WASP's Blackie Lawless And The
For a band that often gets pigeonholed merely as “shock rockers” or “hair metal icons,” WASP doesn’t always get nearly the credit they deserve with regard to their musical legacy. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the band, and even though it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, when one looks at the catalogue of music that they’ve created over the years, it is impossible not to notice that WASP has been diligently producing metal of a high quality even after many of the other bands of the era had fallen into obscurity. That especially means a lot during a summer concert season which sees many ‘80s bands touring as nostalgia acts whose days of creativity have long since come and gone.
Hardly any band with this type of longevity gets to this point without some imposing presence leading them along the way. In this case, that presence would come in the figure of one Blackie Lawless. He is an opinionated, domineering individual who, over the years, has watched his group become targets for everyone from religious organizations to the PMRC, yet somehow they have managed to survive more by staying true to who they are rather than worrying about whimsical changes to the musical climate. On June 11th, when their new album, Dying For the World is released, metal fans will be sure to find it a worthy successor to such was classics as their self-titled LP, Crimson Idol and Helldorado. Just as their music makes no apologies, neither does the commentary of its maker. It is what is -- you can take it or leave it -- but at least know it’s real
KNAC.COM: Do you think there any commonalities that exist among WASP fans in general? BLACKIE: Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is this: there is a fan base that is directly related to the band as it first came out. You know, there are those who have been with us since the first three or four albums, but since I did Crimson Idol ten years ago, things have been different. We have what I refer to now as regular WASP fans, and then you also have your Crimson Idol people.
KNAC.COM: Does it seem strange to have a fan base that is segmented in that way?
BLACKIE: It’s almost like my career has been like a Neil Young sort of thing where it’s diverse in the sense that there’s a crossover ratio in that some people are now looking specifically at one era of my career while others may be looking at another. For example, I went to see Paul McCartney the other night, he’s playing a lot of Wings stuff, and there was people there -- I looked at the age ratio of the audience -- and there were probably a lot of people there who didn’t know too much about the Beatles. Those people were probably there because they were looking at some other cross section of his career. Now, this is our 20th year anniversary, and I used to make the joke that we’re threatening to make a career of this -- I think it’s finally arrived. You’re gonna get a lot of cross sections of a lot of things when you’ve done it this long. It’s not just us; it’s anybody that has done it for this long.
KNAC.COM: It has been said that you’re one of the more cerebral of the lead singers to come out of the ‘80s metal scene. How important is it to the longevity of a band to have a lead singer who takes control, has a certain level of intelligence, and isn’t afraid to take responsibility for the success of the band?
BLACKIE: Probably a lot. The first thing that comes to my mind when you say that is a comment that Phil Everly’s dad once told me, he said, “Son, let me give you a piece of advice, whatever you do, make sure you’re the singer.” I just wrote that one down. I think probably the reason that as a singer people are going to identify with you is because the voice is the most human of all the instruments -- that’s what’s making the direct communication with the majority of the people. On the other hand, in order for it to work, the singer has to be willing to open himself up emotionally because if you don’t, they’re never gonna feel like they know you. If you’re gonna take the audience on a life long ride, you’ve got to allow them to become intimate with you. If they’re not intimate, they’re never gonna know you. If you look at WASP records and you open them up, you’ll see that I usually do pretty extensive liner notes, the reason that I do that is because the lyrics are a direct door. It’s me opening up to the people going, “C’mon in, the record is happening inside here. Come in and watch it take place.” You know, I’m a fan, and whenever I see a band willing to do something like that, I just go crazy. It allows me in to become a part of the creative process. They invite me into their world.
KNAC.COM: So given that, would it be fair to say that the lead singer is taking more of a risk than the guitarist, bass player or the drummer -- especially if he’s the one doing the writing?
BLACKIE: Yeah well, it depends more on who’s writing the lyrics. If you look at a guy like Neil Peart from Rush and, from what I understand, he does most of the lyrics. Somebody, and it doesn’t necessarily matter whether it’s the singer or not, needs to open the door emotionally.
