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Soulfly's Max Cavalera: 'I Still Get Nervous Before Shows!'

Soulfly are amping up for their hometown show.
Soulfly are amping up for their hometown show.
Charlene Tupper

Ritualistic behavior and customs are a huge element of what’s brought revered Phoenix-bred metal band Soulfly success over the past 20 years.

But heavy metal is all about zealous ritual. It’s a semblance of order over life’s chaos. The reverence felt at a tune that particular touches you, whether alone in a dark room or drawn together by the thousands, staring at the artists who created it for you.

But Soulfly march to the beat of their own drum. They have few musical boundaries, whether bridging thrash with Afro-Brazilian instruments, death metal growling paired with gospel-like female vocals, or Middle Eastern music backed by a hard-hitting groove. They have a tradition of constant collaboration, working with everyone from Deftones’ Chino Moreno (die-hards know the band's name is derived from Deftones’ album Around the Fur) to Slayer’s Tom Araya.

And as world-renowned as they are, Soulfly have managed to keep their raw, underground style intact. Cavalera attributes this to a realization he had after watching an Agnostic Front DVD. No wishes of big stadiums — he prefers venues smaller than the one he’ll be playing at the hometown show. Of course, there’s a need to fit the Valley crowd.

Everything came together, stronger than ever, with the group’s 11th full-length, 2018’s Ritual. The gold-certified quartet — Max Cavalera (vocals, guitar), Marc Rizzo (lead guitar), Zyon Cavalera (drums), and Mike Leon (bass) — bring crisp grooves, double bass, deft shredding, and guest vocals from musicians like Randy Blythe on songs like “Dead Behind the Eyes," a lyrical buffet spanning Hellraiser to the history of monks chastising themselves.

On Saturday, February 1, they’ll kick off in Tempe at the Marquee Theatre. Phoenix New Times talked with Cavalera about the show for Dana Wells, the Phoenix metal scene, and his unique horror movie writing process.

Phoenix New Times: Do you feel like there’s more or less pressure with hometown shows?

Max Cavalera: We have a special Arizona-only setlist for this show. It’s the Dana show [Dana Wells, Max’s stepson] to celebrate and remember his memories. He was such a big part of our life and was such a huge metal fan, so it’s always really cool to celebrate his life in his hometown. We’ll be playing most of the Soulfly classics that people know throughout our career and then, in the end, is special Dana songs. We’ve been asked to do the Dana shows in other cities, even in Europe.

But after the Phoenix Dana show, we’re playing the whole record of Ritual from beginning to end. We’ve never done that before.

We’ll be playing a lot of the songs that we haven’t played before, like “Fly High.” Our friend Asha [Rabouin] is going to sing with us. She has this beautiful gospel voice. Those are the things that make the show very different from everything else we do. There’s something really cool about first shows, a magic about it. You welcome mistakes, everything feels new and exciting. I even get nervous before shows, which is ridiculous after 30 years, but I still do!

You’re one of those musicians that loves to be on the road.

I made a pact with myself that I am never going to grow old. I’m a 50 year old trapped in a 17-year-old mind. I don’t get burned out on tours like some other musicians. It’s thrilling to try to outdo what you did before. In music, especially, there is no time to reach your peak.

Why is this the first time Soulfly will be playing an entire record in a show?

It’s something fans haven’t seen before, and Ritual is one of my favorite things I’ve done in all my records. The album is short, and it doesn’t drag. It’s a little shy of 35 minutes. Most bands do that with their old records, but we’re going to do it with our new record.

If you had to describe where you’re at in your life right now in one word, what would that be?

I’m in a really cool part of my life right now and can look back with pride on a lot of the records. One word ... It has to be two words: legendary, hungry.

When you start working on a new album, do you start on the road or once that touring cycle is complete?

I prefer to enjoy and focus on the tour itself. I have my writing set up at home. Probably around April and May, I’ll be writing the next Soulfly. I’m really preparing for this one. It’ll be a special record for Soulfly. When writing, I put on some of my favorite movies and sit in my living room, which is crazy because I don’t know many artists who watch movies while writing. Like Apocalypse Now or Exorcist, Hellraiser, and let those movies influence the writing.

You play several instruments. Is there one you wish you could incorporate more?

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The Brazilian instrument that I’ve played for 25 years now is the berimbau, and we’ll be playing that in the Phoenix show. The one-stringed instrument has a coconut bowl; very primitive and tribal-sounding. I’m also a big fan of percussion. I have a lot of instruments from around the world. Once, fans in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan sent me this USO box with a really old Afghanistan instrument they found in a bazaar. In the letter, it said they thought of me because it’s old-world metal. When these soldiers are fighting for us and our liberties but are still listening to my music, I get goosebumps.

We’re lucky to have so many amazing metal musicians in Phoenix — you, Alice Cooper, Rob Halford, Dave Ellefson, Greg Hall, and Wiley Arnett. Have you ever thought about organizing a Phoenix supergroup?

That would be really cool! There’s also the young bands, like Gatecreeper. I love the new generation. A desert show or festival; I’d play it for free. Also, the Phoenix crowds are good. We have the strong metal support of fans and musicians. I do a lot of stuff with the Navajos. They love their metal in Navajo land. They have many cool bands. Ethnic De Generations is one of my favorites. Hopefully, we’ll have a big show in Navajo Land in 2020. I was thinking of even doing a DVD, like recording a whole Navajo experience. It’s inside of Arizona, but it’s a different world. Their shows are crazy. Culture is inspiring.

Soulfly are scheduled to perform on Saturday, February 1, at Marquee Theatre in Tempe. Tickets are $26 to $56 via Lucky Man Online.

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