So Don’t Blink!: An Interview with Philip H. Anselmo

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By Paul Gleason

Philip H. Anselmo really needs no introduction, but here’s a quick one for the unhappy few who haven’t heard of him, listened to his amazing music, and, above all, experienced his unbelievable voice.

As Pantera’s frontman, the heavy metal legend is lead vocalist on such classic albums as 1990’s Cowboys From Hell, 1992’s Vulgar Display of Power, and 1994’s Far Beyond Driven.

In fact, it almost goes without saying that when Pantera released Power in 1992, they replaced Metallica as the world’s greatest metal band. Who’s going to argue that Pantera’s brutal combination of Dimebag Darrell’s thrash guitars, Rex Brown and Vinnie Paul’s Southern groove, and Anselmo’s crushing vocals made every track on Metallica’s eponymous 1991 album seem weak in comparison.

Not one to rest on Pantera’s considerable laurels, Anselmo is a restlessly creative musical force. He’s fronted Down – a metal supergroup consisting of members of Corrosion of Conformity, Crowbar, and Eyehategod – whose doomy sound originates in Black Sabbath’s gloom. He’s also sung for Superjoint Ritual, who combine Pantera’s groove, Venom’s black metal, and Slayer’s and Voivoid’s thrash.

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Now, Anselmo has recruited new musicians – The Illegals – for his debut solo album, Walk Through Exits Only. Anselmo handles the lead vocals, Marzi Montazeri the guitars, Joey “Blue” Gonzalez the drums, and Stephen Taylor the bass.

Walk Through Exits Only is a relentless ruthless attack of sheer metal power. Anselmo’s recruits are all masters of their instruments, and they suit his brilliant voice perfectly. It’s doubtful that you’ll hear a metal album this ruthless, this extreme all year.

Anselmo talked to CITC a few days before the release of Walk Through Exits Only. To say that he’s energized for the project would be an understatement. In the interview, he detailed the origins of the album, provided insight into the songwriting process and vocal style, praised his bandmates for their extraordinary talents, and, most surprisingly, defined The Smiths and Nick Cave as extreme musicians.

PA: Let’s rock this sucker.

CITC: You’ve said that Walk Through Exits Only is “an angry album that only you can do.” What do you mean by that?

PA: That is interesting. I consider myself semi-educated as far as the metal underground goes. I’m a music fan first, in my opinion, and I always have been. That’s how I started on this long journey. I began as a teenager, so I’ve collected heavy metal and hardcore ever since the beginning of their roots, really.

I know what’s going on out there. So that, in my opinion, gives me a leg up on what not to do. What I didn’t want to do was just imitate. I wanted to create a record that was extreme and could hold its extremities up against anything or any sub-genre of extreme music being made. But I wanted to make a record that was very, very tough to slide into particular genre slot.

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With that said, when you look at extremities in music – underground extremities – I’m absolutely not talking about the mainstream. When you look at what’s out there, I would guess the leading purveyors of extreme music would lie within death metal or black metal or a sub-sub-genre or a mixture of the two. It’s like lyrically, before you listen to a black metal record, you already might have a sense or a feel of what the lyrical content might be about. The same could be said for death metal to a certain degree.

So just that right there, lyrically, I wanted to come from a realistic place, a very personal place at times. Just that right there is going to make a big difference as far as the full listen goes. Regardless, I wanted to sing about real things, I wanted to show a different side of my personality.

A lot of people think I’m just this straightforward, dead-serious-type guy, which is really not an honest assessment of who I am. I’m a fucking guy who thrives on the fucking absurd. I’ve got a ridiculous sense of humor, and I thrive on bullshit (laughs). There’s a lot of sarcasm within the lyrics.

So really, I wanted to show all of these elements, which to me makes a unique listen, and hopefully, an original listen.

CITC: How does the track “Bedridden” relate to the absurd?

PA: That track in general right there really demonstrates the type of song I’m talking about when I say that it’s a song – put it this way – it’s a song about me being absolutely fed up with me. Self-loathing can come in many different forms, and we see that with a lot of different bands, but still there is a humorous side to my self-fucking-loathing.

I’m the type of guy who wakes up and picks up a book and just starts reading. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m just kicking myself saying, “Just get out of bed, you fat bastard. There’s so much to do – why are you procrastinating, you dickhead?”

