Max Cavalera is a metal legend. Since the 1980s, he’s been one of the most recognizable voices and instrumentalists the genre’s ever seen, his bestial roar and thrashing, groove-heavy guitar riffs sending moshpits into a frenzy across the planet. Sepultura, the band he formed with his brother Igor in their native Brazil, vaulted out of that country and catapulted them first to underground hero status, then to massive commercial success beginning with 1993’s Chaos A.D. and continuing on 1996’s Roots. At the end of the tour promoting that album, though, Max left the band. (The final gig is preserved on Under a Pale Grey Sky, one of the greatest live albums in metal history.) Igor stuck around for several more years, and the brothers didn’t speak for a decade.
At the end of the 1990s, Max formed Soulfly, and over the next decade and a half, he made nine albums (the tenth will be out later this year) that blended raw, bellowing post-thrash/nü-metal with world music, dub, and electronics. The lyrics were different, too, at least at first, emphasizing his spiritual side rather than the rage of the underclass. (Sepultura started out as a typical gore-and-Satan death metal band, but quickly embraced political consciousness, transmitted via Discharge-esque sloganeering.) Over time, those more positive elements went into retreat somewhat, and recent Soulfly discs like Enslaved and Savages are among the heaviest, most aggressive music of his career.
Finally, in 2008, Max and Igor reunited. Forming Cavalera Conspiracy, they played ultra-fast, primitivist thrash on their debut album, Inflikted, which also featured Soulfly guitarist Marc Rizzo and Gojira‘s Joe Duplantier on bass. The follow-up, 2011’s Blunt Force Trauma, was even more stripped-down and indebted to hardcore; Agnostic Front‘s Roger Miret even showed up on one song, and the vinyl version included a cover of Black Flag‘s “Six Pack.”
The third Cavalera Conspiracy album, Pandemonium, was released on Halloween 2014, and it marked a major change for Max. He first signed with Roadrunner Records in 1989, to release Sepultura‘s third album, 1989’s Beneath the Remains, and everything he ever did—Sepultura, Soulfly, Nailbomb (a mid ’90s collaboration with Fudge Tunnel‘s Alex Newport)—had come out through the label. But after Soulfly‘s 2011 album Enslaved, Roadrunner chose not to renew his contract (full disclosure: I worked for Roadrunner from 2011 to 2014, and argued against letting him go). Soulfly‘s ninth album, Savages, subsequently appeared on Nuclear Blast, as did the debut from another side project, Killer Be Killed. (Several former Roadrunner bands have signed with Nuclear Blast in the past few years, including Nightwish and Machine Head; this is no doubt due to the fact that Roadrunner’s former A&R guru, Monte Conner, works for Nuclear Blast now.) Pandemonium, meanwhile, was released on Napalm Records, home to two other ex-Roadrunner bands, Coal Chamber and DevilDriver.
Pandemonium might be the best Cavalera Conspiracy album. It definitely marks a change from the first two. The head-down, fist-in-the-teeth sound of those albums is still present, but some production changes give it a unique feel. The riffs are derived from grindcore, but take the style in a slightly hookier, more melodic (a highly relative term) direction, not unlike contemporary Napalm Death. The bass, courtesy of Converge‘s Nate Newton, is a massive, distorted roar. Meanwhile, Max’s vocals are frequently buried in the mix, and slightly warped by electronics. The overall effect is strongly reminiscent of Ministry‘s mid-2000s trilogy of anti-George W. Bush albums, Houses of the Molé, Rio Grande Blood and The Last Sucker.
Stream Pandemonium on Spotify:
Max Cavalera answered some questions by phone when Cavalera Conspiracy came through New York on tour in April.
This new Cavalera Conspiracy album sounds like it has some industrial flavor to it, almost like Ministry. Was that something you were going for?
Yeah, yeah, we just wanted to make a different album from the first two, because Inflikted and Blunt Force Trauma, they were kind of similar albums. They had that thrash vibe going on, and I was thinking, what can we do to do something different? I was listening to a lot of grindcore, so I started thinking it would be cool to do an album influenced by grindcore, but the songs are not really grindcore, ’cause they’re three minutes long. But the music comes from that, and the vocals, my vocals are really low in the album. I can hear, I can understand where the industrial, Nailbomb-type influence is there.
Yeah, the way your vocals are buried in the mix makes it like more of a wall of sound.
