Rock Solders #2 – Black Sabbath Bassist Geezer Butler

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Black Sabbath has been my favorite band since 1971, and I remember hearing them for the first time like it was yesterday.  As mentioned in the forward, as a music junkie I more or less fell into a career in radio, and it was through that that I started writing album reviews. I had dealt with Sanctuary Records before with a couple of Tony Iommi’s solo releases, and when they offered me an interview with Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler in 2005 to publicize the latest release by his solo band GZR, I was all in.

“Ohmwork” is on Sanctuary Records, and it’s coming out, I believe, May 10th.

Yeah, that’s it.

10 tracks here, fast and hard.  It’s been quite awhile since “Black Science”.

I think that was 1997, just before the Sabbath reunion.

You’ve been on the road with Sabbath almost every year since then, it seems like.

I think we did 2001 and then there was a 2 year break, and then we came back last year for Ozzfest 2004.

How do you like getting up with the guys?

Oh it’s great!  It’s really refreshing these days, just to get up and play the old songs…  it’s not too strenuous!

You could probably play those songs in your sleep at this point!

(Geezer laughs)

Yyou’ve got a different drummer on “Ohmwork”, Chad Smith. 

He’s from St. Louis.  I’ve got a house in St. Louis ‘cuz me wife’s family is from there, we’ve always kept a house there.  On the “Black Science” tour in 1997 or ’98 we needed a drummer, and we auditioned quite a few.  Somebody in St. Louis recommended Chad- he’d been playing in quite a few bands around the area- so we auditioned him and he was great.  He was really good to get on with, which is the most important thing.

Deen Castronovo played on the “Black Science” album though…

Yeah, then I think he joined Journey after that.

Did you hook up with him through Ozzy’s band?  He played on “Ozzmosis”…

That’s right, yeah.

Do you consider this a ‘solo project’, or is G/Z/R in your mind a band?

It’s very much a band.

What’s your creative process like with them?

Usually me and Pedro get together because we’ve both got our own little home studios. I wrote a lot of stuff at home, he writes stuff and he comes over and he’ll play me his riffs, I’ll play him what I’ve been doing.  And then we’ll pick out stuff that we both like and expand ideas into songs.  The final process is playing them to Clark and see what kind of vocals he can put to them.  It works out well.

Are you the main lyricist in the band?

Not this time.  I came up with a lot of ideas, but Clark did most of the lyrics.

If you come in with a riff, for instance, do you suggest a theme that might perhaps follow?

Yeah.  We wrote so many songs in the past 3 or 4 years we just made up names for them so we could identify what we’re talking about when there’s no vocals on them.  And a lot of the times the title that we give to them will suggest a theme for the lyrics.

So the music suggests a title, and the title will suggest a lyrical theme…

Right, yeah.

Are there any tracks on the album that stand out to you?  Is there something you can point to and say “this is where I think we really nailed it”?

It depends on what mood I’m in when I’m listening.

My 3 favorite tracks on the album are “Prisoner 103”, “I Believe” and “Dogs Of Whore”.  Can you take me behind the scenes a little bit on those?

“Prisoner 103” was one of those things, that was a working title and we just kept it as the song title.

It’s got a great groove…

Yeah.  We did it several different ways and that was the way it finished, it was nothing like it in the original version.  It’s a completely different song on my idea, ‘cuz that was written about 7 years ago, the original version.

Wow- that was written just after the “Black Science” tour, then…

Yeah.  And what I did was I sampled the whole song, and then cut it up into pieces and just completely rearranged the whole thing, and actually started the song with what was originally the middle 8 and completely changed it around.

Interesting! How about “I Believe”?

“I Believe” is the first time me son sang with me in the studio.

Biff?

Yeah.  And that came about totally out of the blue.  We were just sitting in the kitchen at home and Pedro, our guitarist, and Clark, our singer, were just going over that song acoustically.  Biff happened to come in, started harmony to it, and we just really liked what he put to it, so we took him into the studio and let him do harmonies on it.

Wow, your own son singing harmonies with you- how cool is that?

Great! (laughs)

And “Dogs of Whore”… talk about an understatement.  A political song, yes?

(hearty laugh from Geezer) Yeah!  You can guess who inspired that one!

“G.B.” as in George Bush?

Yeah.  Or Geezer Butler…

Or it could be! (both laugh)I kinda doubt that though!

When we wrote it that whole Iraq thing was just starting up, and I just had to say something about it.

At this point you’re an American citizen, aren’t you Geezer?

