Black Label Society: "We're interested in life, religion and war"

a press shot of zakk wylde

Zakk Wylde is happy as hell to be 50, and he’s especially thrilled at how some of his body parts are holding up. “My vagina is awesome!” he crows. “It’s more powerful than it’s ever been. You ought to see my labia lunges – that’s a sight to behold. I’ll tell you, my vagina can harness more power at 50 than it did when I was 27. This getting older thing isn’t so bad at all.”

He lets out a throaty, raucous chortle, which he does often. Taking a gulp of coffee, he sticks a pin in the notion that hitting the big 5-0 is diminishing his strengths in any way. “I’m doing great, bro. No Viagra for me. No blue pills. Everything’s workin’ like it should – bigger, bolder than ever. I’ve got no complaints.”

Indeed, these days everything about Zakk Wylde appears super-sized. For years he’s cultivated a larger-than-life image, and the advancement of time – and a serious commitment to weightlifting – has only increased his enormity. Style-wise, he’s a cross between Thor and an extra on Sons Of Anarchy, all leather vests and clanking chains, and with his lip-obscuring moustache, a nearly two-foot-long beard and a Fabio-like mane of hair, he’s not likely to blend into a crowd anytime soon.

He cut a dramatically different figure back in the day. In 1987, when he was first thrust into the spotlight as Jake E. Lee’s hotshot guitar replacement in Ozzy Osbourne’s band, he was a clean-shaven pretty boy, sporting the de rigueur poodle ’do popularised by pop-metal bands like Poison and Warrant. “Yeah, I had the poofy hair,” Wylde recalls. “After a while, I didn’t give a fuck about doing my hair. I don’t think I bought a can of Aqua Net after 1988. Once Guns N’ Roses hit, I had enough of that shit. I just rolled out of bed and it was like: ‘Here I am – let’s jam!’”

Wylde’s tenure with Ozzy has been an on-again/off-again arrangement, and as of right now, it’s on again: the guitarist, who rejoined him for a series of dates last year, will hit the road come May for the singer’s two-year “farewell” tour. During his first break with Ozzy, which lasted from 1995 to 2001, Wylde formed his own band, Black Label Society. The group has been through roughly half a dozen iterations, and out of the current line-up (Dario Lorina on rhythm guitar and Jeff Fabb on drums), bassist John DeServio is the longest-standing member, having worked with the outfit briefly in 1999 and rejoining in 2005.

“There’s never been any problems with any of the guys in the band,” Wylde explains. “No fights or blow-outs. I just try to surround myself with great musicians and cool guys, and it’s like: ‘Okay, we’re gonna make this record and we’re gonna tour – can you do it?’ There’s no drama. I don’t roll like that. Everybody I’ve ever played with is my brother.”

Gang of four: with Black Label Society.

Gang of four: with Black Label Society.

Despite the number of players to pass through BLS’s revolving doors, Wylde has established the band as a high-demand concert draw, and he hasn’t been stingy when it comes to issuing records. This month, the group is set to release its 10th studio album, Grimmest Hits, a righteous set of roiling, doomsday metal and poignant, Southern rock-tinged ballads. Each song features a boatload of Wylde’s prodigious six-string skills – there’s enough gnarly licks and nimble fretboard runs to satisfy the shred set – but throughout the record the guitarist deepens his reach as a gutsy, soulful vocalist and a world-weary, introspective lyricist. Does he feel he’s mellowing with age?

“I don’t know if age matters when it comes to songwriting,” he opines. “I mean, yeah, you get older and you have more things to write about – you’ve just seen more and you have more to draw from. Even when I was partying, I was never the type of guy to write about partying. That stuff just seemed goofy to me. It’s more interesting to write about life and religion and war. There’s inspiration everywhere. I might see a movie and go, ‘Oh, that’s a cool thing to write about.’ I guess I just gravitate toward that kind of thing than, you know, silly shit.

“All the bands I grew up loving, they didn’t write about orny stuff,” he continues. “Look at Zeppelin. It wasn’t always Whole Lotta Love; sometimes it was Stairway To Heaven. They were going for something pretty heavy there. And Sabbath, what are they talking about in Iron Man and War Pigs? So I think your maturity level can grow even when you’re rockin’. You can’t just stay in the same place as you were when you’re seventeen.”

The release of any new record brings with it the chance to tour, and for Wylde, there’s no place he’d rather be than on the road. “I don’t have any problems with touring,” he says. “I probably do three hundred shows a year, and I love it. I go batshit crazy when I’m not playing. I hear these guys, like, ‘Oh, man, touring’s such a drag,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, what the fuck did you get into this for?’ If you’re a musician, you go out and jam. Touring makes some guys insane, and I don’t get that. It keeps me sane, bro.”

