Machine Head Guitarist PHIL DEMMEL
Interview by Arto Lehtinen and Luxi Lahtinen
Pics by Arto Lehtinen
Transcription by David Groves
Machine Head have been effectively crisscrossing the planet during the last three years. The band has constantly visited Finland and ultimately gained a strong and growing fanbase. It was therefore about time to have an interview with the band’s guitarist Phil Demmel as some time has passed by since his previous interview here in Metal-Rules.com. The interview (carried out when Machine Head visited and played with Hatebreed and Bleeding Through) provided a good opportunity to ask about the present, past and future of the band.
Do you ever get tired of answering interview questions over and over again? What are the most asked questions?
The most asked questions were ‘how do you like touring with Metallica?’ and ‘what’s it like to tour with Metallica,’ and also, ‘are you enjoying the success of The Blackening?’ And lately it’s been ‘you guys have been touring for three years, do you think you’ve been out too long?’ But they are questions that not everybody will know, just because I answer them with one person doesn’t mean the people at your website would know that. It’s part of the deal, so it’s no big deal to answer them.
So you’re getting used to it? We maybe have a couple of same questions..
Yeah, I mean we play the same songs every night and we don’t get sick of playing those songs. Sometimes there are some pretty stupid questions though.
LIFE ON THE TOUR AND LIFE AFTER THE TOUR
You’re touring now with Hatebreed in Europe then you’re going to Japan then Australia. Have you toured with Hatebreed before?
No, this is the first time I’ve toured with Hatebreed. I might have played one festival with them, but I’ve barely played with Hatebreed.
You know each other pretty well?
Yeah, we know the guys pretty good. We’re friends with them, but it’s also a good package. They’re supporting us over here and it’s a true headlining show and headlining tour for us. Bleeding Through too, they’re friends of ours too but they’re all openers on this tour.
You have been touring 3 years in a row almost; do you get sick of touring? And did this two month break between tours make you feel better?
I do get sick of touring. These past couple of years have been really hard on me physically and emotionally. After being out for a while – my son’s getting older, and this relationship grows between him and I and it’s harder for me to leave him. This last time was the hardest that I’ve had to go because he’s talking now, we’re interacting, and that’s the hardest thing for me. Before he was a baby and we didn’t really have the relationship that we do now, I still missed him back then. But now it’s becoming stronger and stronger so it gets harder and harder. Physically I’ve gone through a myriad of things – I’ve had a lot of things going on. I’ve got this heart condition that I deal with and it deals a lot with depression and my headspace, and stress levels and stuff like that. I’ve had a lot of stressful things going on. And as I deal with those, for the first year and a half after my father died I spent it drinking. We did the HellYeah tour two weeks after this funeral, and I’m touring with Vinnie Paul and I’m on Vinnie Paul’s bus every night just getting annihilated (laughs) – every night, you know. And it numbed down what I was really feeling. Over the summer we were touring on the Mayhem Festival with Slipknot and I had been drinking pretty heavily on those tours at parties. It was my first summer festival tour, and it was a party every night. My antics were escalating, just doing stupid shit, and I just woke up one day after I had slept on my laptop and broke it – I cracked my laptop – and I just said ‘fuck man, I’ve gotta stop drinking’. And I stopped drinking for about six months. Then all these waves of emotion came flooding in, all the stuff that I was numbing down that now I was starting to feel. And I just got into severe depression. And you know I dealt with things. But then I passed out on the Slipknot tour – I suddenly passed out in Sheffield – and it happened again over the summer. We had to cancel that Slipknot tour, the last two shows just so I could get home; I had stuff going on at home… So it’s just a matter of me getting healthy and knocking off the drinking. We’ve got a treadmill out with us now, we’ve got a juicer too, and Rob’s not drinking right now either so Adam, Rob and I aren’t drinking. And Dave is barely drinking. It’s like ‘hey we’ve got a juicer, let’s make carrot juice instead, do some shots!’ So I’m just trying to get healthy, and I’m on the way up but not quite there yet. So I’ve just got to get home for a while and be able to relax.
So you are doing much better than a year ago?
Yeah, absolutely. I think a year ago at this time was one of the darkest points of my life.
Are you doing any workouts when you’re on tour?
