Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi: "The Tensions [Between Us] Have Mainly Been About Business"

When Black Sabbath broke onto the music scene in 1969, no one was playing music with such heavy intent and darkness. Prior to figuring out their sound, the band was your average jazzy-blues-rock outfit. It was a popular musical form at the time in England, yet, there was just too much of it.

Then, guitarist Tony Iommi, in an effort to find a way to sound loud and strong to overcome any shortcomings associated with an industrial accident that cost him the tips of two fingers on his fret hand, took notice of the powerful music accompanying horror films. Once he discovered how to play "evilly notes," Black Sabbath came into its own. Along the way, the band was responsible for coining the term "heavy metal," while simultaneously defining the genre and all who came after.

But the band, despite popular success, had its share of troubles, beginning with vocalist and lyricist Ozzy Osbourne being kicked out in 1979.

After that, an array of singers attempted to fill Osbourne's mighty shoes, Ronnie James Dio perhaps doing the best job. Other members came and went, with Iommi being the one constant throughout. The original band--also featuring bassist Terry "Geezer" Butler and drummer Bill Ward--reunited in 1997 for a brief tour before the on-again, off-again original Sabbath made brief appearances.

After an aborted album attempt in 2001, Black Sabbath finally managed to coalesce in the studio in 2012 to make the recently released 13. Rick Rubin produced the album, encouraging the band to return its simpler, original '70s sound and style. Thus, 13 is a throwback to the band's glory days, and a welcome nod to the future.

Up on the Sun caught up with Iommi during a tour break in New York to talk about developing that early sound, the making of 13, and why Ward has been replaced by former Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk.

Up on the Sun: I have to wonder about that development of that original sound. A few early songs have a bluesy and progressive sound--but how did the heavy, sludgy sound materialize? Did you stumble on it by accident? Iommi: The sound I was after in the first place was to have something powerful. Something to create some tension. We used to work on trying to get the sound as big as we could. I think because of my accident it made me play a different way anyway. I had to work on playing chords a different way and playing as big as I could. That's really what it was, working on enhancing the sound. And when we all played together, the way Geezer would bend his notes the same as I do, and it makes the sound fuller.

That made it darker, heavier? I wanted it to be that way. When we first started, we were playing jazzy blues stuff. Once we started getting down to really writing our own stuff, that's when the sound came about really. I wanted to create the same vibe as a horror film. It's got tension and these evilly things going on. I wanted to do that with music and I came up with these notes that were evil [laughs].

Why do you think people took to it? Did it make their hair stand up on their arms, or maybe give them that evil thrill? Or was it just so different? It was unlike anything else around at that time. It was just different and people latched on to it. That's what we wanted. Not all people--some people hated it--but it was a matter of building up the people who liked it and making more of them. There were a lot of people when we first came out who really did slag us and hated what we did.

OK, back to the future. How is playing together--recording together--after so many years of tension and not being in the studio? The last album with the original lineup was in 1978... Ozzy was booted out in 1979... Tensions? The tensions over the years have mainly been about business. It's not been personal at all. We always got on well on a personal level. It's been going really good.

It's just a different attitude now. When we got back together to record this album everybody had a different attitude toward what we were doing this time. We wanted to make an album together. We all really appreciated each other and respected each other. That's really the only way to go into it--a full band commitment--and everybody was ready to put everything into it.

We did try back 12 years ago, and nobody could settle on it then. It wasn't the right time, there were to many things going on. Ozzy was doing MTV, so it just didn't work then. We weren't going to do it until everybody was fully committed, and that was this time. Rubin was interested in doing the album [in 2001]. We played him some tracks but that's as far as we got with it. We pulled the plug on it. We never got into the studio. We'd just played him some tracks.

Any of these songs on 13 holdovers from the 2001 sessions? We totally just abandoned those. It was not a good memory, so we just scrapped them.

13 went number one upon release in the U.S., your first such achievement. Why do you think it 45 years to top the charts? [Laughs] You tell me! I don't know.

But I'm glad it did. A lot of people wondered if Black Sabbath was ever going to get back together, so a lot probably bought the album because they were wondering what it was going to be like since it was our first time together in 35 years. I'm really happy with the album and what we did.

Any particular stand out track? "God is Dead" certainly invokes the earliest days of the band. We're constantly asked that and it's truly difficult. When you go track to track you really like them all. "God is Dead" is a good track. I like that. I mean, I like them all.

Where do you rank 13 among the many Black Sabbath albums? Every album you do means something of that time period. Certainly the early stuff I like. I liked the stuff we did with Dio. If you try to rank it against with the Ozzy stuff, I think it ranks right up there.

Where's Bill? I know all of you have worked together on and off since that 1997 reunion, but is Bill even able to perform right now? Of course--we were hoping Bill was going to do it. When we first got together, Bill was involved.

It was Bill who pulled the plug, it wasn't us. Bill decided on his own he didn't want to do this, because he didn't like things the way it was. But we still don't know exactly what that was, because Bill won't exactly talk to us about it. He got his lawyers to talk with our lawyers, and it went that way instead of talking to the band personally.

It got to be a silly situation. It would have been nice to have had Bill on the album, but it was getting too complicated. It had been after a year of this stuff, and we just had to get on with it.

How did Rage Against The Machine drummer Brad Wilk get involved? We ended up with Brad through Rick Rubin. We tried two or three big named drummers--excellent drummers--but Rick thought they weren't quite the drummers for us. He was looking for someone very much like us--very basic, but like Bill be able to jam and come up with a few good ideas now and again.

We didn't know much about Brad apart from what he'd done with Rage, but we tried him and tried him again. He was very nervous at first, but once we spent a few days with him he got more comfortable, and we got more comfortable, and he really came into his own.

How did the recording session work? Do you bring finished material in, or work up the songs on the fly? I came in fully armed with lots of riffs and material. I've written lots and lots of stuff. Some of the songs I'd completed at home, and I came in and played them for everybody. If they like them, then we worked them out. A lot of this was done in Rick's studio and some we did at my studio in England. Whatever it took.

I just wanted to come in fully armed with songs I could play for everybody, and then we could make additions and come up with ideas. Even if I have a finished song, I'm still going to pull it apart and work it to where we all felt it was where we wanted it be.

Given how well this is going, and the success of the record, will we see more of this Black Sabbath in the future? We're not looking at like that. We're looking at in the moment. Unfortunately, we have to work around my treatments. I'm still having treatments for the cancer. I have to go back to England every seven or eight weeks, and I have to come off the road while my system adjusts. Then we go back on the road.

It's all been very new to me. I didn't know how it was going to work. I haven't done a tour since I was ill. Maybe a couple of shows, but I haven't done a day on, day off, day on, day off tour. I have to treat my life quite differently than I did five years ago. So we don't plan things too far down the road since I don't know how I'm going to be after this tour.

Black Sabbath is scheduled to perform Friday, August 30, at US Airways Center.

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