What do you get when you mix one part phenomenal guitar skills, one part brutality, and a whole lot of rock ‘n’ roll attitude? The answer is Zakk Wylde. Some may recognize him as Ozzy Osbourne’s long time guitarist. Others idolize him as the hulking frontman of one of the heaviest bands out there, Black Label Society. Regardless of which incarnation you are familiar with, we can all agree Zakk is a legend in the entertainment industry. What most people don’t know is, contrary to his outward appearance and over the top past, behind all of the beard and muscle lies a funny and down-to-earth guy who is extremely humble. So, sit back and crack a beer as Steve Johnson of the mighty Icon Vs. Icon speaks to the legendary rocker about his influences, his relationship with Ozzy Osbourne, his upcoming DVD release, and his recently released EP of classic Christmas tunes.
Your music influenced so many people over the years, myself and legions of dedicated fans. I was curious to learn how music first came into your life?
When I saw Elton John on Sonny and Cher. He was jamming on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” I actually got chills when I was watching that. I was a kid and I was like, “What is this? This is the coolest thing on the planet.” With all of the balloons and everything. The crazy outfit on and all that. I remember going to my friend’s older brother like, “I really like that Elton John guy! He was playing this song called ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds!’ I wanna get that record!” He goes, “You jackass! That’s a Beatles song, you dumbass!” [laughs] That’s like the first James Bond. I didn’t know it was Sean Connery. I always thought it was Roger Moore because I saw ‘Moonraker.’ The one with Jaws. With the teeth and everything. I was like, “I really like James Bond!” My friend’s brother would go, “Dude! Roger Moore sucks! Sean Connery is a god!” I didn’t even know who Sean Connery was. I didn’t know there was another James Bond. Roger Moore still kicks ass, but anyways. It’s funny when you don’t know. Definitely Elton John. Then my buddy Scott. The next thing I discovered was Black Sabbath when I was 12 years old. My buddy and I were in school and he made a sculpture with a skull and a lightening bolt on it. It pretty much looks like Skully on the back of our jackets. The Black Label logo, Skully. It was a jawless skull with a lightening bolt going through it and it said, “Black Sabbath 666.” I was like, “Wow! That’s cool lookin’! What is that?” He goes, “It’s this band my older brothers listen to. It’s this band Black Sabbath.” I remember my mom let me get a record at the record store. She said that I could only get one record. So I got the double album, “We Sold Our Soul for Rock ‘n’ Roll.” So to be a complete douche, instead of buying the single record I bought the double album. I had never even heard Black Sabbath before. I ended up buying the record because the logo looked cool and the band looked cool. The name and everything like that. I ended up buying the record and it obviously scared the shit out of me and the rest is history! [laughs] I had never heard Black Sabbath. I was beyond terrified! It was hysterical! That’s when I fell in love with Black Sabbath. My buddy Scott had all this other stuff. Zeppelin. Bad Company. Skynyrd. The Allman Brothers. Classic rock in general, which I am on a steady diet of to this day.
Looking back on the early days of your career, did you think you would still be going strong all these years later?
I have a number four record on the Billboard Chart, which goes to show you that our Black Label family is getting bigger and bigger, and stronger and stronger. To have Ozzy in my life, let alone jam with him. He’s the godfather of my son and all of that. It’s like I’m still living in a dream. I thank the Lord every day man.
To what do you attribute your longevity in this cutthroat industry?
I’d have to say female growth hormone and steroids. [laughs]
I have to get away from that one I guess! [laughs]
A lot of shady backdoor steroid dealers and my cast of doctors that come out on the road to keep me healthy! [laughs]
Nice! [laughs] You just released a Christmas album. Wow! That’s a hell of a segue! How did the concept for this come about in the Black Label camp?
It was years ago. Father Vai, Stevie called me up. He was like, “I’m putting together this Christmas album. Brian Setzer’s on it. Would you be interested in playing guitar on it?” I was like, “Yeah! Of course Stevie! Whatever you want us to do.” So I had plans for recording that. Anytime you go in to record it’s always a good time. Especially when we were drinking. It was an excuse to drink, and record, and have a good time. Like I’m going to turn that down. I think if you ask anybody, if you’re going to go in and record it’s always a good time. You always have fun. We ended up putting “The First Noel” last year for Christmas on iTunes. They called again and said, “Would Zakk mind putting together two songs or something like that?” So I was like, “Yeah! Of course!” So we knocked that album out right before we did the Priest run. Now that I got the Black Vatican Studio, I can go in and record. We went in, sat down, and our engineer mixed it with me. We knocked out the songs in no time at all.