Yeah we’ve got the weights and the bench over here so we’re exercising. I’m getting into running a little bit, I’ve never been a real runner so I’m starting off with a little bit and trying to build up. I’m in the worst shape I’ve ever been in right now – I look at myself and for the first time I say to myself ‘you look old, dude. You need to get your shit together.’ So I’m eating better, exercising…
I guess it’s easier to go on stage and play a show.
Yeah, you’re right. It affects the stage show. Also, being hung-over does too. When I’m up there and it’s a night after drinking…it effects what I do.
Well, if you’re free time when you come to Finland, we can take you out to ski or play hockey…
I’ll play hockey, for sure. I’ve got some skates and some gear -I just started ice skating when I was home. My son’s mother bought me some hockey gear, she’s really into hockey so she set me up with all this hockey gear. I hadn’t ice skated in like, 30 years and I get out there and I think to myself ‘fuck it, I’m just going out there’ and I zipped right around. And she said ‘you’ve been cheating, you’ve been practicing!’ I just love it …I wish I grew up playing hockey I just love watching hockey and I have dreams about being on the ice and skating, so it’s something that I really want to do.
You have also been doing some countries in the Middle East and India. Is there any nice country left you’d still like to go to with Machine Head?
Yeah, I’d like to play in Africa, somewhere on the continent. I hear that they have shows in Iceland, I’d like to go to Alaska. We’ve played in Rome, we’ve played in Russia. I’m not too interested in going to China. I’ve heard it’s pretty rough, the language barrier is real hard and the gear is pretty hard – I think it’s a rough gig.
You had a three month break from touring, how do you recharge your batteries next time you go on tour?
When I get home, there are always things to do. I own a couple of houses in the area so I bounce back and forth from where my son was, and his mum, I’d go up and visit them, and stay at my other house. There’s always stuff to do around the house that doesn’t get done for the three months that you’re gone so it’s pretty stressful when you get home. So I get in my leather recliner, and I hit my TiVo, and I watch my TV shows or I watch some sports. It takes me a good couple of days just to not do anything, and then get into the swing of my daily routine at home. I’m usually ready to go back on the road by the time I’m supposed to. And when I’m out on the road for a while and I’m ready to be at home, then it’s time for me to be home. It’s been playing out pretty good that way.
And seeing your friends at home?
Seeing my friends, but mostly seeing my son, and spending time with him. That really grounds me and really brings me back to where I need to be. The friends, yeah, as I get older the less I see them, and that’s okay. But the time that I spend with him is most important and unfortunately the circumstances just don’t allow as much as I want. Me being in the band, that’s just part of the deal.
COVER SONGS AND INFLUENCES
How did you end up doing the Pantera cover Fucking Hostile?
Well we had done two of these things previously, for Kerrang we did the Metallica cover “Battery” and we did “Hallowed Be Thy Name” for the Maiden one. And those are epic songs, they’re long and they’re huge in all these parts. We wanted to do something off Far Beyond Driven or Vulgar Display of Power, those are our favourite records. We were looking at “This Love” or “Strength Beyond Strength”, but “Fucking Hostile” is just two and a half or three minutes of fury…We had some energy we wanted to release so we banged it out. I think it represented what our mood was at the time.
When that album came out in 1992, what was your reaction?
That fucking record, you know. I was in Vio-lence when Cowboys came out and everybody was jumping on the Cowboys thing. And I remember in 1988 we rolled though Dallas and we saw all their pictures with the hair all teased up, in the Power Metal days, pretty glammy. And all of a sudden they said ‘oh, we’re metal now.’ So I didn’t jump on the Pantera thing for Cowboys. You couldn’t deny that some of the tunes were great and he [Dimebag] was an amazing player, but I still remember what they used to be. Back then I took the thrash thing to heart, I was like ‘you can’t just decide you’re going to be thrash now’, it was something you were born with or you just can’t say ‘oh this is hot now, I’m going to start doing this’, I thought it was pretty bandwagon-jumping at the time. We were going to tour with Suicidal Tendencies and Exodus, and we got denied the tour with Suicidal because of our name. And Pantera got the tour. So we were feeling even more like ‘fuck these guys’. So it was even worse when the Bay Area show came around ‘cause Pantera didn’t play it, so Suicidal wanted us to play that show, to use our home crowd for the show. And we were like ‘fuck you guys!’ you know. But then I remember Vulgar coming out and it was undeniable, like ‘oh my God, this is really fucking heavy, really fucking good’ and I played the shit out of that tape. I remember we were going bungee jumping and I listened to that cassette – cause you had tapes back then [laughs] – over and over again, it was like a four hour trip, we just listened to it 7 or 8 times, and didn’t get sick of it. Front to back, amazing record.
