Sunday, 13 November 2011

Never Say Never, Geezer!

I'm new to this blogging thing, but I know you're supposed to update regularly, right? And if your blog is about rock music and a Black Sabbath reunion has just been announced you MUST update, right?

Well, the truth of it is that I'm too busy/lazy/hazy to write here on a regular basis. And, quite frankly, I prefer to waste my time on a Sunday reading Martin Popoff's rant on the matter ( rather than trying to think of an original "angle" on the issue. Thank God for the Internet then because, for reasons totally baffling to me, has kept alive an interview I did with Geezer Butler back in 1995, an interview that 16 years and 8 PCs later I no longer had access to. As a matter of fact I don't even remember where the interview originally appeared, but as I was living in New York at the time, it must have been either Metal Maniacs magazine or an ill-fated online MTV spinoff.

In any case this was a story about the G//Z/R debut album, but of course we also talked a bit about Sabbath with Geezer swearing that there would never, NEVER be an original Sabbath reunion. So, I'm copy/pasting it below for the odd Sabbath fan who might be interested in my small contribution to the Sabbath news story: An original band member swearing that he would never be part of the reunion he's currently a part of. Enjoy

Giving up the Sabbath Ghost

Ask anyone who's someone in the scene today, and you'll get the same reply: Black Sabbath were, undeniably, the creators of the most influential sounds in the history of heavy metal. But whatever goes around comes around, and Geezer Butler, the band's legendary bassist and lyricist, is back with a vengeance; a band that sounds a lot like some of the newer bands that have been influenced by Sabbath - only better, louder, and far more aggressive. Enter g//z/r.

The current incarnation of Sabbath is nothing but a pale imitation of the classic Osbourne/Iommi/Butler/Ward line-up's glory days, with sole remaining original member Tony Iommi beating a dead horse that should've been buried a decade ago. Bill Ward seems to be in semi-retirement mode, even though last year he was allegedly trying to put together a new solo album, and I guess you all pretty much know what His Royal Ozziness is up to these days. So, what about Geezer Butler?

Well, after quitting Sabbath (this time for good, he insists) last year, Butler has been pretty busy - he joined forces with former bandmate Ozzy Osbourne for the Ozmosis album and tour and, more importantly, put together a killer new outfit: under the name g//z/r, Butler wrote and recorded Plastic Planet, with Fear Factory's Burton C. Bell on vocals, Ozzy's Deen Castronovo on drums, and Birmingham, England-born newcomer (sort of) Pedro Howse on guitar. Trust me, folks, Plastic Planet is one of the fiercest, heaviest, most intense releases since Slayer's Divine Intervention. We're talking bone-crunching material here, including 'The Invisible' (originally heard on the Mortal Kombat soundtrack), the first single 'Drive Boy Shooting', and my personal favorite, the heavy-as-fuck 'Give Up The Ghost'. I could not pass up the opportunity to meet Geezer during his recent New York visit, to chat with the man about his bold new project and illustrious career, a few hours before Ozzy's NY gig and on the eve of the first-ever g//z/r concert.

g//z/r "The g//z/r project has been in the making since September 1994," says the black-clad, extremely pleasant, and ever-mustachioed Butler, "even though some of the riffs have been around for a few years. It's something that I've always wanted to do - especially in the past ten years, I've been writing lots of stuff. Some of it ended up on the last two Sabbath albums I did (1992's Dehumanizer and 1993's Cross Purposes). But I was finding it difficult to work with the other players in Black Sabbath, I wasn't satisfied anymore with the music Sabbath were creating, it wasn't going in the direction I wanted to. I thought it was the best time for me to leave Sabbath, forget all that, and concentrate on my own stuff."

Isn't the Sabbath legacy a heavy load on your shoulders, now that you're embarking on your own project?

"No. It was a heavy load when I was in Black Sabbath, because the version of Sabbath I was in just couldn't ever compare to the original Black Sabbath. That's one of the reasons why I left, it was just impossible to live up to the legend. I see this as a fresh start, away from all that. It gives me the freedom to do whatever I want to do, instead of having 'Paranoid' and 'Iron Man' and 'War Pigs' looking down at me. Now I don't have to compare."

