"some music was meant to stay underground..."

Interview

Ill Niño Vocalist Cristian Machado: "Having People Connect With My Music Is The Most Gratifying Feeling Of All."

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Over a decade-plus career, New Jersey six-piece Ill Niño has achieved an impressive but underappreciated feat: escaped the Great Nu-Metal Collapse of 2003 relatively unscathed, and plowed ahead with a string of albums that explored, one by one, every corner of the band’s musical and cultural identity. Following a split with Roadrunner Records and a humble stint on the short-lived indie label Cement Shoes, Ill Niño released the fiery “Dead New World” in 2010 through Victory Records. The album encapsulated all the band’s prior adventures – groove, alternative, thrash, metalcore, and progressive – while replanting its signature Latin and tribal roots.

Brazilian-born vocalist and lyricist Cristian Machado spent his early childhood in Venezuela before moving to New Jersey as an adolescent, and so takes a broad, inclusive cultural view of heavy music – and questions the ways in which the genre and its subgenres are typically understood. This thirst for identity has never been more apparent than on “Epidemia,” Ill Niño’s newly released sixth album and next step in its partnership with Victory.

I recently seized the opportunity to phone Cristian on a day off from touring. I explored his thoughts on “Epidemia” and Ill Niño at large, his various outlooks on music, artistry, life, and much more – leaving no stone unturned.

Mike Smith (OverkillExposure): Hey Cristian, how are ya?

Cristian Machado: Good, good, man. Just enjoying my day off! Our last show in Texas was the day before yesterday, and we have a couple down days before we do three more in the East Coast area.

Mike: Where are you now?

Cristian: In Jersey, man, at home! I’m looking out my window saying “Wow, the leaves were on the trees when I left, and now the trees are just bald!” [Laughs]

Mike: So after the next few shows, you’re off to South America.

Cristian: Yeah, we’re going to do three shows in South America, so we’ve been doing pretty much a quick little run of Texas and some towns here on the East Coast before we head to Santiago, Buenos Aires, and São Paulo.

Mike: I’m assuming these are familiar crowds for Ill Niño.

Cristian: Yeah, we’ve been down there before, so this is kind of like a return for us. We’re trying to bring some of the new songs from our new record down there, and just come back and touch base with our awesome fans down there! We haven’t been there for a little while, so we definitely don’t want to give the impression that we’re trying to ignore South American fans at all.

Mike: Given Ill Niño’s Latin element, have you found playing for Spanish-speaking crowds any different from playing for English-speaking ones?

Cristian: As far as the performance goes, it’s not any different. The reactions from the crowds may differ slightly. Well… perhaps not the reaction… it’s just the size of the crowd. We do play to a lot more people when we travel abroad, whether it’s Europe or South America, places like that. So we do get to take advantage of larger crowds when we go to foreign countries. Even in Australia, we tend to draw a wider, bigger audience.

Mike: Any memorable new experiences so far on this round of touring?

Cristian: Yeah, man, we had a great time doing some shows with our friends from Emmure. We definitely appreciated having the chance to go out on the road with them. I think making a strong bond between Emmure and Ill Niño was really, really cool. Those guys are much like us – East Coasters. Also, we all just appreciate heavy music, whether it’s melodic or extremely brutal. I guess we have the same likes, and perhaps the same dislikes. Doing that was a great experience for us. Sadly, Wayne Static [of headliners Static-X] had to cancel almost half of that tour, so we were left in a little bit of an odd situation, trying to figure out where we were going to play, and what shows would have to be rescheduled for our headlining run, and things like that. But more positively, I’ve been able to enjoy the reaction from the fans to the new record. Honestly, the only thing I focused on for the last six, seven months was just finishing “Epidemia” and then going out and playing shows. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to play every single show we intended to play with Static-X and Emmure, but it was out of our hands. Right now, we’re scramming rapidly to finalize booking for a complete U.S. headlining run, which will hopefully go back to some of the cities that were canceled.

Mike: I’m looking forward to that. I’ve never seen you guys live, so I’m hoping to catch you this time around.

