Exclusive Interview: Machine Head’s Robb Flynn Talks Bloodstones & Diamonds

Photo by Travis Shinn
Photo by Travis Shinn

Maybe it’s time we awarded Machine Head  “Greatest Comeback in the History of Metal”? Not that they every went away, really — but following 1994’s now-classic debut, Burn My Eyes, the band released a series of albums that were, to put it mildly, divisive. So, frankly, not many of us saw 2003’s Through the Ashes of Empires coming until it knocked us flat on our ass. Any concerns that they might hit another creative lull were erased with the release of 2007’s The Blackening, the rare metal album that was met with near-universal acclaim. At that point, people pretty much shut up about the blonde spiky hair era of Machine Head, but the band’s creative drive didn’t lessen one iota: with 2011’s Unto the Locust and their latest offering, Bloodstone & Diamonds (out November 11 on Nuclear Blast — stream it here and pre-order it here), the band’s beloved material now outnumbers their more controversial choices. Metal history will look upon Machine Head very, very, VERY kindly after all.

Crazier still, the band didn’t ascend to their current venerated position by ceasing to take creative risks. Bloodstone & Diamonds may not quite be the one-eighty than The Burning Red was, but it’s potentially alienating nonetheless. String sections! Chanting pirates! Scholarly lectures on politics and the environment! An honest-to-Dio ballad! It’s not difficult to imagine too-tr00 tough guys shrugging this shit off.

Their loss. Bloodstones & Diamonds is as strong as anything Machine Head have ever recorded, and it has plenty of you standard MH ass-kicking to go along with its less-traditional elements. We’d be shocked if it didn’t end up on a ton of year-end lists.

MetalSucks recently sat down with Machine Head mastermind Robb Flynn for a solid forty minute conversation about Bloodstone & Diamonds and all things Machine Head. Honestly, we could have spoken to him for another forty (at least). Read the transcript of our fascinating chat below.

So you obviously tried to do some different stuff on here. I’m assuming that was a conscious goal. How did you approach making it?

I would love to say that we’re super goal-orientated dudes and we’re like, “We’re going to write this record and it’s going to sound like this and it’s going to be like this,” but we’re not. We’ve fallen into that trap before — that mindset where we talk about it and go, “We’ll do this and that.” But it never ends up like that. Making art in any way is a journey. In my experience, most of the time the best stuff comes out of letting the music take you where it will. It’s scary, because you don’t know where it’s going to go, so you think, “Are we going to go down the wrong path?” And it’s like, “Don’t worry about it.” If we go down the wrong path, then we’ll get back on the right path.

I tour so much, and I like to go running. Every time I get to a new city, I love it if we’re at a hotel I’ve never been at before, because I’ll just go start running and I’ll have no idea where I’m going and there’s a good 60% of the time when I’m doing fine and a good 40% where I get lost as fuck and I have no idea where I’m going. I like that. I like just getting lost. Eventually, at some point you’re like “Okay, wait; I know where I’m going. I can figure this out.” And that’s a lot like what music is like.

That’s a good metaphor. Do you feel like you got lost at any point during the creation of this album and had to sort of find your way back?

I was lost for the first ten months that we wrote it! We started writing around January or February, and in November, I was talking with Dave [McClain, Machine Head’s drummer] one day, having a couple of beers at a joint called Beer Revolution. I was like, “I have no idea where this record is going. I don’t fucking know. On one hand we got ‘Eyes of the Dead’ and then we have ‘Beneath the Silt’ and we have all this other stuff,” and it just wasn’t falling into place for me. Every time a record does fall into place, I know instantly: “Ohh shit, I know how the whole record is going to go!” Some times that comes early in the process — like with Locust, right off the bat with the first two songs [we wrote], I knew how the record was going to be. With this, I didn’t know. When we got to “Now We Die” and we got to “Sail Into the Black” — which was two songs and was very crude, but then I layered in all this stuff and added in the vocals and strings — just putting those songs all together before [the other members of the band] even heard it… I was listening back, and I was like, “I fucking know where we’re going now.” I could just see everything laid out, and I knew how the rest of the record was going to sound and I knew what parts were cool to have on there. It’s such a good feeling. It’s such an awesome moment when you’re creating. It’s like that moment when you’re jogging and you’re like “Oh, okay, I know how to get back to the hotel now.”

