Robb Flynn didn’t need a global pandemic to stay under cover. Machine Head’s talismanic frontman and tireless leader had already got well into the habit of making the most of his home comforts by the time the world suddenly stopped turning. For the last couple of years, he’s spent pretty much every waking second he’s not out on the road holed up at his home just outside Oakland, California, with his wife and two sons, enjoying family life, blogging and working on potential new Machine Head material.
“I never realised how much of a hermit I am until the world went on quarantine!” he chuckles down a phone line from his house today. “When I’m off the road, I work from home, so my life really isn’t that different. I bought some home gym equipment, we turned the garage into a workout area, we put a couch in there and my wife and I started doing a Friday and Saturday date night where we just kick it in the garage and watch the sunset and drink.” He pauses before adding with another laugh: “I’m having twice as much sex as before the pandemic. So it’s not that bad! It could be much worse!”
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Robb certainly made the most of quarantine. As well as surprise-releasing new Machine Head songs (more on that in a sec), he could be found playing online acoustic cover sessions, hosting his new podcast No F’n Regrets, taking singing lessons (“I need to unlearn some bad habits”) and, um, making the most of extra time with his missus. As we speak in late June, much of the world is beginning to open up again; here in the UK, pubs, cinemas and public spaces are tentatively getting back to business, while in the US numerous states have accelerated their return to ‘normality’ with varying results, as more than half reported a surge in new coronavirus cases. Society is still a long way from anything truly resembling normal life, and the music industry will surely be one of the last to fully resume business as usual.
Which made it all the more surprising when, out of nowhere, Robb released those aforementioned new, fully mixed and mastered Machine Head songs – one of which, Stop The Bleeding, not only featured an appearance from Killswitch Engage singer Jesse Leach, but even packed an accompanying video starring the two frontmen. Even more interesting was that both Stop The Bleeding and its fellow track, Bulletproof, were clearly recorded in the immediate aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, and the international Black Lives Matter explosion that followed.
“I recorded the music a while ago,” Robb reveals. “[Stop The Bleeding] always had a little bit of a Killswitch vibe to me for some reason, and so I reached out to Jesse at one point. We were talking on the Instagram DMs, and I was just like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this tune, I’d love for you to be on it if you ever get the chance.’ He was touring and I was touring, so we were just like, ‘Whatever.’ Then I had him on the podcast, and about a week after I was like, ‘Hey, maybe now is a good time to think about that song.’”
At that point, the song didn’t have any lyrics, but just as Robb began to gather his thoughts for some subject matter, a video was posted online that’d shock the world and spark the single biggest civil rights movement in a generation. As the clip of George Floyd’s senseless death began to blow up, Robb logged on, watched the seven minutes and 46 seconds that’d disgust a nation and began writing.
“I went into a rage,” he says, the good humour now firmly gone from his voice. “I wrote all these lyrics down, and I drove into Oakland. There were already all these protests and demonstrations going on, and I drove past all of them, I went in my studio and I literally just vomited out every single word that I had written an hour earlier. I copied the lyrics and texted them to Jesse, like, ‘Hey man, I wrote these lyrics, I’m super-fucking-pissed, would you be into it?’ He got back to me right away: ‘100%, I’m all in, let’s fucking do this.’”
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And so, Machine Head released Stop The Bleeding and Bulletproof together under the title of Civil Unrest, a mini-EP featuring artwork that includes visages of George Floyd, Donald Trump and riot police. It was one of the loudest shots fired from the metal world in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, the protests for which were still ongoing the world over as this very feature was being written. Not content with simply producing art in the name of protest, however, Robb also made sure he got out to show his support on the streets, attending a couple of BLM demonstrations in his home state.
“I did one in Oakland,” he explains. “And then we drove to the one in Sacramento, about an hour and a half drive away.”
As his dad lives in Sacramento, Robb thought he’d bring his sons along and use the opportunity to carry on a rich Flynn family tradition.
“My dad joined the army when he was 18, served his full term, was honourably discharged, then hated the Vietnam war and went and protested it,” he reveals. “I saw these two sides: You could serve your country and still not agree with everything your country’s doing. He marched against the Vietnam War, he marched in the civil rights protests, he marched for women’s rights. So to go do that with him, to do it with three generations of Flynns, was powerful. People are fucking pissed, man – fucking Bristol, you guys tore down that fucking slave trader [statue of Edward Colston]! I was like, ‘Holy shit, man!’ Fuck them, tear all that shit down.”
Robb’s voice has been a welcome call to arms in a metal scene that, somewhat inexplicably, continues to in-fight over its own relevance to the current political landscape. Despite politics and metal going hand in hand since a little band called Black Sabbath wrote a song called War Pigs, and despite various members of Sabbath, Avenged Sevenfold, Rage Against The Machine, System Of A Down, Beartooth, Architects, Venom Prison, Loathe and countless others showing support to the Black Lives Matter movement, some small corners of metal fandom still seem genuinely pained by the idea of their favourite bands standing up for social justice. “Keep politics out of metal” is a surprisingly common comment on websites and social media channels. Hell, even bands who have always proudly worn their beliefs on their sleeves aren’t immune to such discourse; just ask Tom Morello, who seems to have to regularly remind people that he has a Harvard degree in political science and, um, plays in Rage Against The Machine. It’s a curious rhetoric that Robb, too, has faced, despite having written political Machine Head songs since the band’s inception.
“It does baffle me a lot,” he admits with an amused sigh. “Like, I’m genuinely baffled at it. ‘Shut up and sing.’ What do you think I’m singing about?! Shut up and sing about what? Clenching The Fists Of Dissent, or Aesthetics Of Hate, or Halo? Maybe there are people that don’t listen to the lyrics, I don’t know. Maybe they are just listening to the riffs and the groove, but to me, this is the same thing we’ve been singing about since 1992. It’s not any different for me. I’m not sure why it’s different for them.”
Basically, don’t expect Robb to stop fighting the good fight any time soon. If a global pandemic didn’t stop him, it’s unlikely a few daft comments will either. But what of more new music? While lyrically, Machine Head’s new material is inspired by very recent events, it sounds like, musically at least, it was being worked on for a little while longer. Could lockdown have helped roll a whole new Machine Head album into action? Er, probably not…
“I’m not concerned about dropping albums every three years,” Robb replies, simply. “I love the idea of dropping digital singles because we can put them out [any time]… ‘This single was mastered two days ago, and it’s out there!’ We’ve been doing that a while now – we did [2016 standalone single] Is There Anybody Out There?, which was hugely successful. It’s already been two and a half years since Catharsis, an album is at least another year away. We take a long time, man. I like the idea of dripping songs out every two to three months and giving fans this constant stream of new music. I’ve been saying this pre-pandemic, and now that the pandemic has struck, I feel like this is the way to be.”
Times are changing, and we all have to change with them. Be it through the evolution of Machine Head or simply making sure he’s adding his voice to the sounds of progress, we can at least rely on Robb Flynn to do his bit.