Machine Head’s Robb Flynn Doesn’t See Return to ‘Normal’ for Four Years
Machine Head's Robb Flynn was the latest guest on Full Metal Jackie's weekend radio program. Despite the inability to tour, the guitarist / vocalist has remained awfully busy, having released the Civil Unrest dual single as well as hosting weekly happy hour-styled acoustic performances.
In the interview below, Flynn details his experience with the hostile social climate in America and his reactions to the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery by civilians as well as the video of George Floyd's death in police custody, which prompted protests against police brutality not just in America, but worldwide.
As artists around the globe contemplate how to keep things moving with touring off the table, Flynn expressed what he deems is an unpopular opinion in that he doesn't foresee a return to a pre-pandemic "normal" for upward of four years, in part because of expected waves of infections as well as the public's general fear of resuming regular activity once the pandemic has subsided.
You've been keeping busy. Let's start off with the acoustic happy hour performances that you do. You cover a wide range of music in minimalist fashion. In what ways is that making you a more versatile musician?
It's been super fun. I started doing it at the beginning of the pandemic in March. I think that was the week after we got locked down, I did my first one. If you go back and look at all the first ones, they were pretty bad and I was still trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. I got into a groove about a month into it.
It's probably a challenge that I never would have put myself up to had the pandemic not struck. We play acoustic songs here and there in Machine Head, but to play a whole two hour set once a week... I'm trying to learn three new songs every single week, so that the set list is constantly different.
Right now I've got a repertoire of about almost 60 songs that I'm pulling from each week. About two months ago, I got really tired of missing a couple of notes on some of the songs that I loved. I called up my old singing teacher, Melissa Cross, and I was like, "Hey, I need to wrap my head around singing to acoustic [guitar] — just me and an acoustic guitar, nothing else; it's totally raw with no effects on anything.
People are very used to hearing produced, finished products now, and this is just kind of like a raw punk rock thing. It's really fun and very spontaneous. I take cover requests and do it on Facebook Live. There's all kinds of people talking and asking for songs, so after all this time, I, for the first time in a decade, am taking singing lessons again to just improve myself for this.
I figured if we're going to be not touring and locked in for all the next bit of time, I might as well work on improving myself.
Let's talk about the new Civil Unrest singles. It's a reaction to the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmad Arbery. What horrifies you most about social inequality still being so rampant in this country?
That's a good question. I've been singing about this stuff for 28 years — my whole career — and, it just doesn't seem to change and whatever little changes that we do make, don't really stick.
I wasn't home on Memorial day. I went out and I didn't see the actual George Floyd murder until two days later. I literally just vomited out lyrics after watching that entire eight minute and 46 seconds of video. I had already written a bunch of lyrics right after the murder of Ahmad Arbery just a couple of weeks before at the hands of white supremacists, and I had been speaking with Jesse [Leach] from Killswitch Engage. We had actually been talking about collaborating on that particular song, which I recorded (musically) about a year before.
Machine Head, "Stop the Bleeding" Feat. Killswitch Engage's Jesse Leach
I drove past a bunch of protests and demonstrations that were already happening here in Oakland, and I just sang every word. I just spit out every bit of venom that I had and what you hear is me singing that day, the day that I wrote the lyrics. The day that I saw the video, I texted the lyrics to Jesse, and I was like, "Dude, I just wrote these, how do you feel about singing on it?" I immediately got back. "I'm all in. 100 percent. Yeah, let's do this."
He sang it a couple of days later and we mixed it. Within two days we had it up on all the digital servers because I really felt it was important to have a song that was singing about stuff that happened in June, 2020 out in June, 2020.
You've never shied away from calling attention to injustice in your songs, lyrically. Who are your greatest role models in terms of using music for activism?
I don't know if I ever look at it as activism, but the band that started it off for me, which I felt kind of laid the groundwork for what I consider to be a protest songs, is Black Sabbath and "War Pigs." To me, that is the greatest protest song ever written.
