» Robb Flynn - Machine Head
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Interview conducted October 28 2017
Interview published January 7 2018

"The goal when you go into the studio is always to capture lightning in a bottle."

Machine Head guitarist/vocalist Robb Flynn found his way to Stockholm, Sweden on the promo run for the band's ninth album Catharsis [Out January 26th].

"I'm 50 years old and don't give a fuck. I'm gonna be dead pretty soon and I'm just gonna fucking call it how I see it."

Tobbe: What does the word Catharsis mean to you personally?

Robb: You know, when we started looking at the record, you know, there were so many different emotions on the record. There was social, political stuff on Volatile and Bastards, there was straight up, like, party song like California Bleeding; it is about getting fucked up, songs about depression like Eulogy, songs about drugs like Triple Beam, and there were so many different emotions being expressed.

Catharsis, the song, came about halfway through the writing process and it was that middle section, which repeats; you know "The only thing keeping me sane, the music in my veins, and if these words are my fists, this is my catharsis.". So it really seemed to just crystallize everything that we were feeling about the record.

Tobbe: You mentioned a lot of subjects here right away, so is it kind of easy for you nowadays to pick subjects to sing about on the records? …Or on the Catharsis record?

Robb: Um. [Pause] No. I mean, you know, I think 'cause you get 9 albums deep, like, it's harder and harder because, for me, I always wanna try and say something new, you know what I mean? Bob Dylan once said "When you're writing music you're trying to find new ways to say the same thing.", you know. And he's right; it's totally true, because, you know, how many times are you gonna say "Burn" or "Fucking death" or "Blood"? You know, like, you wanna try and have a different subject matter, with a theme.

Some songs came about really fast. Some of the songs on the record; you know, Triple Beam, Bastards, Volatile; I wrote those songs in, like, 20 minutes. You know, like, the lyrics for them. Other songs: I had to write 7 different versions of them before I felt like I was saying something new and offering something different to the world.

Tobbe: Musically, in what way does the Catharsis record follow the path of Machine Head?

Robb: You know what I've been saying? I do these YouTube live things and this Facebook live thing for the fans and I've been telling everybody: To me, this is the record that could have followed The Burning Red [1999]. It's a very grooving record, it's a very melodic record. You know, it's probably the least thrashy we've been in well over a decade. You know, there was no plan, there was no reasoning, there was no "Hey! Let's do this or let's do that.". We just wrote and the things that we wrote were just simple and short and we were like "Fuck! This is cool. This is great.".

You know, there's a couple of epics on the record, but it felt like we were kind of saving those for a special thing. You know, a song like Heavy Lies The Crown was, like, the one really big epic of the record. And, you know, the rest of it really became about trying to have great storytelling. If we had a really busy riff we were like "Why don't we make the beat simple?" and if we had a really busy beat; "Make the riff simple". You know, stuff like that. Just trying to really simplify things and simplify ideas. You know, my hooks: I really wanted to be really clear with the vocals, like I wanted every song to be a story and I wanted it to have absolutely clear language.

I feel like in the past, sometimes for the better or for worse, and I kind of like tend to write, like, violent poetry, you know what I mean? It's very metaphorical, cool words, but it doesn't really make sense, but it sounds cool, and I really just wanted to get rid of that, like I really wanted to have, you know, coarse, almost vulgar language at times because I feel like that's where music has gone and metal in particular hasn't gone there. You know, we're still singing about the same shit we were singing about 35 fucking years ago and I feel like we need to go some place else.

I grew up on a lot of punk rock, a lot of hardcore, a lot of hip hop and it's all very confrontational and it's all very, you know, not crude, but straight language. It's not "thou, doth". You know, it's not, like, biblical shit, it's not metaphorical and I really try to bring that storytelling aspect into it.

Tobbe: The harmony or solo guitar sound, which you kind of started with on The Blackening album [2007], is still present, so what made that become an important ingredient in Machine Head's music in the last decade?

Robb: You know, Phil [Demmel] and I used to be in Vio-lence together and we really prided ourselves on being a guitar team. You know, in the classic kind of K.K. Downing / Glenn Tipton - Dave Murray / Adrian Smith vibe. So we do that and it comes really easily to us. You know, we can do those kind of things. You know, Machine Head never was, like, a full-on solos kind of band and if you go back to Burn My Eyes [1994] like half the record doesn't even have a solo section, so that when we do do it, it means something.

To me, a solo is a great place for a key change, it's a great place to bring in something new, it's a great place to change the pace of something, it's a great place to have this new thing that people can sing. To me, the thing I always loved about Kirk Hammett was, like, you know, you can sing those solos. It's just not shred, but it becomes like a musical part of the song. So we really try to focus on that and, you know, it came about in a really good way this time.

