Black Label Society: True Sonic Brew

When Ozzy Osborne chose Zakk Wylde to be his right-hand axe man in 1987, one could wonder if he’d predicted how wildly multi-faceted his talented young player would become. Though he’d spend some twenty years with “the boss,” as Wylde refers to Ozzy, the Jersey-born musician would go on to burn a path of his own, one melodic, shredding guitar solo at a time.

Within the past two decades, Wylde has released ten studio albums with his band Black Label Society. The latest of which, Grimmest Hits, was released last year. In addition, his two solo albums, Book of Shadows I and Book of Shadows II, showcased a more reflective side within his songwriting. Never one to rest on his laurels, Wylde has collaborated with various artists, contributed songs on the hit series Sons of Anarchy, appeared in movies such as the cult favorite Rockstar and created his own signature Gibson Les Paul with a bullseye design (he’s named his custom axe “The Grail”) that has become a ubiquitous image slung across the bodies of guitar players all over the world.

While Wylde evokes an image of draconian strength, the free-spirited frontman simultaneously possesses a wisdom and tenderness, evident in moments behind the piano on songs like “In This River.”  Surely, he could have lived well into eternity with the title of ‘Ozzy’s Guitarist’ listed on his resume. But, that wouldn’t be Zakk Wylde. Incorporating his visceral songwriting, intelligent and pensive playing style, and the ability to not take himself (or the band) too seriously, he has managed to carve out a career that is entirely true to who he is.  Seemingly, he knows no other way.

The New Jersey native may reside in California now, but Wylde’s East Coast roots have clearly served him well. He’s a musician whose depth of person matches the breadth of his talent. His fearless attitude, confidence, and unique style illustrate a man who gives his audience nothing but his unabashed self.  Take it or leave it—and, of course, this only adds to his appeal. Black Label Society are currently blazing through South America on their Sonic Brewtality Tour, celebrating the reissue of Sonic Brew for its 20th  anniversary with Conan and Atomic Bitchwax supporting. The tour hits New York on May 6-7 at the Bowery Ballroom.

Hi, Zakk. Thanks for taking some time out on tour to speak with me today.

Well, hello there! What’s going on in New Jersey? As long as Point Pleasant and Asbury Park is fine, everything’s good.

All is well here. How is it in South America on this leg of the Sonic Brewtality Tour? Any different than here or Europe? How are the fans?

It’s always amazing down here. We always have a blast. We’re wrapping it up right now, the Lima, Peru Chapter of the almighty Black Label. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to tonight. Tomorrow morning, we fly back home and start getting ready for Black Label Bootcamp—the Sonic Brew Tupperware Fest, [the] quilt-craft-sewing Festivus miracle that’s going to be rolling through the States.

Since you’re playing for two consecutive nights in most places, is there any hint you can give the fans as in what to expect? Or is it chronological?

The first night will be Sonic Brew with all the fishnets, garters, high-heels, rouge, and feather boas that you can expect, and the second night will be a glitterfest with more costume changes and more Diana Ross celebration.  So, basically, that’s what you can expect. A lot of fashion, a lot of makeup, and, eventually, we play some music (laughs).

Considering you come from Jersey, and you travel all over the world, obviously, do you ever notice when your Jersey roots come out?

(Laughs) It comes out this way…. I go, ‘I’m from New Jersey.’ They go, ‘That’s great! When are you going back?’ (laughs) It is funny because people ask, ‘Where is your accent from? Are you from Boston?’—I’ve lived in California now longer than I have in Jersey, but I still sound like I’m from New Jersey, you know what I mean? It’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’s been out of Austria now for like 500 years, and he still says, ‘Cal–ee-for-nee-a’ (laughs). He still sounds like he’s from Austria. I think that’s the same with everybody. All of my friends that are from the East Coast still sound like they’re from the East Coast. It is pretty funny because people think I’m either going to be singing some Bon Jovi or some Springsteen. Then, again, Sinatra was from there, too.

