Taking Stock: Robb Flynn Of Machine Head Interviewed

The hellaciously dude-esque Robb Flynn talks to Toby Cook about Tony Iommi's favourite curry, his generation's Big Four and Coldplay... Huh? Coldplay? WTF...

“I do my thing and you do yours. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, then it is beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.” Fritz Perls Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, 1969

It’d be easy to mock the career of Machine Head wouldn’t it? No, go on, do it. Although they released arguably one of the greatest debut albums in the history of metal with 1994’s Burn My Eyes the sight of a cornrow-ed vocalist/guitarist Robb Flynn stomping about in three-quarter length shorts in the video to lead single ‘Davidian’ was pretty fucking laughable, even back when nu-metal was in its embryonic beginnings. And then, very quickly, things turned even shitter. The possibly ironically titled The More Things Change… in fact showed that very little had changed and by the time The Burning Red and Supercharger were shat out on to record store shelves in ’99 and 2001 respectively the group had resorted to incorporating the sort of shouted rapping even Fred Durst would be embarrassed by [actually, even I think that’s maybe a bit harsh] as well as covering songs by the Police – like anyone needs their day ruined by a metal version of ‘Message In A Bottle’.

Despite being dropped by their then label, Roadrunner, and failing to find a new home before being recaptured by the same label, 2003 at least saw a partial return to form with Through The Ashes Of Empire – a confusing affair that mercifully at least didn’t have any rapping. But by then no one that wasn’t Roadrunner really cared.

And chances are Robb Flynn didn’t care either, he probably doesn’t care now. He knows he’s not here to live up to your expectations. Living in response to his own needs Flynn saw his band through a slump which seemed destined to end them before, finally, in 2007, we all really met Machine Head, and it was indeed beautiful; it was indeed The Blackening, an enigma of an album that’s inexplicable artistic and musical vision was surely the result of Flynn making a Robert Johnson style deal with the big red horned one, because nothing, absolutely nothing should have saved the band from being the Bay Area’s also-rans. More remarkable still is that now, four years later, in the shape of Unto The Locust, they’ve quite possibly bettered it and they’re about to headline Wembley Arena. Just don’t even begin to think that Robb Flynn’s finished there though.

Alright Robb? So, this year saw the release of Unto The Locust and unsurprisingly people seem to love it. I understand that there was a lot of inspiration from classical music during the writing – now you’ve covered that, where do you go next?

Robb Flynn: [Laughing] I don’t know! No way! The record just came out – and we’re very much still enjoying this moment right here.

It seems that, certainly over here in recent times, especially with The Blackening, your popularity has grown as you’ve started creating longer, more diverse music – the opener on Unto The Locust is split into three parts for example. Does that surprise you? Normally kids want something of three minutes that they can download in seconds.

RF: I’m not sure if I’m surprised, I think that people are willing to go on a journey. I think that there may well be a lot of people out there – whether they’re in the record industry or not – who think people need these short songs. But I think that there’s a whole massive audience out there that can take longer songs, that can take the journey. And for us, our songs are still songs in the classic, pop sense of what a song is where it’s got a verse and a chorus; and a pre-chorus and a bridge, it’s just that in the middle of that, or leading up to that, we create this rollercoaster effect and let the listener go on a journey.

So do you purposefully intend for it to be a more immersive experience for the listener, rather than it being something to just listen to?

RF: Well, we’re not really writing for a listener, or writing for a record company, radio, MTV, we’re writing for the four of us; if the four of us get goose bumps in the jam room, that’s all that matters. To us that’s the only honest means you can use as an artist. If you’re writing for somebody else, and what you think they might like, then it’s not a good place to write from. People’s tastes change, things change, and in our case we’re 17 years deep into our career and we’re having the most success we’ve ever had – Metallica tours, Grammy nominations – it’s not the normal trajectory of a band in their 17th year. We know that we’re really fortunate and very lucky and we just try and write from as honest a place as we can. And it seems to work.

Being 17 years into your career you’re now elder statesmen of the early 90s metal bands. With the whole ‘Big Four’ thing going on now, who do you see as your generation’s ‘Big Four’? And do you see Machine Head as part of it?

RF: Absolutely we see ourselves as part of something like that – I mean, we paved the way for, and inspired and influenced pretty much a whole generation of bands, and that’s just such an incredible feeling. I read James Hetfield saying that The Blackening completely influenced Death Magnetic and then when he told me to my face and I was like, ‘What the fuck!’ My fucking brain imploded, y’know? This is a band that was a huge inspiration to us and to have it come around full circle is just incredible. And to have the likes of Trivium, the Killswitch Engage guys, Disturbed and Lamb Of God in existence? It’s pretty cool. So I guess, then, if I had to pick a ‘Big Four’ of our generation I’d say: Slipknot, Machine Head, Killswitch Engage and Lamb Of God.

That’s not a bad alternative ‘Big Four’ to be honest. I’d pay to see it!

In the past you’ve had a habit at shows of pulling people out of the audience for drinking contests or got them to jam on a few chords. In the wake of what happened with Dimebag Darrell back in 2004 did you ever discuss ending that, or was it necessary to continue it, almost as an act of defiance?

RF: No, I can’t go around living my life in that much fear. I mean that’s not to say that we don’t need security – we need security, obviously – we’re happy to have security and there’s obviously times when there are security threats that we have to deal with. A lot of the time those things are completely spontaneous, it’s not like it’s a regular occurrence, it’s something random really; it’s a lot to do with getting lost in the moment, and sure, in wake of the Dimebag thing most bands have taken steps with security, but you can’t live your life in fear like that.

