Twelve albums and 25 years into Soulfly’s career, and Max Cavalera shows no sign of mellowing. The band’s latest album, the exhilarating Totem, calls back to the death/thrash racket his old band Sepultura perfected on late 80s/early 90s classics Beneath The Remains and Arise. It turns out this is no accident, though in typical Max fashion, there’s much going on musically across Totem’s 10 tracks. We caught up with the man himself to talk musical heritage, his heavy metal bucket list and just what the Pantera comeback means for a potential Sepultura reunion.
What‘s the story behind Totem – is it something you started work on before the pandemic?
“During the pandemic it was just me and Zyan [Max’s son, and Soulfly’s drummer] because literally nobody else could be here. We’d go jam three times a week, which is really cool, just guitar and drums for hours. We wrote most of the record like that. Some of it came from his curiosity about how I wrote those early Sepultura tracks – I was like ‘I don't know if I can explain to you in words, but I can definitely show you with a guitar’.
“We let the instruments do the talking and ended up writing a lot of songs. We made the bulk of the record and then I entered the studio with Arthur [Rizk, producer]. He’s always been on my radar as an awesome producer so I knew I wanted to have a Soulfly record produced by him as he could make it really unique. I love his relationship with the underground – he made one of my favourite records, which is Power Trip’s Nightmare Logic in 2017, so when we got together it was like ‘what kind of black magic did you use to bring that to life?’.”
How are you feeling about the album?
“It was it was fun to make you know. It has been a struggle, but that’s cool in a way. I like my records when they've got a little ‘back against the wall’ feeling. That was the case for Soulfly, Prophecy and Beneath The Remains in different ways. There’s some drama – and this time it was with Marc Rizzo [Soulfly’s ex-guitarist who officially left in August 2021], but it becomes, ‘Well I’ll prove to you’ and I went into full army mode. My guitar is my weapon and I’ll write some heavy shit.”
You’d been touring material from Arise and Beneath The Remains. Did that inspire Totem at all?
“I had a conversation with Arthur at one point, saying we’d pulled elements from all my records; a little bit of an early black metal, a lot of thrash, some tribal and some groove. We put all that in one thing and that was kind of the goal for Totem. Plus, I think people just want that death/thrash energy right now. The Beneath The Remains/Arise tour was amazing. Every night was like a religious experience, a lot of people all freaking out. People want to feel to feel alive after this fucking pandemic that stuck everybody inside.
Totem is like a natural reaction to that. I was so involved in those early records that to bring that out wasn't that hard really. It was fun and made me fall in love with short tracks again, the two and a half minute songs that you’ve got to make as interesting as you can. Scouring The Vile is the perfect example of how we captured that spirit of that time, but with the sound of right now. I’d put this toe-to-toe with Arise or Nailbomb any day.“
It's funny you say that about the shorter songs, because the last song on the album, Spirit Animal covers so much ground in nine minutes if you’re not paying attention you’d think it was two or three different songs
“Yeah, Spirit Animal is crazy. It was actually born from watching a documentary of this music psychologist, he was talking about music that puts people in trance. It's got to be at least six minutes, no shorter, so I ran with that. It was like ‘let’s do that – put people in a trance and really fuck them up ha ha!’ I haven't done a 10-minute song before, so that was totally out of my comfort zone. I like two minute songs: I know I can do with two minutes. How are you going to keep things interesting over 10 minutes, make sure it doesn’t go off the rails?
So we just kept adding – we made a big intro, then got some killer solid industrial shit, some Neurosis parts and a big outro at the end. I think it works, especially coming out of Soulfly XII which is a gothic, old Cure and Sisters of Mercy type instrumental. I was out of my element. But sometimes that's where the gems come to life – you try to capture lightning in a bottle with those moments. I didn't even know I could do those big songs, but you gotta try everything in life man.”
How did Obituary vocalist John Tardy end up on the record?
“I had already written Scouring The Vile and I was singing the chorus in the studio. Arthur's like, ‘you sound like John Tardy. That's cool, but it'd be cooler if we get him on the song, right?’ Cooler than me imitating him for sure! I remember touring with John when it was Sepultura, Obituary and Sadus. He sang backing vocals on Beneath The Remains for Stronger Than Hate, so our friendship goes way back. It’s cool to get John Tardy on a Soulfly track – even as a fan I want to fucking hear that. That’s the case with a lot of these – I want to hear Tom Araya on a Soulfly track, Corey Taylor… that’s why I do these collaborations.
Is there anyone on the bucket list you still want to work with?
“Yeah man! Bruce Dickinson, Rob Halford, Tom G. Warrior… I love Celtic Frost! I love the collaborations though, I'm a total metal hoarder. I want to jam with as many people as I can – I don't give a shit.”
I guess that’s why you still do on-stage collaborations too. A couple years back you had the guys from Discharge on for the encore during the Max And Iggor tour…
“That was a childhood dream come true. When teenage Max discovered Discharge, that was the beginning of everything. Discharge have influenced so many people they don't get the credit for. You can ask Metallica; they will tell you the same, they fucking worship Discharge. Iggorr [Max’s brother] met them and brought [Discharge vocalist] JJ and [guitarist] Bones to the Birmingham show when we played the UK. I was trying to control myself because I was freaking out. Those guys are there you know? But yeah, I love them. And I think that's where my passion really comes to life when I get to jam with my heroes like that. I can just get along with any musician – I’m always comfortable with them. You can put me in a room with Willie Nelson and in five minutes you're gonna have a fucking killer metal country song.”
The big story at the moment is about the Pantera reunion. How do you feel about it – is it something that’s helping keep the legacy alive?
“It's a delicate issue, man. On one hand, yes. But then sometimes I think, if it was like me and Iggor had died, and somebody else would carry on without us, I don't know how I feel about that. I'm not sure I would really like it. It's a tough one. At the same time, you know, people want to hear those songs. The fans deserve to hear those songs.”
Has it made you rethink the possibility of doing a Sepultura reunion?
“No. I’m good with what we did and so pleased with the reaction. It’s a different thing with us and Pantera; I’m not sure who founded Pantera and stuff like that, but Sepultura was me and Iggor. But if they do it the way we did, as a tribute, well alright, you know? I think we gave the songs justice, we played them as good as they can be played and people were completely satisfied when they came to see us. At this point in my life, I’m satisfied having one foot in the past playing those old records, and another in the future doing stuff like Totem and Killer Be Killed. I want to experience both sides.”
How does it feel to still be going strong in Soulfly after 25 years?
“First, it’s a fucking miracle I'm here. I survived all this shit. I joke about it, but we survived glam and we survived grunge. I wear my white hairs with pride, you know? I'm getting old, but I try not to think of that as a burden, more like something you can embrace because of the wisdom you have. It's pretty amazing man, because I didn't know what Soulfly was in the beginning. I was so confused, I didn't want my music career to end because I'm not in Sepultura. Soulfly was my salvation.”
Soulfly’s new album Totem is out now