Machine Head’s Robb Flynn On Civil Unrest, Quarantine Creativity And The Uncertain Future Of Music
As with every public figure daring enough to put their head above the parapet to voice an opinion on Black Lives Matter and the broader global anti-racism movement, the release of latest Machine Head double single Civil Unrest (lead track Stop The Bleeding featuring Killswitch Engage singer Jesse Leach and blockbuster B-side Bulletproof) was met with a chorus of calls for the Bay Area metallers to “lay off the politics and stick to what they do best”. Frontman Robb Flynn acknowledges the irony.
Having departed legendary thrashers Vio-lence in 1992 and looking to strike out with original music of his own, the singer wasn’t short of inspiration, from the 1993 Waco siege behind Davidian to the prevalent religious zealotry of the time dissected on Death Church. It was the 1992 LA riots Robb had experienced first-hand – and the pattern of police brutality that precipitated them – which had the greatest bearing on landmark debut Burn My Eyes, with A Thousand Lies, Block and Real Eyes, Realize, Real Lies all drawing on the indignation and righteous fury of the time. Robb flashes a wry grin. “I’ve been writing about this shit from the beginning.”
Against the backdrop of 2020’s global pandemic, we sat down with the singer to talk about the challenges (old and new) of fighting the good fight, collaboration in the time of quarantine, and what the future holds for Machine Head and the music industry as a whole.
It’s a rocky road ahead…
How did this Civil Unrest release come about? Is it something you’ve been planning longer-term, or was it particularly precipitated by recent events?
“We’d had had the [music] for the main single Stop The Bleeding for a little while. I recorded it with [bassist] Jared MacEachern and Carlos Cruz from Warbringer, but hadn’t written words. The killing of George Floyd took place on Memorial Day Monday, and I saw the video on the following Wednesday. In a fury of rage, I wrote the lyrics. By then, there were already massive protests in Oakland. I drove past them on the way to my studio and sang the song like an hour later. Everything you hear is the first or second take after seeing that.”
Looking at the current movement, is your overwhelming emotion that of rage, or is there an element of hope that this might actually precipitate change – especially in the current global environment, and in an election year in the United States?
“I’ve marched in two protests already. One in Oakland, one in Sacramento. Both were huge. Both were peaceful. But people are pissed. People are really angry. It’s palpable. We’re going on for three-and-a-half weeks of protests now. I’ve never seen this kind of action endure for so long. It normally fizzles out after three or four days. It doesn’t continue for three or four weeks. It’s spread far farther than ever before, too. I watched the footage of the [Edward Colston] statue being torn down and thrown into the river in Bristol. I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ This is a moment in history that we’re going through. We need a lot of change. And it feels so good to have other countries stand up alongside us to demand that change – from the UK and France to fucking Syria!”
What was the tangible personal experience of being a part of that like?
“The Sacramento protest was special. I drove an hour and a half up there to march with my wife, my two boys and my dad – three generations of Flynns. My son is a teenager. He doesn’t do anything other than watch anime on his phone all day, but I pulled him aside and told him that I’d really like him to come along. This isn’t some passing moment. It’s something that he will probably remember for the rest of his life, and which could change him. I’m going to be dead in like 20 years. I will be gone but this could be his future. It was amazing to see 25,000 people coming together to say that we’re done with white supremacists and white supremacy. We’ve got a leader who’s tweeting conspiracies 150 times a day, dividing us, and after three years of it we’re desensitised. Some people just believe him now, but it was inspiring to see so many people say ‘Fuck this shit!’”
You’ve been in a particularly political mindset of late, but people seem to forget that these politics have always been part of Machine Head’s music…
“I post on Instagram a lot. I’ve been very angry about the state of the world, posting pictures and videos of the protests of late. A lot of people support that. A lot of people shit all over it. There’s always a very loud minority who’re in the ‘Shut up and sing!’ category. But I don’t know what they think I’ve been singing about for the last 27 years. What do they think A Thousand Lies is about? Clenching The Fists Of Dissent? Halo? In The Presence Of My Enemies? A Farewell To Arms? Maybe it’s just dawning on people, but I don’t know what the hell they have been listening to. The politics have always been a big part of Machine Head.”