So, do you think that Black Sabbath have no relevance today? Is it time for them to rest in peace?

"Absolutely, yes. It just doesn't bear any resemblance whatsoever to the original concept of Black Sabbath anymore."

What's your relationship with Tony Iommi today?


Plastic Planet sounds much heavier than anything Sabbath have done lately. Where is all this aggression coming from?

"Musically, it's the way I've always written. I always thought Sabbath should have remained a heavy band, instead of lightening up and becoming Deep Purple Mark 10. I've always wanted to do a really heavy album."

The g//z/r project features an eclectic mix of metal musicians. How did you come up with this line-up?

"I've been working with Pedro for about ten years. He's great to work with, because I write a lot of the material on the bass, and he can perfectly transpire the bass riffs on the guitar without losing any of the heaviness... Once we got most of the music written, we started auditioning drummers and singers in England, but I couldn't find the right players anywhere. Then Ozzy asked me to play on his album, and that's how I met Deen, the drummer. I played him some of the stuff I was writing - he loved it, and he asked me if he could be on the album. Then I came back to England to audition more singers, but couldn't get anywhere. So I asked Scott Koenig, who manages Biohazard and Fear Factory, if he knew any good singers in New York or wherever. Scott sent me some tapes, and he also sent me an advance copy of the Fear Factory CD (Demanufacture). I listened to the tapes, and then I listened to the Fear Factory CD, and I knew that Burton's voice was exactly what I was looking for: someone who could sing aggressively, but melodically as well. I asked Scott if he knew anyone who sounds like Burton, and he told me that Fear Factory weren't going on the road for six weeks, and Burton himself was available. So Burton came over to England, listened to the material and really liked it, so he agreed to participate in the project."

Burton and Deen are well-known from past projects. Pedro Howse, however, is virtually unknown even to the best-informed metal fans, despite the fact that he's been around for quite a while...

"Pedro used to have a band caled Crazy Angel in England, one of the first thrash bands, back in 1982. They were incredibly heavy, perhaps too heavy for the things that were going on back then. He's also been in a few other bands in the Birmingham (Sabbath's hometown) area, but hasn't really done anything big before."

In a recent interview, Ozzy described g//z/r as "This strange, industrial thing." Do you agree with your buddy's description?

Geezer bursts out laughing. Apparently not...

"It's not industrial! It's heavy, I suppose, but not industrial!"

g//z/r's music is definitely far closer to metal than it is to industrial. Lyrically speaking, however, some old industrial genre staples - technology out of control, computers taking over, the whole Man vs. Machine thing - seem to be recurring themes on Plastic Planet, with songs like 'Sci-Clone', 'Catatonic Eclipse', and 'X-13'. The vibe all over this album seems to be very anti-technology. Do you think we've gone too far? Is Microsoft's Bill Gates the Devil?

"A couple of years ago, I was writing this comic book about a guy who tries to find out who God and the Devil are through his computer, and he programs himself into the computer. He becomes an evil spirit that lives inside the machine, a human computer virus. I ended up taking a lot of the material I was writing for the comic book, and adding it to the lyrics for this album... I guess all this stuff comes from having two kids that are growing up in a totally different way than I did, everything they do is on a computer, from playing games to communicating with each other on the Internet. Computers are a totally different world to me, it's fascinating but sort of frightening at the same time."

And whatever happened to the comic book?

"I never finished it. I couldn't think of an ending!"

For the second time in the last few minutes, Geezer Butler laughs loudly. His love for comics, however, is no joke. This is one of his favorite hobbies, also demonstrated in other g//z/r songs such as 'Detective 27'.

"I really want to publish a comic book one day, and I'm thinking of writing a fiction book as well. The problem is, every time I get an idea for a book, somebody else does it! They always beat me to it! (more laughter) I guess that's why all this stuff ends up in my lyrics instead."

Is g//z/r a long-term project or a one-album thing?