You have done quite a few covers, Maiden, Metallica, Sepultura…
We all listen to a bunch of different stuff. So if there’s a song that really inspires us then of course. Nirvana, they did Negative Creep, and they did Alan’s on Fire from Poison Idea and…
.. And maybe Journey?
(laughs) Yeah, well Journey had a big influence on my music in 7th and 8th grade, it’s still in newspapers today. And Neil Schon – we just played a festival with him and the guy’s amazing, so good. But yeah, we pick a cover that we feel we could represent well but still do it with the Machine Head flavour. But when we do a cover we want to do it note for note the way they did it, we want to pay respect to it, I’ll learn the solo note for note and try to pay respect that way. That’s how we feel a cover should be done.
What about Maiden or Judas Priest, the classic ones which made you listen to metal in the first place ?
Judas was one of the gateway bands for me from Journey and AC/DC to…Priest came out, I heard Rising In The East and I was like ‘Oh, shit this is cool’ and Rush too, but it was Priest who made me want to go heavy, and then, fucking Maiden came out, and that was it for me. Maiden was my band…I heard Killers, then I went back to the first record and it was good, but then Killers and then Number of the Beast came out and it was like, ‘Maiden is the shit’, you know. And it was Screaming for Vengeance at that time. And then Metallica, and then Slayer, Show No Mercy is the reason why I chose to be in Vio-lence.
That was the album that was really fucking amazing, you know.
But that was the record, I went and saw them. They opened for a local band called Laaz Rockit and I was really into Laaz Rockit at that time. And Slayer from LA was opening up, playing their first show out in Northern California. I’ve never been one to smoke marijuana, but I was in high school so I smoked some hash before it. We were sitting on the side, and I hear the theme song from Halloween come up (sings). And then I see these guys walking by and I hear all these chains and all this fucking metal going on and they were wearing spandex and the makeup and the full deal. And we were like, ‘holy crap, what are these dudes all about?’ And they get up there and they bust into “Evil Has No Boundaries”, and all the blast beats were going, and I thought ‘I’ve never heard anything that fast before, are they really playing that fast or am I just fucking stoned?’ And then I went out and got the record the next day. If you listen to the early Vio-lence stuff, it’s very heavily Slayer influenced.
NEW STUFF IN THE WORKS?
Have you had time to think about new stuff with all the touring?
Well, this is what we have, we have the little practice kit here, we’ve got a couple of little things we’re working on; Rob has a few things and Dave has a few things, I have just little bits and pieces. But it won’t really commence until we get back in April to our jam room. That’s what we write in, we hole ourselves up, we don’t write on the road much.
THE BLACKENING was very successful. Do you ever think it’s a challenge to top your last album?
Remember when you asked me about questions I hear all the time? That’s one of them (laughs). But here’s the answer. After Through the Ashes came out and that was pretty critically acclaimed and people asked me ‘how are you going to top that one?’ my answer was ‘the next record is going to be this band’s best record to date’, only for the point that this was the first record we would really write together as a foursome. I had to write three songs on Ashes…but then seven out of the eight tunes on this record was us. So now, I’m going to say the same thing. Of course it’s a challenge, but we had a challenge after Ashes too. Every record is going to be a challenge in the end. But Dave McClain has brought so much material to the band – he wrote the Halo riff you know, I added the harmonic to it. But you know he’s bringing so much material, and Rob – I don’t think that we’ve hit a writing peak yet, I think that the next record will be the most complete Machine Head record musically. So of course it’s a challenge but if you don’t want a good record you’re pretty much done anyway so…
I remember the Rush album Farewell to Kings was an inspiration for you in the recording of the THE BLACKENING album.
Dave’s a huge Rush fan and he kind of revisited the record. And he introduced it to Rob, because Rob wasn’t familiar with it. So I think it became in inspiration to Rob because Rob hadn’t heart it before. And it took on a whole rebellious feel. So it inspired him that way.
Colin Richardson has been an important part of Machine Head, since Burn My Eyes.
I don’t know what we’re going to do. I think that with Rob producing and Colin mixing, we’ve done a great couple of records. I personally don’t know what Colin has done in the past but I would like to think that we would continue that relationship. I think that he knows our sound, and that him and Rob work really well. I’m not really too familiar on what happens, because Rob goes to England and we listen to the mix from back home.
