OUT IN THE WILDS - Zakk Wyld Speak To Mike Exley

Black Label Society were in London recently, and it’s certainly been a while since Zakk Wylde himself has trod the boards in our fair city…. So, Mike Exley was despatched to talk Mafia, cancelled dates and just quite when that pub down the road does open?

You know, he’s a character this Zakk Wylde? With a beard that would grace Billy Gibbons on a good day, a morning schedule that means grabbing a ‘Cold One’ at 10.30am (and we’re not talking Iced Tea here!) and music that strips paint at ten paces, he’s been grabbing attention by the nuts as a solo artist for nearly ten years. But, there’s more to the man than meets the eye. Sure, he’s just released ‘Mafia’ on Artemis Music, a fourteen song collection that not only significantly improves him as a song writer but also greatly displays the strength now inherent in the name Black Label Society; but, he’s also building quite a nice sideline in guitar related sponsorship deals, chopper contracts and just oh so little slices of controversy here and there that will add spice to the ‘legend’ long after the man hangs up his guitars. How many musicians do you know that plan for such a moment like that?

Zakk of course would probably have taken several more years to come to the attention of the mass rock population had he not had the honour of being plucked from near obscurity as a teenager and thrust into the limelight as the guitar player that Ozzy Osbourne had been waiting for after the sad and devastating loss of Randy Rhodes. That Zakk made the ensuing album ‘No Rest For The Wicked’ his own and has often played with Ozzy many times since is more than testimony to his enduring brilliance and his undoubted respect for all things ‘rock’, but today we’re talking Black Label Society because this uncompromising four piece (completed by Nick Catanese (g), James Lomenzo (b) and Craig Nunenmacher (d)) are once again on European soil, deep in the English heartland for their first dates in almost 3 years and unfortunately are again creating all kinds of ‘headlines’ for all the wrong reasons. There are many reasons for having to cancel shows, of course; broken down vehicles, promoter indifference and arguments over requirements, but the people of Bradford were none too happy when they got the news that Zakk would not play there because he wanted to rest his voice – and it wasn’t an isolated occurrence after that either as several other cities found out. It’s not the ideal question to start any interview with, but are people getting a fair crack? Some of these people have been waiting eons to witness this band live.

Zakk; ‘I think so. You gotta remember that to tour a band these days isn’t just a trip in the park. You gotta have people there for you. Yes, we had to cancel a show or two and I’m pissed about that but when you go to a place (Copenhagen) where the stage is like, the size of this table – you gotta ask yourself where some people are coming from? They get the specs. from our people and they come up with their own. It’s like, no dude.’

‘Some promoters are devious. They reckon, cause you drove there like thirteen hours or something, that you’re gonna go on anyway because you don’t want to upset people. “They’ll be starving – they’ll accept anything….” No, sorry, but that isn’t how BLS. works. We wouldn’t give a second rate show to the fans and we don’t expect second rate in return from the people who are supposed to be on our side!’

Fair enough. Describe how you felt at the London show. Out front you could feel the tension and the warmth from that audience but at times it felt almost unreal……?

Zakk; ‘Yes, that show was very powerful for us. We were filming it for a DVD that night and it was really moving up on stage. We’ve done DVD before – the ‘Boozed, Bronzed and Broken-Boned’ set - but I think that this one will be nuts. It was a chance for the other guys to shine a bit more than before – and for me to get another beer and get out of the light a bit.’

‘Boozed…’ had a really good mixture of personal insight into you and BLS. And also fantastic concert footage. Can you better it?

Zakk; ‘I hope so. This time, I think we’re looking more at a kinda Woodstock type scenario, going behind the shows, talking to more people, getting some of the fans involved, stuff like that. We’ve had this guy just following us around with a camera this time, and as I guess you know, it’s mad fuckin chaos when a band’s on the road? I hope they got some good editing facilities!! The great thing about Black Label is that we’re a family unit. James came to me; “My wife’s pregnant, I gotta go home for two months…” OK, Mike Inez came out with us (in 2001), stuff like that. Everyone knows the material and we all get on. I’ve been in bands before where no one gets on – I got three kids, I don’t need that bullshit anymore. We just wanna have a good time, drink some brew, kick some ass – send a bit of cash home and enjoy the whole thing. The drama will always find you; you don’t have to go looking for it. What gets you on the road isn’t so much the shows, it’s all the travelling that really separates the men from the boys.’

And at this point (really, honestly…) the fire alarm in the hotel where we are goes off and it’s off to the pub down the road!

When you come to recording, the looseness and understanding you talked about there also seems to be prevalent? Did the most recent album ‘Mafia’ come about like that too?

Zakk; ‘Well, one of the good things we got in this band is that I know exactly what I want to achieve when we go in the studio and the rest of the guys are cool with it. I write all the basic riffs, the lyrics to the songs…. And we all go and do our job. I love the recording process; it’s very intense, very focussed – you go in, hit the songs as soon as we hit the studio – they’re like expressing how you are right there and then and then you go home. We’ve done seven albums in seven years and each one is a chapter of our life. I might write a few ideas down before but usually we just hit the studio and bang! Songs come. That’s so cool! People ask me about writers block, you know? I don’t think I really know what that’s about. I’ll play stuff; a Sabbath song, an Ozzy song maybe and suddenly a whole different set of ideas grows out of that.’

An enviable situation especially as you sound very little like other bands. People try to pin down your influences – where do you think they come from?

Zakk; ‘The blues, Sabbath, Zeppelin; I don’t know really. Sometimes an idea can come off the back of a really weird angle and I’ll throw it in – a Neil Young thing, an Elton John thing, who knows; and then there’s the punchy idea that’s just there for the moment and it goes on the record. I mean, you can’t teach this stuff. No one can teach someone to paint like Salvador Dali so how can you show people how to write songs and go behind it to explain it? I can show someone how to play my guitar parts and I do that, but to write a song – you just gotta go with your emotion and if people think it’s a great song, thank you, I’m flattered.’

