Music Ignites the Savages in Soulfly - A Conversation With Max Cavalera

Over the course of his career, Max Cavalera has become a name just shy of metal royalty. Beginning with Sepultura, Max has been producing fan-adored metal for over twenty years, and now it's become a family affair. As Soulfly releases "Savages" upon the world, Max is joined in the band by his son Zyon on drums. Filled with notable guest appearances and overflowing with power, "Savages" is just the latest added chapter in Max's storied career. The man himself, the one and only Max Calavera, sat down with me to talk about this new album, the head space he's in, having his son in the band and naturally, Brazilian soccer.
M.DREW: If you could describe where Soulfly is as a band, what would you say?
MAX CAVALERA: We’re in a very good place right now, it’s a really good lineup. I love the musicians we’ve got. Marc [Rizzo] is excellent, doing great guitar work. Tony [Campos] is a great addition, sings on all our stuff. Zyon, my son, brings a lot of energy and youth to the band. I really like “Savages,” I think it’s a really powerful disc, a lot of really cool stuff in it. I think it’s more diverse than the last Soulfly record. Especially with guests like Neil [Fallon] from Clutch on “Ayatollah [of Rock ‘N’ Rolla],” Mitch from Napalm Death, Jaime from I Declare War. All these little details made the record different and diverse and more enjoyable overall. The songs are longer, too, six or seven minutes, I really like that. Classic long songs like old Metallica, like “Master of Puppets” era. Sepultura, we used to do that back in the “Beneath the Remains” days, songs were pretty long. It was cool, a lot of parts. I always missed doing that, and I had the chance to do with “Savages,” so I took the chance. To me, all that’s good in Soulfly is in “Savages.” It’s got extreme parts, it’s got the groovy parts people love, and it’s got something new like “Ayatollah” that people haven’t heard yet. To me, I think after thirty years of career, after nine records with Soulfly, seven records with Sepultura, to do something new it’s a fucking miracle, man [laughs]. It’s amazing, I amazed myself hearing that song.
M.D: Speaking of Neil Fallon, he gives you a performance for “Savages” like he hasn’t sounded for Clutch in a long time. What did you say to him to get him to gut it out like that?
MC: We were just really excited to work together, we’re friends from a long time, we toured together on a Sepultura, Clutch, Fear Factory tour a long time ago. We got along with those guys, Neil is a super nice guy. I used to play “Shogun Named Marcus” with them on stage, it was always fun to do that. I love that first Clutch record, it’s still one of my favorite records of all time. When I heard that track, when I played it back what he did, I freaked. I fucking freaked out, it was hands-down – the talking part, I didn’t think he was gonna talk, I thought he would sing with the singing Clutch voice he always does. When he came with the talking in the beginning and used all the scores, so cool, man. I got goosebumps when I listened to that track back. I called him I said ‘man, you killed it.’ He was getting ready to go to Europe and I just thought ‘thank you for making that track outstanding.’ It’s so great. I think it was just an excitement to work with one another, been fans of each other for a long time, he wanted to really do something good for me and for Soulfly. I think he felt the vibe of the track. It was tailored for him, it was made exactly for him. When I wrote that riff, I thought ‘this is a Clutch riff, what the fuck am I doing with this?’ Later, I said let’s call Neil and have Neil sing on this. In the studio when we first recorded “Ayatollah,” I did a Neil impersonation, I never told him that. I did a Neil impersonation with my own lyrics and sang on top of that. It was something like ‘I’m a redneck from Hell,’ some stupid fucked up lyrics like that. I told Terry [Date, producer] ‘do not send him that.’ [Laughs] I don’t want him to hear that. Maybe one day I’ll play it for him, I have it with me still.
M.D: You just mentioned Terry Date, what’s it’s like to work with him? That guy’s name gets bigger and bigger every year, what’s it like to work with him?
