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Philip Amselmo: To The Extreme. Peter Atkinson's Exclusive Interview

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Saturday, April 24, 2010 @ 9:13 PM

"Really, the fantastic part of Cowboys From Hell was having been a part of it and how young we were and full of life and just ready to roll, man.We were damn near in our strongest bodies. Damn near."

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Philip Hansen Anselmo is a man who literally needs no introduction. But for the sake of argument, here's one anyway. Frontman, firebrand, moving target, near-heroin casualty and prolific musician, he's been one of the foremost - and often infamous - figures in metal for two decades.

Anselmo helped set the bar for ferocity and intensity as lead singer with Pantera during the 1990s - and became the focal point for blame after the band fell apart following 2000's Reinventing The Steel when he began recording and touring with his two all-star side bands, Superjoint Ritual (which included Hank Williams III and Crowbar/Eyehategod/Corrosion of Conformity guitarist/drummer Jimmy Bower) and Down (with Bower, COC's Pepper Keenan, Crowbar's Kirk Windstein and Pantera bassist Rex Brown). An ongoing, increasingly ugly and very public war of words with Pantera brothers Vinnie Paul and Dimebag Darrell Abbott in the aftermath only made matters worse, and when Dime was assassinated onstage on Dec. 8, 2004, there was no going back.

In the years since, Anselmo has continued on with Down, began working with yet another all-star side band - Arson Anthem (with Hank III and Eyehategod frontman Mike Williams) - and undergone several major surgeries to repair the back and knee he severely damaged hurtling about the stage over the years, from which he is still recovering. Most recently, Anselmo has officially launched Housecore Records, a label he created years ago as an outlet for his myriad own projects that in short order will be issuing a slew of multifaceted new releases from Texas thrashers Warbeast, The Sursiks, haarp, the soundtrack to a film about The Manson Family, a new Arson Anthem full-length, a live album from Crowbar and, at some point, a new album by the resurrected Eyehategod.

During a somewhat hurried phone interview from New Orleans, in his emphatic basso drawl, an affable Anselmo touched on his new role as label head honcho, the status of his various musical endeavors, the 20th anniversary of Pantera's landmark Cowboy From Hell album, the band's legacy and what we might expect from his autobiography.

KNAC.COM: I know we're a bit pressed for time, so I'll keep things short and sweet.

Anselmo: I doubt I will (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Well, we'll see what we can get through. It's like 90 here in D.C. today (April 7) it must be hot as hell in New Orleans?

Anselmo: Nah, man, it's gorgeous. I tell you what. Fall is beautiful, but this is gorgeous right now, this here spring. It's probably 68 outside, sunny, breezy, it's great. I think it it'll get up to about 75, 78, but with this dry breeze you get this lack of humidity which is always such a blessing here. In a couple months, it's gonna be Cambodia (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Before we get to talking about your label and all that, I want to start by checking on the status of your various bands. What is up with Down at the moment?

Anselmo: Well Kirk and Jimmy are in Europe, Kirk with Crowbar and Jimmy with Eyehategod. Rex is jamming and everybody's kinda doing their own thing. But we are always in touch and I guess we're looking at the end of the year, getting together. Pepper said he had some riffs, which is always good. So maybe some time toward the end of the year, early next year, we'll start rolling. We've got some shows this summer in Europe. We're not totally stagnant.

KNAC.COM: How's Rex doing health-wise after his battle with pancreatitis? I know he's done some studio work with Arms of the Sun, but is he ready to get back to work with Down?

Anselmo: Yeah, he's really battling with the surgery. Some of these surgeries were very complex [he had his gall bladder removed and polyps taken from his pancreas] but he's a resolute guy. We're in touch quite often during the week. He's doing better, he's got his good days and bad days, but he'll be fine. I think he's having problems putting on weight. He's always been a skinny cat. So we're playing it by ear, we'd like to have him come back and do the shows in Europe with us, but only if he's in fighting shape, if you know what I mean.

