Exclusive Interview: Philip Anselmo from Pantera
Pantera found its growl and groove on Cowboys From Hell, a landmark album whose bone-powdering intensity, razor-sharp riffing and pummeling rhythmic assault represented a turning point in modern metal when it was released in 1990. More than just Pantera’s major label debut, many consider this album to be the official debut of the Pantera lineup with singer Philip Anselmo, guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, his brother, drummer Vinnie Paul and bassist Rex Brown.
To celebrate the 20-year anniversary of Cowboys From Hell, Pantera rounds up a three-disc Ultimate Edition, a three-disc Deluxe Edition, and a two-disc Expanded Edition. All three editions include a newly remastered version of the original album along with unreleased and rare live performances from the Cowboys From Hell Tour.
The Ultimate and Deluxe Editions will also feature a disc of unreleased demos for nearly every album track, plus, “The Will To Survive,” a previously unreleased song recorded during the album’s sessions.
After being turned down “twenty-eight times by every major label on the face of the earth,” ATCO Records A&R rep Mark Ross saw the band when Hurricane Hugo stranded him in Texas. The rest, as they say, is history, including another seven years and over a million miles of touring for Cowboys… to be certified Platinum (one million album sales) by the RIAA.
The album’s liner notes include essays by each of the band’s surviving members, producer Terry Date, and the aforementioned Ross. Recalling the first time he saw Pantera, Ross writes, “By the end of the first song, my jaw was on the floor. The sonic power of it all—the attitude and the musicianship—blew me away. Basically, you had to be an idiot to not think they’re amazing. I mean, how could you see these guys and not think, Holy shit!?”
We recently sat down with Philip Anselmo to reflect back on the early developmental stages for Pantera and discuss how much effort was put into creating that signature sound that became so important to the band and it’s legions of metal faithfuls.
Phil it’s great to talk to you about such a classic heavy metal record. Cowboys From Hell really introduced Pantera to the world. It kicked in everybody’s teeth and also introduced fans to a new style of raw, heavy metal. Your vocals and Dime’s guitar tone is what created this huge sound. How much time did you guys spend working on your vocals and Dime’s tone?
It’s kinda funny. I can’t answer this without pre-dating what went on. I joined this band in late ’87. Things got rollin’ in ’88. Out of nowhere it seemed like I was in the studio recording Power Metal. We agreed the first time we ever talked that we wanted to move into a more aggressive direction. We were growing. I was turning them on to all kinds of heavy shit. We wrote the stuff for Cowboys From Hell in ’88 and ’89. We’d been gigging around playing a lot of those songs live. Mentally and musically we were heading in this more extreme direction. Dimebag always had this ripping, roaring guitar sound. Back in the late eighties, production on metal records was changing drastically. There was no ProTools or fucking computers to mess around with. It was all real. When Terry Date came on board as a producer, he made it a lot easier for us to basically take that amp sound and move it from one room and put it on tape in another room. It was always Dimebag’s guitar sound and we spent a lot of time tweaking it to make it rippin’. He always had this monstrous tone but capturing it back then was really tough. We came damn close on Cowboys… Eventually our sound took it’s most pure form on Vulgar Display Of Power and Far Beyond Driven later on. It was a signature sound but still a developmental record.
As far as my vocals are concerned, I was always capable … I grew up a metal kid who loved hardcore. I was always the youngest guy in my band. All these guys were playing in clubs where A) you had to dress up kinda glammy to get the gig and B) you wanted to play the bigger shows with the more professional guys, so Judas Priest and Dio was pretty much demanded. I took that on, man. I was very young when I got hold of that type of singing. I’d come home from high school – before I quit – and I’d sing fuckin’ Unleashed In The East, man. Front to back, every fucking day. Before I’d even go to practice! To have that kind of range was always a plus. If I could still sing like that it would be great. I can still sing but I don’t know about all that high, higher range shit. I never used falsetto. I was always singing full-out.
I see what you mean when you say we had that rawness, like a classic metal band. The vocals had that rough edge but could also tastefully touch on metal greats from the past. Those were very transitional years. I do see what you mean about capturing that dual magic, though.
I hope that wasn’t too fucking confusing. God damn! (laughs)
You mentioned recording Cowboys… before ProTools came along. I think the extra grunt work you guys put in to create the guitar tone and capture those sounds is what makes that record so defining for Pantera and for metal. Bands don’t understand what it’s like to do work like that in the studio these days.