So the next question is: what is the hotel? Now that it’s done and you’re there, what is it that you were lost from?

I don’t know. When we make an album, it’s very cinematic to me. I look at it like a movie. You kind of need that epic ending or that killer opening scene – I always want the start of the story to come in and the battle to start and open in some killer way. That was that moment that I knew what the rest of the record could be or should be and how it would lay out.

It’s hard to explain this stuff because music is something that you listen to, not talk about. The part of this that drives me crazy is doing press. You guys are the only internet press we’re doing, because even the magazine press that we’re doing, some of them are so fucking clueless. I don’t feel like I’m very good at explaining what music is about anyway. I never know what to say, let alone what to possibly say that someone is going to read and go “Fuck, I want to hear that record.” I can’t think of anything I’ve ever read that would make me do that.

[mock metal voice] “It’s our heaviest ever”.

[mock metal voice] “It’s the fucking best one ever, dude. It’s fucking heavy but it’s melodic.” I never know what to say. [Publicity] is a thing that I do because the label wants me to do it, and I try to explain [the music] the best that I can, but… music is such a personal thing, and it’s such a singular thing. It’s there to take you away, and it’s there to put images in your head. It’s meant to be something for you.

Even talking about lyrics… sometimes people will come up to me and tell me their interpretation of what a song means, and I love that. I never tell them, “That’s not what the song is about.” I just go, “Fuck, that’s awesome. It’s cool that you got that [interpretation] out of that.”

So we’re not going to ask you what the theme of the album is. [laughs]

It’s just a collection of songs. I don’t think I’m the type of dude that could ever write a concept record, because I would feel that it would be too limiting. Often times when I write, I’ll write nine entirely different versions of a song, with nine different sets of lyrics about nine different topics, and try different cadences and different hooks and different whatever, and sometimes that’s what it takes to “get there.” There was one song on this record that I literally had almost that many versions and that many subjects and that many stories, and some of them were killer, and had great storytelling and it all tied together — but I just couldn’t get it to flow with the song. Sometimes a song has to unfold the way a story does. To me, you just have to let the music tell you what it’s about. I remember on The Blackening, “A Beautiful Mourning” was the second song that we wrote for that record. Phil [Demmel, guitarist] had brought in a bunch of different riffs, and I wrote this cool melodic part in the middle, and I loved that section because it was really different for us. I can’t read music, so to me, it’s like, “Go to the sad notes” or “Go to the evil notes.” That middle section was this big sad part. We were passionately against the war and we were writing all these anti-war lyrics and I kept trying to make this song be this anti-war thing, and it wouldn’t happen. The song wouldn’t let me. I wrote it three times, just trying to make the words fit in there, and it wouldn’t work. At some point I just went, “It’s got to be about something else.” And then it turned into the “Beautiful Mourning” that everyone knows now.

Let’s talk about the song “Imaginal Cells.” It seems like it has some very dystopian, end-of-times themes going on. Is that something that you are feeling intensely right now?

I actually thought it was a pretty uplifting song by the end of it [laughs]. The beginning of it is all doom and gloom.

On our first album, we did an instrumental on there called “Real Eyes. Realizes. Real Lies,” and that was basically a bed of music and we took a bunch of audio samples that I collected from the news and random recorded people on the streets. It was about racism, and the first part of it was the super-extreme black side of it, and then there was the super-extreme white side of it. At the end of it, though, it was kind of in the middle: “Hey, can’t we all just get along?” We hadn’t done something like that in a while and I had wanted to do something in that vein, because I think it’s a cool way to say something without being direct.

