Interview: Max Cavalera (Soulfly, Killer Be Killed, Nailbomb, Ex-Sepultura)
A word of advice: never meet your idols.
Too frequently they fail to live up to the expectations set by their music. A song will never be grumpy, drunk, or aloof. A song you already love cannot disappoint you
I did not heed that advice when I spoke with Max Cavalera, guitarist and vocalist in Cavalera Conspiracy, Soulfly and most recently Killer be Killed. When I began interviewing musicians, Cavalera was my end goal, not because he’s inaccessible or has a perfect career (he isn’t and it’s not), but because he’s had more impact on my personal life than virtually any other musician.
I feel sympathy for the man. No matter what he does with his life, every conversation with a music journalist will circle back to his first project, Brazil’s legendary death/thrash forebears, Sepultura. Though Cavalera left the group in 1997, fans still clamor for him to rejoin the group, even if only for a single show. I empathize with those fans as well—his work in Sepultura is what affected me.
I am half Brazilian. My mother was born in Belo Horizonte, the same city Cavalera hails from, and emigrated to America with her nuclear family at a young age. May family were fleeing the violence that Sepultura wrote some of their best songs about. She married a white man and, like many immigrants, wanted her children to be Americanized. Neither mys sister nor I were taught Portuguese. We were raised as caucasians, with no particular signpost of our mixed race or Brazilian heritage, save for an appreciation of Brazilian food which is still uncommon in the US. We are fortunate enough to ‘read’ white and carry my father’s last name, and so are mercifully spared the supreme awkwardness that many mixed race people face on a daily basis. It wasn’t until I began to grow my facial hair that people began to inquire to me about my race (popular guesses: Jewish, Arabian. unpopular guesses: Brazilian).
For years my mother’s culture was as anonymous to me as my heritage was to my peers. Sepultura changed that in a serious way. Chaos A.D. is what spurred me to inquire about the modern history of Brazil; at the same time it opened my first window into listening to hardcore. Roots stoked an obsession about my native culture in me.
Cavalera keeps busy. He’s still helming Soulfly, a continuation of the Roots-era Sepultura sound. This year he released two albums, one as part of supergroup Killer Be Killed, as well as Pandemonium, a new record as aprt of Cavalera Conspiracy, the death/thrash project he maintains with his brother and Sepultura drummer Igor. Their latest is the most vicious and traditionally metal album he’s recorded since Sepultura.
But we didn’t begin our conversation talking about music. In true Brazilian fashion, we kicked things off whining about football (soccer, the real football).
You watched the World Cup this year, right?
Where were you during the last Brazil game, I want to know?
We were in England actually.
Did you watch it live?
No, I had a show… I had a gig so I just did the gig and after the show I found out that disastrous score had happened.
Well, yeah I understand completely. I was the only person in my office who was rooting for Brazil. So I watched it like with all the people I worked with at that time. And it was kind of difficult. The reason I ask is actually because I am half Brazilian, and my mother is from Belo Horizonte.
Oh, wow that’s cool.
I’ve been to Bolão where the gold Chaos A.D. record is hanging on the wall.
Yeah, that’s a restaurant in Santa Teresa.
Can you tell me the story of your very beginning, in Bolão? Take me all the way back.
We never actually played there. We actually used to eat there. There’s a pink spaghetti that the owner made. Every Sunday we would go out there and eat. He was actually a good friend of Paulo the bass player, and that’s how he got the gold album on his wall, we saved one for him. Our first show was like a couple of blocks down the street. We did this festival called Bea Gameto and we did two of them. And very underground you know… It was with the early incarnation of Sepultura that nobody was there, only me and Igor are the originals from that time. It was all different people that were in the band at that time. And we did two of those shows, near the Bolão restaurant.
You mentioned at that point in time it was just you and your brother, and now it’s you and your brother again in Cavalera Conspiracy. Do you miss playing more underground stuff, because I imagine with Cavalera Conspiracy and Soulfly that you still play sort of bigger gigs. Do you miss playing the smaller stuff?
I like all of it. Those are good times, but it was very difficult, and we didn’t have any money, and we wished we had better gear, and we always dream of touring. Our dream was to like tour America, tour Europe you know. And we could never do that for many years. It was 1989 we actually got our first European tour. So what we do now it’s something even more fun, because we got, we get to tour the world now and go to all different places. And we really enjoy it.
I like how we set up Cavalera Conspiracy, it’s really about having fun with the music, going back to the basics. We take all the stress out of it. So it’s all about me and Igor having fun with metal, playing metal the way we like it. Just enjoying being brothers again and hanging out together and having fun.
