Blood, sweat and diamonds: The heart of Machine Head speaks up
Machine Head's new album, Bloodstone & Diamonds, is one of the most anticipated albums of 2014. Machine Head's lead singer, Baritone Flying-V meister, and prime motivator Robb Flynn has been one of Epiphone's most ardent--and loudest--fans for as long as we can remember. And his Signature Love/Death Flying V Baritone is a favorite among guitar fans from all genres. Born in Oakland, California in 1968, Flynn found his voice quickly with Machine Head's debut album, Burn My Eyes, released in 1994, which became a smash hit both in the U.S. and the U.K. The notoriously tough UK music mag Q described the album as "...a violent, grinding experience, spiked with social comment and spruced up with some brain-tingling guitar," probably one of the more on-the-money album reviews ever. Epiphone spoke with Robb about Machine Head's new album, his critics, his creative process, and the heavy price and gratifying rewards of earning the respect of the fans rather than the business.
Thanks for talking to Epiphone.com, Robb. So, you've got two new Epiphone's to talk about: the super Ltd. Ed. Machine Head Bloodstone & Diamonds guitar and a new Epiphone Baritone Flying V in the works for 2015. What's the story behind these guitars?
With the "Machine Head Bloodstone & Diamonds" guitar, (Epiphone President) Jim Rosenberg and I started working on this project about two years ago at NAMM. I was really excited about having a guitar to bundle with our album and make the coolest Super-Premium bundle of-all-time. I had watched a lot of the Kickstarter and Indigogo campaigns offer some really unique and interesting stuff for hardcore fans, and saw how some bands got really creative about it, especially since it was often very limited. Amanda Palmer had offered hand-painted record players, and her fans ate it up.
My long-time artist friend Strephon Taylor and I designed the artwork with Jim and we decided to go with Epiphone's base model Flying-V so that we could put art all over the guitar rather than have to worry about the pickguard. I cannot tell you how blown away I am with this guitar. It sounds great, it plays great, and it looks tough as shit!
When it came time for the new Robb Flynn signature Flying-V, I took a different approach. I've got a custom baritone that has been my main guitar for years now. I brought it to the Epiphone factory in Nashville where (R&D Director) Richard Akers and I hung out and he gave me a tour of your impressive and monstrous factory. I had Epiphone do an exact 3-D recreation of my #1 guitar with this giant laser scanner they have. Every detail from the neck shape, to the fret size, body type, cut away--everything! We made that the basis of my new guitar.
Has the Flying-V style of guitar always been your favorite?
I've been a Flying-V junky forever, they are hands down, the coolest looking guitars. So I started researching a bunch of classic Flying-V's looking closely at the details of what made them (in my opinion) "look cool." I went on a three day mission just scouring the web, scouring guitar stores, and looking at all the cool classic Flying-V's from all the different eras, and I took some of the finer classic points--like the pickguard from the Korina V, the string plate, the string through body, and the classic logo--and just make this a fresh but classic looking Flying-V.
When I first released the Love/Death Baritone, that guitar made a big splash, and just screamed METAL--just crazy and over-the-top. With this one, I really wanted to go for a timeless instrument any type of musician could play. There never has been one made quite like this. (Ed: Look for Epiphone's official announcement in 2015.)
Are you very technical in terms of the pickups you use, the neck size, and all those details? In other words, some guitarists have everything measured out while others are more intuitive and are looking for something that "feels right."
Oh yeah, even on my custom baritone guitar, I changed the specs after I had it for a while. I had it re-fretted, I changed the pickups, changed the pots to the big fat 25K pots from the 90s, removed all the tone pots, changed the tuning pegs to the locking ones I like, and re-wired it with heftier wiring. A guitar is a piece of work that you are constantly doing tiny little tweaks on to make it your own. It's the endless hunt for the ultimate tone. It's maddening (laughs)!
But yes, when something feels right, you just know. You can just tell sometimes when you pick up a guitar if you're going to like it or not just by strumming it, not even plugging it in. Something about the way it fits your hand, the way it rests on your body, the way your fingers glide over the frets. Sometimes it's definitely a love-at-first-sight kind of a deal.