KNAC.COM: You've certainly had your medical travails over the years, how's your health holding up these days?

Anselmo: Ah, I'm all right, man. I'm not keeping my doctors and surgeons as busy as I was (laughs). I had my last surgery about a year ago this time, on my knee. Something, somewhere on me hurts every day, but when you've done as much damage to yourself as I have over the years, you have to expect that. I tweaked my back again when I was rehabbing from my knee surgery, which is a bitch. That gives me trouble from time to time, but I can manage. I know how to handle it a lot better than I used to, that's for damn sure. Older and wiser, you know.

KNAC.COM: Superjoint Ritual, I haven't heard about them in a long time, is that still a functioning entity?

Anselmo: It's not even a consideration, I don't think. Superjoint had its time, we had a blast. Honestly, the first record, I love that first record, but I'm not doing anything with Superjoint, I don't think anyone plans on doing anything anymore. It had its purpose, you know.

KNAC.COM: Is Arson Anthem your only active concern right now?

Anselmo: Nah, I'm not performing with anything. Actually I've been writing new stuff, which is just my stuff, there's no title to it necessarily. Arson Anthem, we did do the full-length record. Christ, we probably recorded that over a year ago. It's been mixed now for four or five months, it took a while to get back around to it because we all had so many other things happenings. So I just got, matter of fact, the second mastered version and I really gotta listen to it.

We're real happy with it and I wouldn't rule out shows, if the correct opportunity came up. We would definitely play. But once again, Mike the singer for Arson, is in Europe and Hank's on tour too. This is definitely not a solid, but I know Hank has some time off in May and perhaps there will be an Arson Anthem little short run.

KNAC.COM: You mentioned writing new stuff, is it in the vein of the some of the other projects you've had - black metally like Christ Inversion or Viking Crown - or is this totally different?

Anselmo: Bite your tongue when you say that. I've been in many, many projects and I take pride in the fact, the fact, that none of them sound the same. They're all different. However, if I was going to compare it to anything, I hate to use the P [Pantera] word, because I don't once again want to build up a false sense, but it is more groove structured. However, I would say it's a little more disjointed, a little more spastic, but I'm still after the song.

You know what, I'm not really gonna say anything else about it until it's really done, because it's still taking shape in my mind. But it's heavy, it's really heavy, it's aggressive, very aggressive. Put it this way, I am not at all going for anything necessarily traditional in any genre of extreme music. I'm in the firm belief that all the notes have not been hit yet.

KNAC.COM: Given the state of the music business today, starting/relaunching a label is either really brave or really crazy. Which side do you fall on?

Anselmo: Well if you're gonna use that scale, I guess I'm somewhere on the different side of the scale, because, honestly, we damn well know we're not gonna get rich of this fuckin' deal, man. None of these bands that I'm working with are expecting to hit the top of the charts. However, what comes naturally to me about this whole thing is it's basically an outlet for me, in general, I'm definitely going to take full advantage of that. The fact that I have great distribution here in the states for sure, it was an outlet for a lot of the projects I had done in between Pantera tours that people weren't completely privy to. I know a lot of secret tapes got dumped out there, but there's a lot of stuff people had not heard. So for the fans, hey man I'm all about giving them the complete catalog because I'm a music fan too. And I'd want to hear this stuff if I was a fan - or at least have the opportunity to. Being in the biz for so damn long, you're around so many great musicians and great bands and you see certain bands that are playing in clubs, playing regionally, and you can tell that they're ready to graduate. So helping out another band by getting their records out there, that's a natural, man. I like to say, it's very true, extreme music of all sorts has been so kind to me throughout my whole damn lifetime, I must give back. It's great to bring in bands that I think are very, very different.

KNAC.COM: No argument that you've got an eclectic roster. A Japanese band, Norwegian band, horror movie soundtracks, thrash, sludge, you name it. Then you also have Crowbar and Eyehategod, who are relatively established, to kinda anchor things.

