Mad Max

Metal dad Max Cavalera rocks the thrash scene and his Phoenix neighborhood

"Destroy 'em down! Destroy 'em all! Downstroy!"

It's a chilly Easter Sunday night in Vancouver. Max Cavalera and his band Soulfly are onstage churning out a massive wall of heavy metal thunder that, if not exactly powerful enough to raise the dead, is certainly packing enough punch to roll away a few stones.

Head-banging in time to the gut-busting thrash of songs like "Bleed," "Eye for an Eye" and "Seek 'N Strike," the 33-year-old Brazilian-born guitarist, who many hard-rock fans consider the top player right now in what's being dubbed "nu-metal," whips his long, dreadlocked braids up and down as if a torrent of serpents have taken hold of his head.

Danny Otto
"A lot of guys in this kind of music hide  their family," Cavalera says. "With me,  it's just the opposite."
Danny Otto
"A lot of guys in this kind of music hide their family," Cavalera says. "With me, it's just the opposite."
Danny Otto
"I understand why people have trouble putting our message and our image together," Cavalera says.
Danny Otto
"I understand why people have trouble putting our message and our image together," Cavalera says.
The main man of world metal: "I can sit down with the jazz guys, or jam with an Aboriginal didgeridoo player."
The main man of world metal: "I can sit down with the jazz guys, or jam with an Aboriginal didgeridoo player."

As the last wail of feedback fades beneath the thunderous applause of the frenzied crowd, Cavalera and his band -- bassist Marcelo Dias, guitarist Mikey Doling and drummer Roy Mayorga -- stomp off the stage while a sea of suspended Bics beg the beloved metal beasts for one more encore.

But Cavalera already has something more pressing on his mind than rocking the crowd one more time or even partying with the attendant groupies, fans and celebrity friends jostling for his attention. Rushing to the arms of his ever-present wife and manager Gloria, Cavalera grabs the cell phone and leans in to hear the news Gloria's been dying to tell him since she first flashed Max a concerned look midway through his set.

The fans, the stars, the press and the record company honchos can wait, Cavalera motions, as he waves them all away and searches frantically for a relatively quiet space to talk on the phone. Cavalera's 8-year-old son Igor has fallen off the monkey bars.

"Max always calls Igor and [10-year-old] Zyon after the shows, if it's not too late," Gloria says. "But that night, he was so worried because we heard during the show that Igor had fallen off the monkey bars at Roadrunner Park and had broken his arm. So he told Igor to save a space on his cast for Max to draw a picture on. He's a really good artist -- he's always drawing these really scary monsters and things with the kids. They call it picture time.' And we flew the kids in to meet us in Minneapolis a few days later and Max drew this big, flailing monster on Igor's cast, with flames coming out and everything. The whole cast was bright orange when he got done with it. And Igor loved it!"

To millions of metalheads worldwide, Cavalera may be Mad Max, the hardest man in nu-metal. But to his and Gloria's tight-knit brood of six kids in north Phoenix, he's just a big, dreadlocked Dick Van Patten.


All the kids love the Cavaleras," smiles Tom Huffman, assistant principal at Shadow Mountain High School. "It's just some of the teachers and parents who've had a difficult time adjusting to them."

It's an early Thursday morning at the busy north Phoenix high school, and Huffman has just emerged from a meeting with the second assistant principal about a certain disciplinary incident he seems eager to clear his mind of. With 1,900 students to keep tabs on, Huffman admits it's not easy getting to know all of the families in this primarily upscale, off-Paradise Valley community. "We have a lot of attorney-type parents in this area," he says. "I don't know if there's a club that they all belong to or what, but whenever I get to meet new parents and ask them what they do, attorney' always seems to be the occupation."

But Gloria and Max Cavalera are one couple who definitely stand out at the PTA meetings. Max, who's lived in this area for 10 years, is the guitarist who founded Sepultura, one of the biggest names in the international thrash-metal scene, and who now fronts Soulfly, another equally bludgeoning quartet but with a more eclectic, world-music approach. His wife, the former Gloria Bujnowski, is a diehard metal fan who began managing and promoting bands around the Valley more than 20 years ago and now manages Soulfly.

Together, the two project an image of head-banging hedonism that school officials traditionally try to keep locked outside the gates. "It's been an adjustment," Huffman says, "because when you're trying to run a school and be responsible, you're always kind of wary of anything having to do with the heavy metal scene. It's a different influence than what we're normally trying to provide to the kids."

