Eminem. Marilyn Manson. Ice-T. Ozzy Osbourne. American society needs its pop culture enemy, and more often than not, it comes from the world of music. When metal and Washington politics get together, you can bet it won't be in the context of an NEA grant. For a period in the mid-eighties, Blackie Lawless and Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center were very public enemies. They were polar figures in the debate over the imposition of a rating system for music akin to that used in movies, a debate which resulted in voluntary warning labels being adopted by many major record companies. But the legacy of W.A.S.P. within the world of heavy metal is much greater than that. Blackie Lawless, Chris Holmes and the rest have carried the band's good name through countless career shifts and musical directions. From the maniacal early years to the landmark concept album 'The Crimson Idol' to the industrial-tinged 'K.F.D.' and back to the free-spirited party rock of 'Helldorado', W.A.S.P. have never ceased to mine fresh territory. Now the band is back with a fresh start on Sanctuary Records and a new release called 'Unholy Terror'. Veteran warrior Blackie Lawless sat down with the Metal Update at the Sanctuary offices just prior to the record's worldwide release.
METAL UPDATE: What is your real name?
BLACKIE LAWLESS: Steve.
MU: You don't want to say your last name?
BL: Well, it's Lawless. Steve Lawless.
MU: That's your real last name? It sure does fit with the whole outlaw, rock-n-roll vibe.
BL: People think that maybe it is manufactured, But Tom Lawless was the third baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals.
MU: Lucy Lawless?
BL: Well, she ripped me off. (laughs) Burt Lawless was the center for the Dallas Cowboys. So it's uncommon, but it is not that uncommon.
MU: Well, especially in combination with "Blackie," it sounds like a stage name.
BL: Well I've had the nickname Blackie since I was thirteen, so it is what it is.
MU: Well let's jump right in and talk about the music. When you came out with 'Helldorado', you were like "it's a party record." "It's like 'Blind in Texas'." Let's get on our motorcycles, do some shots of whiskey and get the girls dancing on the tables. That's what kind of record that was, right?
BL: (laughs) Right.
MU: But that vibe represents a totally different aspect of the band than what I personally am in it for. I'm down with the darker, more considered material like 'The Crimson Idol'.
BL: So you're one of those 'Crimson Idol' people, huh?
MU: Do you find it breaks down that way?
MU: People are either into the "Blind in Texas" side or the 'Crimson Idol' side?
MU: So which side does 'Unholy Terror' fall on?
BL: It's a little of both. To me it sounds like a cross between 'Headless' and the first record. It's just what comes out. You see, I don't sit down and consciously determine - the only time I ever did that was the 'Idol'. I never consciously decide where a record is gonna go. It just comes from - you know, you have to get the conscious out of the way to get to the subconscious. 'Cause that's what really wants to come out. It is a constant tug of war between the conscious and the subconscious to get it out. You gotta get the conscious out of the way to have enough confidence to relax and be OK with just letting it flow. It's a difficult tug of war. I'll be halfway through an album and people will ask "what's it gonna sound like?" and I'll be like, "I don't know." 'Cause I honestly won't know. They think I'm bustin' their chops just because I don't want to tell them, but it's usually 2/3 of the way into a record before I know. For example, the second song on 'Unholy Terror', "Hate to Love Me". After it was recorded, I thought that was the weakest song on the album. It wasn't until we were four, five, maybe six hours into the mix - it's usually at least four hours into the mix before everything begins to gel - the magic moment where a song reveals itself. It's like - wow. So after we had listened to "Hate to Love Me" for like ten or eleven hours, I took it home. On the way home, I played it four or five times. My ears were ringin' by the time I got home. I got high on it, it was so good. It just killed me. Sometimes you don't know exactly what something is until it reveals itself. Sometimes it does early, and sometimes it does late.
MU: Let's talk about the "Unholy Terror" intro. You've got some pretty interesting lyrics.
BL: That was an afterthought. We were mixing the last song - actually, it was "Hate to Love Me" - and they were in the control room mixing. I won't stay in there when they are mixing. I come in and out, give me opinion and keep my ears fresh.
MU: You produced the record, but you didn't engineer it.
