The High Times Interview: Phil Anselmo

In the raucous realm of heavy metal, few figures are more conflicted, controversial and accomplished than Philip Anselmo. Born and bred in New Orleans, the 43-year-old singer (of Pantera, Superjoint Ritual and, currently, Down) has a past that is, in his own words, “as spotted as a fucking hyena.” Exposed to alcoholism and abuse at an early age, Anselmo apparently spent much of his adolescence learning to channel his troubles into music. By the age of 15, he was singing in a tribute band and living on his own. Then, at 18, he relocated to Texas, where he joined bassist Rex Brown, drummer Vinnie Paul Abbott and his brother, guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, in a power metal outfit called Pantera. And the rest, as the cliche goes, is history.

With their relentless rhythm section, lightning-fast licks and aggressive vocal style, the “Cowboys From Hell” set the standard for the generation of heavy metal to follow. Their appetites for whiskey, weed and beer soon became the stuff of legend, and eventually that potent cocktail of stardom, intoxication and fearlessness sent Anselmo stage-diving into a pit of self-destruction. He got hooked on painkillers after suffering a brutal back injury in the early ’90s, and by 1995 was addicted to heroin as well. A year later, he overdosed and literally died for several minutes before being revived by paramedics.

Fueled by these addictions, tensions escalated between Anselmo and the Abbotts until, in 2003, Pantera was officially disbanded. Sadly, their feud played itself out in the pages of several music journals — including Metal Hammer, which in its December 2004 issue published some rather unsavory remarks by Anselmo about Dimebag. Tragically, weeks after the article’s release, Dime was gunned down onstage, leading Vinnie and others to place some of the blame at Anselmo’s feet. It’s the source of immense regret on his part, and the basis of his oft-publicized distaste for journalists—which, of course, made my job of interviewing this metal icon with a history of hostility all the more intimidating.

To my relief, however, the candid, jovial man to whom I presented a 2011 Doobie Award (and shared a few rips with) backstage at NYC’s Best Buy Theater this April was a far cry from that misunderstood misanthrope of yore. Sure, he used the word fuck 143 times during our 45-minute interview (in the interest of brevity, I removed most of them), but he did so with such casual élan that I hardly noticed. As a performer, he’s as powerful and professional as ever; when his head was accidentally gashed open by Pepper Keenan’s guitar during the performance of “Lifer” (a song he dedicates to Dimebag), he merely ignored it and kept singing. He didn’t even bother to wipe away the blood pouring down his face … because that’s what Phil Anselmo does. Through injury, addiction, depression, surgery, scandal and even death itself, he endures. In the final analysis, his is a story of rehabilitation and redemption — of proving to the world (and himself) that he truly is, as the Pantera song goes, stronger than all.

How old were you when you first started smoking weed?

Regularly? Probably 12 or 13. I remember getting a bunch of really bunk-ass weed from seventh grade to about eighth grade. That whole year, I had this friend who always had a bag, and we’d just sit there and smoke like 40 joints and be like, “Man, I don’t think it’s working.” Around the same age, I also got into a stash of hash brownies, so yeah — me and weed, we’ve known each other for a very long time.

Do you smoke a lot when you’re writing music?

I do. I find that music comes to life in a more true way to my ears after I’ve smoked. If I listen to something and I’m bone sober, I might be like, “Turn this fucking shit off.” But a few puffs later, I’m like, “What the fuck is this?” It makes music come so-so alive in my ears. I love it.

What about onstage — do you like to get high before you perform?

Well, y’all just got me high and I gotta play in about an hour [laughs] … so yeah, I like to smoke a little before we play.

Have you ever felt that pot led you to the harder drugs?

No fucking way. Let me tell you what: Maybe in my wildest, stupidest moments as a healthy, strong young man would I entertain the idea of doing heroin, because I wasn’t afraid of it. I had an “invincible” complex — I thought I could walk through walls. I was the baddest motherfucking heavy metal guy out there. But when my back got hurt … it was kind of castrating, if you will. The injury sent me down a mental spiral — I was aching, I was vulnerable, so I lashed out like a wounded animal in directionless tirades. Pain makes your life a completely different thing, and either you’re tough enough to suck it up, change your life, wake up, be active instead of laying around and doping yourself up constantly, or you’re fucked. If I could redo it all, I would hope I’d have the brains not to do it.

So you’re totally clean of hard drugs?

Big time … about six years clean. I had back surgery, and rehab — physical rehab — saved my life. I was on a regimen finally; I had to wake up, get to the gym, do this rigorous core training. There was no time for hangovers — no time for jack shit but gettin’ better. It’s taken a full five years to feel even any semblance of normalcy. But it takes a lot of here [points to his head], and a lot of here [points to his heart]. That’s the heart of fucking will, goddamn it.

