Zakk Wylde was pumping gas in New Jersey when he got the call to join Ozzy Osbourne’s band. Thirty-five years later and Zakk’s an icon in his own right – a legendary guitar god who helped pen some of Ozzy’s most acclaimed records (No More Tears, anyone?) while also forging a lucrative side-hustle as the singer, guitarist and all-round creative tour de force behind Black Label Society.
He’s also a funny motherfucker and the sweetest person you’ll ever meet. From his affectionate nicknames (Randy Rhoads is ‘Saint Rhoads’, Sharon Osbourne is ‘Mom’, Ozzy is ‘The Boss’ – even yours truly becomes ‘Brother/Father Rich’ for the duration of our conversation) to his tendency to spice up interviews by giving utterly ludicrous comedic answers that he punctuates with a booming laugh, there is absolutely no doubt that this is somebody who has spent more than three decades with heavy metal’s original madman.
With Black Label Society’s hefty new record, Doom Crew Inc., on shelves and work well underway with Ozzy’s 13th record (something Zakk is keeping uncharacteristically hush-hush about), we cornered Zakk to separate the man from the (mostly self-made) myths… or at least, we tried.
You were born in New Jersey and raised by Catholic parents – so how does a good Catholic boy end up playing the Devil’s music?
“Well, when I was 11 I discovered Black Sabbath. Before that I was a huge Elton John fan – still am – but when I was 11 years old I was in art class and my buddy Tommy was doing this sculpture of a jawless skull. It had a lightning bolt going through it and he’d written ‘Black Sabbath 666’ and I’m just like… ‘What’s that?!’ He’s like, ‘It’s a band my older brother listens to’, and I knew I needed to hear it. I got my mother to buy the record and I was terrified when I first listened to it!”
So which Sabbath record was it?
“It was [1975 compilation album] We Sold Our Soul For Rock’N’Roll, so not even a real Black Sabbath record! I was beyond terrified; I’d been raised Catholic and by halfway through that record I’d turned full Satanist. By the end I’d gone back to Catholicism just so’s I could thank God for creating Black Sabbath, ha ha ha!”
Did your parents object to you bringing those kinds of records home?
“Naw, they always supported me in everything I did. There were sports, then when I got into music they supported that too. They were awesome; whatever I had passion for they’d support me and that’s something I do for my kids too.”
Sabbath were the first band you saw, but while Dio was fronting them. That being the pre-internet age, were you aware they’d changed singers?
“Well, yeah, we’d had Heaven And Hell [Dio’s first album with Sabbath, 1980] by that point, and Oz was doing his own thing with Randy [Rhoads]. We loved Blizzard [Of Ozz, Ozzy’s debut solo album] and when Diary Of A Madman came out, we loved that too. For me, it was win-win; Sabbath had split but we got two great bands out of it.”
When did Jeffrey Phillip Wielandt become Zakk Wylde?
“Well, originally my name was Farrah Fawcett but apparently that one was taken. Ozzy said, ‘We’re gonna have to change your name’ and I figured we could go with ‘Paper Asshole’ or ‘Shitbag McGee’, but Ozzy didn’t like that either. He was like, ‘We’ll call you Zakk Wylde’ and I was like, ‘Hey, it works!’”
So it was thanks to Ozzy that you changed your name?
“Yeah, but my wife still calls me Paper Asshole!”
You’ve often run with a particular story about how you got into Ozzy’s band…
“Oh yeah, telling people that I was Ozzy’s steroid dealer? One day he just goes, ‘I didn’t know you played guitar – how’s about you give me half off and I let you play in my band?!’”
And the real version?
“Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I got passed along through this radio promoter who was helping to get our album played on radio, but I’d basically have to do the casting couch. It wasn’t pretty, but it got Mama, I’m Coming Home to No.1. It’s like they say, it’s all about the art.”
And the real-real version is that you were in the band Zyris at the time, right?