BL: That's correct. So I leave the engineer in there, tell him what I want to do, to make these corrections, yadda yadda yadda. I won't stay in there, 'cause I don't want my ears to get saturated. It would take less time if I stayed in there if my ears didn't get saturated, but it doesn't work that way. You lose perspective, so I stay out. So they're in there, and I'm lookin' at everything. I'm lookin' at all of the lyrics and I just had this little flash of an idea. I learned when I was doing 'The Crimson Idol' that sometimes you can make more of a point lyrically with less music than you can with all of the loud bombs and crazy guitar stuff goin' off. I had some lyrics left over that I could not work into "Charisma". So, I had this little makeshift thing. . . You would not believe how this thing was recorded. I had this crude - it was about as crude as it could possibly be done. It took me about two hours, 'cause I'm running back and forth. Actual recording time? Fifteen minutes.
MU: Strange that I find that one of the album's more interesting moments. I think it is because it is dramatic.
BL: This woman who was interviewing me earlier today said it was her favorite part. It was an afterthought. Literally, at the end of the recording session we ran in and did this. Like I said, total recording time was maybe fifteen minutes. You're not going to believe this, but it wasn't even really mixed. There was only four tracks: three guitars and one voice. We brought up the volumes to get some sort of a mix. The EQ's we just left naturally the way it was, which sounded kinda gritty, and we ran from that makeshift studio into the two-track. That's what you hear right now.
MU: The power chords are way in the background, and that makes it sound like something really intense is going on.
BL: To me, I was just trying to create a musical landscape. I applaud you for your perception of that.
MU: Let's broaden our discussion a bit and look at your career as a whole body of work. Is W.A.S.P. a party band, or is W.A.S.P. 'The Crimson Idol'?
BL: It's both. Depending on who you talk to. With each record, even if it is 'Helldorado' or whatever, you have to try to tell the truth about who you are at that moment in time. What are you thinking and what are you feeling? If you don't tell that, you don't tell the truth.
MU: And 'Kill F*ck Die' is different from 'Helldorado' is different from 'The Crimson Idol' - is that who you were during each of the years those albums were made?
BL: When we were doing our first album, we were, say, a month into it. It was a Sunday morning, I walked in the studio and the engineer was in there. Something was bothering him, I could tell. He didn't say what, but I knew the guy well enough to know something was bothering him. Finally, after about an hour, I said, "What gives? You aren't here today." And he told me that somebody he knew just got killed. It was Marvin Gaye. He had worked with Marvin Gaye before, and his father had just shot him the night before. We talked for about an hour, we stopped working and just talked. I let him get it out. But I never forgot that he said that Marvin used to make records about who he was at the moment. He didn't care about the charts or whatever. He wrote about the emotion he was feeling at the moment. I thought, "That's pretty good." You can't get more honest than that. I took that away from that conversation and I've tried to remember it ever since. To me, that's the only way you can make an honest record. Either you're telling the truth or you are not. Either you're making an honest record or it's a lie. It's one or the other. We all take a journey in life, but when an artist takes that journey, he makes his little body of work and sculpts it and then leaves it on the side of the road and moves on. The people that come by pick it up and say "Wow, look what he's thinking now." Then they go further down the road and see the next piece of work and say "Wow, look what he's thinking now." As an artist, you have to be willing to open up your head and let people start walking around barefoot in there.
MU: Of course you need to make that connection with the fans.
BL: But a lot of guys aren't willing to do that. I don't see them as artists, I see them as people who make records. If you are going to take people on that lifelong journey, you've got to become intimate with them. You have to let them feel like they know you, so you have to expose some things you don't want to sometimes. I don't have a problem with it. A lot of people I know do because they don't want people to get inside of them. It doesn't bother me because that intimate relationship is the most important thing - take people with you on the journey.
MU: What proportion of your current fans do you think have stuck with you for the entire journey?
BL: The line in the sand was the 'Idol'. It started even before that with 'Headless'. I think 'Headless' set the table for the 'Idol'. To me 'Revolver' was even more of an important record than 'Sgt. Pepper' was, even though I'm not trying to diminish the importance of that record. I think that was a similar situation for us. 'Headless' set the table for the 'Idol'. I don't think the 'Idol' could have been accepted without what came before it. Even though I didn't consciously set out to make it happen that way, that's just how it came out. Maybe subconsciously I always knew where I was going, but that's like watching a film after the fact.
