Zakk Wylde Reflects on Black Label Society's Beginnings

Zakk Wylde tells GP all about Black Label Society's frenzied debut album, 'Sonic Brew,' and his decision to revisit it two decades later.
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You can say a lot of things about Zakk Wylde, but never say the man lacks perspective. Ask him how he feels about the 20th anniversary of Black Label Society’s debut album, Sonic Brew, and he quickly puts the years into context.

“Everybody’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it’s 20 years already!’” Wylde remarks from a Black Label Society tour stop in Chicago. “But look, I have an old Guitar Player magazine with Keith [Richards] on the cover, and it says, ’16 Years in the Rolling Stones.’ That was a big deal at the time! Now they’re past 50. So we had a birthday cake made for our band that said, ‘Happy 20th Birthday, Black Label Society. Thirty More Years to Go. Now Get to Work!’”

The 52-year-old guitarist lets out a hearty laugh as he says this. Wylde was already a guitar hero when he formed the group in 1999, thanks to more than a decade of working with Ozzy Osbourne, but it’s obvious that hitting the 20-year mark with his solo band has struck a chord with him. Which is why he opted to revisit that 1999 debut with a new anniversary reissue, which he’s dubbed Sonic Brew 20th Anniversary Blend 5.99–5.19. The slight change in title is significant, as this is no mere remix-and-remaster job. As it happens, the master tapes for Sonic Brew went missing a long time ago. “I remember after we recorded everything,” Wylde deadpans, “Doug Henning, the magician, came in and he goes, ‘Hey, fellas, let me show you a trick!’ Then he took the two-inch masters, put a blanket over them and removed the blanket, and the two-inchers were gone.”

Given the circumstances, Wylde approached this new version with some degree of latitude. “All we have is the record that exists,” he notes. “So when I wanted to bring a kick drum up in the mix or give a snare some TLC, I had to have Jeff [Fabb, current Black Label Society drummer] go in and re-record the part that Phil [Ondich, original BLS drummer] played. He just went in and played along with the record, so there’s actually two drummers on the new version. It’s like the Allman Brothers, where you’ve got Jaimoe and Butch Trucks back there. The same went for the guitars and vocals — if we wanted to bring any of the parts up in the mix, I had to recreate them, because there was nothing to mix.”

In either its original or reissued form, Sonic Brew demonstrates that the Black Label Society blueprint was solid in Wylde’s mind from the start. Songs like “Bored to Tears,” “The Rose Petalled Garden” and “Born to Lose” exhibit the doomy, Sabbath-on-steroids approach that would come to define the BLS sound. (Indeed, the song “Peddlers of Death,” which had originally appeared in acoustic form on Wylde’s 1996 solo album, Book of Shadows, incorporates Tony Iommi’s famous “Sweet Leaf” riff into the mix.) The record also features folky acoustic work (“Spoke in the Wheel”), EVH-style unplugged shredding (“T.A.Z.”) and some southern-rock remnants from Zakk’s early 1990s outfit, Pride and Glory (“Mother Mary”).

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According to Wylde, Sonic Brew came about following a period of career uncertainty in the mid ’90s. “I had just done the Ozzmosis record with Ozzy, and I was also playing with Guns N’ Roses at the time [following Gilby Clarke’s departure from the band],” he recalls. “Oz was like, ‘Zakk, are you playing with GN’R? What are we doin’ here?’ I couldn’t get an answer from the fellas about my status, so finally Oz said, ‘Zakk, I gotta get another guy in here, I can’t be waiting around.’ That’s when Joe [Holmes] came in to play with Ozzy. And then the GN’R thing didn’t happen. It was in limbo.”

And so for the first time in a long time, Wylde was a man without a band. “But I don’t care if I have $20 billion in the bank,” he says. “I just want to work. That’s what I do.”

