Interview with Phil Demmel of Machine Head

Fifteen years into their career, many would not have expected Machine Head to get this far. The band have certainly had their share of downs, as well as ups, but three weeks into a US tour with Lamb Of God and Trivium and on the eve of the release of what is being called their best album to date, we spoke to guitarist Phil Demmel about epic songs, low points and Metallica.

Recorded last year at Sharkbite studios in Oakland, California with frontman Rob Flynn taking control of production, ‘The Blackening’, is Machine Head’s most ambitious work to date, pushing the technical abilities of each band member with complex playing and arrangements. This is not an album that panders to MTV or radio stations that want quick three minute singles.

“Yeah,” agrees Demmel. “There are two songs over ten minutes, two over nine. There are eight songs and it’s over an hour, so, you know, there’s an average of eight minutes.” But the guitarist insists that it was never the band’s intention to create an overly complicated album.
“I mean, we’d get to a point where it’s like ‘oh my God man, riff after riff, it’s so long’ but, for example, the song ‘Wolves’ we tried to take apart, we said ‘damn, this song’s over ten minutes, what are we doing, are people going to get this?’ And we tried to tear it apart and edit it down and it just didn’t sound right.”

But was it a conscious effort in the first place to push themselves?

“I think we might have consciously wanted to push the envelope as far as the technicality of it but not to where it just got crazy. We planted a seed and just watered it and gave it sunlight and it grew on its own.”

This is a far cry from the state Machine Head were in when Demmel joined the band in 2003, shortly after the departure of his predecessor, Ahrue Lester and towards the end of the recording sessions for the “Through The Ashes Of Empires” album. Though this album was considered a great comeback, the band had previously come in for some harsh criticism when they moved to a more simplified style for 1999’s “The Burning Red” and 2001’s “Supercharger”. Poor sales of the latter led to their split from Roadrunner Records in the US and speculation that the band would break up.

“Everything has been a step forward since I joined,” Demmel admits. “There was a point where we thought it could quite possibly be the end. It was halfway through the “Ashes…” tour where we were just like, ‘Dang, are we gonna be able to do another record?’”

Ultimately the band stuck together and after the success of “Through The Ashes Of Empires” internationally (where they still had a recording contract with Roadrunner) Machine Head re-joined their former US label in 2004, which seems to have sparked a new enthusiasm within them. And though there have been a number of changes to the band’s personnel throughout their career, Demmel played with founding members Rob Flynn and bassist Adam Duce in 80’s thrash group Vio-lence, while drummer Dave McClain has been with them since 1995, offering the closest line up for many years. “We’re family,” says Demmel. “We’re in a sexless marriage.”

With the release of “The Burning Red” Machine Head were seen by many as adopting the hip hop-influenced nu metal sound popular at the time and were accused of “selling out”. However, the willingness to change and experiment could (and probably should) be seen as courageous in a scene where bands often fear shifting from a tried and tested approach.

“I think that I would get complacent and bored,” says Demmel of bands that stick to a formula in this way. “This band doesn’t want to make the same album twice and it hasn’t. You listen to all six records and they all sound different. Some people like some records better than others but you can’t ever accuse this band of milking a formula. We always try to push something new.”

Though they’ve had their ups and downs, Machine Head have always had a loyal fanbase, who the band are keen keep a close relationship with, which they do at shows and through their website, where band members regularly join in with message board discussions and write online diaries. In an unusual move, the band also invited a number of those fans to record vocals for the new album’s opening track, “Clenching The Fists Of Dissent”.

“We brought in some guys from our message board,” explains Demmel. “We had a second where there was this chanting, ‘fights!’ going on and we wanted big backing vocals, so we got everybody in and got them all liquored up and had about 20 of our fans on the record.”

Clearly very proud of their place in the metal scene, another of the new songs, “Aesthetics Of Hate” is a response to an article by controversial American writer William Grim about Dimebag Darrell for conservative website The Iconoclast. Posted mere days after the former Pantera guitarist was shot dead on stage, Grim wrote about “how untalented Dime was and anybody who’s mourning his death is fat and lazy and stupid, basically the metal community are a bunch of idiots” explains Demmel. “We hope he fuckin’ burns in hell,” he concludes with a laugh.

Right now, Machine Head are in the first stages of touring to promote the new album, supporting Lamb Of God, alongside Trivium and French death metallers Gojira. Something Demmel tells us Machine Head are enjoying immensely: “It’s going really well, the shows are selling out and we’re playing in front of a lot of kids that wouldn’t normally see Machine Head.”

After this they move from a tour with some of the newer bands on the scene to an arena tour with some older faces – Black Sabbath’s early 80’s line up, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Ronnie James Dio and Vinnie Appice, who have reformed and are playing shows again under the name Heaven And Hell (the title of Sabbath’s 1980 album).

Having gone over well with a younger audience, Demmel is keen to see what happens with this next bout of touring: “You’re not going to get the Heaven and Hell crowd out to a Machine Head show, so it’ll be interesting to see how we go over, for sure.”

As well as the warm response from fans to Machine Head’s live shows, many fans have already been able to offer feedback on “The Blackening” after it was leaked in full on the internet back in January. Something Demmel sees as “like test driving a car.”

“Yeah, the record’s been leaked and it’s fortunate that we have a good record, people are gonna go buy it,” he says. As for whether or not it will harm sales, the guitarist looks at this pragmatically. “There’s kids who aren’t gonna buy CDs anyway. Those kids aren’t gonna buy it whether it’s good or bad or whatever. At least they heard it and if they like it they’ll come to a show and they’ll buy a T-shirt, you know, you can’t get those off the internet for free.”

Finally, how does Demmel feel about the new album and does he feel that Machine Head have managed, as frontman Rob Flynn opined last year was their aim, to make a “Master Of Puppets” for this generation?

“Well, that album’s over 20 years old, you know, and it’s still as heavy as it was back then. So, I think he meant like a timeless classic album. There will never ever ever be another Metallica – somebody who was so innovative, came from outta nowhere and just paved the way. So, no, this isn’t our “Master Of Puppets”, but I do think that “The Blackening” is a classic record. I think that the songs are epic and I think they are timeless.”

“The Blackening” is out now and Machine Head’s 1994 debut “Burn My Eyes” is due for re-release in September with a bonus disc featuring rarities and previously unreleased material. European fans can expect to see the band playing festivals in June and there will be a full UK tour in November.

This interview originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of Powerplay Magazine

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