Interview – Phil Demmel of Machine Head


Phil Demmel is a guitarist that I have looked up to for quite some time. Demmel is the lead guitarist of one of my favorite bands, Machine Head, and I has been a massive influence my my musical writing style.

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Demmel is also a massive inspiration to me for a very different reason. A few years ago, I was diagnosed with a heart condition called vasovagal syncope. Around this some I just happened to listen to Machine Head’s 2007 album, The Blackening, and found comfort in it. As I stewed in my own depression surrounding the difficulties of dealing with my heart condition, videos of Phil fainting on stage began to surface on YouTube. Machine Head would soon announce that Demmel’s condition was the same as mine.

Discovering that one of my musical heroes shared my condition made it much easier to deal with it. I had wanted to talk with Phil about it ever since.

On November 26, I got my chance to talk with him about the band’s recent tour difficulties, the band’s recent free agent status, and our heart condition.

Read and Listen to the full interview after the jump.

Daniel Cordova – More fun times in the Machine Head chaos that is your touring cycle?

Phil Demmel – Yes. It’s been crazy man. That’s an awesome beanie! (My Space Invaders beanie that I was wearing)

DC – Ah yes. The Target boys section.

PD – Oh, sweet! That’s awesome.

DC – That is how I shop for clothes apparently. I just want to let you know that it is an honor to speak with you for a very specific reason that I’ll get to later.

PD – Ok.

DC – First off, how does it feel knowing that last night Yo Gabba Gabba tore this house down?

PD – Ohhhh Dude! I had my son for the weekend, or for the week, and he just loves Yo Gabba Gabba. We saw that they did the show here and we’re like, “Oh, I could have been one night earlier!” Is it DJ Lance?

DC – I have…

PD – You don’t know!

DC – I know Biz Markie was there.

PD – I bet DJ Lance was there doing it.

DC – I just saw that on the marquee last week. It said “Neurosis, Lauryn Hill, Yo Gabba Gabba.” And then I knew the next day was this show.

PD – Ah, sweet.

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DC – Like I said, this has been an interesting tour for you guys. I know Robb got sick, not too long ago and then last night, or not last night. At the Portland show?

PD – Saturday, right.

DC – There was some difficulty with car troubles correct?

PD – The bus broke down on the side of the road forever, and there was a huge college football game that let out and, just couldn’t make it in time. So, they waited around to get a bus until yesterday and I flew home. We had trouble with the hurricane, Robb had the double hernia operation…

DC – I’m glad you able to make the band’s homecoming show then, right?

PD – Absolutely.

DC – And you’re from Dublin, which isn’t too far from here, correct?

PD – I live in Dublin, correct.

DC – Awesome, so the Internet is right about something.

PD – Yes.

DC – I looked it up and was like, “I’m not sure about that, we’ll see.” I’ve done that before, and been wrong. Are shows like this cool, stopping by where you live or is it kind of difficult because then, this isn’t the end of the tour?

PD – No, we’re actually just starting. We’ve got another three weeks out. It’s nice, I don’t know, man. Playing home is a double-edged sword, because it’s so involved with friends and family and everybody coming out and you’re in your routine of the day too. So, it takes you out of what you normally do, but ending at home is usually awesome. You know, because you just go home after the show and blow it out. But now, it’s the first night of school and everybody’s coming out.

DC – Since you’ve been back in the area, you’ve been seeing more folks that you know from around here? Or is this an atypical day on tour?

PD – A home show usually isn’t, because there’s the other dynamic of an influx of people who don’t come to our shows everyday. There’s family, there’s kids, there’s all of that. So, no, and especially today. We haven’t been playing. We’re not in our routine yet. Today, everybody’s still bringing their stuff on to the bus and packing and loading. So, today… This whole tour has been, “f*ck, I guess we’re not playing” or “this show’s cancelled for this reason or this reason.” It’s just been sop sporadic.

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DC – Yeah, I heard the House of Blues didn’t like you guys.

PD – Disney doesn’t.

DC – And – No offence to the other bands playing – but, one of the other bands has the word “Murder” in their name. (The Black Dahlia Murder)

PD – (laughs) Them and, you know.

DC – I mean, Dethklok, their imagery behind them is literally people being decapitated and cut in half long-ways.