I agree, man. To get organic fuckin’ sounds, even drum sounds – Vinnie Paul’s drum sound. You gotta look at that. He triggered the livin’ fuck out of everything. People may say that’s cheatin’. Fact is, he was playing every fuckin’ bit of it. He made a generation thereafter want to trigger the livin’ fuck out of their drum sets! (laughs) I can’t leave Vince out of this equation at all. He’s great in the studio, too.
As far as coming up with those sounds, like you said – it was grunt work. We did a lot of ground-laying from the fucking dirt to the middle of your chest. I remember us beating our heads against the wall. Especially Dime and Terry Date. Everybody was just trying to make this guitar sound roar. It wasn’t perfect on Cowboys From Hell but it was prevalent enough.
What do you remember about writing the material that ended up on Cowboys From Hell?
I knew I was with a group of guys that were slightly apprehensive. I think they thought your average thrash metal band kinda did things the easy way out, like with the out of key leads that everybody was doing – trying to sound like Slayer. What they weren’t doing was the riff work that Slayer was doing. I loved it. I bought every motherfucking thrash record possible back then. I lost a lot of it during hurricane Katrina but I still have a bunch of it. I could understand where the other guys were coming from. They still wanted things to be tasteful – in a classic metal sense. There was a lot of “bend, don’t break” between all of us. All of that creative headbutting always turned out for the best, especially in the early days.
How did you guys write songs? Would you write around a riff or did the lyrics come first?
I’m always writing something. Not lyrics or poems. I won’t call ’em anything like that. I’m always writing paragraphs of just bullshit. I would say 90% of the time I would have to hear what they were doing. I’d like to hear where the riff was going. If I came up with a riff, Dime would get a hold of it and it would sound completely … better. (laughs) He could take one of my little ideas and fuckin’ take off with it. I would wait for music 90% of the time. Sometimes there would be a key line here or there. I’d be like, “Hey Dimebag – check this out.” It might influence him to write a creepy riff, or something really dark.
When Mark Ross saw you guys live, what material were you playing? Was it all stuff that ended up on Cowboys…?
It was all stuff from Cowboys… By that point, “Heresy,” “Psycho Holiday,” and “Cowboys From Hell” were staples of our set. We weren’t even doing covers anymore, unless we wanted to. That’s what the crowd came to see. They didn’t want to hear Pantera do anything else unless we made it our own. When Mark Ross stumbled in to this weird birthday party that came outta fuckin’ nowhere on a Wednesday… I got a call the day of. Dimebag called and said this little chick who always came to see us was having a birthday party. They had rented this whole place out – like a Mexican restaurant, man. (laughs) I didn’t know what the fuck it was, but this chick wanted us to play. I had no idea Mark Ross was even in the fucking audience until after the show. Next thing you know, things were different! He surprised us.
What do you think about the demos that are included in the special edition of Cowboys…?
I don’t think the guitar has the edge. I have different feelings about the demos. A lot of bands that demo first, nine times out of 10 you’re gonna have guys in the band that fall in love with the demo. That can be counter-productive, especially when you have to re-cut the whole fucking thing. The best thing about it was working with Terry Date and doing that grunt work to get that guitar sound and that drum sound.
The fact that “Primal Concrete Sledge” came out of nowhere … it was the last day of drum tracks. Vinne Paul just started messing around with that drum pattern. I looked at Dime and said, “That’s pretty fuckin’ badass, man!” I’m lookin’ at him and lookin’ at his guitar and lookin’ at him and said, “Fuckin’ play something!” (laughs) He just started chuggin’ and next thing you know it fell into place. That shows where we were at mentally as musicians, heading out of the recording process for Cowboys From Hell and moving into what would become Vulgar Display Of Power. “Primal Concrete Sledge” was definitely the road map to where we were headed – Vulgar Display Of Power.
Let’s pretend it’s 20 years ago and I’m talking to you about Cowboys From Hell, doing this exact same interview.
How would you have been different and how do you think your answers would have been different?
I would have definitely been a little more cocky. I had a chip on my shoulder. Interviews were probably the last thing coming towards me back then. Fuck, man! Really? An interview? I’d do it. When you first start a band you get the same standard interview a lot of the time. What do you play in the band? When did the band start? Shit like that. Eventually I’d get a little antsy. You could probably visualize that chip on my shoulder. Fuck! (laughs)
Is there still a lot of bad blood between the Pantera guys? You’re all contributing to this anniversary release of Cowboys… How are things right now?