There is definitely something in the water, as they say, in New Jersey….

Well, the debate was New Jersey pizza or New York pizza. Jersey pizza is amazing, and so is New York’s.  This is the debate we always have. There are some joints in Staten Island, or you can go down to Point Pleasant, down to Jenkinsons and get some great pizza.

Would you attribute your raw and unique playing style to playing with some of those early bands from the era before Pride & Glory?

Yeah, I guess so. I think with anybody, where you were raised and everything like that will definitely have some type of influence, but Albert Lee, who was one of the greatest country guitar players ever, is from England. He’s not from Nashville. He’s not from Alabama. He’s not from Mississippi. He’s not from Georgia. He’s not from the South, and he’s one of the greatest country guitar players ever…. from England.

Look at Eminem, who is an amazing rapper—it depends on what music you were exposed to and what music moves you. You know what I mean? Because when you look at Zeppelin, Sabbath, and Deep Purple, they were all influenced by American blues, all the old blues records. They were taking those riffs and amplifying them and making them super heavy. The riffs were already heavy to begin with, just on acoustic guitar. The weight and the depth of the music are still there. They just amplified it. So, there they are, from England, being influenced by American culture. And they devoured it. It was in their bloodstream. I think, really, you could be anywhere. It’s just a matter of (exposure).

  If Jimi Hendrix was around in the fifties, and that was when he was in his prime, he would’ve been an amazing artist in the fifties. But he just happened to be around the whole hippie movement going on at the time. And he devoured it…. I think it really is true for every musician. It’s who you get inspired by, and it’s in your DNA. It’s what you love listening to. It actually comes out in your music because you’re going to want to play what you enjoy listening to.

While you were developing your style, you were into listening to Rhoads, Jimmy Page….

Yeah, but I love Elton John, Allman Brothers, Skynyrd, Sabbath, Zeppelin, The Band, Neil Young, John McLaughlin, Frank Marino of Mahogany Rush, Jimi Hendrix, Robin Trower, Saint Rhoads…. And anytime I’m writing anything I can always hear where the influence, the flavor in the soup, where it’s coming from.

There are many different sides that seem to coexist, the light, the dark, the humor….

As far as the humor goes, it’s a combination of Rip Taylor and the fact that we’re just a bunch of idiots (laughs). That’s the influence there.

Do you consciously try to find that balance in your writing?

As far as writing… I always tell people with kids who want advice for their son or daughter, like when I was 15- or 16-years-old, the number one lesson, and it’s so much easier said than done, is whatever music it is that you love, and whatever music it is that moves you, that truly moves you, that’s what you should be doing.

I’m just saying that if when Bon Jovi was at the height of power and they were telling Guns N’ Roses, ‘You guys should be more like that. If you had more songs like that it would be an easier sell,’ but they were like, ‘That’s not what we do. We like Aerosmith. We like the Stones. We like the whole punk rock thing. We like the elements of all that stuff. That’s who we are.’ [And then] Guns N’ Roses becomes the biggest band in the world, and you have Soundgarden doing their thing. And they’re telling Chris (Cornell), ‘You need to be more like Axl, and you need to be more like Guns N’ Roses.’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, but we’re not Guns N’ Roses, man.’ When you listen to Chris, I hear tons of Zeppelin, tons of Sabbath, and tons of Beatles. I’m hearing all of these different elements in that soup. Chris is saying, ‘I’m just doing what naturally comes out of me.’ Then, when the grunge thing is at the height of its power, they’re telling the Green Day guys, ‘You guys need to be more like the grunge guys.’ And they’re like, ‘But we love the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones, all of that stuff. We’re coming from a whole different thing.’

So, just play what you love. It’s so easy to be swayed into, ‘Oh, this is popular. I guess I’ll be this now.’ You’re always a day late and a dollar short anyway because whatever is popular, that movement has been going on for a number of years before it ever got exposed. By not conforming and staying true to what moves you and what you love is the only way you’re going to excel and the only way you’re going to shine in anything that you do in life, no matter what it is.

