Black Label Society are ready to rage once more, and Zakk Wylde joins us to explain why he painted his studio black and to tell a few tall stories about his new guitarist. Interview by Michael Heatley
All Photos by Justin Reich
When you’re hot, you’re hot, so they say – and as he speaks to Guitar & Bass, Zakk Wylde is most definitely not. Having last year released the live DVD/CD Unblackened, featuring stripped-down versions of songs from throughout the history of his band Black Label Society, he’s been sent north of the border to Canada to promote it.
‘We’re in the frozen tundra doing acoustic rock right now,’ he drawls good-naturedly over the transatlantic phone line. ‘We have the polar-bear pullovers over at the Black Label merch stand, so we’re having a good time out here. We’re on our way to London, Ontario now; that’s an 18-hour drive.’ Are these the worst conditions he’s ever toured in? Zakk just laughs. ‘I’ve been married for 28 years and I’ve got four kids – this is nothing!’
The sub-zero trek has clearly taken its toll, however; the interview was postponed twice as Wylde wrestled with throat problems. At the third time of asking he proves an entertaining conversationalist in the vein of Jack Black or Ted Nugent. The Canadian venture fills in time before promotion of his new, April-released Black Label Society album starts in earnest. It also enables him to get to know new right-hand man Dario Lorina, who joined in January from Lizzy Borden when long-serving Nick Catanese committed to his other band, Kaldera.
‘Nick said “Zakk, I want to invest 1,000 per cent into my own thing, the writing and everything,” and we said, “Okay, Nick, we always support you, we love you brother,” so Nick’s out there knocking that out. We were walking down the street and we saw this 24-year old kid sitting in the gutter, just lying there. And I said, “Look at the state of this one over here! He looks like he would fit in with Black Label really well.” So I had him try my vest on, he looked good, and I said “Great – you wanna join a band?” The lucky thing is we found out he can play guitar, and he’s really awesome!’
So no issues adjusting to your new guitar partner? ‘No trouble at all. And the benefit of him being homeless is we only have to give him half the deal, and he’s over the moon with it!’
Equally happily, new long-player Catacombs Of The Black Vatican has all the BLS hallmarks: indeed, Wylde’s proud pre-release soundbite was: ‘It’s going to be the same as the last nine records, just different song titles.’ As for the album title, it could be said to betray just a little domestic discord in the Wylde household – though anyone who names two of their children Hendrix and Sabbath clearly wears the trousers.
‘My studio is called the Black Vatican, and the studio is actually black. I remember when I told my wife Barbara “We’re going to paint it black and it’s gonna be awesome,” she said “You’re not gonna paint it black. What are you, like 12 years old?” I said “No, I’m 13 and I play in a band called Black Label, not Brown Label, so we’re painting the house black. If you were married to Jimi Hendrix it’d be purple right now!” So we painted it black, and now the studio is the Black Vatican.’
Zakk was laid low by blood clots in 2009 and was forced to cancel a tour with Mudvayne and Static-X. ‘I don’t drink any more and I’ve gotta take blood thinners every day,’ he reveals. So while the four years between last electric album Order Of The Black and his new release is understandable, there had been a similar delay between Order Of The Black and its predecessor, Shot To Hell.
Given the gaps between releases, the process of writing and recording is remarkably quick. When Zakk puts his mind to something, it gets done. ‘We don’t spend six months or a year making an album, that’s insane. You get in there, you knock it out, and you’re done with it.
‘We got off the road after doing the Gigantour [the 2013 jaunt on which BLS were special guests of Megadeth] and I asked my wife, “How much time do I have before the fellas get out here?” She says “You have 25 days”, so I have 25 days to write a record. I’d just have a cup of Lava Java in the morning, go out and crank my Marshall through an octave pedal and some reverb so it sounds like I’m in Madison Square Garden, then I’d start writing riffs.
‘Then when the guys came out, we sat down and tracked 15 songs. I’d have Adam [Klumpp, in-house engineer] burn me a CD, I’d go sit out in the truck, listen to the backing tracks and start coming up with melodies. Then I’d write the lyrics right in the truck and then sing them. That’s it, then the record’s done. It took the guys about two weeks to mix the record, and they did a phenomenal job. JD [John DeServio, BLS bass guitarist] and Adam would be mixing, I’d come in at the end of the day and listen to it, like tasting a soup, and say “A little more tabasco in there, a little more cilantro [coriander]” or something, then it’s all done.’
