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Classic Rock Revisited presents an exclusive interview with...
Black Sabbath's Geezer Butler
Black Sabbath bass player Geezer Butler has returned with a new band titled GZR. The band has released an album of very modern and very heavy sounding rock music. Geezer’s music taste ranges from Bluegrass to Country to Jazz but on this album he sticks with what he does best: Metal. We discuss how he came to make the album and what messages he is trying to get across to us through the songs and the album artwork. Geezer refuses to slow down and is writing songs at a faster pace than he did back in the most prolific era with Black Sabbath.
Speaking of Black Sabbath, Geezer takes time to discuss many of the controversial eras of the band including his own dabbling in black magic, being fired from the band and how Sabbath’s creditability took a lump in the later days when the only constant member onboard team Sabbath was Tony Iommi. Geezer speaks openly of watching Ozzy and Bill Ward destroy themselves with chemicals and he discusses his fascination with all forms of spirituality. Especially interesting is how a mystical, evil vision led to the band writing their classic, self-titled song “Black Sabbath”. Finally, we discuss Spinal Tap moments, haunted castles and accusatory words from Ian Gillan.
Don’t miss this spellbinding interview with one of the true founding members of the genre known as Heavy Metal.
Jeb Wright May 2005
Jeb: The new album is out. The music is fairly aggressive.
Geezer: It is heavy – it is what I do best I suppose, Heavy Rock.
Jeb: Rumor had it that your album was going to be a Jazz album and not a Metal album. Is that true?
Geezer: Up to a year ago, that is the way it was going to happen. I just decided to do a rock album instead of doing something too drastically different. We had about 40-50 songs written for it. It could have gone in any direction but the direction it went was right for this group of musicians.
Jeb: Listening to the power of these songs, I can’t image them ever being slow, keyboard dominated tracks.
Geezer: No, we had all kinds of different stuff written. We have a lot of songs laying in wait. The hardest part of this album was deciding what direction it was going to take. I thought about doing bits of everything on it but it would not have sounded right. We rehearsed about 16 tracks and the rock songs sounded best and were the easiest to do in the studio. I didn’t have too much time in the studio to get too intricate.
Jeb: I heard you only took a week and a half to do the entire album.
Geezer: We took ten days to do the actual tracks and two weeks to mix it.
Jeb: Do you enjoy working that fast?
Geezer: I work much better under pressure. I think I am more focused that way. If somebody gave us six weeks to do the record, we will actually spend the same amount of time recording and then spend the rest of the time down at the pub or something. The less time you have the more work you get done. Towards the end of the Black Sabbath albums we were taking months and months to record. We were losing focus and we forgot what we were there for. It is much better to concentrate on what you are doing and get on with it.
Jeb: This is your band compared to your being a member of a band in Black Sabbath. Do you approach the song structure and layout differently since you are the man?
Geezer: It is totally different with Sabbath. We used to just all jam together. The four of us would just be jamming and picking out riffs that we liked and working on them. Whereas the GZR stuff is all done at home over a period of time. Pedro [Howse] might do stuff at his house and bring it over to my house. We will play each other what we have got and then form it into a basic song. We will then take the rough songs to the singer and he will pick out the parts that he wants to do concerning verses and choruses.
Jeb: The lyrics on this album seem personal and angry.
Geezer: There are a lot of things going on in this world that I can’t do anything about so my vice comes through the music. It is about the world that everyone lives in. Clark [Brown] wrote a lot of the lyrics about his personal life and what has happened to him.
Jeb: I really like “Dogs of Whore” and “Misfit.”
Geezer: That song is about war in general. A handful of people get to play god with a bunch of people’s lives. We chose “Misfit” as an opener because it is an up tempo and straight to the point song.
Jeb: You have a lot more experience than your GZR band members. Do you take on the role of leadership that decides what songs are good and what songs don’t’ work?
Geezer: We use what we all like together. When you write stuff yourself it is very hard to judge what is good and what is not so good. We go by group decision to judge the songs. We have to all like what we are doing. If there is something that needs a final say on it then, obviously, it will be me. The band has to be happy with it in the end but if it is a 50/50 split then I have the final decision. There is a song called “I Believe” that wasn’t going to be on the album but Clark really liked it and wanted it on there so we put it on. I don’t like to work with unhappy people. Everyone has to be into what they are doing. When you try to force someone to do something that they are not really into it then they are not going to give it their all.
Jeb: Some people may ask if you have been hanging around the 2nd stage at Ozzfest because this stuff is heavy.
