Geezer Butler sets the record straight on Black Sabbath
By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
August 14, 2013 6:08PM
Terence Michael Joseph “Geezer” Butler is a founding member of Black Sabbath, the British band credited for the birth of heavy metal. Besides serving as the band’s bassist, Butler is also the lyricist of such Sabbath classics as “War Pigs,” “Iron Man,” “Paranoid” and others — a catalog of songs that were originally interpreted as celebrating the dark arts, but were intended to comment on the madness of war profiteering and drug use, and their residual suffering by those abandoned to the margins.
Butler, singer Ozzy Osbourne, and guitarist Tony Iommi are reunited for “13” (Vertigo/Universal), the band’s excellent new album in 35 years, plus a tour that takes them to the First Midwest Amphitheatre Friday. (Drummer Bill Ward refused to participate due to contractual issues.) Butler, 64, spoke by phone recently about Black Sabbath’s legacy and newest chapter. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: The new album sounds more connected with the earliest music of Black Sabbath. Was that the goal?
A: That’s why (“13” producer) Rick Rubin came in. We played him a lot of stuff Tony had written. He thought some of it was too quote-unquote heavy metal. He said, “Go back to the first album. You didn’t start out as a heavy metal band. When you first started, you were a blues-based band, playing much more off-the-cuff, avant-garde kinds of stuff. Forget anything remotely that sounds like Metallica or someone copying heavy metal.” He told us, “If you do a heavy metal album then it’ll sound like you copying what other people think you sound like.” And at first we thought, “why does he want to slag us?” but then we had good listen to the old stuff and we realized it was very sparse. Hardly any overdubs. A lot of different changes and not particularly any choruses. Really basic stuff. And that gave us direction, which made it a lot easier to pick out songs we were going to work on.
Q: Interesting that the band needed him to remind you of your original power? Why?
A: Music has changed so much. I think it’s just the labels people put on us. A lot of them think of us as “the ultimate heavy metal band.” That started us thinking that what people think of as heavy metal doesn’t sound anything like our first three albums. If we tried to modernize, it would be laughable. So it’s just going back to what you do best: Not trying to sound like anyone else, not trying to be trendy, do what you know, do what you do best. It took somebody like Rick Rubin, who we had immense trust in. There’s not a lot of producers we can all agree we trust these days anymore. We worked with other people before in various guises and they didn’t really have anything to say about the music. They’d just sit there and record us. Whereas he gave us a lot of ideas which put us in the right direction.
Q: Despite being associated with the occult or nonsense like that, I always read the lyrics you wrote on those early records as anti-war.
A: They still work. Things like “War Pigs.” There’s always going to be war in the world. Like we say on the new album, there’s no war worth dying for. It still the same old political situation that goes on. No matter who you vote for, it always seems like the same people. The religious right is always totally biased against people. We’ve never been anti-religious in our songs. The first song we wrote, “Black Sabbath,” was a warning against cults, which a lot of people were getting into at the time we started. We were warning against that kind of thing. But people misread all these things and it just became something for them to bash us about.
Q: Why were you drawn to darkness as a lyricist?
A: The darkness came from … I was brought up in a very religious family so I knew a lot about religion. Me dad was in the military and my brothers were in the army. So I knew what it was like to have brothers go up and fight somewhere. And the area that we were brought up wasn’t a very posh area. Where we grew up, in Aston (an area within Birmingham), that had been heavily bombed during the Second World War and there weren’t no money around. I was born in 1949, a couple of years after the war finished, and all the bomb-filled sites were still all around us. They didn’t do anything with it, as far as rebuilding, until the 1960s. So when you grow up in a bombed-out area, and in a quite tough section of England, you just see the dark side. And then you listen to other people talk about love, and hippies, it didn’t apply for us. We saw the dark side of it all.
Q: I can see how it might be confusing for people on the outside. The new song “God Is Dead” is actually more affirming of God than the title suggests.
A: Ozzy came up with the title. He misread the famous (1966) Time magazine cover “Is God Dead?” And I didn’t want to write a typically bloody thing about “God is dead.” I wanted to write someone out to prove that God isn’t dead. That he reads Nietzsche and stuff like that and he’s hearing Communists saying, “God is dead.” And he sets out to prove that God isn’t dead. The original title is “American Jihad” but I was made to change the title back. (laughs)
Q: In writing this new album, was it difficult to return to those dark topics now that you’ve achieved fame?
A: The world hasn’t changed. It has changed incredibly, technically, but there’s still incredible inhumanity in the word. For me, it’s obviously changed. I don’t have to worry about money and I have a nice family. I just have to look at the world outside of that. You can have as much money as you like, but it really doesn’t make you any happier. I know a lot of people who’ve got tons of money and they’re the most unhappy people on earth. I had a great childhood. I just feel really lucky that I’ve had such a good life.
Q: Is it difficult showing Ozzy lyrics that might have come within a more personal place?
A: He’ll usually come out with the title. When he’s like jamming along to the music, he makes up all these lyrics. He has a knack of coming up with one good line. And then I’ll take that idea and write what I think it’s about and give it to Ozzy and usually it fits his vocals perfectly.
Q: Have you ever handed him lyrics that he looked at you cross-eyed about?
A: He never knew what “Paranoid” was about.
Q: As a musician, do you feel still up to your powers? A lot of your peers have struggled staying relevant.
A: I’ve always said as long as I can play, as long as I can do it to a good level, then I’ll keep doing it, because I still really enjoy playing. I’ll know when the day comes I can’t do this anymore, can’t play to my usual standards. That’s when I won’t go out anymore. I won’t do that to me self. But at the moment, I just love playing with the band. It probably will be the last time, will probably be the last tour. But I want to go out on a high. The band is playing really well at the moment.
Q: Why the last?
A: I don’t know. I just got a feeling. It’s getting tough, it really is. I can’t lie about that. I’m old now. It really is tough going on every night. You wake up next day, all the pains you never had before. I don’t want to go onstage for the sake of the money. You have to have a lot pride in yourself and I honestly think I’m coming to the end of the top of my job.
Q: When Ozzy became a reality television dad, did you ever worry that it would cheapen the impact Black Sabbath made?
A: At that time I didn’t think the band would ever get back together. I thought we would do the occasional tour but I didn’t think we would come back and do an album and a tour. But I thought the first season of “The Obsournes” was funny because people saw the real side of Ozzy. Everyone thought he was a devil worshipper that bit bats’ heads off and everything they saw showed an ordinary bloke. But I didn’t really watch anything after that. It became almost scripted after that. It obviously gave him a massive following around the world. A lot of people know him more from “The Osbournes” than Sabbath. Women run up to him at the airport because they’ve seen him on “The Osbournes” and ask him how Sharon is. It’s pretty nice to come full circle as a serious band again and doing serious music.
Q: This new album is also the band’s first number one in the U.S. Why now and not before?
A: We remained true to ourselves. We tried in 2001 to do an album and we failed dismally. We were forcing it and it did not work at all. We worked on it a couple of months and realized it wasn’t time and we didn’t have much to offer. This time we all felt the songs were really good and a lot of it had to do with Rick Rubin saying yes and no. It just went really smoothly. Plus we didn’t work ourselves to death on it. We started at one in the afternoon. Rick had this rule: you work from 1 to 6 p.m. so you don’t burn out on it. And no matter what you are on a song, 6 p.m. is the cut-off point. You’d be halfway on a song and then go home, maybe listen to it in the car on the drive home and say, “we’ll do that a bit different tomorrow.” So you come back the next day and you feel a bit fresh again.