There’s no stopping Black Label Society frontman Zakk Wylde – and who the fuck would want to? Not only is the guy one of the top shredders in the guitar community – able to emulate Randy Rhoads, Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen at the stomp of a distortion pedal – he’s got a repertoire of squeals, scales and solo patterns that he’s practically trademarked. I once interviewed an emerging thrash band about their drinking routine, and one of their favorite activities was a drinking game called the Wylde Frontier, where you put on a Black Label Society album and every time Zakk plays a pinch harmonic (a technique in which the side of a string is grazed by the side of the pick prior to playing the note, creating a bad-ass shrieking sound) you have to drink. “The only problem was,” the musician said, “We were all drunk by the second or third song.”
Aside from Wylde’s guitar skills, he’s an accomplished songwriter, penning tunes for eight electric BLS albums, a disc by the side project Pride & Glory, and a solo album. And when he was Ozzy Osbourne’s lead guitarist he co-wrote some major hits, including “Mama I’m Coming Home, “ “I Don’t Wanna Change the World” and “No More Tears.” Wylde has recently released the live semi-acoustic album Unblackened, which follows the 2011 odds-n-ends acoustic disc of covers and originals, The Song Remains Not the Same.
In addition to remaining a mighty prolific musician, Wylde and his Black Label posse are a powerful live band, tight and talented, able to bowl over the crowd with a diverse blend of chugging riffs, southern boogie grooves, delicate, undistorted passages or mind-blowing solos. But that’s not the main reason I wanted to hook up with the muscular axe master. The truth is, if you know how to ask questions, Wylde never disappoints. He’s witty, acerbic full of amazing stories from more than 25 years on the road, in the studio and behind the rock and roll curtain. And the only thing that slowed him down was an inconvenient episode with life-threatening blood clots in August 2009, which forced him to cancel tours with Mudvayne and Static-X. After he was released, Wylde returned to the road, playing with Clutch, Children of Bodom and Korn and was sidelined only briefly in September 2010 when he suffered another pesky blood clot in his leg. Ever the road warrior, he didn’t cancel the tour.
You had a major health scare there with the blood clots. Are you back to eating pork rinds and downing brews?
No, the drinking days are over, man. I had three pulmonary embolisms with blood clots so I’m on blood thinning medication now. And that medicine doesn’t mix with alcohol.
Is it a challenge to stay sober?
You know it’s funny. People always say, “Oh, one step at a time. It’s a war every day.” And I’m like, “No, it really isn’t.” I stopped because my doctor said, “You can’t drink anymore, numbnuts, because you’re on blood thinners and you’ll start pissing blood and pouring blood out of your asshole.” And I was like, “Wow, that doesn’t really fit into Black Label global galaxy domination, does it?” And he goes, “No, not really.” So I said, “Okay, I guess the pub’s closed.” I don’t have struggles every day and I don’t have to stand on one leg, bathe myself in baby oil, rub my tummy and say a mantra 60 times a day while I’m looking in the mirror to remind myself not to fuckin’ drink because if I drink I’ll be throwing up blood and I could die. So I retired the stein. But everything’s good. I have to take two pills a day and that’s about it.
Did interviewers try to get all deep with you after your brush with death?
Some fucking moron actually said, “Zakk this new album The Order of the Black is really good. I think this is some of your best work. Did you figure that since you were gonna die you should make your best album?” And I go, “No, I just figured I’d write a really good record so I don’t have to talk to any more fucking idiots like you.” It was fucking hysterical, like, “Yeah, y’know, I figured since everything else I’ve done has sucked and I’m about to kick the fucking bucket I’ll write something worth listening to.” I’m grateful for everything I have and every day you wake up and you’re breathing you thank the good lord and you get on with it. I didn’t need a near death fucking experience to realize, “Oh wow, life is precious.” Because if that’s what it takes for you to realize that, you’re a fucking moron.
Is life on the road as exciting as it was when you were partying?
The shows are still great, but man, the Black Label submarine is the most boring fucking thing. You couldn’t even have a reality show with us right now. You’d have to make shit up. We have like, shuffleboard in the back of the bus now and in the front we just sit around like the old guys that play chess in the park. Back when we were drinking during the animal house days there was some fucking form of comedy every fucking night. Obviously everybody was fucking blasted out of their minds and it was gold. We were always having a good time and everyone was laughing their balls off. There was always something to talk about next day. But now I do the show then I get on the fucking bus. I’ll have my chicken and some salad so it doesn’t go to my thighs. And then I take my blood thinner and we hang out and talk for a little while. But then I’m in my fucking bunk and going to sleep. I’m usually the first one up the next morning and I’ll make Valhalla Java for the fellas and we get on with the next day and prepare for the next big hot rocking Black Label mass of doom. There’s nothing going on because we’re not going to shoot and stabs or gay bars or anything. That’s when you had the comedy.
