South America’s biggest metal export, Max Cavalera, has been a central force in five bands – three of which are active – allowing him to experiment with thrash, death, grindcore and punk over more than three decades in the industry.  But it’s the longest-running project, Soulfly, that pushes the sonic and socio-political boundaries.  When we caught up with Cavalera to discuss their new album, he was decompressing between tours at his home in Phoenix, Arizona.  He sounded relaxed but also excited because Soulfly are celebrating 20 years with their 11th full-length album, ‘Ritual’.

The 49-year-old vocalist, guitarist and songwriter has a wicked sense of humour and the honesty of a captured spy plied with sodium pentothal.  He’s happy to cover a range of topics that influenced Ritual, including colonialism, Donald Trump, spirituality, working with a new producer, continuing with Nuclear Blast, and working with his son again.

As expected, Ritual is full of heaviness and aggression, and much of it can be attributed to the plight of the dispossessed.  “We look at the world and it’s not a pretty picture,” Cavalera says. “It’s bad. It’s really fucked up.  A lot of bad stuff is going on, especially now with all this Trump stuff and immigrants and refugees and the war-torn countries.  We’re not billionaires, we’re not trillionaires. We never made that much money that we became numb to everything like some other bands.  We’ve still got our feet on the ground. We react to all of that.”

There’s a strong Native American vibe on the album, especially evident on The Summoning and Blood On The Streets.  Indeed, Cavalera has always had an affinity for indigenous people – growing up in Brazil inspired Sepultura’s groundbreaking tribal grooves and living in one of the US’ most populous Native American areas continues to inspire him.  Soulfly have had a lot to do with the Navajo people, playing shows for them and getting them involved.  “The Summoning was the original idea of the invasion of the tribes by the white people and how they forced bad religion on them. The Indians already had their god, and here comes all these other people telling them this is the new law, this is the new god, you have to accept this.  And I think that’s very wrong. The Summoning is definitely a cool song on the side of the Indians of course; I’m always on the side of the oppressed.”

Getting otherworldly on Under Rapture, he says the song is about life and death and why people need to have spiritual beliefs.  “It’s almost like therapy,” Cavalera says. “The lyrics were about your life, your last seconds on Earth, and what you feel at that moment when you actually see the light and realising your life is over.  But maybe something else is beginning, there’s something else that comes after that. Sometimes it’s real hard to explain spirituality to people because they get awfully confused with religion and I think they’re very different things.”  

It was three years on from ‘Archangel’ when Cavalera and Co. were ready to record again. They enlisted a new producer, Josh Wilbur (Lamb of God, Trivium, Gojira), and set up at Hybrid Studios in Los Angeles.  Though Soulfly are supposed to be the explorers of new territory, Wilbur is a big fan of the tribal groove sound, so there was some give and take.  “Going back to those kinds of records and creating something new again … is a little bit like watching an old movie you haven’t seen in 20 years, but then you realise how good that movie is.  He was such a fan of those records that he wanted to get that Max out from that era and I think he did. (On) Ritual, Bite The Bullet… that young Max came out.  At the same time, a big part of Ritual still continues my love for extreme metal – stuff like Dead Behind The Eyes, Summoning, Under Rapture… it’s full-on death metal, thrash metal, aggressive.  We even have a bit of a Motorhead song on Feedback!”  The heavier elements are certainly present, with Dead Behind The Eyes welcoming Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe.  Cavalera says it’s about the Hellraiser character, Cenobite, and also about how the monks from old times chastised themselves.  Under Rapture features a cameo from death metal’s Ross Dolan of Immolation.

Being a metal nut, Cavalera is adamant that heavy should not be watered down, which is why he’s so fond of Nuclear Blast a third time round.  He’s quietly hoping nothing changes after French company Believe Digital recently bought a controlling stake.  “They’re all really cool metal fans and big fans of Max.  They’ve never pressured me for a pop album or anything I’d be uncomfortable doing, so that’s kind of cool to have a label like that. Because I felt sometimes, even at Roadrunner, after Roadrunner signed Nickelback, that’s all they cared about – stupid-arse Nickelback.  All they wanted was another Nickelback and they turned their back on metal; that’s what the bread and butter of their label was.”

Music is a family affair for Cavalera, with his wife Gloria also the band’s manager and son Zyon now featuring on his third Soulfly record.   “He was groomed from the beginning to be on this life.  Kind of like how you read about these Soviet trainers that trained their kids since birth, throwing them in ice water and making them wrestle bears.  Not as radical as that, but pretty similar,” he laughs. “‘Savages’ was a bit of a shaky beginning but by the time we did ‘Archangel’, he was already kicking arse and now he’s fucking amazing.  I think this lineup is really cool. It’s been like that for a couple of years now. Marc (Rizzo) has been with me since 2004 so he’s not going anywhere – I was looking for a guitar player like that for my whole life.  And Mike (Leon) is great a great bass player, so we have really solid, magic lineup.”  Soulfly’s lineup is divided by thousands of miles, with Leon in Tampa and Rizzo in New Jersey, but they still make it work, getting together before albums and tours to jam.  “I kind of like that though because after I’m with them for like five weeks, I don’t want to see them for a while, I want a break from them, I want to go home… don’t call me!  I’m not answering the phone! It’s good to take a break from these guys to keep your sanity,” he laughs.