MU: What do you mean when you say that the 'Idol' was the line in the sand?
BL: The perception of a lot of people was, eh - it is what it is. It is a band that performs live. And when I started 'Headless', I thought, "OK. What we've done before, I've enjoyed live, but I can't do those kind of records anymore, just doing that." I wanted to say something.
MU: Yet you'll always be remembered for chucking meat and having a buzzsaw in your crotch.
BL: But the "Crimson Idol People" as I like to call them, they have very little knowledge of what we did early on. Two completely different audiences. Neil Young. His career's been diverse, and he's got some fans he's had and others from a different era. I'm OK with that. Like I said, if my mood changes from time to time, that's the only way I can be honest. You just gotta do what you believe in.
MU: So now, in 2001, you come out with 'Unholy Terror'. Where does this record fit in to the current music scene?
BL: I don't know. For me to try to answer that question is going to come off - in written text - as presumptuous and arrogant because I'm giving you an opinion of something I either believe or want to believe. So the most honest answer I can give you is to tell you I haven't the foggiest notion. 'Cause I don't.
MU: Is W.A.S.P. a heavy metal band?
MU: Are you comfortable with the label?
BL: Yeah. Is "Euphoria" a metal song?
MU: What kind of song is it?
BL: It's pure artistic indulgence.
MU: Do you belong playing on bills with metal bands?
MU: Who are your musical peers?
BL: Peers? Or influences?
MU: Let's start with peers.
BL: Iron Maiden. Probably because they are family. I've always felt akin to them. Stuff like that.
MU: Are you up on newer bands today? Do you feel a connection to the underground metal scene? Do you know what black metal is?
BL: I don't have time to listen to stuff as much as I would like to. The old analogy I've always heard used is to the car mechanic. Last thing he wants to do after working on brakes all day is to go home and work on brakes. When I am in the studio, I am in an isolated existence. I'm in the fetal position, wrapped in a cocoon, and I don't know anything about what is going on around me. I'm not afraid of the influence, I'm not afraid of the - I'm shellshocked at the end of every day because I'm obsessed with what I am doing. When I'm done, I go home and kinda shake for a few minutes, kinda unwind. Then I get up and do it again the next day. It's not fun. It is not fun. The only thing that is fun is when it is done, if you get it right. And I can't tell you if it is right.
MU: Ever done a record and looked back and realized it wasn't right?
BL: 'Inside the Electric Circus'.
MU: I was an old school fan, but that's the point where I sort of drifted. I liked the old shit like "I Wanna Be Somebody". I think that is one of the greatest metal anthems ever written. By the way, have you ever heard the cover of that song done by Witchery?
BL: I've heard they've done a version of it, but I haven't heard it.
MU: You're not curious?
BL: There's probably a dozen versions of it. The one I heard recently was done by this swing band. It actually wasn't bad.
MU: To this day, hearing that song makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. That's metal. Anyway, I always liked "Sleeping in the Fire" better than "F*ck Like a Beast". That's just who I was.
BL: It was a better song. "F*ck Like a Beast" was a sentiment, just like "I Wanna Be Somebody" was a sentiment. I never thought either one of them were actually that good musically. I thought "Sleeping in the Fire" was better than both of them. I still to this day don't think "Somebody" is that great of a song musically. It's the sentiment.
MU: The way your voice sounds.
BL: It's the conviction in what I'm singing. But I think "Let it Roar", off the new record, is the new "I Want to Be Somebody". It's the only time - twice in my career I've written a shuffle. Both of them are drum-wise, a shuffle.
MU: What's a shuffle?
BL: The pattern of the drums. They're difficult to write - they don't groove. Like "Hate to Love Me" - that's a jackhammer, it's easy. Those songs are easier to put together. They don't have the holes. So the reason I never had done a shuffle again is that it is so difficult to do. So when I looked at "Let it Roar" and I thought that it was uncannily similar to "I Wanna Be Somebody", I thought about the sentiment. It was the same sentiment, just fifteen years later. "Let it Roar" - it's "I Wanna Be Somebody" built up to [makes explosion noise]! You've got to let it out.
