40 years is a lot of time. Enough time for 19 studio albums, 7 live albums, and 26 singles. Enough time to tour the globe and back, go through a slew of lineup changes, and build the foundation as one of world's most storied heavy metal bands. It's also enough time to start fresh, as Ozzy Osbourne & co. have. With the guidance of omniscient producer Rick Rubin, Black Sabbath released their first album in 18 years in January, titled 13. I caught up with Ozzy over a teleconference call about the new age of Black Sabbath.
NUVO: I have to ask about Bill Ward- when is the last time you spoke to him and what are the odds that he'll be back into the fold in the near term?
Ozzy Osbourne: We would love to have Bill back in the fold, but unfortunately it didn't work out and we knew we had to deliver an album because we had kept people waiting for like 35 years, so we all just got on the boat and unfortunately, Bill had some discrepancy about something or other, but we'd love to have him back and work something out.
NUVO: Have you spoken to him since negotiations broke down?
Osbourne: No. I've been so busy doing this project and working in the studio, we just couldn't stop. I wish him no harm. I still love him a lot. We all do. You know, it'd be great to have him back, but we felt if we pull the plug on this one people would have gone "oh, it's never going to happen, you know." Because we tried, and we were speaking about it for a long time.
NUVO: I remember back when Sabbath originally got back together in the late '90s and you guys did a lot of touring then into the next decade. You had tried back then for a time to get a new record together and then it didn't materialize. Can you put your finger on what made things different this go around that enabled you guys to come up with some pretty raw material?
Osbourne: You know what? I was doing this television thing with the Osbournes back then, and I had my own career, and I suppose it was a clash of egos, and it just didn't feel right. We tried to force an album. In fact we did - we recorded a demo, with a bunch of stuff, which is nothing like the way we used to do. We were forcing it out of ourselves. Where upon this album, we just clicked. I mean, you know when you're in a band and you go into something which is working. You know, we didn't have to force it. It just came naturally.
NUVO: When did you realize that?
Osbourne: There's no answer - there's no formula. There's no magic--it just happens or it doesn't--I wasn't really into it. They weren't really into it, and you can't force it. It either comes or it doesn't, and I said before in the press that the reunion album was going to have to be something special, the most important album of my career.
NUVO: When did you realize you might have something special? You know, you talk about realizing that.
Osbourne: Well, you know, when it comes out naturally and you get that tickling feeling in your spine and you know you're on a sort of that spiritual thing you sort of, you know that everything's working right, you're not forcing it.
NUVO: I've read in quite a few places where you talked about Rick Rubin and suggesting to you guys when you got together to start on the album to go back to the first Black Sabbath album, listen to that. That was kind of his idea for a direction I guess for 13, and I'm curious what you guys thought of that idea initially.
Osbourne: Well, you know what, for us, when Rick says "I don't want you to think of a classic heavy metal album," I'm like, "Well, what the fuck do you want me to do, what are you looking for?" I know either way it took me the longest way to understand what he was saying. He says, "Forget all the other albums. I want you to concentrate and zone into the vibe that you had on the first album."
You know, that bluesy album, so I thought, "What is he talking about," you know? And then the pen drops, and then I suddenly remembered that we originally started out as a jazz blues band, and that was a part of the first album. We hadn't written that many songs and it was just like a jammer on side two, a bluesy album sound to it. And so I got what he was saying, he didn't want a structured album in the respects of you know, verse, riff, verse, riff, middle, solo. He didn't want that all the way through, so he wanted that freedom that we had on the first album, which was just a natural vibe.
NUVO: Yes, well I know Geezer talked about having to unlearn a lot of stuff you guys had learned.
Osbourne: Oh, yes, absolutely, I mean, he just said forget formula, just forget it--I couldn't for the life of me understand what he was trying to say. I'd go to him, "Rick, I don't really understand what you're trying to do. We are heavy metal, we're supposed to be the godfathers of heavy metal, so what are you saying?"
And he said, "Just go listen, we don't have to sit in this house and listen to the bloody album again for the first time in years. We haven't heard--none of us have heard it for like God knows how long." And then he says, "Go." Oh yes, I know what you're talking about, you forget what it was like before you got success.
