Robb Flynn: "This gang threatened to throw grenades onstage while I played"

Machine Head’s Robb Flynn holding a baseball bat
(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying Robb Flynn has overcome a lot in his journey to the upper echelons of heavy metal. Even before the Machine Head frontman got raked over the coals for nu metal flirtation The Burning Red, he had endured substance abuse, violence and even death threats. 

So with a new line-up and 2022’s Of Kingdom And Crown proving yet again that Machine Head are metal’s most unkillable band, we thought it high time to find out just how Robb keeps triumphing over all… 

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“Looking back, I feel like my dad did a good job. By all definitions we were living in a white trash neighbourhood, but he’d always tell me we were rich – rich in love, family, health… We would go on hikes and he would walk me past the trailer park he grew up in. He and his five brothers lived in a small aluminium trailer and slept on a table that folded into a bed, and didn’t have a bathroom – they’d shit in buckets they’d then have to empty out a quarter-mile away.” 


“When I wanted to start learning guitar, my dad was like, ‘We can’t afford a guitar but I’ll rent this for you. And if I see you’re putting the work in, I’ll match 50% of whatever you earn.’ I was a busboy at a restaurant, picking up dirty dishes and whatever. His thinking was, if I wanted it, I could get it. And I really did – I was obsessed.” 


“The first thrash show I went to was Exciter, the Heavy Metal Maniac tour at [San Francisco music club] The Stone. It was the first time I’d seen circle-pits, my first time seeing crowdsurfers. Me and my friend Jim just went right to the front and headbanged through the whole show. All we could talk about after was how we were gonna start a band.” 


“I went to see D.R.I. before punks and metalheads got along. We pay this guy at the door to get in, and this gigantic fucking skinhead walks up to the doorman and punches him in the face, sending him down, and snarls, ‘No fucking longhairs.’ When D.R.I. came on, it was like a 50-minute-long fight. One dude picks up a broken bottle and sticks it in his forehead, smears the blood down his face and jumps offstage. It was terrifying, scary-as-fuck and thrilling. I was like, ‘I need to be part of this insanity.’” 


“I wasn’t in this to become successful – I just wanted to play thrash metal. Back then, thrashers were rough, man – if you weren’t fast or heavy, you’d get strung up. They’d come up to rip your fucking amp offstage and take you out. When I was in Forbidden, we were opening for Suicidal Tendencies, and they were the scariest band in existence. They’d bring 40 dudes up from Los Angeles, and it would be the most violent shit you’d ever seen, dudes jumping off the PA feet-first into the crowd and breaking collarbones and shit. But it actually went OK because nobody pushed us off, so it was a success!"


“When I joined Vio-lence we went on a real van tour – all of our luggage and gear tied to the top of the van with rope, driving across America. By the time I left, they’d gone from playing two sold-out nights at [Oakland rock club] Omni and The Stone to playing to maybe 100 people, and people were throwing silver dollars at us. I was jumping off and fighting dudes. Like everything else, thrash was dying. I got into this fight, and this gang threatened to throw grenades onstage while I played. I laugh now, but it was real and fucking scary at the time.”


“Somewhere along the way before I started Machine Head, I started feeling like there were decisions being made [in Vio-lence] I didn’t agree with, so it was like, ‘I’ll make my own band because I know what I want to do.’ I started Machine Head when I was 24 and I felt like a has-been - like, ‘I’m ollllld’ – but I just kept pushing forwards because I love playing music. Machine Head wasn’t a sure bet; we didn’t even have a drummer and only had a few songs. It was a very uncertain time in my life so I just kept writing.” 


“When Machine Head started, we were renting a rehearsal room that we shared with seven other bands. We were the only metal band – the others were all punks and they’d decorated literally every inch of the walls with classic shit from Discharge and GBH to totally unknown up-and-coming punk bands. I remember staring at those punk rock flyers all the time, and this was the time of really political punk – like the band MDC, Millions Of Dead Cops. It all seeped in unconsciously and came out in [1994 debut] Burn My Eyes.” 


“On the night Machine Head signed with Roadrunner Records, I OD’d on heroin. A really good friend of mine OD’d on the same batch of bad heroin, and he died. A couple of days later, I’m at his funeral, and I’m like, ‘That could have been me.’ It shook me to my core. It was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ Because if things had turned out differently, there’d have been no Burn My Eyes, no Davidian, no nothing.” 


“I genuinely love old-school hip hop. Even back then, alongside the hardcore shows, I was going to see N.W.A, LL Cool J and Ice Cube. I saw Public Enemy so many times, and I love that group to this day. Bands like Biohazard were a big influence on us because they took hip-hop and mixed it with hardcore, long before anyone else was doing it. [Biohazard guitarist] Bobby Hambel was the Slash of hardcore – the coolest motherfucker you ever saw.” 


The Burning Red didn’t sell half-a-million copies because people hated it, you know? There were a lot of motherfuckers lying about not getting that record ha ha! I was throwing Method Man raps into A Thousand Lies on the Burn My Eyes tour; we were covering Colors by Ice-T, but suddenly people were saying we ‘got into hip-hop’ on The Burning Red. The Davidian video is a rap video; we’re walking down the streets with pitbulls! I never understood that criticism, but I think those Burning Red songs stood the test of time. Our mistake was making that video – it was corny as fuck!”

Machine Head’s Robb Flynn holding a baseball bat

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)


“[2005 collaboration project] Roadrunner United was so fun and exciting. One of my greatest strengths as a songwriter is taking all these disparate ideas and turning them into something, so getting to work with so many diverse artists and styles was crazy. It was wild – I went for the big names like Corey Taylor and Howard Jones from Killswitch, and they were like, ‘Fuck yeah, we wanna work with Robb!’ Playing The Dagger at Bloodstock was incredible – we’ve never played it live before.” 


“If you look back at interviews for The Blackening, I was so uncertain if people were gonna like it. We had four 10-minute songs and that was a real risk for us. It was so anti-war too, I had to pull the guys aside and say, ‘Look, I’m gonna start some shit with this, there’s gonna be consequences and backlash.’ There were consequences, too – we got banned from venues, banned from Disney property for a decade and that cost us a shit-ton of money. But that was what I had to say, and what I had to do.” 


“Modern technology has really changed how we approach songwriting. Something like [2020 standalone single] Stop The Bleeding I wouldn’t ever put on an album, but it’s a great song. Putting that out as a standalone single meant fans could digest it and we didn’t have the pressure of, ‘Well, we have this many songs for this album, but these ones don’t go.’ Having Spotify and digital releases is awesome. I really enjoy it.” 


“At one point, people were asking for my opinion on this thing or that thing, but I don’t agree with that. I’m a musician who writes songs; who gives a fuck what I think? I’m just some fucking dude who writes songs. I’m just trying to figure this whole thing out myself – and I still haven’t figured it out. I used to deal drugs and got up to all kinds of criminal behaviour, so don’t put me on a pedestal.”

Of Kingdom And Crown is out now via Nuclear Blast

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.