Max Cavalera of Soulfly talks about his history and darkly humorous song titles

As the leader of Sepultura for over a decade, Max Cavalera helped put Brazil on the map. From the beginning, the outfit was clearly influenced by punk rock as much as it was by other metal bands, as evidenced by its socially conscious lyrics, its grassroots efforts to get its music out into the world, and its disregard for strict genre conventions.

Sepultura's epochal 1993 album, Chaos A.D., signaled both a maturity in the band's songwriting and a willingness to blend in elements of traditional Brazilian music with music that could never have been made without electricity and amplifiers. It's rare that any band follows up its best album to date with another landmark, but that's exactly what Sepultura did in 1996 with Roots, a metal album like no other utilizing an innovative blend of ancient and modern sounds.

Shortly after the release of Roots, Cavalera suffered a personal tragedy when it was discovered that his stepson had been murdered. Cavalera returned to music two years later with the eponymous Soulfly record -- a piece of work that reflected his own search for spiritual meaning in times of great personal darkness.

Since its debut, Soulfly has been a different kind of metal band, not just in terms of lyrical content, but also for its unique use of guitar sounds and non-traditional instrumentation, an approach that Cavalera had begun on his last two Sepultura albums. The band's latest, Omen, is a step toward the stylistic dark side. We spoke with the amiable and frank Cavalera about his time in both Sepultura and Soulfly, his songwriting and his penchant for darkly humorous song titles.

Westword: How did you first get into heavy music growing up in Brazil?

Max Cavalera: My first experience with music was Queen, when they played in Brazil at a soccer stadium in 1981. My cousin took me and Igor to see it. I loved it right there. I liked it so much, I went and bought a bunch of Queen tapes the next day. At the store the guy said, "If you like Queen, try this band, Kiss." Then we both listened to those tapes, and that grew into getting into heavier and heavier bands like Motorhead, Black Sabbath and, later on, Slayer. It got heavier and heavier, to the point where I wanted to make my own music.

What was it like in the early days of your being a band in Brazil, and what was the turning point for you in becoming a band that was known well outside of your home country?

In the beginning, it was kind of rough, because we were poor and didn't have a lot of money. We were very poor. We had shitty equipment, and we did whatever was possible to make it work. My brother didn't have a drum kit. He just had a couple pieces of drums put together to make a strange drum kit he'd play on. The major turning point was when we got signed with Roadrunner. That was after our third album in Brazil. The fourth was Beneath the Remains, from 1989. That introduced us to the world.

We played all kinds of different places that we could. There were some metal festivals organized by friends of ours -- the Xerox fliers and word of mouth. A thousand people would show up and we'd have a good show. We'd have some kind of shitty P.A., but we had a good time. The other shows we did were competitions for radio stations, like a battle-of-the-bands type of thing. We entered a couple of those things. We did okay, but we didn't win anything. But we got our music heard, and more people found out about us.

Did your inclusion of traditional Brazilian musical elements first appear on the Sepultura album Roots, and why did you weave that sort of sound into the kind of music you were already writing?

Roots was a unique album from the beginning. The first time Sepultura got influenced by Brazilian music was the album before that, called Chaos A.D., with a song called "Kaiowas." It was all instrumental, and it was about a Brazillian tribe that committed mass suicide. It was really our first collaboration with Brazillian instruments.

Then the time came for Roots. We were on the verge of discovering other Brazilian stuff, and we invited Carlinhos Brown, who is a Brazilian percussionist, to be a part of the album. He came to the studio in California and did an amazing job on the album. We did a song called "Rattamahatta," which was cool and percussive -- Brazilian-sounding, with Brazilian lyrics.

Roots was really the trip to the tribe that took us to recording with an original Brazilian tribe in the Amazon, which was more like a National Geographic expedition than a rock-band thing. It was amazing how we stayed with them, ate their food and made music with them, with the Indians. It was us and like 300 Indians making up the background of the recording. The digipak had photos of us being painted by the Indians. They had painted all of us for ceremonial rituals.

The album cover had a painting of a Brazilian dollar note from a long time ago that had the face of an Indian. It was really striking, and that was the cover of the album, the Indian face, and we just added the Sepultura symbol with the tribal "S" somewhere on the neck of the Indian. Otherwise, it's the same as on that Brazilian note. The artist didn't change it that much.

The whole project was interesting from the beginning, because it was our own way back to our roots and making a metal album that was recorded with a tribe. That's never been done before. I think a lot of people were shocked at first, and a lot of people were at first like, "What the fuck is this? This is some crazy shit! Bunch of guys recording with a tribe. What's going on here?" Afterward, I think it was really well received, and I think Roots was one of Sepultura's most famous albums.

With Soulfly, you have a distinctive guitar sound and style. May I ask what kind of gear you use?

We normally use Peavey amplifiers, and I use an ESP guitar with two Boss pedals: a flanger and a big wah pedal. My sound is pretty much the sound that comes out of the Peavey with the gain all the way to the top so there's a really heavy distortion sound that comes from the amplifier. Marc Rizzo uses BC Rich guitars and a Digitech pedal he got from the company that he uses on Prophecy and the Cavalera Conspiracy. It's like a wah-wah, and he uses that a lot on a lot of the intros. It's amazing how he uses it. I don't know the technique he uses; I just know it sounds really cool.