And you’ve never had a moment in your career wherein you felt you needed to conform?

No. The first band I was in, Zyris, was [an example] of how not to do it. We were into Jake (E. Lee), Zep, Sabbath, Saint Rhoads, Rush, and all of this other stuff, but Scandal and Bon Jovi were on MTV at that time. I remember we were being told, ‘You need to be doing more stuff like this… like Mr. Mister.’ And I was like, ‘But we don’t even listen to this stuff. Why would we want to be in a band playing this stuff?’ If we were going to put a cover band together, what would we want to play? You know what I mean? We would play all of the stuff we loved, in the zip code,  at least. When I started playing with the boss—with Ozzy—I never had to make music that I didn’t want to write. I just did whatever I wanted to do.

It’s evident with BLS and your solo albums that you are true to who you are, and the fans seem to connect to that.

Yeah, I think the only thing [that is] selling out is whenever you’re doing something that you don’t feel comfortable doing. If you feel comfortable doing it, like, ‘I love this stuff, man,’ then that’s what you should be doing.

With the reissue of Sonic Brew, what are you hoping they take away from it this time around?

What we’re looking forward to with this reissue is that they’ll burn even more calories off of this release than when it first came out. So, it will be even sharper when bikini season comes rolling around (laughs). That’s the whole point of putting out this reissue.

Interesting that you said there were not any hits on your last album Grimmest Hits. The fans seem to be digging it. What songs do you enjoy playing the most off of this album?

And I was right! There are no hits! (laughs). The songs I enjoy playing in the set list right now are “Trampled Down Below” every night. That’s a lot of fun to play. And “All That Once Shined,” we have a blast with that one, too. When I listen to that record again, I’m happy with the way it came out, for sure.  If somebody were to say, ‘Zakk, if you could only pick one Black Label album…’ I’d say, ‘Here. Listen to this one.’ It’s pretty much got everything on it. But Sonic Brew has everything on it, too, between “Spoke in the Wheel” and the heavy rock, so it encompasses what the band’s about.

The video for “Trampled” is sick, visually and musically. It’s so intense, and yet there is some sort of counterpoint thing going on with the music and your voice, the dark and the light.

Thanks. I really appreciate it. Yeah, they did a great job with that video.

Where did your piano playing begin?

Obviously, Elton John. I got into Elton John before I found Sabbath, Zeppelin…. So, I guess it was my love for Elton John. I’m pretty much all self-taught on the piano. It came from just trying to learn how to play Elton songs or Neil Young songs by figuring out chords. I’m not going to be shredding on any classical pieces. I’ll leave that to Derek Sherinian if there needs to be any shredding on the keyboards (laughs).

It adds a beautiful element to the songs, with the piano. Many hard rock or metal bands wouldn’t dare to do that. It’s such a delicate instrument.

Like I said before, the advice I’d give to the kids, whatever it is that moves you is what you should be playing. When I’m sitting behind the piano I love doing that just as much as I love playing screaming solos. So, there is no, ‘Uh, I don’t think we should do that.’ It’s whatever you love playing, you should be doing.  Whether it’s Neil Young doing “Heart of Gold” or Zeppelin playing “Black Dog” or Sabbath playing “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.”

So, can we expect a Book of Shadows III, another solo project, or a BLS album in the works soon?

Yeah, for me it depends on when we’re done touring if we’ll do another Black Label album with riffs and mellower stuff or, obviously, the Book of Shadows is a mellow thing from beginning to end. It’s like a road trip record. It depends on where we’re at.

Are you writing while on tour? Getting new ideas?

I still write…. I pick up the guitar if I get inspired by something. Hearing a cool song or whatever, I go ‘Man, it’d be cool to do something like that.’ It turns into something completely different, anyway…. If Salvador Dali got inspired by anything, he just picked up a paintbrush…


Black Label Society bring their Sonic Brewtality Tour to the Bowery Ballroom on May 6 and May 7!