Any great stories about Black Label at the gay bar?
When we were making the movie “Rock Star,” me and Jason Bonham would always go to the Cat & Fiddle on Sunset. One night I said, “Jas, let’s just go to a different bar. Let’s go up the road towards Hollywood Boulevard. There are a trillion bars around there.” So the two of us found this bar and we walked in looking like the Village People. Jason had a shaved head with piercings in his ear and I’ve got a three-piece patch set on and a chain wallet. I see dudes in there and I don’t know if it’s a fuckin’ shoot and stab or a biker bar. I was sizing up whether we were going to get into a brawl. But we walk up to the bar and Jas says, “Get me the usual, a Jack and Coke and a Heineken. So I get the Jack and Coke and two Heinekens. And this guy comes up to me who had to be 58 or 60 years old and he’s got a fuckin’ high ball. He sounded like Paul Lynde. And he said, “Excuse me…” I was waiting for him to say, “Did you used to play with Ozzy Osbourne,” or some shit. And he goes, “I didn’t want to be too forward. I just wanted to see if you didn’t mind if I bought you a drink.” And I go, “Well, you better check with my husband when he gets back. He kind of gets pissed off when I’m with other guys.” And Jason comes out of the bathroom and he goes, “Dude!…” And I go, “What are you saying? We’re not in Kansas anymore?” He goes, ‘Dude I’m standing there and these guys are going, “Oh yeah. And that one with the blonde hair. I’d love to whimswilly his taint!” I go, “Is that what they said?” He said, “Yeah, we better drink these and get the fuck out.” I go, “No, let’s stay for a little while.” This is magic. Then finally when we walked out I turned around and there’s a giant rainbow over the fuckin door. The two fuckin’ morons didn’t see that going in. It was definitely fuckin’ epic. But shit like that happened all the time.
On a musical level, you’ve been laying off the heaviness a little lately. You did the acoustic album The Song Remains Not the Same and now you’ve got a double live semi-acoustic disc Unblackened. Are you mellowing with age? Is your iPod filled with John Mayer and Mumford & Sons records?
Nah. I was doing mellow stuff with Ozzy like “Mama I’m Coming Home.” I’m still listening to the same stuff I was listening to when I first started with Ozzy when I was 14 years old. But I listen to everything. I’ve never just been a metal dude. I listen to Elton John, Bad Company, Allman Brothers, Skynyrd, everything.
Would anything you listen to surprise your fans?
I’ll listen to Sarah McLachlan and then I’ll listen to Ministry. I’ll listen to Crowded House and then Pantera. It depends. I listen to Motown stuff a lot. Even back in the day when I first started with Ozzy we’d sit up in the front drinking and listening to The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Neil Young. Good mellow stuff is great to chill out to after you’ve been playing loud all night. The Black Label guys aren’t as sophisticated. They like Justin Bieber and then we listen to the best of Barney and other children’s collections. It’s awesome. I’m just shitting you, but I always goof on anybody who goes, “Yeah man, fuck Justin Bieber.” I’m like, “You know what’s so funny? How do you even know any Justin Bieber songs?” I don’t. I don’t know any. All’s I know is he does fuckin’ stadiums and I’m friends with his guitar player and music director. I only know one Lady Gaga song, “Bad Romance,” and that’s a fucking amazing song. So I don’t lose any sleep over this music because I don’t listen to it. I can’t be pissed about it. I’m like, “You know what you really oughta ask me is how the Duke lacrosse team is gonna stack up this year because I don’t follow that shit either. That’s why I’m not gonna get pissed off when I find out Duke hasn’t won the championship in lacrosse again. Or the men’s figure skating team or the swimming team. I don’t fucking follow it so I couldn’t give a shit.”
You’ve got two kids in their twenties. Are they Black Label fans?
They appreciate what I do, but they mostly listen to Muse, The Black Keys. The majority of it doesn’t even have guitar in it. It’s just like if you talk to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s kids you go, “Oh, you must be into bodybuilding?” And they’d tell you, “No, I couldn’t give a shit about bodybuilding. That’s what my dad did.”
Isn’t it all about embracing music that’s gonna piss off your parents?
