Guitar gods: Zakk Wylde and Jerry Cantrell on wielding the ax

September 17th, 2015 10:55 am

First Posted: 5/1/2014

‘Bigger than a band’

When the Weekender calls Black Label Society frontman, guitarist, and pianist Zakk Wylde, he’s in Alabama, looking back on last night’s “big Black Label sock hop” in Orlando, Florida the night before.

“Then it’s off to shaving my legs, finding new lip gloss and rouge for the big rock show,” he cracks, his offbeat sense of humor shining through almost every topic brought up.

What’s also funny, he notes early on, is that despite becoming known at a young age as Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist, replacing Jake E. Lee, on iconic albums like 1991’s “No More Tears,” he initially lost interest in the instrument he’s now inseparable from.

“I was, and I still am, just a huge Elton John guy, so it’s funny that I ended up playing guitar first. Then I got onto piano, obviously. I had an acoustic guitar,” the New Jersey native began.

“My parents had me taking lessons and stuff, just introducing us to things. It’s good parenting; you just introduce your kids to stuff and whatever they gravitate to, if they really like something, then that’s great. But at 8 years old, I wasn’t ready to commit myself and practice because I wanted to hang out with my friends. It would be summer and I’d be hanging out with my friends and everything like that, wanting to go swimming, play Wiffle ball and football and hang out. As far as me having the music bug then, nah, I wasn’t interested in sitting and practicing for 8, 10 hours a day, so I quit.”

It wasn’t until he was 14, when he was at his football coach’s home discussing his future as a player, that he decided to give it another shot after spotting a Gibson Les Paul in the living room, which belonged to the coach’s son, Leroy.

“Leroy came out, and it was the first time I ever saw a guy with long hair or anything like that, so I was just blown away by that, and then all of a sudden he just picked up the guitar, and just to physically see him wailing on the guitar – he’s playing ‘Purple Haze,’ I think he was playing some Van Halen, some ‘Eruption,’ and then playing ‘Crazy Train’ because Ozzy just started with Randy (Rhoads),” he described.

“I was just completely blown away. I just looked at his hands, and I was just watching. I was just mesmerized. I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life.’ It was like right there and then I knew I was going to dedicate my life to playing guitar. Right then and there I knew what I wanted to do.”

Now 47 and married with children of his own, Wylde is well-established as the founder of Black Label Society, formed in 1998 and steadily growing each year, as evidenced by the band’s latest album, “Catacombs of the Black Vatican,” which debuted at No. 1 on both the Independent Chart and the Hard Music Chart and at No. 5 on the Billboard 200.

“It just shows that our Black Label family is growing bigger and stronger every day and that the steroids and the Kimmy Kardashian QuickTrim are kicking in,” he joked.

“I’m blessed to be able to do what I do. I thank the good Lord when I wake up in the morning and in the afternoon and before I hit the sack, man. I’m blessed that we have our Black Label family and the whole nine yards, without a doubt.”

He describes his group as a “brotherhood” and a “fraternity,” allowing band members to come and go to fulfill their own creative endeavors while always keeping the door open for future collaboration.

“I love all the guys that I’ve ever played with. They basically built the franchise because every one of them are unique and have added their own flavor to the soup. … We all love each other and we all roll with each other, so if you get an opportunity to do something and you can (do it), then go for it. You always have a home here,” he said.

“I’d have to invent Black Label if I didn’t have it. I want to be more than just a guitar player.”

Even Wilkes-Barre’s own Chad Szeliga, formerly of Breaking Benjamin and currently playing in the Black Kocks of Echo Creek, joined this brotherhood, recording drums on “Catacombs.”

“Chad’s awesome, man. We love Chad,” Wylde enthused. “He’s just the cobra of chaos.”

Headlining the Revolver Golden Gods Tour, which stops in Stroudsburg on May 13, Wylde is often referred to as a god himself for his incredible guitar skills, but the ax man just laughs off the title.

“I think it’s pretty hysterical. I usually throw that word around with the wife; it usually doesn’t guarantee or actually achieve any results ever, but I’ll just throw it around for the George Carlin factor,” he said, though he had no problem seriously discussing his songwriting process.