Is there anywhere that you haven’t played that you still really want to? Because you know back then you were hungry, you had all these goals, and now you have accomplished so many of them. I wonder what goals you have that remain?
Well there is some, few places that we haven’t been like India, Middle East, Dubai, and I know there’s opportunities to play there. You know, Greenland and wild places like that. We keep trying and every year you add a couple new countries to your list. This year we had Ecuador to the Cavalera list. We played Ecuador last week, it was awesome to see a new country. With Soulfly we did Kazakhstan for the first time, couple months ago. That was awesome.
So we just keep adding. And I want to go as many places that we can go. I love touring, I love going to different places. Whenever there’s metal heads out there you know I am really ready to play shows.
Where is your favorite place to tour?
I don’t really have a favorite one. I like all of them; I love U.S., I love touring the U.S. I love wild shows like Kazakhstan, like we did Siberia. The Eastern Europe… I like Eastern Europe like Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, the whole Eastern block of Europe is really cool. Croatia, a lot of cool fans there. Australia is really cool, South Africa too, we played there a couple of times. In Australia, we always do really good. The best place for the Killer Be Killed release was Australia.
You haven’t played live with Killer Be Killed yet, have you?
No, we have not, no.
Is that going to happen ever? It’s got to be hard with everyone’s schedule.
We’re going to try to. We have an offer for January for a festival in Australia. We’re going to try to do that, and if that works then it opens the doors for us to other things like the US tour and then do a European run… We’re going to try to do that because I think it’s worth it to be able to see Killer Be Killed, at least once, you know?
Absolutely, I really liked that record. I am a big fan of every band that was a part of that project. I love Mastodon, I love Mars Volta, I love Dillinger.
Yeah it was fun, it was fun to make… it was actually one of my favorite records I’ve done in a long time. And I’m also friends with those guys and I love Mastodon, Dillinger Escape Plan, so it was really cool playing with them. And the actual record was really fun to make. I play all their rhythm guitars, so I wanted to play guitar the most in my whole career and I really love it. The whole vibe of the record I really, really enjoy it.
It was done in a really cool way. I have great memories from making it, recording the record and making the whole thing come to life. The start of the project was me and Greg [Puciato, vocalist/guitarist – Killer Be Killed, vocalist – The Dillinger Escape Plan] three years ago, and we just kind of… the idea grew from that and became something much more… much bigger. The Killer Be Killed record, it makes me very happy that a lot of people accepted it. The concept, which we were trying to do was to be a little more soft, more melodic, than what normally I do with Cavalera and Soulfly… which was great, because it was really a breath of fresh air, for me to make this kind of record.
How did that come together? Was it a lot more of everyone together in the room playing together? A lot of times now artists will just send the guitar tracks via email back and forth.
Pretty much, man. You know, I wrote a lot of stuff with Greg. Greg came here a couple of times. We both hang out, and wrote a lot of demos, and we wrote the beginning of Killer Be Killed, and then when Troy [Sanders, bassist – Mastodon] and Dave [Elitch, drummer – ex-The Mars Volta] joined the band, they also got involved and started helping with the writing. And then in the studio’s actually where we did everything. We set up all the songs and did everything live.
Now you’re in two bands that are active, that tour, and it’s going to be three, how do you have like enough time in the day to do everything?
We just go one thing at a time, at least a night. Hopefully in January we can do Killer Be Killed. I would love to do all of that, because I think it’s great. Because then you got your, really do a bunch of different things with music and, I get to be part of all different vibes and every band has a different style and different vibe. When I tour for the new Soulfly, I’m only playing Soulfly, I am not playing anything except the tour songs.
We should be great, because we wanted to do that for a long time. And then we did the Cavalera tour but also, same with the album, the album was going to be out, which is great because then people are going to know the songs. We played Brazil with Cavalera, but it was before the album came out so people did not know the songs that well. After the album comes out people, get to know the songs. It makes it a little bit easier for you to tour the record. And of course Killer Be Killed has been out for a while so… that should be… whenever we play that, people should be ready for it because they really know the record, you know, so… I just kind of go back and forth with all the bands now, so it’s just great for me, it’s perfect.
So you have wanted to not play Sepultura songs for a long time, even though you wrote them? Do you want to get away from that period of your life, or are you still proud of it? Why do you not want to play Sepultura songs?
