All this week we’re throwing the spotlight on our favourite Download artists and they don’t come much more iconic than guitar hero Zakk Wylde – back flanking Ozzy Osborne on the hallowed turf go Castle Donington. The Black Label Society frontman caught up with HRH Mag Editor Simon Rushworth.
It was Ozzy Osbourne who once said there’s No Rest For The Wicked. In which case Zakk Wylde – the hotshot guitar hero on the iconic album of the same name – must be a very, very bad man. He doesn’t do downtime. He laughs in the face of a hectic schedule. Indeed, given the choice between a lazy afternoon and a Black Label Society ‘boot camp’ Wylde will invariably choose the latter. And he really wouldn’t have it any other way.
“People always ask me how I pack everything in,” said the self-confessed workaholic who famously practiced the guitar 12 hours daily during his high school years. “They ask ‘how do you find the time to raise a family?’. I just do. I make the time. You won’t find me looking for excuses or moaning. I just get the job done.
“When I really think about it and look at all of the bands that I love from the 70s they were popping out albums at least every two years and doing it all of the time. And they were making a series of consistently high quality records.”
Listen to Black Label Society’s latest long player and it’s clear Wylde doesn’t just talk the talk when referring to the legendary bands that inspire his industrious approach to making music and drive that constant quest for perfection. The New Jersey native walks the walk. Grimmest Hits is a glorious fusion of that trademark work ethic and Wylde’s natural talent. But it doesn’t boast any hits. At least not yet.
“The record company asked me if there were any hits on the new record,” he added. “I said ‘no, there’s not’. I said the album is black and rather grim. I also know that in order to have a Greatest Hits album you have to have had some hits – and we haven’t had any. I liked the idea of the title in that respect.
“Originally, I was doing some artwork and I had some other titles in mind for the album. Then I saw a picture of the Grim Reaper and it got me thinking. My life is so grim that I have no life at all and that pretty much sums us up in Black Label Society. People might get confused when they see the title. But we’re not the Bee Gees. Bands with a considerable amount of hit songs under their belts tend to put out Greatest Hits albums. There are no hits on BLS records. The best we can manage is a Grimmest Hits album.”
Wylde’s sense of humour is so dry it could be described as a drought. But that’s only one of the many endearing characteristics that have underpinned a career that continues to go from strength to strength. Honest and modest in equal measure, it’s quite obvious why Wylde has been the perfect foil for hellraiser in chief Ozzy Osbourne for the best part of three decades. And in 2018 one of the most potent collaborations in hard rock lives on with this summer’s headline slot at Download a genuinely mouthwatering prospect.
“Ozzy called me up after Sabbath downed tools and said ‘Zakky are you available?’,” added Wylde. “I didn’t think twice. I just said ‘yes I can do it Boss’ without thinking about what I was actually signing up for. But that’s the way we roll. We just take it from there.
“My relationship with Ozzy and his wife Sharon is so much bigger than music. I love them. I’ll always be there for Ozzy if he ever needs me. From day one I always said to him that if his wife was having a baby I’d be there. As for Download it will be a blast – it always is. It’s music and it’s a good time. What more do you want?”
Osbourne’s latest – and possibly last – solo tour kicked off last summer with Wylde wasting no time at all slotting back into the groove. “The shows that we’ve done so far have been awesome,” added the man who replaced Jake E. Lee as Osbourne’s wingman in 1987. “We played Bark At The Moon during an eclipse! That was crazy. I love playing Mama, I’m Coming Home and Mr Crowley with the Boss. It’s still special after all of this time.”
But is that time finally coming to an end? Wylde isn’t so sure.
“I would think if you’re the kind of guy with other interests then you might call time on your music career,” he added. “But music is everything to Ozzy. He doesn’t need to tour and he doesn’t need to make money. If he wanted to retire he’d have done that a long time ago.
“His answer is ‘no – I play music. Why should I stop doing what I love?’. And why should anyone? When you think about the legendary blues artists they always got better the older they became. Ozzy’s the same. He’ll still be playing until he’s 122 – given the chance.”
You heard it here first.
Whether Wylde will still be flanking Osbourne in 53 years remains to be seen. Even with his unrivalled work ethic, the father of three might need to slacken the pace during the next half century. And what would become of Black Label Society?
“It’s always been the same and always will be,” added Wylde. “I find out what’s going on with the Boss and then when we’re down Black Label Society is ready to roll. I found out when the Boss was touring with Black Sabbath and I made sure that I fitted the last BLS record around that.
