Max Cavalera: My Life Story

A close-up of Max Cavalera
Max Cavalera (Image credit: Getty)

Max Cavalera led Sepultura to superstardom, reinvented himself in Soulfly, and transformed the face of music forever. He’s a heavy metal legend, but his roots are as strong as ever.

What’s your full name and date of birth?

“My full name’s Massimiliano Antonio Cavalera and I was born on August 4, 1969 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. I have a brother, Iggor, and a sister, Kira, both younger than me. We were a very close family, although I hung out a lot more with Iggor because there wasn’t a big age difference – only a year. My sister’s six years younger than me, so she spent a lot more time with our mother, Vania.”

Your father, Graziano, was the Italian ambassador to Brazil, but died when you were nine. How did that affect you?

“It affected everything I did, and still does. You have to understand what it did to my family. My father was 41, in good health. Never drank or smoked… just dropped dead one day. Without any warning. Because of his age, he never left a will, so my mother, brother, sister and me were almost left on the street. We ended up living at the back of my grandmother’s house in Belo Horizonte. We had one room and shared a bathroom with others. Except for Kira, we all had to go out and get jobs as soon as we could, just to keep ourselves alive.”

When did you first get interested in music?

“It was as a direct result of my father’s death. I remember that he used to come home from the Embassy, lock himself in his room and listen to music for three hours. I never understood why, although these days I do the same thing. But after he died, Iggor and I became frustrated, angry and pissed off at the world. We hated the fact that we had nothing now, while there were so many others out there who seemed to have it all. We were expelled from three schools, because we just couldn’t settle. That’s when we discovered punk and metal music, because it reflected how we felt at the time.”

What was your first band?

“Well, Iggor and I were in a couple of bands before Sepultura. One was a punk group called Guerrilla; we did lots of Sex Pistols covers. The other one was Tropa De Shock, which was a bit more metal, but still had a lot of punk about it. Neither was serious, though.”

How did you start Sepultura?

“It started with a name I wrote at the back of a dictionary. There was no plan for a band, but I came across this word, ‘Sepultura’, which means ‘grave’ in Portuguese, liked the sound of it, and wrote it down. My mother recently found the dictionary and gave it back to me! Now, Iggor had always been into drums, and used to hang out with a lot of drummers. He knew what he was doing, but I hadn’t a clue. I remember the very first gig we ever did, I didn’t understand at all about tuning my guitar. One of the guys in another band had to do it for me. That’s when I thought I’d better learn to play. But when Sepultura did that first album [1986’s Morbid Visions], I’d completely forgotten again how tune my guitar. That’s how primitive we were back then.”

How did the deal with Roadrunner happen?

“I went to America for two days with tapes of our Schizophrenia album; I managed to get the airline tickets for nothing. I just gave the tapes to any label I could think of – loads of them. The only person to call me was Monte Connor from Roadrunner. He was excited by what we did, and really could see how much the band could do. Thinking back now, it’s amazing what we achieved, because even on Schizophrenia [1987], Iggor didn’t even have a proper drum kit! And he played the double bass drum parts with his hands! But Monte could hear something.”

What was your relationship like with Roadrunner in those early days?

“Well, there were initial problems. They kept calling us ‘The Jungle Boys’, which was really annoying. We kept telling them that Brazil had skyscrapers as well, we weren’t backwards. Someone at Roadrunner even came up with a merchandising idea of a t-shirt saying ‘Welcome To The Jungle’, which infuriated us. That was a Guns N’ Roses song, as everyone knows, and we hated what bands like that were about. But, by and large, we found the label to be hugely supportive.”

Is it true that Scott Burns wasn’t the first choice of producer for Beneath The Remains?

“Yes, and this is something few people know. Jeff Waters of Annihilator was supposed to do it in 1989, but he didn’t want to go to a third-world country or something, so someone suggested Scott Burns, who was then an unknown. Thank goodness we went with him, because Scott was amazing, and then became the major death metal producer in the 1990s.”

