Hell on Stage

An Interview With Pantera's Dimebag Darrell

The Abbott household must have been a noisy place back when Dimebag Darrell (known just as Darrell in those days) and his brother Vinnie Paul were growing up, because both started out playing drums. That situation didn't last, though; Vinnie's superior percussive skills caused Dimebag to reevaluate his instrument choice. "My brother kicked my ass, and I had to change over to the guitar," Darrell explains."We've had this rhythm thing going ever since. It's in the blood." Dimebag's instrument switch proved fortuitous-he's become one of the best-known guitarists in the world of metal, and his musical kinship with Vinnie is a major component of the explosive, no-holds-barred sound of Pantera.

As dynamic as this sibling duo is, Pantera wouldn't be nearly as ferocious without its two other members, testosterone-powered vocalist Philip Anselmo and agile-fingered bassist Rex Brown. On its newest album, Reinventing the Steel (Elektra), produced by Vinnie and Dimebag, the Texas foursome burns hotter than ever. Cuts like "Hell Bound," "Revolution Is My Name," and "Goddamn Electric" display a powerful new sense of musicianship while flashing back to the grooving force of Pantera's 1990 major-label debut, Cowboys from Hell, and its 1992 thrash-metal milestone, A Vulgar Display of Power. Given the band's reputation for raucous, high-energy live shows, it comes as no surprise that the tunes on Reinventing the Steel are perfectly suited for the stage.

Onstage caught up with Pantera during Ozzfest 2000, as the band members relaxed in their plush tour bus prior to performing at the sold-out PNC Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey. Pantera's show would precede a headlining set by Ozzy Osborne (or "God," as Dimebag calls him). As the band members killed time before the show, Dimebag was holding court as usual. "Tonight, that motherfucker will be ringing like hell!" he said, referring to the packed amphitheater. "It's always an ass-whooping when it comes to Pantera."

The "cowboys from hell" didn't always work in such grand style. Before landing a major-label deal, the band spent years trudging through the indie metal world, releasing four now-out-of-print records (including Anselmo's debut, 1988's Power Metal) and performing in spandex and hairspray. "That's the way everybody dressed back then," Vinnie says. "I've got pictures of James Hetfield [of Metallica] wearing spandex. We were young kids when we started. We emulated our favorite bands, like Judas Priest, Kiss, and Van Halen. But we were also image-conscious and felt we had to dress the part to play the music. Then in the late '80s we realized, 'Those clothes and that hairspray and all that stuff isn't playing the music-we are.' So we dropped that angle and starting turning into what we are today."

These days, while many heavy acts blend metal with other genres such as hip-hop, techno, and even country, Pantera plays pure, unbridled metal. To gain a better insight into the band's take-no-prisoners live act, we spoke at length with Dimebag Darrell and Vinnie Paul.

What songs on the new album do you find especially fun or challenging to play live? Dimebag: Probably every one of them, for somebody else-but not for us [laughs], because that's what we're geared for. But if I had to pick one, "Revolution Is My Name" has a lot going on: time changes, double lead guitar, a bunch of riffs. It's a nonstop chugger. But it's fun. It's like riding a roller coaster.

Vinnie: "Hellbound" is short but sweet, but it's a technically involved drum piece. "Goddamn Electric" is very challenging in the aspect of getting all the time changes and signatures down.

Is it hard to replicate your studio guitar work onstage? Dimebag: Pretty much everything I do in the studio, I make sure I can do live. We're a one-guitarist band, so I've got to cover my ass. I'd say the furthest out we went is The Great Southern Trendkill [1996], on which I layered stuff pretty heavily. There was more exploring going on, and you notice that we don't play a whole lot of it live. This new one [Reinventing the Steel] is stripped down to the bone. We wanted to get back to the raw, ass-kicking basics of it all. We usually put guitar elements like slurs, bends, and slides in the basic rhythm tracks, as opposed to my going back and overdubbing a pick scrape over this part while some other riff's playing.

So Reinventing harks back to an earlier Pantera era? Dimebag: Absolutely. We had time off between Trendkill and Reinventing, and we gave ourselves an overview and noticed that the Trendkill stuff wasn't coming across as powerfully onstage as Vulgar or Cowboys. On Reinventing, we wanted to grab the youth of Cowboys and the groove of Vulgar, but also the unstoppable extremities of Far Beyond Driven [1994], adding just a bit of the layered sound of Trendkill, and then reinvent ourselves. It's the one record nobody's given us any complaints about. We made everybody happy for a change [laughs].

How does the band come up with its arrangements? Dimebag: It usually starts from a guitar riff. I'm constantly carrying one of these little things [points to my tape recorder], because any time I sit down, something's going to come out and I'll forget it if I don't record it right on the spot. I have an accumulation of thousands of riffs, and I sifted through a bunch of tapes and picked out the best stuff for the new record. Vinnie comes up with stuff, too. He'll be playing the drums and go, "Man, that would make a great song-let's write something around it."