“We had three weeks to write and record the album and that’s what we did. That’s the way I like to work. If you have deadlines then things are going to get done. If I’m your agent and I tell you there’s five months to make a record then you’ll take five months. It’s human nature. The way we work means I’ve got to kick some ass. I prefer it that way.”
Kicking ass would seem to be second nature to a musician who demands 100% commitment from those allowed membership of the Black Label Society. Wylde’s band has always been a close-knit brotherhood of like-minded metal warriors but as the colonel in chief he sets the tone and sets the standard.
“With Black Label Society there’s really nowhere I can’t go as a songwriter,” he added. “When I listen to our stuff I can hear all my influences coming through. There’s Zeppelin, Sabbath, Frank Marino, The Allman Brothers, Elton John and Percy Sledge. They’re all in there somewhere.
“And that’s the same for anyone who’s ever been in a band. Your band is a reflection of who you listen to, what you like and what you digest. When I listen to The Black Crowes, The Small Faces, Humble Pie and the Stones I ask myself what am I tasting in that musical soup? It’s in my DNA and it’s what I love. What I take from the flavour of that soup is a little bit of this and a little bit of that and it ends up coming to the boil on a BLS record.”
Grimmest Hits is as tasty as it gets if doom-laden, heavy blues rock is your musical meal of choice. It might have failed to match the top five Billboard success of predecessors Order Of The Black and Catacombs Of The Black Vatican but Wylde is justifiably proud of a record rich in substance.
“I think everybody tries to go in to make the very best record they can at the time,” he added. “When I listen back to all of the old BLS records I know that we did the best job we could at that moment in time.
“When I listen to all of my favourite Zeppelin records – from Led Zeppelin I to In Through The Out Door – I like to imagine I’m taking the journey with the band and I like to see where they’re going. Zeppelin couldn’t have written Stairway To Heaven on their first album because they didn’t have the experience as songwriters.
“As a music fan it’s exciting to see just how far your favourite bands can go. With BLS we like to say to the extended family here’s a new batch of coffee: try this brew and see whether it’s to your taste. It will always be a little different to what’s been on offer before.”
Given its apparent lack of commercial appeal perhaps Grimmest Hits is too different. But Wylde won’t lose any sleep over the odd sale missed here and a few lost fans there. Ten albums – and two decades – into Black Label Society’s stellar career and the band’s single-minded founder is more about stretching his songwriting craft than building his bank balance.
“I know what I’m writing the lyrics about but the cool thing for music fans is that those lyrics become part of your song with your own meaning,” he added. “As a songwriter it’s incredible to see a song touch people in different ways. The lyrics are open to your interpretation.
“I either write autobiographically or like I’m writing a book on someone. I might tell a story through someone else’s eyes and describe how they’re feeling – it might not be about me. But when people hear that song for the first time it instantly means something different to them. That’s a very special thing.”
Given his longstanding commitment to Osbourne, it’s truly remarkable that Wylde still finds the time to write, tour and evolve under the banner of Black Label Society. But as 20thanniversaries go expect a suitably raucous celebration.
“I’m so looking forward to bringing the new album back to the UK,” added Wylde. “It’s a while since the band has played the heavy stuff over there. The last show we did in the UK was with Guns N Roses around two years ago.
“We’re taking this very seriously. BLS boot camp has been in full swing. It’s like with the Ozzy sets. Everyone focuses 100% on the job in hand. There’s a sense of ‘let’s go and do this’. It’s a bit like a special ops thing. We’re like a bunch of Navy Seals looking to complete our mission.”
Incredibly that mission included storming one of the bastions of British music in the shape of London’s legendary Royal Albert Hall earlier this year. When Wylde was plucking away in his bedroom for days on end as a would-be guitar icon did he ever believe such a storied venue would welcome him with arms wide open?
“The Royal Albert Hall is rooted in deep history and then there’s the day BLS play there…it could all have come crashing down,” he added. “But in all seriousness it was an honour to get that gig. It’s like playing Madison Square Garden.
“For BLS playing the Royal Albert Hall is one for the history books. I’d never even seen a band play there, let alone played there myself. I’d never set foot inside the venue and to do so for the first time as the headline act was surreal.”
Images courtesy of Justin Reich.
*The full version of this feature first appeared in Volume V of HRH Mag – out now!