How did you meet your wife and manager, Gloria?

“That was when Sepultura supported Sacred Reich and King Diamond in New York. My guitar fucked up, so on the spur of the moment I decided to leap into the crowd with my microphone and sing from there! Gloria, who managed Sacred Reich, thought that was really cool. She came to see us afterwards, said how impressed she’d been with our set, and offered to manage us for a year without pay to prove herself – a good deal! Slowly after that, Gloria and I got into a personal relationship.”

You famously quit Sepultura after a show at London’s Brixton Academy in December 1996. What actually happened?

“It was so soon after the death of my stepson Dana [Wells], and we were all in a highly emotional state. It was then that the rest of the band gave me this ultimatum. They wanted to fire Gloria and get a bigger manager. The thing is the situation was coldly calculated. It’s as if they said, ‘We’re sorry about Dana, but business is business’. What angered me was that they all knew Dana as well. He was their friend. But they chucked that all away. With hindsight, I wish we’d just agreed to take a year’s break from each other and think everything through properly. But we were young, hotheaded and everything boiled over. Was it that bad backstage at Brixton? Yes. Do I regret what happened? Yes.”

Were you shocked that Iggor never backed you at the time?

“I understood that he was in a very diffcult place. Being torn between loyalties.”

Was there any family pressure to try and get you and Iggor back talking?

“None at all. Everyone in the family did the right thing by keeping out of the situation. I think there was always a belief that when the time was right, we would talk again. I also knew there would be an incident, positive or negative, that gets us back together on a personal level. Sadly, it was Dimebag’s murder which did it.”

Did you find people changed towards you when you left Sepultura and started Soulfly?

“The people who mattered to me never changed their attitude at all. However, there were a lot of others who were hangers-on with Sepultura, only interested in the band because of our success, and they disappeared from my life when I quit and set up Soulfly. That’s one of the reasons I always regarded Dimebag and Vinnie Paul as genuine friends. Soulfly did a tiny club in Dallas on that tour and they came down to show support for me. It was amazing and very touching.”

Has being a father to Zyon and Igor altered your attitude to life?

“I don’t believe so, but it is one of the most punk things I’ve done. And now that Zyon’s old enough, it’s great to be able to play music with him. I think there’s something very metal about teaching your son songs which say ‘Fuck the police’ and so on! Zyon, though, was into metal even before he was born; you can hear his heartbeat on Refuse/Resist, the opening track for the Chaos AD album [1993].”

Is it hard to be a positive person when so much that’s negative has happened in your life?

“You know, I’ve always thought that for every positive thing that happens there will be an equal and opposite reaction. I think I understood this when Sepultura did our first big gig in Brazil. Over 50,000 fans turned up, and the night was incredible. But someone was murdered with an axe. Since then, it seems to be a rule of my life. The death of my father, of Dana and also my grandson, Moses [in 2004]… they were all devastating. But you have to deal with them, and accept they’re part of life.”

You thank God on every album. Don’t you feel hatred towards him after such tragedies?

“I don’t, no. For the reason I explained – the balance in your life. However, I don’t want anyone to think when I thank God, it’s something to do with being a religious person in the conventional sense. I hate organised religions. To me, this is something very personal, but important. I can’t easily explain what God is to me. However, let’s just say I accept there’s a higher force guiding our existence.”

Originally published in Metal Hammer 136

Malcolm Dome

Malcolm Dome had an illustrious and celebrated career which stretched back to working for Record Mirror magazine in the late 70s and Metal Fury in the early 80s before joining Kerrang! at its launch in 1981. His first book, Encyclopedia Metallica, published in 1981, may have been the inspiration for the name of a certain band formed that same year. Dome is also credited with inventing the term "thrash metal" while writing about the Anthrax song Metal Thrashing Mad in 1984. With the launch of Classic Rock magazine in 1998 he became involved with that title, sister magazine Metal Hammer, and was a contributor to Prog magazine since its inception in 2009. He died in 2021