Zakk with his Gibson SV, a cross between an SG and a Flying V
So, to repeat: Zakk wrote the whole record, from beginning to end, in 25 days. ‘The only things I had were Angel Of Mercy, which I had lying around on a piano, and Shades Of Grey, which I wrote on an acoustic guitar. The rest of it’s all brand new stuff.’ That includes four songs that didn’t make the cut and will not be discarded. ‘For me, bonus tracks are usually throwaway songs, but none of them are throwaways.
Different territories want different things, so I said okay, put 11 on the record and we have four left over to make everybody happy.’
The album runs the stylistic gamut, from the opening Fields Of Unforgiveness with its belligerent chorus, So you think that it’s over/You think that it’s done, to the cool ’50s vibe of Shades Of Grey. The running order was decided upon after the dust settled, but only one place was above discussion. ‘We listened to Fields Of Unforgiveness and thought we’ve definitely got to start the record with it.’
Zakk’s workhorse axe was his custom-built ‘Maple Vertigo’, a Gibson Les Paul Custom with a maple neck, maple body and mahogany back. ‘They did a phenomenal job with that thing, and that’s what you hear on this record. I use the Firebird on some of the solos, like on Damn The Flood. Then I used my Gibson Pelham Blue Bullseye for Angel Of Mercy and some of the other ones. But the majority is that Maple Vertigo.’
When it comes to obtaining clean sounds, Zakk has two go-tos – and both are Les Paul Juniors. ‘Ozzy gave me a Leslie West tobaccoburst for my 20th birthday. It’s got an amazing round and warm sound, so I used that through the Roland Jazz Chorus for Shades Of Grey. I also have a double cutaway Junior [producer] Michael Beinhorn gave me when we were working on Ozzmosis; it’s Les Paul-signed.
‘The majority of the whole album is my new signature Marshall that we’re designing right now. For effects, I use all my Dunlop stuff and all my signature stuff, so it will just be the Black Label Chorus, I use the Carbon Copy if I want to use any delay. Then obviously the Phase 90, my distortion pedal, the Rotovibe and the wah-wah pedal.’
Mention of signature gear brings up the oddity that is the Epiphone Graveyard Disciple, a coffin-shaped guitar inspired by Bo Diddley’s oblong Gretsch. ‘We called it Bo Deadly – that was its nickname!’ As for the ‘Moderne of Death’, reviving a failed Gibson design of the late ’50s, ‘we were talking about how hideous-looking the Moderne is… I talked to Frank over at the Custom Shop and said I wanted to do some tweaks on it and make it 21st century. Block inlays, a Floyd, the EMGs and a body on top of a body, so it’s as thick as a Les Paul Custom. I sent them drawings and they knocked it out of the park with that thing. The guitar is phenomenal.’
Zakk takes at least 20 guitars on the road, plus 10 or 12 Marshall amps. ‘We have the Walls Of Doom and everything like that; I’m running out of two and Dario’s running out of two. It’s in stereo because we use stereo chorus, so it goes to one head and another line goes to another head. Two heads, two cabs.’
Zakk owns more than 300 guitars. ‘None of them are junk. They’re all playable. I have John Entwistle’s book at my house and he said everything he owns, he can play – there’s no junk, and there’s no firewood in there.’
Older acquisitions include signature models from Leslie West, Machine Head’s Phil Demel and the late Dimebag Darrell would be the first he’d pull out of a burning building: ‘The sentimental value on all those fiddles,’ he sighs.
It’s been 15 years since the first Black Label Society album and 20 since Pride And Glory, his first self-fronted project – but to Zakk it doesn’t seem long at all. ‘If you’re always working,’ he reasons, ‘you’re not sitting around and you can’t get bored. For Ozzy, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant or whatever, looking back at when they started Sabbath and Zeppelin, they must look back and think, “Dude, that seems like yesterday”.’
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Only time will tell if Zakk Wylde will be mentioned by historians in the same breath as these legends. But he’s not about to stop trying… come hell, high water or two-metre snowdrifts