Phil Anselmo: 'The Brain Is Always Tickin''

artist: Phil Anselmo date: 07/29/2013 category: interviews
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Phil Anselmo: 'The Brain Is Always Tickin''
There is no mistaking when Phil Anselmo answers the phone. The voice comes from somewhere deep in his diaphragm and by the time it reaches his tonsils and passes out his mouth, it has been saturated with razor blades and gravel and what you hear is a low and rumbling basso profondo. Anselmo's new record - his first true solo project - called "Walk Through Exits Only" is covered with that voice as it screams and wails through some of the most extreme music the ex-Pantera singer has ever written. Recorded as Philip H. Anselmo & the Illegals - guitarist Marzi Montazeri, drummer Jose Manuel Gonzales and bassist Bennett Bartley - the eight-track release showcases the singer's brutal and hardcore approach on songs like "Bedridden" and "Usurper Bastard's Rant." It is a completely different animal than the more melodically-driven Down records and specifically it is a project where Anselmo wanted to consciously break down the walls of traditional metal. On the day of this interview, "Walk Through Exits Only" had landed at number 35 on the Billboard 200. Anselmo was pleased if not a little surprised. "Honestly, I did not expect this record to hit the Top 40 so to speak with the contents that are actually on the record," he admits. "I didn't expect it so I think it's pretty damn cool. Honestly the fact that it landed at 35 means that people actually went out and bought the f--kin' thing so to me that means the most. That not everybody is this illegal downloading fool and I'm glad they're actually buying mechanical copies. So big ups to the people and much love." UG: The downloading thing is a nightmare. Shawn Fanning was the worst thing that ever happened to music. PA: Agreed. The lyrical ideas on the album are pretty heavy. Did you just throw caution to the wind in terms of how commercial the album might be? The end result of the writing process as far as fan reaction and record sales and all that, that's normally about the last thing on my mind. When I felt compelled to write this stuff, I just acted on it and it came out very naturally, man. So that's how I roll.
Honestly when we came away from the sessions, we had between 15 and 17 songs.
You introduced the Illegals on the "War of the Gargantuas" split EP with Warbeast. Were you testing the waters with those first two songs, "Conflict" and "Family, Friends, and Associates?" No, not at all. Honestly when we came away from the sessions, we had between 15 and 17 songs. To me there were certain songs that really belonged together on the record and then there were certain songs that belonged together in different groups. So for me the EP and those two songs that ended up on the split with Warbeast fit the best together, I think. And really the songs "Walk Through Exits Only" fit best together. So there are some extra songs out there and I do think they fall into certain groups as far as the songs standing right next to each other. And that could possibly be put on a subsequent release. I'm always thinking about how things need to cohesively go together as far as whether it be an EP or an LP. So the brain is always tickin', Jack. Good, bad or indifferent it's always ticking, right? Constantly. In the same way that certain songs belong together, was this material put together exclusively for the Illegals? Could Down have recorded these tracks? Absolutely not. No way. Really it's a totally different musical expression. If I were to show Pepper Keenan, "Hey man, check out 'Usurper Bastard's Rant,'' he'd probably hit me over the head with a f--kin' 2x4. I think that Down and the solo stuff are millions of miles apart. So you would present the Illegals guitar player Marzi Montazeri with riffs that Pepper Keenan would never play? It's always different and every guitar player has his strengths and influences that serve them best. Marzi is a great, great player that can play many different styles. If your question is will we be doing stuff in a more classic vein that he can thrive in? Yeah. Hopefully not. He absolutely changed the game because he is the type of guy that can really play anything that's presented to him within any style. I really wanted to see what he would come up with with a more unorthodox approach, which is "Walk Through Exits Only." I wanted him to develop from there. What he did was latch onto the style of "Walk Through Exits Only" and develop around that and adapt. Once he is launched into that particular direction, for me as far as I'm concerned I would say "Walk Through Exits Only" is a great springboard for him. Like put it this way - as of today he has taken this concept and run so far with it that I'm having a hard time keeping up with him now. Really he's gonna be a beast of many different colors and styles and textures and that's exciting for me. Do you have the same headspace of pushing boundaries that you did with Pantera? Well absolutely. I think when you think of the classically-written heavy metal song, I've done that before with Pantera and I've done that it with Down. I've done it before. So embarking on something like this, you want to push the boundaries and really tear down the walls of tradition and traditional heavy metal.