Cristian: Man, you’ve gotta check the band out live! That’s when we’re at our best, I guess. Onstage, naturally playing the songs, and just having a good time feeding off the crowd. Yeah, man, you should definitely come to a show, absolutely. We’ll have to make it a special experience for you, like get you really, really drunk, or if you don’t drink, just get you to have way too much fun to the point of pissing your pants.

Mike: Or both of those things!

Cristian: Yeah, or both. [Laughs] All of the above.

Mike: Playing with Emmure must’ve worked out pretty well in terms of pushing “Epidemia,” since Frankie Palmeri made a guest appearance. Did he come out and sing with you?

Cristian: At the time we went out, the record wasn’t out yet, and we didn’t have a video for the song yet, so we weren’t playing it. But if we do a tour with them in the near future, I’m sure we’ll be playing that song together. Absolutely.

Mike: Now that the record is out, what new songs have you been trying out? What do you hope will become staples in the setlist?

Cristian: Man, that’s tough. Well, we’ve been doing “The Depression,” because that was the first song we released, with the lyric video and all. We added “La Epidemia” after the video came out. I’m hopeful that we can add “Eva” or “Invisible People,” perhaps “Demi-God.” I’m not sure yet, but one of those songs will wind up getting added to the set. We’re hoping to release another single at the turnaround of the year, possibly January, and we might add that song. But I’m not really too concerned with picking the songs on the new record right now. I’m sure it’ll be stressful, ‘cause there are so many cool songs on there I’d like to play, but I’m also sure that whatever we pick to play will come off really, really well.

Mike: It’s always a trial-and-error process.

Cristian: Yeah, we might have to throw a song up there on the chopping block, see how it gets handled, and if it doesn’t go well, chop it up, throw it out, pick up another one, and throw that one up on the block. We’ll see how the fan reaction goes, and make changes accordingly.

Mike: The new cover artwork is very interesting. What was your starting concept?

Cristian: The starting concept was an idea we came upon where we tried to give an art form, or a “nickname,” to a lot of our feelings – and mine, personally – at the time of writing. I had a lot of feelings about situations going on in the world, and situations going on around me, with my loved ones. So I definitely wanted the record and the artwork to be an experience of all that. Something that was disturbing, but beautiful and pleasant in the same way for Gisella Rose, the girl suspended in the artwork. To me, the artwork wasn’t really supposed to have any specific religious or social connotations. It was purely just a way of… not “cleansing” exactly, but looking at an extremely negative situation and finding something positive at the end through a very painful removal process. Body suspension is much the same. The person suspended has to be able to look away from the pain and really accept it, and raise her pain tolerance level during the process. The goal is to perhaps remove some of the bad feelings that might’ve been there before, the same way we all can use pain to remove some of the past areas of trauma in our lives. To me, that’s what the artwork represents. Watching Gisella suspend for three hours, going through so much pain in her cleansing process, was both meaningful and inspirational for me. It absolutely inspired me to finish the record in a particular way, and to further define the way I felt about a lot of things in the world, and a lot of the faith that I’d lost, and a lot of other things. That’s not to say that I’m not a spiritual person; I’m a highly spiritual person. So let’s just say it’s purely a manifestation of pain, and “Epidemia” is the nickname I’d put on the state of mind I wouldn’t want to manifest – something like a body suspension.

Mike: Tell me a little about Gisella Rose.

Cristian: She’s an alternative model, and is married to Dominick, a great friend of ours on the East Coast here in Jersey. He’s the one that facilitates her suspensions. We met through friends, and he’s a body piercer, and has done piercings for the band before. So it’s really a creation of our community of people. The idea for the artwork was created first, and then Gisella contacted us to do the body suspension, and oddly enough, in a sixth sense kind of way, she’s married to our great friend Dominick. We kind of lost touch with him due to touring, but it was really, really awesome to be able to connect again.

Mike: The concept of purging personal pain through catharsis seems to be the running lyrical and emotional theme of Ill Niño’s work, whereas musically, you’ve changed up the style on each succeeding record. The last album, “Dead New World,” seemed a culmination of all that came before, and “Epidemia” seems to build off that. What was your founding approach when writing these songs?