“Will” has always been a prevalent theme in your music. In your interview at Loyola College, you said that will is nothing without love. It’s clear that you’re overflowing with will … how’s the love going?

I think love is the only goddamn way, man. I come with love first and foremost — with anything and anybody. I was an angry young man who … when you have a multi-level injury in your lower back, and you take all them drugs that the doctors dole out for you, they make you bananas. They make you say ridiculous things. You are not yourself. The more you take, the more acute the pain gets. They lie to you—it doesn’t kill the pain, it kills the emotions. Then there’s the physical withdrawal that keeps you addicted to them. Once you’re to the point that I was at … I didn’t care if I lived or died. I was in so much pain and I was so sick of the pills, the doctors, the whole game … it is exhausting. Then, once I did heroin … phew … there was no turning back. I’d never been that numb in my life.

You overdosed on heroin and literally died for a few minutes, is that right?

Four. Count ’em … four minutes.

Was that the epiphany moment that made you quit?

That was the most humiliating night of my life. I died in front of all the Abbott brothers’ family, their friends, people I’ve known for 10-plus years. I woke up in the back of an ambulance, puked, all these people are screaming at me, and the girlfriend I had at the time was crying her eyes out. She’s dead now—drug overdose. Two kids, some husband; she died at 37. Anyway … my security guard was pushing people back, everyone was screaming and crying, I’ve got all these tubes attached to me and I’m like, “What the fuck, man?” I start Phil Anselmo-ing off, and these faceless restrainers put me in my place. Then some lady says, “You better shut the fuck up — you just overdosed on heroin, Mr. Big Talk. You were dead for four minutes — welcome back to life. You oughtta be thanking the people around you.” [Long pause] I was so humiliated. That whole ambulance ride, the whole stay in that Outer Limits-esque hospital room with one cot … it’s almost black-and-white now in memory. And there was this little old-school telephone there, and they gave me the receiver and it’s my mother. My piece-of-dog-shit tour manager called her at two in the morning, woke her up and said, “Your son just overdosed on heroin — we don’t know if he’s alive or dead … we’ll call you back.” Click. I will never forgive that motherfucker for that, Jack. To put that kind of fear in my mother’s head? She adores me — she’s my mom! She was aghast … distraught. Immediately, I wanted that phone and told her I was all right.

I did really well after that. As a matter of fact, a day later we were back on tour. But then I relapsed …  six, eight, maybe nine months later — I don’t remember.

How do you define sobriety at this point in your life?

Sobriety is for the sober, man. I think I am in full control of whatever the destiny of the day may be. If the big ball game is on, fuck yeah — I’m gonna have a few beers. But I know not to turn into that fucking stupid dude. I would suggest highly — you youngsters out there especially — that you stay away from heavy drugs.

You were friends with some other famous artists that were killed by hard drugs — Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, and more recently Peter Steele of Type O Negative. Do you ever think of them and ask yourself, “How am I still here?”

Well, first and foremost, the loss of both of those guys is so tremendous because of the impact they’ve left, their legacy in music. When he was straight, Layne was engaging and strong. We spent a Thanksgiving together around 1990. He and I had just met and went out by ourselves to some shady tit bar, I forget what town it was. Anyway, we got pretty drunk and decided to roll this bum. We saw him coming down the street, and I said, “Dude, let’s roll ’im!” We weren’t violent or anything, but we tackled him and he didn’t have anything. He was scared — he freaked out and we started laughing. We pulled him up and pushed him on his way, poor guy.

Next time I saw Layne was early ’92 at the Lollapalooza gig, and he was different. But yeah, Layne was fun. Pete Steele also — loved the guy. By the way, he was sober for about two months before he passed away, so that shows you that the riddle of life is tripped out. We — not a damn one of us—know when our end is coming. So that’s why I figure: Come with love, try your best to do something positive, be nice to people while you’re around. I’ve got a lot of making up to do, Jack.

Let’s lighten the mood a bit — let’s talk about Superjoint Ritual.

Broken up! [Sarcastically] You’re gonna lighten up the fucking thing? I’ll tell you, that’s a sore-ass subject.

[Laughing] Sorry … so what else do you have going on?

I’m working on my autobiography this summer. I’ve also got a solo record that I’ve been working on forever. I’m still searching for the time, ’cause I’m producing another record that’s almost done for Housecore — this band, Pony Killer, that’s really tripped out.