When we were writing the record, I had been writing for four months and demoing and going crazy. Then we did the Mayhem Tour last year and I told myself that I wasn’t going to listen to anything that we just did because I was so sick of listening to this shit. I felt like I had hit a wall and was having writer’s block. Every riff I wrote sucked. Every lyric I wrote sucked. I was like “Jesus Christ, I guess I lost my mojo.” I wanted to get away and get some new experiences and meet people and listen to other bands and get drunk and high and have fun. So I did that, and on Mayhem I became friends with Nick [Schendzielos] from Job for a Cowboy. He’s a fucking super rad dude – just an awesome dude. He’s a really charismatic speaker and super positive. The dude can hold court in a Scranton, PA parking lot talking about cell biology, and you’re on the edge of your seat and enraptured. He’s super cool, and he kept telling me about this guy Bruce Lipton and these books called the The Biology of Belief and Spontaneous Evolution. So he gave me a USB stick and I ripped the audio books. I didn’t buy them. I illegally ripped them. [laughs] Go ahead and print that. That’s what everybody fucking does.

So I listened to the audio books, and sometimes something comes along in your life when you need it the most. I just really needed to hear this shit that was said in these audio books. We had the instrumental at this point, and I had the idea to put all this stuff from the books there. So I reached out to Dr. Lipton and said, “Hey, you’ve probably never heard of my band but we’re Machine Head,” and I blew us up that we were nominated for whatever award and blah blah blah. I told him, “I really want to sample your voice from the audio book — your voice in particular. I want to do that and put it on this instrumental piece that we’ve got.” He got back to me three days later, and he was like, “I know who Machine Head is,” and I was like, “FUCK!” [laughs] So I told him we’re on a label and we could afford to pay him for the samples. But he said, “Take whatever you want. I’m an old rebel-from-the street-hippie from the ’60s. I think your fan base is open to hearing this shit more than most people. They’re already on the fringes of the culture, they already don’t believe anything that is told to them. I think that they’d soak it in. Take it away.” So I put the samples with the music, and it was awesome. [Lipton] has got a different way of looking at the world, and it was just cool to hear the things that he had to say.

And now he’s  going to open your next tour, right?

Yeah. [laughs] Spoken word with Dr. Lipton. It’ll go over big.

To switch gears again: it really seems like you’ve hit a stride with your General Journals blog. Can you talk about what the motivation behind doing that is? There’s not a lot of people in metal that are so forthright about sharing things for the general public to consume. What inspired it?

Let’s see… I started writing the diaries for the internet around 2001 I think. At the time, I had never kept a diary in my life. When Machine Head started, I kept a show diary. I wrote down my review of the show: how we played, how the crowd reacted, what worked and what didn’t. I wrote a couple of times for magazines, “on the road” pieces or whatever.  But I’d never done anything like those blogs.

So, around 2001, pretty much all of the press hated us. [laughs] We didn’t have a person around who had our back – the U.K. press, in particular, were just in tear-down mode. We never had any love here in the U.S. We were never the young, hot thing or whatever. It sounds absurd to say this, but around that time, the internet had just come along. It’s hard to imagine a world without the internet, but before that the only way to communicate to our fans was through magazines. Then sites like Blabbermouth and The PRP came along.  So I just started putting stuff up on our site as a way to communicate with our fans, and to just let them know what we were up to. Really, there was no other way to do that. We couldn’t say anything or tell them that we were making a record, because no magazine would cover it.

So. I started writing stuff, really more  general stuff, just about where we were at that point. It was, “Hey, this is what we’re doing on our time off” or whatever. I did it whenever I kind of felt like doing it. It was always about Machine Head. The band wanted it that way, so I always kept it about Machine Head. People liked it. I heard people talking about it whenever I did it. It was a cool way to stay in touch. We started getting pretty active on the internet with communicating with our fans via our forum, which was called The Front Lines (which is now shut down). Back then, it was pretty active. This was pre-social media, and a way to keep that going. I did it until about 2009 or 2010, and then I got burnt out on it, because all I was talking about was Machine Head: “San Antonio was awesome. Fucking San Diego was killer,” and whatever.

