Machine Head: "People just like calling me a dick"

a portrait of Robb Flynn
(Image: © Steve Brown)

“The last song for the record was written and recorded just after the white supremacist rally and the murder in Charlottesville. If music is a snapshot of somebody’s headspace captured, that day you got a raw burst of fury and anger and frustration and confusion, and it’s all there in Volatile. After is all said and done, I’m saying some shit, but this shit’s got to be said.”

Robb Flynn is animated, eyes widening and voice defiant. We’re chatting in the basement of London’s Gibson Studios, before Hammer’s photoshoot, and the Machine Head frontman has a lot of things to get off his chest. However, his primary focus is unquestionably the bold new album his band have just finished. A sprawling, 75-minute colossus, the ninth Machine Head record almost creaks under the weight of the talking points it throws up: the musical detours, the startling curveballs, and the often pointedly political lyrics and genuine sense of righteous anger that underpins its most powerful moments. There is zero chance that Catharsis will emerge without ruffling a few feathers, but it seems equally likely to send Machine Head’s fanbase into raptures.

Looking healthy, happy and incredibly relaxed for a man assailed by jetlag and a relentless stream of prying journalists, Robb is more than ready for whatever is thrown back at him when Catharsis is released. Never mind that most of the album is heavy as fuck: Catharsis is going to get people talking, for better or worse.

“Yeah, people just like calling me a dick!” Robb laughs. “There’s plenty of shit I don’t say anything about, because who wants to deal with all the bullshit? I don’t. I don’t want my family to deal with the bullshit, either. I say things every once in a while because I feel I have to, but I don’t want to be that guy, you know? I don’t want that title, ‘The Guy Who Stands Up And Says Shit’. Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to the Dead Kennedys and Public Enemy – shit that was super-fucking-pissed off about what’s going on now. That stuff still resonates with me and it still influences me.”

Robb goes on to explain that seventh track Bastards was not originally meant to be a Machine Head song. Penned as he was trying to get his head around the idea that America had gone mad and elected a narcissistic lunatic as supreme leader, its lyrics were inspired by a conversation that he and his wife Genevra had with their two sons, as they tried to explain America’s perverse electoral choice.

“I picked up an acoustic guitar and I just started strumming four chords,” he recalls. “It’s just a folk song, that’s all it is, four chords that have been played a million times over the last 100 years. I knew that and I just didn’t care, because I really liked the way it sounded. I started singing over it, it somehow worked, I put it up on YouTube, told the guys I was gonna do it, and then at that point I kinda thought it was over.”

As it turned out, Bastards has ended up becoming the beating heart of an album that could yet prove to be Machine Head’s definitive work. Embellished and beefed-up from Robb’s solo version, the song’s message of defiance and unity in the face of division and dishonesty could hardly be more timely. Plus, of course, there is something uniquely thrilling about hearing Machine Head sound like a turbocharged Dropkick Murphys: weirdly, it suits them.

“In some weird way, we’ve always had these empowering songs like Imperium or Ten Ton Hammer, and that song really had something powerful to say,” Robb explains. “As the recording process evolved, I kept having the lyrics pop up in other songs, really just based around the chorus: ‘Stand your ground, don’t let the bastards grind you down / Be bold, be strange / Don’t let their fears make you afraid…’ It appeared in Catharsis, it showed up in Hope Begets Hope and it showed up in Grind You Down. It just weaved its way into the rest of the record and it kinda became the centrepiece.”

Given how far removed Bastards is from standard notions of what a Machine Head song sounds like, did everybody in the band share your enthusiasm for the song from the start?

“Definitely not, ha ha! There was a lot of discussion, like, ‘Do we need to say this?’ But it’s a powerful song. It’s funny, because here I am on a press tour and I almost felt like I was going to have to explain to people why that song is on the record. It’s definitely way outside of anything we’ve ever done and I know that, but it’s all everybody wants to talk about. People are saying ‘It’s the fuckin’ song of the album!’ and I’m blown away by that.”

