‘I love metal – it’s my salvation, it’s my weapon’: Max Cavalera Talks ‘Totem’, Favorite New Metal Bands + Spirituality

Photo Credit: Jim Louvau
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It’s impossible to ignore the impact that Max Cavalera has had on metal history. From his work in Sepultura to what he has done with Soulfly – and the numerous other side projects he has been part of – Max is a passionate metalhead and a master of the craft.

This Friday, Soulfly will be releasing their 12th studio album, titled Totem. Through this record, Max Cavalera and the band offer audiences a visceral experiences of aggressive instrumentation and spirituality. For Cavalera, Totem is a means for him to explore a spectrum of spirituality – the beauty of nature and the cruelty of humankind. Instrumentally, the record is a remarkable collection of style, offering a blend of wicked sounding thrash, death metal, and even old school heavy metal.

We had the great pleasure to talk with Max Cavalera about the work that went into Totem. We asked him about the lyrical subject matter found throughout the record, as well as asked him about his relationship to spirituality/religion. Max also shared what it is like to be on the road with his family, as well as mentioned some of the younger bands kicking ass in today’s metal scene that he really enjoys.

Without further ado, here is our interview with Max Cavalera.

The Pit: We want to start off by asking you about the inspiration behind the album’s title, Totem. What is it about the concept of totems that played an inspiration, and as a whole, what lyrically inspired you while creating this album?

Max Cavalera: So once again, I was in a studio without a name. You know, it happens a lot of times. For many of my records I was in the studio and I didn’t have a name for the record; you just keep on going until you find the name, and then maybe you steered the record a little bit in the direction of the name. That was the case for Chaos A.D., it was called Propaganda for a long time. I think Soulfly 3 was called Downstroy for a long time, and [at the] last minute I changed it. So this one was no different.

I had a bunch of songs [in the works], but I was feeling that the songs were going towards a little bit [of a] spiritual, nature side of things. I was doing a bunch of reading about stuff, and I came upon some articles about totem poles and I was like, “Cool.” I started reading and I didn’t know that they were so powerful and they meant so much for the native tribes, and I thought that was a cool name. The original actual name [for the album] was Totem Obscurum, but [that felt like] a bit too much so we just shortened it to Totem. I kind of like Totem Obscurum. I thought that was kind of cool. It was a little bit more black metal.  

The Pit: What sort of spiritual exploration did you want to embark on with this project, lyrically speaking? Were you more interested exploring the positive side of spirituality, the negative side, or more of a greater spectrum?

MC: One of the early lyrics I did was for “Superstition,” [which] is inspired by the Superstition Mountains. They are not far from here; they’re like an hour and a half from my home and I’ve been there a couple times. They’re killer, [as well as] really magic and mystic and mysterious. There’s a lot of legends about people disappearing [there]. They say they have Aztec gold buried in them. The place is powerful and I never wrote a song about a place like that – about a mountain. That kind of piqued my interest, so I made the song and I knew there was a cool topic about it.

I ended up writing another one which was called “The Damage Done,” which is about the environment and a lot about what’s going on in Brazil – about the president giving, you know, [the] green light for people to kill Indians, and they’re burning the rainforest. The polar caps melting, all that shit, you know? I watch a lot of documentaries on that stuff. I ended up also writing a little bit of another song called “Ancestors” that talks about forced religion and shit like that. Kind of like back in Brazil, back in the colonization days when they came with books and crosses and forced [beliefs] down the throat of the Indigenous People. And I love – there’s a line in the song that says like “A preacher selling souls” – I always loved that line, I thought that was a cool line. I would actually want to put that maybe on the back of a shirt or something.

But I saw the album going towards this direction and, kind of like when I found the name Totem, that’s when it connected. I said, “Oh, I think this is all connected.” You know, superstition with ancestors, and it’s all like – this is going to be my most nature inspired kind of record. And I just rolled with that. I thought that was cool. Like really, nature is a really powerful thing. I’ve seen a lot of it through the tourings I do, and I was very inspired by it. So nature, it is a powerful thing and I loved the kind of inspiration it gave me for this record. 

