Max Cavalera of Soulfly talks about his history and darkly humorous song titles
As the leader of Sepultura for over a decade, Max Cavalera helped put Brazil on the map. From the beginning, the outfit was clearly influenced by punk rock as much as it was by other metal bands, as evidenced by its socially conscious lyrics, its grassroots efforts to get its music out into the world, and its disregard for strict genre conventions.
Sepultura's epochal 1993 album, Chaos A.D., signaled both a maturity in the band's songwriting and a willingness to blend in elements of traditional Brazilian music with music that could never have been made without electricity and amplifiers. It's rare that any band follows up its best album to date with another landmark, but that's exactly what Sepultura did in 1996 with Roots, a metal album like no other utilizing an innovative blend of ancient and modern sounds.
Shortly after the release of Roots, Cavalera suffered a personal tragedy when it was discovered that his stepson had been murdered. Cavalera returned to music two years later with the eponymous Soulfly record -- a piece of work that reflected his own search for spiritual meaning in times of great personal darkness.
Since its debut, Soulfly has been a different kind of metal band, not just in terms of lyrical content, but also for its unique use of guitar sounds and non-traditional instrumentation, an approach that Cavalera had begun on his last two Sepultura albums. The band's latest, Omen, is a step toward the stylistic dark side. We spoke with the amiable and frank Cavalera about his time in both Sepultura and Soulfly, his songwriting and his penchant for darkly humorous song titles.
Westword: How did you first get into heavy music growing up in Brazil?
Max Cavalera: My first experience with music was Queen, when they played in Brazil at a soccer stadium in 1981. My cousin took me and Igor to see it. I loved it right there. I liked it so much, I went and bought a bunch of Queen tapes the next day. At the store the guy said, "If you like Queen, try this band, Kiss." Then we both listened to those tapes, and that grew into getting into heavier and heavier bands like Motorhead, Black Sabbath and, later on, Slayer. It got heavier and heavier, to the point where I wanted to make my own music.
What was it like in the early days of your being a band in Brazil, and what was the turning point for you in becoming a band that was known well outside of your home country?
In the beginning, it was kind of rough, because we were poor and didn't have a lot of money. We were very poor. We had shitty equipment, and we did whatever was possible to make it work. My brother didn't have a drum kit. He just had a couple pieces of drums put together to make a strange drum kit he'd play on. The major turning point was when we got signed with Roadrunner. That was after our third album in Brazil. The fourth was Beneath the Remains, from 1989. That introduced us to the world.
We played all kinds of different places that we could. There were some metal festivals organized by friends of ours -- the Xerox fliers and word of mouth. A thousand people would show up and we'd have a good show. We'd have some kind of shitty P.A., but we had a good time. The other shows we did were competitions for radio stations, like a battle-of-the-bands type of thing. We entered a couple of those things. We did okay, but we didn't win anything. But we got our music heard, and more people found out about us.
Did your inclusion of traditional Brazilian musical elements first appear on the Sepultura album Roots, and why did you weave that sort of sound into the kind of music you were already writing?
Roots was a unique album from the beginning. The first time Sepultura got influenced by Brazilian music was the album before that, called Chaos A.D., with a song called "Kaiowas." It was all instrumental, and it was about a Brazillian tribe that committed mass suicide. It was really our first collaboration with Brazillian instruments.
Then the time came for Roots. We were on the verge of discovering other Brazilian stuff, and we invited Carlinhos Brown, who is a Brazilian percussionist, to be a part of the album. He came to the studio in California and did an amazing job on the album. We did a song called "Rattamahatta," which was cool and percussive -- Brazilian-sounding, with Brazilian lyrics.
Roots was really the trip to the tribe that took us to recording with an original Brazilian tribe in the Amazon, which was more like a National Geographic expedition than a rock-band thing. It was amazing how we stayed with them, ate their food and made music with them, with the Indians. It was us and like 300 Indians making up the background of the recording. The digipak had photos of us being painted by the Indians. They had painted all of us for ceremonial rituals.
The album cover had a painting of a Brazilian dollar note from a long time ago that had the face of an Indian. It was really striking, and that was the cover of the album, the Indian face, and we just added the Sepultura symbol with the tribal "S" somewhere on the neck of the Indian. Otherwise, it's the same as on that Brazilian note. The artist didn't change it that much.
The whole project was interesting from the beginning, because it was our own way back to our roots and making a metal album that was recorded with a tribe. That's never been done before. I think a lot of people were shocked at first, and a lot of people were at first like, "What the fuck is this? This is some crazy shit! Bunch of guys recording with a tribe. What's going on here?" Afterward, I think it was really well received, and I think Roots was one of Sepultura's most famous albums.
With Soulfly, you have a distinctive guitar sound and style. May I ask what kind of gear you use?
We normally use Peavey amplifiers, and I use an ESP guitar with two Boss pedals: a flanger and a big wah pedal. My sound is pretty much the sound that comes out of the Peavey with the gain all the way to the top so there's a really heavy distortion sound that comes from the amplifier. Marc Rizzo uses BC Rich guitars and a Digitech pedal he got from the company that he uses on Prophecy and the Cavalera Conspiracy. It's like a wah-wah, and he uses that a lot on a lot of the intros. It's amazing how he uses it. I don't know the technique he uses; I just know it sounds really cool.