Nearly four years have passed since Black Label Society's last actual studio album - "Order of the Black" - came out. Subsequent releases included "Unblackened," which was an acoustic treatment - albeit heavy one - of many BLS classics preceded by "The Song Remains Not the Same." That record also included acoustic versions of Black Label songs as well as covers such as "Helpless" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Lest anyone worry that Zakk Wylde has forgotten how to rock, fear not. The great bearded one is back with "Catacombs of the Black Vatican," a massively thunderous album full of screaming guitars and anguished vocals.
As of this writing only "My Dying Time" was available to hear but if it's any indication of what the rest of the album will sound like, "Catacombs of the Black Vatican" will certainly take its place right alongside some of Wylde's heaviest records. Zakk was in a rainy New York City doing press when we caught up to him. And as always, he was ready to talk.
UG: What is the gospel according to Father Zakk for today?
ZW: I guess we're getting the Black Label blitzkrieg press tour. So that's what we're knockin' out, man.
Before we talk about the "Catacombs of the Black Vatican" album, we're going to go way back. Do you remember the first time you became aware of the guitar?
Umm yeah, without a doubt. I remember seeing my guitar teacher Leroy Wright physically in front of me and seeing somebody who could actually really play. To me it just looked so interesting. It was like the fretboard and scales and it was just like, "Wow." It was a whole world unto itself.
It sounds like you were really touched by that experience.
Then obviously the first time I remember hearing an electric guitar in person. It was like a little practice amp and a Big Muff and it was like, "Wow, that is like the coolest sound on the planet." Then being that young and seeing local bands. Whether they were playing cover songs like "Smoke on the Water" or something you're like, "Dude, this is the coolest thing on the planet." You know what I mean?
I think a lot of guitarists just beginning to play felt the same way.
Yeah, without a doubt. And then obviously going to concerts when you're 15 and 16 years old, it's just something larger than life. I still remember it all vividly, man.
What were some of the first concerts you saw?
Yeah, the first one I ever went to was Mob Rules with Ronnie James Dio. Then I also saw Ozzy with Bernie Torme and I saw Jake with Ozz with Motley Crue. That was the "Shout at the Devil" and "Bark at the Moon" tour. Then I saw Sabbath again with Quiet Riot opening up with "Bang Your Head" (Metal Health). Sabbath had Ian Gillan in the band and that was the Born Again tour. Yeah, without a doubt I remember 'em all and every one of 'em was slammin'.
You were truly a hardcore Ozzy fan from the very beginning.
You obviously picked up the guitar pretty quickly because in Zyris, one of your early bands, you can already hear your style coming through.
Yeah, yeah. Well, the vibrato obviously and the pings or stuff like that. Obviously I was way into Al DiMeola back then with diatonic scales and stuff like that. Al DiMeola was huge on me then and still is.
You still cite Al DiMeola as a major influence?
If you listen to the solo in "My Dying Time," there's a lot of Al stuff going on in that thing.
Is that right?
Yeah, without a doubt, man. I mean I can pick out all the influences I have that are in that thing.
Who were some of other early influences?
We opened up for Dave DiPietro who was the guitarist TT Quick and just watching Dave playing every night was a guitar lesson into itself. Incorporating what Dave was doing because he was so bluesy and vocalesque with his guitar playin'. He was huge on me too and seeing him every night was just like mindblowing. So Dave was definitely an influence on me without a doubt guitar playing-wise.
Dave DiPietro was a local player?
Yeah, he was in a band called TT Quick.
Were you playing covers when you opened up for TT Quick?
No, that's like when we were doing Zyris and stuff like that. When we were doing Stone Henge and stuff like that, yeah. I mean we were just tryin' to learn - learn your stuff. Obviously we did like "Bark at the Moon" and we played Rush. We did "YYZ," "Red Barchetta" and "The Spirit of Radio" and "Freewill." What else were we playing? Obviously "War Pigs" and "Sunshine of Your Love," "Purple Haze" and a lot of jam stuff as well. You know so you get to stretch out the solos and everything like that.
You were playing a Goldtop Les Paul in Zyris - has it always been Gibson for you?
You never had the desire to check out a Fender and a whammy bar?
