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Interview: Max Cavalera from Soulfly

For over two decades American metal rock legends Soulfly have delivered blistering hooks, sinister roars and thunderous anthems to hardcore fans everywhere, and the quartet’s freshly released eleventh studio album ‘Ritual’ is no exception. We caught up with the riff master himself, frontman Max Cavalera, who discussed the juicy secrets behind the album, his connection with God and whether Soulfly will be hitting Australia soon. 

Speaking of your new album, did you have a pre-conceived idea going into it? 

Yes and no. I just went into the studio and I knew the name was going to come to me at some point. I think it was in the middle of the recording that the name ‘Ritual’ came to life. It was cool because it was early enough so I could direct some of the vibes of the album into the name. Also, the recording gave it a little more credibility. The album took a lot more focus and it was easier to finish. It’s an album full of rituals. I think I found the perfect name.

The title of the album ‘Ritual’ is a powerful one. You’ve previously mentioned that you feel metal is very ritualistic. How is it so to you personally? 

From the way we listen to music to the way we used to listen to music, I think it’s all connected to a ritual. I come from the vinyl era. Back then you had to open the vinyl, stare at the cover, put the needle in and grab the lyrics. There was a whole ritual involved. Nowadays you have Internet—you go on your laptop, find some bands you like and listen to their music, so it’s like a modern ritual. But they’re all rituals.

I think metal shows are all rituals themselves with mosh pits, screaming, stage-diving, head-banging and the lights and music. It’s almost like a religious experience. I feel very connected between those two worlds coming together.

What were some of your biggest musical influences this time around?

I’ve been influenced by every record I’ve listened to. The list is huge. It goes all the way to the sub-genres of metal: death metal, thrash metal, hardcore, grindcore, doom metal, heavy metal, a little bit of classic metal and hard rock. Then blues and reggae, dub and electronic stuff… even some country music I’ve been listening to lately. The only thing I still cannot hang with is pop music. I still hate it! (laughs).

What was the writing and recording process like? 

I have to say I was a little stressed out to come up with these songs. There was pressure I put on myself all the time to make a better record than the one before. But we were with a really good producer, Josh Wilbur, so we were in good hands. That kind of gave me a little peace of mind to just focus on the music.

We’re an incredible band right now: Zyon [Cavalera]’s playing great on drums, Marc [Rizzo] is a great guitar player, Mike [Leon] is a great bass player, and we’ve got that spark. We have that magic so our chemistry is really killer. It was just a matter of going to work every day, discovering new riffs, new ideas, turning them into songs and then figuring out the lyrics. The recording was extremely cool.We were in the right state of mind making the record.

I have a book of lyrics I’ve been writing for a year—all the ideas I’ve been collecting on tour. Some of the ideas were from [Clive Barker’s] ‘Hellraiser’ that became Dead Behind The EyesThe Summoning was an idea of the expiration of the tribes, and Evil Empowered is about politicians and the dirty work they do.

What was the most difficult aspect of making ‘Ritual?’

Probably singing. To me, I always have a hard time singing the records and creating catchy hooks that people can sing along with… actually, I’m not that worried about it. I made a whole album with Cavalera Conspiracy—‘Psychosis’—without any hooks in it and a lot of people said it was one of my best albums. But I am motivated to try and find some of those catchy hooks.I’m more into the music side of things so for me the riffs are really what I’m famous for. I consider myself a Riff Lord ‘cause I just live for riffs!  I write riffs for hours and hours. I lose myself writing riffs.

My least favourite thing is writing lyrics because a lot of times it’s hard to find inspiration and new things. I mean, after 35 years of doing this shit it becomes harder to have new stuff to sing about but we always find a way eventually. 

Which track took the most work in getting all the elements together? 

Probably Ritual and Dead Behind The Eyes, which are the first and second tracks on the album. Ritual was set around the studio, like the whole recording. I still didn’t have the Navajo recordings so I had to go to the Navajo tribe and get all the chants. I brought them back with me and that’s when Josh put them in the song. The last thing I did was record the vocals. It was amazing to finally put vocals on Ritual. It finally felt like we had a classic song in our hands.

Dead Behind The Eyes was a challenging song that I did with my son [Zyon]. It was a father and son project, like building Legos or shit like that (laughs). It was really cool, like a puzzle so we did part by part, little-by-little. It took a whole week of working on the song but I’m very pleased with it. 

As you mentioned, your son, Zyon, is on drums. Will any of your other kids be making a Soulfly appearance in the future?

Yeah, I hope so. They’re all very talented, especially some of my stepkids, like Richie has Incite, which is a really good band and he does really good stuff. Igor actually sings on ‘Ritual’—he sings on Feedback. He has four lines and does the chorus with me, which is really cool. The family is always very involved in all of the metal. We’re a true metal family and I’m very proud of it.

The album cover is incredible! What’s the story behind the artwork? 

What I love about this artwork is I didn’t settle. The first idea was a Mexican mask but everyone thought it was too Mexican. Then there was a design of two birds fighting each other—a dove biting the eye of a vulture. It was very, very beautiful but it wasn’t strong yet so we scratched the whole idea.

When I came up with the name ‘Ritual’ I sent over some of our songs and I had this idea to have a tribal warrior shooting a bow and arrow at the sky, almost like shooting at God—questioning religion and questioning spirituality. That’s when Eliran [Kantor] did the design and I’m blown away by it. The colours are beautiful, the Babylonian ruins on the side are great and the prehistoric monster at the side of the warrior is amazing, while the warrior’s got the Soulfly mask on his face. It’s killer! Eliran is one of a kind, man. He’s one of the best artists around the world today and I’m so happy I got to work with him! 

Spirituality is a major key aspect of Soulfly. How would you describe your own spirituality and how you got to the place you are now?

It’s really hard to explain to people what it is, you know? If you feel it, you know it but you can’t really describe it. I feel it and I know it’s real. I believe in spiritual things, I believe in nature. I’m also a little connected with Orthodox religion. They’re really close to God. We know a lot of priests in Russia and I go to a lot of the services. The Eastern European Orthodox churches are beautiful, in fact, one of my ideas for [2015 album] ‘Archangel’ was to create a stage that looked like one of those churches but we never got to do that, unfortunately. Maybe in the future…

I believe in spirituality and God but it’s a different God. He’s not interested in money, he’s not interested in the advertisement, he’s not even interested in me turning other people into religious freaks because that’s not what I want to do at all. It’s a very private connection I have with God. 

Are there any current plans for Soulfly to come to Australia? 

My wife is talking to some promoters right now and trying to get something done. I would love to do a full-on Australian tour. We start a ‘Ritual’ world tour in January, in America and I hope we can come to Australia after that. It would be great!

Written by Anna Harvey