PD – Yeah, it seems to be more of a political thing than anything.
DC – Alright. I was kind of curious that it might me.

PD – I think that they read some lyrics off of The Blackening they didn’t like and we’re just kind of on that sh*t list. That nobody knows really why but they can’t play here for some reason or whatever.

DC – That sucks.

PD – Don’t be hypocritical about what you do.

DC – And they own Star Wars now… D*cks. When you were first starting out, what was your first band called and what did it sound like?

PD – The first band that I was in was called On Parole and we were… It was the early 80’s so there’s a lot of Iron Maiden influence and, kind of like, Van Halen, Riot. A lot of those rock – they were probably known as metal back then – but they were really rock bands, but we were into Priest and Maiden, stuff like that. Wrote all the lyrics, wrote all the music, and it was really bad.

DC – I don’t know if you still use this guitar, but I read that you have a Randy Rhoads V. Was he a big influence on you?

PD – I’ll play it tonight, I have me own signature series with Jackson (guitars), the Demmelition King V, and I had a couple of them made in tribute to my favorite, well, the guitar players that influenced me that were Randy Rhoads and Michael Shenker. So, I have a polka dot, and they actually sell the guitar in the stores with the polka dots on it. The Michael Shenker one, they aren’t, but I’ve got a couple of those.

DC – Adam (Duce) and Robb (Flynn) seem like a very intense collection of guys, and there seems to be a lot of intensity between everyone in the band. Is it as intense as Blabbermouth articles make it sound or are they being blown out of proportion? I’ve read therapy, I’ve read near breakups, etc.

PD – We’re a family, you know? We’re brothers and every family has their dynamic. They are both alpha-males and very driven and everybody in this band has their points of view and but heads. Theirs was just the more public of it. They are very intense individuals, so their arguments get intense or whatever. It’s all about communication, and finding that, how to deal with the confrontations and the issues and concerns. So, think that we’re working on that as I’m sure every band does. We’ve been the same line up for the same…. Sh*t, ten years now. So there hasn’t been any member changes in the past twelve or so…

DC – Now, on to the reason that I look up to you so much. You and I share a heart disorder, I believe.

PD – Oh sh*t!

DC – I was diagnosed about the same time the videos of you fainting on stage starting coming up.

PD – Oh, crazy.

DC – I would up messaging the band on Myspace, at the time, to try to just be like, “Hey, I’m glad there’s someone else like this out there,” because I hadn’t heard of it and doctors were kind of just like pulling names for it out of their ass. I heard vasovagal syncope, I heard cardiatric whatever.

PD – Cardiogenic, yeah.

DC – On a very personal note, how was it like for you to experience that? For me, I have this intense rising feeling here (my chest), it comes up to my head, feels like the most amazing feeling, and then I see white and I wake up fifteen seconds later.

PD – I don’t know about the rising feeling, but I get clammy hands and, like you say, it’s like the most amazing feeling. The feeling for me is like stepping outside of myself and it’s surreal. It’s like, “Am I doing these things?” and it happens to me quite often on stage to where, it’s muscle memory, you’re just going through the motions and you’re just totally somewhere else looking down on yourself. You’re thinking about, “Oh, hey! I’m playing ‘Halo’ right now to whatever,” and you step out of yourself. Detecting that and finding, especially when I’m playing festivals and you’re thirty feet off the ground and falling forward could probably mean the end of you. All those things you have to take into consideration. I empathize with the doctors not knowing what to do. I’ve gone through a series of tests and everything. The halter monitors –

DC – The remote thing?

PD – Yeah! If you don’t have it on you, and it doesn’t happen when they’re monitoring you then they don’t know what’s going on anyway. So it’s just kind of one of those things to where, I found it to be [that] my episodes were linked to a depression.

DC – That could make sense for me, yeah.

PD – And stress, and they really came back after my father died. I mean, it happen the moment that my dad died. That was in Italy, I don’t know if you’ve heard that story. That’s when they came, it hadn’t happened in five years or so. I passed out on stage during “Descend the Shades of Night,” and we put the times together… you know.

DC – So, it’s something you’ve had that has been coming back for you? Because, since then, I haven’t had any problems with it. Reading about your experience with it, I’ve kind of got in the back of my head and I’ve had doctors say, “it may come back any time.”

PD – Yeah!

DC – Sweet….

