Latest release: Catacombs of the Black Vatican (Mascot)
Zakk Wylde is a road warrior workhorse, dedicated family man and talented song writer. After surviving a potentially fatal health scare and making the necessary lifestyle changes, the man continues to be prolific in both his creative work and touring duties. His rise to prominence was back in 1988 when he landed the coveted job of Ozzy Osbourne’s lead guitarist which he fulfilled beyond expectations whilst also adding his own musical stamp to the musical legacy of one of heavy metal’s most legendary icons. The side project Zakk Wylde’s Black Label Society [BLS] eventually became a full time endeavour and as such, Zakk and cohorts are finally back in the country to unleash some more sonic doom that will strip paint off the walls.
How is your world, Zakk? The last time BLS played Australia was for Soundwave in 2012.
Yeah, it was and the last time we were headlining down there was back in 2006. What’s happening brother? I’m shaving my legs now and getting ready for the big tour when we roll with the Australian Chapter. We cannot believe it has been that long but we’re all looking forward to heading down.
A BLS tour allows you to do whatever you like as far as set lists are concerned compared to Ozzy.
Yeah but when I was playing with Ozzy, I always had a blast just being there as well. It was nothing but an arse kicking time when I rolled with the boss [Ozzy]. Being with BLS is like moving out of your folk’s house and you’ve got your own pad. I love them both and Ozzy is amazing but now it has just continued on with just rolling Black Label with all my buddies, man.
Do you see this tour as a support for the most recent album, set list wise?
It is not as bad as the Stones yet but we have nine records out. So, you try to put a little bit in from each album without it turning into a six hour set list.
You tend to pack a lot of songs into a tight set without much stage banter.
People say, ‘I notice you don’t talk much’ [during the set] and I’ll say, ‘No, since no one is showing up to hear me talk’, unless I’m breaking into stand-up. If we’re at a show and someone is off waffling about some political thing I’ll be looking at you going, ‘Now you know why I don’t talk’, ha-ha.
Since you have a huge range of Gibson Les Paul guitars, how do you decide what to bring on tour?
I’ll take whatever guitars match my lipstick, eyeliner, nail polish and fishnet stockings. That is usually what we go with but really, it is usually a pretty exhausting process. Now that I’m firing up Wylde Audio [Zakk’s newly owned company for guitars and amps] I’ve definitely been taking the prototypes out on the road and test driving those suckers. That’s what I’ve been doing lately.
Do you still have the old Les Paul guitar with the bottle caps smashed into the front of it?
Yep, still got her. The Rebel is still rolling and the Grail is still running.
You managed to get The Grail guitar back too [fell out of a trailer in transit years ago].
That was pretty insane. It was actually at a pawn shop. It was on the side of the road since somebody found it and they pawned it. I guess it was just going for $250 bucks. Ha-ha.
The amplifier touring methods are changing these days with digital modellers taking over. Would you ever use this style of gear in a live setting for BLS?
We always have the Wall of Doom [huge backline] but as far as digital stuff goes, I know people use it because it is easier to travel with it. Put it this way, whether it is digital or if you’re going with a straight tube amplifier, as long as you’re achieving an arse kicking guitar tone, then that is the way to go. Saint Dime was always going with the solid state Randalls and the all-tube guys would beat on that but that was how Dime achieved that tone. No one is going to tell me it wasn’t an amazing guitar tone. So, as far as the digital stuff goes, if it sounds good, it is good. Tone is like lifting normal weights or using machines because your muscles don’t know whether you’re using machines or picking up a dead weight.
Doesn’t your live performance rely on feeling that sound of cabinets pumping air on stage?
Without a doubt and I’m running tube amplifier heads and cabinets. But that is what works for me and now that I have Wylde Audio, we’re going to be doing everything including digital stuff. That is why it is called Wylde Audio as I decided that you have to have stuff for everybody.
Will this tour include some acoustic or mellower parts?
Yeah we still bring the piano out to do a couple of tunes. That is part of the show when we’re headlining. If we’re on a festival, a lot of the time we’ll get forty five minutes so we leave the piano at home for those shows. When it is a forty five minutes set at a festival, it is a best-of talent fest.
Has using an external producer helped you much at all given you know how to get your sound?
All the guys I have worked with like Keith Olsen, Tim Palmer and Michael Beinhorn all helped. I’ve made enough records now with BLS or the Country Donuts, as I call them now and when we’re engineering the records, it is just us making the records. You know how to engineer your arse off so it is just a matter of getting good tones. That is what it is down to after making so many records. When Jimmy Page was doing all that session work he was in the studio all the time, taking notes and being hands on whilst watching how people did things. He was learning at the same time so it was a case of once you know how to do you say, ‘cool, we’ll do it’, so we don’t have to rely on others once you’ve been taught how to do it yourself.
So when you started out with Ozzy and were all bright eyed and bushy tailed, were you taking notes of everything that was being done in the studio?
