Interview conducted by Joshua. Published on 10/18/2011.
Metal fans have a love/hate relationship with Machine Head. While their debut album Burn My Eyes is almost universally acclaimed and follow up The More Things Change cautiously side-stepped the sophomore slump, the nu-metal turn on 1999's The Burning Red and 2001's Supercharger left a sour taste in the mouths of metal's populace that still haunts the band to this day. As of late, Machine Head has enjoyed a successful run. Through the Ashes of Empires was a welcome return to their power-thrash roots and they further expanded their sound on 2007's The Blackening, an album that surprised many with its technical and compositional excellence returning Machine Head to the ranks of heavy metal's elite. Just 48 hours after the release of the band's seventh full length Unto The Locust, drummer Dave McClain talked with Joshua from Lambgoat about the new album and Machine Head's resurgence.
Unto The Locust just dropped two days ago, how are you feeling about it?
I feel good about it, man. It seems so long since we got into the studio. Going through the whole recording process, then things happening with the mix, Robb and Warren having to mix it. The record came out on the day of our Oakland listening party. We popped a bottle of champagne. It's a good feeling. We feel like we made a really good record and I think it's a good follow-up to The Blackening, so we're excited to see what happens with it.
What can you tell me about the writing process and trying not to repeat yourselves from the last record?
Obviously we don't want to do the same record twice. We did that on the second record [The More Things Change] and it's just not a good thing to do. An album is a moment in time. Whatever goes along with it is that moment in time. I think the tour cycle for The Blackening being so long, a three-year cycle, and the record as a whole being about a five-year chunk of our lives was the main thing. Finally finishing the last leg of it and just wanting to close the door on that chapter.
As much as we loved everything about that record and everything that came with it, I think the tour cycle being as long as it was, was really helpful because at that time we were ready to go start writing and just get back in the practice room. At the same time, we had no idea where anything was going. When we left the road everybody went their separate ways. I kinda just waited around for a phone call. Robb called me up a couple months later and was like, "Hey, you ready to get goin'?" I had already been practicing and writing stuff. We got together and the first day in the practice room he had what was going to be "This is the End." It wasn't totally complete, but he had a title for it already, he had a lyric concept for it, and a lot of the music. It got us off to this great start. This song had a lot of stuff going on. It's super thrashy, a lot of stops and starts kinda thing, and it was really challenging to play. So that set the tone for the whole writing process.
The last three records we've been in a great headspace. We feel like we're in complete control of our career. For us, challenging ourselves and writing stuff that's a little harder for us to play and Robb pushing himself vocally got us off to a great start and everything fell into place.
In the studio, why do you prefer to track with just Robb and not the rest of the band?
It happened over the years. When we recorded Through the Ashes, I'd be at the studio ready to go, and Robb would be ready to go. Sometimes Adam or Phil would be like, "Oh I can't get there 'til one" or whatever. It just happened to be this thing where me and Robb were there all the time. And also, recording as a whole band in the studio, if I'm ready to go and do a take, and you got two guitar players and a bass player in the studio, after each take they'll start playing "Run to the Hills" by Iron Maiden, or some song just noodling around. So it became this thing. We would do most of the demoing while we are writing, so over time it became most of the time in the practice room with me and Robb. It became what I was used to.
Robb's the guy, when we're playing live, he's the guy I lock in to. We definitely have this really good connection. And it's very comfortable for me, the recording vibe with him. He's got a lot of ideas of trying different things on the drums. Going back and forth it's a very constructive relationship.
You tried a different tracking method for the drums on this release, right?
The process was different this time than we've ever done. We kind of started doing it as we were demoing for this record. There were a couple songs where we were just trying different things as far as drum parts went. Definitely on the song "Darkness Within." Right when the drums kick in after the first chorus. It's really sporadic drum fills going on. What I did when we were demoing, was play that part four or five times and did whatever came off the top of my head. Robb went back in and listened and cut and pasted everything in and came up with a pattern. Because I had no idea what I was doing, it was very spur of the moment. So he kinda made this pattern out of it. So once we started recording we really liked doing that. What we did was, for five days just go in there and do what we would do at practice. Just play every song three or four times a day... never listened to anything that we recorded, just went. The next day the same. So for five days that's what I did. So we probably had like 35 takes of songs. I told Robb and Warren I didn't want to listen to anything. I was happy with my playing. I wanted them to go in and listen to everything. If the whole song was great on its own then great, but if there's something I did on the second verse of the fifteenth take then use that. Just Frankenstein everything together. That's what they did.