Geezer: No, I don’t get to the Ozzfest until later into the day, actually not long before Sabbath goes on. I don’t really get to listen to what other bands are doing. I think that is a good thing because I don’t want to be influenced and copy anyone.
Jeb: What is your take on a lot of new Metal? It seems to me to be heavy on riffs and short on solos.
Geezer: I would have liked more guitar solos on this album but after working with Tony it is hard for another guitar player to impress me with a solo. I don’t like the sound of guitar solos that are rehashed time and time again. The only time I like listening to them is when they are well played and when they say something different.
Jeb: I wish there were more solos but do you think it matters that much to the average Heavy Metal fan?
Geezer: I don’t really think so – I think it used to. It seems to not be that important now but these things go in cycles. I think if somebody comes out with something totally original then it will come back again. So far, it is like take 53 of Eddie Van Halen that most people play. I listen to a lot of Bluegrass and Country guitar players. There are some great things being done on the guitar in those types of music.
Jeb: Do you ever feel you get pigeonholed as just a Metal guy?
Geezer: If I tried to do a completely different album of music than what I am known for, it would be impossible for me to get a record deal. Back in the 80’s I was doing stuff and people were going, “This doesn’t sound like Black Sabbath.” Well, it wasn’t Black Sabbath. Unless it sounded exactly like Black Sabbath, I couldn’t get a deal. You can put a lot of things that you can’t get on album on the internet. I just opened the Geezer Butler site up. Eventually, I want to get some stuff that will never make an album and put it on the website for the fans.
Jeb: Is there a certain message you are trying to get across with the cover art of the album?
Geezer: When they asked me what I wanted I didn’t really have a clue. Eventually, I came up with this idea of a robot designing a human and everyone seemed to like that idea so we went with that.
Jeb: Look how many different ways you can interpret that drawing.
Geezer: Absolutely, with the title Ohmwork people were saying homework. I didn’t think looking at people in a classroom doing homework was very exciting so I turned it into a robot doing his homework.
Jeb: You can do whatever you want at this stage of your career. Why put the effort and work into it?
Geezer: It is not really hard work for me. It is more the end result of a hobby. I am writing music all the time. It is something final for me to work through so I can get on with the other things in my life. Once you have recorded the songs then they are kind of in limbo until you put them out on an album.
Jeb: There has to be kind of an empty spot in your writing because Sabbath is not doing anything new.
Geezer: Exactly. I am writing more now than I ever have in the past. I always need an outlet for my writing.
Jeb: A lot of musicians tell me they were more prolific in their younger days but you are telling me that you are having resurgence now. What is your secret?
Geezer: Home studios are so good now. Sabbath never wrote stuff unless we were all together. You didn’t write at home – that is not how Sabbath works. They have drum machines and keyboards that can almost play themselves and the recording equipment is very good. It is not only what I do for a living; it is my hobby as well. I like to experiment with different sounds and technology. For me, it is relaxing.
Jeb: You are saying new technology, for you, opens new doors.
Geezer: It does for me. I can sit in my room and turn the drum machine on or use samples of drums and you don’t need to bring in a drummer for rehearsal. You don’t have to rely on everyone else to go down to the studio that particular day and come up with a song. If I get up and I feel like going into my home studio then I do. I can sit there for hours or five minutes.
Jeb: How did you come up with Ohmwork as a title?
Geezer: Originally, I was going to call it Homework because all the songs were written at home. I have a Birmingham English accent and when I said homework, they thought I was saying O-H-M as in electricity. Eventually, I thought that was more interesting. The meaning turns out to be working with electricity.
Jeb: So you accidentally found a meaning to the title. Geezer, I thought there was going to be a really deep answer behind this but it just ends up no one could understand your accent.
Geezer: [laughter] Yeah.
Jeb: You may find this hard to believe but there have been some things written about Black Sabbath that is not true!
Geezer: Really? [more laughter]
Jeb: Did you actually leave Black Sabbath before Ozzy Osbourne?
Geezer: I didn’t really leave; I got fired. It was in 1977. The band was going through hard times and you could tell the band was on the verge of breaking up. It was clear that somebody had to go. Bill Ward came over to my house and told me, “I’ve got some bad news. You’re fired!” I was almost relieved at the time as there was such a terrible atmosphere in the band. About a month later, they called me up and said, “Please come back.” I came back and then Ozzy left. He came back and we did one last album and the band fell apart.
Jeb: From talking to Bill myself, I have learned that he was very uncomfortable removing Ozzy from Sabbath – even though it had to happen.