So I took a break from it for about a year-and-a-half, and then I talked to everybody else in the band and said “Hey, I’ve been getting the itch to write again. If I do it, I don’t want it to be just about Machine Head. I want to write about whatever the fuck I want to write about. If I want to gush about how awesome Apple TV is, or the Pearl Jam ’20’ video or something that made me cry on the internet or whatever, then that’s what I’ll do.” And they told me to go for it.

I do it and I don’t put a lot of thought into it. I just basically sit down in front of my computer with no idea of what I’m going to write about and just start writing. Sometimes it starts one way and goes off in a completely the other way and I just chop off the beginning and stick the other part up there. I try not to think about anything and just let it flow and see what happens. Who knows where it’s going to go. I get a kick out of it. I don’t really read the responses. If I ask our fans something, then I’ll read every response, but most of the time I don’t. Johnny Depp once said that he never watches any of his movies, and I can relate to that. It’s kind of the same with those journals. I just put them out.

At times I do them, and I’m like, “Who fucking cares? Am I just adding to the chatter of the world in a world that has so much fucking chatter already?”

Well, yes, but people do care.

Yeah? Those are the things that I ask myself. I don’t have regrets about it. I just put it out and call it how I see it.

When you parted ways with Roadrunner, there was an entry pondering the future, and how CDs are dead…

Yeah, CDs are dead. I’m all Spotify. I don’t want to carry around a CD wallet in my backpack anymore like I used to have to. I’m not knocking it. If people want vinyl or CDs or special editions… we go out of our way to make fucking really cool shit and awesome collectible stuff that I think looks amazing. There is an extraordinary amount of effort that goes into the art side of how we present our band. But me, personally, I don’t listen to music on CD anymore. I think I would collect that stuff because I’m a nerd like that. I have a Star Wars collection that’s just absurd. George Lucas has made way too much money off of me. [laughs] So there is a portion of people who still want to buy that stuff. And there is a portion of people who are just going to listen to Spotify. You’re not going to convince one side to feel any other way. To me, it’s just getting the music out there. I think that we get these beliefs in our head about the way we’re “supposed” to do things — “Oh, you gotta listen to it on this format.” I don’t care what the format is. Even to some degree, and I shouldn’t even be saying this because I am in the business of selling music [laughs]…

That is sort of what we were getting at. At some point it does become contradictory when you say, “I don’t support the thing that actually makes my living.”

Totally. I’m sure my label wants me to put the kibosh on some of the stuff I’m saying, but to me, I came of age in the thrash and punk scene. My best friend at the time was a tape trader named Jim Pitman. He had a fourteen-page list of shit he traded, with fucking demos and bootlegs and imports from all over the world. He had records that you couldn’t find in the U.S. back then, like Restless and Wild and all these French, German and U.K. bands, like Discharge and G.B.H., and he would trade with people to get it. We wouldn’t buy them. He would take that cassette he got from his buddy and he’d copy it for me and then give it to me. I remember even back then, seeing stickers on the backs of records that said things like, “Home Taping is Killing Music.” And I was like, “What a bunch of fucking dicks. Fuck you guys.” [laughs]

At the same time, this music came along and literally changed my life and improved my life and inspired me to play music and inspired me to go be in a band and go on tour. I went to the shows and bought the shirts and lived and breathed the bands. I was an evangelist for half of these bands. So there is always this part of me that is a little conflicted about going, “Hey, you gotta buy the CD.”

Look, if you buy the CD, it’s going to be worth every fucking penny. I guarantee it. If you buy the media book, it’s going to be worth it. If you don’t want to buy it, if you just want to listen to us on Spotify, if you just want to listen to it on YouTube – fuck, awesome, man. If your life is made better for two short weeks by listening to a single song on YouTube, I feel like my job is done, because what I do is not that important in the world. I make music, and if people discover it and it fucking saves them or gets them through a rough time, that’s killer. That’s all anybody could hope for.