“Bedridden” is a song about me loathing me in a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek way. I would say that “Bedroom Destroyer” and “Bedridden” are very much companion pieces on the record.

CITC: You sound very angry on the record. When you lay down a track in the studio or perform it live, do you have to manufacture anger?

PA: There’s no manufacturing at all, because like I say, I’m very much involved with the underground – love it. I can’t say enough about it. I have in the past sung different styles – there are so many different styles, whether they’re black metal or even death metal. You’ve got to figure I’ve toured with bands like Morbid Angel and been invited up to sing with them, so I can sing death metal. I can sing a lot of different styles. And even in bands like Superjoint, I sing in a harsher style or more hardcore voice, so really it’s nothing new for me.

With this music, I knew that melody would be an afterthought – or if you really, really, really listen, there are subtle hints of melody and I even have some harmony. This is a type of record you have to listen to several times to really get the nuances.

This comes straight from the gut, and it’s a very true spot.

CITC: The record sounds like one slab of honesty and brutality. Is that why you chose to have all tracks flow into one another?

PA: I would think so, yes. When we sat down, and I was teaching the band from the ground up, at the end of the day, we probably had 15 or 16 pieces of music to pick through. And the songs I picked for Walk Through Exits Only musically and thematically fit together for what I wanted to get across.

As far as one song slamming into the next – there are bands that have done that before. Look no further than Slayer’s Reign in Blood, where every song slams into the next, and some of them actually blend together. Believe me: I take that shit as a big influence in my life, so I guess I was using the old Slayer routine right there.

But really, it’s a very organic thing creating this record – every step of the way felt very, very natural.

CITC: It sounds very natural. Were the lyrics improvised or written down before you went in and sang them?

PA: Everything was written down. Nothing improvised at all on this record. Not at all.

CITC: You’ve also said, “There isn’t any hidden message; it’s all right there in front of you.”  I want to ask about “Walk Through Exits Only,” especially the lyric, “There’s no reading between the lines.” Does this apply to life, as well as the songs?

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PA: Absolutely. Within that song, that’s what I’m referring to – life experiences. I’m not going to spoon feed the listener and tell them exactly what was on my mind or what was really going through my head at the time, because to a certain degree, like John Lennon said in the past, you know I’m just writing songs, if the lyric feels strong enough, then I’m going to use it. There’s a big dose of realism within that particular lyric you picked out. I’m the type of guy who likes to paint a picture, so to speak, and have people interpret that art the way they feel best suits their lives. Again, I’m not going to spoon feed anybody. I like when people come to their own conclusions at the end of the day.

Real quick, take the track you picked, “Walk Through Exits Only.” That’s a strong, powerful line within the song that became the name of the song, which became the name of the record. The reason for that is, that song title, or that album title could mean several different things to several different people. It’s that wide open that you can make it apply to your life or however you want to make it. So for me it works.

CITC: Does the style of lyric writing on this record differ from what you’ve done in Pantera and your other bands?

PA: I think to a certain degree, absolutely. But I’ve always to a certain degree worn my emotions on my sleeve, and this is just another way of expression (laughs).

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CITC: You can travel so many different places with your voice. You can be beautiful, you can be brutal, you can be guttural…. How do you do that?

PA: I think it’s all about the mood I’m in. It’s about the emotion that goes behind the final product. I guess it’s what I really wanted to express and the way I wanted to express myself, because I’m a lover of all sorts of music, not just heavy metal.

I think extreme music comes in all different forms. It can be done beautifully; it can be done harshly. For instance, a band like Swans – they’re very extreme for what it is because it’s so unique. And Nick Cave – who’s a very extreme performer with extreme songs done in a very unique style. And even a band like The Smiths at their most morose – to me that’s an extreme style of expression. But then so is anything off of whatever your favorite Slayer record is – or a death metal band called Suffocation. There’s a rhythmic beauty to what the vocals do.

I see talent and beauty in a lot of different vocal approaches and styles. Truth be told, I guaran-damn-tee that the singer for Suffocation could imitate Luciano Pavarotti better than Luciano Pavarotti could imitate the singer from Suffocation (laughs)! I guess it’s one of those cases where beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

CITC: That’s great (laughs)! May I ask you about more tracks on the album?

PA: Absolutely.

CITC: One of the ones I really love is “Battalion of Zero.”

PA: Good.

