Crowbar Interview with Kirk Windstein: “What You’ve Learned is Only Going to Make You Stronger and Make You a Better Person”
On the afternoon we spoke (Friday, Nov. 12, in case anyone’s feeling precise), Crowbar guitarist, vocalist and driving-force Kirk Windstein turned in the final approved version of the artwork for his band’s first album in six years, Sever the Wicked Hand, which is due out Feb. 8, 2011. It’s their E1 Music debut, and as Windstein has seen his profile grow to new heights the past several years in bands like the supergroup Down and his Kingdom of Sorrow project with Jamey Jasta of Hatebreed, the planets look to be aligning for the most successful run Crowbar‘s had yet in their 20-plus years together.
With several months of sobriety under his belt and a cross-band support system of family and friends to back him, Windstein embarks optimistically on this new era in the band with whom he first made his name. In our discussion, he mentioned several times “leaving the negativity behind” as a theme present on Sever the Wicked Hand, and he seems to have done just that. For a guy with a reputation for such downtrodden tones and whose emotional and existential struggles have been documented lyrically across three different decades now, he seems awfully happy.
And who could begrudge him that? He’s certainly earned it, and if the leaked advance track on the album, “The Cemetery Angels” is any indicator, in addition to getting his personal life together, he hasn’t lost touch with what made Crowbar the pivotal sludge act they’ve always been. I’m sure there’s bound to be some of his trademark Crowbar ballads on Sever the Wicked Hand, but one listen to “The Cemetery Angels” and it’s clear Windstein hasn’t left out their special brand of heaviness. When he says “Bring it down!” two minutes and 20 seconds into the song (which you can hear in a YouTube clip at the bottom of the interview), he’s not just talking about tempo.
Sludge from the master thereof. Crowbar is rounded out by guitarist Matthew Brunson (a Kingdom of Sorrow bandmate), bassist Patrick Bruders and drummer Tommy Buckley, but as ever, Windstein‘s guiding the chaos. In the course of our conversation, he discussed returning to Crowbar after working for the last several years exclusively on Down and Kingdom of Sorrow, getting sober, balancing his time between bands, recording Sever the Wicked Hand, touring and much more.
The full Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.
What’s the artwork for the new record like?
It’s killer. Kind of hard to describe. Mike D. from Killswitch Engage did it. He’s a graphic artist who does all their stuff, and he’s a huge Crowbar fan, so he contacted us about doing it, and he really did a great job. Because he’s a fan, he really put a lot into doing it. He’s a really nice guy, and he really did a great job.
It’s amazing how many of those bands have taken influence from Crowbar. Obviously Hatebreed, duh, but a lot of those bands you hear talking about Crowbar.
That’s kind of the whole… we do have a brand new record, but it won’t be dropping until the beginning of February. We’re going on tour and we haven’t had a record out in – it’ll be six years by the time it comes out – and we just did two European tours and a bunch of festivals over there. It was great! We’re fixing to go to England in January with no new record, and because the Hatebreeds, Chimairas, Killswitch and a lot of other ones – we’re so old that these guys are influenced by us – and now their bands are really big, and they’re bringing an interest to Crowbar. It’s kind of come full circle and it’s a really cool thing.
How were the shows you did down south?
All considered, some of them we only had a week to a week-and-a-half to promote, they went really well. On this one, we’re not trying to put the carriage before the horse or anything. We’re playing really small venues and getting back to the roots of it all, which is what Crowbar’s about anyway. I’m just looking forward to doing these shows. We have 23 shows in a row, and that’s the way I like it. I don’t like days off (laughs).
Is it strange for you to be focusing on Crowbar again after doing Down and Kingdom of Sorrow for so long?
