In pictures: The music and madness of Desertfest 2023
Desertfest – a three-day celebration of heaviness, fuzz, volume and weirdness – hit Camden once again last weekend. Here’s what we remember…
Crowbar mastermind Kirk Windstein on New Orleans, excess and his very sludgy career...
Very few geographically centred music scenes have as unique and unifying a sound as the metal one that has prospered in and around New Orleans, Louisiana. The Seattle scene that birthed grunge, for example, was built around a clutch of musically disparate bands that had certain similarities in aesthetics and attitude. However, there is something about the NOLA scene that is now instantly recognisable.
It’s crushingly heavy, mixing low, down-tuned doom metal riffs with the raw aggression of hardcore, while the humidity of the bayou drips like sludge from every pore.
No-one has done more to define this sound than Kirk Windstein. The guitarist and vocalist was actually born in the UK, as his U.S. Air Force dad was stationed at a base near London at the time. “My parents wanted to take me to England to see where I was born,” he recalls. “It’s kind of ironic, because they weren’t able to afford it, but the good thing is I must have been over there around 40 times now.” He reckons he might even have dual nationality, but Kirk is NOLA through and through. Prick him and he probably bleeds gumbo.
Alongside the likes of Eyehategod and Acid Bath (who actually hailed from Houma, another part of Louisiana), Kirk’s own band Crowbar helped draw up the sludge metal blueprints. His distinctive riffing also underpinned the slab-heavy foundations of Down, the supergroup initially comprising Kirk, Phil Anselmo and Pepper Keenan from Corrosion Of Conformity, alongside Kirk’s Crowbar bandmates Todd Strange and Jimmy Bower.
Down took this ugly, uncompromising music to platinum record status, and somewhere along the way it became their main focus. It wasn’t all plain sailing, though, as members juggled both their other bands and their various drug and alcohol habits, with varying levels of success and priority. In 2013, after a struggle with depression, Kirk left the band to concentrate his efforts on Crowbar. It wasn’t an entirely amicable split, but the guitarist remains on good terms with the people who he’s been friends with for most of his adult life.
At the age of 55, Kirk’s enthusiasm for music remains undimmed. He’s currently working on Crowbar’s twelfth album – a remarkable feat, considering they were so often left on the backburner – and released his first solo album, Dream In Motion, back in January. “My hunger and my love for recording and touring is as strong as it’s ever been,” he smiles. Which is an achievement in itself, considering the bumpy three decades-plus of musical road he’s travelled so far…
You started out in covers band Victorian Blitz. What songs did you play?
“We did Priest, Maiden, Saxon, Twisted Sister and early Metallica songs. We threw in a couple of originals, too, but for the most part it was New Wave Of British Heavy Metal covers. Before that, though, what really lit the fire was KISS. [1975 live album] Alive! was the defining moment in me picking up a guitar.”
Your next band Shell Shock ended in tragedy when guitarist Mike Hatch took his own life. That must have been a hard thing to go through…
“Yeah. Mike was pretty much my best friend, so it was tragic in a lot of ways. A young guy taking his own life is always a sad thing, and it wasn’t as common back then. He had a lot of problems, and I get mad at him a lot because they make medication for those problems now; anxiety, depression and whatnot. He wasn’t a drug user or a big drinker or anything, it was just a chemical imbalance or something. It did come as a big shock, but God bless him, that’s the path he took.”
After a few different incarnations, Crowbar rose from those ashes. Where did your distinctive sludge metal sound come from?
“Jimmy Bower was on drums in Shell Shock and it never really wasn’t a band, even though we went through a lot of name changes and stylistic changes. Jimmy used to pick me up for band rehearsal and we would listen to the Melvins’ first two records, Carnivore’s [1987 classic] Retaliation and some Sabbath, and that’s all we would listen to. Shell Shock had turned into Aftershock, which was more of a thrash band. We were good at what we did, but we were tired of playing thrash. Everyone was doing that, and we wanted to do something fresh and different, like [influential groove metal progenitors] Exhorder were, here in New Orleans.”