I just want to do a tour without it, just to see how it goes, because Soulfly’s got nine records now, and it’s a lot of records. And a lot of music, you know. Soulfly’s got enough material to hold on its own setlist that we don’t need any Sepultura songs. So I thought it would be really cool to do a tour without it, you know just to see how it is. We’ve never done it, so this is going to be the first time. And I’m very, actually, anxious to see how’s the reaction of the fans is going to be. I think it’s going to be great, because I think Soulfly’s got a lot of great songs, and we have great fans that love what Soulfly does, the whole vibe of Soulfly. So I think it’s going to be a great tour, I’ve very excited to have a really killer setlist. It’s playing a little bit from each album, all the way from the first one that came out in 98, since The Savages came out last year, we’re going to play at least two or three songs out of each album, and should be a full setlist, you know. I’ve never done that before, so it’s going to be the first time.
Do you listen to your own music like for fun or for recreation?
Not really. I try not to. Only perhaps to re-learn songs. Very rarely I put my own stuff on. I’d rather listen to other people’s shit.
Out of your stuff, is there like any particular record or album or song that is your favorite to listen to, or favorite to play?
Not really, I mean I like all of it. I’m proud of my discography, it’s real big and diverse you know. Of course, it’s got all the Sepultura stuff in there, you’ve got Nailbomb, and then you have all Soulfly and I have Cavalera and Killer Be Killed. So a lot of records, man, a lot of music through the years.
Each record represents something different from each other. But I’m really excited to actually start writing the new Soulfly, which is going to happen next year. Because it’s going to be our tenth, and that’s a big number, it’s a special album. Not many bands achieve ten records, you know, so we’re going to try to make a really killer one.
At this point your discography is massive, and you have been doing this for longer than a lot of people who are in the business have been alive? You have been doing it since I have been alive. What do you think is your legacy? Like the thing that people remember you for, think about you for, what do you think that is?
I don’t know man. That is a good question. First, being from Brazil and I think that’s quite unique, I came from a place where normally you’re not supposed to succeed. Men from Brazil, musicians from Brazil… are not really supposed to succeed in the rock world, but we did, and I’m really proud of that.
My passion of music is huge, I love music and I love metal and I listen to new bands, I get in touch with metal bands. I follow what’s going on in the metal world right now. I know all the new bands, and I love them. I listen to The Acacia Strain, to The Dillinger Escape Plan, [inaudible 00:15:44] I like all of it, man, so I listen to that shit all the time. Yeah, I think you know my enthusiasm of the music would be, I think be great, if I could remembered as somebody that really loved metal and pushed metal, and also choose new boundaries in metal. What I tried to do with Soulfly and Sepultura was always push metal to a new place where it wasn’t before. And it’s quite hard sometimes, there’s a lot of close-minded people that don’t like different stuff, but we try with the times to push the boundaries of metal.
I’m glad that you’re proud of where you’re from, because my parents didn’t teach me Portuguese when I was a kid. Because they’re like, “You’re an American,” you know, “You’re going to speak English.”
Yeah, my kids didn’t want to learn Portuguese either, I tried to teach them, they want nothing to do with that.
I really wish that my parents had. But a big part of me becoming proud of my heritage was when I bought Roots, when I was in high school, and it was a really important metal record for me, but it was also really important record in terms of getting me interested in like Brazil’s history. I tried to translate the words in Ratamahatta.” I wish there was more music that sounded like where it’s from. It seems like everyone’s trying to sound American. To me.
Yeah, it was the perfect time for that record. We were looking for something different, and we found it through Roots. It took us being out of Brazil to look at some of the really cool cultural things that happen in Brazil that are really cool. I love the “Roots Bloody Roots” video, I think it was filmed in in Salvador, in the north of Brazil. Captured the whole spirit of the whole arts, work and folklore, and it was fun making stuff like “Ratamahatta.” We continued that with Soulfly, with “Bumba” and “Umbabarauma” on the first record. I always liked that corner of my music, it has got a Brazilian standpoint, you know. It continues even today with the new Cavalera song in Portuguese called “Porra.” It’s a slang term, it’s a really cool song, very much percussion—Igor did a whole percussion overdub, like ten different drums on top of it and made it huge. Actually in Portuguese, also about folklore, there’s another song called “Cramunhão” on the new Cavalera, which talks about folklore. About people that conjure the devil in their backyard and it’s really creepy and really crazy.
So I try to do a little more of that. I am really into the Brazilian Cantomble religion, which is for my mother. They have this really beautiful ritual and they use African scents. And one day I want to make a record about this. It’s got to be really well done, it’s got to be done in Brazil. Probably between Brazil and Africa, probably have to go to Africa for some research as well. But that’s more for the future plans, art projects.