Max Cavalera: “Success Can Destroy People. You Don’t Get Angry Anymore, And You Have Nothing To Rebel Against”
Max Cavalera is someone who prefers to look forwards in life. It helps when it comes to throwing himself into new projects, which he does regularly, but it’s less than ideal for reflecting on a career that spans over three decades.
Especially when his work still tends to be divided into the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of his sudden, bitter split from Brazilian metal kings Sepultura in 1996.
Sharon Osbourne famously tipped them to be “the next Metallica”, but the rift that caused Max to leave ran deep. And it was messy, bound up in family – his brother Igor remained Sepultura’s drummer for a decade after his departure – the grief caused by the sudden death of Max’s stepson Dana, and accusations from other members that the band’s then manager – and the vocalist’s wife – Gloria, was prioritising her husband’s profile ahead of the group’s. Inevitably, various versions of what happened have been aired, as well as Max stating he’s tired of talking about it.
This decades-old drama threatens to overshadow Soulfly, the group he formed the following year and still fronts, who have continued to evolve his ‘tribal metal’ sound for 20 years and counting.
There’s also his two other bands: Cavalera Conspiracy, which resumed his collaboration with Igor in 2007, and the supergroup Killer Be Killed, formed in 2011, because Max working with members of Mastodon, The Dillinger Escape Plan and Converge was never not going to be a good idea.
But here we dive back into Max’s storied history – back to a time before he’d made combat fatigues, football shirts and dreadlocks an unlikely uniform for metalheads, when he was in just the one band (sort of) and relished the opportunity of seeing the world for the first time, having experiences along the way that still influence his writing style and musical output.
Two years ago you reissued Sepultura’s Arise album with 28 bonus songs. There were just nine tracks on the original album. Where did they all come from?
“You gotta get those things out there and let people hear them. There’s no reason to keep it guarded. The fans love it, and I think it’s cool. I enjoy bonus tracks myself. I buy a lot of remastered stuff from other bands – I love Black Sabbath and AC/DC bonus stuff. It’s always great to unearth really exclusive things to help show how we got to that point and made that record. Arise is my favourite thing we did of that era. It was the best at mixing death and thrash metal, which a lot of people are doing even now. It sounds a little tribal, too. Our romance with tribal can probably be traced back to Arise.”
What was the recording process and experience like on that album?
“We were coming off the back of Beneath The Remains, which came out good, but I believed we could do better. We went to Florida to record at Morrisound, which was the temple of death metal. Loads of great bands recorded there: Death, Obituary, Morbid Angel, Sadist. It was Mecca. There was a lot of partying on Arise, though. I don’t know how that record got made (laughs)! Morbid Angel had a practice place next to ours in Tampa. We showed up in 100-degree weather in shorts and sandals and they had their full regalia on, all dressed in leather. We were like, ‘Those guys are the real deal, man. They go to practice like that? Holy shit!’”
Were you drawing from any other musical influences at that point?
“I spent some time at home with [Arise producer] Scott Burns, going through his record collection. His favourite type of music is hardcore punk, so he had lots of Black Flag, Circle Jerks and Minor Threat stuff. He was always like, ‘Max, you gotta listen to punk, man – the lyrics of that music is what’s really cool and you’ve got some of that vibe in you.’ One of the bonus tracks is our cover of Dead Kennedys’ Drug Me actually. It’s fast, nasty and we did it in a Sepultura style. Jello [Biafra, former Dead Kennedys frontman] loved it as well. I love the Virus 100 compilation record we recorded it for, too. Faith No More’s cover of Let’s Lynch The Landlord is amazing and Napalm Death’s version of Nazi Punks Fuck Off is great. I got to sing that with them live a couple of times.”
The Arise artwork is pretty memorable, too…
“The artist, Michael Whelan, did a lot of [influential horror fiction writer] HP Lovecraft books – he was a fantasy painter who I really loved. The Arise pic was kind of done, but originally instead of a brain in the centre it was an egg. I had to tell him to switch the egg to something more metal, because eggs aren’t metal! You eat eggs for breakfast, chickens lay eggs, it’s not metal. I managed to do it without hurting his feelings. He came up with the idea of the brain and I told him, ‘Alright, a brain is metal.’ So we settled on that. [Late Death frontman] Chuck Schuldiner said it looked like a ‘seafood nightmare’. That’s why I love it. There are lots of little details inside the design. You could spend hours looking at it.”
