EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: THE LEGENDARY PHIL ANSELMO ON HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, METEOROLOGICAL ASPIRATIONS, U.S. POLITICS, AND MORE
A bit thicker round the waist and even more grizzled, New Orleans’ doom-blooze metallers are back with the first instalment of a staggered set of four EPs, Down IV – The Purple EP (MetalSucks review here). The result? Anvil-heavy hard rawk that displaces more air than a sumo steering a semi-trailer through a circlepit.
As usual, the production is rougher than a 40-year-old Kings Cross hooker, but Pepper Keenan and Kirk Windstein’s swingin’ Southern riffage and inspired geetar interplay is simply hooge – the punchy licks of “Witchtripper” and “Misfortune Teller”’s sphincter-loosening half-time riff are just two of the highlights. Meanwhile, ex-Pantera wildman Phil Anselmo dishes up his usual blend of gut-deep howls, scowls and serrated vowels. Big, bendy and bad-ass, we’re talkin’ serious weight, y’all. But then you know that already if you’re a Down fan — and I happen to be a big one. So I was pretty chuffed to interview Phil the other day, and even more so when what was meant to be a fifteen minute spruik for Down’s new release instead turned into an epic forty minute conversation. Amongst other things, we discussed Phil’s meterological aspirations, his distant relation to Sesame Street’s Elmo, Big Bird’s schizophrenia, Australian boxers, whether Glee should cover a Pantera song, his thoughts on Dave Mustaine and the upcoming US presidential election, his new autobiography (and if Vinnie Paul will be interviewed), the irony of his “Unscarred” tattoo, his magical experience with two acoustic guitar-playing groupies, and his run-ins with Slash. He is in very, very funny form. Enjoy…
How you doin’, brother?
Great now! We’ve only got fifteen minutes, so you cool to fire through some very stupid, take-the-piss questions?
Well, let me let you in on a little secret… you’re my last interview, so we can talk as long as we like. It’s up to me to call this thing off, so how do you like those goddamn motherfuckin’ apples?
Well, I think the teleconference girl might interject…
If she interjects I’ll tell her to quit fuckin’ interjectin’, we’re in the middle of something. Let her roll, my man…
I saw that you posted a weather report on Hurricane Isaac from your place in New Orleans. Do you have any meteorological aspirations – y’know, to be the weather guy?
Well, bein’ a meteorologist would include a high-school diploma, which sadly, I am missing. Because I did my homework on this thing called the stage – as youngster, I was onstage five nights a week, three sets a night, and in my senior year of school, I had four classes – one was some “ology” that I can’t remember, another was a type of math that made no sense to me and I could care less, and then two types of physical education to get credits. So you know what I did? I walked away. And the thing is about the weather and elements, one thing I’ve learned is you can’t predict storms. You can’t figure it all out. You can only let this thing called supposition seize you by the throat. And as far as I have the utmost respect for meteorologists, of all shapes and sizes, there is no way in the fucking way in the history of mankind would I even consider such a task. I am exempt!
How disappointing. So you can’t see yourself in front of a green screen with a pointer making banal chit-chat with a morning television host someday?
In two words? Piss. No!
Down are doing a staggered set of four EPs, the first of which is this newie. Is that because you don’t have the attention span to do a full album?
Absolutely. You said it best. Thank you. I don’t. It’s boring.
Who has the most annoying habit in the band?
Oh my god… now that’s impossible. Everyone, and I am fucking included, if there is some possible way for some or all of us to get on each other’s nerves, we will. But I tell you what, at the ancient age of 44… I’m the third youngest guy in the band, and that’s horrible because I always used to be the baby in the band… after all these years, we damn well know that in Down we shoot shit straight. And egos? That shit, for real, you leave that shit at the door. And when an ego flares up, we have a problem. And I am the enforcer, and I don’t take no fuckin’ shit!
This one is called the Purple EP…
Nah, it’s called whatever you want. I was too fuckin’ bored to name it, and that’s that.
Right, so does this mean the next one will be The Pink EP or The Fuchsia EP?
