EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH MACHINE HEAD GUITARIST PHIL DEMMEL
Phil Demmel, who’s been handling guitar duties for Machine Head since ’03, is a real working musician. You could almost excuse him if the success MH have enjoyed over the past two years had gone to his head – the band’s most recent album, The Blackening, was almost universally acclaimed by critics and fans alike, and is most certainly the group’s best work since their debut, Burn My Eyes – but Demmel is clearly interested in little besides making sure that Machine Head is the biggest, best band it can be. The guy just has zero attitude, and it seems as though he’s never even contemplated any potential downsides to being in Machine Head. He just wants to play fuckin’ metal, dude.
But don’t just take our word for it – after the jump, read Demmel’s thoughts on touring as a support act as oppose to being a headliner, the success of The Blackening, and, of course, the all important question of which band on the Rockstar Mayhem Festival would win in an all-out battle royale. Well, okay, maybe not so much that last one.
How’s the Mayhem tour going, man?
It’s going amazing. It’s fucking killer.
How you feel about playing these huge festivals as opposed to doing your own headlining tours or other kinds of….
Well since I’ve joined the band all we were doing was headlining tours.
So to be able to get on support slots is what we needed to do. We were preaching to the choir every night before. So now we’re out winning fans. So we’ve got some good support slots on this cycle for us.
Do you feel like there are pros or cons in terms of crowd reaction or comfort or any of that kind of stuff?
No man, this is what you need to do to, unless you want to keep playing to the same old fans. [The old fans] are great, but if you want to win other people’s crowds over, then this is the way to do it.
I mean if you’re comfortable in what you’re doing and if you’re Disturbed and got the number one record in America, then you’ve got your own thing and that’s cool, but we’re not.
Has it been a battle at all trying to win over some people that aren’t really that familiar with you?
Some nights we’ve got to work [for a good reaction from the crowd], but that’s why we’re here man. Every night it’s been rocking for us. Except in Fresno – there was an indoor mainstage, like there is today, and it was 112 degrees outside, so people were going in to see the air conditioned bands. But otherwise it’s been good.
There was, obviously, a hugely popular response to The Blackening. You guys have been touring behind it for over a solid year now.
February of last year with Lamb of God was our first run.
So do you feel any battle fatigue?
Yeah dude. We had a little bit of time off, but I mean this is what we signed up for. We’re probably halfway through our touring cycle now. We’ve got shit lined up at the end of this year with Slipknot and then we’ve just landed something real super cool at the beginning of next year, we got summer festivals next year, and we want to do a proper headlining in America and overseas because we haven’t done that. We’ve just done co-headlining. We’re halfway through man.
So you’re not even ready to be thinking about a new album yet?
No. We tour to the end of next year, 2010 to write it, out for 2011.
Wow. How does it feel to have been a part of an album that’s been so well received by old fans, new fans, and the press? Everyone seems to have just really climbed on top of this album and loved it…
I’m proud of it, man. I am, because it was a long writing process and the recording process… it seemed like nobody wanted us to finish this record. Problems just kept coming up with gear, the studio, ProTools and everything. I mean anyone who’s an artist wants their art to be liked, so it’s like redemption because I joined this band when it was at its lowest point. It’s been like an escalator ever since. It hasn’t stopped. I’m playing with the guys that I’ve always wanted to play with. They’re my favorite band, and to be able make music like this makes me really proud.
Did you have some sense when you were working on the album that it was really something special, or did it kind of catch you off guard when it came out and people responded so positively to it?
I knew that we had an epic/classic sounding record. And that’s what we wanted, and we were so stoked about it, so we knew people would like it, though not to the degree that it was accepted. We knew that we had something special here.
So your set list is about a half an hour for this tour…
35 minutes, sometimes we play a little over.
Obviously at this point you have a big catalog to choose from. How do you whittle it down to 35 minutes?
Well, we have to play the current album because that’s what we’re selling right now. But we also play some hits, if you can call them “hits,” that the people want to hear, so we’ve been trying to mix up the set list. We’ve been touring this record for a year and a half now, so we’re trying to change things up a bit. We toured with Metallica and we saw how they did it. They have a whole grid that they bring up with the last five times they played this city and a list of what they played. It’s really thought out. So we’re trying to remember what we played [in each city] to try to mix it up.
In terms of the hits, do you ever feel like “Jesus Christ, if I have to play ‘Davidian’ one more fucking time, I’m going to kill somebody?”
No, never, man. There’s never been a Machine Head show without that song being played. It’s just the staple. I’ve been in the band six years now, which you might think it’s been a bit shorter, but it’s been six years. I’ve been in the band longer than any other guitar player has, but I’ve been a fan since the beginning. I saw their first show. Robb quit Vio-lence to form this band, and ever since then I’ve been a huge fan.
So you mentioned that you guys have a tour coming up after this with Slipknot?
In October we’re going out to Japan and Australia with them. November and December we’re going to do Europe and the U.K. with Bodom, us, and Slipknot. Next year, can’t announce it yet, but something fucking really cool.
We’ll bet. [Interesting side note: after the interivew, Axl and Vince speculated that this “fucking really cool” tour must be a support slot with Metallica. Lo and behold… – Eds.]
You’re going to be like “fuck that’s killer.”
Do you guys each write your own material? Do you write on the tour bus or anything?
We come up with little riffs here and there. We have the cubes on the bus, and Robb will be playing something and it’s like “Dude, log that one in and remember that one.” We both have a couple of things but no concrete ideas. We have some really bad ideas too so it’s just, like, “Forget about that one dude. No.” [Laughs]
So one more question. There are a lot of bands on this tour. If there was a battle royale with all the bands, why would Machine Head win?
What kind of battle royale?
I don’t know. It’s just a silly question.
I don’t know, man. I think that we have so much respect from all the other bands on this tour because we’re the longest tenured band. We’ve been together the longest. It’s been amazing – everybody from Slipknot to Disturbed to the really young kids are into it, I think there’s just a real cool respect level there. Maybe that would be the reason why. We love everybody on this tour. Everyone has been getting along so well, so I don’t see any battles, maybe some rap battles in the parking lot.
Cool. Anything you want to add?
We’ve got a special release coming out in October. The Blackening is going to get re-released with a ton of bonus shit on it and a bunch of cover stuff. So keep your eye out for that.
Cool man. Nice to meet you dudes!
-AR & VN