CITC: I love the interplay between your voice and your drummer, Blue Gonzalez. Why did you choose him?

PA: First and foremost, he’s the drummer from Warbeast, a band signed to my label. The singer from Warbeast, Bruce, and I have been friends since the 80s. And Bruce was kind enough to say, “Hey man, why don’t you use Blue for your solo record?” At the time, I was really struggling to find an under-the-radar drummer, which was important to me – I didn’t want to put together another supergroup, so to speak.

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Blue is the type of kid – I’ll put it to you this way: he was 19 when we started working together. He had and still has all of the raw talent in the world, but he does have this ambidextrous gift that a lot of drummers at his age and his level do not have, which means he can do things with his feet that he can also do with his hands, which is really incredible. I really wanted to maximize his potential by breaking him out of the basic four-four death metal mentality or thrash metal mentality and throwing him a lot of abrupt – and I would say – a lot of semi-complicated time signatures. Once he got comfortable with that – because teaching these songs from the ground up was a fucking headache and a nightmare. But once he got the general grip of things, that’s when he could elaborate in his own way. I always knew that his feet may be one of his best assets, but I wanted his hands to do something different rather than just relying on speed for the sake of speed or blast beats for the sake of blast beats. I wanted to build rhythmic bursts that create their own type of energy.

After explaining all of this and going through it with him, once he got ahold of the task at hand, he really started to show his personality on the drums – which he does of a gigantic personality on the drums – great signature playing. I let him be him after a while, one he was comfortable. I think he did really great fucking job.

CITC: He did – and you guys sound great together through the record and in particular on “Battalion of Zero.”

PA: Thanks, buddy.

CITC: Your guitarist, Marzi, does some incredible freak out stuff on “Usurper’s Bastard Rant,” “Bedridden,” and “Irrelevant Walls and Computer Screens.” Tell me about him.

PA: Oh yeah! I’ve known Marzi since the mid to later 80s, and actually I was introduced to Marzi by Dimebag. In Pantera, before we were signed, we used to play the Texas-Louisiana-Mississippi territories and whatnot. And Marzi, in my opinion, was one of the first guitar players that Dimebag ever really cussed about and was really high on. For Dimebag to say, “Man, that guy’s good,” that really meant something back then for sure. For Marzi and myself, we became very tight pretty quick and we developed a great relationship as friends.

But honestly, this is a long time coming. Walk Through Exits Only is a long time coming project, which Marzi and I have always talked about doing because Marzi has always had this fantastic feel for layering the guitar and creating atmospheric soundscapes that I’d always wanted to utilize within the songs that I’d written. For lack of better words, the fact that I wrote every damn note on the record – that’s fine and good – but I still wanted Marzi to have his fingerprints all over this thing because it’s deserved. I think that it only makes it better, and I think that what he brought to the table is a great launch pad for things in the future because honestly, Marzi is the type of guitar player that can play any style – he’s a very, very well versed as a guitar player. Once you put him on task, he grabs that task and makes it his own, and then you really have a beast on your hands.

Obviously, Walk Through Exits Only comes out in a couple days here, but really we’re all looking to the future already (laughs)! We’re all really excited about it because it’s a great launch pad. It’s a great pallet for Marzi, which is exactly what I wanted it to be, because the enthusiasm and excitement is over boiling.

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CITC: Are you psyched to get on stage with this stuff?

PA: Oh shit, yeah, man! Stage, playing live – that’s the most comfortable stuff for me anyway. That’s my favorite part out of all of this stuff is actually getting up on stage and playing. The first show is in Tulsa on July 31. I think that each show will be very unique. Each show will be very different than the last show. I figure every night will have its own signature moments, so I wouldn’t miss a damn minute of it.

CITC: Are you guys rehearsing right now?

PA: Everybody gets in tonight. And we start hitting it very, very hard. Yeah, man, it’s a lot of rehearsal, making sure all the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted – of making sure that we have the repertoire that we want to have because each night will be a little bit different than the previous night. So don’t blink!

Want to read an exclusive early review of Philip’s new album? Just click here.

5 Comments

  1. mike Reply

    your awesome Phil

  2. Charles Johnson Reply

    I’m beyond excited for this record.

  3. Name Reply

    “making sure all the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted” Haha

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    [...] Gleason of Caught In The Carousel recently conducted an interview with former PANTERA and current DOWN frontman Philip Anselmo. A [...]

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