Machine Head visited Finland supporting the newest album UNTO THE LOCUST by playing two sold out gigs in a row. Before the four-piece got on the stage at the Circus club in Helsinki I had a pleasant interview session with the band’s guitarist Phil Demmel who was gearing up for the gig. The sixth album UNTO THE LOCUST once again proves the band’s ability to create a murderous groove whipping songs. Phil Demmel tells more about the making process of the album and finally both the interviewer and guitarist try to calculate how many times he has visited Finland.
Interview and pictures by Arto Lehtinen
How’s it going?
I slept about 13 hours last night.
Yeah, pretty good.
So you’re tired of playing after in Tampere?
It was a good show.
It was sold out?
Yeah, sold out. It’s good. Tonight is too.
It’s pretty much sold out. And this is going to be your bus during the whole tour? You’re sleeping up there?
I’m up here yeah.
It’s like a coffin you know.
Not too bad. A coffin with a door on it, yeah.
NEW ALBUM- UNTO THE LOCUST
When viewing the front cover of the album UNTO THE LOCUST, I was scratching my head when looking at it. It’s some kind of mutant version of the alien grasshopper or what’s the point of this? Is it a grasshopper or something like that?
Yeah, I mean locusts and grasshoppers are very similar. They’re the same I believe, I don’t know the exact biology of it or…. But the metaphor for locusts I came up with based on some people that I’ve encountered in my life, of people that just come into your life under false pretences and they just act like one thing and they’re after with hidden agendas. They end up taking everything from you, not just material things but your, what happened to me it was basically my faith in humanity that people are just really this bad and just this evil. They can take everything from you and then just when they’re discovered, how can you do this they just stop and go on to the next person and just eat and consume and devour everything they can from them. The cover is just kind of this bug that has these human features to it too so it’s not a figurative of, it’s not a song about bugs, it’s about people like that.
Does it reflect on the video, as in my opinion it looks like a horror movie because they are coming out from the sky and destroying everything and people running away?
Yeah the video is not very, it doesn’t really follow the lyric line of anything, it’s more visual than anything. It’s just, it doesn’t have much of a story behind it. It looks cool I think.
Yeah, it’s like a horror movie.
It is, people are running and then there’s blood at the end.
They’re just coming out of the chest.
Yeah, they’re coming out of us and stuff so it’s more visual than anything, not really much of a story line there.
When you started working on the new album you did everything in Jingletown Studio in Oakland owned by Green Day?
Was it an option for you that you’re going to Jingletown or did you check out other studios or how did this happen?
Yeah, we looked all over the place. I mean we looked at recording in L.A., in Chicago and New York, and it was, it came down to liking to be at home, you know. We like to be there and it was between this and another studio in Alameda that we kind of looked at. We were going to do drums in one place and track at the other place and it just came down to “hey” we want to get the drums set up just in case we’re still writing, we still want to record some stuff. So it’s just a great vibe at Jingletown and good, it’s run by a good crew there. It was the way it’s just set up you feel like being creative and you feel like you’re in a recording studio instead of some corporate office with snobs you know, so it came down to just wanted to be there and the vibe of it also.
You put posters on the wall like Slayer and Rush stuff like that – Is it about trying to create the climate, mood or atmosphere in the studio like having old inspirations there?
It was definitely about the inspiration. I got out my old tour programs from the Number of the Beast Tour, from the Piece of Mind Tour, and from the Screaming for Vengeance Tour, and Rob would put up,” okay today’s going to be Bruce” or whatever and they had these awesome metal-looking pictures of Steve Harris and we just… We really drew off the classical, the classic old Kill ‘Em All pictures you know, with Cliff and I put up a bunch of AC/DC stuff too and some Randy Rhodes and some Thin Lizzy with Phil and really trying to get inspired by these people that we really looked up too.
No Journey pictures, no. And I love Journey but not – it’s hard to get inspired for writing heavy metal music from looking at Journey.
When THE BLACKENING came out you got a lot of awards and a lot of prizes. The album was considered one of the great Machine Head albums, I think it may give some kind of pressure or was it some of the mellow feeling in the studio when you’re writing and creating new songs there or in your rehearsal room?
Yeah I mean there was the idea of wow we got this big record to follow up, but we felt that after Ashes we had a big record to follow up too. So we remembered what worked for us, the formula that we had, and that we just want to write stuff that we enjoy playing and listening too. So we just took it from there. I mean we really expanded on our performance level, I mean Rob really pushed himself as far as taking classical lessons and wanted to really push himself and re-learn a lot of stuff. Dave is just an animal on the drums. He’s so meticulous and really into, he’s just got great ideas and pushes himself that way. So I mean we really wanted to push ourselves as far as the riffs and we’ve done the pummelling, grinding, groovy stuff, so we just wanted to get more intricate writing and these songs are the hardest songs to play that Machine Head has done, so it’s. I still struggle with them.
