Zakk Wylde: Psycho Circus

Originally published in Guitar World, October 2010

Step inside the big top for this fall's Berzerkus tour starring Black
Label Society, Children of Bodom and a cast of heavy metal monsters! In
this Guitar World exclusive, stringmaster Zakk Wylde takes you behind the freakiest show on Earth.

It's a bit unusual—unsettling, even—to see Zakk Wylde without a beer in his hands. But what's even stranger is how Zakk doesn't seem any different, even though he's been bone-dry sober since August.

"Drinking was a huge part of my life," Wylde admits. "I could drink beer throughout the whole day and just chill. I'd have a few beers while I was sitting around practicing, or nurse a beer while watching a Yankees game. I even used to drink beer when I was lifting weights. I was never into contests where you pound down beers—I'd lose anyway. For me it was more of a social thing."

Zakk has a very good reason for staying sober. When he entered the hospital last summer to find out why his left calf was bothering him, the doctor discovered that he had blood clots in his left thigh and both lungs. Blood tests also revealed that Zakk's liver enzymes were dangerously high and that he was at high risk for developing chronic pancreatitis.

“My doctor told me that pancreatitis was the last thing I wanted,” he says. “Half of the guys who have it die on the operating table or within three days of the operation because their bodies reject the medication. It’s not like you get an operation and live until you’re 80. You’re lucky if you live two years after the operation. He told me he could think of a million better ways to die. You don’t need to go to rehab when the doctor tells you that. For me that was the end of my drinking.”

The recent deaths of Slipknot bassist Paul Gray, Type O Negative frontman Peter Steele, and Ronnie James Dio serve as further reminders to Wylde that rock stars are not immune from the Grim Reaper’s scythe. And he wasn’t going to wait around until scientists completed their studies on Ozzy Osbourne’s DNA to figure out the secret to surviving a lifetime of substance abuse either.

“A lot of guys passed away this year, especially guys from my generation,” Wylde says. “Bret Michaels was really messed up for a while, and we all thought he was going to die. It just was time for me to chill out on the sauce. I’m sure if Dimebag was still around, he’d be chilling out as well by now. The majority of my buddies are the same way. Slash and Jerry Cantrell don’t drink anymore. We had a good run. You think I’d like to have a beer right now? Of course I would, but I can’t. Game over.”

While it may be game over for Wylde’s drinking, his other source of dementia—Black Label Society—is going as strong as ever. Over the past 12 years, Black Label Society have released eight studio albums, including their latest effort Order of the Black, a live album and two live DVDs. Order of the Black was recorded at a new studio called the Bunker that Wylde built in the second house on his sprawling 10-acre compound north of Los Angeles. The album delivers the bone-crunching Sabbath-inspired riffs and classic Ozzy-influenced melodies we’ve all come to know and love from Wylde, along with the squealing, breakneck solos that are his calling card. Wylde indulges his Elton John piano fetish on “Darkest Days” and “Time Waits for No One,” but metalheads should resist the urge to skip over these mellower moments lest they overlook his stunning solos. “Chupacabra” offers a brief interlude of Paco de Lucia flamenco madness, and the album concludes with the Neil Young–flavored acoustic guitar and strings of “January.”

This fall, after a summer headlining Ozzfest’s second stage, Black Label Society will lead their own Berzerkus tour with Children of Bodom, Clutch and 2Cents in support. After that, Wylde will bring the Black Label show to the farthest corners of the planet, including Russia and China. “It’s an actual world tour now,” he says. “I just did a promotional tour in China, and it’s crazy over there. They didn’t even have electric guitars until recently. They were making them, but they weren’t playing them. They think hair metal is like the coolest thing that ever happened in earth’s history.”

Wylde remains an outspoken and jocular personality, even without alcohol flowing through his veins. Clutching a cup of New York City’s finest sewer-water deli coffee, the highly caffeinated guitarist actually seems more outrageous and intense than ever, both in his antics and his playing. If Wylde’s solos on Order of the Black are any indication, the Berzerkus tour should provide guitar fans plenty of thrills and chills along with Zakk’s usual clowning around.

GUITAR WORLD What inspired you to do the Berzerkus tour?

ZAKK WYLDE After playing for so many years, I’ve gotten to know a lot of guys in other bands. You just give them a buzz to see what they’re doing and if they want to go out on tour. Alexi was my first choice, because he’s part of the new breed of kick-ass guitar players, along with Gus G.

GW How does it feel to be headlining the second stage of Ozzfest with Black Label again instead of playing on the mainstage with Ozzy?

WYLDE I played one Ozzfest with Black Label when Joe Holmes was playing guitar with Ozzy. It was great to see Joe up there. Me and Dimebag were standing on the side of the stage, and I was telling Dime that it was actually pretty cool to watch somebody else up there playing my shit. Joe was nailing it note for note. To me, it would be like having Randy Rhoads or Jake E. Lee on the side of the stage watching me play their stuff.