Yeah, it’s a little strange. It’s strange, but also it’s really positive, because I’ve learned so much about everything – the business, about life. I’ve gone through so much since the last Crowbar record came out, and this is the first time that we’re actually on a real label in the history of Crowbar, which is an amazing thing. We’ve been on labels with people who have been nice people and really tried hard, but just didn’t have the resources, the connections, the money, the whole nine yards, to do anything for the band. In this situation, it’s a real label, there’s real bands on it, and it’s a really positive thing. For me, I’m addicted to work now. It’s unbelievable. My wife’s literally ready to stab me because I’m never not on the phone or the computer (laughs), and it’s great. I’m enjoying it, and it is strange. I’ve been in Down world since 2006. I still am. We had practice Wednesday and last night, we may practice tonight, depending. Me, Pepper and Jimmy live here in New Orleans, and Phil lives across the lake, about an hour and 15 minutes away, and Rex is in Dallas, so me, Jimmy and Pepper have been getting together, writing stuff. During the recording of the Crowbar record, I’d show up at Down practice, jam with those guys for a couple hours, grab my guitar and head straight to the studio for Crowbar. That was weird. Because usually I’m in one band’s world. I’m in Down world, or Kingdom, if we’re doing something with that, or Crowbar or whatever. So having to juggle Down and Crowbar, being creative with both bands in the same day, having to finish up lyrics and do vocals immediately after helping write riffs for Down was kind of strange, but I juggled it and it was cool.
How do you get in the different mindsets for different bands? You have much different roles in Down and Crowbar.
Absolutely. Usually I’m in one band’s world. With Crowbar, obviously 80 percent of the riffs are mine, all the lyrics are mine, I’m the head dude. Everything’s focused around me. Where, Down, Phil is the main focal point, and main arranger. He’s the band leader, for lack of a better term, but everybody equally throws their weight in and really carries themselves with it. But it’s just different. To get into the mindset of any of the bands, I proved it to myself. As soon as I walk into the room and there’s Jimmy and Pepper, we plug in and start jamming, and I’m not even thinking about Crowbar, and then as soon as I leave there, I’m thinking about nothing but Crowbar, because I’m leaving to go sing that. I’ll literally have a bunch of scribbled down words and I’ll go, “Oh shit, I need to finish up these lyrics, and what the hell melody and phrasing am I going to use on this?” But it was cool. It did work out well and I’m very pleased with everything with the Crowbar and with what we’re writing right now with Down.
Do you think approaching Crowbar sober for the first time helped you be able to juggle the responsibilities more?
Absolutely. Absolutely. The whole thing is, really, with me – and I’ll keep it brief because it’s an old story now – my whole issue with the drinking and everything, was that every Crowbar record, every single one, even Lifesblood, which was actually recorded in 2003, I wrote every riff completely sober. I might have drank some beer the night before, but I’d write riffs at two o’clock in the afternoon sitting in my room, whatever it might be. I never wrote or played guitar parts or anything while I was drinking, and it just slowly started getting a little out of hand. Going through a divorce and having issues with not being able to see my daughter and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, just being extremely overworked, is really what led to me becoming physically addicted. Not the situation like, “Jesus, I need a drink because my nerves are rattled.” It’s like, “I need a drink because I can’t stop shaking to go do soundcheck.” I became physically addicted. To the point where that’s not normal. In the past, Phil used to always say, “Dude, you have that on/off switch.” Well, the switch broke at some point, and I’ve come through everything. Everything’s great with me and my ex-wife, me and my daughter, my personal life is in order. My bands are doing well. From that standpoint, everything’s good and it’s time for me to get healthy, get my mind back focused on what’s really important, which is not worrying about booze o’clock, as I called it, to make sure I can get up there and play halfway decent. It just got to be too much. It’s made a giant difference. I threw three or four songs in the garbage after the first few weeks of getting my head clear and wrote four of the best songs for the new Crowbar album in like two days. I just said, “You know what? These other ones just aren’t keeping up.” And just as fast as I could come up with ideas, it was just flowing out of me. It’s amazing how it is to approach the instrument and the creativity and everything sober again, because in the past, in the beginning of Crowbar, sure, we’d get drunk after the show on tour or whatever, but it was never a problem. It got to be a problem. When it affects your everyday life, it’s just too much. I’ve noticed a world of difference in myself as a person and as a performer. We’ve been playing shows, which are the first shows I’ve played sober in probably 20-plus years. And what I mean sober is without even a beer. It’s really been great. It’s been three and a half months, and it’s been difficult, but the payoff has been huge.
Tell me about recording the album. Where did you do it and how long were you in the studio?