Whenever you hear the Machine Head songs you immediately recognize the guitar sound of Machine Head with the groove thrash metal sound. Do you think you’ll always have a Machine Head trademark on your sound?
I think so. I think Rob has everything to do with that as far as our tones and writing and there’s always that harmonic or the bend or there’s always something that’s going to retain that trademark that it’s in DNA, it’s part of the music. That’s good that you recognize it so it’s like we’re doing something right.
Since BURN MY EYES and up to now you immediately know that okay this is Machine Head because there’s certain sounds there.
Good, yeah, that’s what we were shooting for, it’s good you picked up on it.
Because nowadays it’s really hard to recognize the band because they usually sound, basically the same formula, because back in the day when you heard bands like Forbidden or Overkill or Kreator you would immediately know the band, okay, that’s the band.
Sure. Yeah that can be good, that can be bad. I mean you don’t want to always sound the same, I mean like the early Slayer records they always had that little, they had that little chord, the notes that piece together, you go Slayer riff, and it screwed every other thrash band after that because you can’t use those notes together otherwise you sound like Slayer. So as long as you still mix things up and the stuff around that signature kind of.
I checked out the old interview that we did a couple of years ago and you told me that Judas Priest was a gateway for you into the heavy metal. Was it your choice to have Judas Priest as a cover song on the new album?
No, Dave and then I think Rob were, I think Dave brought that song into, of course the Rush song too, and Dave and Rob were really into doing this – no that record was kind of like I love Screaming for Vengeance and then that record came out, it seemed like it was too much of the same thing for me. So I didn’t really get into it that much. So I had to re-learn it. I tracked all the guitars on that, I ended up playing all the guitars on that song, so I had to really learn it and figure out some weird, it was like so much weird timing. So Dave brought that one to the fold.
Was it some kind of tribute to Priest now because they are slowing down piece by piece and going someway, retiring the whole playing and the touring schedule?
Yeah, I don’t, I’m not buying that retiring shit at all. I don’t know, I don’t know what was going on but I think that they changed their mind and they’ve got Richie in the band who’s awesome, he’s a bro of mine and I think that they’ve been rejuvenated by him and like we can do this, let’s go out. So I bet you’re not going to see Priest slow down at all. But yeah it’s a tribute to them. I mean shit, they were a gateway band for me back going from like AC/DC and Journey and Ted Nugent and Aerosmith into, then it got into Priest, then it got into Maiden, then it got Metallica, Slayer, you know, so it was. They were that in between, it’s like oh this is heavier, oh hey then it kept going from there. It’s definitely a tribute to Priest, we love Priest.
And it’s practically the same thing for everyone, if you start to listen to traditional metal then you get more and more extreme stuff like Metallica, Slayer, even Venom, stuff like that, and going up till now, what you listen to nowadays.
Yeah, I mean I didn’t get much heavier than Slayer, you know the satanic part for me was like fuck they were so good that I overlooked that part, it was just part of it and it was just part of the drill. Mercyful Fate too it’s just like they were so fucking great that it’s just like you know, that’s just part of the, exactly. But I really didn’t get into much of the more extreme metal bands, death metal bands like grind or anything like that, Slayer was just about as heavy as I got.
Rob produced the album from the beginning to end, but he did have any kind of outsider helping with the recording or producing the album or was it Rob basically?
Producing-wise, no. I mean he had Juan Orteiga engineer and they were partners through this whole thing and Colin Richardson, he was brought in to mix a little bit, but he had an emergency, something happened with his family so he had to pull out. But it was pretty much Rob and Juan for the whole thing. So nobody knows what this band should sound like better than Rob so we’re comfortable with him in that, he’s got great ideas and fucking the records sound amazing, so you can’t argue with what’s going on.
Did you have to rush a little bit with the Unlocust song to get it out, as a sampler in iTunes for the Rock Star Mayhem thing?
Yeah we had to rush the mix for that, that was a different mix on that that there is for, there was an advanced mix made because we were still going to use Colin at that time and so Rob and Juan did an advanced mix. And then, so we remixed it for the record but yeah there was a big rush for that definitely. It was a good thing though, I mean it was good having that out and having a good buzz about it.
Yeah, it brought more attention and interest from the big crowd toward the new Machine Head.
For sure. I mean those are Disturbed and Godsmack and in America those are huge bands.