Gus is a major guitar player, so I know he’s going to be awesome. I’d be more than happy to fill in for a couple of weeks if Gus’ wife was pregnant and he had to go home, or he had some bizarre masturbatory accident in the back lounge of the tour bus and sprained his wrist. But it’s Gus’ gig. Ozzy is like my alma mater: it’s like I played for Penn State, but now Gus is wearing the uniform. If they’re playing for a national title, I’ll go down there and flip the coin. Playing for Ozzy is like playing for the Yankees. You’re expected to win and you’re supposed to perform at a higher level than everyone else. It’s the most coveted guitar spot, because Randy set the standard.

Playing with Ozzy is part of who I am, and I’m proud of that, but I’m having a great time doing Black Label 25 hours a day, eight days a week. All the guys in Black Label have their own projects as well. Like, JD [bassist John DeServio] has Cycle of Pain, Nick [Catanese, guitarist] has Speed X, and Will [Hunt, drummer] still plays with Evanescence and Static-X. All those other bands are like branches, but Black Label is the tree. I always tell the guys that they can do other things but Black Label is the mothership. I want JD to still do his jazz clinics. There’s no reason for him not to. We can always make Black Label records.

GWOrder of the Black is the first album you’ve recorded at the Bunker. Why did you build your own studio?

WYLDE Whenever we would be in the studio at the end of the night, getting sloshed and listening back to tracks, I’d never want to take a chance driving home. I’d just crash on the couch instead, since I had to go back to the studio in the morning anyway. It cost me an extra $1,000 a night to stay in the studio. Now I’m saving myself $1,000 a night, but I’m not drinking either. If I had this studio back when I was drinking, I could have crawled back to the house. I sure picked a fine time to stop sniffing glue!

GW How have you adapted to sobriety?

WYLDE I still enjoy going out to bars, hanging out and shooting shit with people just to get away from music for a while. After doing a show I like to go out to a nice Irish pub—not a rock club—where nobody knows who I am, and just sit at the bar and chill out with the guys before we have to drive another 17 hours to the next town. I still go out to bars, but now I drink the fake stuff, and I act fake drunk and get into fake fights.

GW Just don’t get thrown into fake jail.

WYLDE Fake jail would not be good. You get in there and go, “They’re beating the hell out of me. Is that a fake cock in my ass? It feels real!” [laughs] I started drinking on weekends with the guys when I was 14 years old, saving up all my money to buy beer. My buddy Scott’s older brother would buy us beer for the weekend. From 14 to 43 wasn’t a bad run. It’s not easy to just stop. People ask me if I miss it, and of course I miss it, just like I miss getting blowjobs from my wife. I never reached a point like some guys who were sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. I never felt like that. I just needed a couple more beers and I felt human again.

GW Now that you have your own studio, will you be working on projects with other bands or doing some solo work?

WYLDE Eventually I’m going to start my own label, and I’ll produce, record and mix the bands that I sign in the studio. I want to get more involved in producing. I’m always shocked that Jimmy Page never went that route in the Eighties after Led Zeppelin called it quits. Even if Bonzo hadn’t died and Zeppelin still ruled the world, I could see Jimmy becoming another Mutt Lange. Who wouldn’t want Jimmy Page to produce their album? There’d be a line around the building of artists who’d want to work with him and have him put the Jimmy Page magic on their music. I can see myself doing more work as a producer when I get tired of touring, or doing more mellow stuff, because you don’t want to kill yourself doing heavy lifting all the time.

GW Are you going to branch out more and make some instrumental guitar records that showcase your other influences, like Al Di Meola and Albert Lee?

WYLDE I love listening to Di Meola, John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia. I never would have heard of those amazing artists if my guitar teacher didn’t tell me about them. I loved Tony Iommi and Jimmy Page, but my teacher told me I should check out Di Meola and McLaughlin, and Steve Morse and the Dixie Dregs. I knew nothing about them until he told me about them, but I knew who AC/DC and Van Halen were.

A while ago, Joe Satriani asked if I wanted to do the G3 tour. I told him that I don’t make guitar records. I might put an acoustic “Spanish Fly”–style guitar piece on a record, but I wouldn’t do a whole record of that stuff. My idea for a G3 show would be like a Black Label show, and I don’t know if having a whole bunch of Berzerkers come to a G3 show is such a good idea. But Joe and I have talked about doing something together sometime, so who knows?

GW Your output has been pretty prolific. You’ve put out eight Black Label studio albums in 12 years.

