Phil Anselmo Opens Up About Racism, Pantera's Legacy, Childhood Abuse

After confounding fans with a "white power" salute earlier this year, metal veteran talks atonement and moving forward

Phil Anselmo discusses how he's attempting to move forward after accusations of racism, focusing on new recordings with Superjoint and Bill and Phil. Credit: Danin Drahos

Phil Anselmo is sitting at a small table in a Manhattan hotel room, ashing a cigarette into an oversized takeout coffee cup. It's a gray, mid-December day, and the temperature outside is in the mid-20s, which has caused a problem for the outspoken former Pantera frontman. "I am a tried-and-tested tourer, so I know how to do things," he says. "But I forgot my jacket and my pants." He laughs and says he had to buy clothes upon arriving in midtown, and he makes no qualms about shoving his newly purchased coat under the door to keep the smoke from drifting out. He opens the bathroom window, and even though he's underdressed in a cut-off Eyehategod T-shirt (and his new pants) and his head is shaved to show his Pantera-era tattoos (one says "strength"), he scoffs at the cold. "It's actually not too bad in here." He's in jolly spirits, but they don't last long.

In January, Anselmo stood before an audience in Hollywood, at a concert honoring murdered Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell, and he stretched out his right arm in a Nazi salute and bellowed "white power" at the crowd. It was shocking, especially coming from an artist who sang on a Number One album, Pantera's Far Beyond Driven, a little over two decades ago. After the incident blew up online, prompting his peers in Anthrax and Machine Head to excoriate his actions, he posted a video to apologize. He kept quiet for most of the year, but resurfaced in late summer to fill in for Eyehategod's ailing singer, Mike Williams, and to tour with Superjoint, a reboot of his previous band Superjoint Ritual who released a new LP, Caught Up in the Gears of Application, in November. He has more releases planned for the coming year – he made an avant-rock LP with horror actor Bill Moseley, under the name Bill and Phil, and he's sitting on five unreleased full-lengths – and he's just started sitting for interviews again. But first he must face up to his unfortunate outburst and attempt to win back disappointed fans.

The concert, dubbed Dimebash, took place on January 22nd at Hollywood's Lucky Strike Live, where he sang a short run of Pantera songs and a Motörhead cover with help from Dave Grohl, Metallica's Robert Trujillo, former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and others. The performance took place at 2 a.m. and he says that he was very drunk. Video shows him performing the Nazi salute and then leaning forward into the crowd to make his declaration.

Anselmo's initial reaction to the uproar was to make light of it, saying "white power" was an inside joke because he'd been drinking white wine backstage. "No apologies from me," he said at the time. But that changed within a couple of days. "It was ugly, it was uncalled for," he said in his January 30th apology video. "And anyone who knows me and my true nature knows that I don't believe in any of that. ... I am a thousand percent apologetic to anyone that took offense to what I said, because you should have taken offense to what I said. And I am so sorry, and I hope you just ... Man, give me another chance to ... Just give me another chance." He also released a statement a few days later in which he said, "I'm repulsed by my own actions, and the self-loathing I'm going through right now is justified by the hurt I've caused." In an October interview with Decibel, he referred back to his previous apologies, saying, "That apology is there – and no, you won't get another one ever again."

When the topic comes up, a pall comes over the room. Anselmo stays true to his word, not apologizing again when talking to Rolling Stone, but he says in a voice that's deeper and louder than earlier, "What I did, I own it outright." He also repeats a story he told Decibel that fans in the front row at the concert had been calling him a racist, "trying to get a rise out of me," so he reacted. "You wanna see ugly? I'll show you what ugly looks like," he remembers thinking. "And I did. And I paid for it and I continually pay for it. But it's the farthest thing from the fucking truth."

Although Anselmo has faced accusations of racism in the past – MTV's Kurt Loder once pressed him on why he wore a T-shirt with a symbol of South African oppression, and the singer once lambasted a "Stop Black on Black Crime" T-shirt onstage (he denied allegations of racism to Loder and told Decibel he didn't understand the latter shirt) – he claims he's been hurt by the accusations this time. "The word 'racist' has been thrown around so much over the past three years or so that people do not realize the heaviness of that particular accusation," he says, his voice growing louder and deeper as he becomes still. "To think that I think I'm superior to someone else because I have pale skin when I know in my heart. ... I think people that look through the lens of race and want to find racism will find it no matter where they're fucking looking."

He feels he needs to change people's opinions about him one at a time. "I don't give a fuck about the color of skin or nationality or religion or whatever," he says. "All I can do is take a person one-on-one, find common ground and go from there. It's, like, fucking live and let live."