The Pit: Soulfly has been going now for roughly two and a half decades, and given the importance of spirituality in your life – and within the music of Soulfly – Where does your relationship with spirituality and art stand today? How much do the two inform each other? And over the course of these years, how much has changed for you? 

MC: Well not that much. I mean, I have this really weird relationship with religion – it’s like a love and hate kind of relationship. But I am spiritual for sure – that’s undeniably true. I think the forests in nature are very spiritual. But you know, like, I believe in God, but it’s a different kind of God – [one] that doesn’t judge people, for whatever reasons, and it’s less judgmental. It’s more open minded, and yeah, it’s kind of like my own thing and I think maybe I borrow a little bit from different religions. What I like about [a particular spiritual ideology], you know, [I] put it in my life. What I don’t, I block it off. [Throughout] my whole life I’ve been involved with pretty much three distinct religions: As Catholic, as a kid, ’cause I went to Catholic school and stuff. My mom was from Candomblé, which is African Brazilian spiritualism, you know, talking to spirits and ancestors and stuff like that. And my wife is really big on Orthodox, you know, Russian and Eastern Europe Orthodox. So I’ve been to tons of monasteries and we know a lot of priests and they’re really cool. They don’t judge, so I find myself really in a paradox sometimes about religion; I see a lot of good, but also I see a lot of bad.

There’s a lot of bad shit, you know? Of course. You know priests raping kids and shit like that. Like come on man, [that] is fucked up, that’s evil. And I don’t like forced religion – like that is my ultimate thing that I don’t like, nothing forced. Find your own thing.

I separate the things – I wear black metal shirts all the time, and Satanic shirts, and I like the music man. I don’t totally agree with the message, but it’s about the music so I don’t, like, give a shit. I’m not gonna, like, not wear a shirt or not listen to a band because of this. It’s metal, I grew up with metal, you know? It has been around me my whole life. 

[So, regarding my personal spirituality], it’s a different kind of relationship with God. It’s kind of a higher force that I believe in. I have my time with it when I do my walking, my hiking in the mountains; when I’m in total solitude, I connect with this higher force and kind of, like, go with things like that. 

The Pit: Soulfly has a long history of embracing and expressing a plethora of styles – Did you have any particular sonic goals in creating Totem? Is there anything stylistically that will catch fans by surprise?

MC: I always try to have something somewhere that pushes the envelope a little bit – it’s a little bit experimental. I think side B of Totem is more experimental, especially the very last two songs. That’s when I kind of went off on a total Soulfly vibe type shit; [regarding a song on Totem], the instrumental sounds like old Cure, Sisters of Mercy, like ’80s gothic pop man. It’s awesome. Clean guitars with distorted bass and that total ’80s [vibe]. I love that whole gothic shit; when I lived in Brazil, I went to many concerts like for The Mission and The Cure, so I wanted to write a song like that.

One [song] that was really challenging was “Spirit Animal,” because that’s almost ten minutes. Maybe my longest song I ever did and it was all good. I watched a documentary [involving] this music psychologist, and he was talking about [if] you want to put people in a trance or possessed by the music, it’s gotta be longer than six minutes, and I was really intrigued with this idea. So I went to the studio like I’m gonna make a big ass fucking long ass song. I had never done this [before …] The intro is almost two minutes and a half, and then there’s the whole song. There’s a big solo, there’s a Neurosis doom part, then there’s a dub kind of world music ending with clean vocals. [The song] ended up being like a mini movie, like a journey, and I don’t think people were kind of expecting that. Or maybe they were, I don’t know.

But the side A of Soulfly Totem is one of the most savage things I’ve ever done. I cannot wait to play the whole side A live like in one go. Just go like five songs in a row, just ’cause it’s so ferocious. It’s so savage, like, compared to everything I’ve done, my whole career, I think.

The Pit: Throughout your career, you’ve worked with a great number of artists. What was it like working with collaborators on Totem? Is there anyone on your bucket list you still want to work with? 