“For me, it always starts with the riff. If you’ve got a riff like ‘Black Dog’ or ‘Whole Lotta Love’ or whatever, it inspires you to want to sing something over it. To me, it’s always the riff is what gets you going. If I’m sitting on an acoustic or the piano, obviously if you’re hearing something like ‘Against the Wind’ by Bob Seger, him strumming those chords pretty much inspires you to want to sing something over it, or ‘Melissa’ by the Allman Brothers or something like that. For me, it’s usually the music first and then it’ll inspire me to want to sing something over it, and then lyrics are always last.”

His records come together rather quickly in a “massive outburst of creative energy,” and “Catacombs” was no different, with only 25 days between tours to pull something “out of my ass.”

“The way I look at it, we’ve got a 3-mile radius and there’s dinosaur bones out here. We’re going to find them, but we’ve just got to keep digging. If we don’t find any over here today, me and you will go to Ruth’s Chris (Steak House), go get something to eat, and then we’ll start again tomorrow over there,” he mused.

“You just keep writing riffs and writing until you get something you like. … You’ll know when you have something.”

He knows talent when he sees it, too, recruiting young guitarist Dario Lorina to join Black Label Society earlier this year, continuing a tradition that propelled his own career.

“When I first started with Ozz, here I am 20 years old and I’m rolling with a bunch of guys that are in their 40s, but like I always say, ‘Lions hang out with lions,’ and no one’s going to alter my thinking on that one. You have guys that have work ethics; they don’t surround themselves with lazy piles of s—t. They just fall by the wayside. Lions don’t hang out with hyenas, man; they just don’t. So the whole thing is you’re either a lion or you’re not. Navy SEALs hang out with Navy SEALs,” he explained.

“That’s what it is with Black Label. We all know why we’re here, and we’re going to go kill some bad guys and then we’re going to go home. So Dario just fits right in. He can play, and on top of it, he’s a great kid.”

Wylde enjoys the unpredictability of the music business, comparing it to a box of Cracker Jacks – “You never know what you’re going to get until you get to the bottom of the box. It’s a surprise all the time.” – and savors every step of the process, from the writing and recording to the production and album artwork. His fans, spread out in “chapters” across the world, undoubtedly appreciate all that work, though the feeling is obviously mutual.

“We don’t have fans, we have fams, so it’s just one gigantic family,” he emphasized.

“For instance, we were just having lunch a couple days ago and this couple was sitting at the bar where we were eating and they said, ‘Hey, Zakk, what’s going on?’ … They go, ‘You’re the reason why we’re married … My husband was wearing a Black Label shirt (when we met).’

“It’s bigger than a band,” Wylde concluded. “Every day I look forward to it.”

Never a ‘straight job’

Even though Alice in Chains has released a long list of crowd-pleasing songs since their debut album in 1990 – including “Man in the Box,” “Rooster,” and “Would?” – the integrity of the music itself has always been the Seattle rockers’ top priority, not the listeners themselves.

“We’re trying to make good music, and I think that’s probably everybody’s goal, so as a musician, you try and make some music that makes you happy and then maybe connects to other people as well and maybe last. Maybe you don’t think about that so much when you start, but it’s kind of nice when that ends up happening. It’s satisfying in the first form just because you’re basically just doing it for yourself; it’s what you wanted to do, and this band’s always kind of approached music that way,” guitarist and co-vocalist Jerry Cantrell told the Weekender in an exclusive interview last week.

“We’ve never approached it with the audience in mind first. It’s always with what we want, what we can achieve, and trying to move forward and create something new and different and something that we’re proud of, and that pretty much is where it stops after that. We don’t really have any control over that. You can hope, you know? You can hope that people dig it.”

The band’s consistent staying power through lineup changes and hiatuses proves that people do indeed dig this music. While the band rose to prominence during the grunge era, they were always much more than that label, so when Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney, and bassist Mike Inez had the chance to reunite in 2005 and 2006, years after singer Layne Staley passed away, they seized the opportunity to play with many famous guests, including William DuVall, who would eventually become their new vocalist.

“We decided to restart, and that was a big undertaking unto itself. It was more of an exploratory thing for us,” Cantrell recalled, looking back on the creation of their successful comeback record “Black Gives Way to Blue,” released in 2009.

