The story behind Sepultura's Roots

A photograph of Roots-era Sepultura
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Arguably the first metal band to challenge the dominance of America and Europe on the world stage, Sepultura put Brazil on the map in no uncertain terms during the mid 80s. At a time when thrash, death and black metal were all essentially the same thing, guitarist Max Cavalera, his stick-wielding brother Igor, bassist Paulo Pinto (Jr), lead guitarist Jairo Guedes and, briefly, frontman Wagner Lamounier first convened in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in 1984. By the time their first demo was recorded, Max had assumed vocal duties and began to shape the band’s primitive but groundbreaking sound; a vicious, dark and raw new strain of metal that owed as much to the simplicity of hardcore punk as it did to the more complex structures of the nascent thrash scene. An EP, Bestial Devastation, emerged on Brazilian label Cogumelo Records in 1985 and was followed by the first Sepultura album, Morbid Visions’ in 1986. Snapped up by Roadrunner and thrust into the international spotlight for 1987’s seminal underground smash Schizophrenia, which also heralded Jairo’s departure and the arrival of his replacement, Andreas Kisser, Sepultura were mutating into a major musical force. The precise, more thrash-orientated destruction of albums Beneath The Remains (1989) and Arise (1991) further established Sepultura as big hitters, and despite metal’s commercial decline at the beginning of the 90s, the band found themselves amassing a vast global fan base and a burgeoning reputation as one of the few death metal bands capable of generating significant album sales.

In October 1993, Sepultura released their fifth full-length album. No less brutal or intense than its predecessors, Chaos AD was nonetheless a significant departure for the band, incorporating more mid-paced, crushing grooves and a greater degree of experimentation. Recorded in Wales with renowned producer Andy Wallace, the album featured collaborations with Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra (Biotech Is Godzilla), Biohazard’s Evan Seinfeld (Slave New World) and a cover version of UK politicos New Model Army’s The Hunt, which hinted at a broadening of the band’s outlook. However, it was the inclusion of Kaiowas, an acoustic instrumental propelled along by tribal percussion and recorded live at Chepstow Castle, that really pointed towards the innovative developments that would follow. More than anything else, Chaos AD taught Max the value of taking a few risks; an approach that would come to glorious fruition on the next Sepultura album…

“The real beginning of Roots started with me watching a movie called At Play In The Fields Of The Lord,” recalls Max. “It’s about two missionaries who go to the rainforest. I went to Gloria [Max’s wife and Sepultura’s former manager] and said, ‘You’re probably gonna think I’m crazy, but I’d like to record a concept record and it’s gonna be recorded with the Brazilian tribes’. I wanted to go down deep into the roots of Brazilian music. Gloria said something like, ‘That’s a great idea, but we don’t have that kind of money. How are you going to do it?’ Somehow we got around it and the concept grew. I spoke to the Brazilian director of Indian affairs. There are hundreds of tribes and she steered us toward the Xavante tribe, who are more open-minded to white people and to music. A bunch of long-haired freaks wouldn’t have been allowed near some of the other tribes!”

But first, Max and Gloria had to convince Cees Wessels, the owner of Roadrunner Records, that the project was worth investing in.

“He said, ‘OK, so you’re going to do an album that sounds like a reggae compilation, and record it with a bunch of naked Indians? You’ve lost your mind!’ We scared the fucking shit out of him, but he went along with it. He trusted me, he trusted Gloria.”

The next stage of the Roots project was to enlist an understanding producer. Enter Ross Robinson, the eccentric knob-twiddling maverick who was, by the mid 90s, synonymous with the arrival of a new style of metal propagated by the likes of Korn and Deftones.

“I first discovered the Deftones through my stepson, Dana,” explains Max. “He came over with their tape and it sounded so different. I thought it was really cool – metal sounding but with all this other shit going on.”

The classic Sepultura line-up (clockwise from top left): Paulo Jr, Andreas Kisser, Max Cavalera, Igor Cavalera

The classic Sepultura line-up (clockwise from top left): Paulo Jr, Andreas Kisser, Max Cavalera, Igor Cavalera

Soon Sepultura and this new generation of metal bands were forming a mutual appreciation society and the Brazilians were heading to Ross Robinson’s studio in Malibu, heads bulging with fresh inspiration.

“I heard later on that the Deftones were listening to Chaos AD all the time when they recorded their first album, so it’s wild that the whole thing went 360 degrees,” notes Max. “I was discovering them and they had already discovered what we were doing. Same with Korn. They were really into Chaos AD. I guess Ross came into the picture through the Korn guys.”

Best known for his work on Korn’s debut, Ross might not have seemed the most obvious choice of producer for Sepultura, not least due to his reputation for behaving like a maniac during recording sessions.

“He was famous for throwing things and creating chaos,” says Max. “He wasn’t like that with us. I think we were putting on a show for Ross, rather than the other way round. We were pretty solid people. We knew what we were doing and we had this wild idea for the concept. I think Ross was more shocked than we were.