Yeah, that was just something we were messing around with—we did one song like that, and I really liked it, and I told the producer [John Gray], maybe we should do more songs like this. ‘Cause it sounded really good; it was really heavy, it fit the music, and it did sound different from the other records. So we did a couple more. Not the whole record, but half the album has these really low, death metal style vocals, and the other half is my regular style, but I’m really glad how it came out. I think it fits the whole grindcore vibe that we were going for.
Plus, that’s the way the music sounds live; the vocals just become part of the whole package.
Live, we’ve been able to reproduce it, yeah. Plus, I’ve got a lot of big, high screams I throw in live, together with the low voice, so it becomes a combination, all that. I think my favorite thing was, I read a review where the guy was talking shit about the sound of the album, and that made me so happy, because that’s what I was going for. I wanted it to sound ugly, and when the reviewer was talking shit about the sound, I said, fuck yeah, that’s exactly the reaction I was looking for. So I think we got that right.
Nate Newton played bass on the record, but did you send him the tracks, or did he come down to Arizona to do it in person?
No, we sent him everything. He’d just had a baby, and he asked if we could just send him the stuff, and in this day and age, with technology, that’s really easy, it wasn’t a problem. So we sent him everything, he put the bass on it, and it sounds great. I’ve actually never met Nate in person. It’s crazy – I’ve just talked to him on the phone. I met his drummer, Ben, he played for Killer Be Killed in Australia. I’m a big Converge fan, and I love his projects, Old Man Gloom and Doomriders are awesome. He did a great job, man. He’s a great bass player, and just sounds killer. He knows what he’s doing; he has that great distorted sound, that kind of grindcore/Converge bass sound. Right now, on tour, we have Johny Chow, who played on our second record and is a regular with Stone Sour, but they weren’t doing anything at the moment so we asked him if he could do this tour with us. It’s really cool, it’s a good vibe, and everybody’s in a good mood.
Your lyrics are usually pretty simple and straightforward. Is that because you tour all over the world, and people who maybe don’t speak English can learn the words and sing along?
Yeah, it’s my style of writing. Some people have different styles, but for me, I just like to have really cool hooks in a song that people are going to sing along with, like “Not Losing the Edge” or “Babylonian Pandemonium,” or “I, Barbarian,” and then the lyrics are simple. They come from my punk background, a lot of the stuff I listened to growing up. That was a big part of Sepultura, too. Records like Arise and Chaos A.D. always had a punk influence on the lyrics. I think simple and direct is more effective than strange, weird lyrics where nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about. For me, the greatest challenge is to create hooks, that a lot of people are gonna sing along when you play. That’s a lot of fun, it’s really great, and when you do something like that, and Cavalera’s got a couple like that, “Sanctuary” and “Killing Inside.” We play those every night, and you can tell the songs that people sing. And of course, we’ve got the Sepultura songs like “Refuse/Resist” and “Roots,” those are big hook songs too. That’s where I learned how to do those things, and became a fan of that. I think it comes from hardcore, actually, because hardcore always had big hooks in the songs. There’s a power when it’s delivered right, and the whole crowd is singing with you, you become one thing, one unit, everybody’s connected. To me, that’s metal, that’s what unites the whole metal audience, when everybody’s singing together. It’s fucking great.
In your career, when did you first realize that you were speaking for people other than yourself—that what you were doing was inspiring people in South America and other parts of the world?
I don’t think there was a single moment; I think it was a combination of things, especially after we started touring in ’89, with Beneath the Remains. We came to America, then we started to see the world, we went to Indonesia and Australia and Japan and you kind of little by little realize that what you’re doing is as much for other people as for you, and it has a big impact on them. And that, to me, is something that really sticks with me. When I’m at home working on a song, and it’s just me and the guitar, I think, there’s gonna be a time when this thing is done and recorded, it’s gonna reach all the way across the whole world. Kids in Tasmania are gonna hear this shit. I trip on that. To me that’s so cool, that music travels like that, to all different parts of the world, and people connect with it. I think that connection is what makes us human, and it really inspires me to keep doing this.
There was a time when Soulfly kind of represented your more spiritual side, and Cavalera Conspiracy was your more aggressive, angry side. Do you think that’s still true, or have they gotten closer together?
