Machine Head to 2012: “That All You Got?”; An Interview with Phil DemmelBy Joe Daly
November 30, 2012
The thing about superstitions is that usually there is some anecdotal evidence, however tenuous, to bear them out. Take, for instance, the myth that misfortune visits in groups of three. Laugh if you will, but for Oakland’s Machine Head—arguably the biggest underground metal band in the world—a trio of recent mishaps suggests there just might be something to that old wives’ tale.
The end of October saw the band preparing for the release of their new album—the double live Machine Fucking Head Live—and the beginning of a US tour with Dethklok, All That Remains and The Black Dahlia Murder. The first mishap arrived in the shape of ferocious Hurricane Sandy, which horse-whipped wide swaths of the east coast, forcing the cancelation of some early dates on the tour.
Next, a double inguinal hernia that had been plaguing frontman Robb “The General” Flynn deteriorated to the extent that additional dates were canceled to allow him to undergo emergency surgery. As a surprisingly entertaining gesture, Robb released a video diary of his ordeal.
Then, on the day Machine Head set out to rejoin the Dethklok tour in Portland, their tour bus broke down, forcing a cancelation of what would have been their first show back.
The band are now back on the road and diving headfirst into the remaining dates of the tour, which caps off an otherwise triumphant year that saw Machine Head bask in the critical acclaim of 2011’s Unto the Locust. While observers uniformly predicted that Machine Head could never equal the raw primacy of their 2007 masterpiece, The Blackening, Unto the Locust eviscerated such skepticism on the way to becoming the band’s greatest commercial and critical release to date.
We caught up with guitarist Phil Demmel on the tour’s stop at the Hollywood Palladium on November 26, 2012 to see how the band is surviving the latest run of challenges and to find out what 2013 has in store. Of course, we ask about the new album.
So Robb’s recovered, you’re back on the Dethklok tour and then comes the Portland debacle. What happened?
(laughs) Well, we had to cancel a couple of weeks of shows because of Robb’s operation, so we were back home. We got picked up on Friday night and we were going to hop back on the tour, thinking, “Alright! Time to get going,” and we head up to Portland. I woke up in the morning and we’re on the side of the road. We were on the side of the road all day, waiting for the thing to get fixed. It didn’t get fixed in time and we had to cancel the show. I ended up flying back home, and we just said, “OK, we’ll try again on Monday…” (laughs) We got a temporary bus and we made the show in Oakland in front of a home crowd, and it was awesome. So we’re back on the road now.
Were you rusty at all?
Yeah, we hadn’t played together in a couple of weeks and we never really got into a full groove because of all the cancellations. We’d do a show, have a show canceled, couple shows canceled…so we never got into the full groove of this tour, so we’re looking forward to doing that.
Here in Hollywood, with so many industry types and other bands coming out, do you find any additional pressure?
I don’t think any of us feel pressure from a show, really. Even when we headlined this Polish festival in front of 400,000 people, we didn’t feel any pressure from it. We’re very confident in what we do and in going out and doing it. But yeah, tonight’s a big show and we’ll get up for it. We know how to clamp down for the bigger markets, but for any show we want to go out and really play well.
This is an interesting package. Besides the Black Dahlia Murder and All That Remains, Dethklok presents a unique situation, to say the least. How did it come about with Dethklok?
Well they were supposed to do a US run with Lamb of God, but with Randy (Blythe)’s dealings over in the Czech Republic, that kind of spilled over into that tour and they had to cancel the tour. We were looking to do a co-headliner tour with All That Remains for this period, and Dethklok became available and we looked at it and realized that it would be beneficial for all of us to do something together and make a stronger package, and that’s how it ended up working out. With Black Dahlia opening, it’s a very eclectic package, and it’s pretty awesome.
Now you guys just released a live CD. Why now?
We were under contract with Roadrunner (Records)—actually had it fulfilled with Unto the Locust—and this was something that we had recorded when we did The Eighth Plague Tour over in Europe. We took a ProTools rig out and we recorded the Wembley Arena show that we did and some of the bigger arena shows that we did. There were great crowd responses and we wanted to capture that. We’re a band that doesn’t write forty songs in a couple months, like some bands are able to do. It takes us awhile to write, so we also wanted to fill in the space between releases. We’re on the KISS schedule of three records, then a live record, you know? (laughs)
Now, I happen to know that you’re fairly well-versed in your rock history. Did you have any favorite live albums that you looked to for inspiration for the new album?
I don’t think that there was any template that we looked at. I think that Robb and Juan (Urteaga), who mixed the album, were looking at trying to really capture the crowd’s point of view. With a lot of live records, there are a lot of fixes and it sounds like a studio record with the crowd dubbed in. We wanted to capture what we share with our fans at the live show. Some of those shows have the most amazing singalongs, and you really feel like it puts you right in the show from that perspective.
A year ago, Unto the Locust was topping a lot of the 2011 year-end lists. How does that material feel now, having taken it across the globe and letting audiences fully digest it?