I had a Strat and I ended up playing that one. I still have my original one. It was a Fernandes - champagne pink. I still have it. I had stripes all over it like Eddie Van Halen and the whole nine yards. I have that up in the Vatican now but I have that body and I got the guitar back. So yeah, it was definitely way cool but the Les Paul I've always dug. But Strats are amazing. I own a couple Strats in case I want to get that tone - a single-coil tone. I love Robin Trower and I love obviously Hendrix. Between David Gilmour and Mark Knopfler - those guys with Les Pauls wouldn't be the same. They're completely Strat guys.
Talking about Strats, Pete Townshend played one back in the day. What are your feelings about the Who?
That's so funny because I just downloaded off iTunes the other day their Best Of with like 30 songs on it or whatever. No, it's funny when you listen to the beginning of "The Kids Are Alright" (sings the first verse). Even Barbaranne (Zakk's wife) was like, "Oh, my god. Did they like the Beatles or what?"
It's the truth but I was just sayin' I love lookin' at the history and how music always morphs or where things come from. No, it's funny. When you listen to the beginning of "The Kids Are Alright," it's just (singing the melody) "Duh duh duhhhh/They're never gonna be my girl" (Zakk paraphrasing the actual lyric: "I don't mind/Other guys dancin' with my girl"). I love lookin' at where music comes from and obviously the early Beatles was all Everly Brothers.
You know, (singing the melody) "I wanna hold your hand." That's Everly Brothers, man, with the guitars up high and the whole nine yards and the harmonies and everything. Then the Who became they became "the Who." Know what I mean? Where everybody's finding themselves. Obviously they were inspired by the Beatles because they were just so huge then and sounded so great. But it's funny when you hear "The Kids Are Alright" and how it starts morphing and then you go, "Oh, now it sounds like the Who."
Then you started hearing other bands sound like the Who.
Really if you think about it, the Who is the first punk rock band. If you really think about it, "My Generation" - dah dah dah dah/duh duh duh duh (sings first riff) - has to be the first punk rock song.
Because you loved Hendrix, did Spirit mean anything to you?
No, but I always remember hearing about Randy California and then eventually later on with the big "Stairway to Heaven" thing (Zakk is referring to Spirit's song "Elijah" and it's similarity to "Stairway to Heaven," which came later). I remember my guitar teacher Leroy telling me, "Oh yeah, Randy California is a rippin' guitar player. He does Hendrix and all this other stuff."
So Spirit never meant that much to you?
I was never a big fan. My guitar teacher Leroy knew who Randy California was because of the whole Hendrix connection but when he turned me on to Frank Marino and Robin Trower it was lights out for me then. Frank's huge on me as well. Big time.
Were you hip to Traffic?
Just the hit songs and stuff like that.
Yeah, yeah, but Stevie Winwood's voice is incredible. 'Cause I remember Ozzy always used to say, "God, I love his voice." So Ozzy really dug his voice.
Yeah, without a doubt. Ian Anderson is beyond phenomenal. He's just straight-up, pure musician and in a league of his own. Between the vocals and the songwriting, it's amazing because his music just transports you back to a time. If there was a hard rock band back when there was the Knights of the Round Table and the Renaissance fairs are going on, it would be Jethro Tull. But it's modern and really interesting.
If you could have written any song by Zeppelin, which song would it be?
Well yeah, you figure "Stairway to Heaven," "Free Bird" or "White Christmas," you'll never have to work another day in your life on publishing alone (laughs). I'll take three right there, hah hah hah hah.
Artistically would you have chosen "Stairway to Heaven"?
Yeah, that would be the obvious choice just because of the enormousity of it and everything that it's about. With the mellow stuff and the heavy stuff and how it builds and the epic solo. I mean it's all there. Then Robert's iconic vocals at the end and the screamin' and everything like that. No, it's all there but there's so many Zeppelin things to pick from.
What other songs do you wish you wrote?
You have Beatles things to pick from whether it's the "Long and Winding Road" or "Eleanor Rigby" if you're talking about just insane songwriting. Then there's the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" is out of control.
Yeah, as soon as you hear the intro you get goosebumps.
What about a Sabbath song?
Sabbath would have to be "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath," which is pretty insane. I love all the stuff off of "Sabotage," too. I mean like "Symptom of the Universe" is insane. Ozzy's vocal lines on that is just like mindblowin'.