They got closer together, because I thought as much as the spiritual thing was important, after a while there’s only so much you can say without starting to repeat yourself, and I hate to repeat myself. I always try to find new things, and that’s why Soulfly ended up doing records like Enslaved and Savages, that were a little darker. Dark Ages, even. The early Soulfly was a little more positive, I think, but as it went on—and probably from me listening to heavy stuff, too, ’cause as I get older, I listen to heavier and more brutal stuff. I love that. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no laws in metal—you make your own laws, and that’s why I love metal, because it gives you that freedom to do whatever you want. But Cavalera definitely is heavier and more metal than anything else I do, because even in Soulfly, we have world music influences and jam sessions that flirt with reggae and dub, but in Cavalera Conspiracy, it’s only metal allowed. I think that’s the Cavalera way. It’s cool; my brother likes that, I like that, we have a project that’s only metal, full-on metal, that’s all that’s allowed and that’s all that we wanna do.
Do you write all the time and then figure out whether a song is a Soulfly song or a Cavalera Conspiracy song, or do you only start writing when you know you have an album to make?
Most of the time it’s for the records. I write a little bit spontaneously, without knowing where it’s gonna go, and I kinda save those for later and I’ll go back to those riffs and use them for something, but I like to work knowing that it’s gonna go somewhere. When I was writing for Pandemonium, my whole head was devoted to Pandemonium. This is all gonna go on the Pandemonium record. It’s almost like you train your brain to think only about that record, and you become obsessed with the record, and try to do your best for it in that moment. To me, that’s better, because you become more focused. And the record itself is more focused; you work harder on it. I did that on the new Soulfly, which is coming out; I wrote just for that, all the songs were for the new album. It’s better when I write like that, I think.
You told me once that you wrote the first Soulfly song on one guitar string. Are you much of a gear guy? Do you have a lot of guitars, a favorite amp, stuff like that?
I am and I’m not at the same time. I have a weird relationship with the guitar. I like the guitar, but at the same time I don’t have much respect for it. So that’s why I kick it around and throw it, and I’ve broken guitars my whole life. I’ve broken dozens of guitars on stage. It’s like a love-hate relationship. I’m not one of those gear freak guys, that’s not my style. I like the idea of simplicity, that’s why “Eye for an Eye” was written on one string—you can play the whole song on one string. If you were on a desert island with only one string on your guitar, you could jam “Eye for an Eye.” [laughs] I’ve got a good relationship with ESP. We’re making my own model, finally, it’s gonna come out at the end of the year. It’s gonna be a cross between a Warlock and an Explorer and some kind of new design. They’re very excited, I’m very excited after 30 years to get my own guitar design. That’s gonna come out probably for the next NAMM show, next year.
Your kids have their own bands now, but the music industry is so different from when you were coming up—do you even have any advice you can pass on to them? Or do they know what’s up, just from touring with you and Gloria [Cavalera, wife and manager] for so many years?
Well, I kinda let Gloria handle that side; she’s more in charge of them, and helping them out. I stay away from it. Even musically, I don’t get involved. Whatever they wanna do, I back them up; I’m just happy they’re playing music. But yeah, it’s not easy. The whole system has changed with the internet, which can be a good thing and a bad thing, I guess—it depends how you look at it. But it’s definitely a different world from how we grew up, with demo tapes and all that stuff. But I’m glad they’re playing, and they’re doing good, man, people like them. They’re a new generation of metal coming up, and I like a lot of new bands coming up, like Full of Hell and Code Orange and Xibalba and different kinds of heavy stuff that the kids are doing, guys probably about the same age as my kids. They’re doing great, heavy stuff, keeping metal alive. It’s awesome. I’m glad my kids are doing it, I’m very happy for them and, you know, I’m a proud dad to have sons that play metal.
You put everything out on Roadrunner for years. Now, Soulfly and Killer Be Killed are on Nuclear Blast and Cavalera Conspiracy is on Napalm. How do you feel about that split? Do you like it better this way?
Yeah, I like the fact that there’s separate labels. I think it’s cool to have Soulfly on Nuclear Blast and Cavalera on Napalm. They might be the two strongest metal labels around, you know, and it’s good to be there. As far as being on a label like Nuclear Blast today, it’s great, because it reminds me of the Roadrunner of the ’90s that I loved when I was in Sepultura. That was a metal label that loved metal. Unfortunately, that was not the case anymore in the end, and that’s why I left. I’m just happy to be back with a label that gets excited for my music. Because Nuclear Blast, they get excited when they hear there’s a new Soulfly record coming out, there’s a Killer Be Killed album being made. They get excited, like fans. That’s a huge difference, and I love being with a label that has that. That’s what made me go to Nuclear Blast and Napalm Records.
Plus, you’re working with Monte Conner again.
Yeah, nothing could have stopped that from happening. [laughs] Me and Monte, we have a great relationship. We do the records together – he helps me with the track listing and things like that. It’s a great relationship, and we’re really happy.