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Max Cavalera

February 3, 2012
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“I love riffs,” states metal icon and Cavalera Conspiracy namesake, Max Cavalera. “I’ll sit there and hammer out riff after riff after riff, record them all, and save them for later. It’s amazing to me that, after all of these years, my favorite thing to do is sit in a room with a drum machine and write riffs.” With Blunt Force Trauma [Roadrunner] the Cavalera Conspiracy has upped the ante with its pummeling thrash-meets-groove-meets-hardcore sound. The engine behind that sound is Cavalera’s punishing rhythm playing—a mash-up of hooky Iommi-inspired doom and classic thrash riffery. “The mixture of speed and heavy grooves is what makes an album exciting,” says Cavalera, who aside from being a founding member of thrash legends Sepultura (he left the band in 1996), is still going strong with his other band, the massively successful Soulfly.

Blunt Force Trauma also features the killing skill set of Cavalera Conspiracy (and Soulfly) lead guitarist Marc Rizzo, who easily bounces between hyper-technical shred and weird noise textures. “Marc is always surprising me, and he always has something new to offer,” enthuses Cavalera. “I’ll leave him something as small as an eight-bar space in the music and he’ll fill it up with stuff I could never have dreamed of. He’s really creative with pedals, too, getting video game and cell phone noises with them. I told him he was becoming the next Tom Morello!”

Do you remember specifically when you decided to ditch lead guitar and become strictly a rhythm player?
I do. I attempted to learn the solo from the Scorpion’s tune “The Zoo,” and it was horrible. It was so bad, everyone told me, “Don’t try that again”—so it was a very traumatizing experience. But it was for the better because it made me become attached to rhythm guitar.

Is that why you eventually removed your top two strings, because you were so committed to rhythm guitar?
Definitely. Removing the B and high E strings made me really sit down and explore the guitar. I had to make it happen on just the four low strings. To me, that makes the musical process fun and challenging. It also makes me a straight-up rhythm guy without any doubt.

Do you guys record to a click track?
No. A big part of our sound is that we don’t record to a click track—I don’t like them. I did one album with a click years ago and it was a nightmare. I find it takes away the natural feeling of the song because you’re worrying about the click. You do get a certain sound when you record with one, however, and the tempos certainly doesn’t move, but that’s not necessarily good. We lay down the drums first playing as a group, that way the drums have the live feel, but the amps aren’t in the room. Then we overdub the rhythm guitars and bass, Marc does his solos, and then we track vocals.

How has your riff writing progressed?
The biggest change is I write a lot more than I used to. In fact, I’ve become addicted to writing. I used to only write when I had to record an album, and then I would write just enough for that album. But now I write all the time. I grab the guitar and I don’t know where things are going to go, but I do know that whenever I sit with a guitar and a drum machine, something is going to come out. I’ve never really had writer’s block. Sometimes when a riff is at a stopping point and I can’t think of something else, I’ll step out and go do something else, but when I get back, my mind is clear. I’ll tell the guitar, “It’s you or me!” Believe me, I’ll fight and struggle to get that riff out.

What has caused the onslaught of writing?
It may be because I’m not drinking anymore. I used to drink a lot, and when you do that you don’t really feel like doing anything else other than getting drunk, which is kind of a waste of time, really. I went to the doctor and he said if I didn’t quit I was going to die, so I quit that crap. That was about five years ago, and I’m realizing I have a lot more energy. I substituted writing for drinking. That’s why I’ve been able to write the Soulfly album, Omen, and Blunt Force Trauma at the same time. I had enough riffs for both albums.

When you’re writing with a drum machine, do you play to drum loops or do you program beats?
I program the drum machine to fit the riffs. I’m able to write some pretty crazy patterns that drummers have always dug playing. My brother, Igor [Cavalera Conspiracy drummer], loves to learn the parts I come up with. The benefit of using a drum machine isn’t just so I can show a drummer what to play, it also allows me to get a song-type feel going quickly and keep the ball rolling and stay inspired. Sometimes I’ll even add bass to it if I get really excited about the idea. When you get going real good you can get a whole tune just like that.

How did you record the guitars for Blunt Force Trauma?
I track two rhythm guitars and Marc tracks two. That gives us the most beef without being too messy and losing clarity. I typically change guitars and amp settings when I go back and do the second rhythm part.

Do you and Marc have to work to get your tones to mesh?
No. It comes very naturally. I do rely on Marc to tweak my amps, as far as turning tone controls and stuff. When it sounds good I tell him to stop! I have so much respect for Mark, and I love playing with him. We love a lot of the same music. Our favorite albums are old Exodus, Slayer, Destruction, Kreator, Celtic Frost—all the good, classic thrash stuff.

Do you give Marc direction with solos and melody lines?
No. Mark is so good that I don’t have to say anything. I give him tons of freedom in both Soulfly and Cavalera Conspiracy. When he tracks his solos, I usually leave the room and let him go. He likes to work at midnight or one in the morning, and I’m in bed at that time—but when I go to the studio in the morning, what he has done always surprises me. Sometimes there may be too much and I’ll take some of it out, but most of the time I keep it all in there.

What did you use to track Blunt Force Trauma?
ESP guitars—a Viper and an Ex model— through Peavey 5150s and Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifiers. We ran the amps through Marshall cabs. In Soulfly, I’ll also use a Boss auto-wah and a Boss flanger for some of the melodic jams that we do. Those effects make open sections in the tunes sound funkier and weirder, especially when you use a lot of feedback.

What do you tune down to?
Most of Blunt Force Trauma was done tuned down to D or B. Most everything I write is between those two tunings. I dig the B sound the most, though. It’s the heaviest. I use a .014 gauge set of S.I.T. strings so the strings stay really tight and they don’t flop around so much. I use Dunlop picks.

Is it difficult to write simply?
Yes. The hardest songs to finish and even perform correctly are the simple ones. But there’s a fine line between simplicity and doing something that’s been done a million times before. That’s the hard part, finding that line. A good song doesn’t need to have a lot of things on it. A perfect example of that is the track, “Eye For an Eye,” from the first Soulfly album. That whole tune has three riffs and they can all be played on one string. You know the old saying, “All you need is a guitar, three chords, and the truth?” Well, I very much believe in that. You don’t need to complicate things.

After doing this for nearly 30 years, what is the most rewarding aspect of your craft?
It’s watching the whole process unfold in front of me. I go from writing the songs with just my guitar, to watching the guys in the band bring them to life in the studio. Then that becomes a record that thousands of fans are waiting to hear. But the best part is when you eventually play those songs in front of 60,000 people and they go crazy. That’s when I remember that it all started from something really small—just me in a room with my guitar.

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