Geezer Butler sets the record straight on Black Sabbath
By Mark Guarino Music Writer August 14, 2013 6:08PM
Ozzy Osbourne (from left), Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler, of Black Sabbath
Black Sabbath, with opening DJ set by Andrew W.K., 7:30 p.m. Friday Aug. 16, First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre,$22.50-$135. (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com.
ONLINE at suntimes.com/music: Jessi Virtusio talks to Tony Iommi
Updated: August 14, 2013 9:18PM
‘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 the 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 Aug. 16 to the First Midwest Amphitheatre in Tinley Park . (Drummer Bill Ward refused to participate in this reunion tour, citing 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.
Question: The new album sounds more connected with the earliest music of Black Sabbath. Was that the goal?
Geezer Butler: 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.” 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?
GB: 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.
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.
GB: 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’s 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 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?
GB: 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 World War II, 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. In writing this new album, was it difficult to return to those dark topics now that you’ve achieved fame?
GB: 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.
Q. As a musician, do you feel still up to your powers? A lot of your peers have struggled to stay relevant.
GB: 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?
GB: 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.
Mark Guarino is
a Sun-Times free-lance writer.