Max Cavalera of Soulfly (ex-Sepultura)

by Greg Prato

Just when you think no new ground can be broken within the realm of heavy metal, someone comes along with a new approach. One such band was Sepultura circa the early to mid '90s [or more precisely, the albums Chaos AD and Roots], when they began merging Brazilian percussion and rhythms with mega heavy metal. And the gentleman who co-penned the music and wrote the majority of the lyrics was growler/guitarist Max Cavalera.

Since 1997, Cavalera has been the leader of Soulfly (he exited Sepultura that year), and has continued offering up metal with some exotic twists and a variety of special guests. Standout albums include Soulfly (1998), Dark Ages (2005), and Savages (2013), which are among nine full-lengths in all.

Max chatted with us about his favorite songwriters, which metal bands visited Brazil back in the day, merging punk with metal, and how the idea of mixing elements of samba with metal first came about.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's discuss the new Soulfly album, Savages, as far as memories of the writing and recording of it.

Max Cavalera: Savages to me is a great record. I worked with Terry Date for the first time as a producer. He mixed three of my records. He mixed Soulfly III, Prophecy, and Dark Ages. I also worked with him '97 with the Deftones' Around the Fur when I did a song "Headup" - we did that song. That's when I met Terry.

We kept our friendship going through the years. He kept coming to the Soulfly shows in Seattle every time I played. He would always say, "One day we're going to do a full record, man. I'm going to do a whole record with you like I did with Andy Wallace on Chaos AD." And negotiations started at the end of the Enslaved tour. We started talking to Terry and it became reality.

Terry set up a studio in Seattle that was great. It was Studio X where Nirvana and Pearl Jam recorded - they did Halo the game soundtracks there and stuff. So it was a super killer studio.

And Terry was fantastic, man. Amazing. One of the best albums I ever did and I love the sound of the record. It's my favorite sound of all Soulfly albums. It's such a pleasure working with Terry. He's such a great guy and he's responsible for some of the coolest records made in metal, like Pantera, Soundgarden, Deftones. He's a legendary producer, so it was really great working with him. I knew the record was going to sound amazing, because he was in charge. I didn't have any doubts about the quality of the record, and he didn't disappoint me. He made the album sound super, super killer. I love the guitar sound. I love the drum sound. It was an amazing journey working him.

I think that's why Savages has so much flavor in it - there are so much different flavors. There's southern rock, like "Ayatollah of Rock 'n' Rolla," that's like folk music, like Led Zeppelin. It's all these different kind of landscape sounds between songs that was done with the engineer Sam [Hofstedt] that worked there. Sam has done some stuff for Halo and all these video games, and we got to work together in the Savages sessions making all these cool sound elements between songs.

So it was a great process altogether. I really had a lot of fun making Savages, it was a really great record to make.

Songfacts: Something that I've always thought was cool about Soulfly is that pretty much every studio album has some special guests, and this time, it's Neil Fallon from Clutch and Igor [Max's brother].

Max: Yeah. When I wrote the "Ayatollah of Rock 'n' Rolla," I wrote with Neil in mind. I wanted to do something with Clutch. I thought it was a great idea to do a song with Clutch, and mixing Soulfly and Clutch together in the same song for me sounded just so amazing and unusual and wild and exotic, which was great. We did it and it sounds killer.

I decided to work with [guitarist] Mitch Harris from Napalm Death, he's an old friend. Both of them, Neil and Mitch, are old friends from 20 years ago. That's why it's so good to have both of them on the same record. Then we got Jamie [Hanks] from I Declare War, one of my favorite new bands. They're a great new band that's going on right now. I like a lot of the heavy new stuff that's being done right now. So it was really cool.

Songfacts: As far as songwriting goes, how would you say that you write your best material?

Max: It mostly starts with a riff. I was so excited with the prospect of working with Terry Date that I got super excited about the record, and I wrote like a maniac. I wrote like a thousand riffs - just wrote, wrote, wrote.

And in the selection of those riffs, I found one of my favorites, which is "Bloodshed," the opening riff, the first song on the album. That's one of my favorite riffs I've done in my whole life. It was so cool to actually find that riff and get a song that has that riff in it.

But most of my songs start with a riff. I work at home and I do songwriting with a four track, guitar, drum machine.

Songfacts: Which songwriters do you admire?

Max: I like riff-making people. Some of my favorite ones are Tony Iommi, Chuck Schuldiner from Death, James Hetfield - you know, he did some great riffs. I like a lot of the new bands I'm listening to right now. They all have great riffs, like I Declare War and Acacia Strain and Man Must Die, Psycroptic. I like Jim Martin from Faith No More - I thought he was a great guitar player. He also wrote some great stuff. There was some amazing stuff in Faith No More.

So yeah, I'm very diverse. But Tony Iommi's probably my favorite riff-making person of all time.