Were there fellow musicians you knew growing up who helped shape your idea of what it meant to be a pro musician?
I have been touring since I was 19 years old and when I was 25, I went on tour with Slayer. Getting to know Kerry King and watching the really extreme warm-up routine that he did inspired the shit out of me. Slayer has a very physical show and the songs are incredibly fast and demanding. The speed and accuracy of everything has got to be on-point. Kerry's warm-up routine easily started a good two hours before every show, playing guitar, starting to headbang slowly and warm up his neck. There's a lot of discipline to maintain this incredibly intense level of physical performance.
Amazingly, he still does that today. We did a Dime Bash in Los Angeles and he was only playing three songs and yet there he was warming up for an hour and a half before the show doing his headbang warm-up, doing his guitar warm-up. I mean come on! This is for three songs that he has been playing for 30 years! But it takes a lot of grit to last that long in this business, and that's one of the reasons.
I also consider him to be one of the most underrated guitar players out there. He kills it live, it is so fast and challenging the stuff he's playing, and him and Jeff Hanneman pioneered a solo style that while eclectic and atonal, they play it note for fucking note! It changed the way people played, and defined their own thing.
The new album Bloodstone and Diamonds has been percolating in the studio awhile. What's your recording process like?
It's like a giant puzzle, and you're just putting together a few pieces over in the one corner, a few pieces over another corner, and building this huge foundation that you constantly put layers and layers on. With this record probably more than any other we've incorporated a large amount of string arrangements, as well as keyboards that are playing string parts. A lot of times when bands incorporate strings into metal, it gets to be a little overkill, the guitars start to get buried and Machine Head is all about the wall of guitars! I never want them buried (laughs)! We try to incorporate them tastefully to add melody on the chorus or in a very special part. It worked out great and I'm really proud of what we've accomplished. Being able to keep your own sound but still move forward is one of the greatest challenges every musician faces.
Did the new album change direction at any point in recording? Did you wind up with something different than what you expected?
Not really. I think for every album you set out to do something but you don't really know what that "something" is. You're just channeling what you're feeling and what you've learned from the last three years into something. I think when you're doing it right, you're trying not to repeat yourself yet still sound the same. Bob Dylan once said (after recording 6 albums) you're basically trying to find new ways to say the same thing. He was dead on with that.
What was inspiring your writing for this album?
Creating music is inspiring in its own right.
We love your blogs on the Machine Head website. Is creative writing a natural outlet for you?
It feels natural. I started writing them about 16 years ago as a way to just keep in touch with the fans. At that particular point in our career, the media was very reluctant to give us any coverage and back then, pre-internet, the only way that a band could communicate to their fans was through the magazines. It sounds funny to say now, but then "the Internet came along" and it changed everything.
We suddenly found that there was a direct line of communication with our fans, we could tell them what we are up, tell them funny little anecdotes and not necessarily have to worry about the media who, at the time, had a very negative slant towards Machine Head. So to have this direct line of communication with her fans made all the difference in the world. I could talk about the bands that I'm in love with at the moment, a vacation through the desert that I went on, totally random things that people seem to identify with. I'm not trying to sell them something, I'm not trying to put myself up on some pedestal. If anything it makes a lot more human. We told them the truth. We were brutally honest at times. Our fans have gone on this journey with us, grown with us, and a lot of it has to do with this connection through the internet and The General Journals.
What was going on in your life when you first reached for an instrument?
The first time that I ever smoked weed was also the first time that I ever listen to Black Sabbath, that band change my life. Within a few weeks, I was regularly smoking weed and regularly listening to Black Sabbath and a friend of mine had a bass guitar and we would sit there and fart around on it and I mistakenly thought it was the same sound as a guitar. So originally I started out on bass.
In my first few bands, I wasn't good enough to play bass or guitar so my drummer said "you seem like you're the singer, you should sing" and I went, "Uh..okay." but I really liked guitar, so I kept on woodshedding. I did my first few shows just as the singer of the band, pulling out every arena-rock pose I could, but eventually I figured out my way around guitar, so we got a singer, and in my earlier bands I was just the guitarist.
How did you discover the joys of Baritone?
