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Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Johnny Van Zant: ‘Hopefully We’ll Have Many, Many More Years Doing This’

Geoff Burke, Getty Images

When we caught up with Lynyrd Skynyrd vocalist Johnny Van Zant, he was in South Dakota, where the band was set to take the stage to entertain the motorcycle loving masses at the annual Sturgis Rally.

The veteran singer was slightly under the weather, battling a cold acquired on the road as a result of the changing elements and temperatures in each city. Calling it “one hot ass summer,” Van Zant shared an example of a recent show in Portsmouth, Va. where the stage thermometer revealed that it was a blazing 115 degrees.

But none of this dimmed the enthusiasm that Van Zant displayed when discussing ‘Last Of A Dyin’ Breed,’ the band’s new album, which will be released this week (August 21). The new album is unmistakably a real Lynyrd Skynyrd album, authentic in every sense of the definition.

We were excited to get the chance to talk about ‘Last of a Dyin’ Breed’ and how it relates to the band’s history. We also got Van Zant’s perspective on life with Lynyrd Skynyrd, now that he’s been with the band for 25 years.

After a successful run with the last album, it seems like you guys had a simple goal to make a record that sounded like 100% Lynyrd Skynyrd — nothing more, nothing less this time out. Where did you guys start with this one?

Oh man, well, we started right after (2009′s) ‘God & Guns,’ we started writing and we had a ton of songs. When we finally decided to do it, we actually started in February of this year and ended up doing it in March really, pretty much. We used Bob Marlette, who has worked with Shinedown and a bunch of different bands, Black Sabbath, Ozzy, etc.

We just went in and hit and pulled it up and said okay, great! Because the last album ‘God & Guns’ that we did, we had lost Billy [Powell] and [bassist] Ean [Evans] during the making of that record. This album man, we said okay, let’s go have some fun and let’s knock this thing out like the old days and have a good time doing it. And we really did, man. Hey, the proof’s in the pudding, I guess that’s the way you would say and hey, if the fans love it…..you know, we love it. But sometimes, if the fans love it, that’s where it’s all happening at. That’s your end goal anyway, is to make the fans happy.

What songs are you excited to play live from this record?

Last of a Dyin’ Breed.’ It’s really cool. [Live,] we’ve been letting [guitarist Gary] Rossington go out, since he starts it off with the slide thing. He was in the studio just warming up, playing some slide on that particular song and I was in the break room and I came running in and I said “dude, we need to put that at the beginning of it,” you know, because that’s a Gary Rossington thing. So he just did a few tracks like that and the last one, we said “okay, that’s it,” that’s the song, you know? [Laughs]

We’re playing ‘One Day At A Time’ and a song called ‘Good Teacher’ that’s a lot of fun to play live. So we’ve started out with those three and we’re getting ready to work up ‘Mississippi Blood’ and ‘Homegrown’’ and I don’t know if we’ll do one of the ballads yet. But there’s a song on there called ‘Start Livin’ Life Again’ that I’d love to just break down and set up some chairs and just sing it to the audience. It’s still a work in progress [as far as additional songs that might be featured from the new album], but we’re working at it.

You mentioned ‘Homegrown,’ which is one of two songs back to back on the new album which really hit me for different reasons. What struck me about ‘Homegrown’ is that it is very much a Lynyrd Skynyrd song, but there are elements that also sound very current, like a Seether or Theory of a Deadman song that you might hear on the radio. Were there particular things influencing where you went with that one?

You know man, it’s ironic that you said Seether, because we actually wrote with Shaun (Seether lead singer / guitarist Shaun Morgan) and we’ve got a song called ‘Sad Song’ [which was recorded during the sessions for the new album].  The thing about Lynyrd Skynyrd is that we go over to Europe and we play these heavy metal festivals – we just did Hellfest in France and to be honest with you, I didn’t even know the band before us, but the guy was like [Van Zant imitates “Cookie Monster” heavy metal vocals of the singer] [Laughs] And I’m looking at the audience going “how the hell are we going to fit into this?”

