INTERVIEW: Phil Anselmo on Songwriting, Collaboration, & New “Choosing Mental Illness as a Virtue” LP

Phil Anselmo works his ass off. In the last two years he has released a Superjoint LP, two Scour EP’s, and his collaboration with horror movie icon Bill Moseley. Of course, this doesn’t include running his Housecore Records label and producing and recording most of the bands on the roster at his studio, Nodferatu’s Lair. Coming out at the end of the month, he returns with his second solo record with his band the Illegals. Titled Choosing Mental Illness as a Virtue, the 10 song LP picks up where 2013’s Walk Through Exits Only left off, but stands on its own as a work of art. Chaotic, angry, and unrelenting, at times the LP is completely bonkers. But, underneath the noise and screams are songs that are complex and cerebral. Doubtless, the album will delight his long time fans and challenge the ambivalent.

We were delighted to get the opportunity to talk to Phil about the new album. We get into the band, the songwriting process, and what’s in store for the future.

This album was recorded in 2014 and 2015, but then you released the Superjoint LP, two Scour EP’s, and the Bill and Phil EP across 2016 and 2017.

Phil Anselmo: (Laughs) You might have missed one, somewhere.

I wouldn’t be surprised. So, why did this album come out after those? 

Phil Anselmo: Oh, Jesus Christ. It’s a matter of scheduling there, Kevin. And that is always a crazy amount of juggling and whatever. But, honestly this is me being fucking frustrated at just sitting on top of records. It’s like, fuck man. I’m ready to dump shit out there. I would say this year with the music that I guess I’m going to dump out there, it’s gonna be a very busy year as far as releases go. As far as different music coming out of the Housecore compound, you know. It’s going to make people want to investigate a little further, if they’re interested at all. I guess I’m addressing the interested parties here. It’s going to be quite a journey. Because I’m dumping out at least two or three different bands. Don’t quote me on that…well, it’s an interview I guess you’re quoting me. But, don’t hold me to just two or three releases, it might be two or three or four releases. We will see. But, it’s going to mix things up a bit. It’s going to shake things up and that’s what I like.

Well, I’m hoping this En Minor album comes out this year. That sounds really interesting. I’m expecting it to be quite different from this Illegals album or your past work. 

Phil Anselmo: The more I think about it, the more I think about…oh, it’s way different, you’re correct. Completely different. And I do mean from an absolute flip-flopping of genres, yes it’s absolutely different. But, the more I think about it the more I think that with certain bands I’ve done in the past….hell, Pantera, Down, and others I could probably mention, but primarily and especially Pantera and Down, we’ve done mellow songs before, we’ve done clean guitar songs before, we’ve done minor key songs before. So, there’s been glimpses. I’m not saying production wise it’s going to be the same. En Minor is very stripped down. And there’s a very free dynamic of instrument use. The odd sound is good. We’re looking for that. It’s something that we thrive on. Whether it be, oh say…electronic sounds or organic sounds with bizarre instruments, that’s great. Or even traditional instruments that I am definitely not known for at all. But, it’s stuff I’ve done all my life that people would never have guessed. A lot of these En Minor songs have grown up with me my entire life. Some of the first song I have ever written. I guess we could talk ourselves blue in the faces about this goddamn record, but until it comes out I think it’s best left examined until then, for gods sake.

That’s cool. I’m looking forward to that, but I’m here today to talk about this new Illegals album. 

Phil Anselmo: Let’s tear it up. What’chu got for me?

On the first Illegals album, you said you wrote every note and took complete control. But, on this one you’ve opened yourself up a little more to collaboration. Why did you decide to go that route?

Phil Anselmo: Well, I found the magic. At the time, when the first Illegals record was coming out, me and Steve Taylor were just getting to know each other despite casually knowing each other on and off for two decades. Seeing each other here and there. And I would always say to him, “Man, you look fucking familiar.” Then I realized, I took a look at Steve Taylor’s history and all the different fucking bands he’s played in. The man has quietly been in some great, well traveled bands. So, with the new Illegals and having discovered, not only a great musicianship and great songwriting and great collaborative power of Steve Taylor, he’s also one of the most down to earth, easy to work with, productive, and great to be with people, in general. Just a really cool motherfucker. Excellent contributor and songwriter.

So, that magic was there. And it was his recommendation and his whole thing to bring aboard Mike DeLeon and Walt Howard. And god-dammit man, from day one Walt and Mike…Mike is fucking great, man. Those guys contributed day one. They’re tight, they’re hungry….super talented. Wide open books of talent. Outside of this record, we’ve done some other really flexible stuff, just messing around. I know these dudes have some decently traveled knowledge of music itself. Because, god damn, if we got into genre upon genre upon sub-genre, we’d be here all day.

