INTERVIEW: Zakk Wylde

PRESS002 Credit Justin ReichZakk Wylde’s quarter-century career as shred master supreme is signposted by landmark works like Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tears, his own bands [geo-in country=”Australia” note=””]Zakk Wylde’s[/geo-in]Black Label Society and Pride & Glory, and even brief stints with The Allman Brothers Band (filling in for a gig in 1993) and Guns N’ Roses (joining Slash and co in the last days of that particular G’nR era). But Catacombs of the Black Vatican, the latest album by Zakk Wylde’s Black Label Society does what any artist would strive for but so few achieves: it stands out as a masterwork two and a half decades into Zakk’s career, when many artists would just start to coast. With Catacombs Zakk has forged an album that pays tribute to his various influences – Sabbath, Zeppelin, Alice In Chains, the Allmans – and filters it through his own massive musical personality to come up with his most varied, complete collection of songs ever. And his guitar playing is utterly ferocious, as usual.

As we speak you’re on the Rock N’ Roll AllStars tour in Euripe. That must be one hell of a show!

We’re having a blast out here, man. I just got done doing the Hendrix Experience thing and that was a blast. Basically we were celebrating Jimi’s music then stretching out with solos and taking it out. That’s always a good time. And this is pretty much the same thing. We’re up there doing a couple of Sabbath tunes, some Black Label stuff, and there’s like extended jams on pretty much all the songs! So I’m definitely having a blast. And these last few shows we did were in this packed club, no barrier or anything. It was slammin’. I can’t remember when I last played where there was no barrier. It was definitely awesome.

So I’ve been playing the new album and it’s like everything I ever wanted to hear in a Black Label album rolled into one. 

Cool, brother… actually me too! Haha.

Photo: Justin Reich

Photo: Justin Reich

It sounds like you’re in a good place with this one. What kind of mindset were you in when you recorded it?

We just went in with the mindset of ‘We’re just gonna steal everything from all our favourite bands.’ Black Sabbath, Les Zeppelin, The Eagles, The Allman Brothers, Bob Seger, Creedence, Elton John, the Stones. We just put a grocery list together and said we’d steal each one of ‘em. It’ll be a good formula because we know at least they were successful. I mean, you steal to the point of, instead of stealing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ we just changed it to ‘The Stairway To Heaven.’ If you use the title ‘The’ in it, it usually alters it completely. Look, if we’ve gotta give ‘em ten percent of the publishing, fine! Nah but it took about 25 days to write the record. I remember asking my wife when I got off the road after Gigantour, rolling with Megadeth and all the guys. It’d been four years between records but I’m not on the road stockpiling riffs and song ideas for four years. I mean, Led Zeppelin’s whole career was twelve years. If Jimmy Page actually sat around writing for four years you’d have Led Zeppelin I and then a whole bunch of song ideas up to In Through The Out Door. ‘And it’d be, well, what songs are you going to put on the record?’ ‘Well I’ve Got This ‘Stairway To Heaven’ song…’ ‘Yeah but it’s pretty old now though, man. You wrote that ten years ago.’ I’m just saying that if you ask anybody, it doesn’t matter if you’re a hit songwriter, if you’ve written something five years ago you’re already onto the next thing. What you get the most excited about is what you’ve most recently written or recorded. I don’t demo anything. I have a home studio, The Black Vatican, so if I’m gonna record something I’m gonna do it for real. Just do it the first time! When you get married it’s not a demo, you just get married, y’know what I mean? This is for real, let’s go!

Do you have trouble letting go of a song once it’s done? The old ‘songs aren’t completed, they’re abandoned’ thing? 

Nah, I have no problems with that. Definitely when you’re doing the mixing, y’know what I mean? That’s where you go mad. ‘Should we bring this up louder? Should this come up a bit more?’ I think everybody’s got that problem, when it comes to mixes. But as far as writing songs, the song structures are really easy anyway, and between Led Zeppelin, Sabbath and Richie Blackmore – and you’ve gotta look at Bach, Beethoven and Mozart – y’know, if you’re gonna be a classic musician, that’s part of your education. You’ve gotta learn their music. And if you’re going to play rock music in general, just straight up riffs, then between Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi and Richie Blackmore that is your Bach, Beethoven and Mozart of modern rock riffs. It’s part of your education, part of how you learn. So sitting down and writing the record it’s just riff, riff, riff, riff. The whole record is riffs. That’s all it is! And the mellower songs are a different thing.

Well ‘Angel Of Mercy’ – that song should have been included on the album twice, one after the other, because i can’t just listen to it once through. I have to circle back and play it again before I move on. 

Oh cool, man. That’s a good thing! I wrote that song on a piano. I mean, when those mellow songs come around, that’s just my love for the Stones and the Allman Brothers. When it was time to record it I shifted it over to the guitar. There’s still piano on it in the chorus and stuff like that.

Catacombs_of_the_black_vatican_album_coverAnd in ‘Scars’ you have that mournful, almost David Gilmour-esque, restrained phrasing. 

Again that’s my love for the Allman Brothers. The guitar tone on it is straight-up Dickey Betts, y’know what I mean? Hands down, that’s what that guitar tone is. It’s just all your influences and everything like that. That’s where you draw all your knowledge from.

Well those sounds from those guys back in the day, they represented human emotions that haven’t changed in 35, 40, 45 years.