Machine Head with the first band to use what's known as a dropped-B-tuning" and I had started using drop-tuning way back in 1990. It was a way to make a deeper sound and a heavier sound. Our first album has seriously heavy guitar tone, it was the first time the world was introduced to dropped-B and 5150 amps, and even now, it's a record that bands will come up to me and tell me how they A/B'd their guitars to that album. As a guitarist, there is maybe no higher compliment.
In the mid 90s, my friend Snake turned me on to a baritone guitar he had had made, as his band was also tuning down. I really liked it and he sold me on the concept. So In 1999 I had a custom baritone made for me that I used for years and years and years. I love it, I can't even imagine playing what we do anymore without a baritone, it makes everything so much tighter and feel so much better, you can use smaller strings, the tuning is way better, and still get the lower sound. For metal it's a must.
How did the lower range of the Baritone change your creative process?
I learned how to play guitar in standard tuning, but whenever I learned other people's songs, it was always in different tunings. AC/DC and Ozzy were in one tuning, Black Sabbath was in another tuning, Slayer and Exodus was another tuning. Metallica always had multiple tunings on songs like "Things That Should Not Be." So, I just constantly tuned to whatever the song I was learning. Once I started playing baritone for Machine Head songs, there was no difference, other than I had to learn how to stretch my fingers 3 inches wider now (laughs).
Bands have a personality, even when there's one main songwriter and one leader. Where is Machine Head now in terms of how you'd like it to sound?
I think there are three types of bands. There are the ones that say they never change ala AC/DC, etc. And then there's the ones that grow and grow and grow, and move as far away from their past as possible, ala Radiohead. And then I think that there's a middle ground. Most of my favorite bands have stayed that middle ground between evolving yet still being able to find their niche. Bands like The Cure and Metallica still kept their same sound but grew. Slayer too, had a great evolution from Show No Mercy to Seasons In The Abyss, but stayed unmistakably Slayer.
Do you feel Machine Head will remain the best outlet for your music?
If you could produce any artist, who would that be?
Hmm...producing Machine Head is a labor of love, it's a means to an end, it's something I'm good at, but I've loved being onstage since I was a kid. I performed in all the talent shows and school plays even in elementary school. I was an introverted extrovert. Meaning, I was a bit awkward, I wasn't the cool kid, I sucked at sports, but I was driven to be up there. Being onstage keeps me sane. I need to do it.
What are you like as a producer?
(Laughs) Probably a (expletive). I think if you ask any of my guys, they'll probably tell you I'm pretty demanding. And I'm 10 times more demanding on myself. But I also feel it's not about being "perfect." Machine Head came about in the analog-era and while I love the shit out of ProTools, I feel like it's so easy now to make everything "perfect."
But music isn't about being perfect, it's about being human, and humans are imperfect. To me, when you take those imperfections out, it's not real anymore. So we go to great lengths to make sure that the sound that we capture still sounds like humans playing. Even if we are making some mistakes, like if the song slows down or a guitar is a little out-of-tune cause it's being strangled really hard, you gotta keep that in! There's parts all over Bloodstone & Diamonds where my voice cracks with emotion, but without it, it just sounded bland. Music when it's done right is about capturing a moment, about making you feel alive, and that's what makes it perfect.
Machine Head keeps a busy pace of writing, recording, touring. Is that a pace you plan to keep up? What's driving you now?
We knew 22 years ago that we were going to have to do things differently as a band. We knew that we were not going to be on the radio, not on MTV, and that we were going to have to tour our asses off so that people could hear our music. We knew it might be a tougher road for a long time, but in the long run it would pay off, because we'd build a foundation by earning every fan one-by-one--the hard way--not as some faceless radio band. We don't have to rely on a radio hit. We don't have to rely on a video hit, and most bands in the mainstream do. We have somehow been able to flirt with the mainstream, yet do everything outside of it, and on our own terms, and I'm really proud of that.
Ok, you're standing in the showroom at Epiphone and President Jim Rosenberg says "Merry Christmas!" --what would you take home? Are there models like the Casino or the Masterbilt line that you might think about incorporating into Machine Head?
Ha! That would rule! But nah man, I'm a Flying-V type-a-dude.