Cristian: When we began the “seeking” process for the music, trying to draw inspiration from sounds or tones or scales, I’d say it was very similar to the way we’ve usually done records – except that we began the process at a very rhythmic level. It wasn’t so much about notes or melodic scales. It was extremely rhythmic. I think that this was very evident in our early days; we were coming first from an extremely rhythmic point of view, on top of which we were then able to expand with melody. I do think we might’ve perhaps had a bit of an identity crisis through the years, from changing members and working with a lot of different producers from record to record – just “changing teams” constantly, you could say. I don’t want to define it completely as our “identity crisis,” but sometimes that’s the best way to describe it. We’d have disagreements and conflicts over things like what songs to put on the record, or how we wanted certain parts to be, and we were all definitely pulling into different corners of the room. This wouldn’t happen voluntarily; we were BEING pulled. When something wasn’t working right, we were separating ourselves from what the goal actually should be.

Mike: What do you think the underlying problem was?

Cristian: Honestly, part of our problem was just being too opinionated, y’know? Having too many opinions about each other, and trying to push too many opinions on each other that just weren’t natural for the other guy. After “Dead New World,” which we produced ourselves, we came to the notion, “Hey, we have to find ourselves again. We have to find the things that really make us alike musically.” To be able to do that, we had to start having higher levels of tolerance for each other’s individual styles. To understand who WE are as a band, not what YOU like, or what YOU do, or what YOUR opinions are. To figure out who WE are, and when coming together to make a record, to ask, “What should it sound like?” And most importantly, “What is the feeling we want the listener to walk away with?” I feel that perhaps even up to “Dead New World,” we still weren’t quite focusing on the right things. It was too much about notes, or this or that, or the kick drum and the snare… we were micromanaging the individual aspects of the writing process when we should’ve been MACROmanaging the entire concept.

Mike: So macromanagement was what you had in mind for “Epidemia?”

Cristian: Yeah, that’s what we wanted to do on this new record. We went about the writing process similarly in the sense that a lot of us brought different songs to the table. One guy might’ve written one song, another guy might’ve written a couple, another guy might’ve written three – and we started putting things together. But instead of then going back and picking out songs and saying, “How do you want your song to go?” I think we began in a very rhythmic state. I really wanted to try to connect us from a rhythmic point of view. What I mean by that is, back in the early days when Ill Niño was a smaller unit, [drummer Dave Chavarri] and I connected, and it wasn’t too complicated, because it was just a couple of us writing. It wasn’t so divided. The circle was just two halves instead of four quarters. [Laughs] So knowing that we’d be doing a large portion of “Epidemia” at SoundWars Studios, where [bassist Laz Piña] and I work, I wanted to try to give a notion of togetherness and unity. Starting in that very rhythmic state helped begin the process of drawing us closer together. From there, we wrote some music, even though we were still just writing individually at that point. When the time came to finalize pre-production and actually record the songs at SoundWars, there wasn’t any constant pressure, like “Try my part – no, try MY part.” At that time, we were all just focused on what we needed to do, which was to create the feeling we wanted the fans to walk away with and most importantly, the feeling I want to experience when listening to the songs. That’s something perhaps we’d lost, or were struggling with, in the past. But I think we’re taking the right steps to define what it is that we are, and make ourselves more independent of the rest of the music scene. In other words, to have our own identity, our own sound. To make it so if you hear our band, you know exactly who we are. And even though there are things like subgenres, and people may categorize us here or there, I think the most important thing is to really have an original feel and unique personality in the music. We were able to do that on this record, while still giving it that modern appeal.

Mike: When it comes to subgenres, I’m always interested in the artistry a band puts into the music and how they see themselves, versus how others might label them. The ground has really shifted in metal over the past decade, yet some people still label Ill Niño as “nu-metal.” What’s your opinion on that?