That said, his rhetoric when discussing race is far from progressive. When talking about donating money to one of his favorite boxing gyms in Detroit, he says he did so to help "ghetto kids from all sorts of ghettos," African-Americans, Hispanics and "mixed-breed" people. He says that he himself is "mixed-breed," as he's "fucking Sicilian, French and the only 'white' part of me would be my great-grandmother's side of the family. And do you know what she did for a living? Picked cotton from dawn 'til dusk 'til her hands were destroyed and bloody."

He says he also identifies with marginalized peoples because of his upbringing. He grew up in New Orleans' French Quarter – "That's a diverse fucking crowd of people," he says – and he was raised by a single mother who "dated black men and whatever and they were in my house that I lived in – they spent the night and all that – and all I had was fucking love for them." His nanny when he was young, he says, was a transgender woman who was assigned male at birth named Wilma. "I loved her," he says repeatedly. He points out that he uses the past tense when talking about her not because he no longer loves her but because she is now dead.

"This is shit I've never fucking opened up about until now," he says. "But when people constantly talk about being a victim or something, there are going to be certain points where I have to step back and go, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa.' Especially when people shout and scream about us living in a rape culture and men are this evil product. ... Guess who was molested his entire child-fucking-hood by numerous people, both men and women. ... " He pauses, and lowers his chin to make eye contact. "Me." He pauses again and sharpens his glare. "Me."

Anselmo resituates himself, closing the bathroom door to let the heat build back up. "I've never told the world this, but I am now maybe because I'm almost 50 and I don't give a fuck anymore," he says. "But it happened. I never blamed the world for it like I'm seeing kids today do, putting everybody in one box. And the same thing goes for race and all this shit."

In addition to the scrutiny of the world at large, Anselmo also faced derision in the press from one of his former Pantera bandmates, drummer Vinnie Paul. A rift grew between them as the band broke up in the early 2000s and it has widened since an insane fan gunned down Dimebag Darrell at a 2004 concert by Darrell and Paul's post-Pantera band Damageplan, as Paul alluded that Anselmo had stoked the killer by comments he made in the press. Paul has claimed he hasn't seen Anselmo in person since 2001.

Earlier this year, when Paul was asked for a comment on Anselmo's white-power salute, he was dismissive. "I can't speak for him," he said. "He's done a lot of things that tarnish the image of what Pantera was back then and what it stood for and what it was all about. And it's sad."

Anselmo recoils at first when thinking about Paul's comments but soon turns dismissive. "Yeah, I saw that he said that but anything out of that dude's mouth is ... ugh ... it seems sour," he says. "I don't have anything in common with that guy at all." He pauses to find his words. "But Vince better be caref– ..." He stops mid-word and seamlessly switches sentiments. "One day I'm really not gonna care about whatever the legacy of Pantera [is]. It's great that we had such an awesome fan base and still continue to have this awesome fan base, but there will be probably be a whole lot of 'em that would be perhaps a little disappointed in my assessment of the whole situation. So I'll just leave it at that. And that's why I'm not going to speak out about it, even though I know when this interview comes out, people are going to say, 'Well, you almost went off on that.' And yeah, almost. Operative word."

He says he's careful with his words because he wonders about Paul's mental well-being, even more than a decade after the fatal concert. "You have to worry about Vince's state of mind, just like you have to worry about all of our states of mind," he says. "I know in my heart I have to accept what happened to Dimebag because it's just real. He's gone. He was murdered. But there's a giant chunk of me that will never understand it. I've spoken to the police about it. I've spoken to the cop that was on hand that ended things, murdered the murderer. I'm not sure I'll ever understand it."

"There's a giant chunk of me that will never understand Dimebag's murder."

As the conversation turns back to the topic of his white-power gesture earlier this year, he says his actions should prove his character. "For all the pious out there who like to point the finger at me and say, 'Oh, racist,' they don't fucking know me," he says. In the Nineties, he recalls speaking out against skinheads who came to Pantera concerts in Texas. He also brings up the Detroit boxing gym, Kronk, which he helped find funding for, adding that he knows it would be benefiting inner-city youths. And this year, he says he responded to a call-to-action issued by Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian, though he has not received credit for it.

On February 1st, Ian had posted a note to Instagram calling Anselmo's gesture "vile" and urging him to make a donation to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human-rights organization that confronts anti-Semitism and hate speech. "I love Phil Anselmo like a brother," Ian told Rolling Stone in February. "He's family to me. ... I know deep down, truly that he's not that person. But I had to say something publicly about it, because to me, silence is being complicit. Phil is taking a deep hard look at himself and his life, and he is going to do what he needs to do to fix things."