Not long after Arise you emigrated from your native Brazil to the U.S., where you still live today. What prompted that decision?
“Brazil is kinda detached. When you live there you really don’t know or care what’s going on in the rest of the world. We wanted to be able to live for music, but at the same time we didn’t want to move to a big city. Phoenix was perfect. It’s in the desert, it’s quiet. I still love going back there after tour. I think the desert has some magic in it – it’s mystic. We moved for the band. That’s what made us different. Other bands wonder why it didn’t happen for them – it’s because of that. You’ve gotta go the extra mile and do things others don’t want to. You gotta get your hands dirty and we were out for blood at that time.”
Arise also prompted the longest tour you’d ever done, taking you around the world. How did that change you?
“We did shows with Sacred Reich, Napalm Death and Sick Of It All called New Titans On The Bloc tour. We couldn’t get on Clash Of The Titans [co-headlined by Megadeth and Slayer], so Gloria had the great idea of doing our own tour, kind of making fun of it. We ended up playing Indonesia, then Russia. Over there, the tour was called Monsters Of Rock In The Ruins Of The Evil Empire. We played to 3,000 people in Moscow and we became much more aware of the world around us. What you see on CNN is different to what you see when you go somewhere yourself. It’s a big propaganda machine. In Russia we saw lines of people queuing to buy bread. In Indonesia, we saw the power of the police. When it was getting too crazy they stopped the show, bambooed the kids and made 40,000 people sit down and be quiet. I’d never seen that show of force in my life before. It was incredible. I think all of that culminated in Chaos AD – the fruit of all that travelling. It opened our eyes and we ended up writing a much more political record. We also did some tours with Ozzy Osbourne. Zakk Wylde was reminiscing with me a few years ago and said he used to tell people, ‘Sepultura play the heaviest stuff in the world, then you go to their tour bus after, and the music they’re playing on their stereo is somehow 10 times heavier.’ Our bus was always rocking. It was so loud, people couldn’t even talk – it was an uncomfortable place to hang out. It was great…”
When Chaos AD was released Sepultura became even more successful. What was that like?
“I think the band got bigger after [the original line-up] broke up. It never felt like we were doing amazing, it actually felt like we were always struggling. Chaos AD came out on a major label in America. They sent a guy to listen to it and he thought it was going to be some rock shit he could play on the radio. We played him Refuse/Resist and Territory and I think those are great songs, but he said he couldn’t do anything with them. Chaos came out in the era of grunge, when everybody was wearing flannel shirts. But Dave Grohl was a big Sepultura fan – you can see him wearing our merch in some Nirvana photos. He came out to our shows in Seattle all the time. I liked Nirvana. The early stuff was very punk and Dave said in the intro to my book that we were cut from the same cloth. I also liked Soundgarden’s early stuff, which had more of a Black Sabbath influence. I never really liked Pearl Jam, though. For me it was a bit soft. Dave and I have never talked about each starting out fresh again, but we know the feeling because we’ve both done it in our careers. It’s not easy at all, and I’m happy for him doing really well with Foo Fighters.”
Did you feel under extra pressure on 1996 album Roots?
“Yeah. When you have Sharon Osbourne saying stuff like, ‘They’re about to become the next Metallica’… But when I think of Metallica, I’m glad we never turned into that. I like their first four records, but after that, not anything at all. Their early stuff – Ride The Lightning, especially – is what that kind of music was and never was again. If I’d stayed with Sepultura, maybe it would’ve turned to shit. Success can destroy people. You don’t get angry anymore, because you’re too rich and you have nothing to complain about. You’re left with nothing to rebel against. What are you going to rebel against – having too much money to count? That’s fucking stupid.”