Nevertheless, the Cavaleras have been two of the more involved -- and most popular -- parents in the school community for more than a decade. Two of the couple's four boys currently attend Shadow Mountain, a daughter, Roxanne, graduated last year, and Gloria's oldest son Dana, who died tragically in a car accident in 1996, has become a kind of local legend. A commemorative brick on one of the school's walls -- the largest plaque in a group of dedications -- reads simply, "In Loving Memory of Our Son, Dana Wells -- Max, Gloria and Family." In recent years, Max has also donated some of his own guitars to the music department, and Gloria has spoken on career day to aspiring metal managers. In the liner notes of the latest Soulfly CD, Shadow Mountain, the neighboring Shea Middle School and the nearby Larkspur Elementary -- schools that have all seen the Cavaleras' children ascend through their grades -- are each given a shout-out on the same page with Slipknot, Motörhead, and Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne.

Indeed, Gloria and Max have become kind of the Sharon and Ozzy of Shadow Mountain. "We even had them as the grand marshals in last year's homecoming parade," Huffman recalls. "Right alongside [Mayor] Skip Rimsza. And they dressed the part of their jobs: Max was dressed in all the heavy metal gear, just like he dresses onstage. And Gloria was dressed in a kind of slinky black gown, kind of revealing, with all the tattoos and the green hair." For 10 years, Gloria kept her hair dyed a wild shade of green -- until its manufacturer finally took her shade off the market for potentially causing blindness in users.

Huffman was somewhat relieved later when the now-49-year-old Gloria showed up to speak to the Career Decisions class in considerably more conservative attire. "When the teachers requested her as a speaker, I said, Have you met her?' And they said, No.' Fortunately, she came in a very professional business suit."

Huffman chuckles at the memory. "Of course, there was still the green hair," he says.


While it's not always easy to hear that children-first PTA influence buried beneath the ferocious din of Cavalera's guitar, Soulfly's songs clearly address concerns on a more positive tip than most of today's self-loathing, revenge-bent metal. Faith, hope and unity are big themes in Cavalera's songs, and the CD jacket for Soulfly's latest release, 3, even includes a timely prayer to Saint Michael to "defend us in the day of battle."

"I understand why people have trouble putting our message and our image together," says Cavalera, taking a break on his tour bus traveling from Boston to Baltimore. "Especially when they see us live, it's so aggressive, so intense. I think people's first reaction when they see us is, Those guys are all crazy!' But when you go under the surface of our music and you see the lyrics, our message is actually very positive. Our songs are not about dragons or Satan or Hell. They're about life, about spirituality, and about positive messages that really connect people."

Of course, there's also the occasional f-word, too -- when you're competing against Disturbed, Mudvayne and Slipknot, you can't be Carlos Santana all the time. But Cavalera deliberately goes out of his way to provide a lyric sheet in his CDs that you can bring home to mother.

"Some fans have told me that the best way to convince their moms to be cool with the music they listen to is to show them some of Soulfly's lyrics -- before they hear the music," he says in a gentle Brazilian accent that's somehow obliterated in the bone-rattling growl Cavalera uses on record and on stage. "And that usually works. They see our songs are not about suicide or going out and killing someone, so they don't mind their kids listening to it."

Selling the Cavaleras' unconventional family values to the neighborhood has been a little tricky as well. Even before Gloria met Max, her habit of dressing up the little ones in bondage belts and slasher movie tee shirts often met with plenty of concerned frowns from the attorney types. Following a sweet 16 party for her oldest daughter back in 1988 that featured six major-league thrash bands and a ton of leather-skirted teens creating a mosh pit in her living room, Gloria recalls she found plenty of nasty notes on her car.

She never relented in her rock 'n' roll ways, however, finally marrying Cavalera 10 years ago and welcoming the Brazilian wild man into her community. Since then, the decibels have only increased around the Cavalera home: Metal pals like Metallica's Jason Newsted and Megadeth's Marty Friedman have dropped by to jam, and oldest son Ritchie now has his own band to add to the din.

Oddly enough, it's the community surrounding the Cavaleras that's bent more in their slightly twisted direction, rather than the other way around. Assistant principal Huffman says the Shadow Mountain area has become a veritable hotbed for aspiring rock bands. "We put on a fund-raising concert every spring called Shadowstock," he says. "And last year we had trouble limiting it to 12 bands. There really is a big band scene around here now."