What can you tell me about the songs themselves and what made you choose them?
We just looked up stuff on YouTube like Sarah McLachlan. I really love her. So we just pulled up a bunch of things Sarah was doing. She was killing it. Every one of those things sounded amazing. I was like, “Let’s hear Sarah do this one, or that one, or this one.” I learned them and then the next thing you know we recorded them.
Black Label Society always seems to have something up its sleeve musically. What is happening in regard to new material?
We did “The Song Remains Not the Same” with all of the blackened versions of the heavy stuff. We’re probably going to do a blackened DVD. That’s what we have in the works coming up after we roll with Judas Priest and Guns N’ Roses. So we’re going to put that together and we’re going to blow that thing up, almost like Neil Young’s “Unplugged” thing. We’ll have a pedal steel guy, some of my guest musician buddies, a four piece string section, piano, cannon, the whole nine yards. We’ll have background singers. We are really going to blow it up.
What can you tell us about your writing process and has it changed much over the years, if at all?
Nothing. We could be listening to “A Whole Lotta Love” on the radio. Me and you could wake up in the morning and go get a cup of coffee, some Valhalla Java, and chill out and Zeppelin comes on. I’ll say, “Dude. Let’s record something like that today.” Like a cool riff. Something Zeppelin sounding. You’ll eat some Zeppelin, but eventually you are going to shit out some Black Label. You know what I mean? That’s what you get inspired by. Whether I’m listening to Sabbath, Zeppelin, Neil Young, Elton, or something. I’d be like, “Dude. This is killer.” I’d do something like that, in the spirit of those kind of riffs. I don’t understand why you would get writer’s block. You know what I mean? Just listen to some of your favorite artists or whatever and they’ll inspire you. Take “Darkest Days” on the “Order of the Black” album for example. “Wild Horses” came on the radio. I was listening to the Stones. All you have to do is listen to all of your favorite bands. The Beatles. The Stones. Zep. Sabbath. Neil Young. Bad Company. Anything that comes on, you just go do it. We’d be chillin’ and it’s like, “Why don’t we go do something like that?” Eventually it’s going to turn out sounding like you anyway. All of the inspiration is there. When I’m doing guitar solos I go out and do a Rhodes thing here, a Page-type thing here, or a Frank Marino thing over here, a Robin Trower thing. It’s just a mix of knowledge.
Looking back on your body of work, how do you feel you evolved as an artist over the years?
I don’t know. Obviously, certain songs you couldn’t have written because you didn’t experience certain things. I think that’s the beautiful thing about music. The whole thing is constantly evolving. It’s like a box of Cracker Jacks. You really don’t know what you are going to get until you get to the bottom of the box. When we go in the studio I might have a couple of song ideas or something like that, but once we get in there and we start writing it’s just … I’ll write a riff that day and then the song takes on a life itself.
You mentioned you are on tour with Judas Priest and will soon be opening up for Guns N’ Roses as well. You are a road warrior for sure. Has touring gotten any easier for you through the years or has it gotten more difficult? I mean, let’s face it, we aren’t gettin’ any younger!
I work out all of the time and everything like that, so the whole thing … I’ve broken my back. The funny thing is, I’ve suffered more injuries doing this than I had when I was playing sports. It’s ridiculous man. The whole thing is … Between steroids, the female growth hormone, the pain pills, and carrying around at all times 10- or 15-gallons of anesthesia to knock me out at night so I can sleep … I’m fine! I’m good to go! [laughs]
Damn! [laughs] I guess I’ll get serious for a second! [laughs] You have been sober for quite a while now. Has that been a big adjustment to make when you are out on the road?
The whole thing is not drinking anymore sauce. Everybody goes, “Well Zakk. Let’s analyze why you drink.” I go, “Really? Seriously? I’ve gotta be honest with you, you don’t need to go to jail for 12 years for drinking this amount.” I go, “Let me tell you why the world drinks and the reason why people smoke weed, and do anything to get high. Because it feels good! I don’t know what to tell you man.” I go, “Listen. When my wife’s giving me a blowjob I don’t look down and start analyzing it! I just know it feels good!” [laughs] There is really no need to analyze this. When I’m getting a massage because my back is killing me. When my lower back is blowing up nuclear. If I go in there and get a massage and some chick is walking on my back and it feels amazing, I don’t analyze it. It just feels good. The reason why I love Led Zeppelin is because I do. [laughs] You don’t really need to analyze why I idolize Jimmy Page. He’s awesome, I don’t know what to tell you. [laughs] Here … I’ll tell you why I really dig Jimmy Page, he’s a graduate of Fonzarelli University. OK! Because he’s cool man! [laughs]
Your career has so many defining moments. Is there something you haven’t tackled you would like to pursue?
