Phil Demmel is more than just MACHINE HEAD’s lead guitarist; he also writes lyrics for many of the band’s songs. Even the concept of the locust was inspired by an idea he had, which he explains in the CD/DVD Special Edition, released on the 24th of October in the UK. In the conversation below he discusses songwriting, having Robb Flynn produce the band’s albums, live performance and much more.
There’s a lot of religious imagery in the lyrics on this album. Are you personally devout, or is religion just a good source of metaphors?
Personally, I was raised a Christian in a Christian household, but over time I developed my own faith and am pretty devout in that. It’s Christian-derived, with a lot of the same ideals. But the lyrics that I contributed on this record were pretty much – the locust concept was mine, using that as a metaphor more…not really the Biblical plague, but more in the sense of somebody who kinda flies into your life and brings all this destruction by coming under the disguise of something else, and they lie to you, they rob you of all your resources, basically. And once they’re discovered, they just fly away. I’m a pretty spiritual guy and definitely wear my emotions on my sleeve, so there’s a few songs on this record that still get me to well up every time I hear certain phrases – “Be Still and Know” is a Bible verse handed down to me from my grandma, it’s Psalm 46. She had about 15, 20 grandkids and each of ’em had their own Bible verse. This was mine. And basically it’s saying just to be steadfast, be patient and everything’ll be okay.
Some of the lyrics are co-credited to you and Robb. Do you sit down and go back and forth, line by line, or do you exchange ideas by email – how do you work?
Well, on the song “I Am Hell,” I had the concept of a pyromaniac, an arsonist, who’s writing in his journal about discovering the sickness that’s taking him, and Robb had the music and the title for a song called “I Am Hell,” so I emailed him a couple of verses and kinda what I was going for, and he said that it would work. So from there we’d kinda sit down – before he would go in and sing, I’d come to the studio and we’d sit down on the couch and throw ideas back and forth to each other, just phrases and words that sound cool and stuff like that. We’d bounce off each other that way and as songs came up – as we worked on “Locust” and worked on “Be Still and Know” – it just worked. We had a good vibe. We have different writing styles; I’m really descriptive in my writing, but Robb likes to write in the first person, I, you, me, and I’m more about describing situations without using those pronouns. So it’s a good mix.
He also produced the CD. What does that entail, since he’s also a member of the band? Does he order you guys around?
Well, if anybody knows what Machine Head should sound like, it’s Robb. So I love having him in the producer’s chair. He’s got the best vision of what this band should sound like or will, he’s got a great ear for notes and tones, and I think we’d all prefer to have him there instead of some outsider that comes in and says, “Well, what about this?” Robb gets good ideas from outside sources, but he eats, sweats, shits and breathes this band 24 hours a day. He does tell us what to do, but he mostly suggests it. “Hey, how about we try this,” and if we have ideas, he’s open to trying them. Ultimately, at the end of the day, if he wants something done, it’s probably gonna get done that way, and we’ve learned to kind of trust him on that, kinda lean on him in that regard.
Now that the new album is out, how many songs are going to make it into the live set right away?
Well, we’re off to South America in a few weeks, and we’ve been practicing all of them. So I think immediately…four, maybe five. It depends on as our sets get longer and Robb gets used to singing. We’ve been off for a little bit, so…we’re pushing the new record. We’re pushing the past three records. Current Machine Head as an incarnation. This is the band now, how we are, so we’re really pushing the new material. And it’s fun to play those songs. We did a three-year touring cycle on The Blackening, so we’re ready to play these new songs.
Some of them are going to require tapes and stuff to execute live, like “I Am Hell” and “Who We Are.” Do you ever record things thinking they’re going to be album-only?
Well, we have played every song off the past two records live, so we always go into it trying to be able to reproduce what we can live. Of course, the beginning of “I Am Hell,” there’s like 16 tracks of Robb singing, so we’re not gonna be able to duplicate that and we’ll probably roll the tape. And probably the intro of “Who We Are” we’ll roll a tape for, with the kids singing and stuff. Probably the intro of “This is the End” with the classical guitar piece, we’ll roll it there. As we’re growing as a band and recording stuff, we’re pushing ourselves, so I think we’ve reached that point where, yeah, we’re gonna have to play a tape. I mean, Robb has really gone out and done a lot of vocal stuff on this record that we haven’t done before, so we’re like, “There’s five parts here, we have three voices, what are we gonna do?”
The song “This is the End” kind of sounds like a metalcore song. Do you listen to younger bands much, and are you inspired by what you hear, or are you disappointed by what’s out there, as a fan?
There’s not a lot of new bands that I really listen to consistently. Unearth’s a band that I’ll listen to, Trivium’s a band I’ll listen to, Killswitch and the new Times of Grace record’s really good. But yeah, we’re influenced by stuff like that. Those guys are all great musicians, so we kinda take something away from that. We’re a band that’s always evolving. We’re always trying new things and listening to current stuff. That’s something that’s necessary. But I think that you’ll hear just as much Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, early Metallica and some Slayer on this record as well. We draw from our influences all across the board.
What are the biggest differences between you and Robb as guitarists, and how does that impact songwriting?
The biggest differences – well, Robb’s an amazing player. I admire the shit out of his playing and his ethic. He’s got better timing than I do, he’s got a stronger right hand than I do, he’s a stronger rhythm player than I am…I think we complement each other writing-wise. We come from similar places but they meld together well where they’re different. We write with different harmonies in mind. He writes this brutal, off-time stuff, I’m not really into the math-metal side and have a hard time grasping some of the harder time signature stuff. Robb’s a mean guitar player. He plays all the rhythm tracks on the record, and I’m kinda here just to complement what he’s doing. I’m the main lead player, and I wouldn’t say I’m a better lead player than him, I just think that’s the role I’m fitting in is playing the main leads, but we’re pretty even across the board. I complement Robb’s playing. This is Robb’s band, and in my songwriting and in my playing it’s a complement to him.
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