You cannot help but not see how things are getting done when you’re in the control room and just watching everybody. At the same time, if you know where you’re going, you don’t need to ask for directions. There are other people who need to be guided to get somewhere. Either way, you just record them and don’t get in their way. Everybody is different, but if you worked with Led Zeppelin back in the day, you would have pressed record and stayed out of the way unless they asked for your opinion. When you’re dealing with creative people you need to let them do their thing.
When you set up your home studio, aside from analogue gear, did you start learning Pro-Tools?
Obviously there is a bunch of analogue stuff in there but there is definitely Pro-Tools with all the plug-ins as well. We did Order of the Black there, The Song Remains Not the Same, Catacombs of the Black Vatican and the Unblackened album in there and we’re working on another one right now.
Do you feel that you’ve become more productive as a result of sobriety?
Ah, no. Back when we were drinking in the studio and hanging out, we were never smashed out of our minds when we were making records. At the end of the night when everything was done then maybe you’d go and get hammered or whatever and that was when we would started getting silly, just having a good time. But throughout the day you might drink a beer when you’re chilling out but you’d be tracking all day and working. So, to me it never really got in the way, ever, because we’d take a break, go to the pub, chill out, relax and talk about the tunes. Those early albums of BLS had us pumping out an album or sometimes two a year. So it was just tour, album, tour, album, boom boom, boom, plus Ozzy. Now that I have a studio [Black Vatican], I’m not tracking all day. I might write something and then sit around until all the guys come out to track it but I am not sitting there living in that thing.
How did you find time to write new material and also practice?
If you can be inspired and start writing something then that is cool and so you get it down. But I don’t demo, I’d rather just do it for real. What is the point in demoing something? If you’re doing it, just track it. If you wrote ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, it’s three chords so let’s do it for real. Put the idea down on your phone but don’t waste time with demos, just record it.
I remember that you’ve said in the past the best method of writing songs is to simply play riffs to come up with new material. Is that still the case? Also, how do you work out your solos?
Yeah and I look forward to that [writing riffs] every day. Right now I’m tracking for a solo on the record. So I’ll just trip the backing track and jam for a while until I get something that I am happy with so that’s how you get the parts for a solo. You need a beginning, a middle and an end for a solo. That is pretty much how it is with ‘Stairway to Heaven’, ‘Hotel California’ or ‘Mr. Crowley’ because those solos all have parts to them.
Clearly Randy Rhoads was a huge influence on guitarists worldwide and was essential to developing Ozzy’s sound. Jake E. Lee was also an exceptional player during his tenure with Ozzy.
Oh Jake is awesome and I remember him back in the day. He is still great with his attack, he is super aggressive and also bluesy. He has a great vibrato because Jake is based in the blues and whenever I hear Jake play I immediately know it is him.
He came out of retirement from music in the last couple of years with Red Dragon Cartel.
I am just glad that he is playing again. It is a shame that he stopped playing at all, you know what I mean. He is just slamming and it is great that he is playing again man, that’s the whole thing.
Your signature wah pedal has a different amount of push available compared to other pedals.
A lot of the time when you press on it you can still see beer coming out of from so many years of drinking. It smells so different now, ha-ha. But there is a tonne of sweep on my pedals; it is a really broad sweep. I’ll probably be touring with them.
Given you’ve got so much industry experience, what do you feel have been the most major changes in music over the years?
Well you’ve always got the three umbrellas of bands surviving and making an income. That is the record, touring and selling merchandise. For a hard rock band, the days of anyone having an Appetite for Destruction level of success are gone for the younger bands coming up. Still, Zeppelin and Black Sabbath never had social media back in the day. Today social media is blasting people’s stuff all the time. So if we were seventeen or eighteen years old in a new band, we’d be blasting a website, Twitter, Instagram and so on from our parent’s basement. That is one advantage but today, making a CD is just a ticket for people to come to the show. It is a trickle-down effect. You still have to pay the bands. The people that are working on the record such as the engineer, the studio and even the people that are turning the lights on. How are you paying for that now? People have still got to get paid man so that is the rough thing, just trying to figure that out.
What would be your own most favourite Ozzy guitar solo and BLS guitar solo that you’ve played?
My favourite Ozzy solo is hard to pick as there are several I was really happy with but I’d say that ‘No More Tears’ would be it. Of the more recent Black Label stuff, it would be ‘My Dying Time’ because that one came out pretty cool.
Well, we’ve got to let you go but we’ll see you on tour.
Without a doubt, we will see you in a little bit my brother. Until then, stay strong, bleed Black Label, God bless and I will talk you soon. Take care.
Zakk Wylde’s Black Label Society hit Australia this week:
25/11: Metropolis, Fremantle WA
27/11: HQ, Adelaide SA
28/11: UNSW Roundhouse, Sydney NSW
29/11: Tivoli, Brisbane QLD
1/12: 170 Russell, Melbourne VIC