"I've died three times..."
Pantera's Phil Anselmo gets down
In a rare and candid interview, Metal icon Phil Anselmo comes clean about Down, drug addiction, the fate of Pantera, and why he lives in the middle of a Louisiana bog.
Anyone who's spent five minutes alone with Phil Anselmo know's he's not someone to be fucked with. You don't nail him with a super soaker as he comes around the corner, or plant a bag of flaming poop in his front doorstep and ring the buzzer. And if you're stupid enough to challenge him physically, you'd better have a good insurance policy.
Or a good lawyer. Over the past decade, the Pantera frontman has been sued 10 times by people he's decked for either heckling him at shows or taunting him in the street. According to Anselmo, the scenario usually goes something like this: "There's always gonna be some prick who wants to test the guy who did some good with his life," he growls. "I go to a bar and there'll be some drunk guy in there. And he comes up to me and goes, "Hey, you think you're fucking big shit?" and provokes me and eggs me until I fucking bash his fucking teeth through the back of his fucking head. And sure enough, when the cops get there, i'm the guy who did the punching. There's the dude asleep in a pool of blood and everybody's pointing the finger at me. So i'm gonna be going to jail. And they know just who I am, so right after jail, there comes the lawsuit and the assault charge. I'm so fucking sick of it."
Partly to avoid such confrontations, Anselmo has stopped going out and is spending most of his spare time by himself in his huge compound in the swamps an hour north of New Orleans.
"A lot of people in this business need to be seen," he says in a low, rumbling voice during an interview at a posh Manhattan hotel. "Give me a microphone, put me on a stage. But after that you better get me to the fucking tour bus and get me the fuck out of here. I don't need a big crowd around to make me feel important. Most of the time, I don't feel like I even speak the same language as most other motherfuckers. I get mentally detached from what's going on in the world-it gets hard to even get my mail out of my own mailbox. I disassociate, man. I take my phone off the fucking hook and just get into my world, which soemtimes is a very ugly, intense place."
It's somewhat ironic that Anselmo craves a life of solitude, considering he's been instrumental in the success of one of the most visible important Metal bands of the Nineties. Before he joined Pantera, the band's members were mired in the glam-Metal scene, teasing their hair, wearing spandex, and playing melodic riff-rock influenced by Van Halen, Motley Crue, and at it's heaviest, Judas Priest. But in 1990, with Anselmo at the helm, Pantera released the thrashy, uncompromising Cowboys From Hell, an album that successfully whipped the fury of Slayer, the precision punch of Metallica, and the southern groove of ZZ Top into a singular, head-banging frenzy.
The disc established the band as one of the dominant forces in Metal, and over the next decade Anselmo and Co. defended their heavyweight title with albums like 1992's Vulgar Display of Power, 1994's Far Beyond Driven, and 1996's The Great Southern Trendkill. Not only did they remain strong and resolute in the face of alternative rock; they served as a primary influence for nu-Metal bands like Korn, Deftones, and Limp Bizkit. Now, with Pantera on what the band describes as an extended hiatus, Anselmo has resurrected Down, a group formed in 1992 with Corrosion of Conformity guitarist Pepper Kennan, Crowbar guitarist Kirk Windstein, Eyehategod drummer Jimmy Bower [note: this was wrong, Jimmy's the guitarist for Eyehategod], and Crowbar bassist Todd Strange, who has since been replaced by Pantera's Rex Brown.
While Down began as one of Anselmo's many side projects, the group inked an additional two-record deal with Elektra after the label issued its first disc, NOLA, in 1995. The band's new record, Down II, is a feral slab of sludgy, southern-flavoured stoner Metal that's equal parts Black Sabbath and Black Oak Arkansas.
Dressed in jeans, a long sleeve T-shirt celebrating Eighties Black Metal pioneers Antichrist, and knit gloves with the fingers cut off at midknuckle, Anselmo has a vision in black. His hair is long and unkempt, his goatee scruffy, and his eyes flutter at half-mast. It seems like the only things keeping him alert are a can of Coke and the cigarettes he puffs between long, drawling sentences.
Like other aggro-Metal luminaries, Anselmo is filled with contempt and swears constantly. He rarely smiles, his face is usually glued in a semi-scowl, and he always seems one inapporpriate question away from flying into rage. In that sense, he's somewhat intimidating, causing visitors to take great care with what they say to him. That's why most people just tell him what they think he wants to hear. But Anselmo is brutally honest and will answer hardball questions if you throw them at him. During our conversation he talks candidly about drugs, depression, death, Down, and the fact that last Halloween, the reclusive outcast married his girlfriend of eight years, Stephanie "Opal" Weinstein.
"It was time," he says matter-of-factly. "Look, i've had five women in bed at one time for longs periods of time. Just group sex constantly. They used to call me Manson Without the Murder because I had my harem. They'd be making my food and sucking my cock and doing whatever else I wanted, as well as being with themselves. Ain't nothing wrong with double chicks in bed that are down with it. But I got to the point where if I was going to go look for some new ass, I would have had to have gone to a bar or a place that I probarbly not want to be in.
"I started thinking, what kind of self-image am I creating here by fucking everything that moves? There's been moments of glorious sex with a beautiful women that I would never take back or deny, but to find a women that you can talk to and relate with is something else altogether."
Having a wife allows Anselmo a bit of companionship when he's hiding away from the pulse of civilization he can't interface with properly. It would be easy to equate Anselmo's desire to be alone with some sort of a general disdain for others, but he says that's not the case.
"One person is no better than another because he's had success in his life," he explains. "It's very hard to walk in another man's shoes. You don't know what that person's going through. I may be a "rock star" or whatever you call me, but I still am a lover of brother and people in general."
He snarls. "Fuck man, you can have what I got. You're hungry, have my food. If you're thirsty, drink my drink. If you're tired, sleep anywhere you want, man. I've got eight beds in the house-pick one. Sleep on the floor. Go take a walk to the fuckin' beach. I got two white-sand beaches on my property. Have what I have. Take it, you know? I'm just that type of person."
When Anselmo is ensconced in his dominion, he alternately scurries around like a decapitated chicken, working on one of his many musical projects, or decompresses completely, fading into blissful oblivion. In the past, he's engaged in rigorous workout regimens when he's not making noise, but these days he prefers to sink into his sofa.
"You could get up and say, "Fuck it, i'm gonna stretch today. I'm gonna take a run. I'm gonna go get some sunshine and some fresh air... Nahhh, fuck it. I'll just sit here and watch Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark 10 times in a row. Sometimes I liken it to gathering strength for the battle to come. Because when I go onstage it's a torturous fucking thing. I'm someplace else when i'm up there."
Conserving strength is one thing, but Anselmo's periods of vegetation sometimes slide into episodes of severe depression. And if he's trying to come back from a period of nonproductivity but isn't able to get into a groove or suffers writer's block, watch out.
"Sometimes I just destroy shit," he says, his face and voice free of any emotion. "There's holes in almost every door in my house from me bashing my fist through them. A month ago I destroyed my favorite guitar. I had a nice Ovation acoustic, but not anymore. Everbody in this world has a gift within themselves, and if you do not use that gift, frustration and anger come out from many dark recesses. I'm an intense son of a bitch."
Revolver: It's hard to imagine someone with your onstage intensity suffering from severe depression.
Anselmo: I've had a lot of good things happen, but i've also had a lot of suffering upstairs. Manic depression is something that runs in the family to the point that there have been suicides and attempted suicides and hospitalization. You mix that in with alcoholism and drug addiction, and it's gonna add to your darker, more bleak out-look, where things just look like the end.
Revolver: When that happens, can't you look back at what you've accomplished and be content with it?
Anselmo: No, because I feel like there's nothing else for me to accomplish. And i've had points where i've thought, Jesus Christ, what do I do now? I've been No. 1 on the Billboard charts. I've made millions. I've got houses. Fuck, I might as well check out.
Revolver: What keeps that from happening?