Cristian: Well, I don’t have much of an “opinion” so much as an “outlook.” Filing things into subgenres and categorizing different bands is something I’ve never really done. I listen to a lot of different music, and I kind of make fun of the whole subgenre thing by saying, “This band? They’re a ‘classy’ metal band,” and “This band? They’re like a ‘thug’ metal band.” And “This band? They’re more ‘street’ than this band.” [Laughs] I’ve always categorized bands in a completely different way than how the media does it. I might say that one band is “cleaner” than another, or more melodic or more brutal, but not necessarily “This is black metal, and this is nu-metal, and this is American, and this is Swedish or Scandinavian.” Y’know? I like the idea of using more worldly or territorial names, rather than trying to come up with terms like “nu-punk” or something. For example, if some band came out and we started calling them “nu-punk,” four years from now, what’s next? “Nu-nu-punk?” [Laughs]

Mike: It has gotten pretty ridiculous.

Cristian: I prefer the idea of being a territorial band. We’re all human beings on this earth, and where we’re from may not have a huge effect on our world consciousness, but it does give you your own code, your own programmed destiny that you may or may not follow through with. There’s a lot of that going on right now. People are adding a lot more culture and personal territorial styles to their music. Like Skindred, System Of A Down, or us. I consider Ill Niño a “culture metal” band in that sense. Or Turisas, who add their own Finnish folk style to their music. That’s the way I’ve always kind of looked at metal. I’ve never really approached it like, “What kind of tag can I put on it? Is it ‘heavy metal,’ or is it ‘something else’ metal?” To me, metal is metal. You know a metal band when you hear one, and you know the difference between a rock band and a metal band. Now, there are bands like us that can walk that music industry line between hard rock and metal, but I never really considered us “nu” when we came out. I just considered us cultural… rock, or metal, or whatever. It’s not really up to me to give my band a category. It’s really up to the fans to figure out how they hear us, and what they take away from the style. But that’s how I personally always categorized things: completely differently from how the media would. I mean, you could call something “black metal,” but “black?” What does that really describe? I think it’s more evident when you can describe what place in the world that music came from, and then you wind up realizing, “Hmm, OK, I get it. I get why this is coming from there.”

Mike: I suppose that’s why the term “Latin metal” has always seemed simple and appropriate for Ill Niño.

Cristian: Yeah, or even just “culture metal.” The concept is something that nobody’s really realized is going on right now. I hear a lot of experimentation going on from bands all over the world, bands playing metal and hard rock and adding their own culture to the music. I think it’s a great thing! I think it’s the future of music, and the future of being able to mix music and ritual. If I am who I am, and I’m from here, and this is where I grew up, I should incorporate that into my music. I shouldn’t try to copycat something else. I should try to search myself. I think that in this ride of life, the main thing to realize is the self. I guess that would pretty much describe my take on that.

Mike: On the business side of things, your former label, Roadrunner, has been hitting some dire times lately. They’ve closed offices and fired a lot of people, and it may have been a long time coming. As an alumnus of that label, what’s your perspective on that situation? Are you relieved you jumped off that ship when you did?

Cristian: Well, with any separation process, it’s never exactly “Oh, this is great, thank God!” When you have to separate yourself from a friend, a loved one, or someone you’ve been working with for a long time, it’s always stressful. It’s not something that you want to do, but you’re hopeful that it’s the right thing for the future. As far as how it’s turned out for us, we’re very happy to be on Victory Records, and we feel like it’s allowed us to begin walking the path toward where we should be, and explore where we are and who we are. To be able to separate ourselves from everybody else, from the trends that are constantly coming in and out, and in and out, and in and out. To really say, “This is our sound; this is who we are; we don’t follow trends. We’re THIS.”

Mike: That's what “Dead New World” and “Epidemia” felt like to me.