“We got a chance to play together and play these songs with a group of friends, including William, and then we just started to maybe go out and play the music one more time and play the songs for everybody one time, take it across the world, which we did, and then probably just put it to rest. But during that process, we started coming up with ideas, and they were really good ideas, so we went through the process to satisfy ourselves, I guess, to see what we could come up with, and we came up with that record, which I think is a very important record in the career of this band and a very bold and fearless record, to be able to take on all of the elements that are involved in restarting something like that and moving ahead, moving forward without tarnishing your reputation before, without bringing any dishonor to the legacy, including for Layne and (founding bassist) Mike Starr and all of us.”

Even with that album and subsequent touring under their belt, Cantrell admits that it didn’t make the creation of their 2013 follow-up, “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here,” any easier.

“It’s work. It’s a balancing of creating this new thing and kind of letting it go where it needs to go, and you’ve got… all those individuals, you’ve got your producer involved, and probably your management wants to get their nose in there too and (we) kind of shut the door on that, but I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s a very fluid situation and you just keep going and going and going until it’s done, and when you know it’s done is when you all can look at yourself and go, ‘OK, we can’t do any better than that. That’s it,’” the songwriter and lyricist said.

“The great thing about being a writer is you can be whatever you want to be. You can make things autobiographical, or you can make them sound autobiographical and they’re not. They’re about little bits and pieces of other things all put together. As long as it tells a little bit of a story, I guess, and has some emotion in it and performed like you mean it, and for us, we’ve probably leaned on the sharper edge of that throughout our career, and that was a conscious decision to do that. So there’s a lot of us in there, and has been throughout our career.

“I personally like to leave things a little open and vague and you can find what you want to find in there, as you should.”

Unfortunately, that also leaves those songs up to misinterpretation as well, particular on the record’s title track, which references creationism.

“People miss the point, like we’re trying to attack people that have a belief. If you look any further into the song, you can see there’s a line in there that says, ‘No problem with faith, just fear,’ so I don’t have any problem with anybody’s belief or faith or anything like that,” Cantrell noted.

“It’s not the first time we’ve written about the subject. With ‘Man the Box,’ we had people picketing our shows for us saying, ‘Deny your maker.’ As a matter of fact, we just played Singapore and they wouldn’t allow us to play the song because of that line. I guess nobody read the following line, that, ‘He who tries will be wasted.’ There’s a valid story in there. We’re not trying to push anything on anybody, but you also cannot ignore a lot of heinous s—t that gets done in the name of believing something and outright denial of facts that gets perpetuated from generation to generation. I think it’s a mind killer for an individual, stunting somebody’s growth.

“It’s not coming down on anybody for any particular belief system. It’s just when that belief system is used as a tool to hurt, hold back, discriminate, or even kill somebody because they believe something different, then that’s what that song is about.”

Not born into a religious family, he traces this feeling back to his mother, relating a childhood memory that had crossed his mind earlier that day.

“I asked her, ‘Why didn’t you take us to church? What am I? Am I Christian? Am I Lutheran? Blah blah blah,’ and she’s like, ‘I wanted you to make up your mind for yourself. You be whatever you want to be. You be what makes sense to you,’ and that’s cool.”

His youth also shaped his love for touring the world with his multi-platinum-selling band, which entered Billboard’s Top 200 Chart at No. 2 and debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Albums Chart, Top Rock Albums Chart, Hard Rock Albums Chart, and iTunes Rock Album Chart with the group’s latest effort.

“You definitely have to have that sort of gypsy blood in you, and I definitely have that from being an army brat when I was a kid. We were moving around all the time, so I kind of got that and I think all the other guys have that too. Being in a band, we’ve been able to see the world, literally, go all over the planet, and the cool thing about it is that magic is still there, and that’s the reason I started it anyway. I figured that out at a really young age, the magic of creating something that touches somebody else that you probably will never meet, but you share kind of a feeling or an emotion with somebody, and it’s a pretty primal thing.”

Cantrell, 48, has collaborated with many other chart-topping musicians and even contributed to various film soundtracks over the years, but his “first and foremost commitment and love” remains Alice in Chains, and that love is shared by an audience that grows each and every year the band adds to its musical legacy.

“The audience is so multi-generational. It’s really cool to see. A lot of young kids really dig the band and have dug back and found the band. A lot of them found us through the last two records,” he pointed out.

“It’s pretty cool. I always joke about it, but it’s pretty much true – I’m pretty lucky that I still don’t have a straight job.”