Geezer: It was really strange because we had all grown up together. It sounds corny but it was like losing a brother. You go through so much together and then suddenly they are gone. I think Tony Iommi was just desperate to get on with someone who was into the music. Tony was going to go with Ronnie James Dio with Black Sabbath or not.
Jeb: A lot of Sabbath fans really love Heaven & Hell.
Geezer: It was a great album. It did the band a world of good and it did Ozzy a world of good as well. He was in a really bad state at the time and he just couldn’t get himself together. He wasn’t turning up at the band rehearsals or the recording sessions or anything like that. On the last tour he kept disappearing on tour and he was always drunk. I think it turned out for the best for all of us.
Jeb: Previously, you had been the chief lyric writer for the band. When Dio showed up he tried to take over that role. Legend holds this was a true point of contention between you and him.
Geezer: I was getting more and more uncomfortable having to write lyrics anyway. The Never Say Die album had me writing lyric after lyric after lyric and Ozzy wouldn’t even read them in the end. I was really getting frustrated having to come up with Ozzy’s lyrics and then he would not read them. I was really pissed off. When Ronnie came in and said that he would write them, I was really overjoyed. I was like, “Yes! I can concentrate on my bass playing.” I was so glad that he came in.
Jeb: Do you ever watch The Osbourne’s?
Geezer: I watched the first series but I have not watched it since. I never know when it is on or not anymore.
Jeb: Recently on an episode, they were trying to get Ozzy to do press about playing Ozzfest with Sabbath but Ozzy was refusing because he was saying that Sabbath was not his band. He didn’t want to do interviews because you all had fired him years ago. I am wondering what your reaction was.
Geezer: Whatever Ozzy says is his opinion. Ozzy says lots of things that he doesn’t really mean.
Jeb: You gave Ozzy his first job as a singer.
Geezer: We were in a band called the Rare Breed together back in Birmingham. It was my first band. The singer left and I saw Ozzy had an ad in a local music shop. He had his own PA and that is all that mattered. It didn’t matter what he sounded like, he got the job. Music was a hobby then but I wanted to go professional but the rest of the band all had good jobs. They were perfectly happy to work for a living. I couldn’t get up in the morning.
Jeb: Was bass your first instrument?
Geezer: I started out on guitar. I used to be a Beatles maniac – in particular John Lennon. I used to play his parts. When I got together with the original line up of Sabbath Tony played guitar and we had another guitar player as well. So, I switched to bass.
Jeb: Sabbath has had a lot of line up changes throughout the years. Do you think that tarnished the image of Black Sabbath?
Geezer: I think it did in the 80’s and 90’s. People didn’t take it seriously at all. We got away with the Ronnie Dio thing but when Ian Gillan took over that was the end of it for me. I thought it was just a joke and I just totally left. When we got together with Gillan it was not supposed to be a Black Sabbath album. After we had done the album we gave it to Warner Brothers and they said they were going to put it out as a Black Sabbath album and we didn’t have a leg to stand on. I got really disillusioned with it and Gillan was really pissed off about it. That lasted one album and one tour and then that was it.
Jeb: Everything disintegrated at that point. I was a huge Sabbath fan but as time went on I didn’t even care because the only guy on the album from Sabbath was Tony.
Geezer: It became a bit of a joke.
Jeb: Do you feel the Reunion Tour rectified the situation.
Geezer: The hard core Sabbath fans knew that Sabbath was still around the whole time but the fans who were around the edges didn’t even know that Sabbath was still going on. They didn’t realize that Tony had carried on with Sabbath because it didn’t get that much success. When we got back together it was like Sabbath was back together after all these years.
Jeb: The fans accepted it quickly. Did it feel right for you right away?
Geezer: It came so unexpected. I had literally done an interview only two weeks before where I said that I would never, ever get back with Sabbath. Two weeks later, Ozzy called me up and asked me if I would get Sabbath back together.
Jeb: How long did it take to agree?
Geezer: About three seconds! I wanted to do it.
Jeb: Drugs took their toll on Ozzy and Bill. Ward tried to kill himself on more than one occasion. It was a very dark period. As their friend since childhood, did you have to walk away from them because they are not going to change until they were ready?
Geezer: There is just nothing that you can do. If you try to do something with them then you just get abused by them anyway. I am not a qualified person to get somebody out of a drug or alcoholic situation. It is a specialist subject because if you try to do it then you just get abused. Plus, we were not exactly teetotalers either.
Jeb: How did you and Tony avoid the depths of despair that they did?