I heard of a pretty famous moment where you managed to get a guy in a wheelchair on stage with you – how the fuck did that happen?

RF: Yeah, yeah – in San Francisco that happened. The thing that was crazy was that this guy in a wheelchair managed to get all the way up to the front to watch the show; he’s in a wheelchair, he’s not standing and people are, y’know, fucking crushing him! And so I stopped the show, like, I took a break in between songs, and I looked down and said, ‘Hey man, are you alright? You look like you’re getting your ass kicked!’ And he was like, ‘No dude I’m good, I’m good. I’m fucking loving this!’ So I’m like, ‘Alright.’ We played two more songs and the whole time I watched him and the crowd was kind of doing the domino effect, y’know, people falling over all over the place and crowd surfing, and I thought, ‘This is fucking stupid. The dude hasn’t even been able to see the show now for almost ten minutes.’ So I got security and all these dudes around him, and I was like, ‘Dude, we got to pick you up man!’ We picked him up on top of the crowd, security carried him up over the barricade and brought him up on stage. We just let him watch the rest of the show from the side of the stage – he was totally stoked!

The UK’s always had a good relationship with Machine Head and you’re about to embark on an arena tour playing places like Wembley Arena – is it a challenge to maintain that sense of intimacy and connection for which you’ve become known?

RF: We always make an effort to bring out a big show but you have to remember that within that big show there’s still four people playing music, and that ultimately we’re all there not to watch TV or pyro’ or fucking chicks dancing or whatever, we’re all there because of this music. And as long as you remember that the connection that is there is because of that, I think that’s how you can keep that intimacy. Never let the show, or the effects or whatever, overshadow the fact that we’re all here because we love music – even in big venue.

So where do you go next from playing somewhere like Wembley? Does it feel, in a way, like justification for all the effort you’ve put in over the years?

RF: I think we can go bigger! Much bigger! I mean, we’re really happy with this run and it seems like a milestone in the band’s career but I want to headline the O₂! I want to headline Wembley stadium! I feel like we can still bring this to a larger audience, we still think there are a lot of people out there that can get turned on to the music we create and can connect in the same way as so many other people have.

Staying in London, I hear that when you were over here last you headed to Brick Lane for a curry? Are you a big fan of Indian food?

RF: Awwww hell yeah! Especially the English Indian food!

What’s the hottest curry that you’ve come across – what’s really impressed you when you’ve been down Brick Lane?

RF: Y’know, I don’t get to Brick Lane very often, we usually go somewhere around where our hotel is – if we’re in Birmingham or Manchester, say, there’s a couple of places out there that we like. But the hottest one, that we do, is the Chicken Phall!

Good effort – I remember trying to eat one of those when I was a teenager and it was so hot I could see through time!

RF: Yeah, it’s fucking, fucking hot man! To the point where my tongue literally had no sensation for ten minutes – it was almost like someone took a taser and zapped my tongue, that’s what it felt like – just like no feeling, no flavour, no anything. I was like, whoa! I mean, I like the Vindaloo, I like the Madras and I love the Saags too, but that shit’s something else!

How did you become such a curry lover? I mean, it’s got to be tough to get a good curry out in the states, hasn’t it?

RF: Actually, here in the Bay Area there’s a big Indian population, so there’s a lot of Indian restaurants. They’re not as good as the ones in the UK, but there are some good ones – there’s a place called Breads Of India, it’s a really fucking rocking place, like, legit Indian people doing it. So I got turned on to it awhile ago, but once I went to England… Oh my God! I was like, ‘This is fucking insane!’ Years ago, we had just finished mixing one of our records in Liverpool at this place called Parr Street Studios and the owner, well not the owner but the main watchman of the studio, we’d hang out every day and he was like, ‘Dudes, have you guys tried Tony Iommi’s favourite Indian place?’ And we’re like, ‘Hell no. Where’s that at?’ And he’s like, ‘Right around the corner!’ So we went there based on that recommendation and… well, my fucking my head exploded, it was so fucking amazing! After that, if we’re in the UK for seven days, five of those seven days will be Indian food, for sure; I love it!

Fuck, that’s more Indian food than people from Newcastle eat!

RF: Yeah, not everybody in the band is so into it but Dave and I are definitely all about it. We’ve recently got so into it that there’s no going back; we’re always on the quest!

Recently a couple of the guys from Mastodon were spotted at a Britney Spears gig. Do you yourself have any moments of weakness like that, or are you totally as metal as you look?

RF: [laughs] Oh I have many, many guilty pleasures. I mean, I love metal and I’m the most metal motherfucker you’ll ever meet in your life. But yeah, I like all kinds of things man – if Coldplay come around you’ll be seeing me up front! I’m, like, a total Coldplay groupie!

Are you taking the piss? Really?

RF: Fuck yeah, especially the first two albums, I really love those.

What is it about Coldplay that does it for you?

RF: I don’t know, I really don’t know – I guess I’m just a sucker for pop music. I don’t know if I’d be going to a Britney Spears concert though. I guess if it meant hanging with the Mastodo-dudes I’d probably roll out with them, but, I don’t know.

Unto The Locust Is Out Now On Roadrunner. Machine Head are playing Wembley Arena on Dec 3

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