After decades as a recording and touring artist, and 19 albums to his name, Kirk Windstein still finds his inspiration from the pursuit of the almighty riff. And through his work with his signature band Crowbar, the “supergroups” Down and Kingdom of Sorrow, and his 2020 solo album “Dream in Motion,” Windstein has put a more impressive collection of crushing riffs to tape than anyone not named Tony Iommi. They don’t call him “riff lord” for nothing. In the can since early 2020, Crowbar’s 12th studio album, “Zero and Below” (MNRK Heavy), finally is due for release on March 4, 2022, the same day the band will kick off a North American tour with Sepultura and Sacred Reich. A month prior to that, Live Metal’s Greg Maki caught up with Kirk to discuss the new record, the status of Down, the possibility of more Kingdom of Sorrow music and more.
LIVE METAL: In a lot of ways, it feels like we’re still in 2020, but we’re almost two years into this pandemic. How are you doing health-wise, physically and mentally?
KIRK WINDSTEIN: All things considered, really good. During the whole thing, I had a lot of, like I told my wife, for a while there, I think regardless of what your job is, but I think especially a lot of musicians, I kind of went through a little depressed stage there for a bit. And then I kind of snapped out of that. I gained even a lot more weight than I already was—just drinking beer and eating shit and just depressed. Kind of cut all that out, got into the gym seriously, lost a bunch of weight. So physically feeling good, other than my neck. Mentally, feeling really good now.
It was a tough time for everyone. I’ve been fully vaccinated since July/August, but I did catch COVID on a tour we did with Municipal Waste in November. Myself and my drummer—fully vaccinated—we both came home with it. Thankfully, it was a short tour. I mean, it sucked, but I like to think that the vaccines helped me. The first four or five days were a blur. All I did is sleep. By the time I got past the absolute exhaustion where I couldn’t even barely get up to take a piss, once I got through that, I still felt like shit, and I still felt really weak and fatigued, but it got a lot better. Just a terrible thing to go through. I mean, look, I’m lucky. Like I told my wife, I said I was never scared, I never feared for my life, I never felt like I needed to go to the hospital or any of that shit. So I’m blessed with that, man. I’ll take it.
Aside from getting healthy and losing weight, what kind of things have you done just to kind of stay sane during this time?
Write music. It fixes everything. I’ve been working a lot on my second solo record, and even just popping in the studio once or twice a week to do stuff with that is uplifting. Really, my wife and I, for people that don’t have 9-to-5 regular jobs, we’re busy all the time. This morning, she had a 9 a.m. doctor’s appointment, and then we had to run to the bank, and I barely made it for my first Zoom, which was an hour ago. I had two Zooms back to back and then this one, and the second I’m done with you, I go straight to the chiropractor, then the rehearsal room to pick up some signed CDs, zip to FedEx to mail ‘em, and I actually had to postpone the studio today because there’s not enough hours in the day to get it all done. But I’m glad we’re busy. It’s all productive, constructive shit, which is better than laying around and doing nothing. Sometimes it’s a little overwhelming, but I’ve got no complaints. I’m happy, so that’s a good thing.
What was it like to get back up onstage in front of a crowd again after so long?
Exciting. I won’t say it erased all the downtime in between, but it felt normal. Doing those livestreams was great, but it’s just not the same. You’re playing to a couple of cameras and a sound guy. Being a guy that’s been playing gigs since I’m 16 years old and I’m two months away from 57 years of age—a guy that’s been doing it that long, like 40 years or something performing, it’s very odd. Never in my life have I gone that long without getting onstage or being on tour and doing it.
Thankfully, at least here in New Orleans, things are looking up, as in they think that we’ve hit our plateau and cases are dropping. It’s almost a situation where of course they’re pushing, pushing, pushing for everyone to get vaccinated, and I get it. But it’s almost a situation where it just seems like they gave up and they’re like, “Get your fuckin’ vaccine, wear your mask, and just don’t be stupid.” Because we have to. We can’t afford this any longer. Enough negative changes in the world have happened since the dawn of this fuckin’ COVID thing, and it’s like we just can’t have another year without Mardi Gras. We can’t have another year without Jazz Fest and all these big things that we do down here in New Orleans. Not only is it something that all the people down here love, it’s such a big financial thing for the city. This city is built on tourism, and the motto is basically eat, drink and be merry. It’s built on restaurants and bars and events—music just in general. We cannot afford to keep canceling all these things.