Although Brazil is not the first country that comes to mind when you think of heavy metal, it has spawned its share of headbanging bands over the years. Sepultura is at the top of this pyramid, but other worthy bands such as Overdose, Ratos de Porão (portuguese for "basement rats"), and Violator all hail from the country.

Cavalera's roots (bloody roots... sorry, couldn't resist) are firmly placed in Brazil, as well - he was born in the town of Belo Horizonte, relocating to Phoenix, Arizona in the early '90s.

As Max mentions here, the early '80s saw three of the biggest heavy metal/hard rock bands play now-classic shows in Brazil: Queen in 1981, Van Halen in 1983, and Kiss also in 1983 (their last concert in make-up until their '96 reunion).
Songfacts: And something else that I've felt was really cool was that you've always been vocal about liking punk bands like the Dead Kennedys and also Bad Brains. How did you first get into those type of punk bands?

Max: Back in Brazil, we got into hardcore real early. The first punk we heard was actually European. It was Discharge, GBH, the Exploited. Then we discovered the American bands: Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Black Flag. That was amazing, you know. Circle Jerks and Subhumans [Subhumans are actually a Canadian band] and the whole scene. Out of all of those I think Bad Brains was probably my favorite. Bad Brains and Dead Kennedys were probably my two favorite ones. And then, of course, New York hardcore, it came out and that blew me away. I always love the Cro-Mags, Sick of it All, Agnostic Front, Warzone, Mucky Pup. I like a lot of that New York-style heavy stuff.

A combination of all that was filtering to Sepultura. Sepultura had a little bit of all that and so it was really great mixing metal and punk.

The best thing to happen to metal was thrash metal, because the influence of punk and metal into thrash metal was the coolest thing on all the metal movements that have happened in the last 30 years. It became out-of-control and amazing.

Songfacts: I agree. And is it true that back in the early '80s you saw both Queen and Kiss play shows in Brazil?

Max: Yeah. The first show I saw was Queen and I got into music because of that. I loved that concert and I loved the energy the concert gave me. Then then Kiss came to Brazil after that. Van Halen came to Brazil, and I was a big Van Halen fan for a while. I loved the first five albums. It was great. Then I came into heavier music, some Judas Priest, Motörhead, and then eventually thrash and black metal and death metal came. I started liking all of that stuff and just got heavier and heavier and heavier as we went on.

Songfacts: Let's discuss some of your songs. If you want to start with "Master of Savagery" from the new Soulfly album.

Max: Yeah. It's one of my favorite riffs. I really like the groove of the song. It's very similar to older Soulfly stuff, like Prophecy, Dark Ages, Soulfly I. It's a really catchy, heavy groove.

And I like the middle part when it breaks down to the bass part, breaks down to this super-heavy part. And that's, to me, so great. I actually didn't want to put any vocals on it because it sounded so good. Then I just let the music ring by itself. I was tempted to sing on top of it. I even tried once. Then I was like, "No, let's leave it open, just let the music take control and be just this cool, heavy part on the song." And it was great. I think it was better like that, and I already had sang on a lot of the rest of the songs.

It's a great song and it's being played on Liquid Metal now. I heard it the other day. It's a very strong song from the new record.

Songfacts: And then going back a ways, what do you remember about the writing and recording of "Refuse/Resist"?

Max: I had this riff, I really loved it. And it was the open riff from "Refuse/Resist." I always thought of a riot when I played this riff.

I always imagine it in my head: when I close my eyes, I imagine a riot going on when I hear this riff. So it was a riff that was borne out of a riot imagination. Just the confusion: upside down cars, burning cars, and upside down police cars burning. That's the image I had in my mind when I was doing the riff of "Refuse/Resist."

And then Igor came up with the amazing drum intro that has Brazilian percussion on top of it, which is almost like samba. It's a combination of a samba beat and metal, and that had never been done before quite like that. That was really exciting.

Andy Wallace was producing that track, and he was really into the idea of the culture clashing of us being from Brazil and exploring some of the elements from our own country and mixing with metal. For a while I didn't think it would be possible. I thought in my head they were too far away, two kinds of music, metal and samba and percussion. Although it's powerful, I didn't think the connection could be made, and Andy Wallace was responsible for making us go there and telling us, "It actually can be made. Just go there, just do it."

So Igor played the beginning intro in a smaller drum snare called a piccolo, and it just blew all of us away. Then in the middle of the song I put a hardcore riff, total Discharge influence, kind of the breakdown so the song just goes fast right in the middle. It was real great fun.

The lyric was actually inspired by when I was in a subway in New York and going from Manhattan to Roadrunner Records. There was a Black Panther in front of me, a big black guy with an afro, and he had a black leather jacket. And in his leather jacket, there was this whole speech written about Black Panther, black power, all this crazy Black Panther shit. And the very last part of this jacket, it just said, "Refuse and resist." So I took it right from the guy's jacket and made it into a song. [Laughs]

Songfacts: And you could say that an extension of that song was probably "Roots Bloody Roots" with that type of percussion.