Not surprisingly, young metalheads tend to flock around the Cavalera clan. "There is a big family vibe around them, even bigger than their own family," says Matt Strangwayes of the Phoenix band Greenhaven, who also occasionally works with Friedman in the Ramones tribute band Rocket to Russia. "There's a whole bunch of kids. Plus, you gotta consider that he comes from Brazil, where they don't have the limitations of the typical American family unit. There's that whole tribe' thing, you know."

Occasionally that openness surrounding the family has created problems. Gloria agrees that sometimes Max's fans can try to get a little too close. "We've had stalkers around Igor's and Zyon's school," she says. "We even had a guy living in our backyard for a year that we didn't even know about!"

Sometimes that openness surrounding the family has created problems. When Gloria's son Dana was killed in a car crash that some still claim resulted from the popular 17-year-old's association with two boys who were being chased by wanna-be gang members, some of Dana's classmates said he never would have been put in that dangerous situation if only he'd been able to avoid the "fake friends" who tended to follow him around merely to get closer to the rock 'n' roll scene.

Cavalera still burns from the loss of his beloved stepson -- the longest track on 3, "Tree of Pain," is dedicated to Dana, and the band's name itself stems from a lyric Cavalera contributed to a Deftones song likening Dana's lingering presence in his life to a soul flying around him.

But that doesn't mean he's closed his door to well-meaning hangers-on. "My fans are so hard-core and so loyal, they feel like part of my family sometimes," Cavalera says. "When I meet them outside the bus, it's like I'm talking to someone that I've known for a long time. So there's a big connection between me, my family and the fans."



Max Cavalera has never met Alice Cooper, though he acknowledges a certain kinship with the superstar shock-rocker who's mellowed in the Phoenix sun into a respectable business owner. He ran into Judas Priest front man Rob Halford back when he was spending more time around his Phoenix home, and sometimes Cavalera still sees Newsted, who used to sleep on the floor of his wife's club back in Gloria's bar-running days.

Why so many current and former hard rockers gravitate toward the suburban sprawl of the Valley is a mystery that's confounded metal fans for years. How can music so intense come from guys who just can't resist taking in an occasional 18 holes on those calming 80-degree winter days?

Cavalera says he simply enjoys the feeling of relative isolation here that you can't find in music-biz centers like L.A. "I think writing and recording here helps make the music more different, too," he says. "Because I'm out of that environment where everybody's trying to make the same sounds to have a hit record."

Strangwayes thinks the melting-pot makeup of the Valley suburbs makes nonconformists like Max feel at home. "You can kind of be who you want to be here, which is great for guys like him. Plus, there's always been a hard music subculture here that's stayed strong." The slower-paced lifestyle of the Valley suburbs, Strangwayes feels, simultaneously creates a craving in teens for excitement and gives the makers of that music a less-hurried environment to craft it in.

Danny Zelisko, the veteran Phoenix concert promoter who now heads up the local division of Clear Channel Communications, says rockers are attracted to the Valley for the same reasons most of its ever-expanding population is. "The mountains, the weather -- I mean, there's not much to complain about here," says Zelisko, who moved to Phoenix from Chicago in 1973. But Zelisko, who says there are even more rock stars who'd like to live in Phoenix that haven't yet made the move ("Eric Clapton loves it here; so does Sting"), believes creative people appreciate the natural beauty of the Valley more than most of the regular Joes who settle here for the lower cost of living.

"This place has a special magnetism that attracts creative people," he insists. "People who are maybe a little deeper than the guys with regular 9-to-5 occupations really get the special vibe that exists here. To them, it really stands out."


When Max Cavalera and his brother Igor first went into a recording studio in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, to record what would become Sepultura's debut album, the engineers, who were used to recording only samba and bossa nova rhythms, thought the brothers and their band were crazy.

"They thought we were lunatics," Cavalera says, laughing. "Like we had no idea of the real world. But we knew people outside of Brazil would like it, because we had heard Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath records from these neighborhood guys who were into American records."

Nearly 20 years later, Cavalera is now determined to bring some of the outside world to heavy metal. "Being from another culture and living in America for 10 years has taught me a lot," he says. "And now I want to bring world music into metal."