Anselmo: I think that there are times that it could very well happen. But I don't have the guts to do it, because i'm curious to see what comes next. When you're at your lower point, 99 percent of the time things get better. Now, if a judge told me he was going to sentence me to jail for the rest of my life, I would go home and blow my fucking brains out all over the fuckin' walls. And I would do that without any apprehension at all. To me, there's no way i'd want to live in that situation.
Far Beyond Driven
For someone who spends hours at a time staring at walls, Anselmo is one prolific dude. In addition to Pantera and Down, he'd indulged in a variety of Black Metal, Death Metal, and ambient music groups including Christ Inversion, Viking Crown, Necrophagia, Enoch, Eibon, Body And Blood, and Superjoint Ritual (see sidebar). He's also started his own label, Housecore Records, to release his own projects on the web. "Music is the best fucking therapy for me," he says. "I've been using it now for 20-some-odd years, and when I turn my back on it, something in me screams. But you can't force music. At least, I can't. I cannot sit there and bang out riff after riff and have all these mediocre things come out. When that happens, it's time for me to smash something."
All of Anselmo's prokects-from the mellowest mood music to the noisiest Black Metal-share similar themes of desperation, depression, death, decay, and demonic devastation. It seems like no matter how much he rants, Anselmo can't escape the dark side. Not that he's a blasphemous son of Satan who draws strength from the wickedness within; he's more like the confused teenager who sits through ghastly, violent horror films and experiences a vicarious catharsis watching teenage girls get graphically dismembered. He also gets off on the rebellious nonconformity of it all.
"Ever since I was a child, I knew I would always have that dark feeling," he says. "I've always had an animosity toward conforming to any type of organized religion-especially one that revolves around Jesus Christ and godliness and heaven and clouds."
Revolver: Most people find their faith to be a source of comfort.
Anselmo: It's just the opposite for me. Words like "God," "Jesus Christ," "Church," and "Preacher" all remind me of something I cannot be around-something with a foul, foul stench. I cannot fucking tell you why, but it's always done that to me. The church itself has a foul smell to me. I cannot take being inside a God-filled place. But even though I don't particularly believe in that God fucking thing, I don't neccessarily believe in a devil, either.
Revolver: Some of the Black Metal you create is pretty satanic.
Anselmo: To me, your average Satanist is really just attracted to the imagery of the dark side. It's what emanates from the mind's eye that prefers demons, fire, inverted crosses, Baphomets, pentagrams, and fucking goats and shit like that as opposed to the clouds and the old man in the sky with the white beard. It's very much of a physical thing more than a spiritual thing. I prefer the message of blasphemy to the message of a world of love and peace.
Anselmo's personal battles and frustrations feed the demon of Down, and the band's second record, Down II, which was created in the guesthouse on Anselmo's Louisiana property, pulses with fury and pain. In Pantera, Anselmo's screams of animosity are eclipsed only by his bellows of rage, but Down are multifaceted, incorporating aspects of Metallica, Ronnie James Dio, and even Lynyrd Skynyrd, an as the group's singer, Anselmo exhibits a previously unheard range of melody and emotion.
"There is an incredible percent of people that only know me for Pantera," he grumbles. "And of cource, in Pantera i'm called to fucking play up the Heavy Metal thing as much as possible because that's the emotion I get out of that. But if I were to draw the line there, I would be limiting myself. I mean, i'm a fan of music. I like everything from Pop to Black Metal, so long as it's good. I love Celtic Frost and Echo and the Bunnyment and even the Smiths. I'm a very complex man. I feel many different ways-especially about music."
As expressive as Anselmo's vocals are on songs like the surging, St. Vitus-infused "Man That Follows Hell" and the murkey, Deep Purple-meets-Thin Lizzy barrage of "Stained Glass Cross," it's his tormented lyrics that penetrate deepest. Down II deals with some heavy stuff. Depression, self-reliance, and deception are all addressed, but much of the meterial confronts the agony and danger of drug addiction. On "Learn From This Mistake," he sings "When you're up close, it blinds you brilliantly/Just one rush can change your life forever/Just one push can end it altogether."