But down here, they’re rolling with it. They had a parade Sunday for the beginning of Mardi Gras. They’ve had a couple already. So for us, it’s kind of just—I won’t say normal, but it’s back to just get your fuckin’ vaccines and don’t be stupid. Wear the mask, practice social distancing. I mean, for me being a person that’s fully vaccinated and having caught it, I feel—I don’t want to jinx myself here—but I feel relatively safe, feeling that I have the antibodies. In fact, I might even get an antibody test and make sure, and just take it from there. In general, you’ve just got to be careful.
This tour we’re about to do with Sepultura and Sacred Reich is a long tour, and nobody on the tour can afford to get this shit. I don’t want to say I’m happy I already had it, but I do think it will add to my resistance against it—I’m hoping. I’m not gonna lie. I’m one of those guys, I always go out. My wife tour manages and does merchandise. I always go hang by merchandise and meet fans. I didn’t do nearly as much as I normally do on this tour we did with Municipal Waste in November, but I still got out there a little bit, because I felt hey, I’m vaccinated, and if I’m careful, I’ll be OK. Well, it didn’t work. So I think I need to be a lot more careful on this one. We all do. And that’s just the way it is, and that’s just the way it’s going to be for a little while.
I’ve been touring for 30-something years, and it’s a situation of like every couple years, somebody gets the flu or something. And in this business, at least for a band like us, there’s no calling in sick. You suck it up, you take your medicine, you drink all the water you can—whatever. You just get out there, you get through the show, and you hit the bunk and go to bed. But with this thing, it’s more like, “OK, you got it. Well, guess what? The next X number of shows are canceled and you have to quarantine” and this and that or whatever. I mean, I get it, but at the same time, it’s kind of like so it didn’t matter when I got on stage with the flu when I’m screaming and there’s people all up front and spit’s going on ‘em? That was OK? Everybody’s got an opinion. I don’t know.
I just want shit to get normal. If everybody plays it smart, we can—it’s way too late to nip it in the bud, but you know what I’m saying—maybe just get a decline and get to some sense of normalcy in the U.S. and in the world in general. These smaller countries, like in Scandinavia and some of the European countries, they’re able to do things differently, because the United States is so big compared to them. They can shut down a little country for a short period of time, get everything under control and make sure everybody is vaccinated, then reopen things, and it’s OK. But a lot of that’s all shut down right now. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews overseas, and a lot of it’s on shutdown.
One thing that is kind of getting back to normal is that Crowbar has a new album coming out, “Zero and Below,” on March 4. You’ve been sitting on this for two years now, right?
Yes, we have, which was very difficult. We had to do what we had to do. We didn’t think it was a good idea to put it out during the pandemic, with everything going on, a lot of people having financial struggles and not being able to work, and then not being able to get on tour and support it. It was kind of like, to us, a no-brainer to say, “You know what? It sucks. We love the record, but we can’t get on tour and support this thing. And we don’t want it to kind of get forgotten in the midst of everything else going on.” So I’m glad we waited. It’s coming out March 4, and we actually begin the tour with Sepultura and Sacred Reich March 4. So I’m looking forward to that.
You’ve been in this business for a long time, made a lot of albums, so many songs, so many riffs. What keeps you going? When you pick up a guitar, what keeps you inspired?
I guess the same thing that got me started when I was a kid—the love of music. If I pick up a guitar, I’m gonna write something. I’ll say it in all the interviews because it’s true: I’m not trying to play these rippin’ solos and all that. That’s just not me. I enjoy playing guitar solos in Down, but in general for me, when I pick up the guitar, I want to create in the sense of I want to write a riff, I want to write a song or write a riff that’s gonna become a song. It’s just something that’s in me, and it’ll never go away.
Has your approach to writing, either musically or lyrically, changed at all as you’ve gotten older?