The first thing he did was make the largely acoustic Book of Shadows. But, he says, “I was like, ‘I’m not ready to be James Taylor and be a singer-songwriter and play mellow stuff.’ I had these riffs laying around, and I just started writing with them. And that’s how Black Label was created.”

Wylde got in touch with Phil Ondich, who had previously played with New York City southern/stoner rockers Raging Slab, and the two booked time in a Miami recording facility to cut Sonic Brew, with Ondich playing drums and Wylde handling everything else. “The approach was basically ‘Let’s get a good drum track,’ and then off we’d go!” he says.

When it came to his gear, Wylde simply hauled his usual rig into the studio. “My amp was what it always was with Ozzy — a [Marshall] JCM800 2203,” he says. “And then for guitars I was using the Rebel [his 1989 Les Paul Custom decorated with bottle caps] and the Grail [his 1981 bull’s-eye Les Paul Custom]. Then I had another Les Paul that had a Sustainer pickup in it, which was great for feedback and different things.

His no-nonsense approach to guitars and amps demonstrates that Wylde had already found the perfect formula for creating his massive tone. “I never understood guys who change gear all the time,” Wylde says. “To me it’s like, you ask Billy Gibbons what he used on ‘Tush,’ and he’ll tell you, ‘Well, it’s this amp over here and that guitar over there.’ Okay, why don’t we just use that? Last time I checked, that sounded pretty amazing.”

Wylde may have made quick and easy work of the recording sessions for Sonic Brew, but the album wasn’t without its creative snags. The initial pressings featured a Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky bottle on the cover, with the wording altered to reflect the band name and album title. Wylde thought the brand would be thrilled by his heavy-metal homage and offer him an endorsement deal. It was, he admits, a “slight” miscalculation.

“We got a cease and desist,” Wylde says. “They basically told us, ‘Listen, we run a fine product here. We don’t need any of you scumbag mutants tarnishing our amazing whisky!’” He laughs. “I was just like, ‘Oh, okay.’ I just used it as an excuse to come up with another album cover and then go in and track another new song or two.”

At the end of the day, of course, everything worked out fine. “Right from the get-go, I knew Black Label was it for me,” Wylde says. “Because it’s always been a blast. I’ve never had a bad time. I don’t know how you could. I mean, especially back in the boozing days, it was like, ‘Let me get this straight: We’re gonna be drinking all day and writing and recording music, and we’re going to get paid for this?’ How can you not love that?”

He feels the same way about performing onstage. “People say to me, ‘Zakk, I can’t believe you’re still touring.’ I go, ‘Yeah, I’m doing what I love.’ I don’t understand people who work so hard to get to this point, and once they get here and they’re doing it, they want to go home. That mentality doesn’t compute with me.”

Indeed, with 10 studio albums, a handful of EPs and live efforts, and countless tours under his belt, Wylde has practiced what he’s preached over his 20 years with Black Label Society. And that’s to say nothing of his other work, which includes Steve Vai’s Generation Axe outings, several runs on the Experience Hendrix tour, live dates with Zakk Sabbath (his Black Sabbath cover band), and the guitar, amp and pedal creations of his gear brand, Wylde Audio. “The way I look at it, I just love dancing,” Wylde says. “And each project is a different form of dance: tap, ballet, street — stuff like that. I enjoy it all!”

High on that list continues to be his work with Osbourne. The two men are currently gearing up to head back out on the road for the No More Tours II trek. As for whether he might enter the studio with Osbourne once again, Wylde demurs. “That’s up to the boss. Right now we’re in tour mode. But if Oz calls up and says, ‘Hey, Zakk, you have any riffs laying around?’ Then it’s just, ‘Yeah, no problem. I’ll be right there. On the way over do you want me to grab some milk and some eggs?’ If Oz wants to do it, then we’ll do it.”

And at some point, there will be a new Black Label Society record. “I always look forward to cutting a new album with the band,” Wylde says. “It’s like baseball. Whether we just won the World Series or we just came in last place, it’s always a new season.”

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