Machine Head Drummer: "We Still Need To Prove Ourselves To A Lot Of People, Including Ourselves."
Band Photo: Machine Head (?)
Given the overwhelming reception to last year's towering studio album "Unto The Locust," San Francisco Bay Area metal quartet Machine Head doesn't require much of an introduction at this point. Christened "The Eighth Plague," their first North American headlining tour in four years - with Suicide Silence and Darkest Hour in tow - came to Worcester, Massachusetts on Saturday, February 4. Prior to the blistering performance at the Palladium (reviewed here), I checked in with drummer Dave McClain, a permanent Machine Head fixture since sophomore effort "The More Things Change."  He began by thanking me for actually making sure to press "record," and related a discomforting "Spinal Tap" moment from the day prior in New York - where thanks to a technical lapse, he was forced to give the same interview twice in a row. Luckily this time, once was enough. Here's what took place:
Mike Smith (OverkillExposure): There was quite a long cycle between “The Blackening”  and the new record “Unto The Locust.”  Are you setting a pattern here? Will fans be waiting that long again for the next one?
Dave McClain: I don’t know, ‘cause we didn’t really know that “The Blackening” was gonna take off like it did. We starting getting so many offers for tours. And right now, we’re thinking at least a couple years. But you never know. Metallica could come around. They kind of just came around again and asked us if we wanted to do some more dates. So you know, from there it kind of snowballs sometimes. But right now, we’ve got our year planned out, and then we’ll probably do the same thing again next year. So you never know, but it’s a good thing when that happens, for sure. By the end of that tour though, we were definitely ready to start writing. Phil, Robb and I had been writing separately a little bit. So hopefully we won’t take that long, but if we do, that means good stuff. It means people keep wanting to see us on tour. And the album’s doing well!
Mike: On that subject, over the past near-decade, the arrival of each new Machine Head album has grown into a very special and anticipated event. Does that put pressure on your recording performance, knowing that the next album will be a big, big deal?
Dave: Yeah, but it’s not really a bad pressure. It’s just us wanting to outdo ourselves every time we do something now. “Through The Ashes Of Empires”  was kind of a new start for us, y’know? Literally a new start. We were almost not a band, and just having that back, and being able to be a band again, and writing that music… It was really exciting to us. So carrying that into “The Blackening,” we were kind of taking a lot of different aspects to new levels, or trying to. Trying to outdo our performances on the last one, trying to outdo the record. Basically, we still feel like we need to prove ourselves to a lot of people, and to ourselves. We’re definitely not the type of band that just gets comfortable with, “Ah, ‘The Blackening’ was great, and WE’RE great. Let’s just go do something.” [Laughs] We’re always trying to outdo ourselves, and to get better as songwriters.
Mike: In terms of outdoing “The Blackening,” how did you approach that task while avoiding merely repeating that album? Did you envision some way these songs would sound?
Dave: No, not at all. Whatever magic we had on “The Blackening” was five years ago, so we didn’t even know if that magic was around. We didn’t even realize it was such a cool thing when we were doing it. We knew WE liked it. So going into this one, we were just really ready to start writing, ‘cause it’d been almost five years since we’d started writing for “The Blackening.” We had no idea where it was gonna go. When Robb and I first got together a couple months after the tour ended, he had parts of the song “This Is The End,” and it just kind of started off with this classical thing, this acoustic thing going on that he couldn’t really play. He was kind of stumbling around, and he actually started taking classical lessons, just to play that part. The whole song had this classical music vibe to it, and it was super fast, aggressive, and hard to play for both of us. So we kind of set the bar right there. We were like, “Okay, this is what we’re doing.” We really wanted to challenge ourselves again, and at the same time, not write the same record we just did. We tried that a lot, and tried to get better as songwriters, with arrangements and all that stuff.
Mike: The songwriting on the new album, along with “The Blackening,” contains loads more technicality, particularly with drums. In a live setting, do you ever find yourself going through jarring transitions between that stuff and some of the more straightforward older material from the ‘90s?
Dave: I definitely get into that when we go back to playing stuff like “The Blood, The Sweat, The Tears,” off “The Burning Red.”  It comes at a cool spot in the set, because we’re opening up with “I Am Hell,” and doing all these crazy new songs that are just like you said, a little more… Well, we’re not “technical” by any means; we’re pretty much like a caveman version of Rush if we’re gonna be considered technical. [Laughs] We’re not the best musicians, I guess. But yeah, so when those older songs come in, it definitely feels more basic, but at good places in the set where we can relax a little more and just kind of be messy.
Mike: Looking to the past – regardless of others’ opinions, positive or negative – is there anything in Machine Head’s catalogue that YOU might listen to and think, “Man, I was such an idiot! I totally would’ve changed that or done it differently.” Does anything ever stick out when you think about all you’ve done?