Let’s talk about something slightly different from ‘Mafia’ now. I drew an analogy with football players here in that many don’t really seem to plan for the time when they might not be able to play the game. You, however, have chopper motorcycles produced with your name attached to them, guitar effect pedals and, of course, signature guitars. How did this come to be such an important part of the ‘industry’ that surrounds Black Label and your own personality?

Zakk; ‘Yes, it’s strange ain’t it, but it kinda has its own momentum? People ask if they can do this stuff and so long as it doesn’t demean anyone, then that’s ok. I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this heavy thing – I might be sat down doing the kinda Neil Young thing in a few years; making acoustic records maybe……? Heavy music has its own life span. I’ve been using Gibson stuff, Jim Dunlop stuff, for years; Marshall have been backing me for ages too, and it’s great to be able to work with those people on quality stuff which other people can use for their own enjoyment. The bikes is slightly different – that was an idea that came from the company – I mean, I’m unlikely to use one – I’m on a bleeding tour bus most of the time and the only time I got on a bike at home I came off and busted myself up real well (on a tiny little one) – but we used one on the video for ‘Suicide Messiah’ and it’s cool to be involved with the guys.’

For ‘Mafia’ you changed not only your record label but also the basic design of the cover to a very stark image?

Zakk; ‘Well, the label thing is no big deal. We’d got to the end of the contract on our last deal and someone pitched for us. Like a footballer moving teams? I still get on very well with the Spitfire people, they’re super cool; but we needed to move on and Artemis wanted us, so….. I’ve known the label guy since the early days with Ozzy and the deal was right for the band.’

‘The ‘Mafia’ thing is just an attempt to create more of a balance with the ‘Hangover Music’ stuff. We’d been out on the road listening to a load of Eagles stuff, Bob Segar, stuff like that, and that made that album something different. This time, there’s more of the heavy stuff back on there but we’ve also got the odd mellow moment too. The covers just a simple image.’

One facet of the title (and this also applies to the 2002 LP ‘1919 Eternal’) is the ‘militaristic’ anomaly used – Mafia. i.e. family and armed family in particular. I know that you have a strong support for American troops particularly abroad. Is that difficult at the moment when so many people at home are against the war in Iraq?

Zakk; ‘OK, there’s two questions in one here, I think. ‘1919 Eternal’ had a military side to it (my dad was from the World War 2 generation and that was part of the idea behind the title)…. and many people do support the troops and the President just because he’s the commander in chief. But I think no one really wants to support war; you know what I mean? This terrorist thing is just pussy ass shit, but who really wants to go to war? Then, the bottom line is that it’s the last line of defence and if you gotta go, you want to hope that the people support the troops. I’m not the greatest supporter of Bush, but he’s the commander in chief so you gotta support him. If you think you can do better, fine. Get yourself elected next time and do better – til then, shut the fuck up and let me see you do it when you get your chance. Anyone can be a critic. We went down to some of the air force bases in Germany and hung out for a bit with those guys- they’re cool people, and they’ve got a hard job……..’

‘And, then there’s the ‘Mafia’ thing which is the whole idea behind the family. We have this going on in Black Label as I said earlier on and we will fight for each other if we have to, but it’s not ‘militaristic’ in the way you mean really. It’s about having respect for people. We’ve had the thing going with the ‘Chapters’ in our fan club and stuff like that; it’s just another facet of that.’

This ‘togetherness’ particularly came to the fore with the shocking incident that cost the musical community of the world the life of ‘Dimebag’ Darrell Abbott. I know that this affected you greatly?

Zakk; ‘Yes and although I don’t yet really know how much of an effect it’s actually had on the live circuit at home, I know it’s affected everybody in the heavy metal world greatly. The guy (who went on to do the shooting) came into the venue the back way, that’s the real crux and I hope the venues tighten up but we’ve all lost someone very special. Nick’s using the Dimebag guitars at the moment – we have ‘Walk’ playing before we go on but what I would say is, you know, look at the people going to the show. I mean, no matter how bad it is I would never even throw anything on stage – would you throw something at Jimmy Page for example – he’s my guy – no! You’re never gonna get rid of the whackos but people need to look out.’

I guess it shows that no rock musician is really immortal?

Zakk; ‘I think Ozzy and Lemmy probably are, ha! ha! God, Ozzy he just gets up. He’s the ultimate survivor. Like all musicians he just has that streak in him, which says, “I’ll never quit”. Sure, we love to get out on the road, get back home to our folks after and stuff but the reason we all do this is for that buzz – the musical buzz; you can’t beat it. I still do weights, keep myself sane. I mean, we still have to keep a budget on the road for the damage that occurs occasionally, but realistically this is rock and roll, this isn’t a Broadway musical on the road. Take at the Astoria. My monitor was screaming, absolutely way overloaded and I kept kicking it off, outta the way; and the club guys kept running up and putting it back up? You can’t make this stuff up. It’s like Monty Python. That thing just needed destroying – rip the wires out and all that, and they’re pissed afterwards!’

And that’s Zakk Wylde. Black Label Society will always have those moments of true reflection where you know that Zakk is still very much writing from the heart but for me, it’s moments like ‘Forever Down’ on the new album that define what this band is about. Zakk will still be the rebel and the rabble-rouser, but if the music ever stops flowing, then truly, we’ll have lost a great talent. If you’re lucky to catch him live enjoy it, it’s a metal fest all the way.

Thanx to Mike Exley for the interview & also Doug Wright for setting the interview up. Pictures used by kind permission. (c) 2005

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