Geezer Butler's lost decade: "I nearly died"

The Black Sabbath legend on surviving the '90s, his solo career and, er, Cardi B's WAP...

Geezer Butler's lost decade: "I nearly died"
Phil Alexander

“We're just waiting for civil war to break out over here,” deadpans Geezer Butler on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. A man armed with a deeply dry sense of humour, the legendary bass player is of course alluding to the ominous political climate engendered by the recent, bruising U.S. Presidential election.

“I despair at what I see around me to be honest,” he continues. “You can try and pretend that you'll use what you see as a source of inspiration, but the world is in a horrific state. There’s so much division, it’s just terrible seeing that.”

Butler, like so many of us, has had to deal with the personal consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. He misses England or, more specifically, his youngest son James who lives in London. “We haven’t seen him since Christmas and I’m not sure when we will,” he sighs. “But we’ve been coping with the situation by doing lots of road trips to places like Utah. I’ve also just got a new seven string bass from Ibanez which allows me to play guitar and bass pretty much at the same time, so I’ve started writing again.”

This enforced creative spurt coincides with the reissue of three of Geezer’s solo albums – Plastic Planet, Black Science and Ohmwork – all of which were originally released between 1995 and 2005, and have now also been issued on vinyl for the first time. Each album represents distinctive facets of Geezer’s own personality, with 1995’s Plastic Planet being the angriest, his vitriol being directed at a specific source.

“I really wasn’t happy with the way that Sabbath was going,” he states bluntly, reflecting on the band he’d formed in Birmingham in 1969 with guitar player Tony Iommi, frontman Ozzy Osbourne and drummer Bill Ward back. “There was only me and Tony left and I always wanted the band to change its name because it wasn’t Sabbath really, but we never did. We still went out as Black Sabbath, which I wasn’t into. I also wanted the music to be heavier.”

As Sabbath released their seventeenth studio album, Cross Purposes, in February 1994, he felt disillusioned by their particular brand of polished hard rock. Instead, Butler – who was about to turn 45 - had found himself re-energised by the new wave of heavy bands that had begun to emerge in the U.S., Californian industrial outfit Fear Factory among them. When Sabbath completed their Cross Purposes World Tour, the bass player finally quit and began working on a solo project. He turned to a familial source to help marshal the material, his nephew Pedro Howse.

“Pedro was in a thrash band called Crazy Angel at the time and I really liked what he was doing. We really worked well together and we got the album written in no time,” he recalls.

Blessed with a similar sanguine sense of humour as Butler, Howse has proved to be the mainstay of Geezer’s solo endeavours, and provided the bass player with a strong song-writing foil throughout.

“Pedro just gets what I’m trying to do,” explains Butler. “He’s also one of the few guitarists that I can play guitar to. I always felt weird writing on guitar and playing songs to Tony so I’d always write stuff on the bass because I was intimidated trying to play a riff to greatest riff master ever. Playing with Pedro is relaxing. I don’t have to be great but I can just put an idea across and he’s great at picking that up.”

Having worked up drafts of a collection of hard-driving songs, the duo contacted Fear Factory frontman Burton C. Bell and drummer Deen Castronovo. The latter had played with Geezer in Ozzy Osbourne’s band on the sessions that made up the Ozzmosis album (set to be released in October 1995) and was an obvious choice, while Bell was Butler’s favoured singer. Repairing to Long View Farm Studios in Massachusetts, the four-piece finished routining the 11 tracks that would make up Plastic Planet, Butler contributing the album’s worth of lyrics, just as he had done back in Sabbath’s early days.

“I wrote the lyrics all in long-form before we’d even got Burt in the band. I had pages and pages of them, and Burt edited them and used what fitted the music,” he explains.

Butler’s choice of subject matter was typically bleak. One of the album’s standouts, The Invisible, dealt with the issue of homelessness in unflinching terms. ‘Invisible, the man on the street / The voice of silence, you don't want to meet / The homeless, the poor, society's dregs / The drunk and the junkie, the woman who begs,’ begins the opening verse of the hard-hitting tune, which would find a wider audience when it was included on the soundtrack to martial arts action movie Mortal Kombat in the summer of ’95.

“It probably sounds just as relevant now, especially when it comes to Los Angeles. The homelessness here is unbelievable,” he agrees. “I live in a reasonably nice area and down the road its like tent city. They’ve even gone so far as to put toilets in and wash-downs for people. It’s just terrible that it’s become accepted.”

Equally trenchant is the pile-driving Drive Boy, Shooting, a track that tackles the scourge of gun culture in the U.S. “At the time when I wrote that, there was a lot of gang culture and initiation involving guns. It was very real and people were killing members of their own family in some cases,” Geezer remembers.

Another key tune on the record is Giving Up The Ghost – a track widely viewed at the time as being directed at Butler’s former Sabbath band mate, Tony Iommi.

“A lot of people thought it was a straight dig at Tony but it wasn’t. It was about the whole Sabbath experience including the management and everyone around us,” clarifies Butler.” It was also about me leaving the band and giving up on the whole thing. Giving up what I felt I’d built up in Sabbath too. Giving up the ghost in every way, really.”