Do you find guitar work is the most important part of the machine head sound?
I’ve been in the band the longest of any guitar player. I don’t think the guitar chemistry is the most important. This is Rob’s…Rob lives, breathes, craps, and sweats Machine head. He’s such a talent for hearing notes and putting melodies together and hearing things – I think that that’s the most important thing. What I brought is a very big ingredient to that but I don’t think it’s the most essential. I think there would still be great Machine Head songs without me doing that. I think I’m playing with three fucking amazing musicians. Dave McClain is the most underrated heavy metal drummer. Rob is an awesome player and just a musical guru. Adam is one of the solidest bass players; he doesn’t miss a fucking note, any night. And he and Rob singing together, the harmonies they do together are fucking awesome. So Rob’s an ingredient, he’s the most important thing in this band.
JOINING MACHINE HEAD
You joined Machine Head in 2002, right?
Officially in 2003. When I saw you at the Tuska festival, I was a temporary, I wasn’t in the band.
When you joined MH and did more and touring, how has it changed your life?
Yeah, it changed my life a lot, completely.
What are the bigger changes that came from the joining?
I worked when I was at home. I worked for a door company, I was a carpenter. So I was getting up at 5 o’clock every morning going to work. In the beginning, it was hard, the band was at its lowest point. And I was working so when we were recording I was going to work and then coming in and recording the parts afterwards. As the band has achieved more success I’ve been able to let go and not have to work. So it’s changed in that aspect. We’ve been gone a lot, from the Ashes tour to this tour, we’ve done a lot of touring. Not being at home changes that. And physically, it’s hard to stay in shape out here. The travel gets to you. This is a big dressing room, sometimes we’re in half of this and all our shit’s in here. It’s hard touring, man. We travel pretty comfortably but it’s still pretty fucking hard. I got a taste of the Metallica life for a bit and that was comfortable, and they let us ride on their jet from Stockholm to Munich. And even that – you’re still getting on a plane and you’re still doing the thing, it’s not all gravy!
You joined as a temporary member to Machine Head back then…
They shielded me from that for a little bit I think. When I joined the band they were like ‘yeah, we’ve got these offers,’ and blah, blah, blah, and I was stoked. I was getting into an established band so I was excited. It was a transitional period for me, and pretty emotional too, you know. I was separated from a relationship of 12 years, I was moving out of the house that I fucking worked so hard on building and I just had to sell after the split. So that was just an escaping period of my life, I was like, man I’ve got to jump into this. I was just excited to be into something new. It was a very low period, but I was excited.
Back then the band was going through some rough times, in 2001-2002…
Yeah, it was, it was like; ‘ok, then we’ll get signed.’ I think that I was like this breath of fresh air and enthusiasm. They had been thinking ‘ah fuck, this sucks’ and I came in and was saying ‘this is killer, come on, this is going to be awesome!’ And it just infused or invigorated them a little bit. Then as time went on I realized how low things had really been. But looking back, I got in at its lowest point so it’s just been escalating and rising since I’ve been in, so this has been such an amazing run for me.
You are living your childhood heavy metal dream?
I am. And so many of my friends are living vicariously through me, they’re like ‘oh my god, the things you’re doing, the people you’re meeting’. Just the experiences that come with whatever celebrity we have, there are a lot of perks, and a lot of cool things that happened. I got to play Angus Young’s guitars, and put on the horns that he had for Highway to Hell. Just the craziest little shit. I met Randy Rhoads’ sister. It’s such an amazing, such a blessed thing. As soon as I lose sight of that I try to just remember, ‘man you could be home installing doorframes right now, if you don’t like it, swallow it up and take it a little harder’, you know.
It wasn’t that much of a tough decision; you know what it would be like from being in Vio-lence?
I think it was for all of us, because Adam and I were good friends, and Rob and I had this relationship before, I knew Dave a little bit. I think that the two week tour that we did in the summer of ’02 really solidified us – the first shows, it just clicked, and there was this chemistry and this vibe. Then when I left and I went home and back to my wife, there was this separation and they felt like they’d lost a member. I felt like I’d lost a band. So after everything broke up with the wife, one night I was like, ‘you know what, I’m back’. And they said ‘we’ve been waiting for you.’ They were writing as a three-piece. It just fit, it was meant to be.