What distinguishes a Pantera arrangement? Dimebag: We still play lead guitar, we have a drummer who can play every tom, and a singer who really sings. Bands hardly ever play lead guitar anymore. Dude, back in the '70s, if you couldn't play the guitar or sing, you were nobody. Now music is so easy-all you've got to do is tune your guitar to an open chord and jump around. That's what sets us apart. And we're not afraid to carry around a heavy-metal moniker. It's who we are and what we do. A lot of bands have shied away from that-they've said, "Don't call us metal," and tried to change their styles. We don't bend, man. We do what's really in our souls, what our fans want, and what we're really good at, as opposed to trying to be something else. "I want to fit in with the times and the trends"-fuck all that shit! It ain't gonna happen, brother. I'd be bored, for one. And our fans would throw us the bird finger.

How do you communicate with one another onstage? Dimebag: The bird finger, if somebody fucks up [laughs]. We've been playing together for so long that we can look at each other and know what the other dude's thinking. It's like invisible waves shooting through the air.

Vinnie: If somebody's having a rough night, maybe we'll give him a little grin, like, "Hey, man, pick it up a little."

What do you do when the band encounters a technical problem during a performance? Vinnie: It could turn into a jam, or maybe a talk session by Philip [Anselmo], until things get worked out. But we've never had any completely embarrassing situations where we had to walk off. The only bind on this tour is that we only get to play an hour: coming down the home stretch, we really have to keep an eye on the clock and keep things moving.

You just mentioned jamming. How else do you improvise? Dimebag: The crowd could be screaming "Pantera!" and I'll start going [makes a chugging thrash-guitar sound with his voice] and everybody else starts kicking in, and that becomes an improv section.

Vinnie: Sometimes Dime will kick into a guitar riff and Philip will say, "Hey, let's do that," and we'll just go for it. Also, we like to cut loose in a set sometimes and play some Van Halen or Judas Priest or something we did back in the club days.

Have you learned a lot from each other? Dimebag: Oh, yeah. I'll have a guitar riff in my mind I can't play, and I'll hum it to Vinnie, and he'll have a drum idea in his mind and he'll play it to me. When I first started playing guitar at age 13, I was trying to play "More Than a Feeling" by Boston, and he was playing along with me and said, "Man, you're leaving a note out right there. You're coming up short at the end of the bar." We listened to the record and I found the missing note, and that was the first sign of the alien coming out. We're always on top of each other, saying, "Man, we can do that" or "Let's stretch that a little more." When we're writing, we understand each other-we're on the same page.

Vinnie: He's got a really carefree heart. He's the kind of person who just lets it all hang out-and the same is true when he writes or performs. I've learned from him that anything will work and that you can make things work, even things that seem like they don't or shouldn't fit. You can really do some finagling, and if you play with it enough, it might turn into magic.

Dime, do you practice guitar often? Dimebag: We've been playing together for 20 years. I'm not practicing, I'm playing. I'm doing it for the fucking enjoyment. This is the moment.

In a tour with as many bands as Ozzfest has, do you get a chance to do a sound check every night? Vinnie: We've only had one sound check this whole tour, and that was before the first show. After that there was no time for it.

Why? Vinnie: The minute Godsmack's done, they pull their gear off and we've got exactly 25 minutes to change the set.

Dimebag: It's different from having your own [headline] tour where you get to do a sound check every show. You're throwing gear up and pulling it down, and everybody's got the same monitor rig.

So that first Ozzfest sound check had to go a long way. Vinnie: We got it as close as we could, but obviously the buildings change soundwise. Some nights you get up there and after the first note you're screaming at your tech and looking over at the monitor desk trying to get some help-like "I need some more kick drum" or "It's really midrange-sounding." Other nights it's like putting on a CD.

Is it challenging to perform night after night? Dimebag: Hangovers hurt every now and then, but what do you do? Throw a couple more doubles back! This is great for hangovers. [He takes a big gulp from a plastic bottle of Pedialyte.] The best rehydration source in the world, I'm telling ya [laughs heartily]. Anyway, you've just got to get in a rock 'n' roll mode. What's tonight? It's Monday night? Fuck that, it's Friday night all of a sudden! Know what I mean? It's Friday night every goddamn night and it's going to burn. I'm not going to let these people spend all that money, get their hopes up, and wait this long to see our show, and then we say, "Oh, man, we already did it ten times in a row and now my sides hurt" or have some other lame excuse. Dude, that ain't going to happen!

It must get pretty crazy at your shows. Dimebag: A dude threw a Pantera prosthetic leg up on stage the other night and got the crowd to raise some hell for it! It was extended from the top of the leg to the bottom, with a high-top stuck on it. The whole thing had Pantera skulls and crossbones, Pantera logos, CFHs [Cowboys from Hell] all over it. We threw it back out to the dude, he hooked it back on, and he was in the front of the mosh pit all night.

Vinnie: A guy climbed up in the lighting truss while we were playing in Atlanta about three years ago. We stopped the show and Philip said, "Come on, jackass, get down, everybody really wants to hear some music." One of our crew guys went up to try and get the guy down, and the guy pulled a pocketknife on him and tried to slash him. Our guy backed off, the guy put his knife up, threw his little bag off, slid down the wires somehow, and evaded the police. Nobody ever saw him after that.