We started Aug. 28, and we recorded it at OCD Recording and Production, which is a relatively new but very nice studio right in Metairie, Louisiana, which is like 15 minutes from where I live, right outside of the city. It’s 10 minutes from downtown, or something. It was a little odd, because I’m used to going, “Okay, I’m in the studio,” which means, every waking moment, I’m in the studio. And with this situation, the head engineer has a day job, a very good day job, and two of the guys in Crowbar at this point still have day gigs, so it was a weekend and a little bit during the week kind of thing, which stretched out until up about the 12th of October. It was a very relaxed atmosphere, very cool, and I’m really happy with the outcome. Duane [Somoneaux], the engineer, did a great job, and Zeuss mixed and mastered everything as well. He’s a huge Crowbar fan as well, and he’s done a lot. That was another thing too. When Zeuss told me, “This record means as much to me as it means to you” – and I’ve been knowing Zeuss since ’05 pretty well because he did the first Kingdom, which was recorded in ’05 – when he told me that, because he loves the band so much, I was like, “Well, this is really gonna turn out great.” And it did.
Aside from who you’re working with and that kind of stuff, did you find in putting this album together that your writing style was affected by the time you’ve spent in Down and Kingdom of Sorrow?
Not really. A lot of people will ask what’s changed, if I’ve changed to make Crowbar more commercial or anything, and I’ve been doing it for so long, don’t I feel like something’s owed to me or whatnot, that the band should be bigger than it is, and you know what? We haven’t changed a thing. The only difference is I’m a better singer, a better songwriter, and that’s it. Nothing’s changed. Modern music has changed. Crowbar’s been in existence basically for over 20 years. The way modern music has changed over the last 20 years, has allowed us to be in a position with Crowbar now where we don’t have to change anything. I just need to write the best, heaviest, most melodic, killer riffs and best lyrics, best vocals, whatever, that I possibly can, and because of how modern heavy music has changed over the past 20 years, there’s still the potential for Crowbar to make a dent in this thing, put ourselves on the map for real. I think that what I’ve done with Down through the whole history with Down but especially over the last four years, and what I’ve done on the two Kingdom records, has really helped me as a songwriter. Being around talented people. Being around Phil, Pep, Jim and Rex, and then being around Jamey and doing the Kingdom stuff and whatnot, it just opens your eyes and ears to things, and it can’t help but rub off on you, and I think it goes the other way as well. I have something to give to all these projects, and it goes hand in hand.
It’s interesting how working with different people can bring out a different side of your personality as a player and how you present ideas and how you work, it can always play back in.
Totally. So many people ask, “Why are you in three bands?” and for one thing, I’m trying to make a living playing music, and it’s kind of difficult these days to be in one (laughs). But everybody down here in New Orleans has always been in a bunch of different bands, always jamming with different people. That’s because that’s the way New Orleans music is from way back when. I read Dr. John’s book, for instance. Those guys would play in two or three different bands a night. With different musicians. Running from one bar to the next. That’s the way it is down here. People love music, and for us it’s heavy music, but we all love heavy music, and we want to get every aspect of our artistic ability or whatever stimulated and get it out there. Playing with a lot of different people makes me a better musician, makes me enjoy it more.
What’s the new record called?
The new record is called Sever the Wicked Hand. Probably somewhat self-explanatory – there is a title track as well, a song called “Sever the Wicked Hand” – but for me, it’s exactly what it says. Whatever that wicked hand is, whether it’s drugs, alcohol, a bad relationship, an eating disorder – what’s the new show? Hoarders – there’s a lot of people with a lot of different problems out there. The world’s tough. Maybe you’re a sex addict. Whatever the hell it is – I wouldn’t say sever your genitals, necessarily, but whatever that negativity in your life is, a bad job – anything – it’s a metaphor for all of it. Just get rid of it. Learn how to grow. No matter how bad of an experience it’s been at the time, what you’ve learned is only going to make you stronger and make you a better person. That’s really what the title of the record means. The majority of the lyrical content on the record is about that whole type of thing, because obviously it’s right from the heart, what I’m thinking in that moment. Because of what I was going through, a lot of it’s just about rebirth, about growth, about leaving negativity behind and whatnot. It’s just the perfect title for the record.