MC: Amazing. You know, he doesn’t touch the music, which is really cool. A lot of producers come in and start changing the arrangement, the songs. Which is okay, I don’t have a problem with that, but a band like Soulfly pretty much knows what we’re doing. We don’t need somebody to come in and tell us how the riff is going to go or how the songs are going to go, we don’t need that part. I’m experienced enough to know how to write the songs. So he didn’t touch the songs, not one song. He heard everything and said ‘Everything’s perfect. I’m just going to record you the best way possible, do my thing and give you the best sounding record.’ That was his duty, that was his job, and it was fucking amazing. To have somebody come in and right off the bat say ‘I’m not touching the songs, not touching the structures’ and I’m saying ‘huh, interesting.’ I was expecting anything, I was expecting ‘you want to change everything, let’s change everything, I’m all game.’ He didn’t want to do that, he thought everything was great, everything was killer. The one thing we did that was different, he recorded the vocals right in the control room next to me. He asked if It was cool, said he could put me in a vocal booth if I wanted. He said if he was right there with me, he could sense better what I was doing, could help with the vocals. I said sure, let’s try it. It was a little uncomfortable at first, I never tried that before, I’ve always been in a vocal booth by myself and now I’m next to Terry Date and he’s controlling the knobs and I’m singing. I think “Fallen” was the first one we did, and right on the first line it was slamming, it was killer what we did. I felt a great connection with Terry. What we did that was really cool was on the end of every song we gave each other a big hug like we tackled that one, let’s get the next one. It was teamwork. It a feeling that he’s really proud to be doing this record. That was super killer, I never had this connection with a producer before, it made the record more special for me, too.
M.D: You mentioned all the records you did with Sepultura and Soulfy, plus you’ve had Nailbomb and Cavalera Conspiracy, what keeps you going, how do you keep putting out a high caliber product every time you put an album out?
MC: I’m very critical of myself. I try to always do the best. Whenever I enter the studio it’s always a new challenge for me, an opportunity to create something that will become a classic one day. I’m not thinking exactly like that when I write songs. When we wrote “Chaos AD” and “Roots” and “Soulfly” we didn’t know they were going to be classics, we were just writing songs and having fun. But it’s always ‘don’t let the fans down.’ To me, the biggest nightmare would be to have a shitty album that when people talk they say ‘yeah, the band’s real good, but that one record, that was shitty, that sucked.’ I would hate to have that in my career. And I know that it can happen, I know sometimes it’s inevitable, and at one point maybe it will happen, but I try really hard not to let that happen. When I go in the studio, I’m thinking I have to make it better, I have to create better, I have to be better. Big motivation, big pressure. I work good with pressure. I got told I had two weeks to get in the studio and do “Enslaved.” That was how much time I had to prepare. I said ‘two weeks, are you serious? Couldn’t you give me two months?’ Nope, the producer was coming in for two weeks and you have to be out of the studio in two weeks. Good luck. [laughs] It turned out great, I love “Enslaved.” It’s more extreme, I liked working with Zeuss, he’s a different kind of guy. Honestly, I prefer “Savages,” musically. “Savages” is kind of a compilation of what I love about Soulfly, the groove and extreme together.
M.D: When you’re writing, is it in the back of your head that you already have classics on your resume? Does that put pressure on you that the fans might expect that?
MC: Try not to think about it, but it’s always in the back of your mind, especially when you’re writing riffs. When you find a great riff, it’s a great moment. When I found the opening riff of “Bloodshed,” that was a great fucking moment, because I knew I had something really strong to kick off “Savages.” I felt like this is a good place, we’re starting in a good place. The “Bloodshed” riff is killer, it’s one of my favorite riffs. It feels great, but it’s a struggle to find a riff like that. Hours and hours with your guitar just writing a lot of bullshit riffs that don’t go anywhere. When you find the right one, you know. You can’t explain what it is or how it is, you just know. You just feel it. As far as how the songs become classic, that’s really up to the fans, that’s not really up to me. When “Roots” came out, it was highly disappointing for a lot of people, the reviews weren’t very good. The market didn’t like it as first. The only country that loved “Roots” was France, France loved it from the beginning. Everybody else was saying they didn’t get it, they didn’t like it, too much tribal, blah blah blah. Now “Roots” is an iconic record, people Dave Grohl put it on a pedestal. I try not to think about it, but I know the power of the music. One thing I know, when I’m doing those songs at home, and it’s a motivation thing for me, is that I know those songs are going to reach a lot of people in a lot of parts of the world. That keeps me really motivated. Even though I won’t be there to see it when it reaches them, I’m gonna feel it somehow. By talking to them at a concert and they’ll let me know what the song did for them, eventually it will come back to me in some form or anything. I know that those riffs will travel the world and go to far places like Iran, Afghanistan and Siberia. We have fans in Tasmania and shit, it’s crazy. I love the people in those places. It’s one of the things that Soulfly does, is go to unusual countries and play weird places. We’re famous for that, other bands are envious of that. The guys from Mastodon asked me ‘how do you go to those places? We tell our booking agent to do that, but we never go. We heard you go to Siberia and China and shit.’ We just try real hard, we tell our booking agent ‘if we don’t go to those places, you’re gonna get fired.’ [laughs]

M.D: Your son makes his debut on this record. What it’s like to have your son in the band, and did you ever dream twenty years ago that it would be possible?
