Masters Of Reality

13 June 2013 | 10:34 am | Wes Holland

"It was like putting your old shoes on or something – it just comes naturally. There’s no ego or anything like that in the band."

The idea of a “new Black Sabbath” album with Ozzy Osbourne at the helm is a difficult concept to get one's head around. A whole legion of Sabbath obsessives, young and old, have spent much of their lives smashing the eight records the band released in the '70s to death. No one ever saw a proper comeback album on the cards and yet here we are 35 years later with 13. What's more, only moments after becoming one of the first people in the world to hear 13, this scribe scores the added bonus of going toe to toe with one of rock's great bassists: Geezer Butler.

In town playing some of their first shows outside the UK since reforming with Ozzy (well, minus drummer Bill Ward who sadly couldn't get his contract sorted with the band), Sabbath's Australian gigs coincide with the new album being announced. And so a handful of journalists and record label people are invited to a pre-release album preview sandwiched in between Sabbath's two Melbourne shows. We are shuffled into a back room at the Park Hyatt, have our phones confiscated and our persons scanned with metal detectors before taking our seats. We all sit in a circle. Led in by a couple of bodyguards, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Ozzy Osbourne enter the room – outrageous! They look fantastic. Osbourne semi-coherently mutters something along the lines of, “We hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed making it.” It's a great record and we feel very privileged to have heard it in a situation such as this.

An hour or so later, the opportunity arises to thank Butler for letting us experience 13 so long before it's even released. “It's probably the first time we've heard it, too,” the bassist admits. “We've still got three songs we put down [that] none of us have even heard since we recorded them. We left it to our producer Rick Rubin to choose the tracks for the album.”

There's a theory circulating that every time Rubin heads into the studio with a ZZ Top, an AC/DC or a Black Sabbath, the producer hands them a copy of their own best record, says “make it sound like that”, and walks away. After speaking with Butler, however, it's pretty apparent that Rubin's approach with 13 was very hands-on. “There was a lot of tension this time with the producer. If we wanted to moan about something, we'd get together and say, 'God, I hope he knows what's he's doing!'” he laughs.  

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But surely Rubin's involvement only helped the process? “Yeah, he was a great influence on the album. We'd bounce ideas off him. He only had a couple of things that he didn't like that we were doing. I remember on one song he said, 'You can't do that, you sound like Van Halen! That's not Sabbath.'”

It must be weird for them, though. The last time the Ozzy-era line-up was in the studio they were recording Never Say Die (1978) – a poor record that capped off a pretty disastrous period for the band. Did it feel like 1978 again? “No, thank God – 1978 was when the band was splitting up and we were just going through the motions,” Butler shares. So, then, what was that moment like when you re-grouped for the first time in such a long time?  “It just felt right,” Butler reflects. “It was like putting your old shoes on or something – it just comes naturally. There's no ego or anything like that in the band.”

The night before this interview, Black Sabbath played in Melbourne and debuted a brand new track, Methademic (a 13 bonus track available with the deluxe CD). It sounded great, but what goes through the band's head when putting up a new song against classic old material such as Snowblind and Into The Void? “It's always weird when you're doing brand new songs. I know people come to hear Iron Man, Paranoid and War Pigs. With the new stuff, people are just going to stand there and listen to hear what it's like. I've noticed we've been doing [new single] God Is Dead since we've been in Australia and every night it gets more and more of a good response.”

Black Sabbath fans are legendary. Does Butler know what it is about Sabbath that conjures up such passion from fans? “You'd have to ask them,” he deflects. “I suppose because it's like a club. We're not rammed down your throat. We're not on the radio. Our music still maintains that sort of underground feel to it. We're not frightened to sing about subjects that other people steer well clear of. It's like speaking to real people.”

Butler has always written most of Black Sabbath's lyrics. He's also said that this is one of the first Sabbath records he's made in a sober state since the very early period of the band. “Funnily enough, when making the first three albums we were sober,” he stresses. “We couldn't afford any drugs. It was the '70s and we were all broke. We couldn't even afford the instruments we were playing back then. It took years for us to see any money. We never used to do drugs while we were recording, we'd do them while we were at home or something. It wasn't until Volume 4 [1972] that we started getting into drugs.”

Those three albums are incredible, too. Black Sabbath (1970), Paranoid (1970) and Master Of Reality (1971) is one of the great runs in rock'n'roll history. Butler's fond of that early material, too: “The first song on Black Sabbath is probably the best thing we've ever done. I'll never forget the crowd reaction when we played it for the first time in a little pub in our hometown, Birmingham. The whole place freaked out. You could see the confusion on people's faces. Just an incredible feeling.”

And what about memories from the first time Sabbath played in Australia: a headline slot at the legendary Myponga Festival in South Australia? “I always remember the women,” Butler confesses. “I remember we did a radio show and put the call out: 'If there's any girls listening come to our hotel rooms'. When we got back to our hotel there was a queue of women outside. It was very pleasurable.”