And if that’s coming out on E1, what’s coming out on Housecore?
A live record. I’m not sure what the release date will be, but probably a live record, as well as a box set we’re hoping for. Quite a few of the old records being re-released. E1 released Crowbar, Live +1 and Time Heals Nothing, but Obedience Thru Suffering, Odd Fellows Rest, which is one of my personal favorites, Sonic Excess, Equilibrium, there’s quite a few that are just laying there. No label, nobody’s distributing them, nothing. What I’d like to do with Housecore, because of the type of label it is, because it’s literally Phil and Kate and a very small group of people helping them, Puma, who’s the engineer for a lot of this stuff, who’s a great young guy. Because it’s them and it’s such a small, family-run, in-house – hence the name Housecore – and underground-type label for underground music, they I think are perfect for doing things like the vinyl re-releases. It’s the type of thing where the hard core, no pun intended, cult-type of Crowbar fan will love the type of thing we would release through Housecore. Colored vinyl things from the older records and stuff that’s never been done. That’s what their forte is with the label, and that’s what I want to do with all that older material. As well, the new live record, which is brand new, this is not a re-release. If anything, we’ll probably throw some extra, unreleased studio tracks on there as well – new stuff, not anything leftover. For me, at least, it’s the best of both worlds to be able to have a label such as E1 handle the release of the new record and also to be working with one of the best friends I’ve ever had, that being Phil, to be working with them and still doing the mom-and-pop, in-house-type of underground thing.
Do you have a timeframe on the new Down?
No. We have a lot of ideas, a lot of ideas, a lot of leftover. There were tons of songs and riffs that we didn’t even bother with – not that they weren’t great, but like I said earlier, Phil’s in charge of arranging everything, and he’s in charge of overseeing everything – and because he’s the vocalist, it’s his vision that usually has the last thumbs up, the last, “Okay, this is cool,” and there was so much stuff leftover that he just didn’t feel, and after speaking with us and giving us an example of why, he just didn’t feel fit on the record. Not that the songs weren’t great or the riffs we started working on weren’t great, but this was a vision he had for this record from the first note to the last note. These other songs and things just didn’t fit into that. We have a ton of stuff for Down. Me, Pep and Jimmy listened last night to riffs we’ve been working on, and we probably have 10 songs’ worth of great ideas sitting right there, not to mention whatever Phil and Rex have, or what we’ve done in the past that hasn’t been used. There’s really no timeframe. We do realize the clock’s ticking, literally and figuratively (laughs), and we’re not kids anymore, but Down… We toured so much and so extensively. We toured, recorded, and toured, from May of 2006 until end of July, beginning of August of 2010. We’ve built the foundation for Down on basically every corner of the earth, and had a great time doing it, and when the time is right, we’ll be popping some new stuff out.
I always thought Down worked better on those terms, anyway.
Pepper always uses this, and it’s a perfect example. He says Down is a very dangerous band. You have five heavy-hitters in this band. It’s an unusual situation, because it’s actually – I hate the term – but the “supergroup” and the – hate the term – “side-project” type of group that actually works. So many friends that do it, most of them just get together one time, make a record that’s usually good, and it just falls to the wayside and is forgotten. That happens often, anyway. With Down, it’s the kind of band where, by the time the whole thing’s over with, touring for and everything else, even though everybody loves each other like brothers, we don’t want to see each other for a little bit. When you’ve lived with each other for the better part of – literally, we recorded the last record in L.A. at three different studios, and I remember I left my house Feb. 15, 2007, and I never really went home for any length of time until now (laughs). Because in between I was doing other things. So yeah, I think Down works best that way too. We just did release the DVD and the live thing, which is really cool, and it’s always there. It’s always being worked on, so to any Down fans, don’t think we’re not doing stuff. As we speak, Jimmy just called twice, so we may be jamming tonight (laughs). There’s stuff going on, believe me. When the time is right. It’s such a special band. The vibe has to be there, the creativity has to be there, the magic has to be there, and when it is, we all know it, and then we plug in and let ‘er have it.Crowbar, E1 Music, Housecore, Louisiana, New Orleans