Like his bandmates — vocalist Philip Anselmo, drummer Jimmy Bower, bassist Pat Bruders and guitarist Pepper Keenan, guitarist Kirk Windstein has never been one to mince words. Whether it’s discussing the band’s musical partnership, his working relationship with Keenan as a guitar team, or his overview of the state of the music industry, Windstein pulls no punches. Shooting straight with uncensored honesty is part of Down’s credo: in their music, their band ethics and their interviews.
Windstein, also recognized for his work with Kingdom of Sorrow and Crowbar, is still taken aback, and humbled, by the impact Down’s music has on their fans. “The style of music we play gets a bad rap as far as the image of what we do,” he says. “The lyrics are dark subject matter, but the lyrics themselves are positive and about finding strength and getting through the tough times in life. It’s amazing; I’ve gotten handwritten letters from people all over the world that say, ‘Can you please sign this picture?’ and they write a deep letter about how the music affects them in a positive way. It’s a great feeling to be able to do that for somebody. I know what music did for me when I was growing up. I fell in love with KISS when I was 10 years old in 1975, and I can’t say that they have deep lyrics or anything, but it really pulled me through my adolescence and into the teen years, which are really tough. Then I discovered Van Halen in the late ’70s, and all heavy metal music, and I would literally run home from the school bus, put on music and practice guitar. So it’s very important to a lot of people.”
Why the longevity?
If it weren’t for taking breaks, sometimes long sabbaticals and doing other things … we toured ourselves silly in the past at times. We now know how long of a tour we can do without wanting to kill one another and how long we can go until we need a break. It’s difficult because we’ve got five very strong personalities, very talented guys that have all been successful in other bands, and it can get to be a bit much. I will say that we’ve mellowed with age. It’s helped a lot, not only as in partying and stuff like that, but our whole attitude. We realize that we’re blessed to be able to do what we’re doing, which is make a living playing the music we create, and we have a great diehard fan base and we’re grateful for that. As we get older, we realize how fortunate we really are to still be doing this and at some level of success. We all appreciate the band, and ourselves in general, more than we did ten years ago.
This band has outlasted most marriages.
You’re right. It’s absolutely a relationship. Everyone’s got a different personality, everyone’s got different quirks and different moody things, and you really have to learn to put up with each other and cut someone a little slack when they’re having a bad day. We’ve talked about it quite a bit. Like in any band, there are ups and downs, you get burned out on each other. Sometimes we tour for months and months with very little time off, and we’d joke but we’d be serious — we’d literally get to the airport and be like, “Yeah, I’ll call you,” and we’d get home and not talk to each other for a month because you need to get back to your life and your own thing and just break from one another. When the creative juices start flowing, you get ready to jam again. We all consider ourselves brothers and great friends, but we’ve tried to remedy what happened in the past, which was being burned out from over-touring. Now we pick and choose the touring, and the way we want to do our music, and it seems to be working out great.
What do your other projects bring to Down when you come back to this band?
Nothing, and that’s the beauty of it. Crowbar — I’ve been doing that for over twenty years. That’s my baby. I’m the lyricist, the chief songwriter, the singer, all of that. Kingdom of Sorrow is a partnership between me and Jamey Jasta from Hatebreed, and I just got off of a tour with that project this summer. I like all styles of music, so I’m thinking about starting a fourth band for my own pleasure that would be different in style from the other three. I don’t think I bring anything to Down from Crowbar and Kingdom. Down is a completely different beast. It really doesn’t have anything in common with the other two and that’s the way I like it. You can get burned out on one. Look at Phil — he’s got so many things going on: his independent label, his solo record that’s coming out, his punk band, he’s done black metal. He just loves music, and when you’re an artist and a musician, and you really do create and your life is creating music, it’s healthy to branch out and do things that are completely different. Down is my main band, it’s my breadwinner, always has been and always will be, but I enjoy doing other things when we’re taking breaks.
Twenty years ago, you could get a musical education from the radio. Today, a guitarist can tune in to a satellite station and listen to only one type of music, or even one artist. Do they paint themselves into corners this way?