Surprise at their entry into the folk rock realm aside, Bastards is also notable for the livid and vivid attack of Robb’s lyrics. The final verse is already sparking some controversy, thanks to the phrase: ‘Give us all your faggots and your niggers and your spics…’ Frankly, the point Robb is trying to make by using those words is obvious enough: he’s taking the insults of the ignorant, flipping them and embracing their targets. Unfortunately we live in an age where anything and everything can be taken out of context and turned into what Robb wearily describes as “easy clickbait”, and while it seems odd that anyone could misconstrue the intent behind Bastards, he knows that his use of those words will inevitably be questioned.

“Dude, look. I’ve been called a ‘nigger’, a ‘faggot’ and a ‘spic’ hundreds of times in my life,” Robb notes. “I’ve loved hip hop since I was 17 years old, I’ve heard ‘nigger lover’ countless times. Around the time of The Burning Red, I heard it every week for years, ha ha ha! Not that I’m gonna sit here and say that I can identify with that exact experience, because obviously I can’t. I’m a white man. It’s not OK to say the n-word. It’s not OK for a white person to say it. But I’m not saying it to somebody. I’m saying it to embrace somebody, in a broader sense. For me, the next line is way more inflammatory, when I sing, ‘Give us all your Muslims, the so-called terrorists, we’ll welcome them with open arms and put them in our mix, we’re better off together now, embrace our difference…’ I did ask myself, ‘Can I say this?’ but it all needed to be said.”

Machine Head have given up conventional tours in favour of ‘An Evening With… ‘ shows

Machine Head have given up conventional tours in favour of ‘An Evening With… ‘ shows
(Image: © Marie Korner)

The state of the world isn’t the only subject that Machine Head explore on Catharsis. People will inevitably focus on the more overtly political songs, but this is an album that revels in its own diverse remit. There are balls-out rock’n’roll songs with wonderfully goofy, obnoxious lyrics (California Bleeding, Razorblade Smile), there are pummelling, faintly psychedelic paeans to the power of music (Catharsis, Kaleidoscope), towering symphonic metal epics (Heavy Lies The Crown) and even an acoustic, unplugged ballad with gentle prog touches and some luscious vocal harmonies sung by Robb and bassist Jared McEachern (Behind A Mask). Yes, Catharsis is an angry record, but it’s also a classic example of what an album can be.

“When I look at the record, it’s like a movie,” says Robb. “And yeah, it’s a long one, ha ha! It’s really long, 15 songs, 75 minutes… but every record we do is like that to me, it’s always a movie. This one’s just one of those three-hour Lord Of The Rings movies! It’s not just 15 songs that have nothing to do with each other, it’s 15 songs that all tell a story. We had to ask if we really needed to put 15 songs on a record in 2017, in a singles culture where three songs are gonna define this album and most people aren’t gonna listen to the whole record. But after a while we realised, this is a great movie and we’ve just got to leave it the way it is.”

Looking back at the eight albums Machine Head made prior to Catharsis, it seems silly to be surprised that the new record covers a lot of musical ground. What does come across strongly is that Catharsis sounds like the work of a band who have reconnected with music in a broad sense, exploring influences that they have only casually touched upon in the past and indulging in experimental ideas that few of their peers would consider. But as Robb points out, these evolutionary steps do not reflect a broadening of his band’s shared musical tastes. In fact, music has absolutely fuck-all to do with it.

“Right now, I’m not listening to any music at all,” he shrugs. “I’m watching Game Of Thrones and House Of Cards and Breaking Bad and I’m listening to podcasts and Howard Stern. I nearly never listen to music. TV is just so fucking good right now. It’s amazing, the longform storytelling. My wife and I just went back to the first season of Game Of Thrones, and it’s just ridiculous. It’s really brutal and violent and treacherous and there’s sex and nakedness and it’s pushing every fucking button. It’s way more interesting to me than music and I’m more inspired by that than music.”