Me and Rex have always been cool. We fought through a lot of the hard times together. I think about Vinnie Paul every day. I think about Dimebag every day, at least 25 times if not more. I wish things were cool between me and Vince, but I know him. If he’s got his mind made up that I’m the bad guy, then that’s just how it rolls. Anyone that knows me and knows us that was there will let you know that if we were all thrown into the same room together that my biggest hopes would be to come out with a mutual understanding and as friends, without the hatred. I sympathize with Vince constantly. What he went though I wish on no man. There is no room in this world for anyone – including me – to judge what he is going through. We all take our own path in life. Life is extremely short. All those old adages and analogies are all fuckin’ true or we wouldn’t have heard them time and time again from all the old timers. Now here I sit at forty-fuckin’-two, and although that’s not old by a 50-year-old’s standards – I’m not 22 anymore. Before I die – and we’ll never know when that will be – I would love to make peace with Vince. I would love for that to happen. But, as we sit here today, there really hasn’t been any contact. As far as working together on this fuckin’ awesome 20th anniversary release of Cowboys From Hell, we all mediate through this lovely young lady named Kim who has worked for the band for many years. That’s how we’re working. There’s no hostility or anything. It’s all smooth sailing. Maybe one day…it’s a shame.
Philip Anselmo as a songwriter, musician, frontman – even the Phil Anselmo character – can be larger than life. Philip Anselmo as a real person may be one of the most misunderstood people on the planet. What do you think?
If I am then I guess it’s my fault. I put myself in that position. I probably said the wrong things at the wrong time. I probably punched the wrong dude in the face a long time ago. Once again, I’m 42. We all make mistakes growing up through life. If people were to sit down and talk to me – especially the people who fuckin’ have this opinion, like I’m their next door neighbor – I know for a fact that they would definitely change their tune. Fuck, man. I’ll give you the shirt off my back. I’m easy. I listen to Black Sabbath and I puff a little weed. I’m cool and laid back, man. (laughs)
Will you be touching on all that personal and more emotional stuff in your book?
Absolutely. I’m nowhere near finished, but I’m proofreading constantly. I’m pretty sure it comes across the way I want it to. I’m truthful as a motherfucker. Loyal as a dog. I can’t help it. I’m not gonna live my life in the dark, man. Take a look at humanity. There’s a lot of people out there that have done a lot of fuckin’ crazy things. The human is a strange, complex fuckin’ being. Not a damn one of us is perfect in every sing way, every day. We’re still learning and relearning lessons and all kinds of shit. We’re gonna make mistakes ’til we fuckin’ hit the dirt. (laughs) Nobody’s got it all figured out. That’s where you gotta let some things bounce off of you.
People have been waiting for you to do a solo record…
I’m doin’ it!
Is it gonna be a band project, will you have a few special guests play on it – what are the plans so far?
Man, it would be really easy for me to say “I want the drummer from so-and-so. I want the guitar player from so-and-so.” It’s real easy to do that. I want each project I work on to sound different. Why recreate the same thing in a whole different band? Right now I’m writing some vicious shit. I can’t really have any outside influence right now. I just can’t, man. I’m using this local drummer who can learn my shit, pick up quick and do exactly what the fuck I say. I’m playing bass and guitar. I’m basically doing everything but the fucking drums. That’s fine be me. If I go out and play live, which I’m sure people will want to hear, there’s no telling who I might bring on the road. I’m not looking for an all-star lineup. I’m just looking for solid musicians. I’ve got about 14 pieces of music, some complete and some not. None have vocals yet. I have some lyrics written. I’m still in the process. It is happening and that’s the best fuckin’ part. I’m trying to bring something fresh to extreme music. There is a little bit of a rut going on. I think there’s a different point of attack within the music. You’ve heard blast beats before. You’ve heard thrash beats. You’ve heard double-kick. I’m not writing anything that’s fast just for the sake of being fast. I’m not writing anything traditional for the sake of double-kick. It’s all been done. I’m grabbing this heavy metal thing like it’s a piece of clay and I’m remolding the motherfucker. That’s what I’m out to do. I’ve got a fantastic start.
Well you’ve got me curious as hell to hear what you’re doing.
Good. Good. That’s gonna make me work even hard to make sure I’m fuckin’ dead on. That’s my prediction and my forecast. I mean every word.
Phil, thanks for taking time out or this, man. What would you like to say to the readers and your fans?
The fans are the best. Without you motherfuckin’ people I would be nobody. Bless all you fuckers. I love ’em. I will never let ’em down when it comes to music. Thank you so much. I can not thank you enough. Look for more big things out of the Anselmo camp.