Talking about incredible records, what do you think about the first Zeppelin album?
Like you said that's a game changer right there. When they ask John Paul Jones, "What album would you tell somebody to go hear if you want to know what Led Zeppelin's about?" he said the first album. 'Cause he said, "It's all there." It had "Good Times Band Times" and the heaviness or "Communication Breakdown." Then it had "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave Ya" and "Dazed and Confused" with the big long jam. He said, "Every element of what we're about is all on that record."
That really is true.
The only thing he said is the production sounds with the reverb on it. He said it makes it sound a bit dated. I was reading that and I said, "Oh wow, that's pretty interesting." But I understand what he's saying about the reverb or whatever. But I still think the record holds up and it's still amazing. I think all those records are not records - they're architectural masterpieces.
The first Van Halen album.
Oh, that's another iconic thing. Eddie's guitar tone pretty much changed the planet and you figure "Eruption" but everything changed on that. It just kinda pulled the guitar into the future.
Eddie Van Halen was a really big influence on you?
I've got other friends who are real big Eddie guys 'cause I was such a Sabbath guy. I just dig the power of the Sabbath stuff 'cause Van Halen's such a happy party band. I mean everything's up with them whether it's the boogies but it's all just swing stuff. It's almost like ZZ Top on steroids. You know what I mean? It's all shuffles and stuff like that. Just up stuff because that's what Dave was into and that's what they were. Where Sabbath was a big sludgy, dark, power riff type thing and Zeppelin was the power blues and everything like that. Then you had Van Halen was the ultimate party band and they had it down. You knew when you were gonna put a Van Halen record on, they sounded like California. If you lived in Jersey you were like, "Wow, that's what it must be like to live in California."
What about "Truth," the first Jeff Beck Group album.
Yeah, that was slammin' too, man.
Were you into Jeff Beck?
I found out about that obviously because Leroy turned me onto Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. Because if you're gonna know who Jimmy Page is, you're gonna know who Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton are. Obviously Rod Stewart (singer in Beck's band) because his voice is incredible.
On the softer side, did you listen to the Band's Music from Big Pink?
Yeah, the Band. I love that. I got a compilation in my iTunes thing. Yeah, "Tears of Rage" and all the hits that are on there - I just love their music without a doubt. I just saw them on Saturday Night Live when we were on the (tour) bus on like an old episode. It's just all killer musicians and it sounded great.
The first Guns N' Roses record, "Appetite For Destruction?"
It's beyond iconic, man. Everything's great on that thing and every song on there is just phenomenal. The solos and just everything, man.
Jumping to the new "Catacombs of the Black Vatican" record, because you have your own home studio, are you able to experiment more with guitar sounds?
Yeah, but not really. We know what my basic rig is. I really didn't really have to change anything from "Order of the Black" (previous album) to now. I mean my cabinets are in the same spot, same mics, and the same head because I know what I'm gonna use. As far as clean tones, I got a couple different amps I'll use for that or my Marshall and I'll put it down in the clean channel or whatever. We'll just turn it down lower. Or a Roland Jazz Chorus with my '57 and '58 (Les Paul) Juniors with the P-90 pickups.
You always tend to start from the same place?
Yeah, so I got my go to crayons. If we want a certain tone, we know what to do. I don't end up spending a lot of time. We don't sit there experimentin' for nine hours on a guitar tone. I just want a good solid guitar tone. When I turn the TV on the picture should look good as soon as I turn it on. If we're all gonna watch Monday Night Football, me and you aren't gonna spend three hours dialing in the picture.
When you find a good guitar tone, you'll use that as the foundation for all the songs on the album?
Yeah. Once we get a guitar tone down, I'll just start playing right there and then go from track to track to track.
Rhythm guitarist Nick Catanese has left and was replaced by Dario Lorina.
Yes. It's all good. We just spoke with Nick and he was like, "Man, Zakk, I want to put a thousand percent into this project I'm workin' on. Whether it sinks or it swims, I just gotta do it, man. I don't know if I'm gonna hold you up." I said, "We spoil ya and whatever you want to do, brother. Go knock it out." So that's what he's doing right now.
How did you find Dario?