Tobbe: Melody and intensity have often been two important elements in your music and what goes through your mind when you try to combine melody and intensity into one thing in the songwriting process?

Robb: Um, I mean, nothing's going through my mind. [Laughs] I would love to sit here and be like "I have this great plan and…", you know. Everybody wants to know about it, but there's no fucking plan. Like, we don't know what the fuck we're doing. I mean, nobody does, and even if they tell you they do, nobody does. Like, we get in a jam room.

You know, I think that's the one thing that separates us from a lot of the other bands, because we actually all rehearse together. During the entire writing process we're there together. During the entire recording process we're there together. You know, for a year. Most bands nowadays: The guitar player makes a click track, plays the guitar, emails it to the drummer, drummer programs the drums, then he mails it to the singer and they never get together and play as a fucking band and I'm like "That is so fucking weird to me.". Like, that's why I wanted to be in a band, so you could collaborate and get together in a hot, sweaty fucking room and just sweat and play and, you know, figure it out.

I mean, a lot of people complain, like "Music isn't as good as it used to be.". Well, you know, guess what! Like, nobody plays together like a band. Think about The Beatles. Back in the '60s they were running Hamburg. They were doing 30 days in a row, 7-10 hour shows, playing covers or their own songs. 30 days in a row; that's fucking great. They did a stint in Hamburg one time; 100 days in a row of 7-10 hour shows. I mean, think about how much work and effort and chemistry is being created in that time. Lynyrd Skynyrd: 6-7 hours a day in a hot ass fucking unair-conditioned swamp in Florida. And Bruce Springsteen recording Born To Run 75 times before he got it right with his band. That's the type of shit that you need to make good music. It takes that much, like, creative chemistry.

You know, there was a time when, for a month, we were killing it, like everything we wrote was gold, and then the next month every fucking riff we wrote sucked. It was horrible and it was like "What the fuck!". And it's like you gotta go on that journey together and that's what makes songs and that's what makes a band and that's what makes a style and, you know, you gotta put in the work.

Tobbe: Your voice must surely take some damage during those rehearsals or when you're recording songs…

Robb: No. [Said to me without hesitation and in a most natural way.]

Tobbe: Okay. So how much can you lay down on a record in one take?

Robb: Um, it… depends, you know what I mean? [Looks tricky, yet smiling.] Like, it depends on the song, it depends on my inspiration, really. I think the one thing that we did differently that we'd never done before… You know, the traditional way that you write and record a record is you write for, whatever, 6-10 months, and then you go into the studio all at once and you record everything at once. Especially the last couple of records just got kind of long and I can be in the studio for about two weeks before I'm starting to lose my mind. You know, like, I just can't concentrate. I'm a big picture dude. Like, micro focusing on what compressor is… You know, I can't do that.

So, what we would do is: we started to do it, like, kind of like how we used to do demos. So we'd write 3 songs, and then roll over to the studio, we got a studio really close to our jam room, and we'd record those 3 songs really fast, and then get out. Like, just record any bits, it wouldn't even be finished, just record as much as we could and then leave. And then we'd go and write about a month or two more, record 3 more songs, any other bits that came up, and then get out really fast, and not overthink it and not even try to complete it. And it just added this crazy urgency to the record; it added this crazy energy, because every song was super fresh to us.

I mean, some of the songs were brand new and we could barely even play them all the way through because we were still learning them. But we recorded it like that and you just have this fucking really intense… You know, some of the songs even on the record, Kaleidoscope, you're literally hearing the first day we ever played that song. The vocals you hear are my first take, no lyrics, freestyling, just making shit up. The goal when you go into the studio is always to capture lightning in a bottle.

And it's hard, you know. It's hard because it's clinical and it's easy to make everything perfect and I think it's really about capturing an attitude. You know, it's about capturing human flaws and all of their glory and that's what makes it alive and that's what makes it sound intense and I'm really proud that we were able to capture that. And I don't know, if we would have done it another way I don't think it would have been captured. I don't even think some of the songs would have really come about, like, if we would have just worked on them in the jam room.

Tobbe: So, what makes Robb Flynn so angry still, so he can shout those lyrics out as aggressively as you in fact do?

Robb: It…comes…really…easy. It comes a little too easy, really. You know, there is a lot of stuff that was written in a moment, you know what I mean? The opening track, Volatile, was written and recorded, or at least the vocals were written and recorded the day of the Charlottesville murder, and for anybody who doesn't now: a huge group of white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and they murdered a counter-protestor. You know, it was fucked up. Like, it was really fucking shocking and it'd been happening for two days.