Anselmo: Genre-wise, it's like you say, eclectic, but kinda unique as well. With Crowbar, that's a great thing because they are giving me product and they are a band people know. But I'll shout it out right now, as much as Eyehategod is on goddamn fucking tour, they owe me a record, and I will strangle Jimmy Bower 'til he gives me one (laughs). And I say with a grin on my face. You know I love Jim, I'm just trying to get a damn record of him. So I'm screaming in every interview just to pump up the damn task for him. Come on, we need some new Eyehategod.

KNAC.COM: The shows they've been playing over the last year or so have certainly got a buzz going, probably even moreso than when they were around before?

Anselmo: Absolutely, and I know people wanna hear it. For all you folks out there who are desperate to hear this Eyehategod newness, I'm the guy who's carrying the biggest whip, smackin' 'em, trying to get it going.

KNAC.COM: Is there anything in particular that you look for in bands to bring to Housecore, or just something that catches your ear?

Anselmo: It kinda depends. There's band that do traditional stuff that I can't say is absolutely totally different. There's Warbeast out of the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, and they are your prototypical thrash band but they are so fucking good at it. It's Bruce Corbitt, he's the lead singer for the band, he used to be in Rigor Mortis. And I grew up with a lot of these cats and I know they're top notch musicians.

To me, this is very much a starting point for them. This is very much their Cowboys from Hell, because I think with their newer material they're going to find themselves even more. This first record, Krush the Enemy, is an awesome, awesome record. They play their asses off. Everybody's kinda finding themselves, but I like it, I like the direction they're going in. Like I was saying, some of it's my stuff like Christ Inversion, the thing that I did in '94 that's already out there again. We also have another demo that we did in '96 that I guess I'll put out next year some time. You can say that's in a black metal vein, we always like to call it holocaust metal or war metal because it is more war metal. Especially the second record.

But then there are bands like the Sursiks, haarp, pretty much anything [former Soilent Green guitarist] Donovan Punch touches, we're talking about different music here, man, something that's really tough to say "this is this genre." That's the stuff that catches my ear, and if I like it, I want to turn other people onto it, you know.

KNAC.COM: As "label head," how do you see your role with these bands - if it's anything other than just getting their music out there?

Anselmo: It really depends on the band, man. With Warbeast and haarp and with Crowbar coming up, they asked me to be part of the record, they asked me to produce their records. That is always awesome, it's a fantastic experience. I also did the Arson Anthem this time around and we're talking about four totally drastic differences in sound, and very particular musicians. Drummers that want their drums to sound one way or another, guitarists that like this tone or that. Warbeast, they asked for a certain type of sound, a thrashy '80s type of thrash sound but with a little bit of a modern feel, especially in the drums, and then Arson Anthem is totally stripped Down, very, very raw. And then haarp on the flipside, they have very stripped Down drums, but very thick, dark production.

And then on the flipside of that there's a band like the Sursiks or a lot of Donovan Punch's stuff, like Bum Freak In Egypt, that's already recorded and I didn't want to touch it because it was perfect. Or, in the case of the Sursiks, the main guy in the band, David Minnick, is a fantastic producer, engineer, musician himself, for me if it sounds good to him, I'm in full thrust of it. So it depends on the band, but either way, I'm having a blast.

KNAC.COM: What happens with the label business once Down is up and really running again, recording and touring? Will it mean a less rigorous schedule for Down, or you are going to try to maintain a handle on things from wherever you are? Or do you have someone who can take the reins in your absence?

Anselmo: That's a good question, and no one has asked me that yet. Because it is hard. I always found in the past when we were on tour things ran themselves, but it's maddening because in the end everything has my name on it, it's my thing, so without the hands on, phone call away, 20-minute drive away day-to-day thing, you do feel a bit disembodied.