It’s fulfilling and vindicating. Any artist who creates something, well, 99.9% of artists want it to be appreciated and to be liked and to be accepted. To see people liking what we did after The Blackening, because we set the bar pretty high in people’s minds—they said “There’s no way you’re going to top that record”—and to hear “Well hey, you fucking topped that record,” felt really good. It was good to just be ourselves, escape the pressure of The Blackening, and to just write another record. People like what we did last time and we’re better musicians, better songwriters, and we found kind of a groove to write in.
Having talked to fans and seen the way they embraced Unto the Locust, what do you think resonated so strongly with that album that would cause so many people to say that indeed, you had topped The Blackening?
I think that the band is really honest, and we share things that happen with us. That’s something that I think people identify with. We’re all misfits and outcasts and we’re just the same as everybody else. We’re just able to express ourselves in this way and be able to share, and I think people are drawn to that. Everybody needs therapy. Everyone needs to get that shit out and music can be that conduit and that’s what it is and that’s what I think draws people.
Let’s just throw it out there—have you started thinking about the next record?
After this tour, we want to get in and start writing. We’ve got a couple of things for next year, but for the most part we want to get in and hopefully start recording before the end of the year next year. Have we thought about directions or any of that? It hasn’t really been agreed upon yet. I think we’re just going to write like we have been. Our formula has been to just come up with something and see what happens. Nothing contrived, you know? That’s how Darkness Within happened, and that’s how a lot of the stuff on the last album happened, so we’ll just see how we progress. Robb took classical lessons before the last record, so I think it’s just going to be an amalgamation of everything we’ve learned so far. We keep evolving, and it’s not going to be Blackening II and it’s not going to be Unto the Locust II. I think it’s going to be our strongest record.
Expectations for the next album will be quite a bit different. They might have been somewhat low for Unto the Locust simply because, as you say, no one thought you’d top The Blackening. Yet popular opinion now holds that you did. Therefore, the next record will necessarily bring the highest expectations yet. Can you write with the same authenticity amid such attention?
I think so. For myself, yeah, absolutely. It’s the same thing. Being able to create and play and have people enjoy what we do is the best thing in the world. We’re so blessed to be able to be out here and doing this, and for me to sit down and have something come out and be able to record it is amazing. I have a little recorder and I mouth riffs into it. Sitting around watching football and just noodling and recording little harmonies come up, and having them come together with these guys is an amazing process. When you write from the heart, it’s pure and it’s genuine and that’s how we’re going to do it. I won’t be in the band if that’s not going to be the case.
Apart from some of the recent challenges, 2012 saw Machine Head enjoy a number of highlights as well. Do any stand out?
We did an amazing festival run, that we’ll never do again because we ran ourselves into the ground. Three and a half months, back and forth (between the US and Europe), but not constant. Over for three weeks, home for five days… We did amazing festivals, like the Polish festival in front of 400,000 people. Like Robb said, “From the front to the back, from the left to the right,” everybody was just going mental. It was a free festival, but people were just slaying it! They had a beach with people in the mud, and beach balls going and fire dancers going on and it was like something out of The Matrix. It was really tribal, and that was amazing. Playing Download is always special. This was our worst Download performance…
Why do you say that?
We’ve absolutely slayed that festival a few times since I’ve been in the band, but this time it was really windy, so the sound was tricky. It was a shitty day and there was mud everywhere, and we did well. It was a decent show for us. Headlining and getting to play with Suicide Silence again and having memories of playing with Mitch (Lucker)* and those guys…they’re a crazy bunch. It’s a fun tour with Suicide Silence. And the Darkest Hour guys came out with us, too. So that was the perfect storm of a party tour. (laughing) Darkest Hour, Suicide Silence and us… Forty year old dudes, man…we can’t even keep up with those kids!
You said that next year you’ll hopefully get some songwriting underway for the next album. What else do you need to do, as a band?
Well, we need to get over to Japan and Australia and headline. We need to cover that base. And we need to write this record, man. That’s our priority, so we’re going to bear down. You can’t force yourself to come up with stuff, but you can give yourself the opportunity to at least try, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.
One final question: we’re starting to approach the playoffs and a lot of teams are fighting through some key injuries. Who do you like in the Super Bowl?
(laughs) Man, as much as I hate to say it, and as much as my team sucks right now (the Oakland Raiders), I think that the Niners have a shot at going to the Super Bowl. I just hope not. I really don’t because I really hate them. But I think that the Niners are going to go to the Super Bowl this year. They’re solid on both sides of the ball. In the AFC, it could be anybody, man. Baltimore’s tough…who else?
Nah, the Pats are good, but their defense sucks.
Really? Come on…
You know it. You can’t win every game 49-35. They just give up so many points, that’s why I don’t think they’re going to do it. I’d say the Broncos. The Broncos are going to the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning. And I’m going to have to root for the Broncos and I’m a Raider fan! So Denver versus San Francisco, and the Broncos win it.
Let’s complete the prediction. How about a score?
A score? Hmmm… Good defenses, so it’s going to be boring. We’ll go 17-13.
It’s been a pleasure, Phil.
*Suicide Silence frontman Mitch Lucker was killed in motorcycle accident on Halloween night, 2012.
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