At first glance, the band Sepultura looks to fit that bill--menacing stares, spooky tattoos, long, raven curls. The cover of its last album, Arise, was a cross between the Tower of Babel and the creature from the Alien films. Although its assaultive music fits squarely into the Slayer-Metallica-Mot”rhead axis of volume n' speed thrash, Sepultura is not your average turn-it-up, gore-and-grind death-metal band.
First, it is the only Brazilian metal act of any kind to achieve international notoriety. According to its record label, Arise is one of the largest-selling death-metal albums of all time. Sepultura achieved this fame in spite a huge language barrier. To break into the Anglo-American-dominated record business, this group of Portuguese-speaking mosh men had to learn to write and sing in English.
And while the group's music is standard, machine-gun-tempo mayhem, its lyrics talk about something other than necrophilia, cannibalism and the other depravities. Unlikely as it may seem, this is a metal band whose members say they're concerned with social injustice and ignorance. Although some of its sensitivity can be written off as PC posturing, Sepultura is at least thinking about something other than making noise and being buddies with Beelzebub. While lines like "Land of anger/I didn't ask to be born/Sadness, sorrow/Everything so alone" (from "Dead Embryonic Cells"), or "Confused leaders behind our backs/Stifling our ideas/Misunderstand signs of progress/Minds of time regress" (from "Subtraction") aren't exactly Dylan, they ain't Cannibal Corpse, either.
Although its name--which is Portuguese for "grave" and was taken from the Mot”rhead song "Dancing on Your Grave"--screams death metal, Sepultura really deals in hate metal. Instead of castles, demons and corpses, this band loves to attack organized religion and repressive government--in its view, the twin evils of its native Brazil.
All this from a band whose oldest member is 24, and which has recently transplanted to Phoenix. For how long is anyone's guess.
At the group's rehearsal room in South Phoenix--located in an Argo warehouse, a few doors from where Sacred Reich practices--the vibe is that of a family. Inside the cavernous space, empty beer cans are piled in two corner trash cans. Like spoils of war, the walls are covered in billboard-size posters from tour stops in Indonesia and Germany. Several of the custom black-and-gold backdrops the band brings on tours and a Brazilian flag complete the decoration.
The floor of the room is empty save for two ripped, gold Naugahyde couches that face the band's stage set. Metal grating surrounds a raised drum platform. On either side of the drums is the band's pride and joy--two stacks of vintage Marshall speaker boxes, just like its heroes Deep Purple and Black Sabbath used to have. The group says that much of the money it's made from touring and albums has been spent on equipment. In Brazil, this kind of gear is priceless.
The four band members--front man Max Cavalera, guitarist Andreas Kisser, Max's younger brother Igor Cavalera (drums) and Paulo Jr. (bass)--moved to Phoenix in January.
On January 19 at Humana Desert Valley Hospital in Paradise Valley, Max Cavalera and girlfriend-manager Gloria Bujnowski had a son, Zyon. The newborn has become a regular fixture at the band's thundering rehearsals. Lead screamer Max Cavalera is even showing signs, albeit metallic ones, of becoming a doting father. A direct-to-DAT recording that Cavalera made of Zyon's heartbeat may appear on the band's next album. In true metal-band fashion, this proud papa has even had his son's name tattooed across his own knuckles.
Since its arrival here, the band has written and rehearsed much of what will be on its upcoming new album. The as-yet-untitled set will be recorded in England in June for a fall release. The album is being produced by Andy Wallace, who engineered Nirvana's Nevermind, among other projects. The biggest news, though, is that this little metal band from Brazil has been signed by the largest record label in the world, decidedly nonmetallic Sony Music.
Max Cavalera says the new album will be "more monster."
"The songs won't be as fast, but they'll be more pissed off, aggressive," he says. ". . . We're also going to do different things, like add tribal drums and every kind of fucked-up instrument you can imagine--mix it all and see what happens."
It's obvious that over the years, the band's members have developed a finely tuned sense of us against the world. Cavalera thinks it's the key to their success.
