HELEN REDDY. BARRY MANILOW. ZAKK WYLDE.
For the first time since the ancient Sumerians first tapped their chunky cuneiform script into soft clay tablets, a writer has gathered these three iconic names into a single paragraph for all the world to fear and behold. We are of course, referring to the official biography of Zakk Wylde, founder and frontman of Black Label Society, longtime bench press enthusiast and vitriolic foe of all modern hair care practices. In a jaw-dropping display of wanton hubris, Zakk’s biography sees the virtuosic guitarist brazenly place himself in the company of Manilow, Reddy and even The Velvet Fog himself, Mr. Mel Tormé, as he lays out the jewel encrusted origins of his expansive musical vision— comparisons that arrest even the most chaotic regions of the cerebral cortex.
Most will recall that Zakk first stepped onto the tail of his comet before reaching legal drinking age, when Ozzy Osbourne tapped him as the new lead guitarist for his ascendant solo project—a prestige formerly held by the late Randy Rhoads and later Jake E. Lee. After co-writing No More Tears—Ozzy’s highest-selling solo album—and the lion’s share of Ozzy’s 2002 double platinum-certified Ozzmosis, Zakk eventually struck out on his own, forming Southern rock outfit Pride & Glory and then a solo side project called Book of Shadows before finally founding Black Label Society in 1998, where he currently assumes songwriting, vocals and guitar among his many duties.
Fusing the hyper-aggressive thrust of early-90s metal with melodic Southern rock textures, last week saw Black Label Society notch a momentous high in their fifteen-year odyssey, scoring their first Number 1 on the Billboard Top Rock Albums chart with the release of their ninth studio campaign, Catacombs of the Black Vatican, which also debuted at Number 1 on Billboard’s Hard Rock Albums chart. The outfit’s most mature and satisfying effort in many years, Catacombs sees BLS mixing sprawling Allmanesque balladry between the muscular, riff-based pillaging that has defined the band since their 1999 debut, Sonic Brew.
We caught up with Zakk fresh off of the 2014 Metal All Stars European tour, enjoying a bit of a break before setting out on Black Label’s summer campaign, which sends the band (also including guitarist Dario Lorina, bassist John “JD” DeServio and drummer Jeff Fabb) criss-crossing North America, Europe and eventually South and Central America.
Congrats on hitting Number 1 on the Billboard charts. Did you see that coming?
No, but that’s awesome. It just shows that our Black Label family is getting bigger and stronger, and that the steroids are working. (laughing)
You’ve said that you don’t see a huge difference in the sound between Catacombs and The Song Remains Not the Same, but the new album feels notably more focused and aggressive across the board, even with the ballads. Did you have a distinct vision for how the new record would sound when you began writing it?
No, that’s what I think is one of the exciting things about making a new record. We’re like a bunch of Vikings going out and saying, “Let’s see if we can find something.” It’s not so much discovering America as it is running into it. We’re not discovering anything, we’re just running into it, man! Mind you, we will stake the claim that we did discover it though… (laughing) The way I look at it, there’s a bunch of bones buried within this two mile radius and if we don’t find anything today, we’ll just go out there and dig tomorrow. It’s just a matter of us finding them. As far as getting bummed out or pissed off or getting writer’s block, you just keep digging until you find something you like. That’s the truth.
How do you personally approach the songwriting process?
For me it always starts with the riffs—with the music, usually. Whether I sit at the piano and start playing around with stuff like “Heart of Gold” or “Helpless” or something; just something you’ve heard that inspires you to pick up the acoustic guitar and start writing in that vein. It could be “Wild Horses,” or a Credence tune, or Bob Seger. Those instruments lend themselves to that style of writing. I’ve also got a low volume Marshall sitting out in the garage with an octave pedal with reverb—it sounds like I’m playing Madison Square Garden and nobody’s in there—but there I might riff on “Into the Void” or “Whole Lotta Love.” Just riff-oriented stuff because that instrument inspires you to write that way. Don’t forget that there were basically four years between the records. When we got off the road from doing Gigantour with Megadeth, I had been stockpiling riffs and songs for four years.
So was it a relatively quick recording process?
I basically had 25 days to write the record before the guys came out to the Vatican (Zakk’s home recording studio). The only songs that I had lying around were “Shades of Grey,” which I wrote on an acoustic in the submarine when we were out on the road, and I had written “Angel of Mercy” on the piano. Obviously I changed it over to guitar, but there’s still piano in the chorus. The rest of the whole record, like “Scars” and “Fields of Unforgiveness,” were songs I wrote in that 25 days before the guys came out here. Once we recorded the music, I’d take it and sit in the truck and start writing lyrics. I’d think of something I wanted to sing about and I’d start writing the lyrics right there.