Yeah! For Christmas, between my family, and all my Black Label brothers and sisters, and the boss (Ozzy), and mom … They always give me coal for Christmas. That’s a long standing tradition. I’m hoping one day to get a present! [laughs]
Damn! After all of these years, no presents?
No. Just a box of coal and when we go out to dinner I get stuck with the bill! [laughs] That’s a long standing tradition! [laughs] I’ll put it this way. When you put the colors on, nobody said it was going to be easy!
I can’t believe you let Ozzy get away with that!
What are you going to do? He’s the boss! [laughs]
Do you think there are any misconceptions about yourself at this point in your career?
Yeah, that I’m straight and the wife and kids are really not a front! [laughs] I’m waiting for the female growth hormone to kick in so my labia can start getting stronger and I can grow a set of tits! [laughs]
This is going to be a great one! I can’t wait to give this to my editor. He’s going to be like what the hell were you guys doing? [laughs]
Like when Manson did the Mechanical Animals record cover. It’s like who was his doctor and hire that man! [laughs]
That’s great! [laughs] You, without question, lived the life of a thousand men. Is there any chance of you doing an autobiography to tell your tales in the future?
Actually, we came out with a book called “Bringing Metal to the Children.” It’s basically like me and you sitting in a pub. My buddy Eric Hendrikx and I were sitting there talking about how ridiculous the music business is. The reason why it’s great … If you are a brain surgeon you need a degree. I can get a license as an underwater welder. I have to have a license as a SCUBA diver and an underwater welder. Me and you could have this company where we could charge some big bucks because we are qualified. We’d have qualifications. In the music business, what qualifications do you need? Oh! He benches 450 and he can beat the shit out of people! [laughs] You don’t know anything about contracts. Do we need to? That’s what makes the music business beyond awesome. That’s why it’s eternally the gift that keeps on giving. There’s a whole bunch of motherfuckers with no qualifications whatsoever for anything, running the whole show! [laughs] It’s ridiculous dude! So that’s why you have a constant cast of characters. It really makes it awesome. That’s why “Bringing Metal to the Children” is these ridiculous stories of patheticness that we put in the book. We started writing the thing and we were literally crying and laughing reading the stuff. It’s like a Larry David, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” thing on steroids dude! It’s great!
I’ll check that out!
You can pick up the book anywhere. It’s just ridiculously stupid. It fits in perfect with the world of Black Label.
Speaking of this industry you say is run by complete maniacs, what advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in the music industry?
Well, you’ve got to love music. Sometimes the music doesn’t love you. I’ll put it this way. All of my musician buddies that I know … It’s in your blood and you love it, whether you’re playing Madison Square Garden or you’re playing … I played with the boss when we did that Russian thing. There were over 100,000 people each day. Then I am in a van with Nick touring around when we were doing “Book of Shadows” at Sudsy Malone’s. It was a bar with about eight people and three of them were doing their laundry. They had washing machines in the back, a bar to the left, and the stage right there. It was hysterical dude. There were eight people there. Four of them were beyond blitzkrieged and the other three were loaded while they were doing their wash. I still had just as good a time doing that as rolling with the boss. The reward … We got the big house on Valhalla Mountain up there, with the 10 acres and the whole nine yards. The bottom line is, when Barb and I got our first apartment we had a little TV room with the TV on a box. We had cable so I could watch football. I had my guitar. When I first joined Oz … We had just as good a time in that thing as we did in the big house on the hill. It’s all about what you make it. Whether it was me and Nick piled up in a van or you got the million dollar tour bus. It’s all what you make it dude.
You keep mentioning Ozzy. I was wondering if you leaving the band was a permanent thing? Do you have any aspirations to go back and play with him again?
I always equate it like this. Just because you don’t live at home with your parents anymore, it doesn’t mean you don’t love them any less. I’m always up for it. If Oz called me up and was like, “Zakk! Do me a favor. Go over and clean up the house. Clean the dog run. Mom’s got some people coming over to check out the house. She wants to get rid of it or whatever.” I would be like, “Yeah! No problem!” It’s like, “Go clean up the fucking dog run. Go clean up some dog shit. Make the house look nice.” I’d be like, “No problem! Do you need anything else?” He’s like, “Yeah! Go away! You stink!” [laughs]
Well, that’s pretty much everything I have for you. I wish you the best out there.
Thanks Stevie! Stay strong and keep bleeding black!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.