I think you are 100 percent correct. I agree; I do think that’s what they’re doing. Not everyone, of course, but I feel very fortunate that I can listen to classic rock radio when I’m at home. I’m a big fan of all music and I think that these younger bands kind of do one thing. I guess it’s because I’m old and I enjoy old-school stuff. I thoroughly enjoy watching Megadeth and Godsmack; they’ve been around a long time and it’s different, but for me, personally, I’m set in my ways. I look for new music and new bands and there’s not much that lights a fire under me or gets me excited. I’ll always love classic rock and New Wave of British Heavy Metal music from the ’80s.
How has your relationship with Pepper grown and how do you continue challenging each other?
He’s a lot better on things like slide guitar, playing the dobro, the acoustic guitar fingerpicking, even the downpicking. He’s got the James Hetfield right hand, which I would kill to have. I can’t do the 200-mile-an-hour downpicking thing. It’s kind of weird, because it’s like he has a great right hand and I have a great left hand, so we work together with that. We always talk about that and joke about it. Even in the studio, there’ll be a part that’s really fast downpicking and I’ll just hand him the guitar and say, “Here, you do it.” Then we have something that’s more complicated with the left-hand thing, like a really busy riff, and he’s like, “Here, Kirk, you take this part.” We use it to our advantages. It’s not egos. It’s the smart way to do it. We want the best that we can have. We use each other’s best assets to our advantage when we play together, writing and in the studio. I’m always the harmony guy. I love Thin Lizzy, Wishbone Ash, the Allman Brothers, and I’m constantly hearing harmonies, so when he comes up with the riff, I come up with the harmony right away and then we’ll take off from there. It works well.
Onstage, as well, it’s almost like we’re polar opposites, because Pepper’s more of a showman than I am. It’s kind of like that’s part of his job, and with me, it’s more like I have to keep the foundation solid. Phil uses an in-ear monitor. He cues off of me a lot, so of course I can jam and move around as good as my 46-year-old fat ass can move! But with Pepper, it’s easy. He’s a lot more of a visual performer, where my role is to hold it down. Although we do split solos 50/50, in my opinion I’m kind of like the Malcolm Young of the band, where Angus is the lead player and Malcolm is the backbone of the rhythm section. That’s another way we’re different — I concentrate a little more on playing as precisely as I can and he’s able to be more visual as well as playing really well. Once again, another example of how we work together.
Over the course of twenty years, have you ever come close to calling it a day, especially with the current state of the industry?
When I’m at home, I see my daughter on weekends, I love doing yard work, my fiancée works for a friend’s freight company and goes in to work really early, so I get up between 5:30 and 6 in the morning and I’m in bed by 9 at night. I don’t go out to clubs or bars or anything like that. I do that when I’m on tour. When I’m at home I like being a regular guy, and there are times when I’m like, How long is it going to be able to last with the state of the music industry? Am I going to have to throw in the towel and take a forklift-driving class or some sh-t? But I don’t give up. I don’t get discouraged. I don’t think I’ve ever come close to saying, “F–k it,” but the thought does cross my mind at times. Honestly, a lot of times new bands ask my advice and I’m like, “Quit!” New bands starting out: Quit! People don’t realize that things are worse than ever in the industry, with record sales and the whole thing being at an all-time low. Honestly, if I were a young musician, I would probably make music for fun, play on the weekends with friends, but I don’t think I’d try to pursue it as a career if I weren’t already twenty years into it. If I were 18 years old and had a new band, I think I’d play music for the love of playing music but not for making a living.
Have you always played in two-guitar bands?
Yes. I think that has to do with the fact that all the bands I like, with the exception of maybe Van Halen and Pantera and a handful of other ones, like Black Sabbath, were two and even three guitars, like Lynyrd Skynyrd. When you have someone as amazing as Eddie Van Halen, or as Dimebag Darrell was, you don’t necessarily need a second guy, but I’m nowhere near the level of those guys. To me, it’s always sounded heavier, and I hate sounding like a broken record, but going back to my love of harmonies and all the bands I grew up with, 90 percent of them had two guitars. When I started my first band when I was a kid, with a friend of mine and his younger brother, he played bass, his younger brother played guitar and I played guitar, and we taught each other how to play. It’s been two guitars always.
You’re working on an EP series. What is that about?