NUVO: Yes, it sounds like it made sense at that point.
Osbourne: Oh, yes, absolutely, and so I mean, on one of the bluesy tracks, you know, sort of very loose track as well as there's a lot of freedom on that album. There's a lot of free spirit, which is what he was looking for, I suppose. It must have been. We did very well, his idea of a Black Sabbath album.
NUVO: So you know, 13 has already proved to be very successful for the band. It's the band's first ever Number 1 album in the US, and how does that feel and what do you think it is about the Black Sabbath sound that 45 years after you guys started is still...
Osbourne: You know what? You're asking the wrong guy, because when it went to Number 1 in England, it just went Number 1 in England, America, Germany, New Zealand, and I'm like, "What?" I mean, I'm still kind of pinching myself like I'm going to wake up and it's all been a dream, because had this happened in 1972 after Paranoid, I'd have gone, "Oh, yes, okay." But now after 45 years up the road, and we get our first Number 1, it's kind of a hard thing to swallow, you know? It's great. I'm not saying I don't want it to be Number 1, but I just don't understand why now, you know? I mean, we've been around for a long time, in one way or another.
NUVO: You've beat yourself up pretty good over the years, and yet your singing voice remains this amazingly crystalline instrument. It's one of the great rock vocals. How have you kept your voice so clear, so good, or is it a God given thing?
Osbourne: Well I've stopped smoking cigarettes. I've stopped smoking dope. I've stopped taking drugs. I've stopped drinking alcohol. Before I go on the road now, I try and warm my voice up and before a show I warm my voice up. I certainly start to go, well, I've got one instrument and that's my voice that's given by God, and I've got to start taking care of it, because it ain't going to last very long, because I was abusing it. I mean, my voice had gone all the time when I used to smoke, and I just thought, it's a good idea to quit, and I haven't smoked a cigarette or dope in a long, long time.
NUVO: I'm still amazed, it still sounds fantastic.
Osbourne: Well, thank you very much. Rick Rubin had a lot to do with it, because Rick Rubin produced the album. I mean, I just specifically chose a range that was comfortable to sing on stage as well as on the record, because in the past I've gone in the stratosphere doing trickery in the studio, and I could never pull it off live, and so I tried to do most of the album--the tracks on the album--we're going to do a quite a few tracks off the album.
We're not going to go and play only new songs - I mean, other bands just do their new album and nothing else, you know? But we're going to mix them with the classics and the new stuff.
NUVO: I wanted to ask about the lyrics on the album. Now I know Geezer has a big hand in that. How does that process work?
Osbourne: Well, what happens is I get a melody, and I'll just sing anything, and sometimes it can be like a beginning or a hook line or a couple of words that he gets inspiration from. He's the main lyricist, although I wrote a couple of the sets of lyrics on the album, but Geezer gives Black Sabbath's vocal message verbally. I mean, over the years, he's given me some phenomenal lyrics, you know.
He's just one of these guys that can do that. I get an idea like "God is Dead?" for instance. One day I was in the doctor's office waiting room, and Time magazine was just sitting on the front with "God is Dead?" and I thought, wow, that's a good idea, and I started singing that on the track, you know, the "God is Dead?" bit.
And then Geezer just said, you know... I thought, they've flown planes into the World Trade Center under the name of religion and God and all this shit, and that is not my idea of what God should be. My idea of what God should be is a good guy, you know. I don't think there's any good in killing people in the name of your God, you know? And so Geezer--that was my idea, and Geezer took it to another level.
NUVO: Did you ever have to have discussions about things that he writes that you might not agree with particularly?
Osbourne: No, no.
NUVO: Is that ever a back and forth?
Osbourne: He's very careful. I mean, if you listen to the lyrics on "God is Dead?" at the end of the song it says, "I don't believe that God is Dead," people just look at the face value of the title and I know on this tour we're going to have Bible thumpers and people picketing us and people telling us that we're evil and all that, but you see it's what we, we kind of laugh at it, because people just go the face value that "God is Dead?" and it's all about Satan and it's just quite amusing actually because they don't really know what they're complaining about.
