Ask any metal bass player today who their top five influences are and the name Geezer Butler will and definitely should come up. Because let's face it, if you don't have the bass lines for “N.I.B.,” “Sweet Leaf,” or freakin' “Iron Man” in your back pocket as required metal standards–well son, you might as well go join a punk band. But the greatness of Geezer isn't just in his playing, but his talents as a wordsmith, writing most of Black Sabbath's most iconic lyrics for Ozzy Osbourne in the early days.
Despite not exercising his lyrical talent for the band in decades, the iconic bass player aptly resumed his role when it came time to craft their first album together as an original lineup since 1978, minus drummer Bill Ward who bowed out for some murky disputes over his contract with the band. But now with guitarist Tony Iommi, Osbourne and Butler back together, 13 –the new album form world's ultimate metal band–shot directly to #1 on the U.S. charts. Has it taken a criminally long time to achieve that status? Yes! But hey, at least it happened. Before Black Sabbath comes to Irvine next Wednesday for a tour date at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, we talked to Butler about what goes into writing lyrics for Ozzy, his conversations with Bill Ward since his split from the group and the music he's listening to these days…which might actually surprise you.
OC Weekly (Nate Jackson): Does finally having an album go #1 on the US charts give you and the band a bit of vindication after dealing with such harsh criticism of your records from the mainstream tastemakers in the early days?
Geezer Butler: None of us even dreamed of it doing anything like that. We thought maybe it would go into the Top 20 at best. And we didn't realize how much people were really anticipating the album coming out. I remember getting an email telling me our album was number one and I couldn't believe it, I felt like pissing the bed.
Most of the new tracks are still pretty lengthy but there's also not a lot of wasted space when it comes to the riffs and complexity of the songs. How did this album challenge you as a bass player?
It's always a challenge, you want to play up to everybody else's level in the band. Tony's an incredible guitarist and Ozzy's got his reputation and you've got to come up to his level. You'll know if you're not up to the usual standard and you gotta change it. But with the longer songs, you can play a whole bunch of different parts but it makes sense when you put the whole thing together. That's why you can play something for radio but they edit it down to four minutes but it doesn't have the same impact, which is why we've never been a radio band.
You wrote the bulk of the lyrics for Sabbath in the early days and for this new album. As a writer, what are some things you do to bring out the best in the songs and in Ozzy?
I didn't think I'd be able to do it again this time, it's been so long–it was back in the 70s when I wrote lyrics for Sabbath. So I was kinda like what the hell do I write about these days? Where do I start? Then Ozzy will come up with one line, like “God is Dead” and then that'll spark my imagination and I'll write around that. Ozzy would always come up with one line and it sounds interesting enough to write around. The hardest part is trying to fit each syllable into his vocal melodies. Because you have to be precise with it, otherwise he won't sing it. Sometimes you want to put something across the melody, but it won't fit into his melody so you have you have to change it around until it works. That's the hardest thing for me to do.
You only follow 12 people on Twitter, most of them Black Sabbath related, but you also follow Dr. Who and are reportedly a big fan of the show. Does any of that science fiction element from the show inspire your writing?
Sometimes, the whole time traveling thing. We tracked this song called “Zeitgeist,” I just imagined traveling through time and stuff. Dr. Who's been on in England since 1962 so I grew up with it. It's the longest running TV show ever. It's one of those things where you've grown up with it so you've got that affection for it.
Have you spoken or had any contact with Bill Ward since this record took off?
I've exchanged emails with him.
What have your conversations been like?Are you concerned about the relationship between him and the band at this point or is it more about ignoring those thoughts and just getting through this tour despite his absence?
We' ll always love Bill. And really it was something that happened between Ozzy and Bill, I didn't really go into details of what happened but Bill started out doing the album and then suddenly he was gone. I really don't know what went on. But when I speak to Bill we don't really mention that side of it, we both just try to see what's going on with each other. It would be great to be able to play together again one day.
How are you able to keep up the stamina it takes to churn out the live sets these days?
You can't battle old age, I'm still paying well at the moment. But the moment when I feel like I'm not as good as I used to be that's when I'll hang it up. I don't wanna just keep going and going and going until I'm just a shell of my former self. I wanna keep playing at the top and I'll know when it's time to retire.
What's the status of your solo material at this point? Any plans to resume that when this tour is over?
I'm always coming up with new stuff. It's my hobby to write music and play different instruments. I'm always playing with something. Yeah I do plan to do another solo album hopefully.
When it comes to the state of metal today, what are some trends you see that are either really good or really depressing in the music itself?
A lot of the metal of today you can't really hear the bass. It seems to be all guitar and drums now. There's a lot of good pop records out there, like '70s disco types of bands. I like those kinds of funk bass lines where the bass is write up front. A lot of that is dance music and pop. I find a lot of that quite interesting as a bass player. I listen to Daft Punk everyday now. I like a lot of the bass on that, it's probably fake bass, but the lines are great.
Black Sabbath plays at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre on Wed. Aug. 28. For full ticket info, click here.