Amy Kelly of Ultimate-Guitar.com recently conducted an interview with guitarist/vocalist Robb Flynn of San Francisco Bay Area metallers MACHINE HEAD. A couple of excerpts from the chat follow below.
Ultimate-Guitar.com: “The Blackening” was such a huge critical success for MACHINE HEAD. Did you feel a certain amount of pressure to live up to that album?
Robb: The last six months in touring with “The Blackening”, that’s the only question we got. “How are you going to top ‘The Blackening’?” I was like, “Psht, I don’t know.” We started writing in November of 2009. I don’t know if it was a reaction against “The Blackening” and 10-minute songs and complex structure or that we had been watching METALLICA every night with people losing their minds, but we brought in a bunch of riffs and wrote for about two weeks. To be honest with you, it was a total bum-out. We went back on tour for another six months and then took a break. It was great to be off tour and it was great to be with my family, but after awhile my brain was just going. I had really been getting back into classical guitar. I took lessons when I was in high school. I had gotten away from it, but I got back into it and was writing some pieces. The more I wrote, the more I really got into it. I finally got a song going, and I called up Phil [Demmel, guitar] and Adam [Duce, bass]. They were like, “I’m not ready to practice. I need more time off.” Dave [McClain, drums] was already there and said, “I’ve got to get jamming with you!” The first song on the record that came out of it was a song called “This Is The End”. It’s probably hands-down the hardest guitar, drumming, and musicality. It’s a great song. It’s got good strong structures, good hooks, and great key changes — but it was like a million miles an hour. The chorus is every single string all the way up to what is my 19th fret. It’s like the last part of the chorus and it goes up to the 19th fret of the highest string. When Dave and I were done it was like, “This is so fucking hard! But it’s so awesome!” It was great that we had made this song that was basically above our playing ability. It was like a goal. We literally couldn’t play how it was supposed to be played. It was so freaking complicated. To have that as a goal it’s like, “Okay, we’ve got to achieve this. We now have to match this.” It’s such a high bar to set for ourselves right off the bat. We had covered — now this is vocally — we had covered “Hallowed Be Thy Name” for a Metal Hammer IRON MAIDEN tribute. Up until that point, those were the highest vocals I had sung. I honestly didn’t know if I could even do it. I never had done it, and then I did it. I didn’t really know how to control it, and I was kind of hit and miss with it. I was like, “I want to get this. I can do this. I can fucking own this.” So I started taking some pretty intensive vocal training back in New York. I would fly back to New York every two or three months and take three-hour blocks, three days in a row with Melissa Cross. Then I did some stuff with the guy who trains Mick Jagger. Also I started taking classical guitar lessons from this place called the New York Guitar School. I got into this learning mode. In learning was unlearning. I was taking vocal lessons for the first time of my life, and I had been singing for 17 years. I was unlearning all these bad habits. It was cool to get back to a place — especially on the guitar — where you say, “I’m a retard. This is so hard!” It was a cool, vulnerable place to write from. We just tried to write from that place. “The Blackening” was nominated for a Grammy, which is cool, but as an artist and musician the challenge is to push yourself. We didn’t want, “Okay, this is all you can write. You’ve got to write 10-minute songs.” We just wanted to fucking write. So that was our mindset.
Ultimate-Guitar.com: Did you pick up a lot of techniques from watching METALLICA?
Robb: They’re amazing. They are a real band — one of the last real bands alive. Lifers. The way they arrange their set and blend their set, it’s the magnitude of everything. To me, it was a dream come true. I’m from the Bay and they were my idols. Just to see how much bigger that big could be and where things could really go.
Ultimate-Guitar.com: Are you striving for that kind of magnitude?
Robb: Yeah. Totally.
Ultimate-Guitar.com: With so many bands coming out of so many different labels and outlets, do you feel it’s still just as possible for artists to attain that legendary status?
Robb: I think it’s a hell of a goal. If you’re going to dream, dream massive. To be honest, I saw how massive it could be. This is a reality. This is totally a reality. They did it by their own rules. They did their own music. You hear a song like “Master of Puppets” every night. It’s eight-and-a-half minutes of super complex, weird, off-time rhythms. This is not pop music. This isn’t Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift. This is very different, very heavy, brutal music. People identify with it. Sure, you’ve got the “Enter Sandman”. I love the “Black” album. To see songs like “Master of Puppets” go over — that is what is incredible. It has a bizarre structure, eight minutes long, super heavy, drugs, snort your breakfast! It’s awesome. I love that.
Ultimate-Guitar.com: Let’s talk a moment about the business side of the music world. It’s been publicized that your band struggled through some label woes in the early 2000s.
Robb: They weren’t that too tumultuous. Contrary to popular myth, we asked to be let go. We weren’t dropped. They wanted to keep us. Back then we were still headlining with full force for 30,000 people. It was just a transition. That’s kind of what music was doing. The whole fucking world was transitioning. The Internet was really starting to take off, and we jumped on that. Up until then it was like, “Oh, you’ve got to have a radio hit.” We never fit that mold. That was a difficult period to swim through. We’re not a radio band. We’re a fucking heavy band. So labels were like, “Whatever.” We saw the Internet happening. We were the first band that I saw back then doing a video diary, making a five-minute thing, telling people what we were doing in the studio. It sounds absurd to say, but we’re going back to the beginning of 2003. We really ran with that. The media didn’t want to talk with us, the radio wasn’t into it, and so we chose this other avenue that we could control a lot more. It made an even bigger connection with the fans. That snowballed into the record coming out, and the record was our highest fucking record ever with literally a zero push.
Ultimate-Guitar.com: Do you feel in this day and age that going independent is the way to go?
Robb: You still need a record company. They give you money and they go knock on the door. You can do a lot yourself, and we do a lot ourselves, too. This far into our career we have a lot of say in how we’re presented. We want that control. We want to have that say. Every band should aspire to that. This is your art. This is your soul that you’re putting out there. Don’t let someone else control it. You control it. That way, you can always be you. No matter what kind of music you play – and I like all different kinds of music. One of my favorite bands of all time is COLDPLAY. I fucking love them to death. The reason I love them is because they’re so passionate about what they do and the music they make. You see them onstage and you can feel it. You can see it. It’s real. There is energy coming off. They’re not playing the heaviest music ever, but they’re playing the music they truly believe in. That goes for METALLICA or SLAYER and other bands like that. As long as you’re being true to yourself — no matter what kind of music you’re playing — it will connect. As hippie as this is going to sound, I think when you’re up there and being yourself, people can see your soul.
Read the entire interview from Ultimate-Guitar.com.