Unbroken: Vinnie Paul on the legacy of ‘Far Beyond Driven,’ dance remixes of Pantera songs, and moving forward with Hellyeah

Two decades ago this week, the pinnacle of Pantera’s catalog, Far Beyond Driven, was released. At the time, it was the most extreme metal album to land in the number one slot on Billboard, shocking critics and industry insiders alike. Grunge was hitting its apex in 1994, Britpop was attempting to break in the States while disposable acts like Enigma and All-4-One were dominating the charts, joined by hot singles of even bigger flashes in the pans like 69 Boyz and Crash Test Dummies who were getting the majority of video and airplay. Simply put, there wasn’t room for heavy metal in the public consciousness.

The monolithic Driven changed all of that by displacing Ace of Base’s The Sign, which was on its way to 102 weeks on the chart, from the top position and beating out a debut by then heavyweight Bonnie Raitt’s Longing in Their Hearts, which went on to win two Grammys. But what it beat out was only part of the story; Far Beyond Driven was ridiculously abrasive from the beginning notes of frenetic opener “Strength Beyond Strength,” which slowed just enough for Phil Anselmo to growl the prescient line, “Hail, kings/the new kings.”

Anchored by the equally bludgeoning “I’m Broken,” “Five Minutes Alone” and “Becoming,” Far Beyond Driven gets the reissue treatment with the 20th Anniversary Edition released today. In addition to the remastered version of the original album, there’s also a bonus disc, Far Beyond Bootleg – Live From Donington ’94 which captures Pantera’s full set at the Monsters of Rock Festival in England that June.

Vanyaland caught up with drummer Vinnie Paul, who celebrated his 50th birthday March 11 with what he called, “The most outrageous party anybody could ever have in Vegas,” to talk expansively about Driven, the end of Pantera (cemented when his brother Darrell was shot to death onstage in 2004) and what’s driving him in music with his current band, Hellyeah, who seven years strong are about to deliver their fourth album, Blood for Blood, out June 10 via Eleven Seven Music.

Michael Christopher: Career-wise with Hellyeah, you’re almost at the same point you were 20 years ago with Pantera; three records in, you’ve got a fourth one on the horizon. What are the differences in how you look at this point musically at 50 compared to how you did at 30?

Vinnie Paul: I don’t look at it any differently at all man; I’m a big kid, I’ve always been that way. I’m not married, I don’t have any kids, I’ve always been married to the music and I’ve always had the same dedication level back then to this point except maybe a little wiser – about a lot of things – and that’s about it.

I want to talk about both bands, with the 20th anniversary of Driven and the Blood for Blood release coming up. What I find interesting is that you have these milestones with Pantera, some pretty major ones, which you have to look back on while still moving forward on the path with Hellyeah. How do you find that balance?

It’s difficult sometimes, because I don’t live in the past. And it seems like a lot of people do and they can’t get past it. I’m obviously very proud of everything I ever did in Pantera and we did do some milestones and I’ll reflect on it as needed, but I’m still moving forward and I feel like I have a whole lot to accomplish with Hellyeah and I’m working my ass off to get there.

With Far Beyond Driven, how did you approach it? Because [it’s predecessor] Vulgar Display of Power quickly became one of those landmark albums up there with Master of Puppets, British Steel and Rust in Peace; there must have been a certain degree of pressure going in to record it.

The only pressure we felt was the pressure we put on ourselves. We didn’t let any kind of record company pressure or anything like that affect us. We wanted to make the most extreme record we could make; we came up with the title Far Beyond Driven before we even wrote one song for it, and that kind of set the tone for the whole record.

Where were you when you found out that it went number one?

We were playing the Roseland Ballroom in New York City. We were holding our breath, kind of figuring that we’d be in the top 10 – maybe the top five if we were lucky – and there was an outside shot we’d hit number one, who knows? Our record company president called us and said they wanted to have a meeting with us at the Roseland.

About an hour before doors opened they pulled us into a room and said, “We just wanted to let you know that the album went number one in the United States of America…” and we thought that was it, that it was going to be the end of the meeting. We jumped up and down and high-fived and just went crazy. Then they said, “And also, here’s your platinum records; it’s not platinum yet, but it’s gonna be.” That was our first platinum record that we were ever given and we were really, really blown away and we went out and had a helluva show and then went out and did 312 more that year.

A lot of people don’t remember, but at that time many were saying the genre was dead. Even traditional metal bands were trying to get on the radio, obviously Metallica was the biggest one a couple years prior with the Black Album. Was it a validation of sorts that that type of music was still relevant?

I think without a doubt. MTV hated us. Radio hated us. There was no mainstream media that covered us except the heavy metal magazines. The fans made the album number one, they went out and bought nearly 200,000 units (the first week) and that said words above all the other things commercially. I think it really did validate heavy metal and hard rock and Pantera was one of the few bands that called themselves “heavy metal” and embraced the word. Like you said, at that time, the word was almost a bad word; it was looked at as uncool and we kept the flame burning bright and carried the torches high as we could man.

For the anniversary edition, there’s no bonus or unreleased tracks. I know that you’ve said there’s nothing left in the vaults as far as unheard original songs, but wasn’t it around the recording of Driven that you did a cover of a song off Van Halen II, whether it was “Outta Love Again” or “Light Up the Sky?”