The DVD Unblackened bridged the releases as a stripped down and acoustic retrospective of your solo stuff.
Right, that just captured another side of what we can do. As much as I love listening to Zeppelin doing “Black Dog,” I love it when they do “Thank You” or “Going to California.” Like when Neil Young sings “Hey hey, my my…” with the band piling in (hums the melody to “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)“), it sounds so dirty, distorted and amazing! But I also love it when it’s just him sitting with an acoustic guitar playing with the harmonica. To me, both are equally as powerful, it just depends on what mood you’re in.
Did you approach the vocals any differently on this album?
No, the steroids and the Viagra have obviously been working, along with the Valhalla Java. (laughing) Between the caffeine, the steroids and the Viagra, my heart felt like it was going to burst right out of my body, but aside from that, no I haven’t done anything differently than the first album.
You’ve got a couple new guys in the band now—Dario Lorina on guitar and Jeff Fabb on drums. How has that affected the sound?
All the cats that I’ve ever rolled with in Black Label Society, we’re like a bunch of Navy SEALs—everybody knows why we’re there, we’re gonna go kill some bad guys and then we’ll go home. The whole thing is that there’s no bitching and moaning and whining; we don’t have those problems in Black Label Society. In BLS, it’s your gig until you don’t want to do it anymore. Whoever comes in to either fill in for you or take your place, it’s their gig then until they don’t want to do it anymore and then you can always come back and do it again. So Chad was doing the gig with us and then he got offered to go out with Scott Stapp when we had some downtime, after we made the record. Chad was like, “Zakk, I’m going to go out with Scott for a bit,” and I just said, “No problem. Go kick some ass. We love you and you did an amazing job on the record.” This really is a brotherhood. I love all the guys I’ve played with, from the very beginning to the moment when you and I are talking right now, because they’re all unique. It’s like if I owned the New York Yankees—every guy who has put on the Yankee jersey and whose number has been retired and commemorated out in Monument Park — each one of them are unique and amazing and somebody who’s contributed to the team immensely. So now it’s Jeff’s gig until he doesn’t want it anymore, and it’s Dario’s gig until he doesn’t want to do it anymore. Nick (Catanese, former BLS guitarist), was just like, “Zakk, I’m writing my own stuff now and I’m doing the stuff with some guys and having such a blast. I think I’m going to do this full-time.” I said, “Alright. Nick man, I love you, brother. We all want you to succeed and we want you to be happy.” Nick will always be a Black Label brother, so it’s all good. That’s the way we roll and it really makes it unique. The lions only hang out with lions- there are no hyenas.
Dario seems to be receiving an enthusiastic welcome into the Black Label Order.
Somebody asked me, “How’d you end up getting Dario?” You know, with free agency in music nowadays, it’s hard keeping the same team together because guys are making moves all the time, but when Nick was leaving, I looked at the free agency market and I saw that Dario’s contract was up with Lizzy Borden. JD is my general manager, so he was like, “Zakk, I think we should pick him up,” so we got Dario for five years at $168 million. With the album going number 1 on the rock charts and number 5 overall, obviously this investment is already paying dividends. (laughing)
You just wrapped up some dates in Canada—the Evening with Zakk Wylde dates. Will we be seeing more of those types of shows in the future?
Yeah, definitely. I love doing those shows. When we go out with Dario, it’s definitely cool because it’s just the two of us. Obviously we’ve got the band fired up too. Nothing ever gets old, we just mix it up. Now we’re doing the thing with the whole wall of Marshalls and the whole nine yards. I’m truly blessed. I thank the good Lord when I wake up, in the middle of the day and when I go to bed.
Any thoughts on the news that AC/DC might be hanging it up?
That’s just terrible. It sucks. It doesn’t matter how much money you have—even if Malcolm and those guys were just playing at the bar band level, if he was making enough to pay the bills and playing the music he digs playing and then he had to stop, it would still be so sad, man. I just hope he gets better so he can have a good life. It definitely sucks, but all you can do is say a prayer for him and hope he gets better. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love AC/DC, so Malcolm will have no shortage of love coming to him.
What’s on tap next?
For the next two years, nothing but Black Label masses worldwide and saving up enough money to solve world hunger, then buy the Black Label pubs that we’ll use to stop all war. In the middle of any war going on, you just drop these Black Label pubs that have a jukebox with the Stones, Beatles, Zeppelin, Sabbath, Bad Company and all our favorite bands, and everybody will be getting so hammered and have such a good time that they’ll just stop fighting. So I can add that to my Nobel Peace Prize. So there definitely is a grand scheme and a grand plan for this whole thing. (laughing)