Written by Anthony Toto
For six-years, I took guitar lessons at a local music store called Musicians Workshop in Manalapan, New Jersey where my teacher Ron Nash helped me develop the necessary skill set to learn Ozzy Osbourne masterpieces like “No More Tears.” Every time I walked into the Workshop, the Les Paul collection gleamed into my eyes and created a weekly Wayne’s World moment where I said to myself, ‘Oh, yes! It will be mine.’ Among this wall inhabited by the aura of Jimmy Page and Joe Perry, one Les Paul with a bulls-eye design symbolized a hometown legend that once taught lessons at the Workshop before inheriting the mantle as Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist. If I needed a weekly reminder to practice my pentatonic scales, “The Grail” provided the inspiration to challenge myself so I could pursue my musical dreams.
After resurrecting Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career as a young guitar prodigy, Zakk Wylde expanded his songwriting into uncharted territories of doom-y heaviness when he formed Black Label Society in the late ’90s. Promoting a guitar-driven band during an Ozzfest era consumed with Nu-Metal, Wylde’s fretboard fought an uphill battle against a scene lacking in virtuosity, therefore inspiring a future wave of guitar shredders to push for innovation and emotional expression.
Instilling his humbleness and ferocious work ethic onto his fellow bandmates, this blessed hellride for Black Label Society continues to thrive with its ninth-studio album Catacombs Of The Black Vatican. Displaying a sense of veteran maturity and packed with meaty hooks, Black Label Society’s latest LP showcases some of Wylde’s most versatile guitar work, which speaks volumes about the quality and consistency of its material from top-to-bottom.
In an exclusive interview with Pop-Break, Zakk Wylde spoke in-depth about his songwriting methods for Catacombs Of The Black Vatican and his excitement for an upcoming hometown show on May 9th at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey.
Pop-Break: After 15-years of building this band and fan-base into a brotherhood, how did it feel to see Catacombs Of The Black Vatican land atop the rock charts and in the top 5 of the Billboard charts? The charts show that the numbers for Black Label Society are still growing…
Zakk Wylde: Without a doubt, it goes to show that the steroids and Viagra are apparently working for the Black Label family (Laughs). They are truly taking something, as we’re growing bigger and stronger everyday…and harder (Laughs).
PB: I’d say Catacombs is one of the most melodic albums in Black Label’s catalog. The album just seems balanced with the in-your-face riffs like “I’ve Gone Away” and the softer material like “Scars” sprinkled in between. What kind of sound were you trying to pursue with this album?
ZW: When we got off the road, it’s not like I was stockpiling riffs for the last four years in between the records. I was talking to J.D. (Black Label Society bassist) about that and I said, ‘It’s amazing man, I can’t believe it’s been four-years.’ In the beginning, the early animal house years of Black Label, we were putting out an album every year just like all our favorite bands back in 70’s. If you look at the dates of those classic rock records, it was ’71, ’72, ’73, ’75, and obviously they got lazy (Laughs). Even though I have the home studio (The Black Vatican), it’s not like I live in there and that I’m constantly writing and demoing cause I’m not demoing things anyway. If we’re going to record something, let’s record it for real so there’s no need for a shitty version. It’s like, let’s go in there and sing it well so you could have it forever. I don’t go through cassettes and go, ‘Oh yeah, I wrote this 10-years ago and that four-years ago. Maybe I could turn this into a song?’ We write those songs from beginning to end. Everything you hear on those records, it’s all laid out before we even track it. When we got off the road with Gigantour, I asked Barbara Anne, ‘How much time do we have till the fellas come out here?’ She was like, ‘You have to be out here in 25 days,’ and I was like, ‘Cool, I have 25 days to write a record.’ I just go out there everyday and start writing riffs, riffs, and riffs until I find something I like. The way I look at it, if you’re digging for dinosaur bones, you have a two-mile radius to explore. They are out here and we just have to keep digging till we find them. It’s not a matter of having writer’s block or anything like that, it’s more like, ‘Oh, what did you come up with today? Eh, nothing I liked.’ Whatever, you have 24 more days till the guys come around so you will come up with something
PB: “Believe” wears your Sabbath influence proudly. I thought Chad Szeliga’s (new drummer, formerly of Breaking Benjamin) drumming maintained a loose groove that complimented your riffs.