KNAC.COM: But when it’s the singer, doesn’t it make the connection that much more powerful? Does it matter if an individual is singing his own lyrics versus the drummer’s or the bass player’s?
BLACKIE: No, I think the truth is the most important thing, and I don’t think it matters where it comes from. That’s one of the things about rock and roll, and it’s also the reason it’s been attacked by so many religious organizations and politicians is that when rock is in its purest, truest form, it is brutally honest. It is painfully truthful -- as long as there’s truth in it, I don’t care where it comes from. -
KNAC.COM: Since you brought up religious opposition, would you say that you have more animosity built up toward religion itself or more toward the influential leaders of the church whose interpretation of the Bible has affected you?
BLACKIE: Well, the Bible is the gospel according to people who, granted they were supposedly divinely inspired, but it was still the gospel according to John, to Matthew. That sort of thing. That’s a mouthful because my problem growing up in the church was what the gospel according to Joe Blow was doing to me -- it really created a lot of hostility in me towards organized religion. I thought I was mad at God for a long time until about twenty years went by, and I realized I wasn’t mad at God -- I was mad at the guys who were trying to tell me their version of it.
KNAC.COM: Was that a peaceful realization for you?
BLACKIE: Are you kidding me? It was like the weight of the world had been lifted off me because once you realize that maybe it’s not God, it starts to give you hope again. I had a Bible with bullet holes on it last tour and put rosary beads on it -- actually, there’s even a song I do on the new one called “Black Bone Torso,” which is really directed at the church again and how they’ve been harboring child molesters all this time. This isn’t a new thing. This has been going on for centuries. It’s just finally starting to come to light now. I mean, these organizations are cults. I don’t care whether they’re Catholics or Mormons or whoever they are -- they are gigantic cults. I don’t want to attack anyone’s individual faith, but when you get into cults, they manipulate their people. That’s where it’s dangerous. It’s no different for a government who manipulates their people through the media or whatever. It’s all about crowd control.
KNAC.COM: How much of it do you think promotes close mindedness and a lack of individuality?
BLACKIE: A hundred percent of it.
KNAC.COM: That being said, there’s a lyric from “My Wicked Heart” off the new one which goes, “O God Jehovah, I’ve never known religion.” It almost sounds like you lament that to a certain extent.
BLACKIE: Caught that did ya? That’s me talking to God. What I’m saying is that I’ve never known it in the truest sense. In other words, everything I’ve been taught early on, I wouldn’t say is a lie, but it was severely distorted. I applaud you for catching that.
KNAC.COM: It’s interesting because I’ve read certain interviews that you’ve done where you profess that rock and roll is more than music -- that it’s a lifestyle. In that lifestyle there is a large degree of hedonism and behavior that would traditionally be thought of as sin in every sense of the word. Then, I read a lyric like that and wonder if there isn’t some type of duality going on there.
BLACKIE: Are you kidding me? Of course there is. If you look at anybody that’s done what I’ve done, you know, supposedly the guys who are the most outrageous -- me, Ozzy, Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper and you can go down the line -- they’ve all come from heavy religious backgrounds. It’s like that expression that the girls who went to Catholic school were always the nastiest girls around. That’s because they were oppressed, so when you finally get out from underneath that, you can start thinking for yourself. When you start to think for yourself, I think it’s natural to rebel, but then when the dust finally starts to settle, you can think more clearly and go “ok, all right, what’s really going on?” It’s kinda like you’re walking down the road and you meet yourself, and you don’t quite know what to say or how to address yourself, and it’s like you’ve never met before -- that’s what we’re talking about.
KNAC.COM: So then it would be possible for someone to go through the process of rebelling, but at some point quell that and begin picking some of the things out of that upbringing that might be worth keeping?
BLACKIE: Bingo. You become far more selective. You win the washer and dryer.
KNAC.COM: Hell, I’d take fifty cents for the Laundromat -- but isn’t this all just part of a normal maturation process, not just for a musician, but for people in general?