Cristian: It’s allowed us to reunite as a band, and to not look at the world in such a dark kind of way, and to see our future in a brighter light. As far as what’s happened with Roadrunner since we left the label, I’m sure that the same situation is happening, where they’re having to make decisions that they really wish they didn’t have to make. My heart definitely goes out to all the people working at the label in Germany, in the UK, in Spain, France, Holland, Belgium… We made a lot of great friends through the years when we were on Roadrunner in Europe. We still have an amazing career there, and we have all those Roadrunner people to thank for that. My heart goes out to them. It’s something I wish hadn’t happened. I really feel like they were the greatest metal label that ever was, and I’m saddened to see them go. But it might open up the playing field for other labels to come forth and take over the torch. We may see that. Perhaps it won’t come from a formal label; it may come from the bands themselves. The bands might start taking more responsibility, and strategize their own releases and marketing plans and things like that.

Mike: That's something I'd like to see.

Cristian: And that would be the one thing I guess we could all learn from it. The music industry is going through an extreme change right now, and we may or may not see listeners accepting… I’m not sure how to put this… accepting their “right” to be able to pay for the music again? [Laughs] We may or may not see that. But the point is, in times like these, the power should go to the artists, and the artists should start taking control of their own futures. We definitely don’t want corporations having control of the art; we know where that goes. So it’d be great to see the growth of unsigned acts, without the help of a label.

Mike: On a more certain note, what’s your set looking like these days? Which albums are getting the most attention?

Cristian: We’re definitely playing a lot of old songs and new songs. We’re not playing too much from the “middle” of our career, let’s say. We’re doing a lot of songs from “Revolution/Revolución” [2001] and a lot of songs from “Confession.” [2003] We’re doing two songs from “One Nation Underground,” [2005] and one from “Enigma.” [2008] We actually haven’t played one from “Dead New World” yet, but we’re doing three new songs from “Epidemia.”

Mike: Why nothing from “Dead New World?”

Cristian: Y’know, when that record was out, we were really only playing one or two songs from it, and now we truly feel that the focus should be on the new album, due to the reception from the fans. They love it so much, and so do we. We appreciate and enjoy it. So we want to put a little more focus on the newer songs.

Mike: Given the opportunity, are there any favorite deep cuts you’d love to dust off? Stuff you don’t normally play, or have never played?

Cristian: Oh, yeah. An old song I’d love to play would be “No Murder,” or maybe even “Revolution/Revolución,” the title track from the first record. From “Confession,” I’d at least love to play “Two (Vaya Con Dios),” which we never really got to play when we toured that record. There are definitely a couple songs I’d love to play from “One Nation Underground.” I’m sure I could pick stuff from every record that I’d like to put in the setlist, [Laughs] but when it comes to things like that, you just sit down, go through songs, write names, throw them into a hat, and then try to make some type of democratic decision as far as choosing the songs we’re gonna play.

Mike: Two songs from the “middle” years I’d love to hear would have to be “All I Ask For” and “Pieces Of The Sun.”

Cristian: Yeah, those would be two cool songs to play. You’re right about that, man!

Mike: I understand you once drew a lot of lyrical inspiration from your estrangement with your dad, but have since reconciled.

Cristian: There have been a lot of different themes, and I’d have to agree that one song was about that particular experience, but none of the other songs I’ve written have been about that. Maybe on the first record there were one or two, maybe on “Confession” there was one more. But I’ve never really gone back to look at that phase in my life, that empty state of mind in which I might’ve been. So yeah, that might come from having met my father and reconciled, and actually being able to meet the man that produced me. [Laughs] That’s a weird way to say it. So it might’ve come from that. I think nowadays I don’t necessarily write about people that actually exist in my life. I think I mostly write about feelings I’m manifesting on my own. I write a lot about my own fears and my own search for myself. I write a lot of things about my own doubts, and sometimes also about being hopeful for the future. So I tend to focus on my feelings inside, but on the new record, I really did not at all have actual things, things that exist in this world, in my mind. I was writing from a fantasy point of view. It was more of a movie playing out in my head, if you will, without any particular characters that exist in my life. It was just my feelings. The lyrics were very personal to me. I was able to match those feelings with completely different “characters” from song to song. The concepts fall under pretty much the same definition: how different characters come about meeting the ends of their worlds.

Mike: It’s all pretty intense, emotionally bare stuff. Have you received a lot of fan mail from people whose lives you might’ve touched?

