Interview: MACHINE HEAD’s Dave McClain – From Gaga to Dub Step to the heaviest fucking metal Machine Head has made
Away-Team: I’m sitting backstage at Mayhem Fest with Dave McClain from the Bay Area’s Machine Head. Thanks Dave for your patience while we navigated through the ridiculousness that was the venue trying to get the gates open an hour late. Let’s just get right into it shall we?
Dave McClain: Absolutely man, no problem.
Away-Team: Machine Head released The Blackening in 2007 to critical praise. To many, myself included it was the album of the year, and again for myself it was the best album Machine Head has ever put out.
Dave McClain: Awesome, wow! Thank you.
Away-Team: There was a ton of press overseas that embraced you and the album and sang the praise of Machine Head and The Blackening. While the US press didn’t seem to even acknowledge Machine Head even existed. It seemed to me that you guys couldn’t even get arrested here. What is it about Europe and their fans that seem to embrace metal so openly and fully, and yet the states can seem to be bothered with it? What I’m asking is… Is it the fans that feed the media over there or the media embracing the music and opening up the fans to it?
Dave McClain: It’s something you really can’t put your finger on here. You go anywhere else in the world and it’s the same mentality as when we were all kids getting into metal. When I started getting into Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal back then… I think it’s the same thing here now, it’s a sub culture a community of misfits that latched on to this type of music and to this day around the world people simply live for this music. There are so many different things going on in the States to take your time and attention. It is so big over here territory wise that it’s harder to get to everyone or get everyone together for larger shows. Where Germany is the size of Texas and we can spend a week just in Germany hitting thousands and thousands of people, where in Texas there is a lot of empty space between towns and we’re playing to hundreds of people instead. There are so many types of music pushed here in the states and so many of those avenues don’t promote metal, I think Revolver is pretty much the only US magazine that promotes metal. And they are warming up to Machine Head now which is cool. There definitely was a while there in the US before The Blackening even where we couldn’t get any attention at all. We were sitting there like, ‘come on man, we’re right here!’ and they were just, ‘No thanks we’re going to go cover hip hop’ or whatever. So now, Through The Ashes was the record that finally kicked the door in a little and got our foot in. And The Blackening was the one that re-established us. It is getting better here; we are definitely NOT giving up on the US. We’ve never been that band in the US that’s just exploded! It’s always just been a fight for us, and that’s cool to us. Back in the day when gold records mattered we’d still be playing the same size venues as bands that had gold records. But it is coming around again now. Thank god for festivals like this. That are really band friendly and people like John Reese the guy that puts this thing on (John Reese is co-creator of Rockstar Mayhem Fest) loves metal, he tours with the festival, gets the bands together and has theme parties during the tour for the bands. It’s very cool to have the organizer be that involved with the tour and with the bands on that level. And then today with the internet the way it is, any interview you do can go anywhere, be read or heard anywhere in the world now. So that helps a lot in getting the word out about Machine Head.
Away-Team: So to you what is the main difference between US festivals like Mayhem and the European Festivals?
Dave McClain: Well mainly the festivals over there are just like for a weekend, where these are tours. It’s a lot of camping out over there, tent cities and stuff. They’re like the super die hards there. You’ve got some popping up here now like that, like Bonnaroo and Coachella. It’s really just a matter of time I hope before you see Metallica do like a Sonisphere over here you know? Just have a two day festival and do four or five of them around the country. And over there the festivals are pretty diverse music style wise.
Away-Team: You get a little bit of everything in a two day festival there. More of a “Lollapalooza” feel over there.
Dave McClain: Right, exactly. And this, while it is a tour, it’s different. Because for us, well, for the side stage bands, that’s the crowds we’re used to, the kids are flying around, the dirt is flying around, and everything is going crazy. Then you come over here to the main stage and you’re playing to a lot of people that don’t even get here till six o’clock and could give a shit about Machine Head or even Megadeth or Trivium. They’re just here for Godsmack or just Disturbed.
Away-Team: Those would be the people telling me to sit down and shut up as I’m trying to enjoy the show and your set.
Dave McClain: Right! Right. And we’re trying to win them over. And it is a great feeling really, because it’s just as good as having your crowd on the other stages in front of you, as having a new crowd being won over as they start to stand in their seats as our set goes on. We and Trivium have been doing this… and some days you come off the main stage and you’re just like ‘Fuck, man, those people could just give a shit about us.’ But then the days you do win them over, it is like the best feeling in the world.
Away-Team: You are getting ready to release Unto The Locust next month (out September 27th!!!), what can we expect from the new stuff? Is it a progression from The Blackening? Is it a foray into a new Machine Head sound? Have you finally gone Dub Step to get on the radio?
