Music News

Boys From Brazil

Playing inside at monstrous volume, a bass line from the Wu-Tang Clan hard-core rap track "Protect Your Neck" vibrates the black wreath nailed to the front door of Max Cavalera's north Phoenix home. The music drops sharply when a visitor knocks hard, then rises again when Cavalera swings the door open. He is polite, but not smiling.

"There is a lot of sadness in this house right now," says the lead singer and second guitarist for the Brazilian speed-metal band Sepultura. "There is a rare bond you only get with a few people in life, where you understand one another very well--music, spirituality . . . all ideas. And someone who I have that bond with is gone."

Cavalera is standing by a wall covered with masks and drums from Mexico and Brazil. His long twists of black hair are dyed with streaks of red, and three or four talismans hang around his neck. Behind him is the kitchen table where he and Dana--legally his stepson, he says, but spiritually his brother--sat together and wrote the lyrics to "Attitude," the second song on Sepultura's latest album, Roots. The recording came out in late March, entering the Billboard chart at a respectable No. 27. Dana, 21, died in a car wreck five months later. Cavalera and his wife, Gloria (Dana's mother and Sepultura's manager), had just arrived in England when the news came.

"We had flown in to do a Monsters of Rock tour in Europe with Ozzy [Osbourne] and KISS," says Cavalera, 27. "We had been in the hotel only half an hour, sleeping. Andreas [Sepultura guitarist Kisser] came in with a crazy, sick feeling on his face. He told us, and in my head it was a tornado."

I called Ozzy and [Osbourne's wife] Sharon right away and told them we couldn't play, that we needed to go home. Ozzy said, "Take my jet. It will be faster."

Metallica bassist Jason Newsted, a longtime friend of the family, flew in the night before the funeral. He and Max went into Dana's room and made a mix tape from the albums there. It was all hard rock. A couple of old Flotsam & Jetsam tunes, a little early Metallica, and some newer stuff, like Korn and the Deftones.

Newsted bought a small boom box the next morning. They put it next to Dana's head, and buried him with the tape playing.

"It helped some, to know he had his music with him for the journey," says Cavalera.

Death has taken from Sepultura's front man before. When he was 9, his father, Italy's ambassador to Brazil, died suddenly. Until then, Max had lived with his younger brother Igor and their mother in a nice apartment in a good part of Sao Paulo. Max's mother, who was single, had little money of her own; the diplomat paid for everything. And when he died, Max's mother was forced to move her family to the impoverished Santa Teresa district of Belo Horizonte, where they all lived in a back room of her mother's house. There was an upside, however: "The ghetto hoodlums," says Cavalera, "were a lot more fun to hang out with than the rich kids."

Backstage at an Austin, Texas, nightclub during this year's South by Southwest music conference in March, Cavalera regaled a group of musicians, groupies and journalists with stories of the "death games" boys in his neighborhood used to play. First there was train surfing. "You had to duck for the tunnels and wires," Cavalera said.

The most dangerous game, however, was a sort of "Deathrace 2000" version of Soapbox Derby. Cavalera said kids would nail boxes to their skateboards and ride them down the steepest paved hill in Santa Teresa, which was about three blocks long. They had to plan their descent carefully, however, because at the bottom of the hill was a busy intersection. Time it right, and you sailed through a green light. Time it wrong, and you were road kill. "One of my friends died playing that game," said Cavalera. "Another lost his leg. Life didn't mean as much to those kids as it does in America, not even their own."

Heavy metal and hard-core punk, Max says, was the music he grew up on--"the perfect soundtrack for my lifestyle"--although when he was growing up he didn't really know there was a difference between the two.

"No one had enough money to buy actual, imported records," he says. "So the record stores just had lots of bootleg tapes the owner made from originals he kept at home. So we never saw what the bands looked like, we just heard them, and without the image I didn't notice that much difference between the Sex Pistols, Discharge, and Motsrhead. It just all sounded loud and wild to me, with lots of guitars.

"Years later I couldn't believe it when I heard that Discharge had spiked hair. When I listened to their music, I always pictured heavy-metal guys."

When Igor was 12 and Max was 13, the Cavalera brothers decided to start a band. They came up with the name first--Sepultura, Portuguese for "grave."

"In the beginning, it was just one of those school things," Max says. "You know, you make a picture of your band's name with skulls and guitars on the cover of your notebook, and you tell everyone you're in a rock band when you can't even really play."

Actually, Igor had been playing drums at soccer games since he was a little kid, and picked up a used rock kit to jam on. Then Max bought his first guitar from a pawnshop. The fretboard wood was so cheap it gave him splinters, and he nicknamed the instrument "Poderia," or "rotten thing." The two stole a microphone off the stage from a Brazilian pop band--"we had it all planned," says Max. "Igor jumped up as soon as they came on, grabbed the mike, put it down his pants, and stage-dived off." The two picked up a bass player, Paulo Jr., and started to write songs (lead guitarist Kisser joined the band later to flesh out their sound).

The first Sepultura album, Morbid Visions, hit the U.S. in December of 1985, and preceded a string of four successful LPs for Roadrunner Records that established the New York indie label as a major player in the hard-rock arena. Roadrunner optioned Sepultura to Epic Records for the band's fifth album, 1993's Chaos A.D., which Epic did almost nothing to promote. For some reason, the label even released Chaos the same day it issued Pearl Jam's Vs.

"Cut Throat," a song on Roots, sums up the Cavaleras' opinion of that move, and Epic's treatment of Sepultura in general: "Money isn't our god," Max howls in his typical vocal style, reminiscent of Godzilla gargling with sulfuric acid. "Integrity will free our soul from: Enslavement/Pathetic/Ignorant/Corporation."

Despite the neglect, Chaos A.D. eventually went gold. But Sepultura still jumped back to Roadrunner for Roots, which finds the band weaving bright patterns of world beat into the chain mail of its usual dense, harsh speed metal. The band recorded with noted Brazilian percussionist Carlinhos Brown on several songs, including "Ambush," a tribute to murdered South American rain-forest activist Chico Mendes, and "Ratamahatta," a celebration of life in Brazil's slums, sung all in Portuguese, which tells the stories of folk heroes like Ze Do Caixo (Coffin Joe) and Lampiao, the leader of an early 1900s outlaw gang from north Brazil, whose head was put on public display after he was captured.

The most interesting track on Roots, however, is "Itsari," which means "roots" in the native tongue of the Xavante, a warrior tribe which after years of conflict with the Brazilian government still maintains control of its traditional jungle homeland near the Bolivian border.

Sepultura trekked to a Xavante village to record "Itsari," and stayed there for three days. "Wild pig spaghetti," reports Cavalera, "tastes a little weird, but good." On "Itsari," Sepultura plays along on acoustic guitars and tribal drums as the Xavante perform a chant from a healing ceremony. The band used an eight-track recorder powered on a car battery. "There wasn't enough juice for playbacks," Cavalera says. "We just had to roll tape and hope for the best."

Despite the tribute to rain-forest activist Mendes, Roots isn't as overtly political as past Sepultura albums, which have raged against rain-forest deforestation, corruption and human rights abuses in the band's home country (three of the band members now live in Phoenix, one in San Diego).

"This record is more about people than issues," says Cavalera. "There are still missionaries who go to the Xavante, and bring them Bibles, and tell them not to live like animals, when the world should just respect their culture. So, I suppose this album has a message, and that message is, 'They're doing fine. Let's leave them the hell alone.'"

Sepultura is scheduled to perform on Friday, October 25, at Desert Sky Pavilion as part of OZZfest '96. Showtime is 4 p.m.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse