August 13, 2013, Hades: Ozzy Osbourne sits in a dark, cylindrical room. He sticks a needle into his arm, drawing blood into a rubber tube that's connected to a pen. He's writing, with his own blood transfused as ink, a postscript to Black Sabbath's new album, 13. "Wake up!" his scrawl screams. "The masses aren't mindless anymore!" This isn't the reality-show Ozzy; this is the doomsday jester Ozzy—the Blotto Devil-Bard—and he's back, singing on a Sabbath album for the first time in 35 years. He releases the tourniquet around his arm, shrieking as the blood-ink comes; Sabbath's song "Snowblind" booms back and forth through the air like Edgar Allan Poe's scythe blade in "The Pit and the Pendulum."
Black Sabbath's slowness—decelerated intervals of sludge and pain—can't be replicated. Guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward sling tar-covered riffs. It's doom. The doom is coming. They drain the transition on a downbeat into a blues-based, hidden-chamber jam. If you think heavy metal, you have to think Black Sabbath. And now they're back—three-quarters of them, anyway. Ward is absent due to business disagreements and an "un-signable contract." (Drummer Tommy Clufetos currently mans the live kit.) Another obstacle was Iommi's lymphoma diagnosis, which he's successfully battled. Thus, their Rick Rubin–produced 13 is the first Ozzy-sung Sabbath album in 35 years, and the first number-one album of their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career. Geezer Butler spoke from New York. His Birmingham, England, accent is regal. When he says the word "singer," he says sing-ah.
How was the show in New York? It was great. Jam-packed. Fantastic.
Black Sabbath are about as holy as it gets. How does it feel to be holy? [Laughs] Or unholy. You know, we never expected it to last this long. When we first started, all we wanted to do was get a record deal, and that was it. Something to show our parents. And here we are, more than 40 years later.
How’d you meet that guy, what’s his name? Your singer, Sharon Osbourne, I mean Ozzy Osbourne. We picked Ozzy to be in the band because he had his own PA. We didn't care what he sounded like [laughs]. I'd been looking for a singer for my band called Rare Breed, and Tony and Bill were looking for a singer for their band. We all used to go to the same music shop in Birmingham, and at separate times, we saw the same advert that said, "Singer, Looking for Group. Has Own PA." And those were the magic words: "Has Own PA." 'Cause none of us had any money. If you found a singer, none of them could afford their own PAs, but Ozzy actually had one, and had a mic to sing through.
And right away, Ozzy was the guy? You knew he was the singer? Yeah. The whole thing just seemed to gel. Plus, we all lived around the corner from each other. None of us had cars, so we were able to walk to each other's houses. And the four of us were really into blues at the time. That's what started it off.
So from then to now, to the new album, what has Black Sabbath maintained? The fact that we can jam together. It's almost like we're psychic with one another, knowing what's going to come next. Rick Rubin said we're the only band he's ever produced that can do that. It's this feeling that comes about when we jam; it all works straightaway. If we have to work on a song for more than a couple of days, we know it's not happening.
What was it like working with Rick Rubin? Great! When we first met him, he sat us all down and played us the first album. He said, "We want the spirit of this album." And we wanted to go into the studio and play live, and not do it mechanically. Because the way a lot of bands do it now is to put the drum tracks down first, then the guitars, then bass. But we did it live, in the studio—all the tracks, playing live together. A couple of the songs came from jams in the studio. It felt really natural. Rick said, "Forget heavy metal. Because this is before heavy metal." You can get into a habit, listening to other people. You listen to bands like Metallica and Anthrax, and you can start to sound like them. Rick didn't want that. He wanted us to go back in our minds and remember the way it used to be, before everything happened.
And you all recorded at Bob Dylan's old studio in Malibu? Could you feel the Bob-ness all around you? You could occasionally, yeah. His old touring bus is still parked there. Levon Helm had passed not long before, and you could feel him around the place as well. It was a great atmosphere. It's Rick's place now; he took it over.
This is the first album with Ozzy in 35 years. Where did y'all struggle making the album? We've always been used to writing eight or nine songs, and that would be an album. Whereas this time, they wanted like 16 songs out of us. For us, when we get to ninth or tenth song, that's kind of the natural end to an album. But we kept writing and writing, and recording, and eventually there were 16. That was hard for us, to come up with that many songs for one album. I'm sure we'll put out the extra material at some point. Plus working with a new drummer, Brad Wilk [Rage Against the Machine], was most excellent.
Bill Ward was not happy with the business side of things? I don't get involved with the business side of things, but something happened on the business side with Bill. It's just a shame it didn't work out. He was there when we announced the reunion. We had wanted this album and tour to be the four of us. And it just didn't work out. Musically, it's great with him—he just didn't accept the business side of it.
How is Tony doing on tour, after his treatment? How's he feeling? He's doing really good. I think he's feeling better than any of us [laughs]. His treatments have gone great, he's responded incredibly well. He gets them about every eight weeks. We tour for about six weeks, then take time out for him to have his treatment, then we go back out on the road.
Lets touch on darkness. Sabbath has a darkness. With some bands, it's fake. With y'all, it seems real. You can conjure a true representation of fear and frenzy and doom. Where does that come from? What made you all able to represent this so well? I think it's just our way of expressing our darker feelings. We don't go around shooting or beating people. We get our aggressiveness out through the music. And we know if it's going to work or not. We tried to do an album in 2001, and that feeling just wasn't there, so we didn't follow through with it. Whereas this time around, that feeling was back with the music. It's something you can't force or fake. It either is there or it's gone.
What about when y'all are at a mall shopping for face lotion, or getting a snow cone? Or when you're at Benihana, and the chef throws a shrimp in the air and cuts it into pieces, and you're like, DAMN. What's Black Sabbath like when you're not being dark and evil? I mean, can Black Sabbath just sit there in a Benihana and watch a chef slice a shrimp in the air like normal people? Because I don't think you can. You released an album called Paranoid in 1970, one of the greatest albums of all time, and that changes you. Your normal days were over after that. We're always doing the non-dark stuff. Every night, Ozzy tries to make us laugh onstage. Every gig. He'll do something to crack us up. He makes stupid faces. The dumbest face he can possibly come up with, sometimes with his back to the audience. So the crowd can't see him, but we can. It's harder to play when you're laughing.
Have there been times when fans have taken things too far? We were playing in Memphis one time, and a guy jumped onstage with a massive knife. He ran at Tony, but just before he got there, Tony's amp blew up. So Tony turned around and walked offstage. He didn't see the guy with the knife at all. If his amp hadn't have blown up, the guy would have stabbed him. But as it was, security was able to jump on him. Such a coincidence that Tony's amp happened to blow at that particular time, otherwise he probably wouldn't be here now.
What happened to the guy? That's a hardcore fan. He got arrested. He was a complete lunatic. He'd written all these messages in blood and stuff. Really weird. It was back in the '70s.
How old does it get when people ask if Black Sabbath is satanic? When someone thinks that, they're completely missing the point. We're more political than anything else. But it's heavy music, and we have a heavy name. The best way to respond to the closed-minded people is to ignore them. It doesn't matter what you say to them; they'll still have their belief, and you'll never change it.
I was gonna ask if you wanted to camp after your show at the Gorge? My friend Kevin has a sweet tent and a grill. He can lend you a sleeping bag. We have Fireball. We won't stab you. Do you snore? Kevin can grill like a mofo. Ah, that's tempting. Let me think about it. Especially if he grills that well. Does Kevin snore?