MU: What went wrong with 'Inside the Electric Circus'?
BL: That was a tired record put out by a very tired band. Up until that point, it had been record, tour, record, tour, record, tour. Then along comes a little thing known as the P.M.R.C., breathing hell down on us. The air that they were creating around us that was causing that faction of America who believes all that stuff when they say you are the devil, and they think that maybe the world would be a better place without you . . . hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of death threats. To the point where you are just numb to it after a while. Bomb scares, the whole thing.
MU: What tour was it that Slayer opened when they were supporting 'Reign in Blood'?
BL: 'Circus'. That was the tour that turned everything around, because, like I said, you just get numb to the death threats after a while. Already, by that point, we had been shot at three times. When we did that tour, the only place we didn't get a bomb scare was Long Beach Arena. I remember looking in the mirror putting on makeup every night thinking, "Is tonight the night?" 'Cause there was some funky stuff that had already happened. Same thing Eminem's going through right now. Only a dozen guys have walked this walk and know what it's really like on the inside. 'Cause what the world sees in the interviews and the shows, that's nothing. It's about what's going on behind the scenes. The intensity where you can't go to the bathroom without somebody being with you. The FBI had come in twice and was on tour with us. I mean people tampering with your car. . .
MU: Who's inherited that?
BL: Marilyn Manson's been there. He was the next one to go through it. He cracked under it the same way everybody does. I cracked under it. Ozzy cracked. Eminem's going through it now. When you look at his interviews - only the guys who have gone through it know what to look for. You see the cracks in the armor begin to develop. I can see it in his face. Other people don't know what to look for.
MU: It's just constant pressure?
BL: Pressure that somebody's gonna blow you up or - you see, we all start out, you're young, you have fun, you don't give a f*ck. Take a boxer who's got nothing to lose and put him in the corner. He's a dangerous guy 'cause he's got nothing to lose. Same thing with rocks bands who are hell bent - they're gonna be somebody or get someplace. They're dangerous. But that's the essence of rock n roll.
MU: The personification of the term.
BL: It's just the frustration of not being able to get where you want to go. So you go through that, and have fun doing the live shows. I could not keep doing that . . . just doing that. This record sounds to me like a cross between our first record and 'Headless'. I like to have the flexibility to do both. I don't want to sit down and just eat hamburger every day. I like variety, but you have to force that on people. They will not hand it to you on a platter. You gotta go take it. The label didn't want us to do 'Headless'. They said it was a big mistake, it's not W.A.S.P., it's not what's going on in the marketplace, it's gonna crash. This was all coming from the same people who told us - we did 'The Last Command' in seven weeks, top to bottom. They told us, "you gotta get back out on the road. The world's gonna forget about you." Well, if you make bad records, there ain't gonna be anything left to your career. If you miss a release date, or something else happens, a major label has got somebody else to take your place. So you cannot listen to that voice, day after day after day. You have to draw the line in the sand and say, "OK, this is it." I am going to create something of true musical merit. I am capable of it and I am going to do it. That's just the way it is. 'Headless' was an enormously expensive album to make. It cost $600,000 then.
MU: What were your sales like for your albums back then.
BL: Good. Real good.
MU: What were they like, 200,000 U.S.?
BL: Shit no! F*ck no. Every one of those records is gold. Even that live album that we did, which I wasn't that fond of. Big-time numbers.
MU: What's your best selling record?
BL: 'Idol', we got caught in the crossfire.
MU: Bad timing?
BL: Really bad timing. The label was not happy because when I wrote "Chainsaw Charlie", I was mad at the president of Capitol. The record was released in the rest of the world in '92, but it didn't come out here until '93 when he got canned. The new regime came in and said, "OK, we'll do it."
MU: Speaking of Capitol, we're sitting here in the Sanctuary Records offices, which reminds me that Megadeth's new record is coming out on Sanctuary also. They too are recent defectors from Capitol. In fact, they named thier last album 'Capitol Punishment'.