After about three days Robb called me and told me, "Dude, we got the drum tracks." There's no quantizing stuff on Pro-Tools, we don't play to click tracks, so everything was as it was. There wasn't gonna be fixing just the bass drum. Maybe just that verse and that chorus from one take and maybe inserting the lead section in another take. It was pretty cool. It got frustrating at one point because they weren't telling me the progress we were making. I felt like I was like trying to hit a piñata in a football sized field room. But at the end it worked out really good. A very different way of recording for us.
The Blackening consisted of eight tracks and Unto The Locust is similarly lean with only seven songs. Why so few songs, and are there any B-sides sitting around?
For The Blackening that's what we wrote. For Unto the Locust, we had a couple more songs. I'm sure at some point they'll see the light of day. Once we got in the record mode, Robb had been working on them vocally and melodically, trying to find something he was happy with. He was like, "Dude I'm trying, but I'm not completely happy with anything I'm doing on these songs." So we just put them on the back burner.
There's one song that I wrote the music to and I gave it to Robb and I told him that I just wanted it to be him and the piano, kinda like Black Sabbath's "Changes." We brought the string section in and had them do stuff over the music. I'm sure it's gonna happen at some point, maybe on the next record or during some down time if he's still working on it maybe he'll get to a point where he likes it and we can record it and just release it. It's the same with the other songs; they just never got to that point.
We don't want to put songs on just because a normal record has 10 or more songs on it. Some of the albums that we love are different in their own way. Reign in Blood is something like 33 minutes. It's super short, but it seems complete. You don't listen to it and feel ripped off, you feel like you just heard one of the best metal records in history. And same with Rush, not musically, but their mindset. The way they thought and found their niche as an album oriented rock band. I'm not comparing ourselves musically, but just the mindset of never really writing a radio song and never really doing anything in the conventional way. And same with their records. Some of their records have four songs on them, one being the whole side of a record. Moving Pictures I think had six songs. That's where our nose was.
We weren't concerned with having five extra tracks just because that's the way it's done. We felt these seven songs were the best seven songs we had at that time and it felt complete to us. And if it feels right then that's what we're gonna do.
Machine Head floundered in the early 2000's, losing label support and creating EPKs (Electronic Press Kits) for a new deal. Now the band is riding high. How's it feel to do a complete 180?
There was a point when we were doing all that stupid shit, the EPKs and stuff. Feeling just, beat down isn't the right term, just frustrated. Just like, "what do we have to do?" I told the guys, "Look, we're a metal band. And if this is the last thing we ever do, let's be a metal band." That whole time was very soul searching for us. We started writing Through the Ashes and things were going good. I remember me and Robb went to see Judas Priest, they played here at the Filmore and we were talking to Glen Tipton and KK Downing. Those guys are Machine Head fans. Tipton was telling us that he thought The Burning Red was such a great record and Downing got into the band from Burn My Eyes. They weren't giving us a pep talk, but me and Robb went to practice the next day and we were so motivated. We felt like little kids, but we felt like their peers at the same time. We started writing stuff and feeling free again.
Roadrunner had come back into the picture, not the US yet, but worldwide. We structured another deal that gave us more freedom and it was great. Then Roadrunner US came back. Good things happened with that record and put us back on the map again, kind of opened people's eyes. Once we finished that tour cycle we were really ready to go in and start writing. I think people were waiting around. As much as they liked that record they were kind of skeptical to see what was gonna happen next. And then with The Blackening, that record just took off. It did amazing for us.
And here we are now. It's not like we are comfortable or thinking that we're on top of the world by any means. We feel like we have a lot to prove. At the same time, there's a progression on the last three records of a band that we feel is a brand new band. Our history is our history, but the few years before Through the Ashes was the best thing that could have happened to us. It makes you appreciate the good things that are happening. We almost lost the thing that we love.