To look at Max Cavalera -- his wild dreads, his loose-fitting clothing -- you can believe the Soulfly front man listens to Bob Marley. Cavalera apparently listens to so much of the late Wailer that some fans have branded him the "Marley of Metal." It's not a title he cares to emphasize, for the obvious reasons.
Soulfly's latest disc, Primitive (Roadrunner), has damn few moments that someone who hasn't smoked a giant blunt would call reggae. Instead, the record is reinforced with the band's usual building blocks: fractured guitars, hostile screams and tense rhythms. It's '90s metal without all the hip-hop attitude that typifies Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock.
In a sense, though, Marley's influence can be detected within Cavalera's primal and spiritual lyrics. The opening track, "Back to the Primitive," is nothing less than a throbbing jam that's built around Cavalera's urge to retreat from contemporary society. No politically correct mumbo-jumbo here; the man just tells it like it is. "Fuck all your politics," he grumbles over the dominant riff. "We got our life to live. The way we want to be."
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Max Cavalera certainly is no stranger to creating harsh tones. For 15 years he served as front man for Brazil's seminal rock act Sepultura. During the late '80s, when the speed-metal craze was at its peak, he enjoyed a healthy run with the band in both his native country and the United States. Along with that era's other notoriously heavy acts -- Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax -- Sepultura's breakneck pace and precision arrangements found a home in the stereos and tape decks of countless teenage headbangers. The band had formed in Brazil in 1984, and thanks to an underground buzz, fans in the United States were quick to embrace it.
A deal with metal specialists Roadrunner Records helped spread the band's sound to college radio stations, while global tours enhanced its following. Likewise, a kinship with the aforementioned bands on the then-burgeoning metal scene helped earn Sepultura a place in the upper echelon of thrashers.
But in 1996, shortly after releasing Sepultura's most ambitious effort, Roots, Max Cavalera had had enough. His departure took many by surprise, considering the strength of Roots. Combining the band's signature metal with tribal rhythms and South American influences, the disc exhibited maturity in a genre that seemed to be stuck in two gears: fast and loud.
If he seems overly maudlin about the subject, he has reason to be. After all, Sepultura (Portuguese for "grave") was the band that Cavalera started with his brother Igor. What's more, at the time of the split, Cavalera's stepson Dana had just died. When discussing the breakup, the Soulfly front man's voice deepens, and his curt answers indicate a discomfort with the topic.
"We don't talk," he says, calling from a tour stop in Detroit. "We haven't talked since we broke up in 1997. I'm disappointed, but I can't look back. I have to keep moving. Whatever. I can't stop. I try to spend my time not in a frustrated state of mind, but rather in a creative state of mind. I just try to stay positive."
Not long after striking out on his own, Cavalera was back in the studio and back on the road, this time with Soulfly.
The pounding rhythms and thick guitars were reminiscent of his former act, but Cavalera was quick to establish the band as separate from Sepultura. Touring in the popular Ozzfest and with German industrial metalists Rammstein in 1998 helped give the new combo some visibility -- and a new following.
"Some things happen for a reason," he says. "Some things have to end for another thing to be born. My era with Sepultura was finished so that Soulfly could be born. I took it as a positive thing. I had to look at it like that. I had the chance to re-create myself and give birth to a new sound, new band, new attitude. Soulfly is all that."
Part of that new attitude is not necessarily easy to describe; it's like trying to describe someone's religion. Cavalera definitely has some mystic and spiritual tendencies, and they stem not just from his fascination with Bob Marley but also from his mother, who was a Candomblé priestess. (The religion of northeastern Brazil combines elements of West African and Catholic rituals.)
Much of his spiritualism is transferred to the new record, but at times there's a certain redundancy to Cavalera's ogreish grunts and pounding guitars. Regardless, he manages to delve into rhythmic alterations that add a worldly dimension to the overall sessions.
This past summer Cavalera and the rest of Soulfly -- guitarist Mike Doling, drummer Joe Nunez and bassist Marcello D. Rapp -- embarked on their second Ozzfest jaunt. As headliners on the second stage, Cavalera says, the reaction to the new material was fairly positive. Soulfly is now back on the road, headlining a package tour featuring Downset, Slaves on Dope and Primer 55.
As always, Cavalera has nothing but good things to say about the current crop of metal acts. Then again, Cavalera was once part of the tight-jeans, long-hair crowd that occupied the scene in the late '80s and early '90s, and many of the bands he once considered his peers are in VH1's Where Are They Now? file. These days his fan base consists of the baggy-pants, no-hair crowd.
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Today's fans, he says, seem more starstruck. "They get real nervous when they come on the bus," he says. "I have to say, "Take it easy, man. It's all good. This isn't an out-of-body experience.' I meet people all the time, and I try to make them feel comfortable because they're responsible for where I am today."
Over the phone, his modesty sounds sincere. And for a guy who, strangely enough, may compare to Bob Marley, Max Cavalera does indeed share some things with his idol: Dreads aside, he has an obvious passion for what he does. Likewise, his lyrics brim with human rights issues and spiritual concerns.
Still, he's reluctant to make that comparison. If anything, he's just happy to draw inspiration from a source that most headbangers wouldn't recognize.
"I'm influenced by reggae, but not really musically," he says. "Because reggae has its own style. There are other things that I take from it, like lyrics and imagery. Even the spiritual side of it. It's fascinating. It's a cool culture. I put a little bit of that in Soulfly. Sepultura had none of that. Soulfly has the ability to use some of that and mix it with heavy music, which I find very exciting."