MC: No. I always wanted it, but I never thought it would be physically possible for him to play with me on a whole record. I still sometimes think it’s crazy, but he has come a long way. He was born with a beat, he was doing a beat with his mouth when he was three years old. I always knew something was special about that kid. I’m so blessed that all my kids are all involved in Soulfly and music. Igor and Zyon have Lody Kong which is going great, Jason does drum tech for Zyon, and Roxanne helps with booking tours and stuff. So everybody’s involved with music. The whole family breathes Soulfly and metal all day long, that’s really cool. Zyon, he asked me to be on this record. I was looking for a drummer, I was just about to start looking for drummers, and there were a couple names on the list. The guy from Mushroomhead wanted to try out, Zyon came to me and said ‘give me a chance, I know I can do it, let me prove I can be your guy. I can do this record for you, I’m ready now.’ I said let’s try. I went into his room and threw a bunch of new riffs at him. To me, a good drummer, you don’t have to tell him what to play, like my brother Igor. I threw a riff at Igor, he hears it, and he puts a beat right on it that is a perfect beat. That was the test I made for Zyon and he passed. He put on three beats that were exactly what I wanted, I didn’t have to tell him what kind of beat to play. The other drummer I ever told what beats to play was Joe Nunez, Joe was kind of clueless when it came to that. Every time I threw a riff at Joe Nunez, he would come with the worst beat ever, and I’d say ‘nononono, you got to do it like this.’ [laughs]. He was an awkward drummer. He actually became a good drummer in Soulfly, but when he first came, we had to really shape him up. But Zyon is a natural drummer, he plays a lot like Igor. Very physical, very strong. Heavy and hard-hitting. Which is great, I love hard-hitting drummers. I was watching Havok last night, and what struck me is that their drummer hits really hard, it’s really awesome, it’s always killer when you hear a drummer that hits hard. Zyon went in the studios a little bit. He’s with Terry Date, his first record, a Soulfly record, Nuclear Blast, big pressure, all this stuff. I said ‘put all that stuff out of your mind, put all that aside and just jam. The song is your beat, have fun with it.’ I think that made his head clear. And he got along great with Terry. Terry’s a great guy, Terry made him feel comfortable right away, no pressure, don’t feel threatened. He finished the drums in four days. Igor takes that much for Cavalera records, super fucking fast. I was so proud, so excited that he finished that quick. I told him we had more time, he didn’t have to finish that quick and we have the time, we’re not strapped for time. But he finished in four days, I’m really very proud of him.
M.D: Knowing that he’s your son, have you taught him to avoid some of the issues you encountered early in your career, or do you want him to learn the way that you had to learn?
MC: Yeah, I told him some of the things to stay away from like coke. Heavy drugs, stuff that I did like a fucking idiot. I told him that I did that stuff, so he knows, and it’s not good for you. He knows, he’s got a pretty good head, he’s not really into partying that much for some reason. He’s a really good kid. He stays at home, which is really weird, because I was pretty fucking wild, I was totally out of control [at his age.] I was doing acid, I was doing coke in Brazil, are you kidding me, when I was twenty years old in Brazil I was a wild man. I was fucking super wild. I feel a little bit hypocritical telling him not to do the stuff I did, but it’s for his own good. He knows to stay away from that stuff, the kind of drugs that really destroys, he knows not to touch that shit. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs anymore, I became straight edge about eight years ago, been much better that way for me. Our relationship is more about the songs and the setlists and the shows. Half the time, I talk to him more like I talk to a musician like Marc or Tony. I refer more to him as a band member these days than as my son. When we’re home and not touring anymore, then he’s more my son.

M.D: A lot of your albums throughout your career have been based on a personal experience. What’s the theme of “Savages”?
MC: “Savages” is about our nature, about the human condition. Gloria was talking about it one time, I totally stole it from her. She was talking about how advanced we are and how we were going to Mars and the Internet and Facebook and all this shit. But, we’re still killing each other in the Middle East, and Mexican cartels in Mexico are decapitating heads, and chemical gassing people in Syria and the point she made was that we’re still savages. We think we’re so advanced, we think we’re so modern, but we are the same as cavemen. Our humanity as savages, we’re still at the savage level. When I heard her talking, I stole the topic for the record, I told her I’m going to use the conversation you just had. She was talking with somebody in my house and I thought ‘Interesting. That’s my topic for the next record.’ I was going to do something like “Hunger Games.” Kind of an empire thing, a whole country built on a society that promotes violence and honor people that kill and give them prizes. A lot like “Hunger Games,” I really like that movie. I thought it could be a lot more violent, I thought it was mild. If I was directing, I would have made it super brutal. But I thought it was still a great story, the idea that a society could be like that. It could be a great record. Maybe in the future I’ll still go with that idea and try to make it work. But the “Savages” idea came as it was cooler and more exciting.
