An Interview with Black Sabbath: Master Class

An Interview with Black Sabbath: Master Class

—by , March 26, 2014

It’s been a fantastic year for Geezer Butler, and considering he has been making music since the mid-’60s, that is saying something. Last year Black Sabbath, the pioneering British group that propelled the bassist and lyricist to fame, released their first new studio album in 35 years with original singer Ozzy Osbourne. Entitled 13, it sold well, went number one in 13 countries including America, and won them their second Grammy for Best Metal Performance for “God Is Dead?” while their world tour has reaped big ticket sales and birthed a live DVD, Live… Gathered In Their Masses. The second leg of North American dates kick off March 31 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

As one might expect, a renewed wave of respect and accolades for a veteran metal band comes with an obligatory Spinal Tap moment. This time it occurred when Osbourne, Butler, and guitarist Tony Iommi appeared on the Grammy Awards in late January to introduce Ringo Starr. No one could really understand what the confused Osbourne was saying, and even his bandmates were amused at the inanity of the situation.

“I couldn’t stop laughing,” Butler recalls to the Aquarian. “They told us to wait for the commercial to finish and then read the prompter. As soon as Ozzy gets on stage, he starts reading the prompter while the commercial is still on, so I started laughing. He didn’t realize that he wasn’t supposed to have started as soon as he went on. He got all nervous because Paul McCartney was sitting right in front of us along with Sean Lennon and Yoko. Once you lose it in front of that kind of audience, that’s it. I couldn’t stop laughing. Somebody sent me a link to it on Vimeo the other day.” Now he can relive that moment over and over again. “I’m sure Ozzy won’t,” he chuckles.

British metal bands have been reaping Grammy accolades in the Metal category in recent years, with Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Sabbath scoring wins. Yet that award is always given out at a pre-broadcast ceremony during which, as Rob Halford once noted, metal is the last on the list. “It’s ridiculous,” concurs Butler. “It was one of two in the afternoon that we went there for, and then one at night which we didn’t get.”

Not that Butler is complaining about winning. The laid back, jovial rocker is simply enjoying the ride, and he’s earned it. Nor does he crave the crazy indulgences of yesteryear. “Since I’ve been off the road, I can’t get any energy at all,” he confesses. “I just want to stay in bed for a month, and that’s what I’ve been doing, lying around.”

Considering when Sabbath started out, there is probably no one, the band included, who would have imagined them soldiering on for 46 years in different configurations. “When we started out, we used to look at bands like The Dave Clark Five, who were 28 then and looked like old men to us,” muses Butler. “Even the Beatles broke up in 1970. We thought, ‘The Beatles lasted eight years, so that must be the longest you could possibly go as a band.'” Many people were clearly wrong about that. “Yup, thank God.”

Their long and storied history was certainly at the forefront of their minds when this quartet originally went into the studio to record a new album back in 2001. “We tried so hard to live up what we thought was the legacy, and we were so frightened of ruining everything that we’d built up that we couldn’t bring ourselves to do the album in the end,” explains Butler. “That was the great thing about [producer] Rick Rubin being involved [with 13]. He said, ‘Forget everything and just pretend that this is your first album.’ It took a long time for that to sink in because you have to unlearn all the habits that you’ve built up over the years. We hadn’t really played live in the studio together. I think the last time was Master Of Reality [in 1971]. Rick said, ‘Do it like the first three albums—go in and play it live, come up with the lyrics, and Ozzy can sing them. But the music has to be live as it’s recorded in the studio.'”

Written and recorded over an 18-month period between the summer of 2011 and the winter of 2013, during three months of which Iommi underwent cancer treatments, the album was faced with another Spinal Tap cliché, the rotating drummer spot. “When we first started, we had [original drummer] Bill Ward in the band, so it really did feel like the old days,” says Butler. “We had a really good laugh together. Then, of course, the way Sabbath goes, as soon as we announced that the original band was together, that’s when everything hit the fan.” Ward reportedly backed out due to contractual issues. The group then worked with current touring skinbeater Tommy Clufetos for a time in the studio, but Rubin insisted on bringing in Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave drummer Brad Wilk for the sessions.