Good answer. Very good answer! 

So this is your first record with Jared. I’m sure you’ll be asked this a shit load of times, but: was he involved in the writing process at all? If not, what did he bring to the table?

I told him right when he joined the band that I’m the main songwriter, and the other guys are the second-main songwriters. I told him, “We’ve been the same way for fifteen fucking years. If we’re shooting down your riffs, don’t get upset. You’re welcome to contribute, but you’re probably not going to get a lot in.” And he did contribute. And a lot of his ideas got shot down, and he took it like a man. In the end, he ended up getting some stuff on the record. He wrote some really cool lyrics for “In Comes the Flood,” and he wrote a couple of cool bass lines for “Ghost Will Haunt My Bones.”

As far as what he brought to the table otherwise… when he first did Mayhem Fest with us, he was just in on a trial basis, so we could see how it went and how it felt to play with him. And he fucking killed it. He was awesome, and was a fucking beast on stage, and was cool to hang with off-stage. We had him relocate to the Bay area because we wanted him to gel with us and be part of the creative process and go through the ups and down and the getting lost and all of that. I didn’t want him to show up on the first day of recording and just say to him, “Play this this and play that.” I wanted him to add to the mix.

In some ways, it was weird for me, because he’s really a bass player’s bass player. He rarely plays with the guitar. He’s locked in a lot with the drums. At first I was like, “Hey, play with the guitar,” but then I started biting my tongue and got used to it, and in the end, I’m glad I did. We’re better for it.

He actually filled in for Machine Head when we were touring behind The Blackening – a five week tour back in 2007. He was a singer for a band called Sanctity, and they did five or ten shitty van tours. The band broke up after the tour they did with us, and we lost contact with him for six years. We didn’t speak to him once. Then he submitted an audition video. I liked the way he carried himself. He seemed really confident. It was cool bringing him in and cool having somebody who wants to be there and is up for it. His first tour bus was on the Mayhem Tour. He appreciates it. He’s grateful. He’s like, “Fuck, this is awesome, man.”

Last question and we’re going to let you go: do you still have those show diaries you mentioned?

I do.

You should put some of that shit online, man.

Right? I didn’t think about that.

It’d be pretty crazy.

They’re pretty funny, yeah.

It would be interesting. It’s always good for people to see that there’s no such thing as an overnight success.

Jesus Christ, I’m an old fart and I’ve been doing this a long time. It does take a long time. You have to fucking apply yourself. I think at this time, I’m not trying to out shred every kid who is out there because fourteen and fifteen year old kids are ridiculous now.

And playing fourteen- and fifteen-stringed guitars.

I don’t even want to be that. I’m comfortable in my own skin and to me, it’s about writing great songs. Song craft – that’s my thing. Trying to write timeless songs and trying to connect. I think even with the General Journals, a lot of it is about connecting and wanting to feel connected. Maybe it’s because I’m adopted and never felt connected. I never felt connected throughout my youth. I always wanted to be on stage. I was always going out for talent shows. I wanted to be in plays. I wanted to be Peter Rabbit; I had to be Peter Rabbit. And when I finally got to thrash and punk shows, it was the first time I ever felt connected to something.

Look: music is not important to everybody. To some people it’s shit that you bop to and dance to and it could be anything or anybody as long as it has a thumping beat. They listen to the radio and it’s just shit they hear in the background. I speak to people all the time…  I’ll sit next to a dude at the airport or on the plane and ask him what he’s listening to and he’ll go, “Yeah, I don’t really listen to anything.” I don’t get that. I don’t get it at all. I’m like, “What?!?” But it’s an honest way that they feel. But then you meet the people that do care about music and that do feel the same way you do, and it’s so powerful. Music can make the best times better and the tough times livable.

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