Under a Pale Grey Sky: An Interview with Max Cavalera
There’s something about heavy metal and South America. As a continent constantly destabilised by war, foreign intervention and profiteering, it has proven a fertile breeding ground for expressions of extreme rebellion and solidarity, conveyed at confronting volumes and beats per minute, with a demo and 'zine scene as prolific and fecund as any rainforest floor.
Emerging in the mid 80’s with the primitive nocturnal blast of Sepultura’s debut ‘Bestial Devastation’, Max Cavalera’s obsession with metal has led to a titanium legacy and list of projects, including Soulfly, Nailbomb, Killer be Killed, Cavalera Conspiracy and many more. From the back room of his grandmother’s house in Belo Horizonte to his present day status as one of the world’s most recognisable warlords of metal, Max has always stayed true to his passion, his roots. He bleeds noise.
Now he and brother Iggor are winding back the clock to celebrate Sepultura’s breakthrough 1-2 punch Beneath the Remains and Arise - the albums that put them firmly on the international map and saw them snatching the undisputed thrash crown from their American and European contemporaries. Now they’re bringing the show to Australia.
I caught up with Max to discuss the hazy clarity of those breakthrough years.
I was wondering if you could take us back to the mindset when you were first preparing to record Beneath the Remains, going to Rio and working with Scott Burns? We were very excited. We finally got our contract and we were making our first record with Roadrunner, even though the conditions were not the best. We were in Rio and the only studio we had was a night time studio, so the album was made between midnight and seven in the morning, every day.
We prepared a lot for that record. We took it very seriously, and you can see the improvement from Schizophrenia to Beneath the Remains, so I'm quite happy that it's now 30 years after the record and we're able to come and celebrate it and play it live. As someone whose sound has evolved so many times with so many different projects, what's it like revisiting these songs from your youth? It must take a level of sheer athleticism to perform them live right? We were really young then... I was 18 or 19 I think, with Beneath the Remains, so we were kind of still getting better at music and wanting to learn our craft, you know. I got really good at riffs after that, especially around the era from Arise and Chaos A.D. to Roots. I was really, really deeply involved with the riffs. I think what the challenge for us then was to go and make a different record every time, and I think we did that. What fascinates me is the different kind of sounds that you can make from the stuff going through my head. Like today with Soulfly or Killer Be Killed, it's always a challenge to make these records. I'm still excited to make them as much as when I was making the early records - and with technology improving and getting better studio value, you get better production - so the albums sound better, but the spirit of making the records is still the same.
South America has always been such a fertile breeding ground for metal bands and fans, particularly in the 80's. It seemed like the continent was way ahead of the curve when it came to discovering the really nasty, underground stuff, which manifested in bands like yourselves and Pentagram from Chile. I mean, worldwide there probably weren't that many 14 year olds who were worshiping at the altar of Hellhammer like you guys were. What do you think the reason for this is? Why is it such a big thing in South America? Yeah it’s a big thing there. Especially where we are from, Belo Horizonte, there was a big metal scene. There's a lot of bands like Chakal and Holocausto, and in Rio they had Dorsal Atlântica. In Brazil the underground world is very big. It still is today. But it was exciting because we were all friends and played with each other, and we managed to make something out of nothing. Before that there wasn’t really a scene, we kind of created a scene ourselves. It was really fun, you know. I have really good memories from that time, from the shows. But I think things started to really happen after Beneath the Remains when we started touring outside Brazil. That's when everything really changed and our lives would be changed because we became the real thing. More like a real professional life doing music.
Absolutely. Moving from Beneath the Remains to Arise, there's some real evolution in songwriting. Tracks like 'Desperate Cry' and 'Dead Embryonic Cells' are pretty ambitious compositions. What is it you were setting out to achieve with Arise? I think those two records were kind of made for each other. Even in the name, you have Beneath the Remains, which is kind of like going down, and then you have the next record called Arise, which is the opposite of that. They kind of feed each other. They’re albums that are supposed to be paired together. Together they make sense.
That's why we decided to tour and play both of them in the same show. I think that's perfect, really, because we play the best of both records, so it becomes a long, real powerful, real special show. I think they represent a bit of an era, you know, '89, '91, '92. That fresh era of local metal which I enjoyed, and where I was really glad to be part of the scene. The touring of those records was also really amazing - especially Arise, which was the longest tour we'd ever done. The first time we went to Australia was with the Arise tour, and once we all fell in love with Australia we never stopped coming back. We're looking forward to coming back now, it's going to be great. Lyrically a lot of the themes you explore in that era, they're still really universal. Alongside the anti-war and corruption themes, you've got tracks like 'Inner Self', which really spoke to the confidence and sense of independence you guys had. Lyrically the records were very influenced by U2, actually - especially stuff like War, October and The Unforgettable Fire. There's some great lyrics in those records. Bono writes pretty good lyrics, especially anti-war kind of stuff. And then you have stuff like 'Inner Self', which was kind of like discovering a new way of writing. To me, it was almost like a diary of my life in Brazil.
We made a lot of other kind of things like 'Altered State', which was based on the movie Altered States, and then 'Under Siege' is based on The Last Temptation of Christ. That's when I started watching movies and becoming influenced by movies for those songs. That started on Arise. I think that lyrically both records are very powerful, and it's really cool to play them together at once.