Dave McClain: (laughs), Yeah! That’s it! Really, we just definitely challenged ourselves going into it. We were in no way going to make The Blackening II. From Through The Ashes Of Empires to The Blackening to now, there are the same feelings going on and we’re just pushing them further. The main difference is that we now have total musical freedom; no one is looking over our shoulder. Roadrunner is just like, ‘Just give us the record and we’ll run with it.’ We’ve tried to challenge ourselves as musicians. The first song we wrote called This Is The End, Robb and I got together one day after everyone had taken a couple months off and he’s like, ‘It’s not complete yet, but I’ve got this song here…’ and he goes into this classical guitar thing that he couldn’t really play that well yet because he’d just gotten into the classical guitar thing. Then the song just goes into this super blast beat thrashy thing and we were just, ‘FUCK! It’s the first song and it is already a super hard one to play!’ And that just set the tone for the whole album writing process. On this new album we have the hardest, fastest, most brutal stuff we’ve done. And then we have the song Locust which is middle of the road, like almost a rock song for us with groovin’ beats, it’s just really weird. We’ve got some super dark stuff on there and then some mellow stuff that gets heavier, but over all just super dark theme wise. Robb Flynn went up to New York and started taking classical guitar lessons from this guy at the same time he was taking vocal lessons from Lady Gaga’s vocal coach. It’s all just us trying to push ourselves into a new place.
Away-Team: According to your bio, you are originally from Germany, yet speaking to you, you have no accent.
Dave McClain: Well I was born there; my dad was in the military…
Away-Team: Ah, that explains that…
Dave McClain: Yes, I am not a German. (laughs)
Away-Team: So how did you end up in the Bay Area and in Machine Head?
Dave McClain: I joined Machine Head in the end of 95 and I moved there in January of 96.
Away-Team: I know Machine Head went through something like 3 drummers in one year…
Dave McClain: Yeah, by the time I got to them they were pretty sick of drummers!
Away-Team: They were through playing Spinal Tap?
Dave McClain: Totally! But instead of their drummers dying there were just… ah, never mind, I’m not going there…
Away-Team: Ok, moving on!
Dave McClain: Yeah, moving on (laughs), so I was in a band called Sacred Reich out of Phoenix,
Away-Team: Yes, I am very familiar with Sacred Reich!
Dave McClain: Awesome! So a mutual friend of ours, who worked for Century Media at the time, knew they were looking, so he was helping them find a drummer, and he called Igor from Sepultura who also lived in Phoenix at the time. Igor was like, ‘Call Dave man.’ So Robb called me and at first I said no thanks, I was going to stick it out with Sacred Reich. That day I was laying in my bed and I was like, ‘What am I doing?!?’ Don’t get me wrong, I love Sacred Reich, but they were notoriously kind of lazy, and talking to Robb and only hearing Burn My Eyes once or twice… Just talking to Robb and hearing his passion and determination I was like, ‘What am I doing? These guys are where I’m at we’re like on the same wave length here.’ So I called Robb back and I’m like, ‘Hey man, I thought about it and I really want to do this!’ So he said to come in and audition. So I went out and auditioned, we played the whole Burn My Eyes record a few times and I could tell they were really into it, we were jamming really good. Then they kind of left me hanging as they went through the audition process for another week or so. And they called me up and told me to move out.
Away-Team: You were out on the road with Metallica for like a year, year and a half off and on. What are the pros and cons of supporting the biggest metal band in the world?
Dave McClain: There were definitely way more highs than lows on that tour. When they first asked us we had to tell them no! We’d already committed to doing the Slipknot tour over in Europe. They said, ‘That’s cool, we totally respect that, we’ll be touring for a while so we’ll work something out.’ Then they offered us all these dates and…
Away-Team: Yes, you were basically on the second leg of the Death Magnetic Tour correct?
Dave McClain: Yes, we did the US, Europe and then other countries like Poland and a bunch of little weird countries too. And with them being the not just the biggest metal bands, but being one of the biggest bands on the planet… the way they treat bands is fucking amazing! They are at the point where they just take bands out that they want to take. I mean they didn’t need us. They didn’t need The Sword, or Lamb Of God, they didn’t need Mastodon, but they WANTED us and them. They just take really good care of everyone. Like once a week they’ll take the bands out to a restaurant and just hang, and eat and drink. They took us on their jet for a show and, just made sure we were taken care of while we were out with them. The one thing about opening for them is that everyone in that crowd is there for them. Metallica didn’t need us to open, and the crowd didn’t fucking care that we were there (laughs)!
