The older he gets, the more Phil Anselmo demands extremity in his music.
That’s saying a lot, given his status as a pioneer of the extreme metal genre, first as the vocalist for Pantera, in later years as the frontman for bands like Down and Superjoint (formerly Superjoint Ritual), which performs next week in Knoxvlle. It doesn’t usually work that way, he pointed out during a recent interview with The Daily Times; age often softens the heart and soothes the brain, and a number of his peers have eased back on the throttle of visceral aural punishment that once engaged them on a primal level.
“I think I’m a different animal in the aspect of exploration within music,” Anselmo said. “As people get older, their tastes will taper off. I’ve had more than one friend my age or older, and in the past they were just as big a fan of extreme music as anyone else. Now, they like music they can tap their feet to.
“I’m like, bring me the hardest, most complicated thing in the world. Right now, I’m really loving Australian death metal. I call those bands a midlife crisis!”
He chuckles on the other end of the phone, a grating sound that belies a lifetime of sonic torture to his vocal cords. In conversation, his voice is a low, rumbling and occasionally menacing beast; he sounds like Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s “Walking Dead” antagonist, Negan, if Negan had chain-smoked unfiltered Camels as he caved in skulls with his barbed-wire wrapped baseball bat. Vocally is where the comparisons stop, however.
“I’m easy like Sunday morning,” he said. “I’m cute as a kitten. The older I get, it’s like ... I’m just cute!”
That’s not exactly an adjective longtime fans of Anselmo and his music would use to describe him. Born and raised in Louisiana, he got involved in music as a teen, playing around the New Orleans scene before being discovered by the Texas metal outfit Pantera shortly after he turned 18. At the time, the band was making the transition from glam to more extreme sounds, inspired by bands like Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth; he moved to Texas shortly thereafter, and Pantera recorded two albums with Anselmo before their breakthrough, 1992’s “Vulgar Display of Power,” catapulted them to another level. Although 1990’s “Cowboys From Hell” is considered the band’s jumping off point, “Vulgar Display of Power” took their self-declared brand of “groove metal” to extreme fans around the world.
Along the way, Anselmo found his niche as an aggressive, feral frontman who rivals Henry Rollins of Black Flag in terms of intensity. Such comparisons, however, are dismissed out of hand by Anselmo himself.
“I would not put me and Henry in the same sentence; his story is way more different than mine, and his body is pure, whereas I’ve made mine filthy with alcohol and dope for most of my life,” he said. “I can’t say enough about his delivery, and his fans outnumber mine.”
In 1994, the band’s album “Far Beyond Driven” debuted at No. 1; that same year saw the first of a number of controversial incidents in Anselmo’s life, when he was charged with assault after tussling with a security guard. By the late 1990s, tensions were high among Anselmo and his bandmates, primarily guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott and drummer Vinnie Paul Abbott, the two brothers who founded the band. In 2000, the group released its final studio album, “Reinventing the Steel,” and by 2003, Pantera officially called it quits.
Anselmo and the Abbott brothers sparred back and forth in the music press periodically, and fans of the band were split down the middle after Darrell Abbott was killed by a deranged fan in a December 2004 concert. The Abbott family asked Anselmo to stay away from the funeral, and even though Anselmo has paid tribute to his late bandmate in song and concert, the rift between him and the remaining Abbott brother has not healed.
“I don’t know anything about that dude or what he does, and I’m not interested,” Anselmo said.
With Pantera by the wayside, he spent the next year focusing on Superjoint Ritual, formerly a side project begun in the 1990s with Jimmy Bower and drummer Joe Fazzio; that group eventually folded as well after Fazzio and Anselmo had a falling out, and for the next decade, he spent his time in a number of different groups, primarily the New Orleans sludge metal act Down and Philip H. Anselmo and The Illegals. In 2014, at a film festival organized by his own label, Housecore Records, Anselmo reunited with Bower and former bandmate Kevin Bond for what was supposed to be a one-off performance billed simply as Superjoint.
“I never though I would be in Superjoint again, but at the last second, we did that show, and it was a lot of fun,” he said. “It was only a natural progression to start writing again.”
The three men brought on board two veterans of The Illegals, bassist Stephen Taylor and drummer Joey “Blue” Gonzalez, and spent the next year working on “Caught Up in the Gears of Application,” released last November. To make it, they went back to the band’s origins, he said.
“The clearest question in the room was, what were we listening to when we were originally putting Superjoint Ritual together in the first place?” he said. “Black Flag, Saint Vitus — those two bands were a catalyst, and it grew tentacles from there. You get in a mindset with your jamming partners, and everybody gets on the same page. It was a very enjoyable record to make.”
It’s also something of a fresh start for Anselmo, who again made headlines last January when, at a “Dimebag” Darrell tribute show, he gave a Nazi salute and yelled “white power!” at the crowd. He’s since apologized profusely and claimed it was in response to hecklers in the front row who spent the entire show taunting him, but it’s something that continues to get brought up.
“I own what I did, but did I mean it at all? Absolutely f----- not,” he said. “I got nothing but love for everybody and anybody, but we live in a day and age of online piling on. You know it’s going to happen if you walk your own walk. You’re going to get people who love you and who hate you. It just comes with the territory.”
Shortly after that incident, he made the biggest change of his life by embracing sobriety. He’s been that way for almost a year, and while it’s taken time to adjust, it’s also led to one of the most prolific periods of his creative life. He’s sitting on five albums of unreleased material, he said, including one with a mystery band — “something I’ve done since the ’80s; it’s grown up with me,” he explained. “Lyrically, it’s savage, and it’s brutal, but it’s the most truth-filled thing I’ve written.”
“It is a departure from metal. People are going to ask, ‘What is wrong with Phil? Who is this dude?’” he added. “But that’s the thing — you can’t stick me in a box. I’m a musician, and I’m a traveler, and I love to be an explorer within music because it’s there. It’s there to do it and (mess) it all up and make it your own.”
And at this point in his life — he’ll be 49 in June — it’s just about the only thing he has left to anesthetize the pain. (“My body feels like I woke up in a car wreck every day of my life anyway, so to put a hangover on top of it? And the only thing that’s going to beat it is more booze? I’m defeated. All hail the hangover — the thing that knocked Phil Anselmo on his ass!”) That, and friendship: In the wake of last January’s onstage debacle, friends and fans around the world reached out to reassure him of their knowledge of his true intentions. In a time when he questioned everything — his life, his heart, his own sanity — that support was an anchor chain, and when he put down the bottle, he used it to pull himself back up toward the light, he said.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of support I got from my fellow peers in the business — straight-up support and love and understanding of me because they know me, and they know I don’t have a g--- -- ounce of literal hate in my body,” he said. “I might show angst, and I might get angry at a few things and get a lot off my chest when I needed to, but after that, I’m done with it, man. That’s that. It’s something I can walk away from and move forward.”