BLACKIE: Some people get it sooner than others, and for some people, it takes a lifetime. Let’s go back to the Bible when Solomon, who’s supposed to be the wisest guy who ever lived, and he says, “all these things have I pondered,” in other words, I’ve thought about it all, and I can’t figure it out.
KNAC.COM: So basically, you get to the point where it’s ok to not know everything---
BLACKIE: Yeah, that’s what the trip is all about. You’ve got to try to put pieces together along the way.
KNAC.COM: Does that mean that Blackie Lawless of today is vastly different from the Blackie Lawless of ten years ago?
BLACKIE: I wouldn’t say that. I prefer to look at the word “change” and that fact that many people believe that in order to achieve it, you have to give something up. I like to look at it though as you just add on to whoever you are. In other words, I’m just trying to add on to who I am. Don’t get me wrong, the guy who gets up on that stage -- you wanna talk about duality, it’s definitely there. One of the reasons why Chris [Holmes] and I hooked up is that we were such extreme personalities. We had the ability to be the nicest people you’d ever want to meet, but cross us and we could turn into the devil himself. There was just a wide range of emotions going on there, but probably artists in general are like that. They just have a wide emotional swing.
KNAC.COM: That’s interesting, because you placed an acoustic version of “Hallowed Ground” on the new disc because you wanted to take some of the layers off of the song and allow the lyrics to stand out more prominently. Is there ever a part of you that sits at home and goes, “I’m Blackie Lawless, I’m the lead singer of WASP, but you know, it would be kind of cool if I could come out with an acoustic album, only I wouldn’t be Blackie anymore, and there wouldn’t be all these preconceived notions about my music. I could just write some songs and have them stand on their own…” Have you ever thought that?
BLACKIE: I could answer your question simply, but that’s not fair. I would have a tendency to think that the majority of the guys who have done what I’m doing, who are genuinely talented, probably feel that way. Because, if you look at Ozzy -- Ozzy as a singer -- irregardless of what you see on the TV and the dysfunctionality -- let me tell you something about him as a singer: he is phenomenal. Not just as a singer either, but his ability to create melody. I mean, I hear Beatles stuff running through and through and through him. That’s not just something you can emulate either, you’ve got to have that inside of you. I hear it coming out in his singles more and more as he’s getting older. He’s starting to expose more and more of it all the time, I don’t think it’s an accident. So, like I said, I think that to answer your question simply, yeah, it’s not really fair. Anybody who’s any good -- really good -- has probably got the ability to do a lot of things. What you’re asking me is like whether actors like to be typecast, and no, they don’t. K
NAC.COM: And the fans can be unforgiving…. -
BLACKIE: Well, you really have to go back to the ‘50s and the ‘60s to understand it. During that time, artists could do a wide variety of things and get away with it. When the ‘70s came around and rock became fragmented, it became very singularized and very specific. In other words, in the early ‘70s, I can remember being fourteen years old and going to a concert and watching King Crimson, Robin Trower and Slade all on the same bill. You know, now people would label it and say, King Crimson -- Frank Zappa progressive and that Slade is…Quiet Riot. How could a bill like this happen? Before music fragmented into its little offshoots, people just said “it’s a rock show” and they accepted it. As communication became more singularized and specific and could be used to target audiences, and businesses like Seagrams and General Electric came along and figured out that there was a lot of money to be made there. You know, let’s just make it a product and target our audience. We’ll give them exactly what they want. It’s like if you drive into a McDonald’s in Kansas, well, that Big Mac tastes the same as it does in Paris. You know exactly what you’re gonna get. The problem is, if you want variety, you aren’t gonna go to McDonalds. It’s like I don’t know if AC/DC can do anything other than what they do -- I’m sure they can, but it becomes frustrating for the artist when they know they can do other things but in a sense aren’t allowed to. Change, especially to an audience’s ear, has to evolve slowly. This is a very intricate question, and I applaud you for thinking about it because most people don’t. It’s a complicated subject.