“Oh man, we’d be playing shows to, like, two heroin addicts and the guy who runs the bar. One of the times, [friend and industry man] Dave Feld saw me play and we got to chatting after the show. He’s like, ‘You know Jake [E. Lee]’s just left Ozzy’s band?’ and we’re sitting there in New Jersey just thinking how great it’d be to get a tape to Ozzy. But hey, after that, why not coffee with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, right? We don’t know these fucking people – I’ve got their posters, not their fucking phone numbers! But Dave knew Mark Weiss, and Mark did Ozzy’s photography. So if I could do a tape, he could get it to Mrs Osbourne.”
Within weeks of joining Ozzy’s band you played your first show with them – at Wormwood Scrubs prison. How did that feel?
“The whole thing was bizarro land; we performed in front of these fuckin’ lifers. All I could think was, ‘I hope I pass this fuckin audition’; I’m the closest thing to Pamela Anderson these motherfuckers are going to see for the rest of their lives!”
Not long after, Geezer Butler also joined the band. How did you feel playing alongside not one, but two members of Black Sabbath?
“Geezer joining the band was unbelievable. We played Long Beach one of the days and Bill [Ward, Sabbath drummer] came down to say hi and it was amazing. We all jammed and I was there with Geezer, Ozzy and Bill – it was like I’d won some sort of fuckin’ MTV contest or something, playing with my heroes.”
You’ve always been close to Sharon and Ozzy. You call Sharon ‘Mom’ and Ozzy ‘The Boss’. At what point did they start to feel like family?
“It was pretty much right from the beginning – they’ve always treated me amazing. I love them. My relationship with Ozzy is about so much more than the music, I’m literally always a phone call away. If they need me to go over and feed the dogs while they’re on vacation? No problem. Need eggs and milk? I got it.”
In 1992 you were in Ozzy’s band for the No More Tours run, supported by Ugly Kid Joe and Motörhead. What are your memories of Lemmy?
“I didn’t know anybody who didn’t like Lemmy because he was great with everybody he met. And when he and Ozzy got together? Forget about it, they were both hilarious. When Motörhead opened for Oz, every night was Friday night, man. We went out drinking a ton. I remember right before Lemmy passed we had a big birthday celebration at The Whisky [A Go Go] where we played for him. I hugged him and it was like hugging your grandmother – he was just skin and bones at that point.”
On that tour you also formed the band Pride & Glory. What was the story there?
“Pride & Glory was born out of jam sessions with Lynyrd Skinhead – a covers band. We’d do the Allmans, Cream, Hendrix, Sabbath… all kinds of stuff. It was just a power trio doing extended jams. Oz was looking at retirement, so he took us aside and said, ‘Guys, if anything comes up, go for it.’ I got offered a deal with Geffen so we went and made a record. It was fun for a while – we toured, played some shows and then ran out of beer funds, so that was the end of that.”
A couple of years later you were invited to join the Allman Brothers for a show. What did that mean to you?
“It was a huge honour, man. My agent at the time had been with the Allmans forever and knew I was a huge fan. He found out Dickey [Betts, Allman Brothers Band guitarist] wasn’t able to do the show and suggested me to them. I remember working on the harmonies with Warren [Haynes, guitarist] before the show and Gregg [Allman] comes up and goes, ‘Hey Zakk, you know the song Dreams?’ and I’m like, ‘The Molly Hatchet song? I love that one!’ [Molly Hatchet recorded a cover of the Allman Brothers’ original song.] And he just looked at me and said, ‘Zakk, don’t make me have to send you home.’”
Was it daunting putting out Book Of Shadows purely under your name in ’96?
“During the Ozzmosis sessions [Ozzy’s seventh solo album, released in 1995] we were in New York and Paris. I remember in New York there was this article about a bar called Brew’s on 34th and Lexington. I would go there after finishing and stay out all night. The jukebox had Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Eagles – all this amazing classic rock. I would be listening to that thing all night, and head back to my room and write a bunch of songs, so I’d got all these mellow songs hanging around and when we finished making Ozzmosis, I went back in and just recorded those songs too.”
