Phil Anselmo: "I Am Reckless and I Am Absurd on Purpose"

Phil Anselmo is a metal heavyweight, boasting a CV of ear-bruising brilliance. He’s one of extreme music’s most distinctive and divisive voices. And there’s plenty of fight left in him yet…

Phil Anselmo: "I Am Reckless and I Am Absurd on Purpose"
Sam Law

Philip H. Anselmo is, by his own time-worn admission, a tough nut to crack. Once the frontman of ’90s metal’s mainstream-bothering behemoths Pantera, he’s retreated further towards the genre’s hazier extremities with each passing year. A child of New Orleans, Louisiana’s multicultural melting pot, he’s nonetheless been plagued throughout his career – from his bands’ incorporation of Confederate imagery, to his own ill-advised proclamations – by accusations of racism and bigotry. And, despite a caricature image of gruff machismo that’s only intensified with time, he speaks to Kerrang! today with the ease of someone coming to terms with everything.

“You can ask me anything,” he laughs, early on, that deep voice creaking with the luxuriant tenor of a coffin door. “I’m an open book. I’m easy like Sunday morning!” It is, in fact, an unusually chill Tuesday outside NOLA. But as Anselmo explains that the members of his ‘solo’ project The Illegals were in town last night, it’s understandable if there’s something of a ‘weekend’ feel to our conversation. Not that Anselmo indulges in alcohol these days (“When I drank, that was my problem. I could never just drink two. I had to drink to destroy!”); his resolution to “put down the bottle” perhaps catalytic to this ongoing late-career renaissance and (unspoken) rehabilitation, following the drunken ignominy of Dimebash 2016.

His actions that night – roaring “White Power!” into the audience and throwing what appeared to be a Nazi salute – regardless of their reason, will not be quickly forgotten. Apologies have been offered, and Phil Anselmo recollects the evening with a tone of heartfelt regret, but this is an individual who only knows how to move bull-headedly onward. Case in point: that interestingly-named latest LP…

You’ve named Phil Anselmo and The Illegals’ second album Choosing Mental Illness As A Virtue. That seems like a wilfully provocative title…

“Every word I write is supposed to be mentally provocative. It’s like being an abstract painter – I like to paint a picture and have other people interpret it. I am reckless, I am absurd, and I am all over the place – on purpose.”

Where, for you, do Phil Anselmo and The Illegals fit in amongst your repertoire on top of the likes of Pantera, Superjoint Ritual and Down?

“It’s just another expression of music. Firstly, Pantera has been done for over a decade. It does take up a small amount of time and effort, because it is still a business. But that’s that. On Down, we went in knowing that it was made up of many different other bands, and that we’d need to leave room for each other. Corrosion Of Conformity just put out a new record, so Pepper [Keenan] is out on tour. Eyehategod [and drummer Jimmy Bower] are on the same tour. My guys are working and I love it. The same thing goes for Superjoint. They know I’m crazy, I know they’re crazy. We will eventually get back together and make another record. There’s always time for [those bands]. Right now I’ve got room for The Illegals, and for whatever comes next, or whatever people want to hear.”

Logistically, fair enough. Where does it sit stylistically, though?

“People ask me, ‘Why so many bands? Why don’t you just put it all under one band?’ But I am a music nerd. I’m a glorified fucking music fan. If one of my favourite bands puts out a record that’s completely alien to what they’re known for, it’s a put-off. Every time they change on me, it feels like some kind of betrayal!”

That can get a little hard to keep track of, mind…

“I realise that this music is not going to be some mass appeal thing. I’m not writing to have a number one record. I just did a project for the fun of it. I see it in no other way. Music is freedom! And I am going to fucking explore…”

You seem to be exploring black metal on Phil Anselmo and The Illegals’ LP…

“I don’t really think I was coming at it from a black metal mindset – more death metal. Some of the older riffs on there I plucked from old shit I had held back, from 1996 or 1997. I wrote those during an epiphany of nostalgia that I was having at that time, going back to the first two Morbid Angel records. They just seemed like riffs worthy of being used – and I’d gotten sick of sittin’ on them. For me, those riffs work so well with the modern sounds. Big props to the modern Australian death metal scene for being a big influence, too. It was a case of, ‘If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.’ That’s the beauty of music. And that’s the beauty of being a free agent. I can make any kind of music that I want – and I have.”

Which Aussie acts are you a fan of?

“Portal, number one. They’re the greatest death metal band around, in my opinion. I love their spin-off, too, Impetuous Ritual. I also like Vomitor, Cauldron Black Ram – especially the first two records – and Mournful Congregation, who are quite different. I’ve got to give props to King Parrot, too. They’re part of the Housecore Records brotherhood.”

Speaking of Housecore, does running the label fuel your interest in the current scene or vice-versa?

“A little bit of all of the above. I don’t have a million bands on my roster, just for the sake of doing it. It’s always a small nucleus. I’m always open to spreading out and getting more under the umbrella eventually, but right now, it’s very much a DIY label. It’s an awesome, fun, bonding experience, juggling and facilitating so many bands, and it gives me this wonderful opportunity to work with younger guys from a different generation from all over the world. Just look at SYK – another Housecore band from Italy – whose frontwoman Dalila Kayros is, in my opinion, one of the best pure vocalists out there right now. She is a fucking beast. Making music with those guys keeps me young; it keeps me on my toes.”

It’s safe to say you’re still a cutting-edge fan, then?

“I’ll always be interested in where experimental music and extreme music are going, because that’s how I grew up. I watched the entire [scene] come together. I’m that old! And I’ve always kept my eyeballs peeled. You need to remember that even at the pinnacle of my career, I was still wearing Darkthrone shirts. I’ve always been interested in where the pulse of underground music is. That’s just how I roll. That’s what does it for me!”

How much of your time does Housecore take up?

“It’s 24/7. It’s a way of life. One way or another, something will come up with one band or another. Something seems to get done every day. The ‘sculpture’ is always being altered.”

Is there more to come?

“There’s a band I did that’s the complete polar opposite of a Phil Anselmo and The Illegals’ record. It’s called En Minor. I get a lot of questions because I opened my big mouth and compared it to these great bands [The Cure, Sisters Of Mercy] without even really meaning to. I was just trying to give an overview. To quell everything, I’d [redefine it by saying] that if you host a gigantic party, get tired and want everyone to get the fuck out, this’ll be the record to get them to leave. Depression-core!”

And beyond that?

“Man, I’ve been sitting on four tracks of the weirdest shit since 1988 when I got my first four-track machine. Right now, in my life, I’m trying to trickle out the good stuff. And I’ll try to do it with all kinds of different bands, because it’s all kinds of different expressions of music. Then I’ll get frustrated and dump out all the demos afterwards anyway (laughs)! There’ll be another couple of records after En Minor. They’re done and I’m sitting on them. It’s just strategic to put them out little by little.”

Is it frustrating sitting on so much material?

“It’s very frustrating. But with age and maturity you learn patience and pecking order and, I guess, which things are most pressing. I personally see the nostalgia in it, as well. You’ll always be able to look back and say, ‘This was 2013 or 2014 and that was what was on my mind at the time.’ It’s a story; it’s an expression; it’s another chapter in the book. It’s always good to have those benchmarks.”

Phil Anselmo turned 50 years of age on June 30 last year. For all of his storied evolution, it’s difficult to imagine one of metal’s angriest young men facing down middle age. He broaches the subject, unsurprisingly, with an element of that same bullishness. Those “chapters of the book” are inked-in, never to be re-written. As he leafs back through, however, there are flickers of pain and hints of regret. Above all, though, there’s the light of possibility. In rounding out that legendary legacy, there are still many chapters to be written. And maybe – just maybe – there is still time for reconciliation, to re-cast some of those past in kinder light…

So many of your peers seem to lack the vitality that you have at this stage in your career. Why do you think you’re still so active, while a lot of others are winding down?

“I have no idea. I guess that’s just how they made me. I am a weird, walking contradiction…”

Do you feel that given the tragedy, acrimony and controversy that’s plagued your career, it could be a mechanism to put pain more quickly into the rearview?