Music is very vast and there's no wrong way to do it and there should be no rules around what you can and cannot do musically.
That's the sort of philosophy Pantera had in making albums like Vulgar Display of Power and Far Beyond Driven. I think, "Why repeat yourself?" My whole thing is about innovation and not imitation. Innovation is the number one rule so with that comes no rules so to speak. With no rules and music, I think that's a beautiful combination right there to go off of. You're a good guitar player in your own right... Ahhh (voices disdain). No, you're a good player. Did you show riffs and things to Marzi on guitar? I wrote everything. I wrote every damn note and every f--kin' time change and time signature. Did you show him completed demos? I actually sat down with Marzi and we learned the songs from the ground up. We went over them and even before drums were incorporated, I think Marzi and I were sitting down and I was showing him the ideas. That's where he really grasped the whole concept of what I was going for. Really Marzi is a fantastic executor on guitar and his right-hand picking is fantastic for what I'm going for. And lord knows his fretboard hand blows mine completely away. Marzi really understood where you wanted to take the music? Yeah, and contrary to what you say, I'm not a great guitar player at all. I'm a creative guitar player. Marzi is a great guitar player and Dimebag was phenomenal guitar player. Pepper and Kirk are lightyears ahead of me on guitar. But really I do write songs, I write riffs and whatnot but nahhh, I think the players around me in any band are always better. If we heard the song demos with you playing guitar what would they sound like? Uhh, probably just less tight versions of what really ended up on the record. Now honestly when I'm warmed up I have a pretty good right hand but my left hand is like I've been sitting it on it all day and it's asleep (laughs). It's not nearly as dexterous as a true natural guitar player's would be. You co-produced the record with Michael Thompson (Eric Clapton, Michael Jackson). I know Mike Thompson specifically from co-producing the last Down EP and that's where we developed a great relationship. As far as a team goes with the production of "Walk Through Exits Only," I gotta hand it to my main engineer, Steve the "Big Fella" Berrigan. He's a great engineer and we work awesome together and we've done a lot of Housecore projects and he tracked my vocals for the last Down EP as well as "Walk Through Exits Only" and everything else I've done in the last few years. So the "Big Fella" is great.
With no rules and music, I think that's a beautiful combination right there to go off of.
What does Mike Thompson bring to the production? Mike is an awesome, awesome thinker when you are in there mixing a record. He's a great ideas man and he always has a "What if?" or "What if we did this?" type of question. I love going through the variables with him because he's a very creative guy. Honestly I couldn't ask for a better team of supporters in the studio. Mike is definitely much more I guess experienced as far as hands-on production goes and he has these old school ideas I totally adore. Just working with these guys is great. If somebody was a fly on the wall watching you record the vocal on a song like "Bedridden," what would they see? I like to run through things and give it a dry run. When the basic skeleton is put down vocally, there's always certain lines you feel like you can do better. Or even there might be a line in there that I guess maybe isn't pronounced perfectly or something like that. But the feel and the intensity is there. What would you do in a case like that? I would stick with the feel and intensity over pronunciation any day because of the realism of it all. And also the end result of what comes across is a more effective vocal so to speak. I do a little bit of all of it so I don't see how that really differs from any other vocal approach or vocalists approach or any band approach. But still it is an interesting process and each one is a little bit different than the last, which makes things always, always interesting in the studio.
[Marzi Montazeri]'s gonna be a beast of many different colors and styles and textures and that's exciting for me.
Is it difficult acting as co-producer and artist on an album? When you write a song from the ground up, you're concentrating on lyrical content and then vocal delivery, I always have some sort of idea if I want to double a vocal or do my own answers so to speak instead of using a digital delay or something like that. I like to do my own effects so to speak when I do records and that's something I've done since the Pantera days. Did you pick up on what producer Terry Date was doing on those Pantera records? I probably learned a great deal from Terry Date who used to produce the old Pantera records. And even Vinnie Paul who was fantastic in the studio and Dimebag and all of those guys were lightyears ahead of me as far as studio work went. So I learned a lot along the way from some fantastic people in the studio obviously. I was there and when you're behind the microphone and there's a couple faces like Vince and Terry watching me sing and listening to everything I'm doing, I'm sitting there literally with hands on experience happening right before my very eyes. It's something you learn as you go and it's a really invaluable... Experience. Thank you (laughs). Goddamn, I'm waiting for the caffeine to kick in. Can you hear yourself improving as a singer over the course of the Pantera records and then your own solo projects? Uhh, you know I think with every album depending on what your vision of the end result is, it's going to be a different record and different vocal approach. Obviously I was influenced early by the likes of Rob Halford in Judas Priest and early heavy metal roots. Then later in an odd way disbanded or walked away from that style and really took on more of the hardcore influences that I had in my life and even harsher styles of heavy metal.
