akk Wylde has reached a pinnacle in guitar popularity that cannot be argued with.
He got the tough role of lead guitarist in Ozzy Osbourne’s band at the tender age of twenty and over the twenty-eight subsequent years has become simultaneously a rock icon, guitar ambassador, bandleader, and hilarious dad.
Black Label Society, his main gig now (compete with dedicated fans who wear its colours (reminiscent of motorcycle patches), go on tour following the band and carry a masculine code of honour, comradeship and inebriation) has been gone from a band with fans to something resembling the legendary symbiosis of the Grateful Dead and their Deadhead fans. Some people just ‘get it’ and, when they do, apparently can’t get enough.
Hanging on to the end of the dialling receiver, eventually a frail old female voice pipes up: ‘Hello?’ Do I have the wrong number?’ Pause. Hearty guffaws then a thick New Jersey accent, instantly engaging and wildly friendly.
Zakk:[laughing] Hey man what’s shaking over there?
Nothing much, just drinking some wine.
Zakk: Hey listen, you know you may have a drinking problem when you ask your Denny’s waitress what wine goes best with the grand slam breakfast.
Is that from experience?
Z: Exactly. I never thought it was a problem, that it was fucking normal.
The album Catacombs of the Black Vatican, what’s that a reference to?
Z: This is how much of a…. At least… how I explain it to the Immortal Beloved. I go ‘Gosh, you must wake up every morning going “This clown that I married is a fucking Einsteinian genius!”’. And I tell her: ‘Yes, you are the loving winner’.
And of course she replies: ‘What the fuck did I win this time? “Best in hell!”?’
So, if the Black Vatican is the studio,the catacombs would be the songs. So that’s how unbelievably brilliant I am!
I’m disappointed, I was hoping there were going to be some Matrix-based conspiracy theories going on.
Z: The blackness is actually my gaping anus and the catacombs are the dozens of massive dildos I use to impale my asshole, ready for whatever the music business throws at me.
Weight gain, buff thighs, fans checking out your ass… there is a lot of rock and roll banter about Zakk Wylde. How much of this is you and how much is learnt?
Z: The best is when Ozzy went and saw Spinal Tap. Ozzy goes: ‘Zak I thought it was a documentary on Black Sabbath, I didn’t find the movie funny at all because I’ve lived that’.
I mean that really is the joy of being in a rock band, it really is hysterical and I figure it’s a gift that keeps on giving. All those years with Ozzy and then all these years with Black Label, there are so many times that we’ve been on the floor crying laughing. You have to laugh, there is no sense getting pissed off. I mean there is no sense in getting pissed off at a tidal wave. I mean, what are you going to do… stop it?
I suppose. In your tour DVD there was an issue backstage and your humour defused it.
Z: The thing with the video was Timmy our tour manager saying that we’d have to cut our set short to make sure the opening act could do their set. I said ‘What team pays your bills?’. I was like, I can really see Zeppelin and Sabbath and Ozzy cutting their set short so that White Lion gets enough time onstage. No. It doesn’t happen that away.
No, we’re not going to cut ourselves short for some other fucking band. Are you fucking kidding me!?
It’s been 7-8 months since the album came out. There’s a track ‘Beyond the Down’ and admittedly ,this is where I start projecting my own thing onto what I hear but, still…. The opening riff sounds like Far Beyond Driven-era Pantera and the vocals had a double tracked vocal thing going on that remind a listener of Layne Stanley. Was there a sense about that track to mourn people that are gone?
Z: [On that track] musically I drew inspiration from The Carpenters and The Beach Boys and the lyrics are about Alistair Crowley, so there you go.
In a previous interview you said: ‘I don’t understand what preproduction is. Either you know how to play or you don’t know how to play’.
Z: It’s the truth. Let me put it this way. When we did Pride and Glory, when you get an orchestra in to play, you just give them the sheet music and they’ve never heard the song before. They just play it. They might listen to it once and then rehearse to it, and then they’re good to go. You and me will be sat there and press record and they’ll play the song as though they’ve been rehearsing it for the last six months. And they’re done.
You and me will be blown away and they’ll be going, ‘Are we good? Can we go now?’, You and me will be high-fiving each other going ‘Holy shit!’. I’m not joking. You have Adele, you have her come in and sing something for us, she’ll knock it out in one or two takes and say: ‘Are you guys happy with that?’ And I’ll be blown the fuck away because she knows what she’s doing.
Let me put it this way. Any of the musicians that I’ve ever worked with, if you get a bunch of guys together that know how to play, you’ll be fine. You take David Beckham, you take Pele, you take those elite guys and put them in any team, you put ’em anywhere and they’ll make that team better. They know how to play, that’s all I’m saying.
As far as pre production goes, you know? When we made Catacombs I asked the Immortal Beloved, how much time do we have before the fellas get here? She’ll say: twenty five days. Okay cool. That means I got twenty five days to write a record. So I wrote Catacombs in twenty-five days, if I have a Valhalla Java (coffee brand endorsed by Zakk Wylde) and I write two more riffs ‘Oh, let’s track ’em while we’re here’. As far as I’m concerned, that’s rehearsing for before the tour.