Do you feel like the metal – and broader music – communities are doing enough?
“I’m not really a follower of the metal community at large, but I feel like the response has been a little bit quiet. Maybe I’m reading that wrong. I do know that there are a small group of people – younger bands – who are working hard to address it. Fit For An Autopsy just had a ‘We Can Do Better’ campaign – two days of coverage and interviews and an auction to which we contributed, where they raised $60,000 for the ACLU – and it was awesome to see them using their platform like that. Honestly, though, the biggest thing I saw was Taylor Swift clapping back at Donald Trump on Twitter, telling him this is what happens when you stuff white supremacy down people’s throats for three years. I was just like ‘Wow! Good for you.’”
The video for Stop The Bleeding has a brilliant duality, with you and Jesse both walking down a railway line on opposite sides of the North American continent. Was that actively intended to evoke the feeling of nationwide unity?
“At the end of the day, the song is a plea for unity. There’s this line in there: ‘Good men stand up and show your bravery / For a lost democracy – our democracy.’ That speaks for itself.”
How exactly did Jesse get involved?
“I had been talking with Jesse for a while about doing a song together, but he was on tour and I was on tour and it never happened. I had just had him on my podcast a little bit before this all happened, and we had reconnected. I had just finished singing and I texted him to say that I’d love to have him sing on this song. He read the lyrics and replied within five minutes to say that he was all-in, 100 per cent. That was two weeks ago and the song is out [now].”
Following Do Or Die and Circle The Drain, this is your third high-profile single release. Is that pattern a sign of things to come?
“I’ve been saying it for a while – the last five years – that the future is in singles. It takes a long time for a band like us to put albums out. Hell, it’s already been two-and-a-half years since Catharsis. We tour 20-something months for every record, and I don’t like our fans having to wait three-and-a-half years for new music. I love the idea of that constant drip of new material every two or three months, that constant engagement with the fans. Also, there’s the immediacy. I finished the lyrics to Bulletproof three weeks ago. I finished Stop The Bleeding a week and a half ago. It was mastered on Monday and it’s out on Wednesday. That’s the beauty of technology now.”
We shouldn’t expect a full album any time soon, then?
“It’ll happen eventually, but at the moment that’s not where my head is at. I just had Matt Heafy of Trivium on my podcast yesterday. His new record is a masterpiece. There was talk of pushing it back because of COVID-19, but they just wanted to get new music out to people. And, although the streaming numbers for that album were amazing, the physical sales [which are so important to the album release format] were virtually non-existent. Metal is so conditioned to getting the CD or vinyl into stores, but that structure has been obliterated. Especially in this time of pandemic, Spotify is your new best friend.”
It’s difficult to apply that mindset to playing live, though. How hopeful are you about getting back onstage?
“We’ve got tour dates booked for November, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that they’re going to be able to happen. Honestly, I’ve been doing this for 33 years – it’s my life. I don’t know anything else, and I’m pathetically unqualified to even try. But do I think it’s realistic that 20 countries are going to be able to open up for full-capacity live shows right at the start of flu season? No. Even just here in America, the local promoters are telling us that they’re looking at 25 per cent capacity when they re-open. That’s 750 people in a 3,000-cap hall. Certain promoters have even already asked us to take a 50 per cent deduction on our guarantees. We’ve had to say, ‘Fuck you!’ It’s gonna be a bloodbath for a while. It’s going to be rough.”
If socially-distanced – or even drive-in shows – were on the table, would they realistically be of interest to Machine Head?
“Fuck no! I just watched some stupid drive in show the other day where people sat in their cars and honked when they liked what the band was playing, and it was the stupidest fucking shit I’ve ever seen. If cover bands want to do that shit, it’s cool. They should have fun. But the whole point of a Machine Head show is having those 5,000 people screaming every word, pressed against the barrier, getting sweaty and piling into giant circle-pits – just that cathartic release of energy. If the only option is drive-ins for a while, I can wait.”