We looked at one another and said, “Do we really want to do another long stint in the studio, doing 14 or 15 songs, for nobody to buy it?” We feel that it gives us an opportunity. Each individual one will be centered around one part of Down’s sound. Our first one is our heavy stuff. There’ll be maybe an acoustic one because we like having a lot of elements in our sound. We don’t want to be cornered into being a heavy metal band. We want to be able to do what we want to do. We play rock and roll with a little bit of metal in it, and with the state of the industry, we feel that it’s a good idea to do four EPs. We can get the product out there quicker and it’s cheaper for the consumers to buy it. Even if you want to download the whole thing, it’ll be five bucks instead of ten if you go to iTunes. Pepper usually does the artwork for the records and T-shirts, and he’s working on a concept where the artwork for all four EPs will tie in with one another as one big piece of work. The same with merchandising. So we think it’s a fresh, different approach to what’s going on. We’re honestly just trying to survive in today’s industry. We think we have a good chance, a better chance, of that happening this way.
You’re doing everything yourselves.
Oh yeah. It’s totally old school. I think we’ll do the drums at a real studio in New Orleans, but everything else will be done at Phil’s in the swamp. He’s got 16 or 17 acres of land about an hour and 15 minutes north of New Orleans. It’s ideal because it’s out in the middle of nowhere, so I’m kind of at peace and there’s no outside distractions. We get out there to work and record and it seems it’s always very productive because we’re literally in his barn that he turned into a studio, we’re writing and we don’t keep track of time. You’re in that world and it’s a great environment to create. It’s our version of when Zeppelin would take the mobile to a castle in the English countryside in Wales or someplace and just do it. That’s our version of that, basically.
What is your definition of tone? Guitarists always chase it. Is it overrated?
No. I think tone is extremely important. For Crowbar, we’re one of the pioneer bands; we started tuning to B and drop A in 1988 and only a handful of bands in the world were doing that. So we were a pioneer band of that. So many people freak out on tone, and with Crowbar it’s the simplest, stupidest rig ever. I use these old Randall RG100ES heads that Dimebag turned me on to in the ’80s when Phil joined Pantera. I have six or seven of them, they’re old, and it’s the stupidest rig ever, but everyone’s always complimenting the tone. With Down, we both use Orange Thunderverb 50s. We each run two stacks, two heads, four cabinets. I split mine with a Boss Stereo Chorus for my solos. It’s kind of a fake Robin Trower tone, I call it, with the Uni-Vibe type of feel split in stereo. We want a clean tone with a punch and we want it to be retro, but we don’t just stack up a bunch of Orange amps and a bunch of fuzzboxes and turn them on 10 or anything. We try to go for a long, clean but punchy rock and roll tone. When I’m playing with Down, I want to hear Scott Gorham from Thin Lizzy’s tone come out of my amp. I want to hear old-school tones.
According to Pepper, and I quote, tone is “F–king stupidly overrated! It’s in your hands!”
I agree. He goes for more of a percussive/concussive because he’s a hard picker and downpicker and uses the heavier strings and heavier picks. He goes for a cleaner tone. My whole thing is left hand vibrato. It’s a different approach. I go more for a Billy Gibbons or Tony Iommi or somebody with more vibrato in the left hand. But he is correct: Tone is 100 percent from your hands. I can pick up an acoustic guitar and you can tell it’s me playing, or I can tell when Bobby Landgraf, who’s teching for Pepper right now — Bobby’s a great player who plays with a killer band out of Austin called Honky — I can tell when it’s Bobby and I can tell the second he hands the guitar over to Pepper. It’s easy to tell who’s who. Phil would say, when he was in Pantera, he’d have an idea and he’d play Dime’s rig and it would sound like sh-t, but the second he’d hand the guitar back to Dime, it sounded like magic. It’s definitely in your hands.
What have you listened to recently?
The only brand new band that I’m really getting as far old school but bringing something new and fresh to the table is a band from Sweden called Ghost. It’s great songs, great melodies, to me they sound like Blue Oyster Cult, like a band from 1976. I really like them a lot. We tune to C-sharp with Down, and me and Pepper were messing around at soundcheck with a song called “Medusa” by Trapeze, an old band Glenn Hughes used to be in. He was like, “Why don’t we string up one of the extra guitars to E so that we can start picking out some of this old-school stuff that we love listening to?” I’m like, “Perfect idea,” so I called my tech to string one, a backup, we brought some practice amps, some old Fender amps, and we’re going to go back and learn from the masters.
Select one Down song that you feel best represents your guitar sound.