Ah, I misunderstood what you meant by pre-production from the sounds of it. You mean that you DO spend the time thinking out what you want people to play ahead of time, and arranging it before you get people in to record. Is that right?
Z: Yeah of course. Yeah, then we’re done tracking it. I’ll take it out to my truck on CD and I just play it over and over until I get ideas for melodies and write lyrics for it.
I thought that was an urban legend that people listened to things in their cars to get a feel for recordings, but you do it for real?
Z: Yeah, without a doubt.
you gotta have passion for
whatever it is you’re playing.
It’s easier said than done.
The Bill Withers cover threw me. There is an old saying (at least from that film Crossroads with Ralph (Karate Kid) Macchio) that goes you ‘You take the blues where you found it and move it on’. I wonder if that applies to you and where are you moving it on to?
Z: I always tell kids that you gotta have passion for whatever it is you’re playing. It’s easier said than done. I remember when Bon Jovi was the biggest band out there, when Slippery When Wet was gigantic. I’m sure that everyone was telling Guns ‘n’ Roses ‘You guys have to be more like this’. And they’d say ‘We’re not into that. We dig early Aerosmith, the Stones, the Sex Pistols. That’s the stuff we get and that’s the stuff we bleed’.That’s what naturally comes out of you, because that’s the stuff you love.
I mean Jimmy page and Robert Plant, they love all that blues stuff and just made it heavier but basically, they’re just playing what moved them. All the bands did that, whether we’re talking about Sabbath, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, any of them. The Stones, The Beatles, all they’re doing is playing the songs they love and pissing wherever they want. You know what I mean? ‘Oh we feel like doing this now. Oh, we feel like doing this other thing now’. It’s just like the truth.
All of those bands are just playing what they really love. Just when Guns ‘n’ Roses were really popular, Soundgarden were doing what they wanted to do ,and I’m sure for Green Day they were being told to be more like Pearl Jam or Soundgarden, but they stuck to their guns and just were themselves.
You’ve championed Avenged Sevenfold in a number of interviews. What do you see in them that really makes you take notice?
Z: I think they’re great for the whole hard rock community, Their success in guitar-driven rock music is awesome. The bottom line is that they’re doing arenas and they’re popular in terms of selling records and having their successes, and all they have to do is mention Black Sabbath and their fans are going to check out what their heroes are talking about. It’s just a passing on of all this knowledge of these great bands that inspire everybody. It’s just an ongoing thing. A bloodline that has to continue. I think they’re brilliant.
Like, I’d champion Joe Bonamassa even if he wasn’t a buddy of mine. He’s brilliant, he’s awesome, he’s a great ambassador for guitar. He champions guitar and all these kids are a finding out about Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, or Jeff Beck through Joe. I think it’s a beautiful thing.
Do you think the blues evolves through technology or through the changing spirit of the people that play it?
Z: I just got done doing the Hendrix Experience tour and all the celebrating of Jimi’s music, and here I play with Ozzy and his influence on me, and it goes to Kenny Wayne Shepherd and it’s all down to his influence on, and our interpretation of, that music. I mean, every night with the Hendrix experience and everyone is telling war stories from when we’re in the submarine. So definitely great times.
I’ve read a bit about the ‘Respect for BLS’ patches and some of the rules about official BLS gear. Can you explain that more?
Z: As I always say, we don’t have fans, we have ‘fams’. You can have a guy that is on vacation and if he’s got the colours on in London then a guy comes up and he’s got the patches on. They’re in a bar in London and they start talking. Next thing it’s: ‘Zakk, seven years on he’s the best man at my wedding!’. The thing that brought them together was the band. So I always say it’s bigger than me, it’s a worldwide community and friends meet up,they road trip and they go to the show. It’s pretty much like The Grateful Dead, people will put together their tour across the States or whatever. It’s kinda the same thing and people have done it and I think it’s a good thing.
People ask me ‘What is the Black Label Society?’ and I tell them straight out ‘It’s an Irish Catholic bowling fraternity’. That’s what’s it started out as, and now it doesn’t matter what religion you are, you just kinda make it your own. None of us can really bowl the 200 yet so we take anybody in coz we suck. Everybody is either drinking or sniffing glue so nobody really knows what the score is anyway.
What are you are gonna do when you lose your abs and your looks?
Z: I’ll just wear bigger clothes! I guess my lingerie line will have to read ‘It’s for guys with curves’
Not to mention hairy! You got any messages for the Trebuchet readers?
Z: Stay strong, bleed black, God bless and the Black Label armada will be rolling through soon. Always make sure that you wear your black label eye-liner, rouge and lip-gloss, because our make-up doesn’t run.
Zakk Wylde, thank you very much.
Z: Take care brother, I’ll talk to you in a bit.
Black Label Society will play Bloodstock 2015, Catton Park Derbyshire, 6-9 August.
Photograph by Justin Reich