WYLDE I like to work. This is the longest break we’ve had between putting out albums, but it’s been good for us. Sometimes you just need to go away for a while. We were pumping out albums the same way bands used to in the Seventies: we’d make an album, go on tour, and then make another album without taking a break. Look at the catalogs for Sabbath, Zeppelin, Skynyrd, Ted Nugent, Bad Company or any other band from the Seventies. The most time they took between albums was two years, and that whole time they were touring behind a record. I don’t know what takes bands so long to make an album these days. I go into the studio without any songs. I might have a riff, but I don’t have any lyrics. When I get into the studio, I’ll come up with something. I’m not like Elton John, where he gets his lyrics from Bernie Taupin and writes music to them. With Sabbath, Geezer would write the lyrics around Ozzy’s melody. That’s the way I do it: I come up with a melody, and then I put the lyrics around it so the syllables fit.

I have a piano and an acoustic guitar in the studio, and whenever I sit behind one of those, I usually come up with something melancholy. If I pick up an acoustic guitar, I come up with songs that are like “Yesterday” or a Creedence tune or something by the Eagles. When I get behind a piano, the songs are more like Elton John or Neil Young. When I crank up the electric guitar and run it through an octave pedal, I just want to keep writing riffs. Once I get tired of writing the heavy stuff, I take a break and start writing some mellow shit, and when I get bored with that, I go back to the heavy stuff.

GW What was the inspiration for Order of the Black?

WYLDE To me it’s always about the tunes. All the old bands I love, like Sabbath, Zeppelin, Bad Company, Elton John, Neil Young and Skynyrd, never went, “This album is heavier than our last one”—it was just another great record with a lot of great songs on it. That’s one thing that used to bother me about Father Dime: every time Pantera put out a new album he’d go, “It’s even heavier than the last one.” How much heavier can you get? Anything can be heavy for the sake of being heavy. How are the riffs? Are the songs good? Black Sabbath’s “Symptom of the Universe” is heavy, but it’s also a great song. Tony and Geezer are playing great and Ozzy is singing his ass off. Alice in Chains are heavy, but their albums also have great songs.

GW What recording equipment do you have in your studio?

WYLDE It has all of the important shit you need to make stuff sound slammin’: ass-kickin’ microphones, all of the plug-ins, great EQs. We have Pro Tools, which can make stuff sound amazing. We were going to put a two-inch tape machine in there, but we didn’t because there are only like a couple places left that even make two-inch tape. People are selling the machines for cheap because they’re going to be extinct soon. I’ve A/B’d Pro Tools and two-inch tape, and there wasn’t a huge difference. To me, using two-inch tape is like carrying around one of those huge cell phones like they had in the Eighties when, instead, you can carry an entire computer in your hand.

GW What amps do you have in the studio?

WYLDE I have a bunch of different amps: an old reissue Bluesbreaker, and Marshall gave me number 26 of the limited-edition Jaguar Bluesbreaker amps. That thing sounds slamming. A buddy of mine bought me an Orange amp, and I have a Vox and a Roland Jazz Chorus for clean stuff. But I almost always use my Marshall JCM800 with 6550 tubes in it. We’re talking about doing another Zakk Wylde Marshall head now and maybe even a Zakk Wylde JCM800 100-watt combo. Those 800s sound perfect to me. EMG pickups and my 800 amps are a slamming combination. I have tons of JCM800s. I’m always buying them used. Just go on eBay and you’ll find them. Everybody is always telling me that they can’t find my amps, and I tell them to just go on eBay and buy a used JCM800. Try to get an early Eighties 2203, if you can find one.

GW A lot of engineers in L.A. love to record guitar tracks by layering four or five amps at once. Are you doing any of that?

WYLDE I just did something with My Darkest Days, which Chad Kroeger from Nickleback is producing, and Chad showed me his studio. He uses a splitter and goes through, like, five amps at one time. He told me the Mesa/Boogie has the high end he likes and the Marshall has the mids; the Bogner has this and the Vox has that, and the Dr. Z or whatever has something else. All I do is get one killer guitar sound and double it. I like what I have now. I hate when people tell me that they use an amp and power slave it into something else. Isn’t that what an amp is supposed to already sound like when you plug it in? I test all of my amps by playing “Highway to Hell” through them to see if they have that clarity and punch. If it still sounds golden by the time it reaches the little monitors in the studio, I’m happy. That’s all I need. If one guitar sounds good, it’s going to sound that much better when you double it and thicken it up with that natural chorusing you get.

GW Epiphone recently released your signature Graveyard Disciple model. Are there any other new guitars you’ve been playing lately?