Away-Team: I can totally see that here in the states than Europe because they tend to be much more open minded musically there…
Dave McClain: Yeah, but still you get the Metallica die hards that follow, literally follows them around, go to multiple shows and it was hard. We were on the stage in the round and all the people on the floor are like fan club people and die hard Metallica fans, just rabid fans and you end up playing to the people way up in the stands that are actually into you. And you have those same nights where you’re, ‘Fuck man, we just couldn’t get it going tonight!’ It’s just very frustrating, then other times you have the crowd and it’s just killer. You don’t have them like Metallica has them, but you have a part of them. Probably THE best show we did on that whole thing was in Paris and it was like that was our crowd, everyone in the crowd was into us and they were all singing along like it was our own show, our own crowd.
Away-Team: Is that the show that Metallica released a DVD of?
Dave McClain: No, this was a different show. As amazing as that set was for us, when Metallica came on it was like being on a movie set and the director is like, ‘I want everyone to act as crazy as you have ever been!’ and yells action as they take the stage (laughs).
Away-Team: 2002 was a rough year for you guys; you had just released Supercharger and a video a few weeks after September 11th, 2001 that depicted falling buildings. It seemed everyone even your label stood against you and pulled the plug on the band. You negotiated out of your contract with Roadrunner. How close where you guys in the band to pulling your own plug?
Dave McClain: We were real close man. It was a super bad time and we were just so pissed off about everything that had happened. We weren’t working the record and we just felt like we were at an end, with Roadrunner and with the band. But after Roadrunner, we went out to test the waters with other people that had always been there for the band in the past, ‘you know, anytime you need anything, we’re here for you.’ Well we needed something, and nobody was there for us. They all disappeared. ‘Well we’re here now, you know?’ ‘Oh, yeah, well… ya know? Um…. ‘
Away-Team: ‘Had you come to us six months ago…’
Dave McClain: Right! ‘Who’s this? Prank call! Prank call!’ (laughs) I told our guitarist at the time, to basically leave the band. He was wanting to do a side project, and having us stick around funding his side project so I was like, run, go, do it, get out. It was bleak man. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to do it anymore; it was that we had no avenues TO do it anymore. So we started writing a couple of songs. Just trying to do something. And it was pure shit. It was bad. And it WAS fucking shit, and it felt horrible. We had a band meeting and I told the guys, ‘You know this fucking sucks. This is shit; this isn’t why I play music. And if we’re a heavy metal band, and we’re going to write an album. Let’s write the heaviest shit man. Let’s just write for ourselves. Let’s just take all this and put it into writing.‘ And that became Through The Ashes…
Away-Team: Which explains all the piss and venom in it…
Dave McClain: Yeah! It was definitely an angry and a dark record but Roadrunner UK never wanted to let us go, and they were still there quietly supporting us, and it turned out to be a great thing, it turned out to be more of a licensing thing for us which at the time was great. We were about to sign a deal with an American label for the US and Roadrunner US came up and came to us and said, ‘We want to be a part of this again!’ It made us all real happy, because it was a clean slate at that point.
Away-Team: Well at that point, with that album in the can ready to go, you kind of have them over a barrel, and you can say, ‘Well you want us? Here’s what it is going to take to get us back!’
Dave McClain: Yeah, but more than that, there were people there genuinely behind us again. There were people that cared about us and about the band. For us we never wanted to leave in the first place, we just wanted things to be right you know? And since then everything has been great. Not that we don’t go back and forth with Roadrunner on some things, but its constructive, it’s a good thing.
Away-Team: Great! So once Mayhem is done, what does Machine Head have on its plate? You’ve got Unto The Locust coming out in September, what are the current tour plans for that?
Dave McClain: We’ve got a month off after Mayhem. We headline the Soundwave Revolution metal stage.
Dave McClain: Yeah, it is. It’ll be awesome, and we’ll get to see Van Halen! (laughs) We’re just as excited about seeing them play every day as we are to headline the metal stage! Then we’re doing our first headline run of South America since I’ve been in the band. We’ve got Sepultura there for the shows which is awesome. And then a headlining run of Europe with Bring Me The Horizon, DevilDriver, and Darkest Hour. First quarter of next year our main priority is doing a headline run here in the states.
Away-Team: You guys are definitely due.
Dave McClain: Yes, it’s been over four years we are so ready for it.
Away-Team: Well congratulations, and good luck on the new album, I can’t wait to hear it! And hopefully we’ll get to see you in 2012 in a theater or large venue around here soon! Thanks again Dave!
Dave McClain: Thanks! See you soon!
There is a long list of people to thank for making this and all of our Mayhem Fest interviews happen, so, forgive me if I forgot anyone, but thanks to Lilly at Roadrunner, Bill at eOne Music, Rikki, Natalie, and Jessica at Adrenaline, and Laura Jean with Mayhem.