It takes a lot to bring down Zakk Wylde. Black Label Society's fearless leader has endured liver disease, pancreatitis and life-threatening blood clots, and still lived to rock another day — so it came as worrisome news when it was announced, earlier this month, that BLS would have to postpone a week's worth of North American concert dates due to Wylde's "severe illness." Thankfully, said illness turned out to be nothing worse than a particularly nasty case of the flu that's been making the rounds this winter, and Wylde and the rest of the band — bassist John "JD" DeServio, drummer Jeff Fabb and guitarist Dario Lorina — have since returned to the road in support of Grimmest Hits, Black Label Society's 10th studio album.
"If it was an Ozzy gig, if I was playing with the Boss, it would have been no problem," he tells Revolver. "You can play guitar no matter how sick you are — puking, or whatever. But singing is a whole other thing. We're back up and rolling now, but there was a couple of shows we did where we were just hobbling through 'em. I was trying to sing, and it was like running in sand with somebody standing on my chest. You can't breathe, so you can't sing. It was brutal. And on top of it," he whispers conspiratorially, "my vagina was swollen. It's kind of rough playing with a banged-up vagina!" It takes a lot to get a straight answer out of the bearded berserker, since music is about the only thing he takes seriously.
Grimmest Hits, the follow-up to 2014's Catacombs of the Black Vatican, once again finds Wylde drinking deeply from a caffeinated well filled with trace elements of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, the Rolling Stones and about a dozen other classic bands that he grew up on. "It's just a matter of digging, and knowing where to dig," he says of his creative process.
"It's like you're looking for the Pazuzu statue, like Father Merrin in The Exorcist. You're working within a two-mile radius, and if we don't find it over here today, we'll start somewhere else tomorrow. And then you find it, and all hell breaks loose!" Revolver spoke with Wylde about making Grimmest Hits, as well as dodging wildfires, reuniting with Ozzy Osbourne and other insanity.
IT'S BEEN A ROUGH COUPLE OF MONTHS FOR YOU. BACK IN DECEMBER, YOU HAD TO ABANDON AN EAST COAST PRESS TOUR BECAUSE OF THE WILDFIRES BACK HOME IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA.
ZAKK WYLDE Yeah, I was gonna do some acoustic songs at radio stations and stuff, but the fires were getting near the house. Between the kids being out there and the dogs, and everything like that, I'm gonna be sitting around doing acoustic songs? I was like, "Nah, I think we can make this up some other time!"
HOW CLOSE DID THE FLAMES ACTUALLY GET TO YOUR HOUSE?
They got close, man. It got out near, like, Magic Mountain [an amusement park in Valencia, California, located only a few miles from Wylde's house]. The firefighters out there are amazing, man, they really are. With the mountains, it's a real pain in the balls to get to this stuff. It's not like it's out on the street, where they can just roll right up to it. And they're at the mercy of the winds. One minute they're fighting it over here, and the next thing you know the winds get going and it's over there.
DID YOU HAVE AN EVACUATION PLAN?
Yeah, we had to, up where we were. We were grabbing all the important stuff — you know, pictures that had sentimental value, certain fiddles, stuff like that. But the winds started blowing the fires away from where we were at, so we got lucky in that regard.
THE NEW BLACK LABEL ALBUM IS GREAT. I FEEL LIKE I DETECT A STRONGER BLACK SABBATH VIBE THAN USUAL IN TRACKS LIKE "A LOVE UNREAL," "DISBELIEF" AND "BURY YOUR SORROW." WAS THAT A SPILLOVER FROM GOING OUT ON TOUR WITH ZAKK SABBATH, YOUR BLACK SABBATH COVER BAND?