Anyway, working with these dudes has been awesome. And little Blue Gonzalez on drums. He’s been with me since the first record. So, I mean he’s grown up working with me. I think he’s a great drummer. Incredible drummer. All the potential in the world. And he would be the first to admit it, and I think I can say this, he’s always – just like all of us – we’re all still a work in progress. He’s like what, 26? By the time I’m all washed up and forgot about, he’s going to be hitting his prime. So, he’s going to be around for a long time. He’s going to be something to marvel at, honestly. If he keeps his head on straight, which I think he will.

He’s definitely one of my favorite drummers. Obviously, I’m a big Warbeast fan. I always love watching him whenever I get a chance to see them live. 

Phil Anselmo: Well, if it wasn’t for Warbeast there would be no Blue Gonzalez in my life. So, big props to them boys. I know my brother Bruce is going through a …definitely a battle of wits right now. But, if there’s one thing…I gotta say this, if there’s one thing I know…Bruce Corbitt, that motherfucker has been through hell and back when it’s come to literally life or death battles. And I’m picking him to make a roaring come back and shock us all. I just feel it in my heart. I’m giving all my love and all my support out to Bruce and all my brothers in Warbeast, but especially Bruce.

Well, I know Bruce a little bit. I’ve interviewed him a couple of times.  

Phil Anselmo: Such a sweet guy, huh?

He’s awesome. And like anyone else, I don’t always know what to say in these situations. But, I think one of the last things I said was that if anyone can do this you can. I’m pulling for him 100%. Anyway, I thought it was really cool that you came down to sing at the Warbeast record release show. 

Phil Anselmo: Oh, man. Hey, the man himself asked me to come and do that, you know. And when the man asks, you gotta pack up and take a trip to the airport and jump on a plane and get to work. That’s what brothers do.

I respect that, man. It was a really cool show of support. 

Phil Anselmo: Anything for them guys. Anything in this world.

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Out January 26th. Pre-Order Now from Housecore Records.

Right on. Well, let’s talk a little more about this new record. You already alluded to some of the changes in the lineup, Steve Taylor going from bass to guitar, picking up Mike DeLeon (guitar), and Walt Howard on bass. You already said that you had a great relationship with them. 

Phil Anselmo: Yeah, man. I got that covered. You got specifics? Lay ’em on me.

Well, what can you tell me about the writing process with those guys? Are you bringing in the basics of songs and then having them tinker with them or were you all starting from scratch collectively? 

Phil Anselmo: I think on this record, for the most part, I would say…to give you a percentage ratio, 90% of the songs either I came in with a basic knowledge or a full-blown knowledge of where we were going with the song and then, of course, there were the moments of pure organic, “Whose got what?” And with those, we either applied them to pre-existing songs or really just came from the ground up. Anybodies riff is, of course, gonna be subject to innovation and, for lack of a better word, scrutiny. It’s gotta be put under the microscope, if it does indeed need to be put under the microscope.

For me, if somethings too 4/4 or too straightforward, for the Illegals at least, I always kind wanna throw a little bit of a wrench into any type of basic songwriting. A riff starts any particular way. But, a riff is a riff. If you look at it, you can look at it as one measure of a particular part. So, if you take that one increment of a part and fuck it up even more (laughs) you’re basically tripping over your own feet before you even get out of the gate, man. It’s challenging, but it’s always fun. It doesn’t matter if it’s me, Steve, DeLeon, Walter, whoever. Whoever comes to the table with a riff knows it’s going to get stretched to hell. Everybody knows. And that’s the fun of it. Everyone has a superbly open mind and they damn well know, and so do I, that any idea presented is going to get accentuated on, for sure. Or even simplified to certain extents. It just depends upon the involvement of the piece, really.

Considering all the different project and bands you’ve got going on, and that you’ve opened yourself up to collaboration on this one…I don’t know what you think about quote-unquote solo records, but why is this a Phil Anselmo and the Illegals album versus a new project altogether. 

Phil Anselmo: It’s kind of just how the chips fell. Because, really it’s like what would a new Phil Anselmo and Illegals record supposedly sound like? Suppose Choosing Mental Illness didn’t exist and you were anticipating a new solo record, what would it supposed to sound like? That’s the beauty of the Illegals. You know, the next record could be, I’m not saying it is either, but it could be ridiculously slow and drone-y if I was in the mood with these particular guys. So, it just happens that way. Once we got in the room, despite me having riffs to present, I think I made it really crystal clear, those riffs are absolutely going to be scrutinized and fucked with and altered. At the end of the day, going in…in hindsight, we didn’t know ourselves what the end result would be and so be it. And that’s part of the beauty of it.

Sure, the reward of the creative process with other people. 

Phil Anselmo: Yeah and also, you know the fact that it is a Philip Anselmo and the Illegals record. It’s a moniker. It’s a done deal. Say we played those set of songs in a live situation. Playing a couple songs off the first album, like particularly “Bedridden” or “Usurper Bastard’s Rant.” Those type of songs they work fine together. It’s not all that out of the question. But, it’s absolutely a different expression of extreme heavy metal. It’s different. As it should be, my friend.

Philip H. Anselmo & the Illegals.

What stands out to me about this album…I’ve listened to it, I think, five times. 

