Soulfly's Max Cavalera has gone through quite a transformation over the past decade and a half.
The Brazilian-born vocalist and guitarist began his career in the mid-1980s in the thrash outfit Sepultura. By the time he split with them in 1996 to form his current band, he had fallen in love with the native instruments and sounds of his homeland and begun to integrate them into his music.
"In the beginning, Sepultura was a cheap imitation of Slayer and Venom," Cavalera says. "You can only do that so long before it becomes obvious that you're a follower. When Sepultura started finding our own sound, we became leaders. That's what I want to do with Soulfly. We don't want to follow anyone else's path."
Cavalera says Soulfly's tribal sound and spiritual themes are unique in the world of metal. His journey down the new path began when he bought a berimbau almost a decade ago in Brazil. The instrument, which resembles a bow-and-arrow with a coconut attached to it, became a regular part of his live performances.
"It's very primitive, very unique sounding," Cavalera says. "I started playing them and adding them to my music, and the next thing I knew it became a trademark."
The sound also stems from Cavalera's love of percussion and tribal drumbeats. For the band's three albums, he's recruited percussionists who have worked with jazz and reggae greats like Sergio Mendes and Bob Marley. The drums have also become a highlight of the live show, with a drum jam that often features guests from other bands Soulfly tours with. Currently, drummer Dave Lombardo, of legendary thrash band Slayer, joins the jam.
"If you've never seen Soulfly, you're going to be blown away at that moment of the show," Cavalera says. "There are no guitars; there are no vocals. We let the drums do the talking, and it's very powerful."
The current Soulfly tour with Slayer is in support of their latest album, simply titled "3." It blends the aggressive metal of their self-titled debut with the more melodic sounds of their second album "Primitive." Cavalera, who also makes his debut as a producer on "3," says the mix wasn't intentional, but he's happy with the way it turned out.
"That's just the chemistry of Soulfly," he says. "We decided to let those two things come together, so the mix of melodic and heavy goes hand-in-hand throughout the album. I think, in a way, that's the power of the Soulfly music. It's the chemistry we've found in the band."
But there are also some quieter moments on the album that have much more to do with Cavalera's spiritual journey and the music of his homeland than with metal. He says he listens to a variety of music and wants to offer a bit of that to his fans.
"There are things on a Soulfly album that you won't hear anywhere else," he says. "You won't hear it on a Limp Bizkit album; you won't hear it on a Papa Roach album. The world music, tribal music mixed with guitars is strictly Soulfly. I'm glad the fans understand and actually enjoy the tribal music, and I'm happy to be able to do it for them."
Arguably the moment that speaks loudest on this album, though, doesn't feature any music at all. Sandwiched between two of the most aggressive songs on the album is the track "9-11-01," Cavalera's tribute to the victims of last September's terrorist attacks. When other artists are trying to put their feelings into words, Cavalera, who has made his home in the United States for more than a decade, instead opted for 60 seconds of complete silence.
"I wanted to put the sorrow of the victims and their families in a way that no one has put it before," he says. "I saw many artists do shows and benefits or write songs about it. I decided to do the opposite - to not talk about it at all, but let the minute of silence be louder than a thousand words."
Though Cavalera is pleased with the new album, he considers his music a spiritual experience - one that can best be appreciated live.
"You've got to be there in body because there's something that happens," he says. "It's a mystic force that works through the music, and you have to physically be there and be touched by the music live. No other way will you feel Soulfly's impact."
From spirituality to perseverance, Soulfly's music carries a lot of messages, but Cavalera says the biggest one - and the one he most wants fans to understand - is strength.
"If you don't have strength, what can you do?" he says. "There's a spiritual strength behind Soulfly's music. It's the strength to keep up against all odds, no matter what. It's important to believe and have strength."