Although Ozzy Osbourne sings the words to Black Sabbath songs, bassist Geezer Butler has always written them. Famously, Ozzy hasn’t always understood them. Butler shares with a laugh, that this dynamic still holds true today with the semi-reunited lineup’s new album, “13,” which to everyone’s surprise, including the band members themselves, reached No. 1 on the charts, a first for the doomy hard rock band.
How does it feel to integrate these new songs with such classics?
It’s good because we sort of wrote them in the same vein as we did the first three albums. So, they’ve been mixing pretty well.
A lot of the imagery that I’m seeing promoting the tour is that pilot with the mask from 1978's "Never Say Die" album, which is the last full album with Ozzy back in the day. What was the reason for that?
I think probably seeing it on Iron Man in "The Avengers." That was sort of great because Robert Downey Jr. had that particular T-shirt on, so we saw that there was a particular amount of interest and it became a top-selling T-shirt in England, so we thought, "Cash in on it!"
That was the last full album with Ozzy, so what was life in the studio like then?
It wasn’t good. That’s why we don’t really do anything from that album. We don’t have very fond memories of that. We sort of didn’t have any money. We had been fighting legal battles for two or three years and spent all the money on that, trying to get away from the management. And the band was in a really bad place at the time. So we basically sort of suffered because of that.
I'd imagine there were a lot more drugs in the studio then too.
Well, there was none this time. With the first three albums, we didn’t have any drugs, we couldn’t afford drugs anyways. With the second one, we didn’t really have any time to do it. Maybe the third time we might have had a few spliffs here or there. Drugs didn’t really kick in until about "Vol. 4." ... But this time, we just thought "Let’s get back to the basics, what we’re good at, and do it that way." ... We approached it as a live gig in the studio.
And it worked, apparently. You scored your first No. 1 album after more than 40 years after your first album. That's never happened with any band before.
Yeah, It totally flabbergasted us. We really didn’t expect No. 1. We thought it would do reasonably well, but if someone asked me the week before if I thought we’d have a No. 1, I would have said absolutely no way.
Black Sabbath lyrics have always dabbled in darker territory, but this time instead of fascination with the occult, it seems like there's a lot of grappling with your own mortality.
Yeah, especially after Ronnie died. [Ozzy's replacement in 1979 was singer Ronnie James Dio, who had been singing again with the Sabbath members at the time of his death under the band name Heaven & Hell.] When Ronnie died of stomach cancer, it sort of brought the whole mortality thing home very much. You expect your parents to die and stuff like that, but when one of your workmates dies, it’s a totally different feeling. And then when Tony [Iommi, guitarist] was diagnosed with cancer, it was like "What else is going to happen to us?" So all of the lyrics were reflecting that.
Explain how it works with the lyrics, and Ozzy's input.
Ozzy always came up with the vocal lines and usually Bill [Ward, bassist, who is not touring with the reunited lineup] comes up with a title for the song and I’ll fill out the lyrics. It’s always the last thing to go on.
I remember that legendary anecdote about after you guys had recorded “Paranoid,” Ozzy asked what the word meant. Is that true?
Anything like that happen this time around?
Oh yeah, he can't pronounce zeitgeist. We have a song called "Zeitgeist" on the album and Ozzy could never remember the word.
It’s interesting with him not writing the words, he seems to really get into what you’re trying to get across. Do you ever have to coach him on things like that?
No, the thing is, what you have to do with Ozzy, he comes out with the vocal line and then you have to write the lyrics like literally syllable by syllable. So you have to fit everything into exactly what he says. And melodies, that’s the hardest part really.