You’re referring to your label, Housecore Records. Do you enjoy producing?

I love it, because I’m schooled in all sorts of metal. I did War Beast, I did Haarp … once you have a record label, you’ve got all these different bands with different demands and personalities to deal with, and it’s like I’m their psychologist. I love playing that part, because I love all these motherfuckers and I believe in them.

Are Down putting out another album soon?

All of us were supposed to get together in May. We have skeletons of some songs, other songs are good to go—they’re just demo’d pretty sloppily, so I’m sure they’d want to redo them. Matter of fact, there are two demos that are particularly intriguing that came out of our last jam session that I think have a lot of promise. It’s like a new spark … it feels good. The point is to write a new record and re-create yourself—show a little bit of a different side of Down. No one wants to regurgitate.

When you look back at your time with Pantera, does it feel like it all happened a lifetime ago?

Parts of it … parts of it feel like it happened yesterday. I’ve said it before: I think about Pantera every day of my life in one way, shape or form. I always ponder the thought … what if, you know? If Dimebag was still alive, I think there would have been an end to any rift that there was. Dimebag was too much of a brother to carry hate or anger around with him. And I deserved some anger, but I think … I was in such chronic pain, it controlled my mind. Dimebag was going through a lot of stuff at the end of Pantera, and then me overdosing … there’s no excuse for that. You are fucked, you are labeled, you’re a target. No one trusts you. I could have been as straight as a motherfucker and he’d come charging at me, accusing—and I can’t blame him. Fuck, no—I do not blame him. In hindsight, I do the same thing to other people today—I’m that guy, I’ll save your life. I’ve walked many a drug addict clean in my house, no matter how many days it took.

Do you feel like that’s a karmic payback, in a way?

Oh my God … karmic payback? Look at the situation of Rex Brown.  I’ve tried — I gave it my all, and I love Rex with all my heart and soul, but goddamn it, he will not put down that bottle. He’s been told he is going to die. Well, he’s not gonna die on my time, because he ain’t drinkin’ around the kid. And that means he can’t be around right now. That’s the only rift between me and Rex—other than that, we’re best friends.

Do you think there’s any chance of reconciling with Vinnie Paul in the future?

I would love to do that one thing. Straight up—I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again right here: My door is open. You hear me? I come with love. But I doubt that Vinnie Paul will unlock his door. I know him—fear controls him. It’s a shame, but it always has. Fear controls Vince, and I don’t know why, but he fears me something fierce. And I love the guy! I would love to have the opportunity to apologize, the way I apologized to my family, to my friends, and everybody for losing my mind for a period of my life that I regret to this second. In retrospect, it brings up shame in my heart—that at one point in my life I was this zombie, you know? It gets very hard to say you’re sorry enough times to your loved ones. I’d love to have that opportunity with Vince, but like I said, he’s gonna drink and go to a tit bar and be superficial. And that’s sad. Therapy don’t come out of a whiskey bottle, Jack. He watched his brother get murdered.

No one can blame him for being upset.

But he’s pinned the guilt on the wrong guy, and I resent it. I spoke with the police officer that blew this motherfucker who killed Dimebag away, and I asked him the hard question. I said, “Tell me … did he purposefully shoot just Dimebag?” He said yes, and I kinda choked up. And I thought for sure I knew what was gonna come out of his mouth next when I said, “Why? Why did he shoot Dimebag?” He said they went back to his apartment, this murdering motherfucker, and he had stacks of notebooks, all with writing about how he was gonna kill Pantera for ripping off his songs. Kill Pantera. Not once in any of it did it name any of us specifically. And if it did, it was all four of us—but it was rare. So I said to this cop, “So then what you mean is, had it been me playing with Superjoint or Down that night, this motherfucker would have come after me?” And he just said—matter of fact, he was crying, and all he could do was nod his head yes: “Absolutely.” And this poor bastard is scarred as well. Not many of us ever blow a person’s head off after a mass murder. That’s something you live with every day. That’s something I’ll live with every day—every other moment of my life, I think about it.

So what keeps you going? What do you believe in?

I believe in righteous people that I put my faith and trust in, and in this drive to do what I do. Everything that comes out of me — Down, Housecore Records, boxing articles, whatever—feels very natural, feels absolutely right. I feel very awake now emotionally. I have a passion for a handful of things, and I’m learning more about the world every day. I look for the beautiful things, the beauty in a person, because they are there. I’m not afraid to make friends, I’m not afraid to extend my hand first, walk up to people, extend an olive branch. I’m an engaging person, and like I said, man — I come with love.

Watch the four-part interview for yourself:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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