Widget ImagePantera’s Cowboys From Hell Turns 20: An Interview with Philip Anselmo

November 16, 2010

By: Elliot Levin

On July 24th, 1990, the once-glam metal band known as Pantera released an epic statement in the form of Cowboys From Hell. The album was to be the first in the new, revitalized purist heavy metal Pantera discography, and the statement was a loud, brash “f*ck you!”

Twenty years later, the music, power, success, and drama of Pantera and its members is far too lengthy to outline here, but vocalist Philip Anselmo, bassist Rex Brown, and drummer Vinnie Paul Abbott celebrated their ten years of success as Pantera and their martyred guitarist Dimebag Darrell by rereleasing the Cowboys From Hell record with demos, liner notes, and even a previously unreleased track.  With the release of the Ultimate Edition, which comes with a t-shirt, poster, and all kinds of Pantera tour memorabilia, Philip Anselmo, arguably the most outspoken and dominating frontman to ever represent heavy metal, called me and spoke at length about Pantera, Dimebag, and much more.

Examiner: Good afternoon Phil, this is Elliot from Examiner.com, how’s it going?

Philip: Good! What’s been happening, man?

Examiner: I’m good, it’s a real honor for me to be speaking with you today. We’re talking about the 20th anniversary release of Cowboys From Hell, there’s the whole box set, now there’s even the Ultimate box set coming out… it’s been 20  years now, and to this day, you go to a metal show, whether it’s Metallica, Cannibal Corpse, hell I saw Bon Jovi last week and there was a guy there rocking a Pantera t-shirt. When Cowboys From Hell first came out, did you have any idea what kind of impact you were going to make?

Philip: No, man. No way. No way no way no way. I think especially me, and pessimistic youngster I was, I think I knew our strengths which were definitely our live performance, and definitely Dimebag, but then in general, to this today, the tightest group of musicians I’ve ever personally played with, but we were so hungry back then, but to say that I had any inkling of what this record would mean 20 years down the later, nah. I had no idea.

Examiner: It’s funny, you talk about how tight the band is, I’m hard pressed to think of another metal band, another thrash act that only has one guitarist but still sounds as heavy as Pantera.

Philip: Yeah, that’s another thing. We’ve several times in the past had guitar players come up and jam, and no matter what, we’ve had some super talented people up on stage and we love them all, I gotta figure when you have a guitar player like Dimebag Darrell, stage left every night… Darrell was an incredible player, incredible stage presence, and he had a monster sound. And he’s always had a monster sound. When I first joined the band in 1987 he had that monster sound. So he was always an animal, always a beast on the guitar.

Examiner: I’m looking at the cover of the rerelease, which is the same front as the original Cowboys From Hell cover art. It’s the Wild West saloon, and you’re wilding out in midair, and Rex is just chilling with his bass, Dime is shredding… what’s Vinnie doing? Is he counting money?

Philip: Yes… (laughs). Yes, it’s funny, because people say “Hey is Vince eating a sandwich?” Nah, he’s counting money, or he’s holding a wad of money.  He’s holding a lot of cash.

Examiner: Is there a story behind that cover? Did you guys have a specific vision in mind?

Philip: Well, there was no denying the power of the actual song Cowboys from Hell, we knew that was an anthem, for sure. And we knew it was one of our better songs as far as being memorable, I guess being anthemic, and I guess being those things in one word, but you know what I mean, we knew it was a good song, so I guess we went with that theme at the time. It’s definitely tongue in cheek, I’m not sure who came up with that idea, I remember sitting down and us talking about it, and the only thing I can really remember about it is when we actually did that shoot I actually stood up on a bar stool, there was no bar there, but I leapt off this thing so the photographer could get me high up in the air, and that first leap, I must’ve jumped a good ten times, but that first leap could very well have been the last leap figuring I busted my ass. I wish I could tell you more.

Examiner: Who actually came up with the term ‘Cowboys from Hell’?