Geezer: We didn’t do it in the same excess that they did. I used to drink and do quite a lot of drugs. Drugs didn’t really agree with me. Eventually, I didn’t like the way they made me feel. I couldn’t do them even if I wanted to because they made me feel horrible. Boozing gave me terrible hangovers so it wasn’t fun anymore. I can drink socially. I go out and drink once or twice a month but I don’t have to do it everyday. I never got into the situation like Ozzy or Bill did where they woke up in morning and had a bottle of vodka for breakfast. I could just never get into that – not that I ever wanted to. I didn’t see how you could get through an entire day drunk. I got to the peak of drug thing and the booze thing and said so what? I went back to the way I was before it.
Jeb: It sounds as if some maturity snuck in.
Geezer: I think so. It is like old saying, “Drugs don’t work anymore.”
Jeb: How did you create the Sabbath sound when everyone around you was into hippie peace and flower power?
Geezer: There was a lot of anger in us. We were brought up in a relatively rough part of England. It is the murder capital in England now. It is one of the few places in England where people get shot. There are a lot of immigrants there. I was from an Irish family and Tony was from an Italian family. There is an awful lot of racism. Blacks would be killing the whites and whites would be killing the blacks. Everyone was always fighting so peace and love didn’t really apply to us. We were from the real world. It translated into the music, I suppose.
Jeb: To change the subject, I have read that you can have a dream and then the next day it will come true.
Geezer: When I was a kid it happened to me all the time.
Jeb: Before the drugs?
Geezer: Way before – that was before the whisky. I am the 7th child of a 7th child born on the 17th day of the 7th month in 1949, which is 7 times 7. The first thing I can remember was these weird things floating around the room. Since I was four I dreamed about wearing silver boots onstage and eventually I did. I used to dream about letters that I would get. The next morning I would get up and I would get a letter and know what was in it. I used to see ghosts and things.
Jeb: You say all this so calmly. You were never freaked out or anything?
Geezer: I was freaked out, yeah. But it happened to me all the bloody time.
Jeb: I totally believe you because I have had some things like that happen in my family. Do you think the metaphysical happenings lead you to develop a belief in black magic?
Geezer: Not really because I was always spiritual. I grew up a very strict Catholic. I wanted to be a priest and I used to collect religious metals and crosses. My bedroom looked like a shrine to Jesus. I was always very interested in religious and spiritual things. When I got older I had sort of done the whole Catholic thing and I wanted to find other things. I got into black magic, Hinduism and all kind of things like that.
Jeb: A lot of the band members would say that Black Sabbath was not a mystical band but I have always heard you were very mystical.
Geezer: I started getting into the black magic stuff but a couple of bad things happened and I took it as a warning and that is where the song “The Warning” came from. It is also what “NIB” was about – not going to the dark side.
Jeb: How did you go to the dark side in the first place?
Geezer: Just from reading about it. I wasn’t harming anyone; it was just an interest. I was into astral projection and all that stuff. A lot of it was because of the things that happened to me as a child. People would think I was either lying about it or that I was loony or something. I was reading these other books and I found out that they were happening to other people as well. It was good for me to find out that these things did happen to other people as well.
Jeb: What specifically scared you away from practicing black magic?
Geezer: I had this horrible feeling one night. I woke up from being sound asleep and I was instantly filled with dread. I was really getting into black magic pretty heavily at the time. I opened my eyes and there was this weird evil shape at the bottom of my bed. It frightened the life out of me.
Jeb: Looking back do you think it was real or was it something that was in your mind?
Geezer: It was real at the time for me. You look back on it and you wonder if it really happened or if it was your imagination. It was definitely weird. I told Ozzy about it the next day and we wrote the song “Black Sabbath” from what had happened to me. We came up with the song the next day at rehearsal; it was definitely meant to happen. It sparked the whole thing off.
Jeb: Talk about synchronicity.
Geezer: It really was; it was fate. I can almost see that fucking shape right now. It really takes me right back there. It was one of the main points of the band.
Jeb: Was it similar to the famous black cat image you saw after Ozzy gave you that 400 year old book?
Geezer: Yeah, it was like that kind of a shape. The only thing I could relate it to was a cat shape. It was like nothing else that I can really relate it to. It was that kind of round-ish shape.
Jeb: I can see where you had no shortage of experience for evil lyrics.
Geezer: When I told it to Ozzy he immediately came out with, “What is this that stands before me. A figure in black that points at me.”
Jeb: Did you write the lyrics to “Iron Man”? What was the inspiration behind that?