MC: Totem, it’s a really unique record. It was a bit stressful to make, but that’s good; good shit comes from stressful stuff, you know? I think some of my best records were all under some kind of stress. Either Beneath the Remains or Soulfly 1 or Prophecy – they are all kind of stressed record.

There was something going on and of course [around the creation of] Totem, we parted ways with [Marc, lead guitarist] Rizzo. He was with us for a long time and I wanted to reinvent Soulfly – somehow even bring fresh blood. I had this opportunity to do that and two things happened: We got Dino [Cazares, guitarist from Fear Factory] to play live with us. That was an amazing experience. I think people lost their minds. I lost my mind as a fan and just hearing those chunky riffs – like the Soulfly songs with that Fear Factory sound, its incredible. But man, it was like earth shaking man, it was cool.

And then when I went to the studio, I was really intrigued about Arthur’s band, because he plays with Eternal Champion and they got this […] old school heavy metal vibe, almost like Randy Rhoads, Jake E. Lee kind of solos. I was like, “Arthur, we need to make the Soulfly record with those kinds of solos. Like Randy Rhoads type shit, you know? Oh, it would be so fucking cool.” John Powers plays with him, and he also helped the record.

On the last track we have Chris from Power Trip doing a solo; I never worked with Chris before. I never worked with John Powers like that before, and I had worked with Arthur – but not not doing [lead guitar] – so all the leads on the album to me are fantastic and incredible. They’re fresh, they’re new, they feel like Soulfly has reinvented itself again one more time. They feel different, they feel exciting, just kinda like this old school heavy metal. It’s like Soulfly x  Eternal Champion kind of connection. That was really unpredictable, and and then of course we got John from Obituary; John Tardy man, and that was fucking cool. That was funny man ’cause, I had this song and I had the name of the song and I was singing the chorus, I went, “Scouring the vile,” and the producer was like “Dude you sound like John Tardy.”

I was like ‘Really?’ [And the producer said], “Yeah, yeah, that sounds just like John Tardy.” And I was like, “Why don’t we get John Tardy on the song then, you know? Let’s get the real thing, let’s not copy the dude. Let’s get the guy here.” We couldn’t get him in the studio unfortunately because of COVID and all that, but, we invited him to be on the track. And it’s cool because John was on Beneath The Remains; he sings backing vocals on “Stronger Than Hate.” And to work with John after all these years… I think we’re both survivors, we survived glam, we survived grunge, you know, that’s a big feat. We’re both from the same era, ’83 – ’84, that’s where we started – that’s when we and Obituary started – so it was so cool having John and it was cool that it all started as just me kind of imitating him in the studio.

You know, maybe the next record I’ll do a Rob Halford imitation, we get Rob on a track.  He’s on my bucket list for sure. 

The Pit: You and your brother just wrapped up the Return Beneath the Rise Tour – What was that like? Was that just a lot of nostalgia playing those Sepultura cuts with Igor? You also had your sons on the road with you – What’s that all like as a family touring together and playing music. You also had Igor’s band (Max’s son Igor) Healing Magic as a part of these shows.

MC: They’re awesome. Really good. The tour was so fun; it was just pure nostalgic, throwback, fun. It was really interesting because, it’s kind of like what people needed right now; and in a way, that’s why I’m glad Totem sounds the way it sounds. ‘Cause Totem’s got this very old school feeling to it, almost like it connects to those records on a certain level. So I think it’s a perfect time for Totem to come out after the pandemic; the anxiety, all the pent up aggression that we all built up inside, we all need a release. Somehow we need it man. [Regarding the] Return Beneath the Rise Tour, the LA show was incredible, the Maryland Deathfest was incredible.

I did the tour with Igor just ’cause I want to play those songs and have fun. That’s really the bottom line man. I love those tracks, I wanted to play them. I think some people want to hear them with the original vocals, with the original drumming. And we had a killer lineup – Mike playing bass and Daniel playing guitar; Daniel he killed it and he was fucking awesome. He was awesome every night, like the solos were all on point, and me and him really connected on the triplets and the chugging. It was like perfect.