I have a skull that I found at Wal-Mart, believe it or not, in the Halloween section. It was a “Savages” [cover] looking skeleton on sale for forty dollars, and I thought it would be cool to hang on a mic stand. Some pictures have made it to the internet, it’s cool because it looks like I’m a skull, with it right in front of my face.
I love the artwork, the cover is really hard to miss with the skull looking right at you. I thought the bone work they did in the design was really cool, a bunch of jawbones laid intricately so they look like they’re laying a circle. All these ritual statues and bone formations, I love what they did with the bones. Probably my favorite thing in the whole record. I like it more than the cover, is the inside of the record. Some people have said the art looks like “Roots” and I can see the connection because they’re both big faces on the cover. I feel like it’s a “Roots” Part 2 kind of thing, so I’m very happy with that.
M.D: Speaking of, you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, because I’m sure you’re sick of this question, but there is still a band called Sepultura, and they have a new album right around the corner as well, do you have any thoughts about that at all?
M.C: I just thought the name was really stupid. It was a really long name and really hard to remember. I don’t know what they’re trying to do with that name. It’s almost like somebody who doesn't really speak English trying to write in English, with the head and the heart and the mediator or whatever. I just thought it was a dumb name, I would never name a record that. I stick to names like “Savages” and “Arise.” I like more powerful names. If I’m going to make a longer name, it’s going to be like Nailbomb: “Proud to Commit Commercial Suicide,” that has a meaning behind it. But I’m not interested in what they’re doing. I heard they’re working with Ross Robinson again, I don’t think it’s really going to matter much. I don’t think they’re released a good record in forever. I never listened to anything they did, but I hear from other people that it’s not good. I don’t even get interested in listening it myself. I don’t really care in what those guys do at this point, I got my thing, I got a lot on my plate, I got Soulfly, I got the new Calavera [Conspiracy], I got the project with the Mastodon guys coming out next year. I don’t have time to worry about that.
M.D: About five years ago, there was a rumor posted on a number of music websites that you and Eugene Hutz from Gogol Bordello were going to work together. Did anything ever come of that?
M.C: No, but we still want to. I met him in Europe once with the guitar player from System Of A Down. We’d been partying in my bus all night, that was maybe ten years ago because I was still drinking at that time. And I saw him lately, maybe a year ago in Brazil. I really liked that movie he made, “Everything is Illuminated,” great fucking movie, he can really act, I was really impressed. He blew away my expectations on that movie, great, great actor. I love Gogol Bordello, I think it could be really crazy and wild, one of those collaborations like Sean Lennon that no one expects, totally off the wall. So I’m going to save that for the future, I think we’re still piecing something together.
M.D: Last question I have for you: Neymar is the most recent in a long line of Brazilian stars who have gone to Europe to play soccer for more money. As a fan of Brazilian soccer, is there a sense of resentment that players leave and it’s so hard to keep top talent in Brazil?
MC: Yeah, but I think you can understand why that happens. In music, we got to leave Brazil, too. We can make a better living in America and earn more money and have a better life with better houses and better things eventually. Even though Brazil is really good right now, I think it’s changed a lot, I was there last month and saw huge changes, it’s a lot like America with Internet and more modern than it was when I lived there. When I lived there, Brazil was still living in the past, now it’s caught up with the rest of the world. There’s a part of you that’s like ‘yeah, they’re going to Europe to make more money,’ but you don’t blame him, you know? If it was you, you’d have done the same, you wouldn’t want to stick around in Brazil. It’s a place with a lot of dangers, people kidnap soccer player’s father for ransom and shit like that. It’s really scary, that part of Brazil always freaks me out a little bit. Kidnappers and big drug dealers and the favelas and all these dangerous people. That shit does happen. If you had the chance, you’d take the money and play in Europe. Better football, more advanced clubs, it’s probably better for him to play in a European league because it’s a more competitive league than Brazil. We just hope that he does well for the Brazil team in the World Cup. There’s a lot riding on his ass, he’s carrying the whole team on his back, so he better deliver. [Laughs]
M.D: Do you think they can win as the host country?
MC: I think so. They won the Gold Cup that was in Brazil and they beat up Spain. There’s a lot of teams that are really good, Italy is always powerful, Spain is always a threat. I would like to see an underdog team win, like if America wins it would be amazing, so cool. Somebody like that who’s never won a World Cup. Of course, I’m rooting for Brazil, but if it’s not Brazil I would like to see an underdog team winning.

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