I just read what Rob wrote in his blog regarding the 20 anniversary of Machine Head. He wrote something like that that – I came to rehearsal with song having the Godflesh vibes like “Blood For Blood" and "Death Church”, but other guys were not excited about songs” - then he went on his own but do you think this Godflesh thing was a little bit extreme for you because you’re more traditional thrash metal and classic metal thing?
Yeah, I don’t remember him bringing “Death Church” to practice, I don’t remember that happening and he later on told me that I had a riff that he took for "Blood for Blood", I had written a riff that we didn’t end up using so he ended up using it later for “Blood for Blood”. So that story doesn’t quite match up, that he brought Blood for Blood to the fold but then we rejected it so I just, yeah, that’s not jiving, revision is history I guess.
You have different kind of memories.
Yeah, for sure, yeah I remember that happening for sure.
DOWNLOADING AND SELLING FIGURES
The album got on the billboard chart, 22 or something, and how many copies were sold ? 17,000?
17 almost 18,000 yeah.
Do you think this is a huge selling numbers or do you think it sucks because 17,000 is quite little in the American market?
I think it’s okay, I mean it was 22, that’s the highest that we’ve ever charted, and it’s hard to say. I wish it would have sold more for sure, I’m stoked that it did what it did, but through the tours and through seeing what we’re capable of and we’ll sell more on the next one.
I just read Scott Not Ian’s interview that he said it sucks that the people think that 22,000 is really good but when going back to the 10 years ago or 20 years ago selling numbers would be different. Do you think that, okay, if I go to buy the new CD, it costs like 20-25 Euros and if you order the CD from the Internet like play.com, it’s only 9 Euros, and someone is taking big win ?
I’m not sure what’s going on with that, I mean buying the record off of iTunes or whatever, 25 Euros is way too much to spend on a fucking record though, I’ll tell you that.
That’s too much.
When the new Maiden album came out the price was 25 Euros, then if you had a patience to wait two or three months the price dropped to 9 Euros.
Wow, yeah, wait for sure.
I guess that’s why people are downloading the stuff on the Internet because that’s one of reasons.
Well sure, I mean and that’s definitely the alternative. I mean back in the day I was a kid who would dub cassettes or borrow somebody’s record and record it onto a cassette, you know, it’s the same idea, it’s not paying for the music, but it’s just a lot easier now with the Internet, so it’s just the nature of the beast, it’s just part of the industry. Is it right, is it morally right, no, but I was still the kid back in the day doing it too so I can’t say oh it’s fucked and you’re stealing or whatever, so I did it, I do it.
A LITTLE BIT OLD SCHOOL
But do you still have old cassettes from the ’80s?
No I got rid of them.
A couple of years ago I had about 600 of them and they took….
600, I still have 1000.
Yeah, that’s awesome. I had some good stuff too but it was just like you know I had everything on my hard drive and it’s just a matter of space and it’s just, I just got rid of them.
Did you have original tapes from Bay area bands in your collection?
Yeah. I had the first Forbidden, I had the first Death Angel, I had the Biohazard demo, I had like The Heathen demo, some obscure bands too, Warfare D.C.
Going to back to the thrash thing because I’ve noticed that the Bay Area metal scene is for obvious reason glorified as there’s the Get Thrashed DVD, and you know DRI guy who publicized the “Murder In The Front Row” photo book. Do you think this is a great thing that all metal scene veterans are bringing their memories to books, telling the next generation how it was?
Yeah, for sure. I think it’s great. I’m looking forward to seeing Harold’s book too, because I just read, I read Joel McIver’s book on “Cliff, To Live Is To Die”, and it’s great, take me back to those early ’80s shows, just reminding me of all that stuff. So it’s good to have that snapshot of time recorded and visible for people to see to see how it was, because it was really a special time, it was really fucking cool to be able to go to shows three or four times a week and see people hanging out, seeing the Metallica guys coming to shows and just hanging out and just going to see Savatage and I remember going to see Savatage on, I think it was "The Power of Night" Tour, and James and Lars were down there and just you know, it was a good family kind of deal, it was a scene. I don’t know if it could happen now because people would just get too crazy. It was just a weird family tight vibe back then.
When can we expect a book from you going back to remembering the day, because you have a really long career from the ’80s up till now ?
I’m still writing it man, I’m still living it so. I probably would, probably write something about my memoirs or whatever of the things that I’ve seen and the things that I’ve done, but I’m still in it you know, fuck this is, still living it, so once things start to slow down in that regard I’ll start thinking about something like that. I got a lot of stuff on video and a lot of the early stuff I was looking at it, a video of when we played Rock on Broadway and during one of our songs James and Fred Cotton came and they did like they were in the pit for a second and James Hetfield in a pit for, that’s awesome.