When it comes to heroin in particular, Anselmo speaks from experience. In 1996, while Pantera were passing through Dallas on tour, he overdosed backstage after a show and was legally dead for more than four minutes before paramedics were able to restart his heart. Following the episode, the singer issued a statement that read in part: "There was no light, no beautiful music, just nothing. And then after 20 minutes (from what I heard later), my friends slapped me and poured water over my head all basically trying to revive me. The paramedics finally arrived and all I remember is walking up in the back of an ambulance.... The lesson learned here is that every nightmare ever heard about OD'ing and/or heroin is terribly true. And for my friends and family as well as myself and our fans (Pantera, Down, etc.), I since then have recovered, completely. I intened to keep it that way!"
Judging from the lyrics of Down II, that hasn't quite happened. Other, more insidious factors besides fatigue, laziness, and depression are keeping Anselmo locked in his lair for extended periods of time. At this point in the interview, Anselmo is offered an easy way out, but he doesn't believe in easy outs. He's asked if the lyrics about drug addiction are stem completely from past experiences, and he answers the question with brutal honesty.
"It's past, present, and future," he admits without hesitation. "You remain addicted. And when someone sais, "I've kicked drugs," well, fine, but for how long? That's the question that would probarbly loom in any addict's mind. And i'm an extremist."
During the stressful Down II sessions, which stretched over 26 days of total immersion, the band members chose to severly alter their consciousness-both to contend with the pressure of having to create and to engender the hazy, surreal mood of albums like Led Zepplin III and Black Sabbath's Sabotage. During that time, they acquired nicknames for their vices. Keenan was Speed McQueenan because he discovered the elation of trucker's speed. Brown was called Flexeril after a muscle relaxant that caused dizziness, drowsiness and sometimes hallucinations. Windstein was dubbed Toots Sweet. And Anselmo was named Nodferatu for obvious reasons.
"I would come out of my house and i'd look like Dracula," he says, cracking a hint of a smile. "I'd get to the jam room and i'd done whatever i'd done, and i'd be like, [makes snore noises], nod out, you know? Next thing I know, on the back room door Pepper had made this big, gigantic wooden sign and screwed it up on the wall outside of the guesthouse, and says, "Nodferatu's Lair" in big Old English letters. I thought that was dynamite.
"In order to do this Down record, I have to torture my soul," Anselmo continues. "No matter how cheesy it may sound, it's the fuckin' truth, And I call that "getting into character." It's sometimes necessary to feel those ways for what you need to come across in your art."
Revolver: So you took heroin just for inspiration?
Anselmo: There's a lot of different reasons why. In my life I live with a whole lof of pain because of my lifestyle and the injery that I have, which is a lower-back blowout. I got a ruptured disc with no cartilage in between that disc and the next, so it's bone-on-bone scraping constantly. No, exercise and staying healthy and keeping your stomach muscles and back muscles in shape helps the injury and alleviates a lot of the pain. But when you get home after a long tour and you're exhausted, you just want to lay around and watch movies for a couple of weeks, an that's no good for your injury. And if the quickest bit of relief you can get is by doing the wrong thing, then yes, that is a mistake, that is a fuckup, bbut you do it anyway.
Revolver: Do you regularly struggle to get clean?
Anselmo: If you are the type of person that likes his buzz, and your life is like mine and you don't have a nine-to-five fuckin' job, you end up in this cycle where it's really tough to make that distinction between what's right and what's wrong. Getting clean is a great feeling. But when you're on something that's very hard, there's a certain physical sickness that occurs when you stop using. And that's a hard thing to do to your body and mind.
Revolver: After you nearly died from an overdose, you said that you just quit cold turkey. It didn't seem like any real problem.
Anselmo: Nah, you cannot quit cold turkey. If you cold-turkey something like that you might die. I'm one of those people who feels that moderation is okay with anything at all, as long as you can do your job, do what you do. And as long as you're not hurting someone else, and as long as you keep it as private as fucking possible.