Blasko (Ozzy's bass player) hooked it up. Blasko was like, "Well let me see about Dario. He's a young kid and he's a killer player." I'm at the point where I don't need to sit here and we don't have to do American Idol cattle call with 5,000 singers coming in to hear them sing. Either I know really good guitar players that are either lookin' for a gig and it's just like, "Dude, you wanna join the band?"
You heard Dario Lorina play and knew he was the right guy?
I just saw him playing. He sent a video in and he was just shredding. Then after that we just flew him out to the Vatican (Zakk's studio) and met him. He did his Chippendale's dance (famous club from back in the day that featured male dancers) and I said, "Is that a spray on tan or is that a real tan?" and he said, "No, it's a real tan." I said, "Obviously you're committed to the project" and right then and there I knew he had the gig. Because you have to have passion.
He can't look better than you!
Hah hah hah hah. Well who does?
Dario Lorina is a seriously good guitar player.
He's really good.
Does having someone like Lorina in the band kick you in the butt at all in terms of your playing?
No, I practice every day, man. It's awesome because I know he jams every day too. And like I said when Nick was in the band, Nick was killin' it as well. With anything I needed Nick to do - solos, double solos with me - Nick killed it all the time.
Can you talk about any of the other music on "Catacombs of the Black Vatican?"
People go, "Oh, do you have stockpiles of riffs and this and that?" and I say, "Well, no." Basically what it was is when we end up workin' the records, I'll be like, "Steve, how much time 'til the guys come out?" and you're like, "Zakk, the guys will be out here in about 25 days." It's like, "Oh, well I got 25 days to write a record. So that's that."
And what is that writing process like?
I just put my Black Label imagination thinking cap on and turn into Doug Henning and go write a record. "It's magic" (spoken in soft tones ala Henning). I dig it that way so there's just an explosion of writing and you get it done.
How did "My Dying Time" come about?
That was one of the last songs I sang - that one and another song called "Shades of Grey," which is like a mellow tune. I couldn't come up with a melody for "My Dying Time" that I was happy with. Everything was just lame and I can't stand it or it just didn't sound good. Or at that point with some of the things I was like, "Dude, I've already sang something that's similar to that." Because there was 15 songs so if anything you're gonna fall into the trap of sounding like something you already sang. You know what I mean?
So I was just like, "Nah, it's not exactly but it's kind of similar to whatever song we did three weeks ago." We nixed that and I tried something again. Then you just stop and it's like, "Eh, well I ain't gonna freak out." I said, "I'll get it eventually." You just walk away from it and come back to it later.
What is that guitar on the intro?
The flanger, yeah. The King Edward flanger (MXR EVH-117) and I've got it set on the "Unchained" setting on the pedal.
Are you also aware of having fast and slow songs on an album so everything isn't the same tempo?
You just go, "We could use an uptempo one right about now." You just put your head on and start writing a faster-type riff and something that inspires you. It's definitely more that. Because like I said I didn't write these songs over four years. Once we start touring and everything, I can't write. We're too busy tourin' and doing everything like that.
Is there an actual approach you take to writing?
If I'm gonna write anything, I'll sit in the morning and come up with something. I'll just jam something in the morning whether it's acoustic or something because I'm always running scales when I wake up in the morning. I'll grab some Valhalla Java (the coffee brand Zakk endorses) and I'll just sit down and go duhdit duh dit ditditditdit (mimics fast guitar riff) and just going over morning scales.
Where does it go from there?
Then if I start noodlin' on guitar, it'll be somethin' mellow where it's like a Neil Young thing or a Bob Seger thing or the Eagles or Allmans or in that vein. Whether it's "Melissa" or "Midnight Rider" or like an acoustic-type thing 'cause that's what the instrument lends itself to.
How do the electric songs get written?
The whole thing is as far as riffs, I'll sit in my garage with a JCM2000 I have at a low volume with a Super Overdrive pedal and an Octave pedal on so it just sounds massive like I'm in Madison Square Garden with reverb on it. The guitar tone sounds huge at a low volume and I'll just start writin' riffs and that's how it comes about.
Which is what you described before about knowing the band will arrive in a certain number of days and getting all the writing done.
So like when the guys get out here, I have a batch of songs and everything pretty much written. When the guys are here if I write something else, the guys are here for two weeks and we pump something else out.