"I think it's going to be a long-term project. That's where I want to dedicate my musical life to, after I finish the Ozzy tour. I don't know if the line-up will remain the same for future albums, however. It's going to be difficult for Burton, since he has Fear Factory. But I will be writing more material with Pedro Howse in the future, definitely. I would love this line-up to be the band in the future, but we'll have to wait and see."

With Fear Factory as the support act on the Ozmosis tour, three of the four g//z/r members are on the road with Ozzy. How will you find the time and energy to promote Plastic Planet?

"For the time being, we'll just try and book some gigs on days off from the Ozzy tour. Today, for example, Ozzy's playing in New York, and tomorrow we'll do a g//z/r show - our first gig ever! Then, when the Ozzy thing is over, we'll put together a tour and go out as g//z/r, as early as possible in 1996 - we'll be on the Ozzy tour until Christmas in America, then we're going to Europe, and then it's g//z/r."

Tomorrow's gig is the first g//z/r show ever? Are you nervous?

"Yeah! (laughs) We haven't rehearsed, we have barely played together. Even when we did the album, we only rehearsed for two days, so we've never really played the whole thing as a band."
How the hell do you record an album after rehearsing for just two days? Was there a lot of improvisation in the studio?

"Well, we got the backing tracks down pretty fast, in a couple of days, but Burton didn't have a clue what he was going to sing! I had written all the lyrics, I gave them to Burton, and told him to sing whatever lyrics he felt fit which music, so I didn't even know which words would go with which song. We only had twelve days to finish the whole thing, because Fear Factory had to go on the road and I had to begin rehearsals with Ozzy."

So, let me get this straight: You're playing New York City tomorrow night, and you haven't rehearsed once?

"We'll rehearse tomorrow afternoon. Nothing like going into the deep end, is there?"

Practically every metal band out there has been influenced by Black Sabbath, to a greater or lesser extent. I have always wondered, however, what were your own influences - what made you want to become a musician?

"Primarily, the Beatles. I didn't really listen to a lot of music before the Beatles came along and showed me a totally new way of life. That's when I decided what I wanted to be when I grew up! Musically, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall, and a lot of the old blues stuff were also a big inspiration."


The Sabbath influence is prevalent not only in the music, but in the lyrics of many of today's metal bands - after all, you were among the first to get into the occult and the darker side of life, and now there are bands in Scandinavia burning down churches and killing each other. How much of what you wrote back then was for real?

"I used to read a lot about all that. But any lyrics that I or Ozzy wrote were actually warnings against Satanism, telling people that if you are going to dabble in that, just be careful... I had a very strict Catholic upbringing, so I read a lot about Satan. But we never, ever promoted Satanism or black magic, we only used it as a reference, and it wasn't our only topic. We wrote a lot of science fiction lyrics, anti-Vietnam war songs, the occult was only dealt with in three or four songs. But people completely misinterpreted them, the way they always do... Sabbath even did a blatantly pro-God, Christian hymn type of song, 'After Forever', and people still took it the wrong way. They thought we were taking the piss out of it!"

"I think it's sad that those bands in Norway are trying to get publicity by burning down churches. Music shouldn't ever preach hatred or intolerance, there's already enough of that in the world... Some of these new bands are so fake it's unbelievable, they don't even know what they're singing about half the time."

Which of today's bands do you like?

"I don't really listen to a lot of music now, but I do like Machine Head, Fear Factory obviously, Pantera... Korn are pretty good too."

A couple of years ago, we came pretty close to an original Sabbath reunion. After what you said about Tony Iommi earlier, is there any chance the fans will ever see the real Black Sabbath back together again?

"Not with me in it!"

Geezer Butler starts laughing again - and this sounds like the good-humored, leave-all-that-crap-behind laugh of a man at peace with himself. Yes, he is nervous about the future of his solo project and tomorrow's show. Yes, he knows there is no way to ever get rid of the proverbial Sabbath albatross around his neck. But Geezer Butler is ready to move on, and you better stick around, because he's as relevant today as he ever was.

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