NUVO: I'm wondering--you said something recently in an interview where you kind of tried to buck the heavy metal label. You sort of disavowed Sabbath being a metal band, and I'm wondering if you could elaborate on that a bit. I mean, you mentioned the bluesier stuff.
Osbourne: You know, the '70s heavy metal, the '80s heavy metal, the '90s and the new millennium metal is nothing like each other, but yet we're all under this one bag and I never really got my head around it. I mean, we never said "oh, we're the godfathers of heavy metal," because we've always felt that it doesn't say anything. Musically it just puts you in one bag. It was heavy rock, which was more of a musical thing to me.
I've never really liked that - using that word heavy metal, because '80s metal was all Poison, Motley Crue, Ozzy, and so on, and the '70s was a different thing you know. And it got different in the '90s. I mean, it's like it doesn't have any musical connotations for me.
NUVO: Well, do you see the new Black Sabbath album as being a metal album? I mean, how do you see it fitting into the rest of this genre?
Osbourne: I just think it's a Black Sabbath album. I mean, when we first met Rick Rubin and he says to me, "I want you to remember this one. You're not--I don't want you to think of heavy metal in the fact that you know, you're heavy. You're heavy--I'll agree on that, but you're also on the first album, you had this bluesy overtone, and that's where our roots came from, the jazz blues that ten years after Jethro Tull, Joe Miles blues records and Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, you know, and Cream."
We came from that camp, so those were our inspirations and back in the day, when we started playing music we were just inspired by those kind of people, and so when we started to record, we'd written some heavy [material] like Black Sabbath, the track "Black Sabbath." You can definitely feel that bluesy influence in the guitar work especially the jam on the back of the album on side 2 or whatever.
Rick Rubin sat us all down and says, "Listen, this is what I want you to start thinking about," and we couldn't understand where he was coming from for a long while, and what he was wanting was the freedom of that early album instead of being constructed with breaks and I mean, there was some construction on that, but it was a flow - it flowed naturally, kind of thing. And then that's what he was looking for, and so that's what we did.
NUVO: Okay, so now you've got the album that you wanted. What's the live show going to be like?
Osbourne: You know, all I can say is a month or so ago we were in New Zealand, Australia, and Japan, and it was astounding how the reception was. We're going to do some old and we're going to do some new and it's just kind of interesting to be able to do some new stuff because in the past I haven't been able to do a lot of new stuff because of the fact that my range is too high and I couldn't do onstage what I did in the studio.
But now on this - on 13 I sang it in a range that I could do most of them on stage so we did new things, "End of the Beginning", "God is Dead?" and a couple of others, but we couldn't do most of the cuts off the album if you want to change them around and all. We're not going to go and just do new stuff but very limited old stuff. We're going to do "Paranoid," "Black Sabbath," a good mix of the old stuff as well as the new stuff. I know people get disappointed when they go we like the new stuff, but we want to hear some of the old stuff, you know.
NUVO: Are you still comfortable with being the "Prince of Darkness?"
Osbourne: It's a name. I didn't wake up one morning and go "you know what I'm going to call myself"- it started as a joke name really. I'm okay with it, you know? You know, it's better than being called an asshole.
NUVO: You've never been called that. And the future, are you guys thinking about the future yet?
Osbourne: You know what? It's taken us 35 years to get to this point, let's see how we get on with this. Let me put it this way--I'm up for it if the guys are up for it and we got the goods, we'll do it, but we're not, we tried once before to do an album before 13, and it just fell apart because we weren't really gelling, but it worked for some reason on this album. And I'm hopeful--I'm not saying I will and I'm not saying I won't. Let's just see what happens.
NUVO: A few months ago I did an interview with Columbian rocker Juanes, who said when he was growing up in Columbia, which is pretty violent, he and his buddies would trade cassettes, and Sabbath, songs like "War Pigs" gave him strength and pretty much saved him, he said. The new song on the album, "Age of Reason," can you talk about that song? It should resonate with a new generation.