No — what I do is, I put on my Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber records, I play them backwards, listen to them for Satanic messages, write the riffs that are on those records backwards, and then I convert back to Catholicism and make my record, and everything's fine. [Laughs] It's quite the production, along with the anal bleaching and the shaving of the legs. But it's all about the art, so it's worth it to me. A lot of people don't want to put in the extra effort, but I have no problems with it! I was writing a few of them while I was out doing the Zakk Sabbath thing, and then I was out doing the dates with Ozzy. I said to my manager, "When are we going to record the album?" And he said, "You get home from the Zakk Sabbath thing on August 2nd, and then the guys will come out August 22nd." I was like, "OK, that gives me, like, 21 days to write a record." You get home and you have bits and pieces lying around, and you've got three weeks to finish the rest of it. It's like, you're writing the book Jaws, and you're like, "I'm at the part where they're going to run into the shark."
SO YOU JUST FINISHED UP THE SONGS FROM THERE, AND RECORDED THEM WHEN THE GUYS ARRIVED AT YOUR PLACE?
Yeah — there's no pre-production when we do any of these records. Jeff and JD come out, Jeff sits down right next to me and he's like, "Whatta you got?" And I'm like, "It starts like this, and then it goes to this part and that part, and then we're done." He sits there and plays it once or twice on the drums, and we're like, "All right, let's record it!" Then we go and watch some porn and fondle our manroots for a little bit, and then come back and do the next song. [Laughs] Jeffy was probably done [with his drum parts] in five days — though he still stayed out for the rest of the two weeks, just in case I pulled a "Free Bird" or "Stairway" or "White Christmas" out of my ass. I think the last thing we ended up recording was "Room of Nightmares" — you sit back and listen to the album, and you look at the big picture and go, "Let's do another up-tempo one!
YOU REUNITED WITH OZZY LAST YEAR FOR YOUR FIRST REAL TOUR TOGETHER IN OVER A DECADE. HOW WAS IT?
Oh, it was great, man. Rehearsals just kind of started where we left off. We were all wearing Depends, because everyone was crapping their pants from laughing too much, just being around Ozzy all the time. Even when I first joined the band, I was like, "It's a miracle that anything ever gets done!" It's just one massive Carol Burnett and Friends special on steroids at all times! Everything's just as ridiculous as it's always been. [Laughs]
HAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH OZZY CHANGED AT ALL?
No, not at all, man. Even when Gus G. was playing with Ozzy, we still kept in touch all the time — me and Barb [Wylde's wife] and Mom [Sharon Osbourne] and Ozz would go out to dinner, and we'd talk during the holidays. Just because you don't live in your parents' house anymore, you still keep in touch with them.
IT'S COMING UP ON 20 YEARS SINCE THE FIRST BLACK LABEL RECORD, SONIC BREW. DID YOU IMAGINE AT THE TIME THAT BLS WOULD BECOME THE ALL-ENCOMPASSING THING THAT IT IS TODAY?
Well, I think if you're starting a burger stand, the goal is to have something successful that you can build on. Obviously, if you want to play music for a living, the goal is to get to Madison Square Garden — but on the route there, if you can pay the bills until you get to the Garden, you're winning. And the secret Illuminati information that seems to elude everybody is that, whatever it is you love, the music that moves you, that's what you should be playing. It's like, if you told Guns N' Roses back in the day that they should be more like Bon Jovi, and they're like, "Yeah, but we love early Aerosmith and the punk stuff." So it's like, why don't you just do that? Because that's the only way you're ever going to excel, the only way you're ever gonna shine. Play on your strengths, and whatever it is that you love.
IS THERE ANY NEW MUSIC THAT'S TURNING YOU ON THESE DAYS?
I've got the new Robert Plant album [Carry Fire], and that thing's slammin' — me and Barb just went and saw him in Belfast. This girl Caroline Spence, she's a Nashville singer-songwriter chick that I've been listening to. But like everybody else, you have your staples — whatever you listened to when you were 15, 16 years old is pretty much cemented in your DNA. Like my father listened to Sinatra until the day he died, and if Frank was coming around, he was going to that concert, you know what I mean? So Zeppelin, Sabbath, Allman Brothers, Stones, Eagles ... that stuff never gets old to me.