WYLDE I got a replica of Randy Rhoads’ first Jackson guitar. Randy didn’t have a Floyd Rose on that thing because they were just coming out at the time. When you listened to Randy play live, he barely touched the whammy bar when he played that guitar. My wife noticed that the guitar wouldn’t stay in tune when I did a dive bomb. It will never stay in tune, even if you put the nut butter in there. It wasn’t made to do that. If you do a dive bomb on it, you’ll start out in New Jersey and end up in Cleveland by the time the bar comes back up. My wife said, “Don’t you think Randy would have a Floyd Rose on that guitar right now?” I think he would. Then he’d be able to play “Over the Mountain” without the thing going out of tune.

GW Some of your fans seemed pretty pissed off when they saw the guitarist in Justin Bieber’s band playing your signature Gibson Les Paul “Bull’s-Eye” guitar on Saturday Night Live.

WYLDE That’s Dan Kanter. I think it’s funny. When all of Justin Bieber’s fans see me, they’re going to go, “Look at that guy in Black Label Society. He plays a Dan Kanter guitar!” [laughs] You know that’s what’s going to happen. I keep up with Dan all of the time. He contacted me and said that he loved my guitar playing. He’s a cool kid. They just played Gillette Stadium in front of 80,000 people, and then they flew over to Wembley Stadium and knocked that out. Now they’re down in the Bahamas somewhere. Dan is only 16 years old and he’s playing in front of 80,000 people. God bless him. It makes me look like an old man for playing with Ozzy when I was 19. When I was 16, I was playing “Bark at the Moon” in Bobby Bush’s living room.

GW It seems that a lot of Black Label fans don’t get your sense of humor. A while back, some of them claimed online that Nick and JD had left the band after they’d seen videos on the Black Label web site.

WYLDE That’s good. We put all of these stupid montages on the Black Label web site, like “Zakk Speaks.” Once a week we’ll put something up there, but it’s always a comedy video. There was JD’s “Order of the Bass,” where JD is mixing the album and all you hear is bass. JD is sitting there with Adam [Klumpp, engineer], going, “Do you hear that?” and all of a sudden he turns it off. Adam goes, “What?” and JD says, “Do you hear anything?” Adam says, “No,” and JD goes, “Exactly! Turn the fuckin’ bass up!” It’s all goofy shit like that. Nick and JD are still in the band. I think the rumors started because of one video we did where I’m playing back vocals that sound like Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” on one of the songs we were recording. Nick just got up and walked out of the studio. Then he walks back and hands me his Black Label vest and says, “I don’t need this anymore,” and he leaves. Next thing I know, people are saying that Nick quit the band!

GW When Black Label started out, the future of guitar-heavy music seemed a little uncertain. Now it’s actually cool to play a guitar solo again.

WYLDE Back when I started Black Label, in the late Nineties, bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit were huge. I remember going to a record company back then to try to get a deal. One executive I met with didn’t like the idea for Black Label, and he said I should try to be more like Limp Bizkit. I don’t hate those guys—I don’t even know them—but I don’t want to be like them. You’re not going to contort me into something that I’m not. I’m a square peg that won’t fit into a round hole. I told him that the whole biker/Viking thing was just me being me, and that Limp Bizkit was just them being who they are. There was as much chance of me changing to be like them as there was for them to change to be like me. That’s the way it should be. You’ve got to stick up for yourself. I said, “So you’re telling me that if I get rid of the beard, wear a backwards Yankees baseball cap, an oversize T-shirt, shorts and Vans that’s going to fix everything?” I wanted to knock the guy’s fuckin’ teeth out, so I just got up and walked out of there.

He also wanted me to pretend that I never played with Ozzy. You’re talking about a band that had Randy Rhoads, Jake E. Lee, Brad Gillis and Bernie Tormé as guitar players. That’s four legendary guitar players. That is the team that I came from. I should be proud of that, not frowning on it. Without Ozzy there would not be a Black Label. It would be like telling Jimmy Page and Robert Plant to get Mohawks when the Sex Pistols and the Clash came around. Look at how long it took to establish the fuckin’ brand of Led Zeppelin. You don’t want to change that. People strive their whole lives to develop a sound and an image. You can’t tell Jimmy Page to put down the Les Paul and violin bow and pick up a striped Eddie Van Halen guitar, or tell John Paul Jones to put on a strap-on keyboard and get a Flock of Seagulls haircut and expect that to fix everything.

GW Black Label have been around for 12 years, which is about the same length of time that Zeppelin were around and that the original lineup of Black Sabbath was together. How do you feel looking back at the body of work you’ve produced over that time, and did you ever expect Black Label to last this long?

WYLDE When you first start doing something, you want it to be successful so you can keep playing music. The beautiful thing about Black Label is that it keeps getting bigger and bigger. Every time we go out, we’re playing in bigger venues. It’s pretty much the way it was supposed to be. The game plan from day one was to grow into one big, giant family. And we have.

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