Not really musically. This new Crowbar will be my 19th record. It’s a lot of fuckin’ songs. I think this makes 136 songs for Crowbar now. So that’s a lot, and that’s not including Down, Kingdom of Sorrow and my first solo record. I like to think as I get older, you can kind of refine things and you become a better writer, a better arranger. Lyrically, I might have changed a little bit. A lot of people are saying with song titles like “Crush Negativity,” they’re like, “Is it more positive?” And I’m like yeah. And it was a conscious thing, but it’s been leading in that way, that direction, for a long time. Because when I was young, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I just wanted to be angry and write dark stuff, and it wasn’t really that uplifting—not that I want uplifting music. But I still write about very dark subject matter. I just like to keep a little hope for the listener.
It’s very therapeutic for me, the music and the lyric writing, and then listening back to it. But I have so many people tell me how the lyrics and the music have helped them through terrible periods in their life. So I think it’s important to keep that light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, or a glimmer of hope, like look, you’re not alone. You’re not in this by yourself. You can survive this and move on with your life if you’re going through something really terrible.
So other than that, it’s the same as it’s always been. I just love playing heavy shit. I love writing music. I love all styles of music, really. It’s who I am, and I don’t think that’ll ever change.
I think it’s interesting that you mentioned “Crush Negativity.” That’s one of the more positive or hopeful songs that you’ve done, and it has one of the doomier-type sounds that you’ve done. Those two things you normally wouldn’t think of together, but it works.
Yeah, it does. A good example of a doom-type band, who’s one of my biggest influences, that has a positive message would be Trouble. I’m a huge, huge Trouble fan. God rest Eric Wagner, a brilliant singer and a friend of mine, so of course we all miss him. I think that they do a great job of really dark riffs but with a positive message in the end. When it’s all said and done, it’s a positive experience.
This new album very much has the classic Crowbar sludgy, thick, heavy sound, which I love. I’m a huge fan. But then some of the things that are a little different are some of the moments that are my favorite. On the first single “Chemical Godz,” you’ve got that harmonizing guitar part. How did that come about?
Actually, the middle section is a riff that Matt Brunson, our other guitar player, had. I kind of wrote the song leading up to that point, and I’m like, “Alright, guys, this thing’s gonna be killer. We need to go somewhere else with it right now.” Matt’s like, “Dude, I got an idea. I don’t know if it’ll work.” He played it, and I went, “No, that’s killer.” So we made that a part of the song, and then when we got in the studio—I love doing harmonies—and we laid a lot of harmonies down and shit. The first half of the song is heavy, and then we get into something that kind of takes you somewhere else on a musical journey. And then and when it comes back in, it’s even heavier to me. It’s more aggressive—lyrically, vocally, even riff-wise. It’s a killer tune, man.
On your solo album, you did a lot of vocal harmonies. Did you find any of that bleeding into this new Crowbar album?
Yeah, totally. Doing the solo record, because of the nature of the music, how simple and wide open it was, it lent itself to me having to sing more melodic, sing cleaner. I always at least double every line that I sing. Everything I sing has always been doubled, at least. It helps smooth out my voice a little bit because it’s so raspy. But doing the solo record, I kind of taught myself a little bit how to sing a little more proper, a little differently maybe, and the vocal harmonies, although we can’t duplicate that live, it’s OK. Live is live. We’re not gonna get backing tracks and all that kind of shit. That’s not for Crowbar. But in the studio, I really enjoy doing harmony stuff on vocals, as well. It just adds to it. It’s a lot of fun. It sounds better with it to me than without it, and to me, it makes the overall thing better.
One of my other favorites is “It’s Always Worth the Gain,” which has more of a rock-type feel to it, and it sounds like it would be a lot of fun to play live, too. How did that one come about?
I kind of wrote it on the spot in the studio. I was listening to the Motorhead “Rock ‘n’ Roll” album, and the title track, “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” came on. It’s like an old-school call-and-answer rock thing. You play the riff and then the vocal happens over the drum beat. I did the guitars to a click track, and when our drummer came in, he’s like, “I dig this.” And I said, “I want you to fuckin’ go off”—because he’s an amazing drummer, Tommy Buckley. And he goes, “How much?” I said, “No, just go off. Go for it.” I said, “Every time I’m not singing, during all those little fills, go for it.” And he went for it so much that in verse two I actually left lyrics out of two lines, but it worked. It was just too busy, what he was doing, for me to sing over, but it worked for the song. I did a thing—I think it was with Decibel magazine a couple weeks ago—and the journalist was like, “As soon as I heard that song, I said, ‘Arena sludge.'” And I said, “Ah, I dig that.”