Geezer: There was a lot of space exploration being done by NASA at the time. There were a lot of things in the news about pollution and nuclear war at the time as well. It was about a guy who had gone into space exploration and had seen the future of the world. He came back to warn everyone about what was going to happen to the world and he got caught up in an electronic type thing when he was entering the earth’s atmosphere and he got turned into iron but his brain was still working. It was really just a science fiction story.
Jeb: You should write a book.
Geezer: I really would like to write a book.
Jeb: You wrote “War Pigs” as well. That song is very much about what we see going on in the world today. It was almost a prophecy.
Geezer: There is always war going on somewhere in the world. You can relate that to any war going on at any time. Unfortunately, wars are always with us.
Jeb: Has time been able to provide you with any answers to the problems you wrote about over thirty years ago or, are we as a race, just wasting our time?
Geezer: We’re just wasting our time. It is out of our hands. Just look what is happening with the Iraq thing, with all the ordinary people dying over that crap. You vote for a person who promises one thing and then turns around and does another. I think politicians are just puppets to the handful of people who rule the world anyway.
Jeb: Can we do anything about it?
Geezer: There is nothing we can about it, unfortunately. It is always going to be the little people who get sent to war and die for all these rich idiots.
Jeb: Even on the new album these lyrical themes continue in your music.
Geezer: Why would anyone care for Iraq when the American health systems need money? Why spend all the money that could help fix that problem in Iraq? We have enough poverty in our own countries we need to worry about before going anywhere else.
Jeb: Tell me the legend of the Haunted Castle.
Geezer: That is Clearwell Castle. When we were doing Sabbath Bloody Sabbath we rehearsed in this really old castle because the regular rehearsal place was booked at the time. We had been in America trying to write Sabbath Bloody Sabbath but nothing was working at the time. We felt like we were on the verge of breaking up so we came back to England. After a couple of months we went back to our regular rehearsal place and I think Free were recording there. We had to find an alternative place. They recommended this castle. We had to rehearse in the dungeon of all places. We were in the dungeon playing away and all of a sudden we saw this person walk past the door that had a big black cloak on. We thought, “What the hell is going on around here?” Tony and one of the roadies ran after the person. They saw him go into this other door at the end of the corridor. They ran after him and they were shouting at him because they thought he was some lunatic that got into the castle. They went into the room where he had gone into and there was nobody in there; he totally disappeared. We asked the owner of the castle about it and he told us, “Oh that is just a ghost.” Apparently, he was the regular castle ghost.
Jeb: When more that one person sees it that is pretty wild.
Geezer: We all saw it. Tony went after him. You couldn’t miss him wearing that big black cloak.
Jeb: What was your reaction? Were you laughing or were you going to kick Free out of the studio?
Geezer: Well, I went home every night after that.
Jeb: There is also a part of the movie Spinal Tap that concerns Geezer Butler – or so I have been told. The idea of Stonehenge being too small actually came from Black Sabbath’s idea to make a Stonehenge stage set for the Born Again tour that was too large. My source gave you the credit for the whole mistake.
Geezer: It had nothing to do with me. In fact, I was the one who thought it was really corny. We had Sharon Osbourne’s dad, Don Arden, managing us. He came up with the idea of having the stage set be Stonehenge. He wrote the dimensions down and gave it to our tour manager. He wrote it down in meters but he meant to write it down in feet. The people who made it saw fifteen meters in stead of fifteen feet. It was 45 feet high and it wouldn’t fit on any stage anywhere so we just had to leave it the storage area. It cost a fortune to make but there was not a building on earth that you could fit it into.
Jeb: Where is Stonehenge now?
Geezer: I last saw it on the docks in New York on the same tour.
Jeb: So somewhere these things are around.
Geezer: They were probably thrown into the Atlantic Ocean.
Jeb: One day a futuristic society will find them.
Geezer: They will think it is Atlantis.
Jeb: I have one more for ya. It is a little controversial so I saved it for last so if you hang up on me I still have the majority of the interview in the can.
Geezer: [laughing] Let’s hear it.
Jeb: I read an interview with Ian Gillan where Ian claimed the problem with the Born Again album was that you tampered with the master tapes and ruined the sound. What is your reaction to that?
Geezer: That’s a load of crap. I’m the one who was saying that it sounded awful. Gillan went on holiday so he wasn’t even there. Gillan came and did his vocals left on holiday for about six months so he doesn’t know what he is talking about. I was saying the bottom end was too heavy and that it was too bassey. I got sick of telling everyone that it didn’t sound right. When I was proved right, Gillan came back and said, “What the hell is wrong with this?” A lot of people blamed me because I was the one who wasn’t there at the time.