, that’s fucking magic right there. Nothing lasts forever. Enjoy the fucking moment. Enjoy the ride. Now? It’s a new chapter.”

Did you ever contemplate the end of Machine Head and the prospect of doing something else?

“Look, I’m 51 years old and I’ve been doing this since I was 17. I’m pathetically unqualified to do anything else. This is it for me. I write songs. I write Machine Head songs. This is what I do. I’m damn fucking good at it and I’m going to keep doing it. I would’ve hoped that we could’ve worked it out with Phil and Dave, but yeah, I’m gonna keep on writing songs for Machine Head, because that’s what I’ve got to do.”

It must have been reassuring that Jared decided to stick around. Let’s face it, if ever there was a moment for him to bail out, that was it…

“Totally, for sure. I think he even did leave on the first day!” Robb laughs. “He was like, ‘I’ve really got to think about it…’ So I wasn’t sure if he was sticking around, but he called me the next morning and said, ‘You know what dude? I’m gonna stay. It’s awesome being here, I love it, I’ve wanted to make music my whole life. I want to make music with you and keep going!’ 

"I was like, ‘Alright, kickass!’ He stuck around and that was a great thing. He’s an awesome fucking dude. He’s a beast onstage. Our voices sound incredible together. It’s great having him around.”

When it comes to filling the other two, currently vacant positions in the traditionally four-man Machine Head, Robb is still in the early stages of working out what he needs, but he notes that auditions are going well and that everything will be in place by the time the tour kicks off in the autumn. 

Right now, it’s unclear whether the new members will become permanent fixtures or remain hired guns, but Robb is adamant that Machine Head is not about to become a solo project. The details can be worked out later on, but Machine Head is alive and well.

“I love being in a band,” he avows. “I love having input from people and I love creating with people. I feel like one of my strengths is taking a bunch of good ideas and turning them into one great idea. So what else am I going to do? When it comes to the future and new members, I don’t know, man. 

I just got a divorce, I’m not ready to get married again! Ha ha! I’m auditioning new guys. I’m jamming with my old guys. I’m writing new music. I’m recording new songs. I’m working on new stuff. I’m being busy, staying focused, staying positive and that’s all I can do. Enjoy the fuckin’ moment.”

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

Speaking of moments, the world could well experience some major seismic disruption this October, when Machine Head take Burn My Eyes out on the road. 

Much to the excitement of old-school Head Cases, Logan Mader and Chris Kontos will be playing those classic songs live for the first time in decades, celebrating 25 years of one of the most influential of all modern metal records. Given that Machine Head seemed to be in disarray a few months ago, this could hardly be better timed. 

“We’ve been talking about it since 2015 but not everyone was into it,” Robb says. “I was talking about it with my tour manager and the guys, saying that obviously this would be a good year to do it. In light of recent events, it’s become much easier to do it, ha ha! 

"Not long after I made the announcement about Phil and Dave, Logan texted me. We’ve remained friends for a while now. He’s been coming to LA Machine Head shows since 2004. When we were nominated for the Grammy [for Best Metal Performance for Aesthetics Of Hate in 2008], Logan was our designated driver! Ha ha ha ha! So he texted me, we ended up talking and he said, ‘It would be cool to do something around the anniversary…’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, it would!’”

The final piece of the Burn My Eyes puzzle is drummer Chris Kontos, who was replaced by Dave McClain back in 1995. Since then, Chris has been in countless bands but was in the midst of an extended hiatus when Robb called.

“Chris quit the music business about five years ago. He’s been doing some BMX stuff. I hadn’t even run into him in 12 years. He hadn’t played drums for about five years, so that was my biggest concern. 

"Fuck, these songs aren’t easy, especially on the drums! But he came in to the studio and we burned through Burn My Eyes, and he remembered shit on some of the songs better than I did! We can’t wait to get out there. It’s going to be fucking amazing, dude.”

It also looks like it’s going to be fucking expensive, too: two line-ups, massive stage production… is your wallet screaming already?

“Oh god, yeah! Ha ha! It’s going to be a wildly expensive tour. We’re already losing money on the tour and I don’t fucking care. We are bringing out shit-tons of production. It’s gonna be fucking massive. I just want to blow it up and give people the fuckin’ show of a lifetime. 

"If we make money or lose money, I don’t care. It’s going to be an amazing experience, and to me, that’s what life is all about. People should start training for this shit, otherwise they’re gonna get wiped out in the pit!” 

2018 was an eventful but problematic year for Machine Head, but 2019 is promising to be one hell of a triumphant return. Twenty-seven years into a story that’s been anything but dull, you won’t find Robb Flynn sitting around, feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he’s ready to get up and go again. Harder than ever.

“I’m ready to just wreck these fucking crowds,” he grins. “I’m ready to make motherfuckers lose their fucking minds! I want people to walk away from these shows, physically and mentally exhausted to the point of ecstasy, you know what I mean? I want people to see the world differently after this thing and I think they will. It’s gonna be fucking amazing, dude. Let’s rage!” 

Machine Head are finishing off the first leg of their UK and Ireland Burn My Eyes anniversary tour and will return to Europe and Russia next year to continue it.

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.