BL: All three of us - Maiden, Megadeth and W.A.S.P. - were on Capitol / EMI forever. But this was a dream we had for a long time. This was years in the making, it didn't just happen over night. 'Cause when we all left EMI in '94, I think it was, this has been going on since then. And all the bands . . . well, Megadeth stayed with Capitol.
MU: They left last year.
BL: Yeah, but Iron Maiden and W.A.S.P. left long before that. It cost us almost $1 million just to get out. I had to give them an override, a track a year for ten years plus cash just to get my catalogue back. I assume most people assume when a band leaves a label that they got dumped. That is not always the case. Sometimes you want to leave the label. You do whatever you need to do to get out of it. We just didn't feel they could sell records to our market anymore and they couldn't. We pulled the trigger prematurely on Castle, 'cause Castle looked like it was going to be this big, enormous thing. They were going to merge with Orion Pictures and become this conglomerate. That just really blew up in our faces. So there was about four years there where we were just in purgatory. Until we could get this thing happening at Sanctuary. At least you feel like you are in charge of your own destiny. So there's a relief there. I'd rather try and fail by my own hand than have somebody tell me something that's not going to happen. You can sit here in this board room and have marketing meetings until you're blue in the face. But at the end of the meeting, it is up to the label to put their field people into motion so the label people can sit across the table and tell you they are going to do all of these things that never materialize with the field people. Or maybe their field people just weren't very good. That's what happened with Capitol. Capitol's infastructure was excellent. The people that were at the Tower in LA originally were music people, but their field staff just wasn't very good. It's funny, 'cause we're on the subject. That's where the breakdown came. 'Cause the guy, Hale Milgrim was his name - this was like 1989 or 1990 - I was getting ready to start doing the 'Idol', which is an idea I had had for about two years - I had a forty-five minute meeting with him, just to feel him out. I knew I was in trouble when I found out he was the biggest Grateful Dead fan ever. I thought, "I'm f*cked now!" (laughs)
MU: I went to a Dead show or two and had a good time, but I have to admit that W.A.S.P. and the Dead may indeed be the closest thing you're gonna get to being musical opposites.
BL: I'll never forget a thing that happened. Bill Graham used to have A Day on the Green in San Francisco. One year it was The Who and the Dead. One half of the venue was the Deadheads and the other side was Who fans, and there was a constant war between the two sides going all day long. It was a f*cking riot going on in the middle of the crowd. They were polar opposites. So when I found out, I kept the Deadhead stuff to myself. I didn't say anything. The one thing I mentioned to him while I was in there was the field staff. I told him, everybody here in the Tower is great, but it is the field staff.
MU: What is the field staff?
BL: You're coming to Dallas, Texas, and he's the guy who goes out to retail, to the local radio station. That's the field staff. I told Hale I'd been there six years at that point and that this is what everybody talks about. And he said "Listen, you're absolutely right. I know what needs to be done. I'm going to do ba-ba-ba-ba-ba. When you're record comes out, it's going to do ba-ba-ba-ba-ba." I thought, "wow, that was easy." So I had lunch with my managers at the time, Rod Smallwood and Andy Taylor, who happened to be in L.A. at the time. I told them I had seen Hale today and was very encouraged - that he was talking about field staff, etc. He was going to do all this stuff. Rod says, "That's not what he told me." He said that Hale had told him something 180 degrees different than what Hale had told me. And when Ron got finished, Andy said, "well that's not what he told me either." The guy told us all three different stories just to get us off his back. So I was in the middle of writing the story for the 'Idol' at that point, and he was a gift horse. He was one of the main ingredients I was looking for to make those lyrics happen. I was really pissed when I wrote those lyrics. I make the joke that I don't know which part of that record truly got under his skin, the "I'm a lyin' motherf*cker" or the "I'm a c0cks*cking assh0le." (laughs) He got mad. When the record was almost finished, he got a hold of an early copy of a rough mix. He went into the guy's office who was my A&R guy and threw the cassette down on his desk and said, "He's finished. He has no future at this label. It is over."
MU: Because of . . .
BL: Because of "Chainsaw Charlie".
MU: But we're talking about the corporate world. Big bucks. It really comes down to that kind of a pissing contest? Even on that level?