Yeah, there are a couple of those things. Most of them are uncompleted, and we just kind of messed around with it. I don’t know; if I ever got around to listening to them and there was a way to complete them we might put it out at some point.

Why not add on the Poison Idea cover “The Badge” like you did with the version of Far Beyond Driven included in the Driven Downunder set that came out in Australia?

For different reasons. We did that song for a different label for the soundtrack to The Crow, and I don’t believe that our label and the label that that came out on got along with each other.

One of the things that you did with Vulgar that maybe some people aren’t aware of is you allowed remixes to be done (“Walk,” “Fucking Hostile” and “By Demons Be Driven” were remixed multiple times by both Foetus and Justin K. Broadrick of Godflesh respectively).

Yeah – never let it happen again after that [laughs].

I was gonna say, I assumed that it never happened again because at that point you’re giving up control or vision of where the song goes.

We had no idea what they were going to do with it because they said “remix” and we were like, “Let’s see what happens.” I really thought that what they meant by “remix” was remix; I didn’t know they were going to rework the songs and almost turn them into dance grooves and stuff. I don’t think any of us were too thrilled with it and of course the record companies do what record companies do and put it out whether you like it or not, so that’s kind of how that happened.

Looking back, are you glad you decided not to go with the original artwork on Far Beyond Driven [depicting a drill bit entering an ass]?

Hmmm…um, not really. The original thought was “metal up your ass,” you know? And like you said, in 1994, heavy metal was uncool and we wanted to be as metal as we could. The label agreed with us and then came back three days later and said, “Uhhh…we can’t get this into Walmart, Target and retail and it’s gonna kill us.” So we got back with the guy who did the artwork, Dean Karr, and he did the one with the drill in the head which signifies the same thing.

Speaking of artwork, one of the things I’ve always wanted to ask you was about the Cowboys from Hell cover. There’s a notion by some that on the first pressings that you were holding a sandwich or a hamburger or something.

Honestly, it was money, but I have definitely heard, “Were you holding a sandwich?” or “What were you holding?” At the time, we didn’t have any money to speak of and the art director, Bob Defrin, handed me like six hundred dollar bills that he had in his pocket and that was like the most money I’d ever in my hands – ever!

In the Pantera catalog, from Cowboys on, where do place Far Beyond Driven in terms of importance?

Ahh man, it was huge, you know? It took us from being an opening act to being the headliner, and we were really all about playing live. The studio was something that we did and we were proud of, but the band built its reputation from playing live and that’s what we were all about.

One final thought on Pantera. Obviously the time has passed, but are you content with Reinventing the Steel being the swan song of the band?

Well… my brother envisioned Pantera as being the Rolling Stones of heavy metal and going on as long as we were going on, you know? It’s unfortunate that [his death] was the end of it, but I think it was a great record and probably the most anthemic record we ever made. We really felt that when it came out it was misunderstood and it took a while to grow on people. But it’s one of my favorite Pantera records.

I think many people assumed that you would never try to put yourself in a band setting again, at least for a long-term project. What was sort of the seed that grew into Hellyeah?

I really think from the very onset we wanted it to be a real band and not a side project. We had intentions of making it last as long as we could and for me, my intention is for it to be the last band that I’m in. I feel that strongly about it and I really enjoy it. I feel like this is the best record we made in our career and it’s just getting better.

With Blood for Blood you had a bit of a shakeup in terms of the lineup. How did that affect the recording process?

It enabled us to make the best record we’ve ever made. We finished the Gigantour and really wanted to get right back to the studio and pick up on the momentum we had built from the last tour and from Band of Brothers. It just became really obvious that the focus wasn’t there with Greg (Tribbett, guitarist) or Bob (Zilla, bassist) and we just knew that we weren’t going to be able to make the record we wanted to and we unfortunately had to part ways with them.

How important to you is it to not get off the road and just sit around and do nothing instead of getting right back into the studio while you still have that high from touring?

I just feel like the attention span of the world today is so, “Here today, gone this afternoon.” You really can’t take that time and go away for a period or people will forget about you. And if you’re building momentum and really trying to build a band and take it to another level, the smartest thing is to just get right back at it.

What level is it that you foresee Hellyeah getting to?

I mean, the level that Pantera was at was pretty untouchable because the day and times and all that, but just to be able to be a solid, headline band. It would be nice to get to that level where we’re the main attraction and go on tour and bring the bands on tour that we want to bring with us.

The Hellyeah audience as far as I’ve seen has been a good mix of new fans and ones of your respective and former bands.

It’s a little bit of both; we’ve got people who’ve followed us in Pantera, Nothingface, Mudvayne, and then there’s a lot of new blood, young kids who weren’t really around to catch onto all that stuff.

I saw some pictures from the birthday bash, and I was pretty disappointed that you aren’t tricking out your beard anymore – and don’t tell me that you’re too old to be doing it.

No, no, no – I’m not too old for anything. I’ll probably get the game chops back on for this tour. Sometimes it’s a little bit of maintenance, and while we have had a little bit of downtime I’ve got it down to just two stripes – it was up at five. I’ve been thinkin’ about it and I probably will put the game stripes back on.