You never know. I could be called The Cherry-Red EP. I have not the foggiest premonition.
Do you think it’s about time you guys targeted the pink dollar more?
[Laughs] Fuck that, no! Listen, I’m not against whoring myself out to a certain degree these days. But I definitely have standards. I would not call it morality. It’s more a resentment for all things popular – I don’t mind that Down is never going to be this big fucking radio band. I could care fucking less. I would take a 100-something hardcore Down fans in the smallest club you could put us in over some popularity contest or reality TV shit. Because I know that the people who showed up would be real fans who knew the words, the parts to the songs and understood the band. They’d be true fans. Once again, I could give a fuck about the status quo. I’m too old for that. Too wise for that. Too fat for that. And too absolutely cute for that.
So Glee haven’t approached you to cover a Pantera or Down song yet?
[Laughs] It’s funny you fuckin’ mention that because I had never heard of that show because I could give two fucks about the TV, but someone came up to me and said, “Hey Phil, they mentioned Pantera on Glee!” And this is the truth, it’s a reality that they did. Now, I don’t know the full context, but it was something like, “Oh well, that’s like comparing Pantera to No Doubt…” or some other stupid shit like that.
To clear this up, once and for all, as Phil Anselmo, are you any relation to Elmo, the Sesame Street character?
Well, before my grandparents came over from Sicily on a boat, they always kept this box. And it had only one opening side – I was always confused by it, thinking, “What is this?” And on my great-grandfather Taormina’s death-bed… that’s spelt “T- A- O…”, actually I don’t know how the fuck it’s spelt… anyway, on his death-bed, I remember standing next to my father and grandfather, and he handed the box over to my grandfather, and said [adopts weak whisper], “Jim… Henson… wants… me… to… pass… this… on…” And then he died. So, that said… yes, there’s a distant relation. But Elmo never calls me, and it upsets me. It kinda pisses me off a lot because he owes me money.
Touching story. Would you ever consider a cameo on Sesame Street?
Abso-fucckin’-lutely! Sesame Street helped mould me! Oh my god… [starts singing in a cracked falsetto] “1,2,3,4… 5… 6,7,8,9… 10… 11,12!”
Wow, that’s the first time I’ve heard you do falsetto since Cowboys From Hell. Impressive. So I’m guessing you have an informed opinion on Mister Snuffleupagus, then? Do you think he’s real or just a figment of Big Bird’s schizophrenia?
I’ll tell you what. Back in ’85, me and Big Bird whould hang out quite often. And he was into the other Bay Area bands like Heathen, where I was into Slayer and even Slayer clones like Viking or Infernal Majesty from Canada. So the first time I heard about Snuffleupagus from Big Bird was ’89 when, of course, at 19 years of age I was still watching Sesame Street, and kept up with what’s going on – I mean, who doesn’t? Even today, I’ll TIVO that shit, all the episodes in order to keep up with Big Bird’s delusions. Because honestly, no… Snuffleupagus does not exist and I’m sick of hearing about him. And Big Bird owes me money, too!
You seem a bit creaky in your old age, Phil. How are you holding together?
Dude, I am what you’d call the Evel Kneivel of heavy metal. I’ve had back surgery. I’ve had knee surgery. I’ve broken ribs. Both wrists. Most of my fingers. My toes. I’ve fuckin’ had a hernia operation. I’ve had my head busted open several times. Dude, I’m miserable. [Laughs]
So that infamous “Unscarred”tattoo across your belly must be seeming a tad ironic now?
[Laughs] I’ll tell you this, every day I wake up and I look in the mirror and I see that fat belly with that stretched-out Unscarred tattoo, and I point my finger upwards to the Northern gods of yesteryear and even HP Lovecraft’s Ancient Ones, and I curse the sky. How do you like that?
You could always get the “Un” bit lasered off.
Nah, I’ll just put a big “X” through it.
[Teleconference girl interrupts: “You have one minute remaining…”]
Okay, there she is, Phil. You wanna step up here?