I’m going to go out on a limb and pick “Ghosts Along the Mississippi.” It’s one of these songs that’s got four, five, six parts to it, but it all seems to gel. It’s got a bit of upbeat to it, but it’s got the bluesy stuff to it. Phil’s vocals are great. I think if you want to hear what Down sounds like, my reason for picking it is because of all the different elements that are within that five-minute thing. It’s got some mellow stuff mixed in. The intro — that’s Phil’s riff. Me and Pepper worked on what I think would be considered a verse, the bridge was Pepper’s idea and the break in the middle is mine. There’s a couple of breaks, but it’s a break that goes into a melodic descending riff that I showed him and it’s a perfect example of “I’ve got a riff that’ll go perfect with that.” It came together really quickly. We play it in the set every night. It’s really hard to pick one. We just did a song called “There’s Something On My Side” at soundcheck that we haven’t done in a long while and that one’s kind of similar. Everybody wrote it together, it came out and flowed really easily, and it’s once again got the heavy element and a little bit of everything Down is about all in one song.
What does your practice consist of?
I like to think I have a pretty doggone good ear for picking things out, since I’m self-taught, but I’ve never been the kind of guy — and God bless those who have the patience — I’ve never been the kind of guy that can sit there and run scales and have this long guitar regime thing. I like riffs. I pick out stuff that I like, older songs, and a lot of times I just put on a record, a KISS record or something like that, and if it’s in the key of A, I play in A the whole time and pick up some A’s and sing along the way. For me, it’s more about taking the time to play the guitar every day, even if it’s just for 20 minutes, just to have it in my hands. Every time you pick up the guitar, I like to think you learn something a little different and you’re going to be a little better. It’s not just about practicing eight hours a day for scales; not for me, anyway. It’s about writing and just feeling comfortable with the instrument in my hands.
From the first time you picked up a guitar until now, what’s changed and what has stayed the same? And when was the first time?
The first thing I picked up was probably an Epiphone acoustic that my parents bought me. My dad was always a big music fan and he said, “If you stick with it for a year and you show promise, I’ll buy you an electric guitar.” The first thing I learned was “Smoke On The Water” on the E string and I taught myself “Black Diamond” by KISS. I’m totally self-taught. Pepper and I both are. We don’t have any theory at all, which sometimes can be a bad thing, but I like it because it makes us maybe break the rules because we don’t know what the rules are. We just do what we think sounds good. I remember Eddie Van Halen a long time ago saying, “If it sounds good, it is good.” Miles Davis was like, “Learn all the theory you can learn and then throw it out the window and forget about all of it.” I never did learn it. A lot of things we do are against the rulebook, you could say, but that helps give it some original sound. I remember having that Epiphone, and lucky for me, back in the ’70s, my dad’s cousin used to distribute Gibson, Pearl, Moog and all those instruments, so he was able to get me a Les Paul with a paint job flaw in the back for cost, a black ’78 Les Paul Custom, for a really good deal. That was my first electric. I still have that guitar. I had to have a Les Paul because of Ace Frehley!
Now I own a home, I have a family and I’m finally making time for myself to actually practice and write in the afternoon when the old lady’s at work, and really go back to like when I was a kid, because there was nothing better or more innocent than not having to worry about anything. I started to play when I was 13 years old, and being able to run home and just plug in your guitar and learn — it was great. I miss that, so I really want to get back to making the time. I think it’s a necessity, not just to rehearse my Down and Crowbar and Kingdom songs, but I want to go back and learn stuff that I’ve been wanting to learn for years and become a better player.
Read more of Kirk Windstein’s interview here: http://www.guitarworld.com/interview-getting-down-pepper-keenan-and-kirk…
Special thanks to Rob Fenn (www.MusicThroughTheLens.com) for the images of Pepper Keenan and Kirk Windstein that accompany their individual interviews. Fenn is the project founder and photographer of On The Road … Where Music Lives. Learn more about the upcoming documentary and book, which detail Fenn’s remarkable travels throughout summer and fall 2011, photographing artists and music festivals and discovering local independent record stores, by visiting his website.
Guitars: One ESP eclipse, two custom, single pickup, double-cutaway ESP’s.
Amps and Cabs: Two Orange Thunderverb 50 heads, four Orange 4×12 cabs with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers
Pedals and Effects: Maxon Tube Screamer, Boss Super Chorus, Dunlop Slash Wah pedal, MXR Phase 90, Boss TU-12 tuner.