So I was in the studio and we were watching the whole thing unfold and, you know, I was just frustrated and pissed and I just sat down and I wrote lyrics for about 20 minutes and 20 minutes later I went and sang them. And that's what you hear. You know, you hear this pure burst of fury and frustration, and confusion, and if music is a snapshot of somebody's headspace and a moment… Well, you got that moment.

Tobbe: You have quite often chosen to come out in public over politics and stuff, so when most people stay silent, why do you choose side officially, if you know what I mean?

Robb: I think a lot of metal musicians stay silent. Yeah, for sure. I don't know why, you know. I mean, I know why, because they don't wanna offend their fanbase and they don't wanna lose fans. I'm 50 years old and don't give a fuck. I'm gonna be dead pretty soon and I'm just gonna fucking call it how I see it. You know, I loved that about Lemmy. I loved that Lemmy would just be like "You know what? He's a fucking…". I remember when George Bush was president and Lemmy's like "He's a fucking cunt.". (Laughs] I think that's fucking awesome, you know.

Tobbe: So, on the contrary, what does make Robb Flynn happy today? At this point in life.

Robb: Thinking about Lemmy calling George Bush a cunt. That makes me happy. [Laughs] You know what? Lots of things make me happy, man. Like, I'm a pretty positive dude. I got two awesome kids, I got an awesome wife. You know, going wakeboarding and camping with my family for a week up in 6 hours north in the fucking woods where there's no cell phone reception and no internet and no way to contact me and no computer. Fuck, that makes me really happy. Love that.

Tobbe: Machine Head does no longer play festivals, really. You've talked about it before and therefore my question would rather be: What do other musicians tell you about Machine Head not playing festivals anymore?

Robb: "What are you doing that for? What? How stupid! Don't do that!". Yeah, we had a lot of people trying to talk us out of that and I have a lot of festival promoters trying to persuade me to do it. You know, we've been doing festivals for 23 years. I mean, I started playing festivals in 1994 and back then Donington - Monsters Of Rock was 8 bands, one stage, one day, and back then a festival slot could be like a game changer. If you killed it at a festival you could sell more records, draw more people, sell merchandise, make new fans and I don't know if that's the case anymore. I mean, maybe it's the case for some bands, but it's not the case for us; 9 albums deep and, you know, where we are in our career.

A bunch of petty things annoy me about festivals, like having to play in the fucking freezing cold rain and fucking everybody's there in a parkas, shivering, and fucking they're standing in two feet of mud, and I'm like "When did metal become like this? This is good?". You're miserable, I'm miserable. But the biggest thing for me is that I just stopped feeling a connection, you know. I stopped feeling a connection with people. Anybody could be up on stage and, you know, nobody is really gonna be unhappy. You know, everybody can make the circle pit around the fucking sound booth now, everybody can jump, and that's what festivals became about. I didn't feel a connection to the crowd. They didn't really care who was on stage.

Even in a bigger sense, we were drawing less people, we weren't selling any more records; in fact we were selling less records. And it was like "Let's take a step back.". I know that this is what we've done forever, but just because this is what we've done forever doesn't mean it's the best thing for us to do, for our band, where we are right now. And, you know, package tours: Everybody hated all the fucking bands that we brought. You know, we brought Bring Me The Horizon; we'd thought everybody would love them; fucking people were throwing garbage cans at them on stage and I was like "My God!". Like "Why did you bring them?".

We made a decision to not do festivals and to only do "An evening with Machine Head" and a lot of people tried to talk us out of it. You know, "It's not what metal bands do. It's something that jam bands do. Or Bruce Springsteen do and stuff, and metal bands just don't do this." and we were like "We gotta try something. We gotta try something different." and it was quite an adjustment for us; it was a little bit of an adjustment for our fans, but in the end it was the best thing we ever did. It totally re-invigorated… You know, I hated being on stage at a festival. Like, I hated it. Every minute of it. And it made me being passionate about playing live again. We dusted off songs that we hadn't played in 10-15 years.

You know, we started playing mellow songs that our fans have loved for a long time, but we would just never play because in a support slot or in a festival slot you just wanna fucking murder everything. And it was awesome. They loved it; it was a huge success for us and in a weird way it's kind of like "Why is this weird?". You know, when Bruce Springsteen comes to town, when AC/DC comes to town, when Foo Fighters come to town, it's not like "Oh, who are the 7 bands they're bring out with them?". No, it's like: when the fucking Grateful Dead come to town it's not like "What package is it?", you know. It's all about them.