During those brief spells when he’s not on tour, Wylde leads a quiet life at his home in California with his wife, Barbaranne. They married in 1985, but the two New Jersey natives have been together since their teens. “We don’t do anything crazy,” Wylde says. “We just like to hang out and enjoy ourselves with the family.” Two of their kids, Hayley Rae and Jesse, are in their 20s (“They’re doing their own things”), so that leaves sons Hendrix, 15, and Sabbath Page, 5, at home. “Hendrix has his own friends, so I mostly hang out with the little guy now,” Wylde says. “People might think it’s boring, but I have a great time. I love lifting weights, and other than that I just play the guitar. I wake up, and it’s practise, practise, practise. I feel like I’m learning something new every day.”

It all could have turned out very differently. In August of 2009, at the age of 42, after decades of heavy drinking, Wylde was hospitalised with blood clots in both lungs and his left leg. The guitarist admits that he never considered himself an alcoholic – this despite a brief stay at the Promises rehab center at the behest of Ozzy’s wife and manager, Sharon (Wylde jumped the facility’s fence and headed for the nearest bar) – but the news from his attending physician was brutal and direct: stop drinking or die.

“At first I thought, ‘Oh, I just gotta chill out on the drinking,’” Wylde recalls. “But the doc laid it out and said, ‘Zakk, I’m looking at your pancreas and your kidneys – your enzyme counts are off the charts. If you keep drinking, you’ll have a liver transplant before you’re 45. And then forget about your pancreas – that’s not too far behind. The guys who go through that either die on the table or they don’t leave here. They just say goodbye to everybody, and that’s that.’”

Hero: a youthful Wylde with Ozzy in 1987

Hero: a youthful Wylde with Ozzy in 1987
(Image: © Getty Images)

And that was that: Wylde made the decision to leave his hell-raising pub days behind him. “It was a no-brainer,” he concludes. “I had a good run with the drinking, but I drove it into the ground. I could keep drinking and bring down the curtain fast, or I could have a long life and career. I could listen to Jimmy Page and Zeppelin and Sabbath and Frank Marino and Al Di Meola. I could hang out with my family and my dogs. All I had to do was stop drinking.”

Even so, was he concerned that once on the road again the old temptations to drink would get the best of him? “I really didn’t think about it,” he claims. “I mean, sure, I liked to drink on the road. It was enjoyable. But it’s almost like asking, ‘Can you deal without a massage on the road?’ A massage is great – I enjoy it a lot – but can I do shows without getting one? Of course I can. Same goes for drinking. It used to relax me, but I just had to find other ways to relax.”

A little online porn on the road helps take the edge off. Wylde lets out an uproarious laugh when asked to choose between the works of legendary porn stars Rocco Siffredi and Nick Manning. “Let’s face it, both of them are a win-win,” he notes authoritatively. “If I had to choose, I’d probably go with Rocco. I discovered him first, and it’s always satisfaction guaranteed. You’re always gonna get a quality motion picture with Rocco. But Nick is amazing, too. Both guys are killin’. They’re doing their thing for humanity and mankind, and they make the world a more relaxed place.”

Sports also fill the gaps in Wylde’s life – he’s a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees and New York Giants, and he once hosted his own talk show, Wylde On Sports, on SiriusXM. Growing up in Jackson, New Jersey, he played little league baseball and scored a slot on his high school football team. He had tinkered around with the guitar aged eight, but when he started taking lessons from his football coach’s son, LeRoy Wright, a light went on.

“That’s when I got serious about the guitar, taking lessons from LeRoy [in high school],” he says. “He made me get good fast. This was all before YouTube. To physically see somebody playing all these songs right in front of me, I was completely hooked. LeRoy showed me how to play Back In Black, all these songs. He broke down the scales and showed me how to connect the dots. That just put me on the road to learning, and I couldn’t stop. I practised ten hours a day, and it wasn’t even work. LeRoy made it fun for me.”

For the next few years, Wylde played keg parties and local clubs with bands such as Stonehenge and Zyris, but he admits that he didn’t have much of a game plan. “I was just doing what I loved,” he says. “I was gigging and playing, and that was it. I didn’t think this guy behind the curtain was going to change everything, like in The Wizard Of Oz.”

But that’s more or less what happened: noted rock photographer Mark Weiss got a tape of Wylde’s playing, which he passed to Ozzy and Sharon. An audition was arranged, and before he knew it he’s got the coveted spot as Ozzy’s ace guitar guy.