"I made a donation in January," Anselmo says. "But guess who didn't have the guts to fucking come out and tell the press that? [Scott Ian], who wrote [the tongue-in-cheek Stormtroopers of Death album] Speak English or Die. The dude who wrote, 'Aren't You Hungry?' [goading people who suffer from world starvation]. If that record came out today, we'd never fucking hear the fucking goddamn end of it. So pardon me. Maybe Scott did at one point or another come out and say that, 'Yeah, Phil did donate, so that's good.' But you hadn't heard of it.

"I donated the next fucking day, or maybe the next hour after we spoke on the phone," he says. "And then I heard nothing about it in the press. Have I grown a little sour of it? Damn right I have. It's clickbait. No one wants to hear the good side of anything." (Rolling Stone's efforts to reach Ian for comment were unsuccessful.)

Clickbait is a topic that looms large on Anselmo's latest work with Superjoint, the raucous, punk-imbued Caught Up in the Gears of Application. There's even a pummeling, chunky five-minute hardcore song called "Clickbait" on the album on which Anselmo sings lyrics like "escapist troll entertainment" and "tirades of disingenuous grandstanding." After a year in the headlines, Anselmo – who calls himself a "late bloomer" when it comes to technology – is particularly wary of the Internet. "It's like, you put out this fabulous headline that people are going to have this major reaction to, and you go to it and it's paragraph after paragraph of saying the same thing," he says. "I guess that's journalism." He says that Caught Up in the Gears, as a whole, is a record about "modern technology and what it's done to the masses."

Interestingly, though, the group recorded the album, which finds him singing and playing guitar alongside original Superjoint members Jimmy Bower and Kevin Bond, over a year ago – before his white-power salute. He also put out an EP in May with the black-metal-inspired group Scour, though his real musical comeback this year was singing with Bower's main band, the long-running sludge-metal group Eyehategod in August, in place of their frontman, Mike Williams, who was battling a failing liver. Williams had previously lived on Anselmo's estate for about a decade, so Anselmo felt he wanted help his friend out. "I grew up with him and know their music inside and out, so doing those shows was my pleasure," Anselmo says. "It was no big deal. It was not too much to ask of me and they were fun." They were his first shows sober. Williams has since gotten a liver transplant, according to a YouCaring page designed to raise funds for him. 

Anselmo has since resumed a regular working pace. He's played live with Superjoint and they have a tour planned for next year. And he has announced the release of the Bill and Phil record, Songs of Darkness and Despair, which comes out January 20th and is a departure musically for him. The music, for which Anselmo plays guitar, straddles blues-rock and avant-rock with synthy detours, as Moseley – whose film credits include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, Army of Darkness and The Devil's Rejects – sings somewhat bizarre words.

"We've been friends for years, and we had a three-day weekend so we said we want to come up with six ridiculous songs," Anselmo says. "The dude can sing. He's got a great range. He'd come in with lyrics and I'd look at the title and say, 'This is a ridiculous title, Bill.'" When asked if he's referring to "Corpus Crispy," Anselmo pounds the table and says, "Bingo. The engineer, Steve Berrigan, and I kept saying, 'Can you please just say Corpus Christi?' And he's like, 'Nope. Even my wife has said that and I'm like, "It means something else to me."' I'm like, 'Alright. I'm just our humble note finder. Go for it, man.'"

Anselmo also has many other releases he would like to put out in the coming year that range from sounds you would expect from him to what he calls "un-metal," mellow songs which he will release under the name Illegals in Minor. "That stuff is heavy in its own right," he says. "Extremities come in all genres. Like, there isn't anybody alive that's going to convince me that Björk ain't extreme. So if it helps the project by using a cello or stand-up piano or a waterphone, then so be it. I'm going to use it."

He opens the bathroom door so he can smoke again and likens the vibe of that music to Nick Cave, David Bowie and the Smiths and says he sings in his natural baritone. The lyrics deal with his lack of fear of death, something he says he knows about as he's been declared medically dead more than once. "As a guy who's croaked a few times, I'll let you know straight up, there wasn't much there," he says with a laugh. "And if there was, it ain't memorable. It was pretty peaceful from what I remember. The best way I could put it is if you could have memories of the safety of a womb, so to speak, it was something like that. But being resuscitated medically – the hecticness of that – it makes you think, 'Damn, being dead was sure a lot easier than dealing with all this shit, man.'" He laughs.

As a new year approaches – and the anniversary of the Dimebash incident looms – Anselmo is once again attempting to reclaim his life. Earlier in the interview, when the topic of Paul's comments about him came up, Anselmo said something that seems to be his mantra for the moment. "I'd rather just be focusing on the fucking future. I'd rather just be focusing on new days, new records, new music and put one foot in front of the other, because that to me feels healthy instead of just writhing in the past." And then he ashed his cigarette again.