And I feel like metal has gone into this whole kind of like buffet mentality and we just decided to do what we thought was best for us. It may not be what's best for everybody. You know, there's some great festivals out there, but we had to change what we do for us.

Tobbe: Just like regular people, even musicians are starting to get burned out nowadays and having depressions and stuff and probably have for decades, but in the most recent years it's starting to be a subject where people actually talk about it. So is this anything you've experienced personally or have you seen or heard anything in the music business where people actually do get burned out?

Robb: Oh, yeah. I mean, we all get burned at some point, you know what I mean? Like, we get burnt out; we get into a depression. You know, shit goes on back home, and your family life, and you're still out on the road, 7000 miles away from home, and you have to go up there, and smile, and act like everything's awesome, and, you know, put on this mask because those people don't fucking care. And nor should they. You know, they have no idea what's going on in your life, and they don't need to know.

But yeah, it's hard sometimes. I mean, definitely being away from your family and, you know, a stable thing. You get tired. You know, you're staying up fucking late every night and you're riding down the fucking road on a bus, bumping along the fucking road and you never really get a good sleep until you park. It's a life less ordinary. And is it an amazing life? - It's an amazing life. Look at me. I'm in fucking Stockholm, Sweden, talking about my record, in a really nice hotel. Like, it could be way fucking worse. We did 283 shows on the last album cycle. 20 months, 283 shows. You know, there's times, show 170, where it's like you're just fucking wiped out. And it's not, like, construction all day wiped out, but mentally wiped out.

My wife and I almost divorced 10 months into that touring cycle and for a good 4 months we were "divorcing", like "It was over!" and we were talking about moving out, where I was gonna live. We talked it all the way through to the end. And I was on tour. I was still on tour that whole time. It was fucking hard, man. You know, we made it through, we got through it, but when those moments are happening you just push through. Just like anybody. Not to say that it's that much harder, like if you were just sitting here at home and you were going through a divorce, it would be no easier. But those things affect you.

Tobbe: And what you're doing you're doing 24/7 so you kind of never get away from it.

Robb: But, you know, I'm not gonna complain about it either. This is what I wanna do. I've been in bands since I was 16 years old, man. I was on tour when I was 19. I don't know anything else. This is literally all I've done. You know, true, I've had some jobs when I was young. I worked construction for my uncle Donny, or I had to dig ditches that were 3 foot wide by 3 foot deep. I stripped furniture for a while, breathing in acid and stripping furniture.

You know, I sold drugs for a while, and you know what? I'm very grateful to have the life that I have, because especially the drug dealing phase was a very violent, very paranoid, very scary time of my life. It was a huge, huge motivator to make Machine Head successful, because I wanted to get out of that life.

So I'm not gonna sit here and complain how hard my life is, because my life isn't that hard. People have it way harder and I'm lucky to have what I have and be able to play music for a living. Is it hard in a way that most people couldn't understand? - Yes. And until you live this life, you'd never understand what I mean when I say it's hard.

Tobbe: Yeah. Being away from your family for a month seems hard enough for me.

Robb: Let alone 20, right? Let alone 3 years, like on The Blackening. You know, I had my son, my second son; 3 weeks later I went on tour for The Blackening. And I was gone for 3 years; 3 years and 3 months. I pretty much saw him for one or two weeks every two months. You know, you think about that. That's a different kind of hard.

Tobbe: Then what do you do to try to get some variation in your life as a musician? I mean, recording, touring, doing promo is kind of pretty much doing the same thing every day.

Robb: When we wrapped up touring for Bloodstone & Diamonds… It was, like, March of 2016, and we started going camping. I love going camping, I love being outdoors, I love wakeboarding and wakesurfing. That kind of shit is awesome. We didn't really go on any vacations, but we did a lot of camping trips. 4 or 5 days, a bunch of our friends, fucking drink beer all day. And it's fun, man; it's really fun.

Tobbe: No small hobbies? Like a dog or…

Robb: Yeah, now I got two dogs, I got two cats, I got two guinea pigs, I got a bearded dragon. It's like Noah's Ark at my house. [Laughs] Yes, I walk every day with the dogs and take the dogs on hikes, you know.

Tobbe: Catharsis will be out in January and according to Robb Flynn himself, what will make this one become "Metal album of the year" in 2018?

Robb: That's for everybody else to decide. But I'll tell you what: This is a real special record. There is something going on that I've never felt on a record and I think this record has the potential to be a lot bigger than the band.

See also: review of the album Catharsis

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