Do you make many guitar changes onstage? Dimebag: Yeah. On this particular tour, since we only play an hour, I do about seven guitar changes, but on a regular tour it's ten. I've had the same tech [Grady Champion] almost my whole life, and he's the greatest tech in the whole business. Everyone who watches him goes, "Man, I'm gonna start doing that," or "Wow, you taught me so much." He played in a band that used to open for us, Cat Daiquiri. During a gig we get this feeling going, another one of those invisible waves shooting through the air. He knows exactly how the guitar's supposed to feel. He knows if I need the gate tighter or looser. He knows when I'm hung over.

Anything else to say about your road crew? Dimebag: It's one big happy family. Everybody knows every note, every lyric, how the gear should be set up. Hey, this is my sound guy right here! [He introduces me to Aaron "Crank Wires" Barnes.] This guy can sit down with a soldering iron and wire any goddamn thing up. And he always knows if something's out of phase.

Besides good musicianship, what makes a gig successful? Dimebag: We want to show the people a good time. A lot of musicians get wrapped up in how well they performed. It's funny-I'll have what I consider one of my bad nights, and that's when everybody says, "Dime, you played your ass off!" I'll have what I consider one of my all-time best nights, and nobody will say a word. I'll ask, "Hey, man, was I on?" They'll say, "You kind of fucked up one lick." You can never gauge it.

Do you ever critique yourselves with tapes of your live shows? Dimebag: Yeah, but we're more into checking it out to make sure we got it going in general, rather than sitting with headphones and thinking, "We've got to fix this or that." If certain things get messed up, we talk them out right after we walk off the stage. But every Pantera show is different-no telling what's gonna happen. Somebody might throw a joint onstage, and then we're gonna take a ten-minute break.

Nice tour bus. You guys are traveling in style. What was it like when you had to travel from gig to gig in your early days? Dimebag: Besides the U-Haul swaying in the rain? Well, wiping other cars off the road right and left; blowing up the engines of many cars-including five of my dad's and two of my mom's-because we always had too much shit in the back. Then we finally made enough money to afford the Pantera van, which lasted about two and a half years until it blew up.

Did you upgrade your vehicle when you got signed? Dimebag: We got this 60-foot RV. We thought we were in a spaceship. We thought we'd made it to the plush velours of life. And if you watch our Home Video I, you'll see what happened to it-we put that damn thing in the grave, too. That's when it was time for us to move up to a bus. A lot of bands jump from being together for a year and a half to getting a record deal-a million dollars up front-and get put right into a tour bus, and they still don't have an identity. It goes to their heads; they think they're rock stars, and they're gone tomorrow. That didn't happen to Pantera. Pantera's been paying its dues like no other band I know about. And look at us: we've got longevity, we've got brotherhood, and we kick everybody's ass! We'll be the Rolling Stones of heavy metal-watch out, motherfucker!

Do you have any stand on Napster? Dimebag: Man, I don't want to get caught up in this shit, but all I can say is that I paid for every goddamn thing my whole life. I don't care if it's a burrito from Taco Bell or a Judas Priest record. Anybody who takes stuff for free, I ain't into. And anybody who's lazy and ain't got a goddamn job, fuck you. Go work, motherfucker! So that's my take on it. I don't know how deep it goes because I don't waste my time playing with computers. I'm into drinking and playing guitar, as you know. There's your headline: "Fuck Computers: Drinking and Guitar." I mean, really.

Jeff Perlah is the managing editor of Car Stereo Review's Mobile Entertainment magazine.

Dimebag Darrell uses Washburn Dimebag Darrell Signature Series model guitars and Washburn Culprit Monster guitars. For amps, he is partial to Randall Warhead models. His effects arsenal includes an MXR Flanger/Doubler, an MXR Six-Band Graphic Equalizer, a Digitech Whammy Pedal, a Randall PQ4 parametric EQ, a Rocktron Guitar Silencer noise-reduction system, and a Korg DTR1 tuner. He uses DR strings.

Drummer Vinnie Paul tours with Pearl Master Series Drums in the following custom dimensions: a 24" x 24" kick, a 14" x 14" tom, a 15" x 15" tom, and an 18" x 19" tom. He uses a 14" x 8" Pearl wood snare and Pearl hardware, in addition to Chaindrive pedals, Sabian cymbals, and Vic Firth sticks.

Bassist Rex Brown plays Stuart Spector Rex Brown Signature Series basses with EMG pickups through Ampeg SVT4 Pro amplifiers. His effects lineup includes a Morley Blue Wah, a Boss chorus pedal, and a Rocktron Hush noise-reduction unit. He also uses Monster Cables and Zon Straps.

Philip Anselmo sings through Shure Beta-58A microphones.

www.atmetal.com/pantera/tabs.html A fan site containing tablature for most of Pantera's material, including the guitar riffs.

www.pantera.com The band's official site has plenty of info and multimedia content, as well as some cool effects.

www.panterarocks.com Elektra's Pantera site offers sound clips, a discography, a bulletin board, links, and more.