Although the first thing to assault your ears on a Soulfly record is the combined bombast of guitar, drum and bass and Cavalera's pulverizing howl, a closer listen reveals traces of South African percussion, Brazilian berimbau and even the occasional lyric in Portuguese.

"What people end up loving about Soulfly is the 40 different instruments that show up on the album, the world music influence that comes across -- the things that they don't hear on a Metallica record," Cavalera says.

In a genre where so much of what's successful for a pioneer band is immediately aped by less-creative knockoffs, Cavalera admits he's yet to hear of any metal acts following his lead as the Paul Simon of thrash.

"Most bands don't want to get their hands into it," he feels. "World music is scary to most metal heads. They think if they get caught playing something beautiful or melodic, their career's over.

"But I'm not afraid of it at all," Cavalera insists. "I can sit down with the jazz guys, or jam with an Aboriginal didgeridoo player. It's all about feeling, about the heart of the music. A lot of bands are afraid to leave the formula of metal -- what sells, what everybody's comfortable with. My attitude is, I want to play with even more different cultures. Morocco, east Africa. The weirder the combinations, the better."

Cavalera says he makes a point of seeking out indigenous musicians in all the various countries Soulfly plays, and he finds the average Third World percussionist is often just as eager to branch out in his direction.

"A lot of these musicians are older guys who don't know what to make of metal at first," he says. "But once they can see that I'm not scary, that I'm not freaked out, they actually get so motivated. They're like, Wow, I never played with a metal band before! This is so cool.' The didgeridoo guy from Australia was like, This is so awesome to jam with you guys!' It was probably the first time he got to say awesome'!"

For Gloria, who, as Max's manager, always manages to work his album releases and tours around the family schedule ("My oldest daughter is getting married in March, so I know that in March, we're gonna be home!"), her husband's passion for world travel has worked into a series of unbeatable educational experiences for the kids.

"We fly the kids out all the time," she says. "And the schools are really cool about it. But I don't waste their absences. When we went to Australia and Japan, we did all the museums, we went to the opera house, took in the zoos -- everything possible. They've been to Poland, when the Communists had just freed it and the police were beating up the kids at the show, and they've gone back now, when visiting Warsaw is just like going to New York City. They've seen that change. I mean, my kids have been to more countries than the president. They know everything about changing money, about different weights, different foods, different languages.

"But that's because we try to make it an educational experience," she adds. "Instead of just toting them along in the rock 'n' roll band atmosphere."


It's shortly before band class at Larkspur Elementary, and Ms. Hanley, the music teacher, leads her little musicians through a reminder drill about the upcoming band concert.

"What day is the concert?" she asks. "May 23rd!" shout back the students. "What time does it start?" "Seven p.m.!" There's excitement and also a little nervousness on some of the young faces. A few of them have high expectations for their performance. Two of their schoolmates, after all -- little Igor and Zyon -- have already appeared on a top-selling heavy metal CD.

Up the way at Shadow Mountain, assistant principal Huffman has heard the musical talents of Igor and Zyon's oldest brother Ritchie. "He does more screaming than singing," Huffman confides. Still, Richard Cavalera is probably the only senior who's sung at Ozzfest.

"He sang Bleed' onstage with Fred Durst when he was just 13," Gloria remembers with a laugh. "He even got a Mohawk the day before the show. I was so proud!"

Papa Cavalera admits his penchant for involving his kids in his music is not a trait shared by many in his particular brand of rock.

"A lot of guys in this kind of music hide their family," he says. "They don't think that's cool. With me, it's just the opposite. I think that's very cool. A lot of the ideas that I come up with come from interacting with them. And they help me come up with ideas that I wouldn't have thought of if I was just working as a musician isolated from my kids."

It's an all-in-the-family approach that has influenced not only Cavalera's music but also the community he lives in. By staying true to their wild roots while giving the neighborhood PTA moms a run for their money in the family commitment area, the Cavaleras have created an offbeat parenting model that others in the old-moneyed Shadow Mountain sprawl have come to accept, if not emulate themselves.

"We've got a more diverse mix of family types here than we used to," admits Huffman. "There's still a lot of attorneys, but I'm starting to see a more interesting mix. The Cavaleras are a little further out there than most, but people are finding they're not that different in the basic ways."

Laurie Ciesla, the secretary at Larkspur Elementary, agrees -- no matter how much Gloria and Max stand out at the DARE graduation ceremonies.

"They're good people," she says, smiling.

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