Choosing the project name of G/Z/R rather than releasing the record as a pure solo project, Butler co-produced what was a contemporary sounding and decidedly intense record that eschewed classic rock in favour of groove metal and neo-industrial stylings.

“I wanted it to be heavy and not to sound like just my version of a Sabbath record. I deliberately veered away from that,” he says. “A lot of people didn’t like what I was doing at the time but I wasn’t doing it for them. I was doing it for me.”

Today, Plastic Planet still sounds fantastically ferocious, Burton C. Bell’s versatile vocal performance adding to the album’s futuristic heaviness on tracks like opener Catatonic Eclipse and the rapacious title track. For Butler, the album’s release in October 1995 also presented him with the opportunity to reconnect with an audience on a grass-roots level, the bass player telling this journalist at the time that he aimed to head back to the clubs and “get jiggy with it”. He laughs like Muttley at the thought of that now.

“Actually, it was good going back to clubs. I hadn’t done it since Sabbath had first come to America and we’d started out in the clubs, so it felt good. That started wearing off when I got some terrible stomach problems. I got this food poisoning and it got so bad I nearly died,” states Butler, a man who embraced veganism from an early age. “I was rushed into hospital to Intensive Care and by the time I was allowed out the tour was cancelled. I was in New York at the time. I was really sick, and I had a gig to do that night. I was leaning up against the amps and I think people just thought I was pissed off playing there. I started hallucinating at one point and Pedro just called an ambulance and rushed me to hospital. I was on a drip and everything. By the time I recovered, the tour had been scrapped so that was that.”

G/Z/R WAS never intended as an ongoing project. Bell’s success with Fear Factory – riding high at the time on the back of the release of their second album, Demanufacture – meant that he was unable to commit full-time to the project. Butler, however, was in a rich vein of form and, following his near-death experience, he returned to England and began working on some new music with Howse.

While Plastic Planet had been a forward-looking album, this time around Geezer found himself in nostalgic form and harking back to the British TV shows that he’d watched in the late '60s – most specifically a number of science fiction series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson.

“At the house I had in England I had this massive vintage toy collection. I got back into Captain Scarlet, Stingray, Dr Who, Dan Dare, and all these old toys. Pedro and me were there and playing every day too, and I started to write songs about childhood stuff. The toys inspired that,” he says.

The songs that Butler began to write included Among The Cybermen (in reference to Dr Who’s square-headed, cyborg enemies), Mysterons (named after Captain Scarlet’s extra-terrestrial opponents) and opener Man In A Suitcase (titled after the ‘60s crime thriller of the same name). Despite their fanciful titles, the lyrics penned by Butler reflected a sense of lost innocence and a deep desire for escapism.

Thunderous album closer, Trinity Road, continued that theme despite boasting lyrics that read ‘Sex! Death! Satan! Jesus save us!’ – words that can easily be misconstrued. “That song is actually about walking to watch The Villa,” laughs Butler, a lifelong supporter of his local football team, Aston Villa. The most intriguing of song titles written during that time is Unspeakable Elvis – a lithe track that also harks back to Butler’s teenage discovery of rock’n’roll.

“That’s really about the fact that whatever new music comes out, it’s viewed as the devil’s music. I remember when Elvis came out everybody said he was Satan. And then in the ‘60s and ‘70s he became America’s national treasure,” shrugs Geezer. “It happens with every new wave of music. Like metal, obviously. The Christians were going mental when Sabbath came about. And then when rap came about, people were up in arms about that and certain words that rappers were using. I have to say, though, that Cardi B pisses me off with that WAP song. It’s disgusting! But there you go.”

Butler’s outrage at Cardi B’s 2020 summer smash revolves specifically around the impact of the single’s sexually explicit lyrics (sample line: ‘Bring a bucket and a mop for this wet-ass pussy’). Viewed as an empowering feminist anthem by some and gratuitously offensive by others, the track pulls very few punches in terms of its subject matter.

“A friend of mine didn’t know what the song was about but his 10-year-old girl was singing it! I was like ‘What?!’ To put it on album, fair enough. But to put it out as a single? That’s a it’s a bit much,” he continues, “Then again, I’m 71. A bloody old goat!”

Such self-deprecating comments are typical of Geezer, a man who freely admits that his musical endeavours have kept him young. Back in 1997 his quest for more youthful inspiration also managed to yield material that, for all of its retro lyricism, remained contemporary sounding and which boasted a post-grunge undertow. With Burton unavailable, he found himself in search of a new singer.

“We were up in the studio in Massachusetts and we were auditioning there and at one point and the person who owned the studio said, ‘There’s a local guy called Clark Brown that you should hear’, so we said ‘Okay, send him up for an audition. He came up, we got on really well with him, and it just worked,” recalls Geezer of the recruitment process.