Realistically, how long do you expect that wait to be?
“I don’t know if things will ever go back to ‘normal’ again. But I think it could be four years before things get close. I think this pandemic could go on for at least two years – coming in waves, getting better in summer and worse as we go back into flu season – then it could take another two years for people to get over that shell-shock of having been locked down for so long. Like the Spanish Flu in 1918, it’ll take time for the economy to recover, and for people to have the confidence to go back out there. Forty million people have lost their jobs in the States. Twenty-five million people have lost their health insurance. The UK has the NHS, but we’re just a bunch of fucking dummies who don’t, because we need our ‘freedom’. I would love to be wrong, but from everything I’ve heard and read, that’s how long I think it’s gonna be.”
How has your mindset changed? Has lockdown been an opportunity to recharge after those 33 years on the road?
“You know, I never really realised what a hermit I was until the whole world went on quarantine. My life has been relatively unaffected. I work from home when I’m not on the road anyway, so it wasn’t some big shock. There have been some really cool things to come out of it. The gyms closed, so my wife and I rearranged our garage to be a home gym. The last thing I want to do is get fat and lethargic, so I’ve been working out five or six days a week and trying to walk my 10,000 steps a day. We put a couch in there, too, and we have Friday or Saturday night date-night with me drinking a vodka and her on a glass of wine. Last weekend we had Duran Duran karaoke, which went on for way too long according to my son. She’s unemployed. I’m basically unemployed. We’re having twice as much sex as we used to. So it’s not that bad – it could be a lot worse.”
You’ve been expanding your musical horizons, too, right?
“I’m going down to the studio five or six times a week. Every Friday since the pandemic started, I’ve been doing this Robb Flynn Acoustic Happy Hour from 3-5pm pacific time. It’s just basically a free show on Facebook. I try to learn two new songs every Friday. I take requests, and I try to play Machine Head songs that have never been played live acoustic. Last week I covered Muse, Tool and Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s been fucking awesome. The first three or four were horrible – I knew they were – but I knew that if I kept sucking for six weeks I would get past it.
“Also, for the first 20 years of my career, I never took singing lessons. Then I did some about 10 years ago. With these acoustic shows, I’ve been back in contact with my old singing teacher to try and figure out why I can do a three-and-a-half hour Machine Head show, but this clean singing is kicking my ass. It’s been an opportunity to un-learn all the wrong shit and get an opportunity to do things right.”
When it comes to writing more new music – the rage of the current political situation aside – do you think that there might be a reflection of that slower-paced lifestyle and those Friday afternoons singing clean?
“I dunno! A lot of bands have a plan. They know they’re going to do this and that – then they do it. For me, writing music is more like walking into a completely blacked-out room and just trying to find the doorknob to get out. Eventually you do find it, but before that you spend a lot of time going back and forth figuring things out. Until I’m there, it’s impossible to really say!”
Finally, while we wait for a return to normality, how would you suggest metal fans spend their time in the interim?
“I think that everyone should take one hour a day to better yourself – as a husband, a father, a creative, a musician, a writer, whatever. There’s almost certainly one thing that you’ve been putting off for all these years and now you’ve got the opportunity to get it done. It’s all mindset. Yes, there’s shit that sucks, but you can use this time. Maybe we were going too fast and this is the world saying ‘slow down’.
“Politically, though, it’s a chance to wake up. For the last three years, it’s been like America is in a coma, just in shock. There have been authoritarian leaders elected elsewhere, too. That people have been coming out of that and really saying ‘Fuck this shit!’ is a great thing. I encourage everybody to go out to those protests and take part. That doesn’t need to be in your home town, either. Take care, but take the train or get in the car and go be a part of it. This is a moment in history, and you want to be on the right side of it. It’s going to reverberate for decades to come, and you will want to have been there.”
Civil Unrest is out now via Nuclear Blast.
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