Speaking about your youth in Brazil, as a native of Brazil, what are your thoughts on the current political situation there now, and the rise of Jair Bolsonaro? Well, it's pretty shitty actually. I heard some of the comments he made to the media and the indigenous people, very racist against them. He just wants to take them out into the jungle and eradicate them all. I mean he's a Trump guy, so seeing all the damage Trump is doing in America right now, well it’s very bad, you know. I think the same thing is happening in Brazil. But I think that it will pass and eventually we'll get somebody else. We had a couple good years. We had some good presidents. But I think it's such a good country, a beautiful country full of resources. It's self-sustained, you know, it doesn't need anything. Brazil is pretty much self-sustained, it doesn't get help for anything from the outside world. So, they deserve a leader that does good for them. We still have hopes, but right now it's bad. It's a bad time, even to go there, you know. We were there when Bolsonaro was elected and you could feel the tension in the air. It's almost like exasperation, man. People in desperate times do desperate things. People just get fed up. That's why I hate politicians, because they really don't care for the people, they're all corrupt. I wrote a song about that on the new Soulfly record, it's called 'Evil Empowered'. It's about presidents and leaders. They only got time for the people when they pick up power. Once they take charge, they use all that force for evil things.
But we’ve seen the world can change. By coercion or even changing what is handed down generation to generation. Eventually, I hope, here in America and in Brazil, we get better leaders and things will get better, you know? Do you think that those sort of situations might help to inspire youth to create some vital angry music? For sure, yeah. A lot of those records we were into at the beginning like Hellhammer, Venom, and Bathory was full on black metal. It was very heavy, very aggressive, and it was really the perfect music for a third world kid. We worked, we had shitty jobs, we hated the government and we hated the cops. We hated society. So big music, this aggressive death metal and black metal music was the best. Then we got into a lot of more death and thrash metal stuff, like a combination of Dark Angel, Metallica and Slayer, and got more interested in our music. But I think it's cool, 'cause throughout the whole time, all these years, we never lost the passion for heavy music. It's alive today, and that's great. I'm a big heavy metal fan, I'm a huge supporter of underground metal and what really gets me going is to discover new bands, give them a hand, wear their shirts and support their music. You know, get them going.
That's clear, you've almost become like an elder statesman of metal. Your passion for it is obvious and infectious. As someone who started out in their bedroom at Belo Horizonte to what you are now, which is like an elder statesman metal warlord, I guess a lot of things have changed and a lot of things have stayed the same. What advice would you give to kids who are now in a position that you were in then? Well, we started this thing in a different world and with no internet. We just stayed straight and had to really put a lot of hard work in and a lot of practice. And, coming from Brazil - I think you guys can relate, coming from Australia - it's separate from the world.
You feel very isolated in our lands. These are isolated countries. And when we start coming to America and Europe, we saw the difference, that things are much different. The best thing I think for bands to do, young bands, is really work hard and believe in what you're doing. And start to make something greater, an original sound, but influenced by what you love. Listen, play what you love, it will always drive you to something that's a bit original. Something of your own style will come through, and that will help you a lot.
So what other projects do you have on the go at the moment? I heard you've been doing a bit of artwork, especially on drum skins? Yeah, that was something I started doing on tour. We just had a Soulfly tour with Kataklysm, which was great. All the shows were packed and everybody was going crazy. And it was during the winter here, so it was really, really cold and a lot of snow. Saw a lot of snow. But the shows were great.
I went down during the day to help out Zyon on the drums and I paint all of his drum skins and we sold them during the concerts. Something like my own artwork, it's very personal, and people love that. They get to take home a little something special that I create, and I think it's really cool. I enjoy doing it, it's kind of like a good therapy, like a fun therapy for me. Apart from that, we have more touring in Europe. We have a bunch of festivals, which so far I'm looking forward to. Then we have Beneath the Remains arriving in Australia, and just keep touring the whole year. This year is a touring year. Finally, as a fan of the old, primitive stuff personally, so far you've done 'Return To Roots', now you're doing 'Beneath the Arise'. Will we see a ‘Schizophrenic Visions’ tour? Eventually, yeah. I think at some point we will do Chaos A.D. and Schizophrenia and Morbid Visions. I think we can do Morbid Visions together with Bestial Devastation, I think that would be the best way. Yes! Maybe we can even invite some people to be with us, some other musicians to be part of it. To just create a different atmosphere for some of these early records. I'm at the stage in my life now where I just want to move forward with stuff like Soulfly and Killer Be Killed, but also get to go back and visit those great records and play them. It's a lot of fun, so I enjoy all of it. The whole thing is great. Yeah, that's amazing. You've got such a legacy now. Look man, thank you so much for talking to me. I'm really looking forward to this show. I gotta tell you, I was about 14 when the 'Under Siege' video came out and me and my friends watched it every fucking day until we wore it out. I can't wait to see this show man. It's gonna be great man, and thanks for the interview. Thanks for the time, thanks for being a fan.
Max & Iggor Cavalera 2019 Australian Tour
Tickets on sale now.
Sunday, 17th March Metropolis, Fremantle (18+) Tickets: Destroy All Lines
Tuesday, 19th March The Gov, Adelaide (18+) Tickets: Destroy All Lines
Thursday, 21st March 170 Russell, Melbourne (18+) Tickets: Destroy All Lines
Friday, 22nd March Valley Drive In, Brisbane (18+) Tickets: Destroy All Lines
Saturday, 23rd March Metro Theatre, Sydney (18+) Tickets: Destroy All Lines
Sunday, 24th March The Basement, Canberra (18+) Tickets: Destroy All Lines