Straight Forward

"Sorry, you'll have to keep it short; Vinnie's running behind."
It's the sort of notice a journalist hates to hear down the phone line from the handler of major band, especially when the usual rock-star allotment is only about 30 minutes to begin with. Then again, when you're Vinnie Paul, the drummer and mouthpiece for Pantera, and you're only about six hours away from opening night of a world tour, you may not have an hour to shoot the breeze with a music writer the way you did years ago, back when Pantera were big deals at home in Texas but still relative nobodies elsewhere.

So when the connection goes through and Paul commands the line, he answers the hastily delivered questions as best he can -- all 17 minutes' worth -- and in relentless bursts, applying the same rapid-fire pacing to his responses as he does to his pounding, locomotive attack behind the drum kit.

"We're a straightforward band; we're not going to sway with any trend," he says, summing up Pantera's philosophy in a conveniently earnest sound bite. "I think the [alternative] scene is disgusting now, and I don't know how these bands can feel good about robbing a dead man's grave. To me, every one of them sounds like fucking Nirvana."

Paul doesn't say or do anything half-assed, and it's a strategy that's worked well for him and his band. A thick-skinned, heavy metal monster with an unforgiving mentality and a searing sonic attack, Pantera has come surprisingly far in recent years by simply refusing to take no for an answer. Brandishing that uncompromising attitude, the group has rounded up a million plus following in the last few years, and its success has been more phenomenal than any of its members ever imagined.

All of this came about, it seems, without Pantera's even lifting a finger in an effort to be liked. The band's latest release, The Great Southern Trendkill, entered the Billboard charts at number four in May, while its previous CD, 1994's Far Beyond Driven, debuted at number one. But while its headbanger compadres in Metallica have made some weakly shielded compromises to accommodate their crossover into modern rock's commercial nether regions, Pantera has stuck to its guns, remaining as willfully untrendy as ever.

In a May interview with RIP magazine, Paul tore a major strip out of alternative poster boys The Presidents of the United States of America. And he's more than happy to pick up where he left off for anyone who will listen, especially when asked about the story behind the title of Pantera's new CD.

"People just don't seem to give the fans any credit," he says. "Sure, most of them are open to change, but not when you change your sound so much that you're all of a sudden going in a new direction -- like if you make loud, hard, aggressive music, and then you're being played on alternative college radio."

The state of popular music was a different version of the same story when Pantera got its start in Arlington in the early '80s. Back then, it seemed that every band was trying to sound like Journey or Van Halen, and Paul and his brother, Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell, would have nothing to do with it. Schooled in the proper music industry etiquette early on, the two formed a band and started their own record label under the guidance of their country songwriter father, Jerry Abbott. While they had a heavy enough sound to draw a decent nightclub crowd, the brothers wanted to go in even heavier directions. But it wasn't until original Pantera vocalist Terrence Lee (who went on to front Lord Tracy) got the boot in favor of Phil Anselmo that the group's thrashy, apocalyptic sound became irreversibly entrenched.

Paul has always emphasized that Pantera's time is in the present. It would be pretty difficult, he admits, to imagine Pantera on the has-been circuit 20 years from now, routinely running through a toned-down medley of selections from 1992's A Vulgar Display of Power. But some fans contend that "now" is already in the past for the band. Indeed, for most of 1995, Anselmo devoted his time to Down, a side project made up of members of Corrosion of Conformity and Crowbar, while Dimebag lent some riffs to the latest Anthrax disc and an Ace Frehley tribute CD. For his part, Paul was either burrowed in the shelter of his home studio or out bass fishing and golfing (he claims to have shot an 86 just a few days ago).

Also lubricating the rumor mill was the fact that Anselmo never left his adopted home town of New Orleans during the making of The Great Southern Trendkill. He recorded his vocals nearby at Trent Reznor's studio, then shipped the tapes to Paul in Dallas, where the band recorded the instrumental tracks at a new studio built in Dimebag's back yard.

But Paul says the rumblings about a falling-out between band members were overblown. "When we came off the road in April (1995), it was after six years of nonstop touring all over the world. I mean, we were fucking fried," he says. "I know there were all sorts of rumors floating around. But what people didn't know was that we had started working on this record, too. I think it's kind of cool that it kind of came out of nowhere."

Any doubts surrounding Anselmo's commitment to Pantera are erased by the nine-second, blood-curdling scream that kicks off the new CD's title track. Even more percussive than the band's last two releases, Trendkill, nonetheless, seems to offer Anselmo a little more breathing room in his vocal approach. As for his extracurricular activities, well, Anselmo, who has his fingers in a variety of projects, is just a guy on the edge who can't sit still, says Paul.

"There's a lot of mystique around Philip, that's for sure, and he really doesn't do a lot of interviews," says Paul, who handles virtually all the band's press.

A question remains, however, as to whether that mysterious silence is voluntary or if it's more of a gag rule enforced to keep a lid on the volatile singer. You'll find an answer in the Trendkill cut "War Nerve," on which Anselmo has a simple message for anyone in the media who tries to sum up his life in one paragraph: "Fuck you all."

On-stage, the singer is a fiery ball of adrenaline, with arms, legs and eyes that have a "don't mess with me" look liable to burn a hole clear through your forehead if you stare at them too long. That intimidating aura, Paul says, is at the source of a few more mysteries, as well as some misconceptions about what Pantera is like off-stage.

"When people will run into us in a bar, they'll be jumping up and down all over the place, expecting us to be the craziest motherfuckers you'd ever meet -- eating glass, drinking everything in sight," says Paul. "I mean, we're like that some days, but you do have to moderate yourself.

"It's about learning moderation as a way of learning to deal with success. The rock stars who can't handle it are the ones who instantly thought they were the shit."

But whether they like it or not, Pantera has become the shit -- to the tune of platinum sales and pricey arena road shows. The band's current tour with White Zombie is being billed the "War of the Gargantuans," which sounds more like a World Wrestling Federation bill than a rock concert and may not help the band's regular-guy image any. But being a heavy metal superpower does have its advantages. In addition to enjoying free golf and easy access to Cowboys tickets, Paul recently moved into a custom-built home in Dallas that includes a swimming pool in the shape of a Crown Royal whiskey bottle, his way of displaying brand loyalty.

But, just when you think Paul might be turning into what he abhors most -- a spoiled, compromised rock star -- he utters a bit of fatherly philosophy that somehow brings everything back into perspective.

"[My dad] never pushed us into being musicians or doctors or lawyers or anything," Paul says. "But one thing he did say was to just make sure you do it good, because there's always going to be somebody to take your place if you don't."

Pantera performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 12, at the Summit. Tickets are $24.75 and $34.75. White Zombie and Eye Hate God open. For info, call 629-3700.