[But then] we went out and had a killer gig. And you know, one of our best friends is John 5 and that’s how we met Bob Marlette and another good friend, Rob Zombie. Everybody in Lynyrd Skynyrd loves different styles of music and our minds are very open when it comes to writing our songs and making the band true to what the band is, but also stepping out and doing something current.

When we got down to that song, the little effect on the voice, it was kind of like “hey, that’s cool – that sounds current, let’s do it, let’s step out.” So there’s a line [with that effect], “I can’t forget how she tastes on my lips/ she’s as good as it gets” and you know, we’re having fun with it. And again, we’re in touch with a lot of the newer bands. Two of my favorite bands, Blackberry Smoke and Black Stone Cherry, I just think both of those bands are a good new progressive kind of Southern Rock, that’s a little different than us but still has a rootsy thing going on. So we’re pretty much in touch with a lot of different things.

Can you tell us a little bit more about ‘Sad Song,’ the song you wrote with Shaun?

It’s not on the regular album – we’re doing it as a bonus track, because we wanted to really….you know, a lot of times people give sh-tty songs as bonus tracks. And our tracks that we have to do for different corporations like Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy or whatever — each one of them wants a bonus track and something that’s not on the actual CD. We think our bonus tracks are pretty kick ass, so we said “hey, let’s give ‘Sad Song’ as one of the bonus tracks.” Shaun’s just a great guy, man. We sat down and wrote with him and he’s a very intelligent guy, if you ever really talk to him. He’s very intellectual and a very cool guy. I really enjoyed writing with him and I hope to do it again.

The other song right after ‘Homegrown’ is ‘Ready to Fly’ and that’s such a powerful ballad, I was surprised to hear that’s not of the ones in the mix at this point for the live show. That one seems like it would be a natural.

Yeah, you know, because we have such a big catalog, that would be probably the only reason why we wouldn’t start off playing that from the record. When you think of a Skynyrd show, you’ve got to throw in a ‘Simple Man’ or ‘Tuesday’s Gone’ or something like that and you don’t want to ever hit a crowd with too many ballads. And that would be the [only] reason why maybe we wouldn’t start out doing that song. As the record gets out, maybe that might change in the future.

You worked again with producer Bob Marlette on this record. After working with Bob on the ‘Gods & Guns’ album, what was his advice and direction regarding where you should take this record?

Oh man, Bob’s great. You know, Bob’s not only a producer, he’s a musician. We cut all of the vocals in the control room. He puts on a set of headphones and I’m not out in another room where we’re [separated and] doing a talkback session, which really sucks for me, so he’s great for me, doing vocals.

For him, he said “hey, let’s look at all of our songs first,” you know, that’s the way it starts out, looking at all of the songs. It’s pretty funny, some of the songs that we actually didn’t do demos of were some of his favorite ones, because they were just bare, us in a room with a tape player just trying to get through the song as we wrote it. He’s good for us. We’re all about the same age, we laugh and carry on and he reels us back in and we reel him back in, so it’s a team thing. He brings a lot to the party, should I say.

Yeah and you mentioned it, obviously having somebody that’s a musician and a songwriter like Bob, that does help. It gives it some validity so that you’re not standing there in the control room as he’s coaching you through vocals going “what do you know,” right?

Yeah, exactly. You know, I’ve worked with producers who couldn’t friggin’ sing a note and couldn’t hear a melody and I’m going “how did they become a producer?” [Laughs] They couldn’t play an instrument at all, you know? So it’s an admiration thing that you go “hey, this guy’s a talented guy” and he looks at you as a talented artist or else he wouldn’t be workin’ with you. So it’s a good deal, I hope to make many more records with Bob.

Johnny Colt, who some people are going to know from his time with the Black Crowes, is new to the Skynyrd lineup on bass. Was he able to be part of the recordings for this new album?