It’s something that we will pick up live when we’re headlining. With this tour, we have a short set, but we’re determined to throw some new stuff in. That’s one that I think, live, could really be a killer song. It’s a little bit different. Like you said, it’s a little more rockish, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The second half of the song is a lot more aggressive anyway. But the first half is definitely more rock than anything Crowbar has really done. I listen to all that kind of stuff. I listen to classic rock more than any genre of music out there. So it’s in me. We all really love the way that song came out.
How did you decide on the album title “Zero and Below?”
A lot of times we don’t look for a, quote unquote, title track. I just came up with the title. It has nothing to even do with the lyrics or the song or anything. So all the guys are looking at it. We’re looking at different song titles, and then when we got to “Zero and Below,” which is the closing track, I said, “What do you all think of ‘Zero and Below?'” And everybody was like, “I dig it.” It doesn’t really have any particular meaning, although I can lie or stretch the truth a lot and say we could sum up the last two years in that phrase right there: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how’s it been? How has life been the last two years?” “Ugh, I’ll give it a zero and below.”
In all reality, it’s just a phrase. I just write down thoughts with these song titles in my lyrics and stuff. It’s really therapeutic for me, but I guess I’m a little crazy—I don’t know. I just write down a lot of one-liners. Just write down thoughts. Some of ’em are easy to understand, and it’s a pretty obvious point I’m trying to make. And some of ’em are just a lot of different thoughts. But it works.
Speaking of the tour and playing live, how hard is it for you to put together a set list at this point? As you said, 136 songs to choose from.
It’s next to impossible, because I look online and people are like, “Play this” and “Play that.” We’d have to play like three hours, and that wouldn’t even come close to covering 136 songs. We’ve been mixing up the set list a little bit, bringing in some of the older songs that we never played or very rarely played. And we enjoy doing that. It’s almost like a new song. But on something like this, we’re only gonna get 40 minutes, maybe 45 if we’re lucky, so that’s eight or nine songs tops. And then you gotta play “Planets Collide,” you gotta play “All I Had I Gave,” you gotta play either “Lasting Dose” or “To Build a Mountain”—something off the “Sonic Excess in Its Purest Form” record—you gotta play stuff off of the self-titled. It’s really difficult at this point to come up with a set list. We don’t really have “hits”—radio hits or something—but there are some fan favorites, and we like to throw in some obscure ones, as well. Normally, we don’t get many complaints and they do understand that it’s a very short list due to the circumstance of we just happened to be on the tour.
Also in 2020, you reunited with Down, which, as a fan, I’ve wanted to see happen for a long time. How are things going in that camp?
Great. We’re doing three shows in May. I’m not sure yet if they’re fly dates or if we just get the bus and do a short little one-week run or something. I’m not sure what’s going on with that, but we do have three confirmed shows in May. With Down, writing new music can be a really long and tough thing because everybody’s got so many ideas, everybody’s talented, everybody’s a writer. We’ve been talking for a good while now—and I think we’re gonna do it—about just taking six obscure songs and doing a cover song EP, but making those six songs our own, kind of redoing ’em in Down’s style a bit. We still haven’t solidified which six songs it’s gonna be and agreed on that, but it’s gonna be killer. So I’m looking forward to that. I think that’s a good step for Down right now, and then we can look into possibly making new Down music in the hopefully not too distant future.
Is there any chance of doing anything more with Kingdom of Sorrow? I thought that was such a great combo of your and Jamey Jasta’s different styles coming together.
Yeah, definitely. Jamey actually manages me and Crowbar, so if we don’t talk every day, we’re in touch a lot when there’s stuff going on. We text back and forth. So first thing in the morning, every morning—because he’s on the East Coast and I’m on central, and I get up early. I’m usually up at 5:30, 6 o’clock in the morning. I’ll just hit him up with “Morning rocker,” and he’ll hit me back with “Alright, man, call you in a little bit,” or “This is going on, I’ll shoot an email out.” We’ve definitely talked about it. We definitely want to do something with Kingdom.
Is there anything else you’d like to say before we go?
I want to thank you for having me. And just in general, for all the Crowbar fans, we’re super excited to finally get the record out. Please go out and buy it, and support all heavy music. Thanks for your support. Thanks for your patience, and stay safe out there.