“People ask me did I feel the pressure. And the answer is ‘no,’” Wylde says. “Being a Yankees fan, to me Randy Rhoads was Thurman Munson. He was the captain and then Jake E. Lee came in. So that was my mindset – I’m the new guy going into the Yankees. I wanted to do great. I wanted to succeed. I wanted to win the World Series, simple as that.”

Wylde has always had an affinity for Southern rock (“My buddies and I listened to Skynyrd and the Allmans – crack open some beers and turn it up”), and by 1991 he started slipping some non-shred metal licks into Ozzy’s music – most notably, there was his panoramic, cosmic country solo in Mama, I’m Coming Home. “Ozzy would bust my balls a little about that stuff, but if it fit the song, he was cool,” Wylde claims. While on his tour bus, the guitarist found himself chilling out to the Eagles, and soon got into the music of Sam Cooke and Percy Sledge. “After a while, I just wanted to play some different stuff. But let’s be honest, you can’t make Ozzy sound like the Eagles, so I thought: ‘Okay, let’s see what I can do on my own.’”

Letting his hair down with BLS at Manchester Apollo in 2011

Letting his hair down with BLS at Manchester Apollo in 2011
(Image: © Alamy)

The time seemed to be right in 1992, when Ozzy announced his retirement following the No More Tears Tour. Wylde formed a band called Pride & Glory, signed a big-money deal with Geffen and released a self-titled album in 1994. The record was a faithful love letter to the music the guitarist had recently absorbed, but while it received positive notices, it failed to connect with listeners. A year later, Ozzy called off his retirement, and Wylde was back for the album Ozzmosis.

Wylde downplays the notion that he and Ozzy butted heads during the album’s recording, but upon its release he was spending less time with “the boss” in favour of jamming infrequently with Guns N’ Roses, with the idea that he might join Slash to form a mega, twin-lead guitar duo. “They were trying to figure out what they wanted to do, and it was taking a while,” Wylde recalls. “Finally, Oz said, ‘Hey, Zakk, I gotta know what you’re doing.’ It came down to the last minute ’cos Oz was going to go on tour, so that’s when he got Joe Holmes in. I was cool with that. I had all these songs lying around, so I put them out as Book Of Shadows, and right after that Black Label Society was born.”

To those on the outside, the relationship between Wylde and Ozzy is something of a head-scratcher. The guitarist hooked back up with the singer in 2001 for a series of tours and albums while he continued to lead BLS. The two appeared to reach a sort of peaceful accord, but in 2009 Ozzy made the surprising announcement that he had parted ways with Wylde and hired Greek guitarist Gus G from Firewind as his replacement.

Differing accounts for his decision made the news: the singer had reached his breaking point with Wylde’s drinking; he claimed that the guitarist was making his music too much like Black Label Society. Wylde, who was at first blindsided by his termination and expressed outrage in a radio interview (“Call me, man. It’s like, dude, you don’t wanna play with me anymore? Fine. Play with whoever the hell you wanna play with”), now stresses that the situation was overblown in the press.

“I had Black Label going, and I just wanted to jam with other people,” he says. “And Oz was like, ‘Zakk, look, I don’t wanna be the lead singer of Black Label Society.’ Totally understandable, I mean if Randy Rhoads was still jamming with Quiet Riot and he was going back to Oz, then Oz would’ve said, ‘I’m sounding like Quiet Riot.’ I get it. So Oz went out and played with Gus. That’s how it all rolls.”

And so it would seem that Wylde’s decision to rejoin Ozzy is just par for the course. “Any time the boss needs me, I’m there,” he says. Despite their storied history of starts and stops, Wylde remains fiercely loyal to the man who lifted him from obscurity and propelled him into the pantheon of guitar greats. “Everything I have is because of Ozzy,” he asserts. “Whether it’s the Black Label family and all the touring I do, playing Experience Hendrix [which he did in 2017 alongside Buddy Guy and Eric Johnson] and the whole thing, it’s all because Ozzy introduced me to the world. I’ll always be in debt to Oz and mom for giving me the incredible life I have.”

Black Label Society’s current tour wraps in May, and after that Wylde might have to put the band on ice for a while as he traverses the globe with Ozzy. Billing any tour as a “farewell” is a sure-fire way to sell tickets, and Wylde, perhaps owning up to Ozzy’s Sinatra-like penchant for false retirements, is already taking the matter with a pinch of salt. “We’ll play till 2020, and then we’ll all make some horrendously bad investments,” he says with a laugh. “Then you’ll see us again on the ‘We Made Some Horrendously Bad Investments Tour.’ That’ll give us a reason to come back. Or it’ll be the ‘We Developed a Bad Gambling Problem Tour.’ You never know, bro.”

Grimmest Hits is out on January 19 via Spinefarm Records. Black Label Society’s UK dates are on April 5, 7 and 8.

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