Dave: For me personally, going back to the album “Supercharger,”  it feels like a great EP, and the rest of the songs on there… I can’t… I don’t even listen to it, y’know? I CAN sit there and really listen to “The Burning Red,” which was one of our biggest records, but in a lot of people’s eyes, our most controversial. I think it was more due to the way we looked, rather than the songs. It was more of a big image change than anything.
Mike: The late ‘90s did happen to us all.
Dave: They sure did. The ‘80s happened to me, and the ‘90s happened to me. And I can listen to any record of ours with an open mind, and love it. But there is just half of “Supercharger” that is complete garbage to me. Going back, I don’t even know… When you’re writing music, you’re in a certain headspace, y’know? It’s a moment in time, really. And looking back on things, it was like, “Oh man, we really hadn’t gotten through these problems yet.” We thought we were doing something fresh and new, and we just weren’t. So yeah, that record…
Mike: For what it’s worth, though, I value “Supercharger” for what it did for ME at that moment in time. I’ll go back the same way, and listen to that record, and think, “Okay, this is a strong song, and here’s one I’ll never hear them play live, but hey, it did something for me back then.”
Dave: Yeah, that’s the thing. There are records I listen to by other bands that I’ve gone back to, whereas when they first came out, I thought they sucked. And then I go back to it, and think, “You know? It’s not so bad.” A lot of times you’re judging that record off the one you really loved from before, and then this one comes out, and you’re like, “Ah, I don’t know.” And a lot of times, it’s just things happening in your life that make that music really cool.
Mike: While we’re on this subject, have you ever had any strong reactions to some of the pickier, judgmental metal fans – I think we all know who they are – who just can’t let that go? The fact that Machine Head experimented on those albums, and just can’t be forgiven for it, like wearing a scarlet letter?
Dave: I see them do the same thing to other bands, and it’s usually someone like an older fan, or maybe someone who was never even a fan of the band to begin with, and they’re just kind of chiming in on fucking websites, and it’s like, “Okay, who cares?” It’s not like people come up to us in person, going “Dude, fuckin’… what the FUCK were you thinking, you fuckin’ fag?” Or whatever, y’know? But online, it’s “Oh, fuckin’ Machine Head, tell him to fuckin’ stop rapping.” [Laughs] It’s always something stupid that has nothing to do with anything we’ve really ever done. They’re always referring to one song off “Burning Red,” “From This Day.” [Laughs] It’s just so comical. So everything else we do after that is like, “They’re shit! I’ve heard the new record and it’s complete garbage!” Well, it’s not. It’s just a fact that it’s not, y’know? [Laughs] It’s just not garbage. But they have their say, and it’s usually not to our faces or anything.
Mike: The web is everyone’s favorite hiding place. Now, you brought up that down period of uncertainty when putting together “Through The Ashes.” In an interview on the “Elegies”  DVD, you recalled your previous lead guitarist Ahrue Luster announcing his dissatisfaction with the band, and stated you felt that Machine Head was doomed at that point, and wouldn’t survive another lineup shift. My curiosity is this: if another member change were forced upon you NOW, during such a career high, would you feel the same way? Will Machine Head survive as an institution?
Dave: Yeah, for sure, unless it was Robb leaving the band. He’s the figurehead of this band, the dude that’s really kept this band above water a lot of times. There’s a part of that dude’s brain… Even when he’s with his kids and his wife, there’s a little Machine Head factory going on up there, that’s always working. If it were any one of us other than him, the band could totally go on. He’s this thing that people latch onto, and we’re a part of his team, but if I left, he’d get somebody. If Phil or Adam left, we could get somebody. It wouldn’t be the same, but it would carry on. And yeah, there was a time when that whole thing was going on, and we felt like another member change would just kill our reputation and make it look like we just couldn’t keep dudes in the band. So I kind of just told Ahrue that he needed to leave the band. He wanted the next record to be a mellow record. He was kind of done; his heart wasn’t into playing stuff like “Davidian,” or any of the heavy stuff we have. That’s just the way we felt at the time, and we had no idea what we were about to go through, y’know? That was the least of our worries, having somebody that didn’t really want to be in the band, NOT in the band anymore. It was actually one of the best things that’s ever happened to this band.
Mike: Well, he did wind up with Ill Niño, so I guess people go where they’re happiest.
Dave: Or where there’s a paycheck, yeah. [Laughs]
Mike: As far as the current touring goes, are there any old deep cuts you’re planning on resurrecting? Do you have a wish list of songs like that?
Dave: Yeah, we do. We want to do that. But right now, we just feel that this set we’ve been doing represents every record. So there aren’t really any songs from the earlier records that we can plug in to take the place of what we’re doing now, where we feel like it’s a really good set. We’re playing almost two hours, and we really need it to feel like a flow. It can get long up there. You start adding one or two new songs, and it gets to be a little much. The set that we’re doing feels good!
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