Why are organized religion and repressive, even corrupt, governments such important themes in your work?

Some of the lyrics are influenced a lot by the time I learned about punk rock and I discovered bands like Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Misfits and Discharge. Sometimes they talked about political stuff, and I always found that to be really cool, and I just decided to do that with Sepultura.

Sepultura had a political album like Chaos A.D. that concerned itself with politics and war. I continued that in some areas with Soulfly. Some of the songs on the new album are about murder, and there's a song about lethal injection. "Rise of the Fallen" is about metalheads in general. Like: It's our time to rise, being the underdogs for so long. Most of the topics are violent.

Omen is probably one of the darkest albums we've done, with lyrics about death in general. Songs like "Jeffrey Dahmer," and "Bloodbath & Beyond" -- which I took from Bed, Bath & Beyond, making a joke out of the store name. Only in America does that joke really work. In Europe, they don't know what Bed, Bath & Beyond is, so it didn't work over there. Here it's cool.

When I saw that title, I thought it was funny, but it worked as a dark title, too.

It's a serious title, but it comes from a funny place, you know? [laughs]

Do you see your spirituality as tied in with your political views in any way?

The spiritual side in Soulfly is going to be present in one way or another. In the beginning, it was more important for me to sing about those things. But later on, I got drawn back into metal and a darker sound and imagery. It's still part of it. It's together with everything else. It's part of me and my personality and the topics I choose to sing about -- they're all connected. When I sing songs from the first album, "Eye for an Eye," "Tribe" and "No Hope = No Fear," there's a spiritual vibe to it. But with the new ones, it's all connected.

How and why did you get Sean Lennon to play on "Son Song"?

I went to Australia to do a festival, and he was sitting on the airplane across the aisle from me. I met him on the plane, and we got to hang out. When we were in Australia, we shared the same bus going to the venue. So we struck up a friendship. He knew about Soulfly, and he was a fan and liked my music. He knew my music from Sepultura and was familiar with my stuff.

So I exchanged phone numbers with him and called him later on and told him I was working on an album called Primitive, and I'd like to have him on a song as a guest. He told me had a riff written that he'd like to use that he never used before. "That's perfect, let's do a song together." I came with up with the idea to sing about our fathers, because we both lost our fathers at an early age.

So we did "Son Song," which deals with losing your father at an early age and dealing with life with that in mind. He was here for five days, and it was the first time for him being in Arizona. He enjoyed the desert, and I showed him around Phoenix. He didn't want to stay in a hotel, so he stayed in my house. So we had him here, dealing with my kids, playing video games with them and then recording at night.

Why did you end up moving to Phoenix, Arizona?

This is where all our crew were. Gloria, our manager, was here, too, and I ended up coming here and spending lots of time here practicing. I started liking it a lot, and I really felt connected to the place. I got married to Gloria, and I ended up moving here myself. I really like it, and I like the whole vibe of the desert. The heat doesn't bother me as much as it does other people. I'm from Brazil, where it's hot anyway.

How did you come to work on the Probot project with Dave Grohl, and what was it like working with him?

Dave has been to a lot of my Sepultura shows in Seattle. The week Kurt died, we played and he came to the show, and he was really excited to see us, and we became friends. When he was putting Probot together, he gave me a call and asked me to do a song and said it was going to be a metal album with a lot of his favorite metal singers. It was a really cool idea, you know.

He said, "You have the free option to do whatever lyrics you want and sing any way you like." He sent me the song, and I went into a studio in Phoenix and did it. I think that album is a great record, with songs with Cronos and King Diamond. It showed that Dave Grohl, even though he was in a band like Nirvana, was always a metalhead. He never did a tour for that, but it would have been great. I would love to do that.

Why did you bring your sons in to play drums on those covers?

I let them choose to play whatever songs they wanted. The little one, Igor, picked Excel's "Your Life, My Life," and the older one, Zyon, picked "Refuse/Resist." I thought that was cool because his heartbeat originally opened the Sepultura album Chaos A.D.; it was recorded when he was inside his mom's belly in the hospital. Fifteen years later, I recorded the same song with him, and it had a kind of symbolic meaning. For me, in the studio, it was really cool to record the song with him.

How did you get into playing the berimbau?

On one of my trips to Brazil, I saw them playing those on the street and I decided to buy one. I brought it home and started fucking around with it and tried to play it. I came up with some sounds, and I got better and better in time, to the point that I could actually play them when I started to record that on my albums.

Roots was the first album on which I recorded a berimbau. After that, I recorded it a bunch for Soulfly and other projects. I really enjoy the instrument even though it's only one string. It's really unique-sounding. It's very striking, and you know right away that it's a berimbau -- it's one of a kind. When I hear it in other people's music, I know it right away.

Soulfly, with Desperate Union and Straight Line Stitch, 7 p.m., Tuesday, November 30, Gothic Theatre, 3263 South Broadway, Englewoood, $22, 303-830-8497, 16+

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.