Philip: Ooooh that’s a tough one man. To tell the truth, I think… I’m sitting here trying to remember and I’ll tell you what. On the back of Metallica’s first record, you go through the ‘thank you’ list, on the back of that record they thank the crew people, and then they call them the cowboys from hell. I believe I had read that, and I remember also Darrell when he played me that riff from Cowboys from Hell I was like godd*mn, that would be a fantastic title for the song, Cowboys from Hell, it was perfect. But I think I might have mentioned it after seeing it, I will say that I give full props to where I saw it first…

Examiner: And you think that was on the back cover of Kill ‘Em All?

Philip: Yep. Go check for yourself, I guarantee it.  God, I hope I’m right. It was one of them Bay Area bands, I’m thinking of course it was Metallica. Thinking maybe it was Ride the Lightening, but I could swear it’s Kill ‘Em All.  (Examiner’s Note: The Kill ‘Em All liner notes thanks the ‘Dogs of War’)

Examiner. I’m talking to you from New York City today, so talk to me about the Cowboys from Hell tour, do you remember when and where you first played here in New York?

Philip: The first time, I don’t remember the place, but it was… oh you know what, the first time we played in New York was probably the place called L’amour on that same trip in Brooklyn. We played there with Biohazard, before both of us were signed, yeah man those were the first couple of gigs. I remember the first real one was with Suicidal Tendencies and Exodus and previously, I guess I met someone who worked in the New York offices who said “hey Phil, there’s this guy named Lou. He loves your record. The Cowboys From Hell record.” And it ended up being Lou from Sick Of It All, Lou and Pete Koller, so there were like some of the first people who would come meet up with us, and that day of the show Lou and Pete from Sick Of It All, and others… New York is always just the most honest and nice people, and the coolest motherf*ckers man, you got me going down memory lane now, man.  But yeah, Lou and Pete Koller took us in, and they just made us more comfortable than we probably should have been, because that was a tough tour man. Playing in front of a mainly Suicidal audience, and no offense to Exodus but Suicidal was the band on that f*cking tour, that was a challenge. And we ended up playing with gigantic chips on our shoulders, because really anything anybody’s ever remembered about Pantera, or knew at all about Pantera was what they sounded like before I was in the band, or what we sounded like a year previous. There was really no business with me doing a record with Pantera yet, but we did it, which is the Power Metal record. So we had this f*cking chip on our shoulders, and when we played New York City, and the first time you play New York in front of that many people it can be a daunting task. But we came out and I swear to you, right dead center of the f*cking pit, pardon my language, you see the Koller brothers going absolutely berserk man, so they got that f*cking pit going down right off the bat, and that always helps. When it’s that violent, you can feed off that, man.

Examiner: They say hindsight’s always 20/20, I think Dave Mustaine is pretty fond of that quote. Looking back, as the singer, and in your current role now for Housecore as a producer, are there any changes you’d want to make to the Cowboys record, again, from that producer point of view?

Philip: If there were such a chance, you gotta think man, heavy metal production was in a really odd place back in 1988, 89 when we actually recorded the record. Either you got good production or you got sh*t production, straight up. It was a hit or miss thing, and honestly, heavy metal production, once again I gotta turn to Metallica to say they were the first ones to really bring that bite to the f*cking guitars, so they really upped the game. But I also have to say this. Dimebag Darrell had known James Hetfield, and Lars, and all those guys a long time, even before I’d met them. I was still living in New Orleans, and Dimebag would tell me stories about them coming down and playing and Daryl said, he told me he taught James many, many scales, and they taught us a lot about sound, the sound actually coming out of the amps, so you know Metallica got that ripping sound, but like I said when I joined the band in 1987, when you were standing in the loop with Dimebag, that f*cking guitar sound was shredding. But to get that sound from one room to the next room, and onto tape, no Protools, no tricks and whistles back in the day, just pure organic tracking, it’s like that was a trick. So it’s funny, Dimebag has this monster sound, we bring in Terry Gates for production and Vinnie Paul’s pretty damn good behind that production and behind that mixing board as well. So you know, the Cowboys From Hell record to me is a step as far as our sound goes, but absolutely not the finished product. So for me it was the high end on the record, for me it’s a pretty biting record, especially once Cowboys from Hell drops, and kicks in, it’s got a little bit too much high end for me.