BL: Well from the time I finished the record he was probably there one more year. So he was probably there two years. But, you know, people say that was biting the hand that feeds me. I don't know if my balls are that big or I am just stupid.
MU: You never know what would have happened if you had played it different, but you did what you did and you are here today with a healthy career.
BL: He's gone and I'm still here! (laughs)
MU: Are you Republican or Democrat?
BL: That's an either / or question. I'm not going to limit myself to one or the other.
MU: Are you generally conservative or liberal?
BL: I'm both. I just try to play umpire and call it as I see it.
MU: Do you think Tipper Gore knows who Blackie Lawless is?
MU: But does she still know today, right now, 2001? Does she know who Blackie Lawless is?
BL: Of course.
MU: She was almost the First Lady of the United States. What do you think of that?
BL: You know what? When you build your whole platform on a pile of bodies that you had to murder to elevate yourself. . .
MU: Are you speaking metaphorically? Or are you referring to Clinton administration scandals?
BL: I'm talking about all of the above. Figuratively and - well it is both. You look at Nixon, with the people that he crucified with those communist witchhunts he did. It was all bullshit. Just a hot topic to make it look to the American people like he was waving the American flag. He piled up a lot of bodies to stand on. 'Cause the higher your pile, the taller you stand. But it is funny, 'cause I was laughing watching this Florida thing - it must have been absolutely torture for them. They got all the way to the altar and they got jilted. (laughs)
MU: Do you blame Al?
BL: It's both of them. It had nothing to do with censorship. They were only trying to get a political platform to pile bodies for them to stand on. To get a candidate noticed. Records were not important to them. Poverty is not important to them. Nuclear war is not important to them.
MU: Why rage against ratings? Why not let them slap a label on your music? Then you can make it as violent as you want and they have to shut up because you warned them.
BL: It's just not that important. Back in the day, it was kinda like a badge of honor. For them, what better way to grab attention than to go after an attention getter? They made me a household name to somebody's grandmother in Idaho, who didn't buy records anyway. So when all was said and done what they did do was create an air in the religious community in America and convinced them that we were the devil in the flesh. And I'll tell you, somebody's gonna think they got to rid the world of this evil. I was born and bred here, you know? But man, there's some funky shit that happens here that the government does to people and that's what religion does to people. That's what 'Unholy Terror' is all about. Think for yourself. Don't become institutionalized. Don't fall prey to the doctrine like I did. Organized religions are just like a big cult. They are dangerous 'cause they get into their "isms". "Isms" are dangerous because you can't kill them. They are ideas. The groups get together and have their little meetings and the next thing you know they have armbands together and they are chanting slogans . . . all of this under that banner of religion. And it's not just religion. Governments do it too. I'm not hear to knock religion. It's about thinking out your own ideas. Don't be too wed to what they're telling you at some church sermon or what they're feeding you on the six o'clock news.
MU: There's a difference between believing in something and getting violent over it.
BL: How many wars have been fought over religion? To motivate enough people to die for something? I spent eighteen years in the church. I've got a pretty good idea of what that book says. I'm not aware of any place in that book where it tells you to go and impose your will on other people - whether philosophically or violently. It never says that, but under its name it often has been done.
MU: What if someone really believed, in their heart of hearts, that you were going to send your fans straight to hell and condemn their souls to eternal flame? If they really believed that, wouldn't they be doing the right thing trying to stop you? Does that make sense?
BL: One night about ten years ago I was at a club in LA. I had been out all night. I was hammered. I turned on the TV and it was old Jimmy Swaggart going on and on. If I had a gun I would have shot the TV. 'Cause it wasn't what he said it was how he said it. He's got like half a dozen people sitting around and he is trying to impress a point. He's talking about W.A.S.P. and he says, "Now we know they're going to hell, but . . . " I didn't listen to a thing he had to say after that. He's playing god, judge, jury, the whole thing. He's so convinced. There's no hope for us. We know they're going to hell. My ass was already smokin'. The arrogance. He said it so arrogantly like he was in charge of it all. Blew me away.
MU: That's probably the answer to my question. The preaching doesn't come from a place of compassion and misguided kindness. It comes from a position of false judgment and arrogance.
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