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Down throwing punches at Hard Rock Cafe

Phil Anselmo tends to speak in grave tones, his voice deep and deliberate, his words delivered at the speed of syrup traversing sandpaper.

He sounds purposeful, a little intimidating.

But when the topic of discussion turns to boxing, Anselmo’s enthusiasm for the sport brightens the conversation, inflames it, really, the way a stray ember might spark a forest fire.

Anselmo’s on the phone to talk about his band Down, a Dixie metal supergroup consisting of himself and members of heavy hitters such as Corrosion of Conformity, Eyehategod, Crowbar and more, but it turns into a 90-minute chat revolving, in large part, on Anselmo’s primary passion outside of music.

The guy’s more than just a boxing fan.

He writes for website Boxinginsider.com during his infrequent downtime, corresponds via email with heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko before every fight and was a founding member of the last incarnation of Detroit’s famed Kronk Gym, which was overseen by his friend and legendary trainer Emanuel Steward, who passed away in October.

“He was such a dynamite ambassador for the sport. And he’s gone,” Anselmo says, the emotion clear in his voice. “I attended his funeral. That was a very surreal thing, to see that room full of weeping champions.”

Anselmo once even filmed a pilot for a proposed boxing show for HBO, but chafed at the formalities of TV.

“I can’t go off a script. I really can’t,” he says. “I hate the limitations. I’ve got to be talking like this. Matter-of-factly. Honestly.”

There is a relationship between boxing and Anselmo’s music career, which first launched him to stardom in the early ’90s as the frontman for metal favorites Pantera, and it goes beyond the fact that he prepares for touring by training like a prize fighter, going 10 rounds at least three times a week on a heavy bag before hitting the road.

Boxing’s core principles – discipline, pain management, weathering adversity – have served Anselmo well, especially later in his career.

Flashback two decades ago, when Down began as a lark, really, just a bunch of buddies who happened to be in notable bands getting together to jam – and perhaps kill a few beers.

They’d cut a three-song practice demo, which eventually made the rounds worldwide, garnering the band substantial underground buzz.

“When we did that first demo, it was really just an idea,” Anselmo says. “Everybody was on this slow trip, this revisitation trip, into Black Sabbath and bands that were influenced by Black Sabbath, like St. Vitus, Trouble and Witchfinder General. We were all on the same wavelength.”

From there came Down’s seminal, smoked-out 1995 debut, “NOLA,” named after the town from which most of them hailed, New Orleans. The album would become a cult classic with its thick fog of steamroller riffs, fierce Southern rock swing and Anselmo’s most soulful singing up to that point.

But by the time the group got back together in late 2001 to record their second album, “Down II,” Anselmo wasn’t in the best shape.

“I’ll tell you this, I was on more drugs than Guns N’ Roses was in the ’80s, so I was a little out of my mind – actually, I was way out of my mind,” he says. “Those were some tough times for me.”

Eventually Anselmo would lay off the hard stuff, get back in the ring (literally and figuratively), and Down would become reinvigorated.

In September, the band released “Down IV Part 1,” a six-song EP that’s Down at its most direct and visceral, with the psychedelic flourishes toned down and amps turned up.

“With seven years of clarity under my belt, finally, it’s like, ‘Let’s go back to how we started the band,’ ” Anselmo says of Down’s latest release, the first in a planned series of EPs. “Making a full-length record these days, I get bored easily. I’m a guy who goes off the momentum of mood.

“It’s better for the fan base that I can concentrate on four to six songs and give them my full attention, as opposed to 10 or 12 songs where I feel like I’m forcing myself,” he adds. “That’s an ugly feeling as a musician. I’m not going to let myself get bored at all anymore.”

Anselmo sounds fully engaged on this day.

He doesn’t like overthinking things.

Like the boxers whose strengths and weaknesses he dissects with the precision of an ace counterpuncher, he’s ultimately ruled by instinct.

“It’s so organic. It’s so natural,” he says of fronting Down. “It’s like waking up and having a cup of coffee. It’s not autopilot at all, it’s full command of the senses. Once the objective is to write a Down record, it’s not rocket science. We know what to do at this point.”

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at
jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.

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