A partially sung, part spoken “Huwwwooo there” is how Zakk Wylde answers and has me laughing straight off the bat, breaking the ice for our discussion. The legendary frontman of Black Label Society, lead guitarist and co songwriter for Ozzy Osbourne has taken the time out to talk with Sentinel Daily about song writing, fantasy camps, touring, and the current plight of Gibson guitars.
So thanks very much for taking the time to talk with me. I was lucky enough to get to review the tenth Black Label Society studio album, Grimmest Hits. For someone who has only been aware of Black Label Society in a more peripheral way, hearing songs here and there and not listening the albums as a whole it was really a great ride. How hard does it get to keep writing the kick ass riffs that you come out with, is it challenging to keep it fresh? “Well for this one I had about twenty days to write the record before the fellas come out. The way I approach it is like looking for bones. I get up in the morning, go out there every day, I know there is a natural path and there’s dinosaur bones out there. It’s just a matter of me finding them; we know we’ve got a two mile radius that they’re in. We just keep digging and if we find some today, then great, if not today then we’ll take tomorrow. So it wasn’t even a matter if I didn’t get anything I liked, you’re writing and it’ll come”.
“The guys obviously riff wise, want you to write like the Bach, Beethoven and Mozart of riffs. As far as I’m concerned in this space it’s the (Tony) Iommi, (Jimmy) Page and a lot of (Ritchie) Blackmore there, those are the three big guys. If you were a classical musician you’d know something about Bach and Mozart, they’d be part of your education. So as far as riff wise goes, anything in the ballpark of what those guys play (Iommi, Page and Blackmore)… I mean, they’re the kings. So in the end, I just go out there every day and start writing riffs until you get something you’re happy with”.
“Usually when I write songs, I write them from the beginning to the end. I don’t have bits and pieces lying around. I don’t work like that. Even though we have old material, I might have earlier unused stuff from previous records, to me, you go in recording new stuff. You want to have stuff that is fresh. That’s how it is for me”.
I was reading an article on the top ten guitarists that blew your mind and understand that you have pictures of all those top ten up on the walls of the Black Vatican (your home studio). I hear some of those guys’ influences in the BLS sound on Grimmest Hits (the one that stands out for me is Jimi Hendrix in The Day That Heaven Had Gone Away. Does having those pictures of those legends around inspire you when you are writing? “There is a running joke around the Vatican, I have the same pictures on the wall except they were taped on the wall; now I’ve just got them in big frames. The Vatican basically is my bedroom, but bigger now. Well it is my studio, but now I’ve got gigantic pictures of them now as opposed to pictures I tore out of a magazine back in the day. Those are all my guys, I still listen to them to this day. Whether it is Frank Marino, Robin Trower, Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, between Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi, you always listen to them and you’re blown away by how amazing they are. They really, truly are; all of them and Randy (Rhoads)”.
You can pretty much do anything in a band and in fact, for the first four BLS studio albums you did record everything. What was the writing process for Grimmest Hits? Are you able to run me through how you went about writing for the album, what’s important to you in the song making process? “Like you said, there’s nothing that we really can’t do with Black Label in regards to the stuff I listen to, that I love. You know like with The Day That Heaven Had Gone Away, it’s my love for Hendrix. So it’d be like if we heard something like that and thought; ‘Man it’d be cool if we did something like that’. Doesn’t matter if it’s something cool from (Black) Sabbath or (Led) Zeppelin if we want to make something like that, in Black Label we can. So, with us it’s just do it”.
“So as far as what was I looking to achieve on the record, I think with every record whether it’s all our favourite bands – Zeppelin or Sabbath, or your listen to (Rolling) Stones, it always comes down to the songs. It doesn’t matter what else; even if it’s a new Elton John record. Even instrumental records, say something by Al DI Meola. There’s always a discussion – Did you get the new record? Yeah man, it’s got this one song Race the Devil on a Spanish Highway. You’re talking about the songs. John McLaughlin the same, it’s the songs, it’s not just for his amazing guitar playing, it’s for the songs”.
BLS are currently touring in support of Grimmest Hits, judging by your twitter feed it’s been a great response? How much of the new work is making it on the setlist and how are the crowds liking it? “That just goes to show you the strength of payola, prostitutes and paid vacations and what they can achieve… (we both crack up laughing). It’s amazing, everyone loves the new stuff”.
What’s the best song to play live off the new album? What’s the song that’s getting the best response off the new album? “Well, we’ve noticed that when we’re playing A Love Unreal not only are the people that are in the bathrooms making good tip money, that the merchandise sales are going crazy, that people are just leaving the venue… at that point! When we play that we stop, but that’s a good sign”… Through lots of belly laughs I manage to tell him “You’ve got me now, I wasn’t expecting an answer like that.”
