Veteran guitarist Zakk Wylde spills his guts on life with Ozzy Osbourne and what it takes to succeed in music in advance of Black Label Society playing Reading on January 12.
When you’ve spent nearly three decades touring off and on with Ozzy Osbourne, you’re bound to come away with a treasure trove of outrageous stories.
Add in the strong-willed and over-the-top comedic personality of a Jersey-bred guitar god, and the expected rock-star stories of alcohol, drugs and women are taken to the stratosphere.
Zakk Wylde has been shredding his trademarked bulls-eye spiral-painted Les Paul guitar since the ’80s, landing the coveted spot of lead guitarist of Ozzy’s solo project after sending him a demo tape in 1987. Wylde co-wrote some of Ozzy’s biggest solo hits of the ’90s, including “No More Tears,” “Mama, I’m Coming Home” and “Perry Mason.”
Wylde went on to form his own band, Black Label Society (named in tribute to Johnnie Walker Black Label whiskey), in 1998, creating one of the most unique new metal sounds in rock. His distinct playing style is highlighted on the band’s newest album – last April’s release, Catacombs of the Black Vatican.
Not one to rest on past successes, Wylde has taken a hands-on and hard-working approach to every aspect of his musical career. He personally created the distinct iconography of Black Label Society – reminiscent of an outlaw motorcycle gang – and oversees a line of products that range from roasted coffee to wrapping paper.
Wylde brings his “Black Label Mass” to the region this month for the first time since opening up for Judas Priest in Reading in 2011. I caught up with him last month at his home in Los Angeles where he answered the phone in the voice of a little old lady, saying, “Helloooo, there,” before going on to talk about his sobriety, rock stardom and being backstage with Ozzy.
Michael Yoder: How are you, Zakk?
Zakk Wylde: I’m doing great, brother. Getting ready for the big pop-rocking tour coming up with Hatebreed and the Butcher Babies. That ought to be a Carlin-Black Label comedy fest of doom over there. It never ends, dude.
MY: Where does your sense of humor come from?
ZW: [laughs] All I have to do is look in the mirror every morning. It begins right there. I’m like, “Look at the state of this.” Honestly, being around Ozzy and all the other guys, it was a miracle work ever got done. We’d be crying-laughing all the time, just taking the piss out of ourselves. The running joke was that nobody was going to die from a drug overdose or anything like that – we were just going to have a brain aneurysm from constant laughing.
MY: When you first went on the road with Ozzy, was being able to laugh regularly one of the lessons you took away from him?
ZW: Nah, it was always like that with the bands I played with, anyway – whether we were playing keg parties or people’s living rooms. It was always comedy, even then. We’d always be rolling and laughing. There’s always so many Spinal Tap moments that are going on all the time – like every other second. Just being with Ozzy made it that much goofier.
MY: Is Ozzy a natural comedian?
ZW: Without a doubt. All you’ve got to do is sit down and watch TV with him for five to 10 minutes. You’ll literally be on the floor crying and laughing. I remember being in a tent with him one time after a show was done – right before we were going to come out for “Mama, I’m Coming Home” and “Paranoid” and “Crazy Train” for the encore. He said, “Zakk, listen. Listen to them!” I’m sitting there and hear [the crowd] saying, “Ozzy, Ozzy, Ozzy.” Then he said, “I can swear they’re saying, ‘Ronnie, Ronnie.’ Maybe they’re at the wrong concert.” [laughs]
MY: So he’s definitely a jokester?
ZW: We were sitting there one day talking about other bands that have a specific sound, because you can always reference bands – like with Soundgarden, you can say, “Yeah, you can hear Sabbath in there. You can hear Zeppelin in there. That’s what I’m tasting in this drink.” I think we were talking about The Doors, and I said, “Who sounded like The Doors before them? And nobody sounded like them after.” Jim’s vocals were a baritone voice, and usually in rock you hear a higher-pitched voice. I said, “You know, Oz? Come to think of it, nobody’s ever really sounded like you.” He goes, “Maybe there’s a reason why.” [laughs]
MY: As a musician yourself who’s been described as having a distinct sound, do you take that as a compliment?
ZW: It’s awesome, because I can reference it to go, “We don’t want to sound like Black Label, ‘cause that is shit.” [laughs] It’s like anchovies – you don’t want to put that on the ice cream. It will ruin it. Like that Black Label topping – put it back in the cupboard [laughs]. We’re one of those spices in the spice rack that never gets touched, but it’s there.
“For any second that I’m not playing guitar or writing songs or something music-wise, it’s still Black Label – whether I’m coming up with artwork, figuring out the tours or this and that… Every day I wake up, I’ve got my Black Label shit list of doom for global domination of what I have to do that day.” – Zakk Wylde
MY: When did Catacombs of the Black Vatican start to take shape?
ZW: Between the album cover and the album title – I think I probably had all that stuff even before the album was made. You see something cool and get an idea for an album title or cover artwork. I do all the artwork. Somebody was asking me, “Who does all your merch and all the artwork?” I go, “Me. Who the fuck do you think does it?” Because half the time if anybody gives me an example of something, I’m like, “Look at this cheap shit. I ain’t fucking wearing that. I’ll just do it myself.”
MY: So you recommend young bands try to do as much for themselves to succeed?
ZW: People will say, “Do you have any advice?” I’ll go, “Look at it this way, man. You want to do music for the rest of your life – you want to do it for a living so you don’t have to get some shitty job that you can’t stand.” For any second that I’m not playing guitar or writing songs or something music-wise, it’s still Black Label – whether I’m coming up with artwork, figuring out the tours or this and that. Even if you’re as big as Led Zeppelin, it’s still about getting the guys in the band into the van, getting a U-Haul and figuring out how much it’s going to cost us to get from L.A. to New York – figuring out a budget. I’ll always tell kids that whenever I had jobs, it was me and you working for my buddy’s uncle during the summer doing construction or roofing so that you could get your drum kit and I was saving up for Marshalls and a Les Paul… Now, every day I wake up, I’ve got my Black Label shit list of doom for global domination of what I have to do that day – aside from cleaning, the dog run and doing shit like that. There’s always something going on.
MY: You’re not drinking anymore, but what was your favorite whiskey when you were drinking?
ZW: I’m actually not a huge whiskey guy, but if we were drinking it, it would be Crown Royal. Obviously the [Johnnie Walker] Black Label and the Blue Label. I was always into beer. But if we were going to drink the heavy shit while you and me were hanging out, I would order a Crown and ginger and have that with my beer. The Crown was really smooth, and just a splash of ginger in there – a Highball. We’d drink that all night or even if we were in The Sub [a.k.a. the tour bus], me and you just sitting up in the front solving all the problems in the world with you in the captain’s chair and me on the floor and have Dino driving, listening to the Eagles, Elton John and Neil Young – all the ass-kicking mellow shit. We’d go through a bottle of Crown and two cases of beer without batting an eye. And I’m not talking downing it – just sitting there chilling out, not even wasted. I remember my doctor said, “Zakk, let me ask you something. Do you drink like that every day?” I’d go, “Yeah, why wouldn’t I? I’m in a rock band. This isn’t Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Well, it is – but with a lot of booze.” [laughs]
SLP Concerts presents Black Label Society at Reverb (1402 N. 9th St., Reading) on Monday, January 12. Hatebreed and Butcher Babies open. 6pm doors. All ages. $29 advance/$32 at the door. Click here for tickets.