To me, that tour just shows me that this music is more alive than ever. This style, you know, some people are like, “That’s from the 90s’ or whatever. That’s it.” No, it comes back, you know? Shit always comes back. It goes around man. It’s cool. Like, life is always in [a] circle man, and [that particular style is] coming back strong. I think Totem is perfect for right now because its connected to [older] eras – because of the way we did it with Arthur and it has this really old school feeling to it. So that’s why I cannot wait to tour Totem. I think it’s going to be like the same type of energy on the show, so it’s going to be incredible. 

And as far as the family connection, it was cool; the bus was pretty much family. I had my brother in the front lounge, painting all day long. He paints drumheads and we hang out a lot. My wife tours with us. My son Richie, from Incite, he sells shirts and is a great merch seller.

Then Igor, [who is in] Healing Magic – they’re only a two piece which is amazing. Like only two people, but they were amazing every night. I actually had a talk with Igor before the tour and said, “Listen, I opened for Ozzy before, It was tough, nobody liked us. Some dude threw a fucking beer at me and, you know, if that happens, just ignore it man. It’s part of life.” But people loved them. It was incredible. I was like okay, this is cool. I’m glad I had the talk with him, but I didn’t have to tell him any of that ’cause nobody was really hostile like that to them. I got my share of hostility from the fucking Ozzy fans, but [he] didn’t have to experience that, so that was great. They had a great time [and there was] a family vibe on the bus. A lot of [our crew have] been with us for like 20 years, so it’s pretty much familiar anyway.

I guess [the atmosphere is] less sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, but more fun in a way. [We watch the] Eric Andre Show after gigs – that’s all we watch and laugh our asses off. I put on my favorite [movies],  Dumb & Dumber and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I got everybody excited and watching them. And yeah, it was a totally fun tour. We got to see a lot of cool friends – guys from other bands came to a lot of the shows, so that was pretty cool. 

The Pit: Given how passionate you are for metal, we wanted to ask – What are some of the newer bands you are into today?

MC: Undeath I really loved that new record. Uh, It’s Time to…. something from the grave  .

The Pit: Rise From The Grave.

MC: Yeah that was a good one.  I just loved the old school kind of Cannibal Corpse vibe they got going on. They do it extremely well man. It’s so cool. I also really like 200 Stab WoundsTheir last record, Scalpel, something with a Scalpel [Slave to the Scalpel], was really good. I like the new Zeal & Ardor, I thought that was really good. And then… let’s see, what else have I been jamming? I like this French band called Blut Aus Nord; they’re really noisy. They’re kinda like a black metal kind of Ministry.

The Pit: With everything you have done throughout your artistic career – from Sepultura to Soulfly, Nailbomb to Killer Be Killed and more – What drives you? Where does all that artistic energy originate from? What keeps you going all these decades later?  

MC: Well, there was a certain crossroads in Brazil and I ended up selling my soul to the devil when I was 12. Naw I’m just kidding [laughs].

No man, I love it. I’ve been a fan of the music since I was a kid, and I protect that; it’s one of the things I fight for. It is the protection of my pure metal, young Max metal fan heart. I don’t let nothing destroy that; like the music politics can be real fucked up and bullshit. There’s a lot of corrupt stuff and I try to blocked that off. And even social media, there’s a lot of bad stuff you know. I try not to read much of it. But I think overall, I am really, really passionate for what I do – I enjoy it man. I really enjoy it – I get something out of it that I don’t normally get.

It’s kind of like a drug actually, like when you have a great show, it’s like the greatest feeling in the world. It’s kind of hard to explain to people exactly what it feels like, but it’s like you get all these crazy goosebumps that you don’t really get anywhere else doing anything else. And honestly, I’m not really good at anything else. I mean, I’m just good at this, so it’s like, my job and career opportunities would be very minimal if I didn’t have music. I paint a little bit, but not good [enough] to be professional.

I just love fucking music man, I love metal – it’s my salvation, it’s my weapon, it’s everything to me. And then the older I get, the faster and more aggressive I want to play. It’s cool – I love that I’m going backwards; I’m going against the grain type mentality, which is cool. 

We would like to thank Max for his time talking to us! Totem is out tomorrow via Nuclear Blast Records.