A virtual unknown, Clark turned out to be “the perfect voice” for the material that Butler and Howse had amassed. As if to reflect the more personal nature of the songs, this time around the bass player issued the album under the name of Geezer. Entitled Black Science, it was released in the summer of 1997. The sleeve featured a piece of artwork by J.K. Potter depicting the Hand Of Doom – a deliberate reference to the classic 1970 Black Sabbath track of the same name. In fact, Sabbath had also re-entered Geezer’s life…

Despite Butler's evident disillusionment with his former band two years earlier, speculation had been rife that the original Black Sabbath line-up would attempt to bury their differences and reform. The rumours were proven true when Geezer, Tony Iommi and Ozzy Osbourne reunited to close the latter’s Ozzfest touring festival in the summer of 1997. Drummer Bill Ward also finally returned for two homecoming shows in December at the Birmingham NEC, which were captured for posterity on the Reunion live album (a million-seller in the US alone). This rapprochement would allow for Sabbath – minus Ward on a number of occasions - to remain as a functioning unit until their final bow in February 2017.

If the politics surrounding the band have, at times, been complicated, on a personal level the quartet have enjoyed an enduring friendship, mutual respect and shared affection for the music that they have made together. In fact, legacy has always been an issue for Sabbath, with the original four members finding it hard to match the impact of their original first decade together.

Attempts to get the original line-up to record together down the years have floundered. Two new studio tracks – Psycho Man and Selling My Soul – appeared on the aforementioned Reunion album but were dismissed by the band themselves as being substandard. For Butler, a subsequent attempt at recording a Sabbath album led to a further burst of creativity and his third solo album, Ohmwork.

“Sabbath tried to do an album in 2002 and it just didn’t work,” he confirms. “So Ohmwork came about because of that. I was just writing stuff between Sabbath tours at the time. Looking back on it, I wish I’d just spent more time on that album, though. It sounded a bit like a demo, really. A lot of it was written when I was still living in St. Louis. I had a basement studio there and most of it was done on my own at home, which is why it’s called Ohmwork. I played the music to Clark and Pedro and then we went down to the local studio in St Louis and recorded it, and that was it.”

Despite Butler’s no-frills approach to writing and recording, Ohmwork is an album that once again possesses a personal edge, not least of all on the confessional track, the grinding Pardon My Depression.

“I had a mini nervous breakdown around 1999. Since then I’ve been on anti-depressants,” admits Geezer. “Pardon My Depression is a play on the old expression Pardon My Expression. I was sitting in the downstairs basement in St. Louis and I wanted to do a blues number when I came up with it. The blues is all about going through bad times and being open about it, so I wrote the song about that and being depressed. It was the same with Paranoid, really. That was all about depression.”

In many respects, Ohmwork, Black Science and Plastic Planet contain some of Geezer’s most intimate work. They are albums, he says, that have allowed him to express emotions in a genuinely open manner.

“I think you have to be honest and personal. I’m 71 now, so there’s no way I’m going to write a stupid usual love song about meeting a girl or breaking up. I’ve never been into that. Other people do it much better than I do. I write about reality. Things I’m going through and looking back on my life and experiences, politics and things that bother me. That’s what I’ve always done even back to the Sabbath days. Ohmwork has that element too,” he says.

Around the time of the album’s release back in 2005, there was also talk of the bass player making a jazz album. Was there any truth in that?

“I’ve got loads jazz tracks already written but if I put a Geezer Butler jazz album out, who would want that?!” he snorts. “There’s jazz bass thing I’ve written that’s so complicated, I can’t remember how I did it. I can’t reproduce it. I must’ve been pissed at the time! I had a go at it, but you play it to people and they go ‘What is that?!’”

Resisting the temptation to embark on his own jazz odyssey and 15 years on from the release of Ohmwork, Geezer is back in a band – Deadland Ritual, the supergroup that features Billy Idol’s guitar foil Steve Stevens, ex-GNR/Velvet Revolver drummer Matt Sorum and frontman Franky Perez (Scars On Broadway). After shows in 2019 and the release of two singles, it remains to be seen what’s next for the band.

“I don’t really know what’s happening,” says Butler. “We were all set to go and we had the album written but then coronavirus came along. Steve won’t even leave his house. He’s petrified about it. All the studios are closed too and if you’re going to be a new band, you’ve got to go out and tour your album and touring’s out the window again so I’m not sure if that’s ever going to happen.”

With Deadland Ritual on hold, Butler’s immediate future involves contributing two tracks to The Evamore Project, a musical collaboration set up by scientific entrepreneur Chris Evans designed to raise awareness and to benefit cancer patients. Tony Iommi is also contributing to the project alongside Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason.

Also in the works is Geezer’s own autobiography that he’s began work on. “I’m quite a private person as you know, so it’s quite a challenge really. But it has been fun looking back and thinking back to the early days,” he says. So how does he feel when he looks back at the decade that spawned his three solo albums?

“I think they’re pretty good records,” he nods. “I like a lot of tracks on all of them. A song like Box Of Six from Black Science is probably the heaviest thing I’ve ever done. I’m also glad that they’re all coming out on vinyl too because that’s pretty important. Hopefully it will mean that people get to hear them properly too after all this time.”

Geezer Butler’s Plastic Planet, Black Science and Ohmwork are out now via BMG.

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