PHILIP ANSELMO & THE ILLEGALS “You Have To Be Crazy To Work Here…” 

By Dr. Abner Mality

It goes without saying that I know a thing or two about mental illness. In these times we live in, I notice that insanity has lost its stigma because it seems the whole world has gone nuts. Phil Anselmo and his band The Illegals have noticed this phenomenon and made it the centerpiece of their new album fittingly entitled “Choosing Mental Illness As A Virtue”.

I’ve had an enlightening chat with Phil in the past, but this time I turn to the newest member of The Illegals, bassist Walter Howard, to learn more about living crazy in a world gone mad. Walter is new to the band, but not the extreme metal underground, as his band Vaginal Beartrap has been a key player in the Texas scene for over 10 years now. For a lunatic, Walt was a pretty nice guy. Let’s find out more secrets behind the band and the album…

WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: You guys are real road dogs and you’re getting ready to head off on another tour. Does the touring ever get to you or do you feed off it?

WALTER HOWARD: We definitely feed off it. For me, this is going to be the first time I get a chance to play out with The Illegals on tour. Up until now, it’s been all studio work for me. This is going to be a pretty amazing experience. I get to go out and meet the fans and just go out and pummel everybody. It’s going to be pretty great, man.

WC: Is this the first extensive tour of any kind that you’ve done?

WH: I would say it’s the longest for sure. Before this one, I would say the longest one I did was a two and a half week tour of Mexico with my other band, Vaginal Beartrap
WC: Is there one place you’re looking forward to playing more than any other?

WH: I really can’t wait to visit all of them, but certain places, yeah, for sure. Definitely all of our southern dates. The first four dates to me are kind of hometown shows in a way, you know. For the last 10 years, I’ve played primarily in Texas and the South. It’s a little like a homecoming with all my friends from Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and New Orleans. Also the Berserker Fest in Pontiac, Michigan is gonna be pretty crazy.

WC: You’re going out with King Parrot. Have you hung out with these guys before?

WH: Oh yeah, I’ve met them before and I played a show with them one time with my other band Vaginal Beartrap in Austin. This will be my first time really getting to know them because they’ll be on the bus with us.

WC: They’re notorious jokers…

WH: (laughs) Yeah, from everything I’ve heard, that’s true.

WC: Their videos are some of the craziest things I’ve seen…

WH: Oh yeah. I’m gonna get to know them pretty well soon.

WC: The new album you have out with the Illegals, “Choosing Mental Illness As A Virtue”, is a real heavy album. Would you call it death metal or do you think it doesn’t quite fit that description?

WH: It’s a little bit of everything. We can’t really say it’s more of this or that because it takes a lot of influences from everything…death metal, thrash, hardcore punk, grindcore, you name it. It’s a nice mix of heavy stuff. It’s a lot of stuff that’s all part of our lives but we get to mash it all together into this beast we call The Illegals.

WC: I’ve even heard some dissonant chords that are almost like early black metal.

WH: Definitely! All the stuff like early Darkthrone and also Portal was a huge influence, I can tell you that.

WC: It is ugly music for ugly times…

WH: (laughs) Absolutely, that’s exactly right.

WC: What kind of mindset were you in when you recorded this? Since you’re relatively new to the band, I imagine a lot of time was spent learning the ropes of how to work with these guys. 

WH: For the most part, what I noticed the most when I first worked with these guys is how well we all meshed together.We were all easy to deal with, everything was flowing together, everything felt comfortable. Jamming with them was super amazing because they’re all talented musicians. Phillip plays guitar too, so we had three guitar players with me and Blue. That makes it fun and it was a real laidback experience recording the album with them.

WC:  What would you say the best part of working with Phil is?

WH:  I would definitely say there are never any boring times for sure. (chuckles) There’s always something going on with him. And getting to learn by working with such great songwriters. The same thing with Blue and his drum parts and how we can mesh them with Phil’s ideas. And Steven,too…he comes up with some amazing ideas. Mike’s bringing more to the table and doing some other shit. All the new songs that we’re doing are sounding great…we’ve already got new material on top of what we’re doing with this album.

WC: Does this new material reveal a different side to the band?

WH: In some ways, yeah, but for the most part, it’s a continuation of what we’ve done on “Choosing Mental Illness…” . It’s going to stay in that format, but we’re constantly working to make it more extreme and do some different things. We definitely don’t want to repeat…we’re not formulaic in writing, we do whatever we feel like doing. It will definitely be brutal, I can tell you that. (laughs)

WC:  The new one does have a different feel from the previous album. Nobody can accuse it of being stuck in a rut, that’s for sure.

WH:  Absolutely, yeah.

WC: Let me kind of put you on the spot here…what would you say the most difficult part of working with Phil is?

WH: The most difficult part is probably just the distance involved. We’re all spread far apart. Getting everybody together is difficult. Getting work schedules figured out is tough, too. I live in San Antonio and Blue lives in Dallas. That’s already five or six hours distance. Mike probably lives the closest to me…he lives about 45 minutes from where I’m. Steve lives in Houston and Phillip’s out in Louisiana. It’s fairly easy to drive out there…I’m gonna leave for there in just a little bit. It’s a pretty long drive, about nine hours to Louisiana.

WC: Phil’s a guy who’s got his hands in a lot of different projects and has a lot of things going on? Do you have to kind of wait in line while he gets to things like Scour or Down or running his label?

WH: For the most part, he tries to work it in as well as he can. When Superjoint had their album out, he pushed that hard for a couple of years. Now it’s our turn with this album. He’s got other projects coming up that once we’re done touring for this album, he’ll go into writing mode and start that process while we are all working on other stuff.