Phil Anselmo: Wow, you made it that long?

I did! The first few times I listened to it I thought, “Wow, this is fucking bonkers.” But, as I got into it more….

Phil Anselmo: Structures started to build in your mind.

Exactly. And kind of the epiphany I had was that I think it’s a very intelligent album. 

Phil Anselmo: Thank you.

Both musically and lyrically. So, on the music side…the first few times you hear a song, there’s a lot of chaos. But, underneath that there’s a lot of shit going on. Beneath the chaos, there’s lots of intricate or tight playing going on. Is that something that you conceptualize before hand or is that something that comes out more when you’re doing the mixing or production of the album? 

Phil Anselmo: No, man. We pay attention to detail assiduously, man. Really, you had mentioned a lot going on and you had also alluded to the fact that in certain sections we have one guitar that really holds down the fort, while another guitar kind of takes off in a different direction. And the truth of the matter is that there are three tracked guitars on the record. Mike DeLeon will be hard right, I would be hard left, and Steve would be kind of floating between both of us here and there or more on the left with me. So, it’s like if someone holds down the fort, so to speak, if someone holds down the main riff…say that person would be Mike DeLeon. If he was holding down the main riff, I would play a variation and Steve would play another variation. Whether it’s backwards or completely…I guess a complimentary, absolutely different piece of music on its own, but fits perfectly within the context of the riff type of part. Then I might play a variation of Mike DeLeon’s riff, but once again – backwards. So, with that said, once you have a record that has an avalanche of parts like that, where everyone’s kind of going in their own direction, it does take several spins to zero in on that type of shit. And that right there says a lot. Because that is a great reflection of the stuff I was listening to at the time, as well as the riffs that got dragged up through time, from the 90’s, into this release as well. I mention early Morbid Angel, particularly the Blessed Are the Sick record, and at the time, a big tip of the hat, I definitely…the world knows this…anyone who’s paying attention know’s I adore the Australian death metal scene. Particularly, Portal. But, there’s other bands in the Australian death metal scene that are fucking just berserk and very unique, extremely unique. And I was just very influenced by that whole scene and one thing about that scene is…you take a band like Portal. That band mystified me because that was the type of band I could listen to every day for three years straight (laughs) and I would hear something different that I didn’t pick up on the previous time. Which is great. I love hearing something new every time I listen.

So, as far as tricky mixing and shit like that, there really wasn’t that much of that, man. It was all pretty straight forward. It’s just the fact that everybody’s doing kind of their own thing and everybody’s kind of doing little accents here and there that they themselves are feeling within the song itself that I might not have picked up on if I were just writing the song completely alone and by myself. Allowing them to do small little bends and scrapes that they’re feeling that I’m not feeling is great. To me, that is even better and a more substantive contribution.

I’m glad you touched on this…and you playing guitar as well. There’s definitely a bunch of songs, maybe all of them, but a few in my mind where I hear three guitars going on. 

Phil Anselmo: Absolutely. The whole record, for sure.

When it comes to playing the songs live, are you going to be playing guitar too?

Phil Anselmo: (Laughs) Man…I wish I could sing and play. That’s something I’ve considered. But, to tell you the truth…the way Mike and Steve have it worked out right now, they can pull off an amazing version of the record. It sounds damn near exact when we play live. If I added another guitar player in here, like I could, it’s like…would it really benefit the band? I’m not sure. Sure, I could be out there, overtly trippy, you know? And having three guitar players is kind of a gimmick. But, at heart I am a stripped down two guitars, one bass player, drummer, vocalist kind of guy when it comes to my heavy music.  I guess that’s a hard-headed thing, but for me to have three guitar players seems a little pretentious. Does that seem crazy?

No. I know what you mean.

Phil Anselmo: It seems kind of just on the verge of gimmicky.

If you’ll humor me, I’ve got one more question for you. 

Phil Anselmo: Yeah, brother.

Going back to me calling this an intelligent record…I was delighted that I got a copy of the lyrics. When I was reading through them, I was really impressed with the vocabulary. 

Phil Anselmo: Fucking absurd, hey?

It is absurd!

Phil Anselmo: It’s supposed to be. But, if you really study the meaning of each word…they are comprehensive sentences. They mean what they mean, but can also mean about three or four different things and that is also by design. I’m like the Zodiac killer. I’m sending out ciphers to people, man. And yes, I’m glad you picked up on that my brother.

I’m guessing you read a lot. 

Phil Anselmo: I do. I’m an avid reader.

What kind of books were you reading when you were right this? 

Phil Anselmo: Big props to Lovecraft, Rod Serling, and true crime. And the fucking local papers. Big props, New Orleans local paper.

POSTSCRIPT – I had 20 minutes for this interview and pushed Phil to 30. Thus, we kind of had to cut-off the interview. Nevertheless, I’m grateful Phil took the time to talk with me. Stay tuned for our review of Choosing Mental Illness as a Virtue or just go ahead and pre-order it now. It’s killer.