Phil, Dave, Robb and Jared: brothers in arms

Phil, Dave, Robb and Jared: brothers in arms
(Image: © Marie Korner)

With that love for longform storytelling in mind, Catharsis certainly presents its own compelling narratives. Another of the album’s potentially controversial tracks is Triple Beam, a song that recounts a violent and shocking incident from Robb’s past, where he and his friend were attacked on the streets of their native Oakland, California, and had to fight for their lives. The subject matter itself is startling, but it seems likely that whiny people on the internet will be more concerned by the fact that Robb is effectively rapping throughout the song.

“You had to rap it! It was the only way to fit all the words in, ha ha ha!” he says, grinning broadly. “It’s weird to me that so many people never got the rap element that’s been in Machine Head from day one. The Davidian video? I’ve got cornrows in my hair, we’re walking around Oakland with pit bulls, it’s a fuckin’ rap video, come on! We even covered Colors [originally by Ice-T] around the second album. But then The Burning Red came out and people were like, ‘Oh my god, they’ve got rap elements!’ Wait, what? I never got it. I think in some weird way we did run away from that side of things for a while and didn’t want to own that part of us, but we’ve got to own it. It’s part of us and it has always been there.”

Blessed with one of the most vicious and crushing riffs you’ll ever hear, Triple Beam is also one of the darkest moments on Catharsis, as Robb summons memories of a time when, he freely admits, he was “a thugged-out asshole”. More than 25 years on from the incident in Oakland, it’s a story that has undeniable resonance today, as tensions on American streets seem to grow by the day. More importantly, it’s a song that has reaffirmed to Robb that he is a very different man these days.

“It’s a crazy story. It’s a very contradictory story,” says Robb. “Because here I am on this album, singing about catharsis and peace and love or whatever you want to call it, and then on the other hand I’m wrestling with this crazy, intense part of my life. It’s so far removed from my life now. But it is a part of my life. I wasn’t romanticising it. It just came out in that song and we’re really stoked about it.”

Twenty-five years ago, Robb wrote the songs that would become Machine Head’s seminal debut album, Burn My Eyes. The most celebrated of those songs remains that album’s opening track, Davidian, with its defiant war cry of ‘Let freedom ring with a shotgun blast!’ A near-permanent fixture in Machine Head live shows, it’s a song that Robb feels ambivalent towards today, in light of the countless shootings and mass murders that plague modern America. While chatting with fans on YouTube Live recently, Robb even suggested that Machine Head might drop Davidian from future gigs.

“I was talking to 300 people at once and we were just talking about how fucking horrible the Vegas shooting was,” he recalls, grimacing at the memory. “It was the worst mass shooting in American history, and at a music festival! That’s fucking scary. It’s insane. Fifty-eight people died, 500 people injured. I was thinking about Davidian, and I thought, ‘Man, I don’t know if I can sing those words…’ I don’t know if I can sing those words the next time we’re in Vegas, that’s for sure.”

Robb goes on to note that he hadn’t intended his words about Davidian to be taken as an official statement. But his worries about Davidian are sincere, and only balanced out by his bemusement at the instant reaction to his remarks.

“We haven’t talked about it as a band, so that was just something I said and I didn’t really expect for it to get picked up by the media the way it did,” he sighs. “The truth is that there’ve been many times when we haven’t played Davidian at a show. We retired it for an entire tour and nobody said shit! Nobody even noticed. But I did say that we may not play Davidian again. I may change my mind, I may not.”

What did that phrase in the chorus mean to you originally? Can you still stand by that?

“It was just a cool phrase and I was a gun-toting idiot,” Robb shrugs. “I was that gun-toting idiot that shouldn’t have a gun. I’m just very lucky that nothing happened. I was an idiot, out of my mind with that shit. I remember laying on top of a friend’s warehouse, shooting a shotgun into the fucking air, with no concern for where the shells landed. I look back at the dude I was during Burn My Eyes and I don’t even know him.”