ZW: To me, it’s Zeppelin and Sabbath as far as riffs goes. Obviously, if you were going to look at the Bach’s, Beethoven’s, and Mozart’s of riffs, it would be Page, Iommi, and Father Blackmore. If you’re a classical musician, you know all the Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart material because that’s how you learned to play. Page, Iommi, and Blackmore are the Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart of rock riffs. That’s how you learn and how you write. It all comes down to riffs and pentatonic scales, just keeping it as simple as possible.
PB: Even with family and life on the road, you remain so committed to your practice regimen on the guitar…
ZW: What helped me learn was listening to John McLaughlin, Joe Cash, and old jazz records. Without a doubt, I still practice every morning because I look forward to it. When I wake up in the morning, let’s say you and me get some coffee and go for a jog, for me, that’s just like running scales. I wake up in the morning and have a cup of java and I like to start running through the pentatonic scales, diatonic scales, diminished scales and patterns. My love for John McLaughlin, Frank Marino, and Al Di Meola and all those guys, ask anybody, if you truly love playing than it isn’t work. I always tell kids that play video games, ‘You’re not practicing video games; you enjoy playing them because you love it.’ And they’re like, ‘I know.’ The next thing you know, five-hours passed by and you don’t even know where the time went. When you’re playing guitar and trying to get somewhere, it’s just like getting to the next level of a video game. It’s like ‘Man, I can play that riff in “Back In Black” now, I knew the chords and my guitar teacher taught me that super cool lick at the end and I could play that now.’ It’s like you reached the next level. That’s the way I look at it, it never gets old to me. I’m not like, ‘Oh, I need to put it down and walk away for a while.’ I love playing everyday!
PB: What’s your take on the state of modern guitar playing in rock and metal? I know you’re a big fan of Synyster Gates from Avenged Sevenfold.
ZW: I think it’s great that Avenged Sevenfold is having all this success; it’s awesome for the whole rock community in general. He’s the torchbearer for the young kids now to play solos, learn the scales, and develop a feel. The same thing with Randy, aside from the amazing songs and solos, he always made it cool to want to learn so you’re knowledgeable with the guitar. He made having wisdom with the instrument cool.
PB: I think it’s admirable to show your support and leave the door open for Nick Catanese and former BLS members. I imagine you’ve seen the ugly side of the industry where bands eat themselves up with inflated egos. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a positive attitude keeps this band moving forward
ZW: Absolutely, we all love Nick and he will always be a Black Label brother. When I called him up to do the new record, he told me that he wanted to keep working on his new project and I just said, ‘Nick, that’s awesome. We love you, kick some ass and keep doing it brother.’ That’s just the way we roll. We’re like a bunch of Navy Seals; we know why we’re here and why we’re getting together. We’re going to go kill some bad guys and than we’re going to come back home. There is no bitching or whining. We all genuinely enjoy hanging out with each other. I love every one of those guys in Black Label because they are like brothers. They are all unique and each brings their own flavor to the soup. It’s just like how Derek Jeter’s going to retire now, the Yankees will retire his jersey and put his name out in Monument Park and then we’re going to welcome in the new shortstop. Hopefully, we’re going to retire his jersey down the line because he meant that much to the team. Everybody enjoys being here.
PB: So far, how have you seen yourself work with (new guitarist) Dario Lorina? Having a young guy enter the world of BLS, how’s the chemistry coming along? What do you see him bringing to BLS in the future?
ZW: I guess it’s like when I joined Ozzy, all the guys I was rolling with were in their 40’s. It’s pretty much the same thing. We don’t haze or bully anybody, I don’t believe in any of that bullshit. The reason why you’re here is because we want you here and you belong here. Dario’s a monster guitar player and he’s super cool. We love having him and you couldn’t ask for anything more.
PB: Songs like “Angel of Mercy” and “Scars,” I felt “Angels” harkened back to your work with Pride and Glory and “Scars” reminded me of Book of Shadows. In general, Catacombs sounds like the culmination of your solo material, Pride and Glory, Ozzy, and Black Label mixed together.