You nearly joined Exhorder at one point, didn’t you?
“I tried out on bass and I remember being told I had the job if I wanted it. Just then my band – we were called The Slugs at that time – were offered a record deal, and I decided to give that a go. We changed the name because there was already a band called that, and we stole a couple of members from other bands, and that was the start of Crowbar.”
How much of an impact did your environment have on the music?
“It affected it a lot. There were bands who we shared this old green warehouse with: The Slugs, Eyehategod and Graveyard Rodeo, all these bands. It was a group of guys who grew up together, listened to the same music and put their own spin on it. If we’d grown up on the west coast, thrash might have influenced us more. Being from New Orleans, that’s what led to the so-called NOLA sound and scene.”
Did the heat and humidity of New Orleans bleed into the sound as well?
“Yeah, the whole culture of the city bleeds through in some way. Subconsciously, we grew up on funk and New Orleans music. Subconsciously at first, and then later we consciously learned how to play like The Meters, Dr John and The Neville Brothers. The drummers had that killer groove you can only get in New Orleans. Very few heavy or metal bands are able to play with that behind-the-beat groove that the New Orleans bands can.”
It wasn’t until Crowbar’s 1993 self-titled album that you started to gain traction, thanks in part to exposure on cult MTV cartoon Beavis And Butt-head. Were you grateful for that attention?
“When we did the self-titled album, it was a big step up for us. We were able to get on MTV Headbangers Ball – in the UK first, actually – and yeah, Beavis And Butt-head. We actually sent the package to [show creator] Mike Judge, trying to turn him onto us. We sent a handwritten note saying, ‘Hey, you can have fun with it. A couple of us are pretty fat guys, so if you want to take a stab at that, go ahead.’ We went on our first real tour with Sacred Reich, and I called home from a payphone and my mom says, ‘Your friends have been calling and freaking out, you’ve been on some kind of cartoon show called Beavis And Butt-head!’”
Phil Anselmo produced that album, and you two go way back. When did you first meet?
“Probably at a show, but we used to run into each other every Thursday night at this one dollar movie night. There was a frozen daiquiri place around the corner, so all these guys in bands would go get a daiquiri, then go see a movie. So I’d run into Phil almost every week for a year. We had a lot of mutual bands that we liked and a lot in common, musically. And the rest is history really.”
When Down started, Pantera were probably the biggest metal band in the world. Was it a different experience in terms of attention and scale?
“When it first came out, it was totally a side project. I remember doing the [1995 debut] NOLA record, and Phil bringing us our platinum awards for a million sales here in the States, but really, on that record we did a two-week tour and a few odd shows, and that was it. By the time we did Down II [2002’s A Bustle In Your Hedgerow], Pantera were taking a break and Dime[bag, Pantera guitarist] and Vinnie [Paul, Dimebag’s brother and Pantera drummer] formed Damageplan. We all know, unfortunately, what happened with that. After the Dimebag tragedy, there was no more Pantera, but we all made an agreement that Down was going to be our main focus, and it was for a while. It was a different thing. We were selling out every show, and it was a huge step up from what I was used to with Crowbar. It was nice while it lasted. It was nice to sleep in your tourbus all day, have someone else soundcheck and just enjoy more freedom, staying in nice hotels and ordering room service. I’m glad I got to do it, but I’m a down to earth, humble guy. I don’t need a lot of stuff, so I’m happy where I’m at with Crowbar now. I really am.”
The scene had a reputation for excess. Phil nearly died, and Jimmy Bower had his own well-documented problems. Was it difficult to watch your friends and bandmates going through that?
“We all had our things. With Jimmy and Phil, as you say, it’s well documented and it’s no secret that they had heroin problems. The rest of us had alcohol and cocaine problems, so altogether it wasn’t a pretty thing to watch from either side. But we made it through, and that’s what’s important. Everybody’s turned over a new leaf and gotten a hold on themselves as far as addictions and abuse goes. Thankfully we’ve all made changes.”
