Black Sabbath on metal, drugs and new album ’13’

After an exclusive listen to the new BLACK SABBATH album 13 and a brief encounter with the Dark Lord himself, DAVID SWAN sits down with bassist/lyricist Geezer Butler to find out what Sabbath 2.0 is really like.

Black Sabbath are not really a band any more, they’re an institution. You don’t go to a Sabbath show for the setlist, you go out of sheer duty to the metal gods below (“and to see Ozzy “fucking Osbourne). That said – as I discovered at a listening session for their new album 13 – meeting the band is one of the least rock ‘n’ roll things one could do.

Ozzy hobbled into the hotel conference room stuffed with journalists, stammered a generic, “I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we did making it”, or something equally uninspiring, and shuffled out again. Those present, about to be treated to a listen of Sabbath’s first album featuring the original lineup in 30 years, were left wondering how someone so weathered and just generally bereft of energy could turn-out anything more than a phoned in, tokenistic money-spinner. Lucky for us, Sabbath fans and the metal gods below, the album exceeded expectations.

Producer Rick Rubin, as he tends to do, has brought the band back to basics. 13 sounds like it could’ve been made in the ‘70s. Honestly, sandwich the album somewhere between Paranoid and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and many wouldn’t spot the difference.

The album opens as you’d hope it would: with sludgy, slow-as-a-sloth riffs before some slamming drums by Rage Against The Machine’s Brad Wilk herald the new beginning. The whole thing is intentionally epic. “Is this the end of the beginning?” Ozzy shrieks, before a measured and methodical intro builds into a massive chorus and a typically over-the-top Tommy Iommi guitar solo, allaying any niggling doubts about Sabbath 2.0. Rubin has somehow made the band forget the past 30 years ever happened.

The rest of the album follows in similar fashion – stoner riffs, ripping solos, even a couple of droning acoustic numbers. If there’s one fault, it’s that Black Sabbath are essentially repeating themselves, they’re not saying anything they didn’t already say three decades ago. But, then again, do we really want them to?

After the session wound up, I got a chance to sit down (albeit it very briefly) with bassist and wordsmith Geezer Butler to talk about 13 , hard drugs and why writing lyrics in your ‘60s is so hard. Here are some of the highlights.

On whether 13 is a Sabbath classic:

“It’s hard to say. It’s been a good feeling doing it, which is half the battle, ‘cause some albums you just remember how horrible it was at the time, rather than the music. But this one’s been good.”

On naming the album:

“Ozzy came up with that last year. We were going through different titles for the album, and Ozzy just said, ‘What about 13? It’s going to be out in 2013.’ And we’d written 13 songs at the time. Then when we got to the studio we wrote three more, just off the top of our heads, jamming. Then that made it 16 but the record company said, ‘The songs are really long, you can only fit eight on there.’”

On writing lyrics in his 60s:

“It used to come naturally back then. Plus they would be written while we were doing gigs, over a period of time. Whereas this album I literally had to write the lyrics the night before Ozzy sang them, so I didn’t have any time. Literally the night before. I think there was one song, ‘Dear Father’, which I’d written about 12 months ago. But when push comes to shove, it had to be done. And I work better under pressure. It’s just trying to come up with different themes for the songs, that’s the hardest part. Once I worked out what I was writing about, it made it a lot easier.”

“Although I did most of the lyrics, Ozzy did four sets of them, I think. Originally we did 16 songs, but I think there’s only eight on the basic CD, 11 on the deluxe version or whatever they put out these days, then there’s another five of them. Ozzy did four, and I did 12. He really nailed them, vocally.”

On the album’s themes:

“It’s about the dark sides of life, which is what Sabbath is all about anyway.”

On using drugs to make music:

“Funnily enough, the first three albums we did, we couldn’t afford drugs [laughs]. Really, we couldn’t! So we were drug free. And then the ones after that were all fuelled by drugs. But this one was completely sober. But it was good having a producer in charge of things to keep us focused.”

On super-producer Rick Rubin:

“He’s good, he’s very different to the old days. And it’s not just Rick, he has this whole army of people with him. So he’s got like three engineers, someone who writes down every cup of tea he has and everything, it’s really weird. It’s like going to the factory almost. He just basically keeps you doing the same thing over and over again, and then you go in and pick the one that feels the best.”

“He wanted us to get back to playing the songs as a live band, rather than putting the drums on, then the bass on, then the guitar on. So we did it all at the same time in the studio with Ozzy singing. Except Ozzy would go and redo his vocals obviously. But the rest was live in the studio.”

On new drummer Brad Wilk:

“He was great. We literally had two weeks to work with him before we recorded the songs, and the first week were going ‘This guy’s just not working out’, and we were panicking. And suddenly it just all fell into place. But we were literally doing it three songs at a time, so we had a week rehearsing at Ozzy’s studio, and by the end of the week he was getting into it. So we went into the studio and recorded the first three songs with him. And that was probably where Rick really worked out the most. He had the definite idea of what the drummer should do, so he was communicating with Brad, and he’s worked with Brad before. So he knew what he wanted from Brad with the songs. And that’s the way it worked out, and he did a great job in the end.”

On the feud with former drummer Bill Ward:

“He started the album with us, the writing stuff, and then we announced the reunion and everything, that we were all getting back together. Then Tony was diagnosed with cancer. We all got back together after Tony’s first treatment, and for some reason something had happened with Bill – the business side of it – and it just didn’t work out.”

On the Sabbath album he regrets:

Never Say Die! was my least favourite album. There’s a couple of good things on there, but it was just the time that we were doing it. The band was going through bad times: Ozzy was totally out of his head all the time, we were on the verge of a breakup, and that album just brings back those bad feelings. It’s not so much the music on it, just the time it was done.”

On the best and worst parts of being a rockstar

“As a musician the best is being onstage, in front of a crowd, because that’s when you give the most. And you get the most back. The worst is when you’re in rehearsals; you’re just playing to a wall. And the travelling isn’t great, either. I mean Australia’s good – when you’re actually there it’s great – it’s just getting on the bloody planes and everything.”

Black Sabbath’s 13 is out tomorrow (June 7) through Universal.