Yeah! Without a doubt. Yeah. Because it’s good! Like, a good steak house that has been around since 1901, it’s because it’s good and people like it! I’m just saying, Levis and a t-shirt, it’s never gonna go out of style. I mean, loo at the Les Paul, the Telecaster and the Strat. Those guitars have been around since the beginning of time and people are still playing them. I don’t foresee those guitars going out of fashion any time soon!

Well that’s a good point to talk about the guitars used on the album. 

Well, ‘Angel of Mercy’ was Blue Balls, the guitar that got stolen in Chicago, and for the Dickey Betts solo on ‘Scars.’ I used her on those, and the majority of the record was the maple Vertigo – I used that on all the rhythms and some of the solos as well. And on some of the solos I used my Firebird just to mix it up a bit, and I also used my ’58 double-cutaway Les Paul Junior and my ’57 Junior that was a gift from Ozzy. I’ll use those on all the clean stuff, where it’s like ’Scars’ where it’s just a clean guitar, straight in through a Marshall Bluesbreaker or something, so it’s just super-clean. Those P-90 pickups, and the fact that the wood on those things is dried up… Guitars are like crayons,” he says. “You know what sounds you can get out of them and which would work best for what. Or it’s like food ingredients. Like if we’re making Chicken Piccata you’re like ‘Zakk, gimmie some of the lemon juice,’ or whatever. Whatever cooking ingredients or crayons you need, I’ve got ‘em all at the Vatican. We just pick and choose what colours I’m going to use. But the bulk of it is my Marshall JCM800s and I just double-track ‘em. Just two guitars.”

Has Blue Balls come back home yet?

Nah, she’s still MIA. Well… manager didn’t lock the tour bus. Twenty-five-plus years of touring, this has never happened to me once where some assholes actually walked into the submarine and stole our shit. The fucking guitar, the fucking vest, it’s like, what the fuck are you doing, man? That’s the first thing you learn on the road: you lock the fucking bus. That’s the two things you learn: you take a shit you wipe your fuckin’ ass, and you lock the bus. We watched the video tape, saw the three guys right on the bus. Three dudes. Hopefully we’ll get it back.

Tell me about the Moderne of Doom that Gibson recently came out with…

Oh yeah, the Moderne of Doom, I used her on the record as well. The solo in ‘Empty Promises,’ where you’re hearing the whammy bar. I used her for that one. That guitar sounds great. They’ve really done a fucking awesome job with that thing.

DSMZPSBF1-Finish-ShotYou seem to have an appreciation for some of those left-of-centre Gibson models that a lot of players overlook. Like you’ve got a few RD models…

Yeah, totally! Yup! The ugly ducklings of the Gibson family, y’know what I mean? The RD was what my old guitar teacher had and I thought it was the coolest guitar. So they’re like childhood guitars, they just bring back great memories. So I’ve got like five or six 70s RDs I’ve bought off eBay. I’ve got a bunch of those and the Moderne. Because nobody plays ‘em! You’ve got Billy Gibbons and that’s it! Guitar players get together and talk about guitars, and we’ll talk about Billy Gibbons and how great he is but we’ll also talk about how insanely ugly that guitar is! But as fans of guitars it’s funny – I’ll put that thing right next to my Randy Rhoads pinstripe Concorde and it’s an offset V, and Randy’s Concorde is a modern twist on a Moderne. If you put them side by side, well, here it is! A long wing on the top and a short one on the bottom, except the Moderne is round instead of pointy. Randy’s is 21st century, y’know what I mean? And the other one is 20th century. Obviously the Moderne is the Model T and Randy’s Concorde is a Formula One race car.

So Dario Lorina has just joined the band on second guitar. How’d you find him?

Well between social media and everything like that there’s no need to do the whole American Idol cattle call. That makes for great TV – it’d be like a bunch of guys coming in that can’t even play the guitar… that would be hysterical, if you were going to film it and have to sit through all of it. But y’know, it’s word of mouth, friends that you know, any of my buddies who are ass-kicking guitar players, you’re sitting around and they go ‘Zakk, y’know…’ The thing with Black Label is it’s your gig until you don’t wanna do it any more, y’know what I mean? And just because Nick [Catanese] is not in the band doesn’t mean he’s not a bud. It’s Dario’s gig until he doesn’t wanna do it any more. Being in Black Label, the way we roll is like a bunch of Navy Seals. Everyone knows why they’re there, and we’re all gonna go kill some bad guys then come home. We don’t have any bitching and moaning and whining, none of it. We don’t have any of those problems. I don’t have time for it and all the fellas I roll with don’t have time for it. So we’re all happy to see each other, we all do what we gotta do and we all have a great time hanging with each other while we’re rolling. We wouldn’t have any of these problems that bands have, y’know what I mean?

What are your touring plans for this year?

We’re going to keep touring until we save up enough money to open up the Black Label Pubs. It’ll have the ultimate juke box in it, and whenever war breaks out we’ll install one of these pubs right there and it brings the war to an end because everybody has a great time listening to the Stones and Creedence and Sabbath, and everyone gets along and it’ll add to my fifth Nobel Peace Prize. And the more money we make from touring, we’ll put some more towards St. Jude’s and we’ll put more towards world hunger and we’ll just make sure everyone has a good time. And that’s before brunch. So April starts the Black Label armada and the first crusade. The Nobel Peace Prize and the end of world hunger. Good luck with that!