How did you end up in the running for the vacant Guns N’ Roses guitar spot when Slash left in 1996?
“I knew Slash and really loved that guy’s playing, so I’d met him and Duff [McKagan, bassist] a few times. When he left, they were tossing around names and even though I’d never met Axl, he goes, ‘Why don’t we just ask Zakk?’ So he phones me up and asks if I wanna come over, knock it around a bit. We were all jamming and I was also working on Ozzmosis at the same time. I’d not had any kind of answer from those guys [in Guns N’ Roses], but Oz goes, ‘Zakk we’ve gotta move on here’, and that’s basically when [replacement guitarist] Joe Holmes came in. Joe Holmes was playing with Oz and I’d got nothing happening, so that’s basically how Black Label Society was formed – I’d got these riffs lying around and thought, ‘I’ll just do it myself.’”
Is it true you recorded basically all the instruments on those first couple of BLS records?
“Kind of. It was a necessity at that point because it was just me and Phil [Ondich, ex-BLS drummer] in Florida trying to make an album in Miami. That’s where we did Sonic Brew, so I played all guitar and bass.”
You got some pretty big players to join you eventually, though – Alice In Chains bassist Mike Inez and future Metallica bassist Rob Trujillo…
“Far as I’m concerned, it’s just a big fraternity, man; we got Brother Inez for a while, then Roberto was with us for a bit. Then JaMo [James LoMenzo], now it’s JD [John DeServio]. We’ve known each other since we were 17 years old.”
In 2005, you dedicated the song In This River to Dimebag Darrell – what are your memories of him?
“Dime had a massive heart and just loved seeing everybody have a good time. He was like Santa Claus with a pink beard; I think about him all the time. First time I met Dime was at Donington when I was with Pride & Glory [in 1994]. Pantera’s set was amazing, the power they had was unbelievable, and we became buddies after that show. We talked all the time.”
You had to quit drinking in 2009. Did you find it difficult to walk away from your wild man image?
“No. My doctor told me, ‘You’re 42 and if you keep drinking the way you’re drinking, you’ll need a liver transplant before you’re 45.’ That’s when I decided to move to glue and paint chips – the results are still the same, I wake up with my pants around my ankles and don’t remember anything! Ha ha ha!”
What’s the story behind Doom Crew Inc.?
“It’s the highest calorie-burning aerobic record we’ve done to date. I thought [2018’s] Grimmest Hits was pretty intense but this one is crazy. My favourite parts of the album are the beginning before it starts and the end when it’s over. I like the spaces between the songs too! Ha ha ha.”
The album is dedicated to the fans. What’s the most meaningful interaction you’ve had with a fan?
“We don’t have ‘fans’, we have ‘fams’ – it’s a Black Label Society family. We love going round and meeting up with the other chapters, you know – you run into everybody at these gigs and it’s awesome because some people have had kids and now they come to the shows.”
Do you have any favourite Oz moments?
“All of them! He’s always been a part of my life and that’s crazy to me. We were all in Las Vegas not too long back and Mom knew Elton John, so she set it up so I could meet him as I’d never had the chance. The first time I saw Elton John he was playing Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds on the Sonny and Cher tour. I’ve got this book from that show I’ve had since I was eight years old, and I’m sat there with it across from Ozzy and Elton John having a conversation and realising it’s basically my Lennon/McCartney moment. Elton John made me want to get into music and right after I got into Sabbath. Those guys are my reasons for playing music.”
We asked Ozzy about you when we last spoke. He said: “Zakk isn’t just a great player, he’s a great guy. He’s worked with me longer than just about any other musician in any other band I’ve been in. He doesn’t fuck about and he doesn’t fuck people about – he’s very loyal and always tells you the truth.”
“Ozzy’s the same way as well. Likeminded people attract each other and when I’m with Oz he knows we’re there to do our thing and just go home. He’s the best man, and fucking hilarious. It’s a miracle we ever get anything done.”
Doom Crew Inc. is out now