Johnny actually just joined the band, so Johnny actually did not play on the CD. I wish he would have. But we had Mike Brignardello, who’s a good friend of ours that played on the CD. But Colt was in on some of the sessions in there, like ‘Last of a Dyin’ Breed,’ we were trying to write the song and Colt came in and we had just really met Johnny and hell, he throws on a bass and starts jamming with us and we’re like “oh cool!” So we knew right then, we were like “okay, this is our guy.” Johnny Colt is a character and most people in Lynyrd Skynyrd are characters, so he fits in great with us. He’s got an attitude, man, and I love it and that’s what we need.

He’s actually kicked us in the ass too, because at times, Johnny is bigger than life, which is good. You need that kind of thing when you’re in a band. New blood always helps out.

You’ve been at the helm of the band for 25 years now. How have you seen the band evolve during that time period?

This band, since I’ve been in it, has been through a lot of different members from the start — I joined in about 1987. For me, in the earlier records that I made with the band, I worked with Ed King, Randall Hall and different members and stuff like that. Me and Gary have always been together and Dale Rossington, we’re the last three of the people [from the lineup] that started out in 1987. So we kind of went through this thing where I think we were trying to compete or trying to be more like….I don’t want to say this, competing with the old band and the feel. And people trying to write songs that were like this or that and then we got [former Blackfoot vocalist/guitarist Rickey] Medlocke in the band and he’s on the harder edge.

Blackfoot was on the harder edge and I loved [that]. Growing up, I loved country music, but I also loved Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and those kind of bands, the Beatles of course. But then I liked Merle Haggard, George Jones and Tammy Wynette too. But nowadays man, we just go “hey, let’s write songs.” Let’s write songs and if it sounds like a Skynyrd song, that’s great. If it doesn’t sound like a Skynyrd song that’s great, because this is what we’re writing. And it seems to have worked out with us. It started on the ‘God & Guns’ album and now we’re into the ‘Last of the Dyin’ Breed’ album and we’re just writing what we feel instead of going “okay, well we might need to write something in this vein or whatever.” We’re having fun with it and Gary’s playing better than he’s ever played in his life, to me. I love doing it, so hopefully we can do many more.

I think you do hear sometimes where an artist made an attempt to write in a certain style and the music sounds manufactured as a result. You certainly don’t hear that with this album.

Well, I appreciate that. You know, we’re at an age where we’ve been through so much and this band’s been through tragedy, heartache and triumphs. Great things have happened to this band along with a lot of bad things and we’re at an age where we’re looking at it and going “you know what, we’re sober and we’re not doing drugs,” we’re going out and we’re playing music and having fun doing it. We’re writing songs and having fun doing it again and hey, who knows what the Lord’s going to bring us? Who knows how long we’re going to be able to do this and while we’re doing it, we’re going to have as much fun as we can and hopefully our fans stick with us and we’ll have many, many more years doing this.

The ‘Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd’ album is approaching its 40th anniversary next year. Back in that time period, what did you witness as far as how that album came together and where that band was and where they were going with Ronnie at that point?

You know, I was young and I used to watch them practice in my parents’ living room. When ‘Pronounced’ came out, they’d already done a record [which was shelved] and later on they put it out called ‘First and Last.’ It really didn’t get any response [at the time that they made it] and then ‘Pronounced’ came out and it did fairly well. The band had success but it wasn’t big success. For me, that album was the stepping stone to get to ‘Second Helping,’ of course. Which then ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ came out and all of the sudden people went “oh, there’s a song called ‘Freebird’ on ‘Pronounced!’”

You know, back then rock radio played albums, so all of the sudden, BOOM, ‘Second Helping,’ the whole album was being played on FM radio and then BOOM, they went back to ‘Pronounced’ and it was being played on the radio. ‘Pronounced Leh-Nerd Sky-Nyrd’ is a great record, man. You go back and you listen to that and I think Al Kooper came into the picture and I think Kooper was great for them. You know, you’re telling me something that I didn’t realize. I didn’t even realize that it’s been almost 40 years! [Laughs]

Read Our Review of Skynyrd's New Single

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