PHOENIX (AP) — Max Cavalera plays heavy music, growling his vocals over blistering riffs and thumping double-bass drums.
He looks the part, too, with mottled dreadlocks, body covered in tattoos and tribal jewelry. But peel back those surface layers and the Soulfly founder is the antithesis of the metalhead stereotype: Family oriented, proudly spiritual, collaborative in a combative genre, world music experimenter.
Cavalera has become a nonconformist within an anti-establishment genre.
“I’ve always tried to stay true to myself, do things that I like, that I believe are right,” Cavalera said from his home in north Phoenix. “That people like it is cool.”
Born in Brazil, Cavalera started his career with Sepultura, one of the most influential bands in the 1980s death and thrash metal scenes, and has been called the father of Third World metal.
Once he left the band and formed Soulfly, Cavalera shifted the scope of his music. It was still brutally heavy, but with spiritual themes and elements of world music mixed in.
The spiritual part came out of necessity.
Around the time Cavalera left Sepultura, his stepson, Dana, was killed in a car accident, leaving him and wife Gloria searching for answers.
Experiencing pain he had not felt since watching his father die in 1979, Cavalera got through it, in part, with his faith. And once he started Soulfly, spirituality became a big part of his music.
The name of the band was derived from a Brazilian tribal belief that the music they make is for the souls of their ancestors who are flying around – Cavalera used it in a song he did with the Deftones – and several songs on its self-titled debut in 1998 included references to faith, God and Dana’s death.
Cavalera continued to mix in songs with spiritual connotations through the arc of Soulfly’s catalog and has dedicated every record to God, including the band’s ninth studio album “Savages,” released last week by Nuclear Blast Records.
“Our whole life was turned upside down and I needed to find something, and I found God,” Cavalera said. “I really put my faith in it and it was good to me. (It) made a lot of good things happened spiritually and a lot of my prayers were answered.”
The world music aspect started in the early days of Sepultura with the use of Brazilian tribal sounds. Cavalera expanded it in Soulfly, traveling the world to get sounds from musicians and instruments not typically found on metal records.
Through the years, Cavalera recorded with Serbian Gypsies, reggae musicians, Amazonian tribesmen, Australian Aborigines and R&B singer Asha Rabouin on melodic songs like “flyhigh,” “Tree of Pain” and “Wings.”
Soulfly also has incorporated a wide range of nontraditional instruments on its albums, including sheepskin bagpipes from the Middle Ages and a single-string Brazilian instrument called a berimbau. “Savages” includes sitar and Flamenco guitar.
Cavalera went against the grain when it came to family as well.
While most rockers try to hide their families, Cavalera put his front and center, announcing to the world when his son, Zyon, was born and taking all his children on the road whenever possible.
The kids slept in guitar cases, sat behind the drum kits during shows, got to brush shoulders with some of the biggest names in rock while traveling to exotic places.
Gloria’s son Richie, who was adopted by Max, is the lead singer of Incite, Zyon finished the Enslaved tour and recorded Savages as Soulfly’s drummer and Igor is the singer/guitarist for Lody Kong.
“It’s meant a lot to us to be able to have our family together,” Richie said. “And to be out on the road and learn from some of the best, that’s been awesome.”
The family atmosphere extends beyond blood relatives.
Since the early days of the band, the Cavaleras have considered friends, fellow musicians and fans to be a part of what they called the Soulfly Tribe.
Max grew up in a large extended family in Brazil – his grandmother lived in the rain forest – and wanted to have that same vibe when he moved to the United States more than 25 years ago. He and Gloria’s home became the focal point of the Soulfly Tribe, countering the us-against-them mentality of metal music by inviting members of other bands to play on his albums. The first Soulfly album included members of Limp Bizkit, Deftones and Cypress Hill, while later releases included metal heavyweights like Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, Slayer’s Tom Araya and Megadeth’s Dave Ellefson.
“Savages” includes guest appearances by Clutch’s Neil Fallon, Napalm Death’s Mitch Harris and Jamie Hanks of I Declare War. Cavalera will keep that vibe going with a new project that will include members of Mastodon and Dillinger Escape Plan.
“I like to see it like that because to me metal is not competition, I’m not competing with anyone,” Cavalera said. “I like to share my metal with other musicians. It’s very cool.”