[Mike Thompson]'s a great ideas man and he always has a "What if?" or "What if we did this?" type of question.
You really have swung the pendulum from the melodic to the hardcore in terms of your vocal approaches. Take for instance with Down, you'll hear a lot more actual - what people would consider - singing so to speak than I would do primarily with an extreme metal project. After doing "Walk Through Exits Only" and honestly I said it the other day to a friend of mine, I said, "I'm actually looking forward to doing the new Down record so I can go back to singing too." Because I can do it all to a certain degree. I'm not saying the best singer in the world or even the best screamer or guttural type of vocalist out there. But I do employ a lot of different styles depending upon the project itself. You've mentioned Rob Halford as one of your early influences. Saint Vitus was another band you've cited who had a kind of Black Sabbath heaviness but weren't extreme. Venom and Hellhammer were very heavy but again nowhere near as brutal as what you're doing on the new album. I couldn't disagree more with your assessment of some of these bands because Saint Vitus is extreme for their own genre. When you listen to their first record, which I did when I was 14, 15 years old, it was so massively slow for its time - for its time it was extreme. When you look at bands like Venom and Hellhammer and early Slayer and stuff like that, you really have to look at the timeline when they actually came out. For its time, all of those bands were extreme in their own way. You make a really important point by talking about the timeline of when these bands were making music. As far as me picking and choosing, music is very vast and there's no wrong way to do it and there should be no rules around what you can and cannot do musically. I'm an explorer and I intend to keep on exploring. Depending on the project, honestly I think any route you go as long as its honest and as long as it feels right to me, I'm gonna do it and not feel one way or another about it except positive.
Really I do write songs, I write riffs and whatnot but I think the players around me in any band are always better.
I did not mean to insult you or any of those bands I mentioned. No, not at all. I just grew up with all this stuff. "Walk Through Exits Only" is a very brutal album except for the closing minutes of "Irrelevant Walls and Computer Screens." That instrumental section with guitar scratches and harmonized lines and stuff was amazing. It just sounds like you left the machines running and captured the moment. You know what? That is something I've known Marzi has had in his repertoire for a long, long time. I guess he had that scraping section part for many years and in many different variations. That is something I wanted to incorporate for a long f--kin' time. Really that's why I always had Marzi pegged as my guitar player from day one because of his use of different sonic approaches and outcomes. He's a very innovative guitar player in that respect and I always, always want to utilize all of his abilities in that area. Might there be more of this type of guitar landscape happening on future Illegals albums? Really the end of "Irrelevant Walls and Computer Screens" is just one of many of his soundscape aural audio assaults. He's an incredible guy.
With every album depending on what your vision of the end result is, it's going to be a different record and different vocal approach.
Putting extreme vocals over music like that could really be unique. We ended up actually calling that thing, the end of "Irrelevant Walls..." the audio Xanax for the listener (laughs) after listening to all this erratic, schizophrenic f--kin' music beforehand. I love the you put it - like leaving the machines running. It's still on and it's still chugging away so I hear where you're coming from. There are a couple new songs you'll be bringing out for your Housecore Horror Film & Metal Festival? Yes, sir. I need to actually finish up the second song vocally and then we have to sit down and mix. For me those two songs are very, very different than "Walk Through Exits Only." I'm looking forward for everyone to hearing it and I hope people come out to the Horrorfest and have a blast. Certainly fans will be checking that out. Dude, thanks for the interview, man. You rule the night and f--kin' I love ya. Anytime you want to talk to the old man again, feel free to give 'em a call, brother. You are the best, Phil. Have a great day. Goddamn it, I love ya. Interview by Steven Rosen Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2013
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