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Iron Men: Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler Answer the Hard Questions

Thirty-five years ago, Black Sabbath released the frenzied, drug-addled Never Say Die! … and then decided to fire frontman Ozzy Osbourne, ending the first period of the band’s career. Now, the brass-knuckled Brummies who were responsible for “Paranoid,” “Snowblind,” and “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” and who have spawned umpteen metal micro-genres, have re-upped (minus drummer Bill Ward, replaced after contractual haggling by Rage Against the Machine’s Brad Wilk) for the dark, haunting, and, yes, heavy 13. Even though the metal deities released ten studio efforts in the years between their Ozzy-fronted outings, the new Rick Rubin-produced album shows why Osbourne, bassist Geezer Butler, and guitarist Tony Iommi always have been one of the most unfuckwithable forces in music.

Interviews, though, are another story. We spoke with Osbourne and Butler shortly before the album’s release. 

You titled the album 13. Ozzy, aren’t you superstitious?
Ozzy Osbourne: Very superstitious.
Geezer Butler: He’s a hypochondriac and everything else.
Osbourne: The title was my idea, too. Since the album was coming out in 2013, I threw it out that we could call the album 13. Then I thought, “What the fuck have I just done?”

Very cool. So you guys first announced that you were working on a new album in 2001, but nothing came of it. What took so long?
The last time, we started okay, but then we lost focus. Ozzy was doing some TV show or something in America, so he was backwards and forwards. And he started working on his own solo album. So it just wasn’t the focus then. And the stuff we came up with wasn’t very good. Whereas this time Tony had about 80 different riffs that we could choose from so we started off positive.

On Ozzfest 2001, you were playing a bluesy new song called “Scary Dreams.” It was great! Why didn’t you record it?
Butler: I’d forgotten about it, actually.

Rumor has it that Rick Rubin made you all listen to your self-titled debut album before recording 13. Did that make you cringe?
Osbourne: I remember going to [Rubin’s] house, and he was going on about the first album. I was like, “What the fuck’s the deal, man? Why the first album? We’ve all done a billion albums since then.” He goes, “You’re not a heavy metal band. The first one was a blues album.” And I go, “Yeah.” And he goes, “That’s what I’m looking for.” I said, “A blues album?! You want us to do a blues album?” I didn’t know what the fuck he was on about. I thought he was fucking nuts. But I got the fucking punch line three weeks later. It wasn’t that he wanted a blues album so much as he wanted the blues feel from us.

Were you trying to upset people with the title of your new single, “God is Dead?”
No. Whatever Sabbath does, people usually misunderstand it anyway. That’s why we put the question mark at the end: “God is dead…or is he?” It’s a question not a statement.

But surely you enjoy getting people’s goat. Tony Iommi’s autobiography has lots of stories about setting Bill Ward on fire — literally. Why were you guys so mean to him?
Butler: Tony’s the big joker. He was always doing stuff to people because nobody would ever get him back. He’d beat you up.

Tony Iommi is a bully?
Butler: Yeah.

Speaking of Bill Ward, he didn’t play on 13. Let’s set the record straight: What happened?
To be absolutely truthful with you, I can’t really remember. It was such a long time ago. There was the business side of it and the money side of it. We just didn’t have the time to keep the people waiting another fucking ten years. The drummer thing was a pain in the butt. We would have loved Bill Ward to step up to the plate, but it never worked out. I still love him to death. It’s sad that it didn’t work out. But hey, we’ve got an album, we’re all really happy. I don’t suppose Bill is that happy.

Was Brad Wilk your first choice to replace Bill?
Osbourne: I don’t really want to go into it. We had Tommy [Clufetos, the band’s touring drummer] on hold. And it just didn’t work out. The way it was dealt with was wrong, because you can’t keep people waiting for nothing. We were going to use Tommy at the beginning, and Rick was against it. And then it turned out that it wasn’t dealt with professionally and I got a bit pissed-off. Anyway, Tommy’s doing a great job on the road with Sabbath.

Let’s talk about lyrics. For some reason in “War Pigs,” it always bothered me that you rhymed “generals in their masses” with “just like witches at black masses.” Why use “masses” twice? Did you try to think of a different word?
Butler: I just couldn’t think of anything else to rhyme with it. And a lot of the old Victorian poets used to do stuff like that — rhyming the same word together. It didn’t really bother me. It wasn’t a lesson in poetry or anything.

“Dear Father” is the last song on the new album and it ends with the same sounds of rain and bells that opened your debut. Whose idea was that?
Butler: Rick Rubin. I thought it was really cheesy.

Ozzy, you’ve always maintained that you hated Never Say Die! Does 13 make up for that album?
Osbourne: This album is far superior to Never Say Die! With Never Say Die!, we were down on our luck. We were just a fucking bunch of guys drowning in the fucking ocean. We weren’t getting along with each other and we were all fucked-up with drugs and alcohol. And I got fired. It was just a bad thing.  You try to lift your head up above water, but eventually the tide sucks you under. With this album, if we never do another thing together, I can rest my head on the pillow and say it went full circle. I remember before Metallica got super big, they opened up for me on one of my tours. They were playing old Black Sabbath on the CD player. I go to my assistant, “Are they taking the piss?” And he’d go, “No, you’re their idol.” And I’d go, “What?” And I remember their manager asked me at the end of the tour if I would mind coming on and jamming “Paranoid”? I’m like, “Are you fucking joking?” I’m always the last one to get the fucking punch line. So this album, I can honestly rest my head and say, “We pulled it off.” The only sad part is Bill never came around.

One of the original ideas behind Black Sabbath’s music was to scare people. Is there anything scary about Black Sabbath now?
You can’t really fucking scare people as much as we want anymore. I’ve played a bunch of those Black Sabbath songs with many different musicians over the years, but there’s only one bunch of guys that play like Black Sabbath and that’s the four of us. And though Bill wasn’t there in person, he was there in spirit. Tony Iommi and Geezer and Bill, you know, we had this — when you’re in the eye of the storm, you don’t realize how big the devastation is. You don’t think it’s anything special. You just do it.
Butler: For me, the scariest things are going to bed late and doing interviews.