Talking about this tour, sometimes you may face problems together, I’m curious what disagreements/arguments you have and what about?
We argue about…Rob and I have stupid arguments about stupid shit. If you live with somebody in a metal tube, you’re living with somebody. Basically, you take half of this room, that’s what 12 guys live in. So, people leave their shit out…living with one person is hard enough, but you pack 12 people into this thing, little shit will get to you. It’s nothing really band-related, because we can always talk about tours we want to do or lights. Rob’s got good ideas for that shit so we usually just agree and say ‘that looks good’. We’re pretty open about music and songs that we want to play. It’s just all the other shit, the roommate type stuff gets to us. I don’t want to get into particulars, but it’s usually that shit. ‘Your foot’s on my side of the couch,’ you know. Rob is the guy I have the arguments with, and me and Adam get along really well. And me and Dave, it’s usually drunken stuff between me and Dave. When I drink the whiskey I’m like ‘what’s you’re fucking problem’ then the next day we’re like ‘sorry dude.’ Rob and I have learned how to communicate better. It used to be the email thing, because emails and texts are so emotionless. So it’s just like, when things are getting weird, now we just go ‘ok, why don’t you come over to my room and we’ll talk about it face to face’, and we’re able to talk about it that way.
THE BLAST FROM THE THRASH
You also played in Torque and Technocracy. Have you ever thought about re-releasing the albums of those bands ?
Oh, nobody wants to put them out man. Yeah, the Torque record was good for what it was, it was cool to have a record with me singing on it, and I thought that there were good songs. But I don’t think it would be relevant to this day. I think that Rob, Ray the guitar player and Mark the drummer (who’s in Forbidden now) had thought about putting it out but it just seems to be more trouble than it’s worth. And the Technocracy record, it did get released over here by Mausoleum Records, the guy kind of ripped us off. I mean, whatever. It was just good to have. I thought it was great record, it was a good experience to play with my friends and have a good time, it started it off as just a little jam thing. It just blossomed, we had a great local following and had a lot of fun, but no, we’re not going to re-release that stuff now.
Do you still keep contact with the old band mates?
I saw Mark at NAMM, he’s playing with Forbidden now, he’s doing a record with Demonica, He’s doing really well, he’s a great drummer and I wish that kid nothing but success. My buddy Bryan Snider, the keyboard player, I was best man at his wedding recently; he’s one of my best friends. Steven Shyler, I don’t talk to, he kind of just disappeared. And Chris Addison the bass player, I keep in touch with him. So yeah that’s about it.
What about Dublin Death Patrol?
Dublin Death Patrol is a jam band basically. They’re a bunch of guys that lived in Dublin, and they were in this band called Rampage. They’re actually five years older than me so I was a little bit young when they were still going. But they asked me to be a part of it, I came in and threw some solos on the record and I’ll get up and play a Thin Lizzy song or a UFO song with them live. So they’re good dudes, Chuck and Willy, and Troy from Tesla, who’s my second cousin actually.
Are you more into American or European thrash?
I’m more into the American stuff. I like Kreator, but I’m not really that familiar with it enough. I like Destruction… But I was more into Slayer, Anthrax was always touch and go with me, but Testament, Death Angel, all the Bay Area guys. Overkill…not so much. Who else was there? Sacred Reich, Dark Angel…(laughs).
What about the Canadian ones?
I like Voivod, I like Sacrifice, from way back, they were good. Exciter, loved Exciter. I like some bands from all over I guess.
Have you been following the new wave of thrash?
Yeah some of it’s good, I like Lazarus AD, and Warbringer’s okay.
The labels have realized thrash is back
Yeah, it’s the flavor of the month, you know. If you’ve noticed, Soundgarden is talking about their reunion, Alice in Chains has put another record out, so the fucking grunge is knocking at the door ready to shut it all down again (laughs). I’m waiting for Grohl and a bass player to find a little blonde kid and shut the door on everybody again.
What do you expect for Machine Head this year?
March 30th will be our last show for this year, then we’re gonna hole up in the studio and write the next record. And when we’re done writing we’ll get in to the recording. We don’t know when but when we’ve done the writing we’ll get into recording – could be 9 months, could be a year, could be 15 months. Probably towards the end of 2011.
Phil Demmel’s interview in Metal-Rules.Com
The official Machine Head site