Mark Uricheck

None heavier – or friendlier – than ‘Riff Lord’ Kirk Windstein and Crowbar

Heavy metal groundbreakers bring 'Doom' to Philadelphia and Brooklyn June 28-29

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There’s often an interesting, unexpected turn of events when you interview a band while they’re out touring. Kirk Windstein from Crowbar was one such example.

While the phone call NEPA Scene had set with him to coincide pre-show for the band’s recent gig in Minneapolis was confirmed several days in advance, the hectic pace of tour life had altered things just a bit. We tried calling Windstein, and his phone went to straight to voicemail. We tried again, and then left a message saying we’d give it another go in a few minutes.

We then checked out the Crowbar Facebook page and found a “just now” status update of a photo of the band’s meet and greet at Minneapolis’ Amsterdam Bar and Hall, it was clear that we weren’t going to speak anywhere close to our scheduled time.

Windstein called back about a half-hour later, graciously apologizing for the mix-up.

“I was in the middle of doing all that [meet and greet] earlier when you called,” he said. “I saw the 570 area code, and I thought you were a buddy of mine who has that area code. I said to myself, ‘Man, he called a few times in a row!’ [Laughs] So, I was a little scatterbrained there. I apologize.”

He can make it up to us by letting us be his new 570 buddies.

The Crowbar frontman and guitarist, known affectionately as the “Riff Lord,” is almost single-handedly responsible for putting the term “sludge metal” on the map – and he’s about to show Philadelphia what it’s like on Sunday, June 28 at the city’s Voltage Lounge, along with guests Battlecross and Lord Dying; they’ll be at Saint Vitus Bar in Brooklyn, New York the following night as part of their “Summer of Doom” North American tour.

“Love us or hate us, we don’t sound like anybody.”

Born out of the New Orleans metal scene of the late 1980s, bands like Crowbar specialized in taking Black Sabbath’s already doom-laden musical kettle bell lunge and pulling it further into a murky abyss. Along with Crowbar, bands like Eyehategod, Acid Bath, and even Pantera’s Phil Anselmo would be integral to the sub-genre (Anselmo later joined Windstein in Down, along with fellow New Orleans standout Pepper Keenan of Corrosion of Conformity fame).

Since their 1991 debut, “Obedience Thru Suffering,” to their current opus upon which they’re still touring, 2014’s “Symmetry in Black,” Crowbar has refused to bow to musical trends. They’ve kept it slow, low, and as Exodus’ Paul Baloff had been known to say, “heavier than time.”

Upon finishing up the meet and greet and getting down to the business of the interview, Windstein was upbeat about the session he’d just finished up with the “superfans,” as he calls the meet and greet participants.

“What we do is have the fans come in and see how our day goes,” he explains of the bargain-basement $25 ticket upgrade. “They see us finishing setting up the gear, getting the sound, getting the monitors straight – all that shit. That’s the stuff that’s boring to us, but if I was a fan and I was given the chance to see fuckin’ Motörhead do that, I’d be excited!”

A very intimate hang with the band, the Crowbar meet and greet offers the chance to mingle and chat with them, take some photos, and get some posters and CD booklets signed – in an environment Windstein says is very different from some of the like-minded events he’s attended.

“I’ve been to some of these things with big acts, and No. 1, it’s so expensive it’s crazy, and No. 2, they rush you through and it’s two seconds and you’re done,” he admits. “With us, it’s a lot more personable. We’ll sit back and chat with people for a good 20-30 minutes. It works out well, and it’s definitely something we’ll do into the future.”

When we mentioned that we’d been listening to Crowbar’s “Symmetry in Black” earlier in the day, Windstein offered his views looking back on a solid year since the album was released, and what it’s like for him to hear some of his older work years later.

“If I go back and listen to something like ‘Broken Glass’ [1996] or “Time Heals Nothing” [1995], I’m taken aback by 80 percent of it, mostly because I don’t sit around listening to my old music,” he says. “But, having only been a year and playing some of this stuff live, I’m just as pleased as the day we completed it. I think it’s a killer fucking record; I think it’s a great example, so to speak, of where Crowbar is 25, now 26 years into our career. It’s got elements of the older material, but it’s also fresh without changing our style. We try to grow from album to album, but it’s got to stay true to what Crowbar was always about since the beginning.”