WC: Let’s move on to the album. Does the title of the album “Choosing Mental Illness As A Virtue” describe where we’re at as a nation and a culture right now?

WH: Yeah, I would say more or less that’s what’s it’s conveying, that everybody’s choosing to do crazy shit. (laughs) Choosing to live a certain way, basically.

WC: Do you have to be crazy to survive today?

WH: (laughs) I would definitely say it helps to have some crazy to get by in this world.

WC: Is there any one tune on the album that means more to you than the others?

WH: “Little Fucking Heroes” is one of my favorites because it’s one of the first songs I learned when I was playing with Mike and before there was ever a chance of me really going to The Illegals. He told me if you start knowing these songs and your name comes up, you’ll be good. He taught me the first six songs that they had written. At that time, that was the first song they showed me. I’d also say the title song “Choosing Mental Illness…” is a great track as well.

WC: What would you say are some of the influences on the band that maybe aren’t so obvious?

WH: I would definitely say some strange ambient stuff. Strange atmospheric sounds. Even some Tears For Fears, believe it or not! (chuckles) We have one riff that we call the Tears For Fears riff.

WC: That’s one I wouldn’t have identified. Probably a lot of odd industrial and electronic music.

WH: Yes, a lot of the atmosphere that Steve creates on his guitar comes from that background. There’s a lot of interesting random things scattered throughout because everybody brought something to the table.

WC: I wondered if Phil was kind of the general who directed the writing but it sounds like everybody gets to bring something to the dance.

WH: It’s really relaxed. The way it works, we usually wake up and go somewhere for breakfast, usually the Waffle House, get a bunch of coffee, go back to the jam room and spend eight to ten hours just jamming. Being in a room with them for that long, it doesn’t really seem too crazy. Phil is definitely the ringleader and in charge of putting everybody’s ideas together He has the last say on what goes on record.

WC: Do you ever have suggestions for things that are considered off limits right away?

WH: Definitely not. Whatever can be brought to the table for the song, we use it. If anything, it might get twisted to a new and  different form, but it still came from that original idea.

WC: Is Vaginal Beartrap your only other band or are you involved in more projects?

WH:  I’m involved in another project called Systematic Extermination. Right now we’ve got an EP out. I also play in Ballgag, Stingerer and various other little local projects. For the most part, Vaginal Beartrap has been the big one for the last 10 years.

WC:  Anything new coming from them?

WH: Yeah, we’ve got a whole album ready to go. We just need to shop it around and figure out what’s up with that. Just seeing when we can get it pushed it out?

WC: After the current tour winds up, what plans are afoot? Europe, Australia?

WH:  We’ve some things coming up but they haven’t been announced yet so I can’t really say too much, but definitely we’re going down to Mexico in October to play with Slayer, Danzig, Carcass…a lot of different bands. That fest is just a week after we get done with the current tour. That’s a big open air fest that’s kind of like their Hellfest.

WC: The Mexican  and South American scenes are really exploding right now.

WH: Oh, they remind me of those old videos you’d see of shows back in the 80’s. Just massive, massive amounts of people. When Vaginal Beartrap went to tour there, it was our first time outside of the country. We got to see a different culture, a different way of setting up shows. They ate everything up, everybody at the shows go fucking apeshit. They treat you really well. It’s a nice culture for metal there.

WC: I always say their 80’s is now.

WH: Yeah, exactly!  In Mexico, we played with a ton of bands that were super great but they don’t leave the region so we don’t know about them in the States. There’s a shitload of great music in Mexico.

WC: If you could ask any three people from history to dinner, who would you ask?

WH: Hmmm, my ultimate dinner party. I would say Peter Steele for one. That would be interesting. To have him hanging out with a bunch of wine would be great. I would say…Chuck Schuldiner of Death. It would be interesting to speak to one of my influences. I’m trying to think of somebody not necessarily music related. How about Charles Bukowski? I’d love to have dinner with that guy.

WC: What was the last release you got just because you wanted to hear it?

WH: The last one was a band called UN from Seattle. They play a kind of funeral doom. The album is called “The Tomb of All Things” and it’s totally crushing.

WC: Have you ever had a Spinal Tap moment where things went crazy that you can tell us about?

WH: We had a house show with Vaginal Beartrap one time where the venue was too tight. I was basically put at the window near the door where people were walking in and out. There was over 100 people in a tiny little house and I’m stuck in this corner on top of the drum set. I hit my head as hard as I could on the cymbal stand and thought I was going to pass out for sure. I wobbled around but kept playing the song. (laughs) I don’t know how good it sounded.

WC: Did it cut you open?

WH: No, but I had a hell of a knot on my head, that’s for sure.

WC: Any last words or messages for the fans?

WH: I can’t wait to meet all the fans on this upcoming tour. Also, if you haven’t done it yet, give the “Choosing Mental Illness…” video a watch. It’s directed by Kathy Richardson-Anselmo and has amazing photography by Mike Holderbeast. They did an amazing job and everybody who was a part of it did fucking great.

WC: Did you get any flack from mental illness groups over the video or the album title?

WH: I wouldn’t say that. With this tour and this video, we are bringing up mental illness as a problem in general. We give people the information they need to get help. On the credits of the video right after it ends, we have contact info to help with any mental illness you may have.

WC: That’s a great idea. People are so quick to take offense at things these days.

WH: Yeah, absolutely. We wanted to make sure people knew we  weren’t trying to glamorize mental illness by any means.