Walter O'Brien: Strength Beyond Strength
GW What was your first meeting with the band like?
O’BRIEN I went backstage after that show and begged them to let me be their manager. And they all said, “Well, we thought that’s why you were here!” And that was it.
GW You were in the studio with them during the recording of their major-label debut, Cowboys from Hell.
O’BRIEN I was there for a lot of it. I didn’t have a role in the making of it, but I would go down and sit around and watch while they were recording. And I remember at one point there was talk that they didn’t want to include the song [“Cowboys from Hell”] on the album. And Mark [Ross] and I were like, “You gotta be kidding. That’s the title. That’s the whole thing! That’s gonna be your nickname for the rest of your lives. It’s perfect.”
GW Cowboys from Hell signaled a massive change in direction from Pantera’s earlier glam-metal records. What do you think sparked such a drastic leap?
O’BRIEN It was definitely a lot of Phil’s influence. I wasn’t there for the recording of the album before it [Power Metal], but as far as I know that record was conceived pre–Phil Anselmo. It was written with the old singer in mind. So that album was still the old Pantera. And of course, prior to Pantera, Phil had been in a bunch of glam bands too, so he had that same background as the other guys. But after Power Metal he started coming into his own and getting into the whole hardcore scene. And the other guys dug what he was into. Then, when Phil became a creative part of the band in terms of writing, that pushed it over the top, and you got Cowboys.
GW Is it your belief that had Phil Anselmo not joined Pantera they would have been a very different band?
O’BRIEN Absolutely. I think they might have gone heavier, but Pantera would have never happened the way it did.
GW The way it did happen was that Pantera became the biggest metal band of the Nineties. Was it clear to you when that shift occurred?
O’BRIEN Absolutely. I think it started when Vulgar Display of Power was released [in 1992]. Cowboys had been just a big long slog of a tour. We kept the band on the road a long time, and toured that record to death. Then Vulgar came out, and in my opinion it was a much better album, much closer album to the classic Pantera thing, and we just did the same thing with that. We toured and toured and toured.
By the time they went in the studio for [1994’s] Far Beyond Driven, we knew something big was brewing, and we pulled out all the stops. And the record label was really behind us. We got the head of the label to secure us the Time Warner Gulfstream jet for the week of the album’s release, and we did 10 in-stores in seven days, cross-country, hitting every major market. Then we got MTV involved. We brought Riki Rachtman [then host of the MTV’s heavy metal show Headbangers Ball] onboard the jet, along with a Headbangers Ball contest winner, and they covered the whole thing. At the same time, we put tickets on sale for the tour and had a video [for “I’m Broken”] in rotation on MTV. So everything was in place for a big release week. And Far Beyond Driven came out and debuted at Number One. First metal album in history to do it. That was it. That was the peak.
GW And yet, things had already begun to crack internally. During the recording of the next album, 1996’s The Great Southern Trendkill, Phil refused to come into the studio.
O’BRIEN Phil was always a loner, but when it came to recording the albums and stuff like that, everybody hung out mostly together, and he played his part. But yeah, Trendkill was when things started to change. I actually had to fly to New Orleans with Dimebag and [producer] Terry Date to have Phil record his vocals. He wouldn’t come to the studio in Texas. He didn’t want to. He was just trying to show his strength, I guess.
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