ZW: Thanks man, that’s very cool. Going into this record, is there any direction? No, but the only album we ever made like that was Hangover Music. Let’s make it mellow from the beginning to the end. It’s a roadtrip record and that’s why it’s called Hangover Music (Laughs). The day after partying, you just want to eat your way through the day. I said, ‘Let’s put out this record so you don’t have to skip any tracks.’ It’s something you could listen too while driving around in your truck. It’s just like if we put out a compilation of the mellow Zeppelin tunes on one record. For the rest of the records, whatever I get at the bottom of a box of crackerjacks is what I’m going to get. When it comes to making a record, we’re like a bunch of Vikings that jumped onto a boat and it’s like ‘Let’s cruise out and see what we could find.’ We’re not going to discover anything; we’re just going to run into it. It’s like, ‘Oh, look, here’s America (Laughs)!’ Anybody could write songs and that’s the best part, it’s just fun to come up with new stuff. It’s limitless and that’s the beautiful thing about music. Zeppelin comes up with “Stairway To Heaven” and it’s like ‘You’re never going to be able to top that,’ and than Jimmy Page writes “The Rain Song.” It’s like, ‘You really outdid yourself on this one,’ and then Zeppelin writes “Kashmir” and “Achilles Last Stand.” It’s never ending and that’s a beautiful thing. You look forward to seeing what you could find. That’s the way I look at it. Like I said, I had 25 days to write a record and these are the songs that I came up with.
PB: From the sound of Catacombs of the Black Vatican, your singing has definitely matured over time and I’d say some of these new tracks showcase the best vocal work of your career. How do you approach your vocals live and in the studio?
ZW: I think it’s just a matter of the more and more you do it, you’re bound to get better. That’s what you strive for anyway. If the last record was a 500-pound bench press, you’re looking to go in there and put up 505 or 525. If we lifted 525, that’s great. I’m playing sports like a kid; you’re trying to outdo what you did last season. Even if we won the Superbowl, you and me as the owner and general manager of the team, we’re still figuring out and looking for ways to upgrade the team for next year. That’s just the way I’m wired. I love sports but music isn’t sports in that regard. Someone might say, ‘Even though Led Zeppelin IV is their biggest selling album and the production, songwriting, and performances are amazing,’ someone else might say, ‘I like Presence better than all of them.’ Now, you’re talking about art. I have some friends that like the Van Hagar years better than the Dave years and you and me might like the earlier records. If someone asks me, ‘What’s your favorite Van Halen record?’ I’m like ‘Fair Warning is the best’ but some of my other friends will say ‘The Sammy stuff smoked that shit. 5150 is their best.’ It’s all subjective because it’s music and music isn’t bench pressing. If we’re talking about Pink Floyd, ‘which album do you like better? The Wall or Dark Side Of The Moon?’ I guarantee that if there were 20 of us sitting in the room, it would be amazing to see how many different opinions you would have about which album is better. In sports though, whoever benches the most is the winner (Laughs).
PB: Based off your Instagram, it looks like you bench a lot (Laughs).
ZW: Oh definitely, I like working out for sure. Even during the drinking years, I was lifting. I would go to the gym and I would make sure I brought a six-pack of beer in my gym bag (Laughs). Let me put it this way, we would be drinking while we’re working out and sipping beers in the corner after our sets. Without a doubt, it was beyond comedy. People would ask me, ‘Oh, is that a carb drink?’ (laughs).
PB: With your band’s upcoming show at Starland, how does it feel to come home and still play in front of your friends after all of these years?
ZW: Yeah, it’s definitely cool to come home. I still hook up with my old buddies who come out during the shows. It’s pretty crazy to think we were playing keg parties in Jersey at 15 and 16 and now I’m 47, they’re still showing up and there’s a few more people (Laughs). It’s still just as silly as it was back when we were doing keg parties (Laughs).
PB: I’m also from New Jersey and I actually went for guitar lessons at Musicians Workshop. From what I understand, you taught there early in your career.
ZW: Totally, with Joe and everyone there. That’s actually where I bought my first Les Paul. I paid 800 bucks for a Les Paul custom and that guitar is actually in The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame right now.
PB: The bulls-eye on your Les Paul is such an iconic symbol and “The Grail” just symbolizes your personality. Does it still feel surreal to have your own series of Gibson’s?
ZW: Without a doubt, it feels just like my heroes, Eddie, Randy, and all those guys. I’m truly blessed. I wake up everyday and thank the good lord every morning, middle of the day, and before I go to bed. I’m thankful to do what I love.
Zakk Wylde and Black Label Society perform at Starland Ballroom on Friday May 8. Click here for tickets.