“Best song of all to play live? I love playing all of them, it’s fun going through some of the old stuff. You know we’ve been a band for twenty years now so it’s a lot of fun to play some of those older tracks because we haven’t played them for so long. We’re doing Bridge to Cross, we’ve never even played that one live before so that’s a lot of fun doing that. Obviously you want to try and a little bit of something from each album. Put it this way our problem (in picking songs to play) isn’t quite the problem that someone like the Stones would have”. That one would be harder in which one do we leave out. “Exactly, otherwise it’s going to turn into a seven hour show and the guy at the merch stand will be selling Black Label cots, Black Label sleeping bags, and pillows”.
You’ve got the Rock ‘N Roll Fantasy Camp in April with Dave Mustaine, Paul Gilbert, Nita Strauss and a number of other well-known rockers coming up. Tell me a bit about the idea and what was it that drew you to be a part of that? “I think it’s great; it’s just like Baseball Fantasy Camp or Football Fantasy Camp. I actually went to a football one when I was about twelve years old and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. You got to see and do stuff with your favourite players and their coaches. Put it this way, if I would’ve had the opportunity to do this thing when I was fifteen/sixteen years old… Just playing and I could’ve had the chance to meet Jimmy Page, Randy Rhoads, Al Di Meola or John McLaughlin, I would’ve been all over it. It’s like I get to jam with them and they get to show you some stuff. All the campers are super cool people and everybody has a great time. Like you said, Dave and Paul, I’m buddies with all these guys and it’s going to be great catching up with everybody and having a laugh.
You’re then hitting the road with Ozzy for No More Tours 2. How good is to be back touring with Ozzy? “It’s awesome, it’s basically like we are picking up right where we left off. I’ve always said with Oz it’s a miracle any work ever gets done, ever. We’re just crying laughing. He’s constantly making fun of himself and it never ends man. We were talking the other day about some bands, nobody ever sounded like them, before or after. Talking about The Doors, The Police, The Cars, where are their influences from because they don’t sound like anybody. I then go Oz, with your voice, it’s so unique, nobody has ever sounded like you before and nobody has ever sound like you ever. “He goes” (breaking into a perfect sounding Ozzy voice) “’Yeah, maybe there’s a reason why…” (Then we both break up in laughter again). “He’s a lot of fun. I remember one time I was sitting there talking with him when he wasn’t drinking anymore. ‘Zakky, you know I don’t smoke anymore, I never thought I’d give that up. I don’t drink anymore, I don’t do drugs anymore, I don’t even drink coffee anymore, I’m drinking tea. Why am I alive?’ I go ‘Oz, everybody loves you man, they love seeing you and the music and everything. It’s awesome’. He goes ‘Yeah, I suppose… Why am I alive?’” Further cracking up ensues. “It’s just that all the time”. Everybody in the (Ozzy) camp is great, obviously we’re playing with Blasko (bassist Rob Nicholson). He plays in Zakk Sabbath as well, great guys like Tommy (Clufetos) and Adam (Wakeman). I’ve known everyone for years so it’s just like going back to my home where I grew up, it’s always going to be part of who I am”.
Yeah, well I was going to ask you what you do to keep fresh while on the road, but it sounds like it’s not like a job? “That’s it! I’ve got friends that are my age, when I first started with Oz and we talk about it. So Zakk are you still touring? Between Ozzy, Black Label, Zakk Sabbath, Generation Axe, and Experience Hendrix I’m doing over 300 days a year. So my friends are like I got tired of touring, I want to be home with my family or whatever. I just don’t get that because the whole reason that you have posters of Jimmy Page or Tony Iommi on the wall is so that you can be doing what we’re doing. That’s the whole purpose, so when people actually say to me, you know the running joke – ‘hey Tom, how ya doing?’ And the response is like (a sarcastic sounding) ‘Living the dream’. I literally say, Yeah. I am living the dream”.
Can Aussie fans look forward to you bringing BLS down under anytime this year or next? If Download Melbourne is a success maybe we can talk you into next year’s event. “Yeah, without a doubt! We’re definitely coming down there, Black Label, and I’ll be coming down there with the Boss (Ozzy). We’ll be seeing the Australian and New Zealand chapters”.
So we’ve only really got time for one more question, in the news on Monday (Australian AEDT) I was reading that Gibson is facing imminent bankruptcy. They used to make all your signature guitars, how are you feeling about that? “I still have a lot of friends over there that are like family to me and I love Henry (Juszkiewicz), I had a relationship with him since I was nineteen, twenty years old. You know, Gibson is like Coca Cola and the McDonalds of guitars, so I think they’ll be fine. I don’t think it’ll put Gibson out of business. I think it may be a small step in the road, but I can’t picture them going out of business. It’s like a Fender, a Marshall, you know all the staples in our guitar community, I can’t see that. They’re iconic. You know companies when they throw bankruptcy, they’re probably cleaning a lot of stuff out and then they start over again. I don’t think they’ll go out of business”.
Well it’s now gone over the 20 odd minutes, so I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me. It’s been a great and a very fun interview. “Thank you my brother, it’s been great talking to you”.