You've made a lot of records and written a ton of riffs - do you ever see that you're copying yourself from something you may have done earlier?
Umm, no. As soon as I'm jamming, I'm like, "This is cool." Then we're off and we're good to go. The first time I wrote "Miracle Man" ("No Rest for the Wicked") - chunkachunkadin din din din chunkachunkadindin - I was like, "I dig this one."
You played with Ozzy for 20 years - did any of that rub off on you?
Without a doubt. It's always the Rolodex of knowledge. You know what I mean? That's how you learn. You go, "Let's do something like the ending of 'When the Levee Breaks' with that reverb Pagey has - Pope Page - on his guitar. Let's do a really cool ending like that." So you just reference things and obviously when you come out with the end product, I can tell you where I got the inspiration from. But I would have never known that if you didn't tell me. So exactly, man.
With Ozzy, you worked with amazing producers like Keith Olsen and Roy Thomas Baker but as a solo guitarist you've never worked with an outside producer.
No, because I approach it kind of like Jimmy Page. When you know where you're goin', you don't need to ask for directions. McDonald's is right up the road - I can find it. The main thing is and what's always improving on the records, you just wanna make sure the sound quality is up to par. That's the big thing.
Tell me a bit more about some of the music on Catacombs of the Black Vatican.
We got "Fields of Unforgiveness," "Believe," "Heart of Darkness," "Beyond the Down," "Scars," "Damn the Flood," "I've Gone Away" and "Empty Promises." And obviously "My Dying Time" and "Shades of Grey."
Judging by the titles, some of these songs are pretty heavy?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. There's a bunch of heavy tunes and then we got three mellow tunes like "Scars," "Shades of Grey" and "Angel of Mercy."
Any piano on the album?
Yeah, but they're predominantly guitar songs. It's like if you heard the Band and it was "Tears of Rage" and there's piano in there with the guitars.
You are a guitar hero. Have you ever felt the pressure of having to solo on every song or just rip out a solo whenever you have the chance?
No, 'cause I'm a fan of guitar solos. So when I'm listening to a Van Halen record and King Edward isn't doing a solo, I'm like, "Am I listening to the right record?" When I go see John McLaughlin I wanna see him tear it up. Or Frank Marino or Al DiMeola. No, I enjoy hearing it.
If a song doesn't need a solo, you won't just put one in?
Put it this way, I get it. If a song doesn't need it or whatever? Without a doubt I'll listen to it and I don't just go, "Oh yeah, we gotta put a solo in this song."
Any special way you approach a solo?
If there's a solo that needs a "Comfortably Numb" type thing as opposed to "Race With the Devil on the Spanish Highway" (Al DiMeola) type thing, like I said you use the Rolodex of knowledge. You just go, "Steve, what do you like better? The Father Gilmour thing or do you like the Father DiMeola thing." You go, "Zakk, I like the Father Gilmour thing better on this one." It's like, "Yeah, I'm feeling that one too. Or you want the exciting one, the Al one with the rippin' stuff in there?" It's just like, "Yeah, that sounds pretty cool too, man. Why don't you go with that one?" I mean you know when you hear the song which one is gonna sound good.
You're going out to do the Experience Hendrix tour with Eric Johnson who plays that Hendrix stuff so insanely well.
Yeah, without a doubt.
Any idea which songs you'll play?
No, not right now. I told the people over there, "Just send me a bunch of the stuff the fellas are doin' and I'll pick around that." Obviously as far as the popular songs go whether it's "Purple Haze," "Foxy Lady" or "Fire," I'd rather probably take a more obscure thing and jam on that one.
In our previous interview you talked about truly digging the recording experience. Now that Catacombs of the Black Vatican is done, how do you feel about it?
I approached it like the first record that's gonna come out and what you want people to hear. So yeah, without a doubt I'm really proud of this one. I was proud of the last one and actually all of them. At that time that's the best you want to put out and you do the best job you can.
Thank you, brother Zakk. Play the good notes.
Alright, brother. I will be talking to you in a bit. I can't wait 'til you to hear the rest of it, man. I'll talk to you later, brother Stevie. Bye, brother.
Interview by Steven RosenUltimate-Guitar.Com 2014