A lot has changed in Robb Flynn’s professional life over the last couple of decades, most of it positive. Machine Head relaunched their career with a haughty flourish on 2003’s Through The Ashes Of Empires and have barely put a foot wrong since. They conquered the world with 2007’s The Blackening, consolidated that success with two further albums, weathered the departure of original bassist Adam Duce and the arrival of Jared MacEachern and, most significantly, have spent the last few years purposefully redefining themselves as a live entity. Not many bands would risk playing shows with no support band, performing for two-and-a-half hours every night and stoutly refusing to play at festivals or on package tours, but Robb simply couldn’t envisage sticking with the normal way of doing things.

“I remember the last festival we did. It was Germany and we were playing in a parking lot between two shopping malls and there were about 15,000 people,” Robb remembers, with a scowl. “It was pouring with rain, pissing down, cold as fuck outside. Water’s pouring into my amp, my amp’s fucking up, everybody’s in the audience huddled together, covered in mud. As soon as it started really pouring, everyone scattered for the tents. I thought, ‘When did this become cool? This sucks!’ More than anything, I just felt no connection with the audience. I thought it could be anybody up there and that just bummed me out. I started to hate it. I’d literally look out at the audience and be like, ‘Fuck you!’”

From that moment on, Robb knew that something had to change. Ever the realist, he says he worked out that the old modes of promoting and sustaining a band simply weren’t working for Machine Head anymore. The result was An Evening With…: shows that not only delighted the faithful, but that also made an important point about how much music, and our relationship with the bands we love, has changed.

“Many people tried to talk us out of doing it, but we said, ‘Let’s just do it, and see what happens. If it’s a gigantic failure then just fuckin’ chalk it up as one more bad decision!’ ha ha ha! But if it works, great… and it worked! It worked amazingly. We drew the same amount of people as before and it was just us. We all had an amazing time. Yeah, we’re getting way less money than we were at festivals. We’re playing to way fewer people. 3,000 instead of 30,000. But you know what? Those 3,000 people are out of their fuckin’ minds and having a super-amazing time, and I feel this unbelievable connection now, this super-intense religious experience, and that’s all that matters to me. We love it. It reinvigorated the band.”

Doing things differently, exploring the past and present with no fear, and using music as a means to expel all their negative emotions and enhance the positive ones: Robb Flynn has every reason to be proud of the way Machine Head have strode forward into metal’s uncertain future. Catharsis is a brave, adventurous and yet reassuringly bruising slab of meticulously crafted modern metal. The band’s future looks bright, and Robb is visibly excited by the prospect of getting back out there and communing with his loyal fans. But as content as he appears, his restless spirit won’t let him sit back and congratulate himself quite yet. This state of catharsis is definitely ongoing.

“Honestly? I feel very unfulfilled,” he frowns. “I don’t want to say I’m a pessimist, but I’m always kinda unhappy about the state of where Machine Head is. I’ve always got a little chip on my shoulder and I’m not gonna deny that. I just feel like we have a lot to say and we can accomplish a lot more. I should probably start saying that I have this amazing plan and it’s all carefully thought out, but that’s bullshit. Nobody knows what the fuck they’re doing, and I’m fine with that.”

But does he feel better for getting Catharsis out of his system?

“Oh yeah, absolutely. Unbelievably better. But ask me in three years if I still feel the same. I’m already beginning to worry about what we’re gonna do next, ha ha ha!”

Catharsis is out now via Nuclear Blast and are touring the UK now.

Machine Head 2018 UK tour dates

May 13: Southampton Guildhall
May 14: Cardiff University
May 15: Bristol O2 Academy
May 17: Birmingham O2 Academy
May 18: London Roundhouse
May 19: London Roundhouse
May 21: Nottingham Rock City
May 22: Newcastle O2 Academy
May 23: Glasgow O2 Academy
May 25: Manchester Academy