Examiner: That’s the only critical change you’d make? Otherwise you’re still happy with the record 20 years later?

Philip: Well, you know I could pick it to shreds, but why pick it to shreds? It really laid a heavy duty foundation for what was to come as far as sounds in heavy metal. I’ve said this before but I mean it with all my heart. Cowboys From Hell was a great launch pad for the Pantera sound, but I don’t really think our sound or style really culminated until Vulgar Display of Power. But like I said, Cowboys was a good launch pad when it came out,  but not the complete genuine article.

Examiner: So I got a couple of questions not necessarily Cowboys From Hell related, but I gotta run them by you.

Philip: What the hell, go for it, whatever

Examiner: A couple of weeks ago was Dimefest 2010, and the whole Internet was excited because they were saying that you and Rita were cool again, and you were going to make an appearance, but then you got sick… I gotta ask if you can clear up what happened there.

Philip: Rita and I… it’s been well over a year now, maybe two almost three years since we’ve been cool. I don’t think that’s anything that either one of us are going to go out and boast or brag about or anything like that, it’s just between us and that’s fine. But the thing about Dimefest was… I’ll tell you what man.  I went to LA, I did That Metal Show, I did a bunch of press, and you gotta understand, I’m down in Louisiana. And I left Louisiana and it was a good 87 degrees. I got to LA, and it was uncharacteristically rainy, and there was this chill in the air, and we flew back man, and the next thing you know, this motherf*cker, ME, of all people, who never gets f*cking sick to save their life, all of a sudden it’s like motherf*cker man, it got me. It got me, this strain of pneumonia that just killed the old chest, you know? Real hard to breathe, real annoying. Yeah, I got sick man, so to tell you the truth, I went to see the Saints and the Steelers on Halloween night, that’s the first time I’ve been out of this f*cking house and the last time I’ve been out of this f*cking house. I’m still feeling it, I’m getting over it.

Examiner: Well it’s good to hear you’re feeling better, but can fans hope that at Dimefest 2011, you’ll be up there singing?

Philip: Well, it depends. It depends on where I’m at in 2011… you know, any festival or any tribute to my guitar player I respect it, I understand it, I get it. But if I’m gonna be there… maybe it would only be fitting if the other two be there as well.  That make sense to you?

Examiner: To me? One hundred percent. But I can only hope that Rex and Vinnie see it the same way.

Philip: You got it.

Examiner: This past summer, the guys in Drowning Pool were on Ozzfest, and they covered Cowboys from Hell live (watch video here), and the crowd loves that Bodies song, but they went twice as crazy when that Cowboys riff came out.  How does it feel knowing that twenty years later, at Ozzfest 2010, there were still 10,000 kids moshing to that song?