"Traveling on trains. Getting beat up by cops. Sleeping behind the stage. It's part of growing up. It's part of the nature of this stuff," he says. "If you don't have that kind of background, you can't be a band like us."
Like most American headbangers, the members of Sepultura began their journey into volume by listening to the proto-metal pioneers: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. In Brazil, though, records were hard to find and prohibitively expensive. To hear new sounds, Max, Igor and their friends would make the trip from their hometown of Belo Horizonte to Sao Paulo, where there was a record shop that would make tapes of the latest records by American rock-metal bands. The Cavalera brothers were the only ones in Belo Horizonte--A town with more churches than houses"--who'd even heard of a band like Kiss.
"Every time someone would come back from the store with new stuff, it was like having a killer drug," Max says, his accent turning "killer" into "keeler."
By 1984, the Cavalera brothers and Paulo Jr. had all dropped out of school to get serious about music. Kisser, who grew up in Sao Paulo, moved in with Max and Igor after the band's original guitar player quit in 1986. Soon, Kisser also dropped out of school.
"In Brazil, they really don't take school seriously. The people that go to school until the end, they get out and they don't have jobs, man," Max says. "So nobody really cares too much. You don't feel too much embarrassed about it."
Igor adds: "It's more a matter of how you survive. Not that you're smart or you go to school."
The band gained momentum a few years later when it learned that tapes it'd sent to America were beginning to show up on radio playlists. At that time, the band couldn't get a gig, let alone peace of mind in Brazil. Club owners were afraid to book the band, fearing the damage its fans might do. And the police had made a sport out of abusing and arresting these rebellious, freaky-looking youths who played loud music. Even today, the band members say Brazil hasn't changed for them.
"When we go back there, we go back to being a piece of shit," Max says. "We'd be practicing and the police come and arrest us. They say, 'I don't care if you're a rock star in America, I keeck your ass here.'"
After releasing three albums in Brazil--an EP, Bestial Devastation, in 1985 and full-length albums Morbid Visions in 1986 and Schizophrenia in 1987--the band caught the eye and ear of New York-based metal label Roadrunner Records. Using a translator to communicate with its American producer, Scott Burns, the band went into a rustic studio in Rio de Janeiro in 1988 and came out with its international breakthrough, Beneath the Remains. Tours of America and Europe followed. In 1989, Roadrunner booked the band studio time at the Abbey Road of metal, Morrisound in Tampa. With Burns again behind the controls, the band made its first "mature" album, the brutal Arise.
One of the first places the band played material from Arise was in front of more than 100,000 people at the Rock in Rio II festival in January 1989. The entire band remains convinced that it was a bigger hit there than Guns N' Roses. The whole band also agrees that the festival was a turning point in its career. For the first time, mainstream media in Brazil began to feature the band prominently and refer to its members as "international stars." Even the band's family members were impressed.
"It's funny, in the beginning, the whole family didn't like it or nothing," Max says. "And today we play there, you have to bring the whole family or they'll keel you.
"They still don't like the music. But they like the vibe. For them the fans and shit is a big trip."
The success of Arise kept the band on the road. In 1992, Sepultura was part of two major tours: Helmet/Ministry and Alice in Chains/Ozzy Osbourne. During that time, the band played Valley shows at both the Mason Jar and After the Gold Rush. This weekend's performance at Rockfest 93 will be the band's first local show since moving to Arizona.
At this point, members of Sepultura say they don't know where they want to live. Max says they've become "nomads." Returning to Brazil is a possibility. The band is lukewarm about the idea of staying in the Valley. Igor says he gets bored here and misses being near a beach. They all agree that living in the desert is weird. And while there's enough social injustice in Arizona to keep Sepultura and its music raging, Max says that overall it's been a productive place to work on a recording. Compared to chaotic Brazil, Phoenix has been a hideaway.
"I like the calm, relaxing vibe here. After living in Brazil, it's a big change. I also like the fact that I can walk around here," he says, pausing to display a tattoo of the Tasmanian devil eating a peace sign, "without people saying, 'Look at that!'