Granted it's cloaked in Satanic overtones that make it a little more cool in that way, but they were singing out against the Vietnam War. That whole Paranoid record, so many songs are just standing up against that stuff. It happens on many of the songs in their career, but especially the second, third and fourth records, there was a lot of standing up to what they felt was wrong with the times.
I grew up in the Bay Area in the golden era of the thrash scene. I saw Metallica opening for Raven at a 250 person club. I grew up with punk rock and Dead Kennedys and early Metallica. James Hetfield was onstage at that show where they opened for Raven to 250 people wearing a shirt that had an upside down cross. And then it said Ronald (six) Wilson (six), Reagan (six) — Ronald Wilson Reagan and 6-6-6 outside the cross I was like, yeah — F-Reagan, F-yeah.
That had such a powerful impact, especially songs like "Ride the Lightning," certainly the song, "Disposable Heroes" I think even all the way up to the ...And Justice For All and certainly by the time the '90s came around with bands such as Rage Against the Machine. A lot of rap that I was listening to — N.W.A., Public Enemy, Ice-T — it was very angry and very pissed off and violently opposed to police abuse and police authority.
Especially to my teenage mind, it had a huge effect,
Machine Head always seems to be a whirlwind of activity. What's been the biggest benefit to being forced to curtail much of your typical routine?
With the acoustic happy hours, it's a happy hour — I play for two hours, I drink beer. I get everybody to drink and hang out, so that has really has given me a great focus and it's fun. really look forward to them and I know our fans really look forward to them because it's like a party.
Robb Flynn, Acoustic Happy Hour — Aug. 14, 2020
It sucks that all the touring got canceled. We had to cancel our tour and what the future holds for the rescheduled tour dates that we have coming up, I have no idea.
In a lot of ways, if I'm not on the road, I'm just working from home and so in that respect, my life isn't that different. The money is getting a little tight right now and in probably about four months I might be applying for a job at Starbucks, but for now we're doing okay. We're just seeing what happens.
Like everybody, we were just so completely sideswiped by everything that happened and are just trying to make sense of it in a world that is literally going crazy. Certainly here in America it is just going crazy.
The concert industry has been decimated by the pandemic. Looking ahead, what positive innovation do you think can come from recalibrating? The way concerts are staged after the shutdown?
I really can't wait until the day then when we can all get a Machine Head show — it is like a religious experience. It's so much of a community — the crowd singing along — it's such a big part of the show.
I talked to people in the industry and many of the venues are talking about opening up and they're only going to be able to be 25 percent capacity. And I'm like 25 percent? That sucks. Everybody mashed up against each other and sweating on each other in a single row. That connection of people that makes it so much fun.
Machine Head, "Bulletproof"
I've been saying this for a while and I said it back in March and it didn't get a very welcome response from the people at large, but I know a lot of people appreciate my honesty about it now. This [coronavirus] is going to go on for two to probably four years. I don't think it's going to be back to normal, whatever that is for at least four years.
I think it's going to be very much like the Spanish flu of 1918, where it went on for a couple years and it is going to come in waves and then it's going to die down and another wave is going to come. By the time everybody's done with it, we're all going to be so shell-shocked and probably financially devastated that it's going to take what happened in 1918 where it took another two years for people to just feel safe to go back out.
We're in for a long haul. I know that that's not what people want to hear. People want to hear that it's going to be back to normal by March of next year. If anything, for me, just the way that my mind works, knowing that touring is off the table for that long actually puts me more at ease. It puts my mind more at ease, like, "Okay, I've got to really figure out something to navigate this as a band and as the band leader — me and my guys have got to figure out ways to get around this because there's just no way that people are going to be able to coagulate in groups that make sense for promoters to make money for venues to make money for bands to make money."
It is expensive to tour. Nobody realizes how expensive it is to tour. Tickets for metal shows have been relatively unchanged for almost 15 years. I don't know what the answer is, but it's certainly not going to be raising the prices on what is traditionally a very blue collar, working class fan base. There's a lot to figure out still and we're just gonna have to get through it and see where we end up.
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