TOURING AND LIFE ON THE ROAD
Last time you toured three and a half years, that’s a pretty long time actually. But what about now, are you going to have as massive tours as before or are you going to do them more in blocks and take a break and then going out for tour?
You can’t really, well we can’t really do that, we have to tour when we can. So I mean the whole Blackening thing we would have never guessed that we were going to be on tour that long. We can’t say hey we’re going to be on tour for three and a half years, because in two years Metallica is going to want to take us out or Slipknot is going to want to take us out so we to just kind of see how it goes. We’re building this up three or four months in advance so we’re booked up through next summer as of now and I’m sure it’s going to keep building. So that’s a year that we’ve got out of the block so it’s like okay we got our first year done, it’s going to cover just about the whole world, and then we’ll see who comes around and wants to take us out.
So basically you’re going to visit every corner of the world like Australia, Middle East, and the Far East countries ?
Yeah, the ones that we can, I mean I don’t know if we’re going to go to the Middle East or Russia again but I mean we’d like to if the opportunity is there. We’ve been to South America already. So we’re going to Australia in February, we’re doing the States in January, we’re going to do the States and Canada in, well whatever, probably in April or so, and then we’re going to do festivals all of June and July, so after that we’re going to try to mix Japan in there somewhere, maybe go back and do a headliner in Australia, so we’ll figure it out.
Last time you told me that China is a really strange place, that you are not willing to go there and play because of language barriers, stuff like that, but Children Of Bodom, Arch Enemy, other bands have played there, so have you changed your mind?
Well I got that vibe from Arch Enemy. When they went over they’re like man, you know, it was weird, language barrier, like the gear wasn’t all that good, and so I mean I’m willing to play anywhere as long as it’s deemed safe for us to go there and if it’s worth going, then yeah I’ll go wherever.
But how do you keep your body in good shape?
I don’t, look at me. I’m in the worst shape of my life right now. On the Mayhem tour I was running, getting in good shape, and then I had these bad back spasms to where I couldn’t, I couldn’t change out of my sandals. I had to play shows in my flip flops, because I couldn’t change and get into my stage gear. So I could barely walk for a good month or so. It lasted about two and a half months. I had a surgery done and so it’s been about three and a half months since I could really exercise, and so I’m just now, yesterday started running again, I’ll run tonight, and so it’s a matter of eating good, it’s easy to fall in to like on the Mayhem tour, there’s a lot of partying going on so you have to really keep it in check. I haven’t, as of now I haven’t had a drink in about three months, probably going to keep that going for just because, no real reason other than I’m a human being and it’s my choice not to so. I’m just going to just, probably a couple nights on this thing where I drink a little bit, but just try to get healthy. My body doesn’t rebound how it was when I was a kid. I’m finding out.
I’m 44 years old, 44 and a half.
But do you still go out to play hockey and ice skating?
No, you know, I haven’t.
I haven’t been snowboarding in a while. I went last year only one time. I’ll probably go, my girl is, she’s from Idaho, so there’s a nice mountain up there, Mount Baldy and I’ll probably take my snowboard with me and probably go for Christmas this year. I want to get back into it. Man I used to play basketball three or four times a week and I used to go golfing all the time and snowboarding all the time so I need to get my body back in shape.
Because of the touring activities and touring life is really demanding?
Yeah. I mean it’s not like there’s a lot going on. But I mean the travel isn’t easy, I mean the hours, you don’t really have to, you get up, you have to eat your lunch or whatever, then you go into press, then you got sound check, then you got more press after that, then you eat. So there’s not a lot of time. You have to pick your spots to really find your stuff to do, so unless you’re Metallica and other bands like that that fly to every show where you have your days available for you.
Does your inner clock get fucked up because you have to fly from Finland to other countries because of the huge time difference and you get the jetlag?
Yeah. I mean it does. When I came over here to Oslo, I didn’t sleep the night before and we went right into rehearsal. So it’s like I get sleep deprived and then I sleep too much and then like I got up at 2:00 in the morning the night before last and then did the show, then I was up until about 1:00. So I didn’t sleep in 24 hours and so then I slept from 1:00 last night until 2:00 today. So it’s like I’m not going to be able to go to bed until early this morning. But we are staying in a hotel. We’re going to fly to Denmark tomorrow. And it’s part of it, you play the game, you try to sleep when you can. I’m pretty good at being able to sleep. Some of these other guys are just like, I think Rob and Dave get really screwed up because they have to be on a set schedule.