It wasn’t like that for me. My parents are Frank Sinatra people and my dad’s a World War II guy. So when I was listening to Jimi Hendrix I was playing him “The Star Spangled Banner,” and he said, “Wow, all that’s coming out of one guy?” And I was like, “Yeah, dad.” He thought that was cool. He was never like, “What the fuck is this shit you’re listening to?” They were like, “Oh, cool. You like that Randy Rhoads guy? That’s great.” As a parent all you can do is support what your kids dig.
You recently added a fourth child to the Wylde clan, one year old Sabbath Page Weilandt Wylde. Wasn’t three enough?
When I look back at it I think, “Yeah, ‘cause there’s four motherfuckers I gotta feed.” So now I gotta tour a little bit longer. But at least he’s another tax deduction, so that’s not a bad thing [laughs]. Seriously, man, it’s very fuckin’ awesome having a kid, but you don’t have to lose your shit about it. Rae, our daughter is 21 now. When he’s five years old and she takes him out people will be going, ‘Oh, is that your son?’ And she’ll be cursing our names, like, ‘Thanks, mom, thanks, dad. Morons!’”
Did you film the birth or cut the cord?
No, but as soon as the little guy popped out, I jumped on the table and made mad, passionate love to my wife. I figured she’s already in the stirrups and everything. It’s game on [laughs]. It’s so funny because I was actually way on the other side by her head the whole time. All these guys go, “Man, seeing the birth of my child was amazing!” And I’m like, “You know what? They took Santa from me. The Easter Bunny’s gone. There’s gonna be some kind of fantasy that I’m not gonna let die. I don’t have to see what goes on down there. As far as I’m concerned, they never go to the bathroom, and I’m gonna keep that fantasy. No one’s gonna steal that from me. So no, I don’t go downstairs and see what’s happening. I stayed up by Barb’s head and held her hand and rubbed her head. I don’t need to know what’s going on down there. That would have ruined everything for me. I don’t think I’d even want to jerk off if I saw that.
What was your first memory as a kid?
My first memory of anything was the first day my parents dropped me off at school. I thought they were fucking leaving me. I was terrified. I cried and cried.
You established yourself as a musician playing with Ozzy and wrote with him for years. If he asked you to come back and write some more stuff would you go?
Yeah, it’s my home away from home and it always will be. That’s where I came from and grew up and I love them. I always tell Ozzy, “I’m just a phone call away.” But until then, I’m buddies with [Ozzy’s current guitarist] Gus [G], and Gus is an amazing player, so he’s the man. But if Gus’ wife got pregnant and he goes, “Zakk, I just want to be home for the month. Can you fill in for me with Ozz,” I’ll go, “Yeah, just gimme the set list and tell me what you want me to learn.”
It’s amazing how good-natured you’ve been about you’re departure from Ozzy’s band. A lot of musicians would be bitter about being replaced.
Why should there be any ill will? Without Ozzy, I wouldn’t have had the chance to have this whole life in Black Label and everything else. That’s just the truth, man. So I’m forever grateful.
As a player, do you still practice for hours a day?
I practice every day because I love it. It’s like saying to a video game guy, “Do you play those games every day?” And that’s why I try to tell kids who think guitar is too hard. I’m like, “If you’re playing a video game and you get to a certain level and go, ‘Man, I can’t get past that one thing. I get there every time and I die.’ Well, look at it like that when you’re playing guitar when you’re trying to learn how to play ‘Heartbreaker’ or the solo to ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ It’s just repetition, man. You gotta do it over and over and over and over. And then eventually you’re gonna get it.” But I never looked at practicing as practicing. Again, it’s like someone who loves playing videogames. I’ve always played guitar because I’ve loved it. Practice sounds like it’s work. I enjoy every second of it. While I’m sitting there watching a Yankees game, I’ll have a guitar in my hands and I’ll be running scales or playing patterns. I did that back when I was drinking and I’d be like, “Man, it don’t get much better than this.”
When will you start working on another Black Label Society record?
I’ve got a bunch of ideas right now. It’s gonna be heavy. It’ll have all the stuff people love about Black Label. But right now we’ve got the album and the DVD to plug. The album sales will go to support my Viagra habit and the DVD will go to my Cialis habit. So If you have it in your heart to buy both you’ll make my wife very happy.
You came from an era when album’s actually sold lots of copies. Is it frustrating to write records that most people are gonna get hold of through file sharing?
At the end of the day, if you’re a musician and you can make a living playing the music you love and do it the way you want, you’ve made it? You’re actually playing music for a living instead of doing some crummy job you can’t stand. And that’s the truth about life in general, man. Whatever it is you have passion for and whatever it is you love, if you’re able to do that and make a living, you’re blessed.
Follow Jon Wiederhorn on Twitter - @louderthanhell