Do you think your split from Sepultura after Roots would’ve been harder now, in the age of social media? You would’ve likely received messages of support and of abuse…
“I don’t know. It would definitely be a lot different. There would’ve been a lot more talk about it, for a start. At the time, a lot of people didn’t even know I had left. I wrote a letter and sent it to magazines explaining why I was leaving and even today they still don’t get it right. They say I left because Gloria was fired and that’s bullshit. That never actually happened. Her contract was done. I left ‘cause they wanted things that were not what we were about – big LA managers and rockstar stuff that I never thought we needed. I don’t dream of having rockstar things. Even today, I don’t give a shit about that stuff. My songs are not on the radio and it doesn’t bother me one bit. I don’t write for that. I say GRAMMYs are like haemorrhoids: eventually every asshole gets one. It’s up to you, man. Your career is up to you. Some people get blinded by those things. They do everything to chase that. I’m not one of those people. I don’t dream of owning the big houses or riding the expensive cars. I like spending my money on headphones and music. I don’t have that problem.”
A few years ago you did a tour where you played songs by your first ever side-project, Nailbomb. The venues were the polar opposite of the big shows you’ve played with Soulfly and Sepultura…
“Playing for 200 people a night on the Nailbomb tour was fantastic. People asked, ‘You’ve done all those big shows, how can you come to this club?’ But that’s exactly why – because I did those big shows, and I enjoy going back to those small venues. They’re at the heart of it, and why I liked metal in the first place. It’s about what the music gives me. We were never in it for the money, girls or fame. I’m kinda glad the split from Sepultura happened and I had to go back and start again with Soulfly. It was great for my career, to go back and have to do it all over again. It made sure that my music stayed consistent, I didn’t have to sell out and the anger on the first, self-titled Soulfly record is real.”
The first Soulfly album also continued the trend of collaborating with a wide range of people, which began on Roots. You’re probably the only person who can say they’ve collaborated with Mike Patton, on Roots’ Lookaway, and Fred Durst on self-titled’s Bleed…
“I love that. It’s one of my favourite things to do. Also, on side-projects like Killer Be Killed there’s a real freedom. You’re not attached to anything and there are no expectations. It is what it will be. Plus, I love talking to musicians, jamming with people, knowing their secrets, and finding out what they listen to. They give me great tips. I don’t judge collaborations by fame. I judge them by the artist. That way I can work with Sean Lennon and Tom Araya on the same record [Soulfly’s Primitive].”
How does it feel to be on the other side of that exploration into music – to have young musicians ask you for your advice?
“I’m lost for words. Of course I can tell them the basics: work hard, and fight for your dreams, but I don’t know exactly what to tell them. There is no manual explaining how to become successful. We did it by trial and error, good decisions and bad decisions. We made them all together. I’m so proud of playing with Zyon, my son [and current Soulfly drummer]. It’s one of the best feelings in the world. It’s overwhelming. We opened Chaos AD with an ultrasound recording of his heartbeat, before he was even born. Now we get to jam together. A lot of young fans come to our shows now, too. I pull them onstage, because I can’t help it. I want people to experience that feeling. On [a recent tour], one kid was six years old and he sang the Eye For An Eye chorus with me. There was a little girl who was eight years old, wearing a Soulfly shirt. It’s crazy. Then you get all the old farts who grew up with my stuff. You see them with their white beards and you know they’ve been there from the start!”
When you look back on your career so far, how does that shape what you would like to achieve going forward?
“I’m proud of the records we’ve made to date, but the one thing I don’t do is let them stop me. I’m always looking for a better album. I still think I haven’t done a real masterpiece yet. I think that’s still to come at some point. I know it will probably sound crazy for some people, after Soulfly, Roots and Arise, but in my search I think there’s still more to do. It’s a never-ending search. The comments I’ve had from people who’ve heard the new Soulfly record make me think I must be doing something right. I still get nerves before shows, believe it or not. But I think that’s a great thing. Nerves are good, because they’re cathartic. I think it’s good to be like that, it shows you’re still excited.”
Read this next:
In honour of the 30th anniversary of its international release, we look at how Sepultura’s Arise changed the band, and metal as a whole.
Managing your mental health isn’t easy, says YONAKA’s Theresa Jarvis, but time away from your phone helps to keep negativity away…