No, I’m still a British citizen.  I’m an American resident, but not a citizen.

Okay.

(proudly)  I’ll always be British!

Well I’m half Welsh, so I kind of know where you’re coming from… (both laugh)  There are 2 differences, I think, between “Ohmwork” and “Black Science”.  I feel there’s  more variance here in tempos and textures, and, “Ohmwork” feels  much more political.  Would you agree?

Yeah.  Clark, the singer, is from Boston and everybody votes for John Kerry up there.  A lot of his friends had gone into war, done the Iraq thing, and they hated it and everything and it was really pissing him off.  Friends, people that he goes drinking with, suddenly ended up in Iraq.  And so he was well pissed off about that, so I suppose he got some of his anger out about that.  And it’s just things that go on in Clark’s life that he wanted to put into the lyrics as well.

I guess an emotional antecedent to this one would be the sentiments that you put across in “War Pigs” from the second Black Sabbath album. 

Absolutely, yeah.  It’s like the same kind of thing you know, going to war for absolutely no purpose.

It’s a shame that you still have to write songs like that in this day and age.

It’s terrible, a terrible thing, especially when it can be handled diplomatically now.

The way the world is constructed nowadays for communications, not a shot needs to be fired.  Bear in mind that I’m Canadian, but I couldn’t BELIEVE it when George (W) Bush stole the first election, and I was shocked when he was elected a second time.

I know!  It’s scary, especially with other people so gullible to believe all those lies.  And even when it comes out that he went to Iraq on a total lie, they still vote for him.

When they found out the truth behind what was happening, they still voted for him- stunning.

It is, it’s scary- I just can’t… I mean I don’t know anybody that voted for it! (John laughs) I just think that it was rigged again the second time.

I’m thinking it had to be. 

I’ve never known so many people to hate the president as much, I mean really across the board.  My wife’s family is in the military and they can’t stand the guy.

All you have to do is watch him speak on TV and you know the lights are on but nobody’s home. 

The rich people are his, you know, part of the club and all that.

Well that’s obvious in his policies, and this thing he’s trying to take around now about “Oh we’re going to bail out of social security and you people just put your own money in the bank”- what the hell is that?!?

Yeah.  Education is getting ridiculously expensive here, and medical bills, it’s ridiculous.

Can we talk about Sabbath for a few minutes?

Sure.

 I was wondering if you could pick a Sabbath track close to your heart and say a few words about it.

I’d say the very first song that we recorded, which was the song Black Sabbath. When we did that song was when we realized we had a good direction to go in.  We didn’t know quite what we were going to write together, but we knew that we couldn’t get anywhere without writing our own material back in 1969 or whenever it was.  When we came out with the first song Black Sabbath I just thought “Yeah, this is it, yeah definitely this is our direction, this is us.”  It’s just one of those things that you see your destiny in it.

Is it true that the lyrics were inspired in part by a dream or vision you had?

Ozzy brought this weird book round… somebody out of the blue sent him this book, and it was all in Latin and had a picture of Lucifer on the cover.  He knew that I was interested in that sort of stuff so he brought it round- I was brought up Catholic so I knew a bit of Latin.  So he brought it round for me to look at, and I just got a weird feeling from it, it was just really old, like 16th century or something, this book.  So I just looked through it a bit and there were these images of Satan and all that.  Then I put it in the cupboard, this place where I kept all me junk.  That night I had this horrible feeling, and then I woke up and I just seen this shape at the bottom of me bed- it frightened the life out of me! (both laugh) I was just terrified, I got this really terrifying feeling and it just disappeared, this shape.  I immediately knew that it had to be something to do with the book, and I got up to throw the book out the window, just get rid of it, and it was gone, it disappeared.

Really!

Yeah.

This actually happened!

Yeah, it actually happened, yeah.

Very cool.

I told Ozzy about it and that’s where he came out with the lyrics “what is this that stands before me”.

You came up with that line or Ozzy did?

Ozzy came up with that, because I told him what had happened and we’d just written the music for Black Sabbath and he just came up with those lines.

Talk about a certain kind of magic, to have THAT happen and have that music ready and waiting for those words.

Yeah, I mean it IS like destiny, it really is.  It’s always felt like everything that happened with this band has been fated.

Is there a particular Sabbath album that you think is maybe underappreciated?

Um no, not really.

 I was in high school when those albums came out, and Technical Ecstasy got ignored completely.   I thought it was a terrific album.

Yeah some of it was good, but it’s really hard to look back. I thought we’d passed our peak.  I think Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was our peak, I thought that was a GREAT album.