Philip: Man, I guess that leads me straight to the fans. I can’t praise them enough, if it weren’t for the fans we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. By all rights, I was a hard headed young man, and I would do things for reaction, and I would do things out of spite, and again from that proverbial chip off the old shoulder. Pantera, that was a gamble there. Cause even though we were a heavy metal band… you know, I shaved my head on purpose. I was f*cking damn dead sick and tired of prototypical long haired, long maned lead singer, “how’s everybody feeling out there to-night,” you know? It was f*cking boring man, I wanted to change the pace of that, I wanted to bring hardcore attitude to heavy metal, or thrash or whatever you wanna call it. We knew musically what we were good at, but to bring that attitude and bring it live, proved to be detonating as far as the crowd goes. And as far as my personal communication with those people, you know? They appreciated me for it, instead of this 100 foot barrier, we had people f*cking doing stage dives off of Vinnie Paul’s kick drums. Our stage was theirs, and when things got to be huge and the arenas, it was my job to make sure those motherf*ckers felt as close as possible even though they were being held behind barricades and security guards and sh*t. You know, the fans, man. It’s the fans. Like I said, it was a gamble. Either they were going to love us or hate us, and for a long while there it was like that. Either people looked at us and said “wow they’re f*cking different,” or they looked at us and said “I don’t get it,” and turned their heads. And it was all for them man, for sure.  So yeah, we had kind of the best of both worlds, we had the hate, but as it turned out, the love conquered that hate. So I gotta hand it to the fans, I’ve said it a million times, even on the phone with you just now, it’s the f*cking fans, the best fans in the world. Pantera fans are unique man, very unique. And sh*t man, I bless them every day.

Examiner: So I’ve been listening to the Cowboys From Hell record pretty much nonstop for the past few days now, and when you consider the album as a whole, which is kind of a lost artform… a lot of kids these days, they load 5,000 songs onto their iPods and hit shuffle and don’t listen it straight through anymore…

Philip: Dude, you sound just like me. Goddamn. I think it’s kind of rare people just stick in one record just to hear one record, it’s like I’m gonna load it in my iTunes, throw the f*cking package away, and hit shuffle.

Examiner: It’s a tragedy. But so that’s my question, I don’t listen to music that way either. It’s gotta be the whole album start to finish for me. Just this morning I was listening to Kill ‘Em All in my car, and like the breakdown on Four Horsemen… there’s moments that everytime I hear them, it just grabs you. Do you have a particular moment, a breakdown, a drumfill, a scream, any specific part on the Cowboys record that always leaps out at you when you hear it?

Philip: Well, you know, in a festive type of mood, you hear that riff from Cowboys from Hell and you take a look around you and there’s a lot of people around you and they’re grooving on it, that makes you feel pretty good, but as far as a personal pang into the soul, I gotta give it up for the Primal Concrete Sledge, man. It’s just, the more the time, the more precursor of things to come, that was the last song to just pop out organically, when we wrote Cowboys From Hell that was the last song to come out from us, and I think, you listen to that song then you hear Vulgar Display of Power, you can easily hear how this is a bridge into Vulgar Display of Power, and could even have been on Vulgar. So Primal Concrete Sledge whoops my ass every time I hear it, man.

Examiner: Well for me, there’s one moment that always hits me in the gut, and that’s at the end of Cemetery Gates, when you give a last scream, and then Dime’s last guitar wail and you can’t quite match that, that just gets me every time I hear it. How did you guys come up with that bit right there?

Philip: He was imitating me, man! (laughs) I was gonna do it regardless, but at the end of the day, machine beats man! I was trying to go higher, trying to lay my track, but after hearing it, it was like “you motherf*cker, you had to outdo me.” But he did, he did it, and once again man loses to machine.

Examiner: So not to mix up bands too much, but last month I was talking to Pepper about the Diary of a Mad Band DVD that Down just released (read that interview here), and I asked him about the song Jail, because everytime I see Down playing live that song just gets me like nothing else. And I asked him about the lyrics, and he said “I don’t know, you gotta ask Phil.” And now I have you on the phone, so could you take a minute and tell me what the lyrics in Jail are about?