Revolver: So where does that leave you right now?
Anselmo: As we speak, i'm as sober as a fuckin' judge, and it feels good. I'm doing normal things: I'm working out every day. I'm eating right. I'm taking care of what I gotta take care of. It feels fine. But I am a drug addict, and that stays with you for life.
Althought Anselmo cherishes his solitude, he seems to have enough family support to prevent him from being forever sucked into the abyss. In addition to his band mates and circle of close musician friends, he has his mom, who works in the House of Shock, the horror house Anselmo opens for business every Halloween in Jefferson, Louisiana. And after years of animosity, he has finally become close to his stepdad and siblings. But more than any of them, it's his wife that can knock the most sense into him when he's perched on the edge of evermore.
"She's big and fine and supertalented," he boasts. "We met eight years ago and became friends way before anything remantic transpired. She was a musician and I checked her out, and at first she seemed borderline talented, and then I started really listening and noticed she had a hell of a knack for hooks. Every one of her hooks were stuck in my fucking head. And I was like, "Well, that means something.""
Opal, who also goes by the name Big Mama, started an eerie, ambient blues-country band called Southern Isolation, and Anselmo offered to produce. Somewhere around that time, he fell in love.
"What initially turned me on about my old lady was the mere fact that she understood music. I cannot find a whole shitload of girls who can see past their noses when it comes to music. And this women has, when I saw thousands of CD's, I mean she has thousands of CD's. And she's turned me on to a lot of crazy shit that I had no idead was out there."
In The Beginning
It has been a long time since Anselmo was a kid, and his childhood memories aren't among the ones he cherishes. He was born to a free-spirited mom who was abandoned by her teenage boyfriend when she was 19 and pregnant with the future rocker. "I never have held that against the man," says Anselmo, "because he was a young kid. I would have been out of there myself."
As a young, single parent, Anselmo's mom found it difficult to handle the responsibility and expense of caring for her kids. So when Phil turned four, she remarried, triggering his first major acts of rebellion. His new stepfather tried to teach and discipline Anselmo, but the young boy resented the man's presence and destanced himself from the whole family.
"I hated his fucking guts," he snarls. "We did not see eye to eye on anything. Ever since I moved out of the house, went to Texas and made good, my stepfather and me have become excellent friends. And I love him. But it was a big mess at the time. He was in love with my mother, and here I was, a kid she'd had in another relationship. So he comes along, this guy I didn't know at all, telling me what to do and saying what was right and what was wrong. And I was like, "Don't you fucking come in here and tell me what to do.""
The Anselmo family had to contend not only with Phil's temper but also with his poor health. At the age of four he was stricken with an extremely high fever and became dangerously dehydrated. When his condition degenerated into severe pneumonia, he was hospitalized, placed in an oxygen tent, and fed intravenously. It was there that he had his first brush with the Grim Reaper.
"Just by chance one of the major hurricanes hit the town while I was under the oxygen tent, and all the power went out," he said/ "They lost me for about two minutes until the hospital generators kicked in and I came back. The next year a similar thing happened: I had a high fever and they lost me for 30 to 40 seconds before I came back."
Being ill didn't help Anselmo's mood, which became increasingly bleak over the years. Although he had a healthy social life as a preteen, he struggled in school because of his distaste for authority, and discovered that he could escape his frustration by locking himself in his room for hours at a time.
At age 13 he set fir to his family's house, requiring them to vacate the property for three months while the damage was repaired. Two years later, he left home for good. To survive, he hitchhiked across the country and crached at friends' houses while their parents were at work. When he couldn't find a place to stay, he slept in cars on the street and lived off cans of soup and other food he stole from the supermarket. It was during that time that he was first introduced to intravenous drugs.
Cowboys From Hell
As it would so many times in his later life, music saved Anselmo from an early demise. He joined the New Orleans-based commercial Metal band Razor White and toured with them across the South. Then, at age 18, he was asked to audition for Pantera.
