Johnny Van Zant talks about 25 years with Lynyrd Skynyrd and new album “Last of a Dyin’ Breed”

2012 marks the 25th anniversary of Johnny Van Zant taking over as the leader singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd. I have been a fan of this band since I was old enough to speak. There is something special about this band that just really speaks to it’s fans and they are so multi-generational. I am proof of that having a 4 month only daughter that has been listening to their tunes after only being born for 5 minutes. Johnny and the band are celebrating the release of their latest new album “Last of a Dyin’ Breed” and he took out some time to chat with us about the new album and to reflect on 25 years with the band.

Mike Gencarelli: How can you reflect on how Skynyrd is definitely still relevant today?
Johnny Van Zant: My brother was pulling for the common people when he started this band. He was writing songs like “Alabama”, “Curtis Lowe”, “Tuesday’s Gone” and “Simple Man”. To this day man, we try to keep it to things that we lived or our fans have lived or living through. People can relate to that. We like to think we are pretty down to earth people. When I get home, I take out the garbage and drop my kids off at school. I do the same things as everyone else and that keeps us humble to that fact. I always tell people we are no different from our fans.  That is the way that I have always remembered how Lynyrd Skynyrd has been. We are common people and I feel that it lives through the music.

MG: Like I mentioned I already have my 4 month daughter listening to Skynyrd, can you reflect on being so multi-generational?
JVZ: We call it the Skynyrd Nation, Mike. We are three generations old. I got a great place on stage, so I have this bird’s eye view of the audience. It is very mixed and everyone is out there. Young, old and in-between…and younger. [laughs].

MG:“Last of a Dyin’ Breed” is a really fierce follow-up to 2009’s “Gods and Guns”, which was also a hard year for the band. What did you enjoy most about this album and working again with “Gods and Guns” producer Bob Marlette?
JVZ: Bob is really great. I like him not only as a producer but also a friend. We were introduced to him by John5 from Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie. We wanted to go in the studio and do a few tracks before we signed on for a whole record. But when we went in, everything really clicked. To have Bob back on board for “Last of a Dyin’ Breed” is just really great. We work with him very well. We  also tried to have a lot of fun working on this record. Like you said during the last record, we were going through some hard times, not only personally but as a band. When you lose members of a band, that is actually very personal as well though. There were times during recording “Gods and Guns”, where we asked ourselves if we should hang up our boots and call it a day. But Bob was one of the influences pushing us to get the record done. If Billy (Powell), Ean (Evans) or even my brother were still around, they would be kicking butt and taking names. That is why we are trying to carry this band on. I mean, this is my 25th year with the band now.

MG:The new album charted at #14 on the Billboard Charts, which is the best debut for Skynyrd since “Street Survivors”, can you reflect on that?
JVZ: I am just glad – it’s like Skynyrd was nominated seven times for Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame and it became a joke within the band. We used to say “Do we have to die to get into it”. But when it finally happened, I was just so happy for Ronnie (Van Zant), Gary (Rossington), Allen (Collins), Leon (Wilkeson) and Billy (Powell), the guys that started this band. I was overwhelmed with happiness for them. The thing that it comes back to is that is it great to debut at #14, but for me though it makes me happy that the fans like it. Numbers are great but to know the fans appreciate it what it is all about. We had a great time doing it and thought it was the best thing to biscuits and gravy [laughs]. But when the fans start liking it and to hear folks like you liking it, that is real payoff for me.

MG:I like that the band is continuing to produce new tunes. When I spoke with Rickey Medlocke, he said that “I guess we could sit back and rely on our classic tracks but if we can put out new music and material, it will keep things from getting stale.”
JVZ: It does. That would be the wrong thing and my brother would be coming down and kicking all of our asses. [laughs] He would say “What the hell, go out there and make some new music”. It is refreshing, it really is. We all know what made this band what it is. People have told us “Well why don’t you right another ‘Sweet Home Alabama'”? It has already been done right the first time. We don’t need to do it again.

MG:I got it Johnny, “Sweet Home Alabama 2”?
JVZ: Yeah that’s it! [singing] “Sweet Home Alabama…2”. Yeah, it doesn’t work. [laughs].

MG:Like you said 2012 marks your 25 years with the band, how do you feel that the music has changed throughout the years?
JVZ: I am not sure really. We have always been sticking with things we know about, like I said before, or things that have touched people around us. Lyrically, I don’t think we tried to change at all. I think we have tried to put some new guitar work. But I think that is more progress, you know? Believe me, I was a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan before I was in the band and if I wasn’t a part of Skynyrd and the albums came out and all sounded the same as in the old days. I would be like “Oh, it just sounds like the old stuff”. So we try to take a step forward. Someone people gonna like, some people gonna love it and some people gonna hate it. That’s the way life is.

MG:For me it would be “Simple Man” and those opening cords. What is the one track that when it goes on you completely jam into it?
JVZ: OH GOD! Hell yeah! It has to be “Simple Man”. That is just timeless. It just tells it like it is about being a simple man. The old saying is “If you gain the world, but lose your soul…what do you have?” That is basically what the song is saying: “Forget your lust, for the rich man’s gold. All that you need, is in your soul”. What a great song!

MG:Which tracks from the new album do foresee becoming part of a must play list during touring?
JVZ: Right now, we are playing “Good Teacher”, “Last of a Dyin’ Breed”, “One Day at a Time” and trying to work up “Homegrown”. The problem is [laughs], we love making new music but putting everything in the set [laughs] is one hard chore to do. You don’t want to take away an old classic. You want to be able to play the old songs that people love and cherish. So to put a new one is…you kind of have to sneak them in when you can [laughs].

MG:What do you do to keep it fresh constantly touring all around the world?
JVZ: I enjoy seeing the fans. Each night is a different night. Any member of Lynyrd Skynyrd will tell you the same. Every night is a different situation, a different part of the country or different part of the world. And it thrills me to get out there and play songs for people. There are nights where you may be tired or your voice isn’t up to par though. A friend of mine said they say a particular artist not too long ago and said that their voice wasn’t that good. I asked them if they checked their website to see how many shows they had before that [laughs]. You can tune a piano…but you can’t tune a voice! [laughs].

MG:You think The Van Zants will ever get in the studio again?
JVZ: We got to a point – we did a couple of country albums. The first one which we really worked hard on was “Get Right with the Man”. Then we got to the second one, “My Kind of Country”, which we also put a lot of time into. We finally looked at each other and just said that we were killing ourselves. He is still going with .38 Special and I am with Skynyrd, then you throw in this project into the mix. It has been a few years now…and we are definitely both getting a little antsy now. So let’s see what’s going to happen in the near future.

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