“To put one foot in front of the other is the only and best medicine that I have ever known. I’ll keep moving and shakin’ and doin’ my own thing, and just let the world deal with itself.”

Do you feel the Dimebash controversy is something you’ve moved past?

“I feel like it’s ridiculous. I made an off-colour joke and ‘Boom!’ – it’s like I’m literally Hitler! I’m not. I take each individual one at a time, in the way that any logical individual will. I have love in my heart. Over the years I’ve learned to take the first step with love and to put good faith first. I get along with everybody. If there’s any doubt about my political leanings, people should get it out of their heads. I was raised amongst a dazzling [cast of characters] from the theatre, from the mental hospital, from all walks of life – all colours, creeds and kinds. It’s absurd to me that anyone in this day and age would judge anyone by the colour of their skin, their heritage or their religion. I’m a harmless guy. I’m a reactionary, not a troublemaker.”

Fame has been a double-edged sword through the years. Would you trade success for anonymity?

“I’m a realist. What has happened has happened. What is going to happen is going to happen. What am I supposed to do about it? Am I supposed to re-live shit, or rewind time? Erase people’s memories? If you stack what I’ve done up against all the horrible things that have been done on this earth, I’d hope that I’d come pretty low on the list. I don’t have a racist bone in my body. My heroes are everybody.”

One of those heroes was legendary boxing trainer Emanuel Steward, right?

“I got to confide in and work with and consult one of the greatest world-renowned trainers in the history of the sport. Emanuel used to call me before every single fight he was either working on [as trainer or pundit].”

And you have some in-ring experience, too, right?

“I boxed for a long time. Back in the Pantera days I would bring my boxing trainer out on tour. In the early days I’d be doing shows with black eyes and broken noses from sparring earlier in the day!”

What advice would you offer to the 19-year-old welcomed into the Pantera fold 30 years ago?

“I’d tell him, ‘Do a lot more core work, take your craft a bit more seriously and put the fucking bottle down!’ If I was going to put my body through the torture and the grind, I should’ve been training like an elite athlete instead of drinking like an elite alcoholic…”

Do you regret how things turned out with Pantera?

“I don’t really engage with dwelling on the past. It’s always brimming under the surface in my conscience. I live it. I think about it every day. I dream about it often – about the old days; the old times; about Dimebag [Darrell, the Pantera guitarist who was shot and killed by a gunman onstage in 2004]. I wish Dimebag were alive today, of course. In my deepest of hearts I know that he and I would’ve made up a long time ago. We were too good of friends for all of this.”

Have you rationalised it?

“Pantera was like any band – if you live in tight confines it gradually [becomes] a grind. Dealing with everybody growing up and becoming their own individual means its always hard to keep a band like that rolling in those conditions. Look at The Beatles. Look at all the other bands that’ve broken-up. Also, being a huge band, playing huge arenas [as Pantera were]? For me, there’s an element missing in that. Give me the feel of a small, dirty, sweaty, grimy, punk-ass rock club any day.”

As a ‘metal icon’, how important is legacy?

“I really have no hand in the matter. All I can do is keep producing and moving on. Once you’re dead, you’re dead – there’s no looking back. As much as I love horror films, there’s no hovering in ghostly form to look at how the populace are mourning or laughing or applauding your death. But I would like to say that perhaps one day somebody will take a look at the body of work that I’ve done, appreciate it, and be inspired by it. Music is an imperative and perilous journey. If you are committed to music, you are married to it immediately. It is your God and your child.”

So what’ll be etched on your gravestone?

“‘Here lies the imperfect individual…’ Nothing more, nothing less. I’ve become this ‘icon’, but I’d rather be seen as more of a feet-on-the-street, down-to-earth, regular dude, there to have fun with everybody. And if the microphone happens to be in my hands and I’m screaming the words as long as people have smiles on their faces and are having a good time, all the better – that’s why I started and that’s how I shall end!”

Phil Anselmo and The Illegals’ new album Choosing Mental Illness As A Virtue is out now on Season Of Mist

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