The Art of Shredding: Pantera's Phil Anselmo Remembers Cowboys From Hell

Hardcore punk and heavy metal were unlikely bedfellows twenty years ago, but <b>Pantera</b> made it look effortless with their fourth album, proving to be the departure the Dallas quartet needed to winch them out of spandex hell. Celebrating its re-release, <b>Phil Anselmo</b> considers the legacy of <i>Cowboys From Hell</i> and his departed friend Dimebag Darrell

Feature by Dave Kerr | 29 Sep 2010

It’s the 20th anniversary of Cowboys From Hell and it’s no secret you’ve been estranged from Vinnie [Paul, Pantera drummer and brother of late guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott] for most of the last decade. Did this present an opportunity to work through your issues?

No, Rex [Brown, bass] and I speak quite often but I have not talked with Vince. We work through this lovely young lady named Kim Zide Davis, she’s been with Pantera since [1992 album] Vulgar Display of Power. So we all mediate through her and it works fine, she does a great job.

There are two new discs of material to this expanded edition of the album, including an unheard song, the original demos from the Cowboys sessions and a messy cover of Sweet Home Alabama. How did you feel about blowing the dust off that lot after all this time?  

When the idea came about that they wanted to do the 20 year anniversary, I was like ‘sure, that’s great.’ Of course, the distributors and record company putting it out want more content. But speaking of that one track, it’s got early 1988 written all over it. That song didn’t even make Power Metal [Anselmo’s first album with Pantera, but the band’s third, and last as a glam act] to tell you the truth, it just happened to be the one almost intact song that we had. I think there was another one but it wasn’t worth it. If you listen closely enough, there’s a certain riff that was later used in another song [This Love].

It’s a nice little nod though, to where Pantera would go next with Vulgar Display of Power

Sure, but figuring that the last song we wrote for Cowboys From Hell was Primal Concrete Sledge, that shows you more of where we were headed, mentally and musically.

Is Cowboys an album you can listen back to and appreciate as a listener today?

To be honest with you, when we were writing all that stuff – when I was there and living it – there’s no way I could deduce how people were going to take it. But when I look back at it today, stuff that I felt was really simple ended up being tricky. Stuff that I thought was pretty plain, regular or ho-hum is pretty spectacular. It’s an impressive listen. We get asked a lot about the production and whatnot – it being pretty high-end and tinny – all I can say is I think at the time we were really trying to figure out the best way to take the monstrous guitar sound that Darrell had and put it on a record.

You have to understand, you young whippersnappers, back in the day when we did Cowboys From Hell, we recorded that fucker in 1989 – no pro-tools, no tricks or whistles. We had to really track that thing; production in itself was changing and I know Pantera with Terry Date [who would later oversee Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger and Deftones’ White Pony] producing and Vinnie Paul knowing what he does – we as a band helped change the production of heavy metal records. Cowboys From Hell was – I would say – a launch pad in many respects – not the actual full figured out article yet but it was a great starting point.

Few bands with Pantera’s intensity have managed to pull off a ballad in the middle of an otherwise aggressive record. Was this something you set out to do on Cowboys from the beginning, or was Cemetary Gates a bit of a happy accident?

I think it’s a little bit of both. Take for instance that unreleased track on the new Pantera rerelease, The Will to Survive – we knew that was more of a Judas Priest-ish power ballad type thing. But I think that yes, there was a conscious effort being made to – let me tell you straight – perhaps put something more palatable out for listeners with Cemetary Gates. But the way we wrote was so for real and things came in such a natural fashion that at the time it didn’t feel like ‘hey, we’d better jump on this ballad thing because we need one.’ It was just a riff that Dimebag wrote and if you think about it, the intro to the song is three minutes long with the acoustic part. That’s a six minute song. So fair enough, you can’t say this is a definite radio cut. 

Cowboys from Hell is regarded as one of the definitive metal albums of all time, what’s yours?

From my generation, British Steel by Judas Priest – such a harsh record for its time. We’re talking about the early 80s, man, and British Steel stood alone. There were also Iron Maiden moments, especially Killers – the Paul Di’Anno years – but also Number of the Beast; very, very influential record. When I say this I don’t want anyone to take me the wrong way, but for heavy metal, when I was a kid, Black Sabbath was a tremendous influence – everybody wanted to be like Black Sabbath. And I’ve got to say, Randy Rhoads did a hell of a lot for heavy metal guitar playing, so did Eddie Van Halen. They really bumped the guitar sound to a mainstream level. Just listen to Dimebag’s playing, he’s so Van Halen and Randy Rhoads, but then Dimebag could play a lot of different ways. Figuring Pantera’s such a guitar heavy band, I can’t leave those guys out.

You’ve become best known for your various other projects – most notably Down – since Pantera’s split in 2003. Tell me about the new hardcore band you’re playing guitar with, Arson Anthem.

Arson came out of pure boredom, man. Hurricane Katrina wiped us out and pretty much wiped out a lot of the music around New Orleans, Louisiana – the whole area. For so long it got crazy, I wasn’t in any specific band at that point in time. I’d just had major back surgery and I was fuckin’ itching. The story goes, Mike Williams – the singer from Eyehategod and a very good friend of mine – his house burned down in the riots following Katrina, so after the storm blew over he ended up staying in my apartment above the jam room, which he still lives in. We just had this crazy idea, and Hank [Williams III, Superjoint Ritual] offered to play drums, Collin [Yeo, Ponykiller] offered to play bass and we just said let’s see what’ll happen.

Hank, when I first met him, was a 15 year old kid drummer in a band. Sure enough he grew and started doing his country thing, and then he did the Superjoint thing with us, playing bass. But little did I know how great a drummer he really was, and let me tell you, the new Arson Anthem full-length is coming out soon. It’s really brutal, man. The EP was meant to be hideously raw, we meant it to be hideously loud, so everything you’re hearing is purposeful. But the new one makes that looks like child’s play, which it is in all reality.

Are there any plans to tour?

Honestly, if it were up to me I’d love to do it. But it’s a side band as far as Hank the Third goes, and everybody else has another primary band. In my book, I think this record is so fucking good that it deserves to be toured on. The only thing I can tell you is that Hank has agreed to do some shows in the next few months, but that doesn’t promise many. We’ll see how the popularity of the record goes. I’d love to come overseas with Arson Anthem.

Cowboys From Hell Ultimate Edition is available via Rhino on 22 Nov.

Diary of a Mad Band by Down is available via Koch on 4 Oct.

Insecurity Notoriety by Arson Anthem is available via Anselmo's own Housecore Records on 11 Oct.