The reason why I mentioned your age because when you started playing Machine Head 10 years ago, 2002 actually, you were 34, and you got albums out every four year, and now it’s calculated that if we wait…
Right, I’d be in my 50s.
Exactly. Okay Dave Mustaine is doing fine, he’s 50 now.
Dave Mustaine is doing fine huh? Okay. If you say so.
It was in the Guitar magazine. But are you somehow scared of getting old and some parts are getting slow because I remember reading the interview of Pete Sandoval from Morbid Angel he said it really sucks getting old because he’s not playing the same tempo anymore?
Sure. Yeah I think that I’ve noticed a lot of things going. I mean my eyesight for one, which was, I got to wear reading glasses now. I mean my body doesn’t react like it was before. I feel all these aches and pains and my time has come, so I don’t practice as much as I should. So my playing has suffered because of that. Yeah it sucks getting old. It does. I was fearless before, I would do shit now it’s just like I might fall down and break a hip or something.
If I remember that you took one and a half year break from the touring activities and meanwhile you were recharging your batteries and did you take all time off from Machine Head and focus on your family life things?
Yeah, I did. My entire time off was focusing on stuff that was going on at home, starting a relationship and figuring out things with my family, with my son and everything. So it took up the whole time that I was off.
And you didn’t touch your guitar and you didn’t start making riffs on your free time?
Not for a little while, not for about a good six or seven months, I didn’t play for a little while so it took, Rob and David got together and started writing but I was still taking care of stuff I had going on at home. So it took me a little while to start writing after.
Do you feel the same kind of energy and passion that you had 10 years ago or do you feel the touring almost like a day job like “okay let’s go tour, make an album, take a break” and stuff like that?
Well I mean I’ve settled into a routine more than I was before. It was a lot newer back then and it was a lot more exciting to go on tour because we’ve toured so much, you know, there’s been so much going on. But it’s still writing for Unto the Locust was very exciting just like it always is, the same feeling was there for the writing of it. Still got, more emotion got poured into what I was writing on to this record more than ever, other than a song I wrote for my dad when I did, but other than that there’s been so much emotion from me poured into this. The touring has gotten to be a little routine, more than it was in the beginning. Like when I met you in 2002 in Tuska it was a lot more exciting then. I mean I still get a charge out of it, especially what we’re doing now, we’re playing our biggest shows and get to play, done some cool stuff with Metallica and so that’s pretty exciting. Yeah man, I’m settling into it.
You have been to Finland how many times, six or seven times, Tuska, Tavastia Sonisphere and..?
Yeah Sonisphere. We played at Tuska. Then we played with HIM, we played with Flogging Molly, it was called Ilosaarirock in 2002, it was the last show on that tour. I think it was further north. We played with Mnemic in Nosturi, a small club. We played two nights with God Forbid, but we played here before with Mnemic, so that’s 4 times.
Yeah 2004 you played two nights in Tavastia?
Yeah, Tavastia, and then we played Nosturi, yeah. So those are those 2 times, so that’s 4 times. We played on the Black Crusade.
That was in the Ice Hall.
Yeah that was fucked up. Then we played with Slipknot. And then we did Sonisphere. Now this time. So 8 times.
Have you seen the growing fan base of Machine Head here in Finland during these years and is it basically the same?
No it’s gotten bigger. It has. I don’t know big this club is, but I mean we did two shows.
Okay. We did two shows at Tavastia, and so it’s gotten bigger, it’s been pretty solid. I mean we’ve played our biggest show and our best show in Tampere last night so we’ll see how tonight goes.
So basically you enjoy being here in Finland all the time but have you other countries when you visit and played, have you noticed the same kind of trend that you have got bigger and bigger fan base like you have in Finland?
Sure. Sweden’s gotten better, Norway got better for us, I mean the Norway show we did was definitely better, it’s gotten bigger and bigger. Shit, the UK’s gotten for us. I mean it was always pretty big but I mean we’re playing Wembley arena now. Portugal has gotten bigger, Germany has gotten bigger, everywhere has gotten bigger since I joined the band, I mean, don’t take me out of context there, but I’ve noticed everything get bigger.
Yeah, but have you noticed some places have the same or even lower success?
We haven’t played Spain in a little while, so there it had been about the same but we haven’t headlined there since 2004, I think it’s been seven years since we played there, so we’ll see. The States has been slowly getting better.
Which gigs have been the most scariest that you have played?
There was an early show that I played that people were getting out of hand for the earlier bands and they started rioting, not really rioting but started fucking things up, so it was just like okay, I need to find a safe place to go to, and they ended up shutting the show down. So that was early.
Alright. I thank you for your time.
It’s always a pleasure to talk to you.
You too, yeah, for sure