Max: Yeah. The riff of "Roots" is actually a mantra. The idea comes from Eastern mantras that just repeat themselves. So we just needed a very simple riff. I was not looking for something complicated, I was actually looking for the most simple riff that could possibly be done.

"Roots" is full of this really minimalistic ideas that were really simple and powerful. Sometimes it's the harder songs to write which are the easiest. The simplest songs are harder to write than complicated songs.

So "Roots" took a while to get the right way, but once I found that mantra riff, which is the beginning intro of "Roots," it fell into place. That riff is only done on one string: you can play the whole thing on the B string, and it's tuned to B.

And the chorus, "Roots Bloody Roots," was of course influenced by Black Sabbath, "Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath." That's where I got it from. So it's totally a tribute to Black Sabbath, to call the song "Roots Bloody Roots." And it just works. It was powerful.

And then I love the ending of "Roots," when the super-heavy part comes in and it's just as heavy as it gets. Everything drops down and it's just so fuckin' heavy and brutal. I really love that.

The lyrics are really simple. It's about believe in yourself, about be proud of your heritage, proud of where you come from. Really powerful but simple lyrics. So it's really about just be down with your own roots and believe in your roots.

It was actually really, really simple and fun to make this song. I think with that record with Sepultura, I learned the value of simplicity, that sometimes When you have less there's actually more than if you have a bunch of stuff. So we learned that simple things are very powerful, and roots is full of simple riffs and simple songs that are very powerful, but done in a very raw kind of way.

Songfacts: And what would you say is your favorite album that you've written, strictly from a songwriting point of view?

Nailbomb was one of the more fleeting side projects in the history of metal. With a more industrial sound than Sepultura's trademark thrash, the band's two leaders were Cavalera and Fudge Tunnel's Alex Newport (the latter of which has gone on to produce such acts as At the Drive-In and the Mars Volta), who managed to issue a single album (Point Blank) and a single show (the 1995 Dynamo Open Air Festival in Eindhoven, the Netherlands) before going kaput.
Max: The one I had the most fun with is Nailbomb [1994's Point Blank]. Nailbomb was kind of "everything goes." There was no such thing as overdoing it. Nothing was off limits. Everything was allowed. Everything was pretty pissed off. Everything was angry.

It was a fun record to make, because it was just a bunch of angry songs all compiled together and on most of them we're not giving a fuck about what other people think or what people are going to say when they hear this. It's like, don't care, at all, if you're going to like it or don't like it. We like it, so fuck it.

As far as that kind of attitude goes, Nailbomb was the most fun.

February 20, 2014
For more Soulfly, visit
Photos: Charlene Tupper

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 5

  • Dzo from AtlantaWorld of us
    Seems a World away
    Don't go outside
    No you can't play
    The world is sick
    And she must rest
    You stay safe
    Must do your best
    A pain so deep
    It haunts us all
    That those that stand
    Help those that fall
    Now is the time
    For us to bond
    All as one
    As we go on
    Face these fears
    And fight the tide
    For those that fought
    The brave that died
    We are all family
    In one way or another
    We are all bonded
    By the Earth
    She is Our mother.
    Thank you songfacts for letting me write this.
  • Dzo from Atlanta Chaos DA. (District Attorney)
    Protecting police
    When does it end
    When does it cease
    Silence the violence
    Or we'll run the streets
    We've interfered
    Our worst enemy
    I refuse
    I resist
    To think that we can't get along
    That we can't exist
    Blue or black
    Tan or white
    Stand on your feet
    Let's do what's right
    Cause this the fight
    For all of our lives
    Our children are crying
    Along with our wives
    We play this game
    War is created
    A nation of hate
    And I hate to say it
    Where is the peace
    Where is the love
    I hit my knee's
    As I look above
    I refuse
    I resist
    To see this as the end
    We're better than this
    I refuse.
    Inspired by Sepultura's refuse/resist
    Thanks Max for all you've given us
  • Billy I from Binghamton, Ny (upstate)Big Soulfly fan....listed to Soulfly III and Prophecy this week. I miss the world influences on those albums....there are a lot of bands playing straight up brutal metal but not many with the influences Max incorporated. I enjoy the older albums much more.
  • Metal Carnaval from 8r451lstop saying max (ex-sepultura), say seultura (ex-max)! F--K Paulo, andreas and company! Max always ARISING!!!
  • Sean Gomez from Los Angeles California ( Originaly )sepultura definitely was the biggest influence on me besides metallica as far as metal is concerned. when max left the band i have to admit i was pissed off. they were headed in such a good direction then they just stopped. then i heard nailbomb and it put a big smile on my face. " this is bad ass!" then soulfly. and i thought. max is incapable of writing bad music! everything he does is golden. i dont get star struck and i dont have any idols but i gotta give credit where it's due. i still love old school sepultura. arise is one of my favorite albums ever to this day. keep up the good work. just one suggestion. throw a little more dubble bass in there! i'm sure the old schoolers will appreciate it..
see more comments

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