Windstein stresses that he’s always sought to maintain his band’s sense of originality – something that’s increasingly difficult in the world of metal. Through Crowbar’s been called everything from “New Orleans sludge metal” to “stoner metal,” Windstein prefers to simply call it “heavy music.”

“Love us or hate us, we don’t sound like anybody,” he offers matter-of-factly. “The only downside to being in a band that doesn’t sound like anybody else is that you don’t really have a genre. When we first started out, thrash was huge, then death metal came in, then black metal – we’ve survived every type of music that was called metal from 1989 on, and we’re still going strong. A lot of bands had success early on because a genre was hot for a few years, and then they end up getting screwed over when it dies down because they were associated with that genre.”

Windstein uses a cross-genre pollination example of one of Seattle’s longest-running heavy music merchants.

“I’d rather be a band like The Melvins,” he says. “The Melvins sound like The Melvins. They’ve been doing this for 30-some years now, and they’ll continue to do it forever. It’s great, it’s original, it’s underground, because they don’t have a genre. I like to base us on a band like The Melvins or, on a bigger level, a band like Motörhead – one of my favorites, because they don’t’ sound like anyone else either. The thing that got Motörhead to the point where they’re popular now, even though the band started in 1975, is that they didn’t have a genre. It’s really just rock ‘n’ roll; same with The Melvins – it’s just great fucking heavy music. That’s what I strive for – to just keep doing what we’re doing in spite of what may come and go.”

Windstein isn’t much of a fan of genre labeling in the first place.

“Me, I like great music, and that’s it,” he says. “There are so many genres and sub-genres, it’s ridiculous. I remember walking into Hot Topic with my daughter a few years ago and they had music playing. I asked, ‘Oh, who’s that?’ They said Asking Alexandria or something like that. The girl was like freaking out, going, ‘Oh, they’re so epic!’ I said, ‘Well, what would you call that because I’m kind of old.’ She said, ‘It’s screamo.’ I said, ‘Is that like screaming emo?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ I thought that’s cool, and more power to them, but I had heard of emo, and now she’s telling me there’s something called scream. [Laughs] It’s not the band’s fault, but it’s like, just make good music – if it’s heavy, it’s heavy; if it’s light, it’s light.”

Windstein notes how many local supporting acts of Crowbar’s end up sounding very much alike, especially the younger bands that may have yet to find their own distinctive voice.

“Especially in the U.K. and much of Europe, there are a lot of bands that open for us that sound just like Eyehategod,” he admits. “I love Eyehategod, and I grew up with those guys, and they created their own sound. But, in my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with liking a band, but you should try to be a little more original. It’ll either be that or kids will be up there and start pulling out their Dimebag guitars, and it’ll end up being a Pantera fest. [Laughs] By no means am I cutting down these young guys – when you’re young, you have to find your niche and you emulate the stuff you love – mine was the New Wave of British Heavy Metal stuff. But I think it would be so much better if they just dropped all these genres and just called it heavy metal.”

Windstein may be known as the “Riff Lord,” but he’s equally adept at writing darkly therapeutic lyrics. Tracks like “Walk with Knowledge Wisely” on Crowbar’s latest album trace the realities of growing older and being comfortable with the psyche-scarred lessons learned along the way.

“In the beginning, I knew I wanted to write dark-type lyrics to fit the sound of the band, but I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he explains. “As time went on, I believe my lyrics got a lot better. It’s really therapy. I write a lot about struggles with alcohol and drugs because I’ve had those struggles. I’ve had struggles in relationships just like everybody else; we’re all in the same boat called life together. Sometimes, it’s not easy, but I like to let the listener know that even though I’m writing about this dark period that I’m going through, I try to have a light at the end of the tunnel – don’t’ give up, persevere, continue to do what’s right. Find the strength within yourself to get through it, because I’ve been through it. I’m 50 years old now, and if I have a 20-year-old fan that’s just starting to go through these things I’ve been going through for the past 30 years, being an older guy doing what I’m doing, I try to give encouragement to be victorious in these struggles.”

Speaking of the darkness walked through in Crowbar’s lyrics, and given the band’s decidedly New Orleans, Southern heavy voodoo, it begs the question if blues may have played a part in the band’s evolution. Windstein is not oblivious to this reference.