PD – It’s some kind of concoction they don’t know. It’s those perfect tumblers, all line up, and then, “Ok, it’s time!” I’ve found that, especially since I’ve found me and my wife got together, it’s a head space thing. If I’m not stressed or depressed, it has a lot to do with it.

DC – In the liner notes (of the album Unto The Locust), you’re ripping your shirt and you have locusts coming out of your chest. Is that, at all, a reference to this? Or am I making huge leaps and bounds there? Because it’s like, “That’s generally where the heart is.”

PD – (Laughs) Yeah, no. That’s the first I’ve heard that actually. That’s the first I’ve heard of that, so no it wasn’t.

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DC – I’ve also noticed in the liner notes, that you are more prevalent in the lyrical writing. Is that something that you just found yourself with more inspiration to bring or was Robb like, “I’m tired, help me”?

PD – Robb’s always open for lyrics and helping out with lyrics. It’s always been kind of the last thing that gets done going into the recording. I’ve noticed on the past three records, because that’s what I’ve been around for, while we’re recording we’re still writing lyrics and trying different things. I helped with The Blackening with a few songs, just gave him a few. I write different that Robb lyric-wise. I’ve been writing lyrics for the past thirty years or so, but I write from a more colorful, describing place and Robb is more pronouns, “I, me, you,” this kind of thing. I like to describe things more and come from a more metaphorical…. The locust thing was my idea. So, I think working together on this record, and I was just coming out of this emotional place with a lot of things going on so I had all this purging to do. So, “Locust” um…

DC – “Pearls-“

PD – Yeah, “Pearls before Swine” was most of my lyrics, “I Am Hell” was my original concept about a pyromaniac. “Be Still and Know,” I think I had the title more than anything came from something I’ve got it tattooed. It was my grandma’s Bible verse that she gave to me. She put it on my birthday cards and Christmas cards and stuff like that. Each grandkid had a different bible verse and that was mine. I think that Robb and I have found this working relationship has far as writing lyrics. I come out and he’s just, “throw anything at me! Any phrase! I need five syllables! Ends in ‘L,’” or something like that

DC – That’s cool, he writes like I write.

PD – We call each other up, “Hey, I need blah blah blah for whatever.” So, I think that him being open makes me more relaxed and able to submit stuff with out that, “Oh, I hope he likes it.”

DC – I know you guys are in touring mode, but has anything been written for the next album?

PD – Not really. Robb has some ideas that he’s shown me, like a couple skeletons. I came up with something over the break. We’ve been home for a couple weeks and I’m excited to show the dudes. So, no real concrete ideas, but couple little skeleton ideas. We write real slow, we’re trying to get a head start.

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DC – Are you able to touch on anything going on with Roadrunner (Records) right now? As far as, you position on the label, and people stepping now and moving out and stuff like that.

PD – You know, it sucked to see all that happen. To see people that have really battled for the band over the years, and become our family that we see on the road, and work with these people, and they were just true fans of the music. They were responsible for a lot of what we are. We’re contractually fulfilled with Roadrunner. The live record (Machine F*cking Head Live) was just something, you know, we had this stuff done we wanted to have some material to keep out. That wasn’t part of our original contract. We don’t know what we’re going to do. We’ve got three or four that we’re looking at right now and haven’t ruled anybody out. It’s nice being a free agent that everybody wants right now, as apposed to 2003 when we were the free agent that nobody cared about.

DC – I saw the documentary on Elegies (the 2005 live DVD).

PD – Yeah, so you know the whole story?

DC – Yes, I do.

PD – So you saw everything. “Hey! All the labels have passed on us so…”

DC – So now they’re all sniffing around?

PD – For sure.

DC – That’s got to feel nice, at least.

PD – It does. It’s vindicating, for sure, that being ourselves and writing for ourselves is what people want.

DC – Alright sir, thank you every much for talking to me.

Pick up Machine F*cking Head Live by Machine Head via Roadrunner

_Daniel Cordova
Tune in to Far Beyond Metal on KSSU.com

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  1. […] November 26, KSSU Loud Rock director Daniel Cordova conducted an interview with guitarist Phil Demmel of San Frnacisco Bay Area […]

  2. […] November 26, KSSU Loud Rock director Daniel Cordova conducted an interview with guitarist Phil Demmel of San Frnacisco Bay Area […]

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