Oh hell, okay. Hey, what’s your name, darlin’?
Stephanie? That’s my ex-wife’s name… are you trying to imitate my ex-wife? Screamin’ at me and shit? I’ll divorce you, I will…
Listen, he’s my last interview, right? So let’s give him a fair amount of time. He’ll ask a few more questions and we’ll wrap it up. Don’t yell at us no more, okay? Please, Stephanie…
Okay. [Stephanie clicks off].
Nicely done. Now, tell me about your upcoming no-holds-barred autobiography.
Right, well… there is a conception about me, and it’s true: I’m an alpha. I’m an alpha male. A leader. A dominant motherfucker, no matter what crowd I’m in. Many walks of life I’ve been through. Not just music. The boxing world, man. Motherfuckers know. I discuss scientific, strategic things with the heavyweight trainer Emanuel Steward and he respects my opinion because I understand the game, which is an incredible thing for me. I’m friends with the local football team, the Saints – the Superbowl-winning Saints. It’s a brutal game, so brutal, but it’s what I call brutal choreography. I’ve walked all these edges of life. And then, of course, everyone knows me from the spotlight of my life, Pantera, the tender years, and about the Downfalls and pitfalls that I’ve been through. Well, I’m gonna touch on many things. But look, understand this – this is a Phillip Anselmo book, not just a Pantera book. Not just music. There is a great, great story here that graphically shows the bottom of the barrel, and then this rise. And this rise again. And then it rises again! And here we sit on the phone, and I am a content man. I am a functional human being. And there’s a theory there – and a lot of it revolves around chronic pain. And anyone who’s ever experienced it. Anyone who has not does not understand this. However, I’m going to make it loud and clear that it is a psychological thing. It changes you. Changes your entire life. And either you embrace the healing portion of it or you will become another statistic. Which I very well could have become and almost did. This book will cover all of that and more.
Sounds heavy. So, who would you like to play you in the inevitable movie adaptation?
Well, you brought up whatshisname…. Elmo, the Sesame Street guy? He’d be perfect. “Starring Elmo as Anselmo!” [laughs]
You’ve said you’re going to allow access to everyone in your life. Does this mean Vinnie Paul will be interviewed? And are you worried about what he might say?
I tell you what. My relationship with Vince Paul remains as such. His door is slammed fuckin’ closed – so there is probably zero chance of any input from him – and my door is wide open. Because I’m a logical, forgiving man. And… and I’ll leave it at that.
As a boxing nut, what are your thoughts on Australian boxers like Anthony “The Man” Mundine or Danny Green?
Both guys, very tough to beat. Mundine has shown over the years that he is an insanely gifted athlete. He was a football player first, correct? To make that transition and be as successful as he has become, that is an amazing feat as an athlete and as a human being. I mean, is he elite? No. Was he ever elite? Close. As for Danny Green, he is a hard, hard man. As hard as they come.
Last time I spoke to you, you were talking about your floorwork exercises to strengthen your bad back. Will we ever see a Phil Anselmo Pilates video or yoga workout?
[Laughs] My only answer to that is… look to Elmo for one of those type videos.
When you hear famous guys in metal like Dave Mustaine spout off about the Obama Birther conspiracy and a bunch of crazy shit like that, what goes through your mind?
I think I’m glad it wasn’t me that said that. Period. I have no opinion, man. I’ve never voted in my fuckin’ life because there’s never been anyone fuckin’ worthy. I think the Bush Administration were as heinous as Adolf Hitler. They’re fuckin’ war criminals, not heroes. They suck. I think, really… and I’m not a big conspiracy guy, but they put conveniently handsome smiling faces in front of a public, Democrat or Republican, and they decide one way or another, whoever this puppet is. Really, there is a hidden agenda about the whole thing. And it’s based on such old values. Because anyone fighting over oil at this point, when we know that there are god-damned natural resources, including this thing called the fuckin’ Sun which can generate anything with motors or moving parts on this Earth, to me is fuckin’ worthless. Keep your oil. I think we’ve got a lotta thinkin’ to do.
What do you think should be done to our Australian hero/pariah Julian Assange?
I don’t know the person, so I have no comment.
Do you have a funny Australian anecdote for us?
Oh god. Lemme think. I’ve had so many incredible times in Australia…. Does it have to be humorous? I remember during Pantera’s first tour, it was charted out beautifully and we’d have a show and then several days off between, so we actually got to soak up every city we were in. Anyway, it was very memorable… but I forget the city. And I was in this packed bar and a band was playing, and I was bored out of my fuckin’ mind and I wanted to leave. And I was approached by these two beautiful girls. And they were like,” Are you bored?” And I’m like, “Hell yes!” And they say, “Well, do you wanna get out of here?” And I’m like, “ Fuckin’ A, I wanna get out of here!” So in my mind at this time I’m thinkin’, “Well, this could be fun… let’s see what happens.” So sure enough, we go back to my hotel room – the girls know where I’m stayin’, thank goodness, ’cos I didn’t have a clue. And the next thing we know, we’ve got a bunch of candles lit and we’re all drinkin’ wine, and these two girls have acoustic guitars and they start going into the most beautiful harmony singin’, playing guitars together… it was one of the most stunning thing I have ever experienced. And then the next day, they took me to one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life, like on a mountainside. There was a graveyard, a big wonderful tree. It was a magical time. My boxing coach came with us, and he’s a hardcore motherucker, and even he turned to me and expressed the beauty of bein’ in the company of these girls. I tell you what, I spent the night at their house and I didn’t lay a finger on either one of those girls because I had so much respect for them that if sex was in the works, they would have had to make the first move. And they didn’t, so I didn’t either. It was, y’know, a magical time.
Why didn’t you stay in touch?
We used to! But then, honestly, I moved house and I was hooked on a lot of drugs… and that was the break. But if they ever read this interview, they will know it’s about them. Maybe if they get in touch with you, you can get in touch with me, and we can be reunited. I would love that! They were fantastic girls. They used to mail me pictures and everything.
What were their names, then?
Goddammit, I can’t remember!
Yikes. This sounds like some romantic comedy that really needs a happy ending, Phil.
There was no happy ending, I’ll tell you that. There was no cum shot involved either… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to curse then. [Laughs]
A couple of years ago, I asked Slash, when he put out his solo album with various singers like Ozzy Osbourne, Ian Astbury, Lemmy, Chris Cornell, etc, why he didn’t ask you to sing on a song, and he said, “Man, it didn’t occur to me. I’ll ask him next time for sure. ” So, did he ever approach you and would you have done it?
Two times I’ve met Slash in my life. One time it wasn’t too flattering to him, but I’m sure there are lots of stories about me that are so unflattering it’s… well, unflattering. But we were in Boston one time, and Prong were playin’ onstage, and Slash stumbled forward, reeking of booze and cheap cologne, and asked me, “Is this Bad Brains?” And I gave him this unforgiving look. “No, man. Bad Brains are a bunch of Rastafarian black guys…” The second time was on this show called That Metal Show and we were both special guests on the panel, and we ran into each other in the hallway, gave a handshake and a brief hug, mutual respect, and he went his own way. So no, he’s never approached me about fuckin’ nothing. But that’s alright, man. Y’know, Slash… of course he’s an excellent guitar player, but as far as what I’m into and the mood of what I’m going for, he really has nothin’ to offer me. I don’t know what he’s got but I don’t need it.
Will you ever do an acoustic album?
Of course. It just depends on what band we’re talking. Like Down, we’ve shown we’ve got diversity – we can do Bury Me In Smoke to Stone The Crow, which is a lot smoother, and we’ve done acoustic songs before. And with this EP approach, we did this one, so maybe the next EP could be an all acoustic one. But that makes me think to myself, depending on how long it takes these EPs to come out, after five years of Down fans waiting for a new record to come out, would it really be fair to do an all-acoustic record? I’m not so sure. That said, I’ve already done an acoustic record, years and years go, called Body In Blood. It carried on from about ’88 to ’97. We used to call ourselves the quietest band in the world because we’d play so light, so delicately. Like I said, I’m an explorer and music is so vast that sticking to one genre is cheating yourself in my opinion, and I’ve got so many old demoes that I would love to release. But that’ll be a way off because I’m not going to make a goddamned red cent out of it ’cos we’ll never tour. But then, a lot of musicians who’ve played with me, who’ve heard the Body In Blood stuff, they’re like, “Man, I would love to do that record.” So it’s a matter of time, sound and the correct musicians, and a million different things. But dude, I love and respect so many genres of music, and life is long, so I would expect me to touch on a few different aspects of all that before you’re done with me.
Any shout-out for your massive contingent of Aussie fans?
Well, I don’t know if it’s massive, but it’s massive in my fuckin’ heart. Any of you fuckin’ booking agents out there, when the offers come to book one of the most handsome groups in the history of good looks, I would say, we’ll take a look at everyone’s schedule, make sure nobody else in on tour, we’ll line it up and make every effort to get our old, wrinkled asses to fucking goddamn Australia and do a proper fucking tour. If we didn’t in my book it would be a fuckin’ crime. I love Australia. And as far as a shout-out to the fans, I would say this… [emits a loud, long BELCH] And besides that, you motherfuckers are such a devout, passionate, real audience. I can’t say enough. The respect and the unique terms you guys use… “You’re a legend, mate!” some guy said to me once. I’ll never forget that. Australia’s one of the more important spots in all our hearts – I’ll go on record and say everyone in band loves Australia because what’s not to love? We’ve had incredible times together. To put two and two together, last time Pantera were Down Under, we brought Corrosion Of Conformity with us, and Pepper and Jimmy were playin’ in the band! We love it there. Look, I know this is long ramblin’, motherfuckin’ diatribe, but that’s the type of asshole I am. I love you all, and fuckin’ hail Columbia, we shall return!
Okay, I’m gonna mention some other types of “Downs” now, can you make a quick comment on each of them?
Down, the soft fur on a woman’s bum.
A down in American football.
That would be a tackle. Down. Both knees, both elbows! Fuck off, you’re Down, boy!
Watership Down, the famous book about a family of rabbits
Know the title, don’t know the fuckin’ story. Maybe I’m ignorant.
The comic series about a narcotics cop who turns bad?
Fuck no, never heard of it.
A down quark – it’s like a building block of matter
Well, I like that. Hopefully, it’s resolute!
And lastly, Down Syndrome…
[Laughs] Unbelievable! Now you’re tapping into some shit. Key words are gonna fly outta my mouth here and you’re maybe wanna cackle like a little lady. Listen, when we first started Down over the phone, discussin’ what we wanted to do. Straight up, we were surrounded by Slayer wanna-bes and thrash bands, and the blast beat had just come in, and kids were playing a million miles an hour, and I remember all of us revolting at the same time, because all we would listen to was sloooowww music as a total fuck you to thrash. And we found power in it. And heaviness. And of course that moulded bands like Eyehategod and Crowbar later. We were all in this slow mood. And we discussed this band, and I remember I was walkin’ through the park, thinkin’, “What can we call this band? What’s slow, what’s slow…?” And the first thing that came into my mind was “Down Syndrome” and immediately, I was like, “That’s it!” But then, eventually, we knocked off the “Syndrome” and kept “Down”. There’s your fuckin’ answer and that’s the truth.
Thanks for being a good sport, Phil. You tolerated my asinine questions with genuine aplomb.
[Laughs] I hope you make a fun interview out of this. Readin’ stuff in black’n’white is a touch ’n’ go way to understandin’ how a conversation went down, wouldn’t you agree? But y’know, I ain’t worried. I know you’ll look after me. And seriously, next time I’m in town, and I’m a foot away from you, slap me on the back, remind me that we did this interview together, and we’ll go have a beer and talk some shit. Anytime, my brother. Anytime…