KNAC.COM: This question kind of ties in with that -- I think it’s a fair question to ask -- you touch on a lot of political subjects, especially on this new work, and what I would like to know is -- what makes you qualified to write about these types of events when a lot of your peers from that era couldn’t get away with writing about the same types of issues?
BLACKIE: I don’t know if anything does qualify me other than the fact that, like I said before, truth is the most important thing. If we are going to attempt to be truthful, we should do it to the best of our abilities. That’s not to say that you have to do it all the time, because there are times in rock and roll, like we did with Helldorado, where you just let your hair down and let it all hang out. You know, it’s a time where you get tired of standing on your soap box, and you just have to do something for yourself for awhile. I think there is a time and place for all of that. Truth be known, when I write about something, that was the truth at the moment. That’s a sensitive question because you ask me what gives me the right or the authorization to say these types of things and my answer is, nothing and everything. You know, because I think you’ve got to do what you feel compelled to do and what’s moving you most at the moment. There’s a line in the liner notes which says that this new disc is basically ‘music to go and kill people by.’ I gotta tell you, and I know it doesn’t sound very rock and roll, but I thought long and hard about whether or not that was really the statement that I wanted to make. I must have come close a dozen times to yanking that out of the liner notes, but the reason I didn’t is that every time I would get close to doing it, I would come up with a lot of reasons why I had to do it. I just felt really compelled to make that statement at that time. I came up with this thing afterwards, I was like, “F*ck political correctness, that went down with the World Trade Centers.” When I came up with that little catch phrase, it justified everything inside my head because that’s really what I was feeling.
KNAC.COM: So basically, what you’re saying is that the truth of the moment has to supercede a more calculated, formulaic approach---
BLACKIE: It has to because when we were doing our first record, I came in the studio one time, and it was early April on a Sunday morning. Our engineer, who had been working with us, is one of those guys who was usually pretty upbeat, you know, and funny and all that stuff -- well on this day he was pretty solemn. He just wasn’t himself, so I asked him what was wrong and he told me that Marvin Gaye had just been murdered. He had done a couple of records with Marvin Gaye, so we just stopped and we talked for a little while. I just let him vent. One of the things that he told me that I never forgot and the thing I’ll take away from that conversation was when he said, “Marvin always made records that reflected who he was at that moment. He wasn’t trying to be anything more than who he was at that particular instance.” I thought, that’s the truest way to make records that I could ever think of, and from that moment on… even our first record, reflected who we were then -- we were already doing it, and I didn’t even know it. Since then, I’ve always made it a conscious thought to never try to do be something that I’m not.
KNAC.COM: Speaking of the first album and writing about who you were at the moment, the song “Sleeping in the Fire” has some lyrics referring to things like “Lucifer’s magic” and some references to the darker side of being. How close were you ever to that? Especially at that time.
BLACKIE: It was just imagery. I had studied the occult when I left the church, and I was pretty heavy into it for about three years, but… that song really got the attention of one of the guys who worked with us on the first album, Mike Varney. He wanted to know if that song was about the occult. Mike was religious in his own way and really didn’t want to do it if it was about that. I told him that it wasn’t and that it was just about imagery. I was just trying to create a flavor in peoples’ heads and leave it open enough to allow for interpretation.
KNAC.COM: It is interesting to hear that song, and it is really easy to fixate on the lyrics because there isn’t this wall of sound accompanying it.
BLACKIE: In the bedroom I had in the place I was living, I had a bunch of candles and they were lit when I was writing that song. Same thing with “F*ck Like a Beast,” I had rented a loft, and when I moved in, there were like old pictures of old Playboys and stuff plastered on the walls of this loft. They were old, they were flaking and they were falling apart. Eventually, we covered it all over, but, you know, when I walked in there, there was the first lyric to the song -- “I’ve got pictures of naked ladies, lying on their beds.” I’m just playing musical reporter here. I’m writing what’s in front of me.
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