“He made sure that we captured really strong live performances,” he continues. “He was ready to record everything, any mistake or spontaneous thing. The tape was always on, so he captured a lot of cool stuff and it was all really live-sounding. The perfect example is Spit. It’s so raw and live. Listen to it on headphones and it’s like being in the studio with the band.”

The first song that anyone heard from the Roots sessions was, of course, the mighty Roots Bloody Roots. To this day, the defining moment of both Sepultura’s and Max’s careers, this pummelling tirade of rumbling riffs, thudding percussion and Max’s throat-rending call-to-arms vocal was an instant classic when it was released as a single shortly before the album’s release.

“‘Roots…’ has really captured people’s imaginations,” he nods. “People love it and bands like to play it because it’s so easy! Ha ha ha! It’s just one string, one riff over and over, like a mantra. I should write more songs with just one string; everybody would like that more than all the complicated shit I do. There’s something about it that’s so catchy. I recorded it with just me, guitar and drum machine, before we started the album, when the concept was still very personal to me.”

The defining moment of the Roots recording sessions came at the very end of the process, when Sepultura travelled to the depths of the Brazilian rainforest to record Itsári in collaboration with the indigenous Xavante tribe; the fulfilment of Max’s Roots concept.

“We recorded for a month in Malibu, but visiting the tribe was like recording another whole album,” says Max. “It was only for one song, but it was a whole different experience. We flew to Brazil and then got on this crop plane that looked like an old Volkswagen. Everybody thought we were going to crash. It was a fucked-up little plane! Ha ha ha! So we flew to the middle of nowhere – forest everywhere and one strip of land to land on. We stayed with the tribe for three days. It was really wild, real National Geographic shit.”

Despite cultural differences and the strangeness of the whole situation, both Sepultura and the Xavante tribe had a great time recording together, not least when the band’s producer provided some unexpected entertainment as the tapes were rolling…

“When you listen to Itsári, halfway through you can hear the Indians laugh,” says Max. “We were sitting in a circle of 60 Indians, us in the middle, and Ross was trying to get them excited so he was running around them waving a tree branch, and he fell on his ass. All the Indians just started laughing at this crazy fucking guy falling on his ass. To me, the whole thing was a great experience, the whole magic of it. It was so original and so different. The tribe were awesome. They gave us all these big ritual masks that I have in my house; we gave them all the instruments. I thought maybe they’d form their own band some day! Ha ha!”

With a few stylistic touches borrowed from metal’s new breed, the stark atmospherics of Itsári, notable collaborations with Korn’s Jonathan Davis and Mike Patton (on the grinding loops of Lookaway) and the chaotic but powerful influence of Ross Robinson’s unique approach to producing metal records, Roots was always destined to be a radical chapter in the Sepultura story. But the most bizarre idea hatched at the album sessions came from Max himself.

“We buried the master tapes under the soil,” he chuckles. “I guess I was tripping on something. I really wanted to capture the earthy vibes of the recording. We were up in the mountains. The whole place looks like some Black Sabbath photoshoot, with a big forest. It was crazy. So I said, ‘Fuck it, let’s bury the tapes!’ We buried them for 24 hours. Ross was totally into it. When Andy Wallace received the tapes to do the final mixes, there was dirt and shit all over them. Thanks to Ross, they sounded really raw and fucked up too.”

Finally released in March 1996, Roots swiftly became Sepultura’s biggest-selling album and took Andreas, Paulo, Igor and Max to a level of popularity and acclaim that outstripped the expectations of everyone involved with the band. It was a situation that took them by surprise and that Max never quite came to terms with, and he remains ambivalent towards the album’s huge impact and success.

“In a way, I preferred the not-so-successful side of being in a band,” he shrugs. “Everything just got too big. It was weird, because we became this trend and there was something wrong about that. We were a metal band, we’re supposed to be black sheep! There are people who like it, but everyone else is supposed to hate it. When everyone likes it, there’s something wrong, either with us or with the world! Ha ha ha! So I didn’t enjoy the Roots thing so much. It’s weird to me now because I look back and I think about how I split from the band at that time, right after Roots.”

Max’s departure from Sepultura at the end of the Roots touring cycle was greeted with dismay by the band’s army of fans. When the rest of the band decided that they no longer wished to be managed by Gloria, irreparable damage was caused to relationships within the band and Max walked away, only to re-emerge a few months later with a new band, Soulfly, that took the world music experiments of Roots a few steps further, while maintaining Max’s roots in brutal metal. Sepultura recruited a new frontman, Derrick Green, and headed off on a variety of tangential leaps on 1998’s Against, their first Max-less album.

Despite the demise of the band’s classic line-up and the personal turmoil that surrounded those events, Max is fiercely proud of ‘Roots’ and its importance in his career and in the ongoing evolution of metal itself.

Roots took metal to a new level,” he concludes. “It’s regarded as one of the most innovative metal albums. Dave Grohl said in an interview that Roots changed his life. So yeah, it’s great to have done done it. It’s good that people know we weren’t afraid to take a risk and to do what we thought was right. And it all came from watching a movie. It’s a fucking cool album.”

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Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.