“One of the best compliments I ever got,” he begins, “is when we were on tour with Sacred Reich in like 1993. We were playing a place called The Thirsty Whale in Chicago, and a guy came up to us who had never heard us, and he said, ‘Man, that was like nothing I’d ever seen – you reminded me of like a blues band or something.’ I remember the conversation with the guy, and I said, ‘Wow, that’s an awesome compliment. I really appreciate it.’ I know Mississippi is Delta blues, and New Orleans is known for jazz, but there are a shitload of great blues musicians there as well, and it’s a big part of our culture and our sound. Just look at Black Sabbath – they basically started out as a heavy fucking blues band and just evolved. I’m a huge fan of guys like Robin Trower, Gary Moore, Frank Marino – that electric blues has been a big influence on me and Crowbar, as well as all of my friends that play in New Orleans bands for the most part.”

That New Orleans metal family came together with Windstein to form the band Down and would release one of the most celebrated metal debuts of the past couple decades in 1995’s “NOLA.” Guys like Eyehategod’s Jimmy Bower, Corrosion of Conformity’s Pepper Keenan, and Pantera’s Phil Anselmo teamed with Windstein to celebrate the sludge – with Windstein eventually leaving the band in 2013 to focus back on Crowbar, but not without great memories of the players/friends involved and positive snapshots of that debut record.

“We had no idea what we were creating,” admits Windstein of the “NOLA” album. “It’s 20 years later and it’s become a legendary fucking album. It was an innocent time for us, and that record ended up having a huge impact on heavy music – there are a million bands that sound like Down now.”

With all the press that the notorious Anselmo has received over the years, it seems appropriate to ask what Windstein’s working relationship with the Pantera frontman was like in Down.

“Actually, he was one of the easiest guys I’ve ever worked with,” he replies. “We even did fun little side things on 4-tracks that we were writing together just for fun, stuff that’ll never see the light of day – comical stuff. It was just guys being guys, drinking beer and goofing off on acoustic guitars and a little Casio keyboard.”

Windstein goes on to pay Anselmo quite a musical compliment.

“He’s the best arranger of songs I’ve ever worked with,” Windstein says. “That’s one of the things I’ve tried to take from Phil. It’s like, OK, he’s one of my best friends and we grew up together and all that, but we’re sitting here writing together. When he starts, I can see how important a role he played in Pantera as an arranger – he taught me about songwriting, not just riff-writing. For example, the Crowbar song ‘Existence Is Punishment’ – that song had four or five parts to it, but when Phil came to rehearsal, he was honest in saying we had one good riff and to build upon that riff. He said, ‘You want me to be honest? This is not a song – it’s a riff. If you get stuck, a drum fill will take you anywhere in a song, get you from A to B. He’s also extremely open-minded; he’s a sweetheart.”

Anyone who follows Crowbar on Facebook has seen photos in recent weeks of Windstein working on some new ideas for those immortal riffs of which he’s known. He says that new Crowbar music is on the band’s mind and is not too far off.

“We have 17 shows in a row coming up,” he notes, “and then we’re only home for about two weeks before we go to Europe. When we get back from Europe, we’re going to dive headfirst into writing. We’re also going to play Phil Anselmo’s Housecore Horror Fest this year, which we’re really excited about, the weekend of Nov. 13. We’re hoping to do some type of tour around that, and we’d like to have the majority of the record written by then.”

Until then, Windstein is thrilled that fans can follow his band via social media – an outlet he fully embraces.

“I think it’s wonderful,” he says of Facebook and the like. “Bands used to have this mystique, like Zeppelin going off to record at some castle in England and not doing any interviews. Even the Zeppelin ‘IV‘ album – it doesn’t even have a title on it. The closest thing to that today probably is Ghost, and I’m a Ghost fan. To me, it’s great for the fans. It lets them in and makes them feel important, because they are important; without them, you’re nothing. When we’re writing, we give updates on the Facebook page, and [my wife] Robin takes a shitload of photos. I know it’s important because the fans have told me it’s important.”

Those Philadelphia-area fans who have supported Crowbar should know that Windstein appreciates them as well.

“Philly always kicks ass – we’re looking forward to it.”

with Battlecross, Lord Dying, and Ten Ton Hammer
Location: Voltage Lounge (421 N. 7th St., Philadelphia)
Date: Sunday, June 28
Time: Doors at 7 p.m.; show at 8 p.m.
Cost: $18-$20

with Battlecross, Lord Dying, and Carcosa
Location: Saint Vitus Bar (1120 Manhattan Ave., Brooklyn, NY)
Date: Monday, June 29
Time: 8 p.m.
Cost: $20-$25