When did you decide to address your own substance abuse issues?
“Probably around 2010. I started drinking at home instead of going out to bars, because it was easier for me to avoid cocaine if I didn’t go out to where it would be. I erased all the dealers from my phone. I quit drinking hard liquor for the most part, but I had a little hangout room where I would watch sports, play guitar and drink beer. Before that I would go to a bar, not realise how I’d got home, pass out on the couch and wake up with two bags of coke. Then of course I’d go to the store to buy beer because if I’ve got cocaine I’ve got to have beer. And vice versa – if I went to a bar I’d have two beers, then I’d be calling a guy trying to score. It was an ugly thing to go through, but they say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I really do believe that to be true.”
How difficult was the decision to leave Down in 2013?
“My whole adult life has been touring and playing. I’ve had failed marriages, I have a 16-year-old daughter. You have these bouts of touring when you’re lonely, but with my wife Robin I was really depressed and missing her. Like, ‘I don’t want to be here, I want to be at home.’ So on tour with Down I basically isolated myself. I was depressed for the first time on tour. Snake Sabo, the manager, who used to be in Skid Row, called me and said, ‘Kirk, I think the guys might not want to jam with you anymore.’ I said, ‘Well, you know what? Tell ‘em I quit!’ He’s telling me I need to think on it, so we went through a couple of days where it was like I was on probation, so I said, ‘Maybe this is a sign.’ I talked to my wife and she said, ‘Why don’t you bring back Crowbar and give it everything you’ve got? That’s your creation, that’s your thing. I’ll help you, I’ll tour with you, I’ll do merchandise.’ And that’s what we’ve been doing since.”
Back in 2005, you also found time to form Kingdom Of Sorrow with Hatebreed vocalist Jamey Jasta. How did that come about?
“Jamey asked Crowbar to support Hatebreed on a two-week UK tour that year. We were already friends, but we really got tight on that tour. Jamey was still drinking at the time so we’d hit the pubs and drink after the shows and the whole nine yards. One day we were in Cork in Ireland, doing shots before Crowbar went onstage, and he asked if I’d be interested in doing a side project. A lot of times guys in bands drunk talk about doing something together and nothing ever comes to fruition, but a month later he called me to see if I still wanted to. Jamey actually manages Crowbar, and we’re very good friends. People always ask if we’ll ever do Kingdom Of Sorrow again and I’m up for it. We’re both too busy to do it properly in the near future, but it’s not out of the question.”
Is it gratifying when people like Jamey say that you were a big influence on them?
“It feels great. I try to be humble, but I do often have people saying I’ve been an influence. What I like is when they say that the music or the lyrics have helped them through addictions, failed marriages or depression. I’ve even had one guy say, ‘I had the barrel of a gun in my mouth, but your music helped me through.’ That’s really deep. This guy was about to pull the trigger and end his life, but thank God he put the gun down. I like hearing that my music has helped people through dark times.”
If someone were to call you a sludge metal guitar god, you’d take it, right?
“Of course (laughs)! I do appreciate that. It makes you feel like there’s a purpose for you, like this music is not just for me, it’s for everyone. The other part’s a bit deeper, but I’ll take the compliments when they come.”
Finally, we know you’re a huge Motörhead fan. Can you see yourself retiring or would you like to carry on pretty much ‘til the end, like Lemmy did?
“Lemmy said something that hit home to me about there being more than one occasion when he was the only member of Motörhead. It’s been the same with me. Motörhead are the primary example of how to do it. They did what they did, they were great, and quitting was never an option. They went through the peaks and valleys of the music business and they survived through different fads. That’s what I try to do with Crowbar. Crowbar is Crowbar and, love or hate us, when you hear the music you know it’s us. That’s something to be proud of. I wouldn’t say I’ll never retire, but honestly, I really don’t know what else I would do!”
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