Cristian: Oh, yeah. I’m very connected to some of our fans, man. I get a lot of really, really inspiring stuff. To this day, I still get chills reading about some of the things people have gone through, and about how our music relates to those times in their lives. It’s inspiring as well as very obscure, and sometimes enlightening, and sometimes very mysterious. I definitely like to draw from that. We’re the artists in control of the music, and are trying to please ourselves as artists first, but you could also look at Ill Niño as an extension of our fans’ feelings, and the fans as an extension of the feelings behind the songs.

Mike: Given the constant turbulence of the music industry, was Ill Niño’s future often among your doubts?

Cristian: Absolutely. I think we’ve all had the same doubts. Not just from an artistic or business point of view have I had those thoughts, but also from a purely “living” point of view. “Will this continue? Will my life continue? Will I die tomorrow? Will I see my loved ones again?” I think it’s natural for us as human beings to go through those feelings, and I don’t want to say it’s “therapeutic” for me to write about it, but let’s just say that I do get a lot of gratification from being able to write music purely about feelings, doubts, fears, and mysteries within my own mind. And having people connect with it is probably the most gratifying feeling of all.

Mike: And from a listening point of view, I’m assuming there are some pretty diverse tastes within the band. What’s everyone into these days?

Cristian: Oh, man! You’re absolutely, one hundred percent right: we’re all constantly listening to different stuff. You might have one guy in one room listening to Michael Jackson, another guy in another room listening to Judas Priest, while another guy is listening to Cattle Decapitation. [Laughs] Another guy will be listening to Faust, while another guy is over there listening to The Police. It gets pretty diverse, man. We’re all constantly going back to the roots of cool music, y’know? We have a lot of appreciation for ‘80s British heavy metal like Maiden, Priest, and older British stuff like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Queen, and bands like that. We have a very high appreciation for British rock and metal, and also for early Sepultura and artists like Nação Zumbi, who basically wrote the bible on aggressive rock in a tribal essence. I think everybody should check them out. Also artists like Santana, who wrote culture into rock. Sepultura’s “Roots” wrote culture into metal. Other things I listen to personally… I’m a huge fan of female vocalists like Sade, and I enjoy listening to Portishead a lot. I love bands like Massive Attack, but also I’m a huge fan of old, cool death metal, y’know? Obituary, Deicide, Suffocation, bands like that – especially their earlier records. Some newer bands I’ve been listening to lately… I’d have to say Animals As Leaders is a great band I’m really enjoying a lot. Karnivool’s “Sound Awake” record is really, really good. There’s another great band called Raunchy.

Mike: Criminally underrated.

Cristian: Oh, yeah. They have a record called “A Discord Electric” that I listen to a lot. It’s just an intensely genius album. And in the music industry, some bands have a lot of money behind them, some bands don’t. That’s just the way it is. At SoundWars, I’ve gotten to produce and engineer some really, really cool artists. There’s a band called Serosia from Dallas, and they’re doing really well. There’s a band called Iratetion from Newark, New Jersey that’s like “culture metal-slash-brutal metal.” There’s a female artist called Elisa Meri who does dance pop music, and we got to work with her as well. There’s a band from upstate New York called Through The Flood, and they’re making a big buzz at the moment. In many ways, you could say I’ve found my love for music all over again through this process, this evolution. I’ve learned to appreciate even my own stuff as a fan and a listener, and to learn how to separate myself as an artist and just listen to the music, and appreciate it from a fan’s point of view.

Mike: So when your imagination wanders, where do you see things going with future Ill Niño material?

Cristian: I definitely see us walking this path of further realizing who we really are, and further realizing how our musical tastes are one, and trying to focus on who we are as a band, not as individuals. And who our fans are, and why they’re our fans. I can definitely see that path leading to more intense, more focused, more conceptual, more self-produced albums.

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Mike Smith is a Southern-born, New England-based writer and a diehard metal and hard rock fan. As a music journalist, he is a staffer with Metalunderground.com and Outburn Magazine. As a screenwriter/producer, he is currently working on his first film with director Jason Matzner ("Dreamland").

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