Things did gel despite the shake-ups behind the kit. Butler reports that two of the songs from 13 started out as jams. “‘Damaged Soul,’ the blues song on the album, was an 18-minute jam,” he reveals. “Rick Rubin said, ‘That was absolutely brilliant, do it again.’ We were like, ‘What do you mean do it again? It’s a jam. We can’t rejam.’ We weren’t even thinking of anything.”

Luckily, Rubin recorded the whole thing, but the band did not feel comfortable putting an 18-minute jam with mistakes on the finished album. It also lacked a vocal track. “We used to warm up every day jamming, then we would do the song that we went in to record that day,” says Butler. “This one day we did this 18-minute jam, and Rick Rubin thought it was the best thing he heard for years. We couldn’t put it on the album. It didn’t make any sense. He said to go in and try and do it again but make it seven minutes. We tried to but it just didn’t have the same feel. He kept insisting that we put [the song] on the album, so eventually we edited it down to seven minutes and Ozzy came up with some vocals.”

When asked if we might hear the original, unedited jam someday, Butler retorts, “I hope not.”

On the flip side, plenty of musicians can relate to performing an awesome jam and having no record of it. “I think about that with Sabbath,” muses Butler. “There were no cassette recorders when we first started out. It would’ve been great. I can’t even imagine what the stuff that we didn’t record back in the day [was like].”

Butler has certainly played plenty of music beyond Sabbath, including three solo albums and two Ozzy albums, and he has more on his mind. “I’m just waiting to see what music I come [up] with this year when the touring finishes,” he says. “It would just be for my own self-satisfaction really. I’m not bothering to get a record deal. I’m way too old for that stuff. I would be interested to see what I come out with just for me.”

When asked if there are any young bands that he sees following in the footsteps of classic metal bands like Sabbath, Butler cannot conjure any names. “I don’t think bands have got that same thing anymore, the same stickability or whatever.” Instead, he brings up a pop singer to address the question in a broader context. “I like Bruno Mars. I think he’s brilliant. He’s going to be around for a long time. He’s incredibly talented, and he’s the only person I can think of that everybody in this band understands, likes, and respects. He’s so good and so professional.”

It could be argued that there has not been a rock band since Nirvana that, love them or loathe them, has shaken up mainstream music by creating a major paradigm shift. “It seems to come up fast and die fast,” the bassist observes. “For instance, when Marilyn Manson came on the scene there was a big controversy, and then it died away fast. He’s still around, but it’s not the same impact as it was. And that’s the thing with metal stuff, no one can be shocked anymore.”

Sabbath generated controversy early on from their dark lyrical and musical imagery and the satanic connotations that were always misinterpreted. But the band possessed an allure and spawned legions of metal followers and imitators around the globe. One could argue that they were the first major gothic rock band, particularly thanks to the lower guitar tunings that Iommi employed due to an industrial accident that cut off the tips of two fingers and required the lefty musician to find different and innovative ways to play his instrument. In the end, the group as a whole created a unique sound that people will always associate with them.

“I think people still like originality,” believes Butler. “I think if you’re original when you start out, that gives you a leg up on lasting a long time. Whereas if [you] try to copy what’s going on these days, you can be famous for a couple of albums and never be heard of again.” Which has always been a dreadful reality in popular culture that seems to have become more commonplace over time.

In retrospect, the members of Sabbath had the good fortune to participate in the birth of a movement. “Yeah, that time on earth will never be repeated again,” he contemplates. “In some ways it’s good, in some ways it’s not.” But it will always be theirs.

 

Black Sabbath will play at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Monday, March 31. Their latest album, 13, is available now. For more information, go to blacksabbath.com.


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