Published Sep 26, 2011Robb Flynn ― the guy is practically made of metal. You imagine the guitarist/vocalist for San Francisco thrash metal mainstays Machine Head to be the toughest dude in the world, responsible as he is for some classic headbanging anthems (plus, he was in old-school thrashers Vio-lence!) but when we catch up with him to talk about Machine Head's new rager, Unto the Locust, we discover he's not some metallic cyborg but is indeed flesh and blood. We end up sharing stories of leaving our kids at preschool, how old-school Canadian heavy metal band Exciter changed his life, and my less-than-legal ways of acquiring Machine Head's first album. None of which take away from the fact that with Locust (their seventh full-length and first since '07), the band has dropped an album that is so good we're not even going to make one joke about their nu-metal phase (seriously!); it just all adds up to show that Flynn, underneath all the alpha male sounds, is a dude like anyone else. A dude who just happened to write the best thrash album of the year.
Hey, Robb. What are you up to?
I'm at my youngest son's preschool orientation, not realizing that I had to do a bunch of Canadian interviews.
Classic (laughs). I actually just dropped my oldest daughter off at preschool for her first day.
Awesome. So you know. You know.
I know the pain. My stomach was in knots all morning, I'm thinking, "I'm a 34-year-old man, I've been listening to heavy metal since I was a kid and I can't handle this?"
(Laughs) It gets easier.
I hope so. Well, let's talk a bit about the new album. I thought the last album [The Blackening] was really great. You hate to say "comeback," but the fire really came back last time. And I think this new one is, again, really good. How are you feeling about it?
We're really, really proud of it. We really set out to challenge ourselves, both musically, lyrically, with storytelling, with arrangements, and try some stuff other bands aren't doing. Really be daring. Dare to fail. And we're stoked on the results.
Why do you feel the urge to dare to fail? Why not just play it safe?
There were a lot of people telling us we should just play it safe (laughs). We got Metallica tours and Grammy nominations, and if it ain't broke don't fix it. Maybe it's just our attention spans are really short, I'm not sure, but that just didn't appeal to us. We didn't want to write The Blackening 2. It had been almost five years since the last writing session. When we wrote for The Blackening, we had pushed ourselves to the extent of our abilities. There's some really intense, dynamic stuff on there. Then we toured it for three years. At some point, what was the limit of our abilities became the new normal. So when we got done touring, it was like, "I don't want to be stuck with this box around what we can and can't do. Let's just go for it and see what happens." And we did.
I can't believe you're telling me that you have short attention spans. These songs are all so long.
Yeah, but there's a lot of things going on in them. We rarely have a bar go by without something changing, whether it's a drumbeat picking up, the riff changing, the vocal cadence changing… we still want to write songs in the classic pop sense of what a song is. But in the middle of it all we take the listener on a journey. We don't want riff soup; we don't want to be just sticking riffs in a row.
Something that really stuck out to me on the album are the lyrics to "The Darkness Within." It's funny, because for a genre like metal and fans like metalheads who are so dedicated, you don't see a lot of songs like that in metal, that are just about the love of music. I thought it was really powerful.
Oh, thank you, man. Thank you very much. That was definitely the left-field jam of the record.
But it works. My other favourite song was "Locust."
Kick ass. We played that in Toronto, and it went down amazing. It went down amazing. That was a great show, man. God, that was such a good show. The crowd was raging. Three of my favourite bands of all time come from Canada.
Can I guess? Sacrifice…
No, Rush. Of course, Rush. A punk rock band called SNFU, they had a record out called …And No One Else Wanted to Play. It blew my mind. I worshipped it. And Exciter. Heavy Metal Maniac. Exciter was the first thrash band that I ever saw in my life. It was the first club show that I ever went to, when I was 14 years old. They played the Stone in San Francisco, and I had never seen a circle pit, the whole thing… the guitar player John Ricci, just my absolute guitar god at that point. They were amazing. I loved it. After that, that night… it changed my life. From that point on, I was like, "I want to be in a band."
Well I'm glad you have a bit of Canada in you. We contributed to the legacy.
Back to the album, we were talking about "The Darkness Within." That song and "Who We Are," for some reason, more than any of your other ones, it feels like it's a big statement. It feels definitive. It feels like if this were the last album, it would feel like, "Okay, we've said what we need to say."
That sounds like a compliment to me.
I think it is.
Yeah, we really wanted to make a statement. Not that The Blackening wasn't a statement. For the whole last six months of The Blackening tour cycle, all that we heard, every day, every interview, first question: how are you going to top The Blackening? At first we didn't really know because we hadn't started writing yet. After a while it just got so fucking irritating hearing that. In some ways it lit a fire under our ass, like, alright, we're going to show you. It wasn't about bettering The Blackening. We're not trying to beat The Blackening. For us, it's not about comparing the two. We just wanted to make a record that will allow The Blackening to stand on its own legs, and make another record that could be different and stand on its own legs. And that's what we shot for. Whether we achieved it or not, that's for the world to decide. But we feel that we challenged ourselves. Especially with The Blackening, the accolades, it's amazing, it's humbling, but we still have this challenge, this desire, we want to go out there and change things and shake things up and, like you said, make a statement.
One more thing. My memory kind of fails me, and I was trying to recall this this morning, but I may have shoplifted your first album [1994's Burn My Eyes]. My apologies for that. I owe you a beer if that's the case.
I love hearing that (laughs).
It was a cassette; it fit right in my pocket.
You didn't steal it from the internet, you actually physically stole it. It's more ballsy and dangerous.
It's old school.
I like it. That's killer.