I gotta agree with you there. Volume 4 and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath are my favorites.

For me, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was our pinnacle because everybody was happy in the band and it was just a really good time for us, you know.  We were all really happy, our family lives were happy, everything was going well for us at that point.

So there was one period in Sabbath history where everything was exactly the way it should be…

Yeah, it’s like everything came together.  And then after that it was just like a downhill thing.

The records kind of indicate that….

It’s really hard to sustain that kind of level and that happiness. Divorces start happening and things like that, and the band’s never the same again.

Yeah.  It’s like any job, really,  you can’t help but bring that into the office.

Life happens, you know.

I went on Tony’s website and it said “it looks like I’m going to be talking to Geezer pretty soon, does anybody have anything they’d like me to ask him?” and the questions center around the current status of Sabbath.  Are you guys just a touring band now, or do you  feel there’s any creative life left? 

Every time I say “no” something else happens.  When I did Black Science, somebody asked me if Sabbath would ever get together again and I said “absolutely definitely no”. And then like the next week Ozzy phoned me up and asked if we’d get together.  We actually went in for about six weeks into the studio to write an album, to see what we could come out with, and we came out with about 6 or 7 songs that I didn’t think were up to standard.

How did the other guys feel?

Tony and Bill thought it was okay but I didn’t.  I don’t think Ozzy was much into it.

 I read that you’re the one holding back a Sabbath album because you don’t think the band ‘has it’, at least not now, and you were quoted as telling Ozzy and Tony that “well you guys come up with some stuff and I’ll play bass on it” but that’s it?

Yeah, that’s exactly the way I feel.

 I get the impression that, just from listening to Tony’s music and what Ozzy’s done and what you’ve done, that you guys have grown apart musically. 

Oh absolutely.  What I think is suitable the rest certainly don’t! (laughs) I can’t sit in the studio with just me bass and contribute absolutely nothing except me bass playing, I’ve grown out of that.

You’ve got 3 (solo) albums under your belt now.   

Yeah, and I like to get involved in the writing.  I came up with tons of ideas this last time, and everybody just ignored them.  I can’t work like that anymore, just sit there and wait and wait and wait for Tony and Ozzy to come up with stuff.

All of you writing together has always been the creative process for Sabbath, hasn’t it?

We used to jam and take our time over it, and I’d maybe come up with a riff on bass and people would join in, but this last time, if Tony couldn’t come up with anything, then it wasn’t Sabbath.  Like if I came up with it, everybody’d just ignore it.

That really had to piss you off..

Oh yeah, severely, and that’s why I just said to him (starts laughing) “You want a Sabbath album YOU go and write it and I’ll play bass on it, ‘cuz I’m not going to sit here …”

Yeah, “just call me in when it’s time to record my parts” and that’s it.

Absolutely.  If they want a Sabbath album I’m not going to be involved in the writing, I just CANNOT sit there for 2 or 3 years and listen to things I don’t particularly like.

I echo the sentiment of many fans, even on Tony’s website, that for it to be a proper Sabbath album, it would have to include your musical contribution. 

Absolutely, yeah, otherwise it’s not Sabbath to me.

I agree completely.  Now returning to “Ohmwork”- you recorded this album rather quickly, didn’t you?

Yeah, I’ve done all 3 albums fast because I don’t like to…

dither around…

Exactly, and I haven’t exactly got millions to spend in the studio, so we all rehearsed first.  I wanted it to be raw and live to a point, not polished up or anything like that and ruin it, I just wanted to keep that live, aggressive feeling.  The best way to do that is just to go in and do what you’ve gotta do and retain that feeling.

Just go in and take care of business while that feeling is still there…

Yeah, then sort the rest out in the mix.

Why doesn’t everybody do that?  Why does it take 2 or 3 years to do an album?

Some people struggle with ideas, that’s all.

“Pseudocide” is a very short, brutal song.  Who’s the chick on the opening of that…  am I talking about the right track here?

Yeah, she’s called Lisa Rieffel.

Where did you find her?

Me wife’s about to take over management of a band in Los Angeles called “Killoa” (sp?).  I think they should have a record out, probably next year, and I really like the way she sang, and I just wanted… the first Pseudocide was incredibly aggressive, and I just thought it was too, over the top.  (So) I got the idea to put a female singer on to lighten it up a little bit, and it worked.

The whole album sounds GREAT.   I’ve been listening to it non-stop for over a week now and as far as your solo stuff goes, I think it’s the best thing you’ve done.

Thanks.

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