As a label we've come leaps and bounds since Down was touring last time. I have some faith in the tiny staff that we have that when I do tour - and touring I'm going to use that term loosely, because I'm not sure how much we're going to be touring. We may do select dates, we may do certain runs here and there, but I think the days of doing full-blown six-week tours are over. So I think there's going to be a little bit of compromise, and like my mother used to tell me, 'any decision you make has to be the right one.' So I'm just go out to say, 'look, this is going to work itself out.'

KNAC.COM: You mentioned Cowboys From Hell a bit back, it's now the 20th anniversary of that album, which just doesn't seem possible. It really does seem just like yesterday?

Anselmo: I know man, I know it does. And that was literally half my lifetime ago. Unbelievable.

KNAC.COM: If it weren't for that album, we probably wouldn't be talking right now. It certainly changed your life.

Anselmo: There was an awful lot leading up to Cowboys From Hell, but you know for my first record back then when you were on a major label it was a big deal because major labels were a big deal back in 1990. We had written that material from the end of '88 throughout '89 and I'll always say Pantera, for me, our sound really didn't culminate to its fullest, I don't know about fullest, but really culminate 'til Vulgar Display of Power. But Cowboys From Hell does have classic Pantera sound: "Domination," Primal Concrete Sledge," like that.

Put it this way, I'll give you one little short quip about Cowboys From Hell and this will totally sum it up. The last song we wrote for that album came in the studio with one day left, maybe two days left, to do the drum tracks and that song was "Primal Concrete Sledge," which shows you the direction we were headed in mentally before that record even came out. But as a platform, as a new band, it definitely served notice.

Pantera was a live band, you had to see it and then go back and listen to it again. In hindsight, I love that record, there's things I'm not wild about on that record, but take all that away man and as a full thing, it's fantastic. Really the fantastic part of it was having been a part of it and how young we were and full of life and just ready to roll, man. We were damn near in our strongest bodies. Damn near.

KNAC.COM: Then, like you said, two years later there was Vulgar Display of Power and the rest is history.

Anselmo: We did a lot of touring and a lot of bands took the chance and brought us on tour, without those bands, without that exposure, I don't know what really woulda happened, but it did happen and I just gotta thank all the bands, all the fans and everyone like that involved for the success. Without the fans, without the help along the way, we'd be nothing, I'd be nobody and, yeah, you're right, we wouldn't be having this conversation if it weren't for the fans. Bless 'em.

KNAC.COM: It's amazing how the legacy, the legend of Pantera continues to grow. I realize Dime's death has something to do with that, but still?

Anselmo: We made our mark, we damn sure did. You can't dispute that. Pantera will live on and be remembered because we were a band that goddamn meant something to people. To a lot of people, we were their band, man. And Dime, he was taken away in his prime. A lot of people probably feel that Pantera was taken away from them before all had been said and done, too. And maybe it was, but now we'll never know.

It doesn't matter if it's Kurt Cobain or Layne Staley or John Lennon or fuckin' Elvis, when someone that means so much to people dies before their time, like Dime did, they don't go away. Memories are a strong thing, man, and sometimes they make that bond grow stronger. No matter what's been said, or more to the point, what was written - because that's another story entirely, the way things got twisted around - I loved Dime too and I miss him. I miss him more as time goes on. I honestly do. So you can see what I'm saying.

KNAC.COM: For this autobiography you're going to be doing, have you decided just what kind of story it's going to tell, because your story could take any number of turns - rock and roll tell-all, cautionary tale or a chance to set the record straight, as it were?

Anselmo: I've thought things out, man, I don't really wanna give it away too much. I would say it's gonna be different to say the least. I'm not really one to praise all the elbow-rubbing and schmoozing and stuff like that that happened over the years, all the parties and stuff, people know that happened. And I'm also not gonna get into a pissing contest with my detractors, it's not worth it and it's not the story I'm trying to tell, that's boring.

When you say a cautionary tale, sure, I can buy that. Because I've definitely been through some shit, serious shit, man, and seen and experienced all kinds of shit and lived to tell. But there's also funny stuff, sad stuff, angry stuff. You're gonna have to just wait and see and read about it like everyone else (laughs).

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