"We were both playing the bar band scene, where they forced you to dress a certain way, and I was getting so fucking tired of it," recalls Anselmo. "Through the grapevine they heard of me, and they were losing their singer [Terrance Lee], who wanted to do a more commercial style of Rock and Roll, and they were wanting a bit to pick up into a heavier version of themselves. So they flew me in, and I auditioned."
Anselmo was the perfect catalyst. A fan of early Death, Speed, and Thrash Metal, he bombarded his new bandmated with discs by Slayer, Venom, Sodom, Bathory, Destruction, and others, and little by little opened them up to a new, more destructive vein of music. Although he played with them on the sappy 1988 disc Power Metal, by 1989 Anselmo's strong will had taken hold, and the following year the band released the bludgeoning Cowboys From Hell, one of the most influential Thrash Metal discs to date.
Over the next decade, the band clawed its way to the top of the heap, speaking as the voice of Metal when Alternative and electronica reared their ugly heads, and chastising one-time peers Metallica when they began drawing from trendy music styles.
But nine studio records into their successful career, Pantera are feeling a little tired.
"I really feel that we're gonna have to take a very hard look at what Pantera has done and what we think we can do in the future," says Anselmo. "For years, I think we were the most successful and best pure Metal band, and I never, ever want to have the audience feel like, Wow, these guys are past their prime, and watch the crowds dwidle. I would much rather go out on a top fucking note than somewhere in the middle, somewhere on the bottom, or anywhere but the top. I'm not saying we are going to do this, but if we called it a day today, we will have done something very special."
Of cource, no one in Pantera is ready to write off the band just yet, and Anselmo insists the band members still get along like brothers. During the next year, guitarist Dimebag Darrell will edit together part four from the group's video series, and he, Brown, and drummer Vinnie Paul will release an album they recorded with country maverick David Allen Coe. They'll also jam with their side project, Gasoline.
But if Down II takes off, Down could easily become a main priority for all the musicians involved. On the other hand, if Down goes down like a torpedoed oil tanker...
"Man, i've already died three times in my life and been brought back each time," Anselmo concludes after taking a few seconds to formulate an answer. "If this doesn't work out i'll just have more time for something else."
Get your Phil
Anselmo comments on his many musical projects.
So you've got all the Pantera and Down records and you still want more Phil? Check out what Anselmo himself has to say about eight of his side projects, many of which are (or will) only be available at http://www.philanselmo.com.
"It's a lot like the Scandinavian Black Metal of Darkthrone or the early Eighties Metal of Hellhammer and Bathory. I play guitar and do backing vocals. That album will be out by the summer, and it will be for internet sale only."
Body And Blood
"This group has been around since 1989, and we play an extremely atmospheric, depressing, slice-your-wrists style of music. We use a lot of acoustic and clean electric guitars, plus soul-stretching effects. My wife, Opal, and I both sing; she also does some keyboards. I'll put out 2 albums of demo's, which will be available on the web site this summer."
"This is true, brutal-ass hardcore Metal. I play guitar and sing. Joe Fazzio plays drums, Hank Williams III plays bass, and Jimmy Bower from Eyehategod plays guitar with me. The record is due out in May with Sanctuary Records distribution."
"This was a joke band with me and Opal, and Killjoy of Necrophagia. I played bass guitar. It's like bad, bad, bad Black Metal. I'm not doing this anymore."
"This is with Fenriz of Darkthrone and Satyr of Satyricon. I have no idea if we're gonna finish that or not; it's just a matter of getting together. I was supposed to sing on the new Satyricon LP, but I was super-ill and, regretfully, I couldn't do it."
"This is Opal's stuff and it's very catchy, song-oriented music. The full-length album is not finished yet, but it will be very deep and eccentric."
"Me and Opal do this in our spare time. It's raw and primitive; it's fuckin' three doses of acid and a hit of mescaline with a mouthful of Valium."
Spirit In The Room
"Imagine St. Vitus with the most unlistenable vocals in the world, sung by the horror director Jim VanBebber [Charilie's Family]. It's got a rock and roll feeling to it and will be available on the web sitel; althought i'm not sure when."