Osbourne: Well, we didn't try to be like the modern version of Sabbath. We just did what we always did. We've never been a band to go, oh, we've got this song, hit top ten song, we've got to do this. We just do it and whatever happens after that. It's just sometimes a surprise to me as well as anybody else, because in the past I've done things on albums that have been, oh, so let's finish the album up.
I'm not really going to do that on stage, so it don't matter, and the amount of people that come up to me and go, "why don't you ever do that song on the stage?" Because this whole business for me has been nothing but surprises. It's like 44 years ago, when we needed a Number 1 album, we got to Number 10, number 2, number 4, number 5, and so on, but now after 40 odd years, we've earned our first Number 1. I'm like, what's all that about, you know?
I'm not complaining, believe me, I mean I wished I could have one of them for the rest of my life, it'd be great, but it's been nothing short of a miracle from day one, because I remember when we put our first album out and a manager says to me in a night club, "You know, I've got some news to tell you" and I go, "What's that?"
He goes, "Your album was in the charts this week at Number 17." And I was like, "you're joking. I had no idea," I mean, from album one we've never had a really proper #1, we've had albums that have done as good as the others.
I wasn't really happy with the way it ended because it was such a great dream come true for all of us, because we were like a band that wasn't created by some business model. We were four guys and we just got together, made a record, and then from then on our lives were forever changed.
And it's great. I don't really like discussing about what the lyrics were about and what all, because you know, it's up to you. If you like the track, you make your own mind up.
NUVO: When Rick had you go back and listen to the first Black Sabbath album, what did you think, you know, hearing it again?
Osbourne: Well, for a long, long time I was like, "What is he talking about?" Between Sabbath and my own solo career, I've made some pretty interesting albums over the years, so why is this guy going back to day 1? I couldn't. I was saying, "Well, Rick, what are you trying to ask--couldn't you be more specific?" He goes, "Look, don't think heavy metal." I'm going, "Well, what the hell would you call the first album, then?" And he goes, "a Black Sabbath album."
But then he says, "What did you start out doing?" I'm going, "Black Sabbath" I couldn't see any further than Black Sabbath and all the stuff prior to Black Sabbath. We were a band called Earth, and before that it was a blues band, and then I mentioned that to him, and he says, "what was the last thing you just said?" Then I go,"a blues band?" And he goes "blues band." I go "We weren't a blues band, Rick." And then he looked up, and "No, but the freedom, the freedom."
And so it took me the longest while and then suddenly the pen went "clunk" and I thought I know why he said that. Now I know what you're talking about, because if you listen to side two of the first Black Sabbath album, it's like an organized jam and it's very free-spirited. There's no layering really, just went in there and we played it as a four-piece band, and it was virtually put out as a four-piece band.
Now as we got successful, we implement 2, 4, 6 to an 8-track to 16 to 24 and infinity, and we should start layering, and so we used to think the more you put on a track, the better it was going to sound, but the actual fact, and in analog days in it might have maybe plugged the track up more, and so once you got all that sorted out, it was one of the easiest albums I've ever made. I mean, a couple of the tracks were actually written on the spur of the moment in the studio the way we used to do it in the old days.
NUVO: Did you enjoy it when you listened back to it, that first album? What did you think of it musically?
Osbourne: It's like when you record an album, you want it to get better and better, and so what he was trying to say, we used Pro Tools on this album, 13, and you can literally - I could just still there knowing that you were layering vocals on, you know. What he was trying to say is you don't need to overdub that much, because it takes the freedom of the track away, and what he would do, we would go in and we would do a track a day.
We'd go into Rick's studio out in Malibu, and we'd go in, and when I was doing vocals, he had me singing, and I remember when I was doing "God is Dead?" and he had me singing for 4-1/2 hours, I'm thinking he'd go one more, just give me one more, and then he would go that was fantastic, and I'd go, "Thank God for that," then he'd go, "Just give me one more."
And I'd go, "Rick, you have me singing the same song for 4-1/2 hours, you're ready to kill yourself, you know?" So I said "how can it be fantastic if you want me to do the bloody thing again?" And he says well, "You never know, you might top the last burn." He had a dream, he had a plan, he knew what he wanted to do with Black Sabbath, and he did it.