Philip: (Sighs deeply) I would say more about self-incarceration… and absolutely self-incarceration. I’m not talking about literal jail, even though I could be, it’s kind of one and the same. You’re only as free as your mind lets you be, so if you’re, I guess stunted and fear controls you in any way shape or form, then you’re in some sort of a private jail. And I know at the time, when we recorded that Down record, I don’t think I had any definitive lyrics up until that point, we had written the song and I really just had a melody for it, but I think that’s like right when I started feeling a little bit too much pain for any type of tolerance, and then I was receiving no answers medically. And believe me, those answers were sought. I saw several medical doctors but everybody threw their hands in the air and said “well, you got a busted bone in your back. What do you want me to do?” So I felt like there was really nowhere to go. You mix that with painkillers or whatever the hell I was doing at the time, I’m sure, absolutely positive that was one of the starting points to where I was taking maybe too many painkillers, not knowing their strength, not understanding their mental residue that they leave behind, the synthetic crap that makes you think you want more, then makes you think you can’t do things without them. The whole controlling factor of the whole thing, which breeds fear. So I was coming from that place… sometimes when I write lyrics, I can place either myself into the idea of the lyrics, or nine times out of ten I’ll leave it all up to the listener to decide what is this song about. But on that particular song, I did insert myself I believe, and if I hadn’t inserted myself before, I certainly have now. So I was crying out man. You can go back and listen to a lot of my songs, I know you just brought up Jail, we’re talking about Jail, but there’s a lot of songs in the past where Philip Anselmo is kicking and screaming like a little kid, hoping someone will notice fucking how not happy I am right now. And it’s well documented but it’s the truth. But in Jail, to get back specifically, Jail is a cry for f*cking help. And a personal one.

Examiner: The way you describe it makes me think of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, that idea of isolation, build a wall around you kind of idea.

Philip: Wow, I’ve never even thought of it like that before in my life. I’m not a big Pink Floyd fan, not that I don’t like them or appreciate them, just to this f*cking day I’ve never been turned on in the right way. That’s a good song though, The Wall is a good song, and I see your analogy perfectly, I just… wow. I never put the two and two together.

Examiner: I wanted to hit you with a football question too. Here in New York it’s pretty fierce Giants and Jets territory, but in my fantasy team, I have Lance Moore, Jeremy Shockey, and Pierre Thomas. So I’ve been rooting for your Saints all season, but Pierre Thomas has been causing me some trouble…

Philip: Ahh he’s been causing everybody trouble. But if you look at the play where he got his ankle hurt, versus Atlanta week 3, it’s a treacherous motherf*cking tangle. Very, very treacherous. And he still came back in that game and ran a big beautiful screen after that. So you know, every report about Pierre Thomas, no it’s not a high ankle sprain, no there’s no broken bones, no there’s no broken tissue, we just don’t know… (for more on the Saints and Philip’s complete and extended football remarks, click here for New Orleans Saints Examiner Danny Cox)

Examiner: So one final question, you’ve probably been interviewed what, 10,000 times?

Philip: Yeah, maybe.

Examiner: What’s the most ridiculous, or obscure, or personal thing that a journalist has ever asked you?

Philip: Well, there was this guy the other day, maybe a couple of months ago. He asked me, and this is kind of ballsy dude, he says “I got a question for you, it’s not my question, it’s off of the internet.” I’m like okay. I don’t remember what site. So I said go ahead, shoot. So he says “Rumor has it you have a 10” dick, and the question is, have you ever bottomed out on a black chick?” And I’m like… well first of all, think about the question here before you really really want to ask this question. Are you insinuating that black women have bigger vaginas than white women, or japanese women? What are you saying here? That was a little off the f*cking wall.

Examiner: Well on that note, thanks for talking to me Phil! It’s been a real honor. And I’m looking forward to the next time Down comes to New York, Pepper promised me it would be sometime soon.

Philip: Hell yeah man, New York has always been fantastic. To all of my friends in New York, I just wanna say what’s happening, I love you, and I’ll never forget you. Rest in peace Pete Steele.

The Cowboys From Hell Ultimate Edition Box Set can be bought at Amazon via this link. Click here for part one of this interview, and stay updated on upcoming shows, on-sales, interviews and more by subscribing at the top of this page, or follow me at twitter.com/NYROCKEXAMINER.

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