It’s Just Honest Music: An Interview with Geezer Butler

Geezer Butler is one of only a handful of musicians who can stake a legitimate claim to being a founding fathers of heavy music. As both the chief lyricist and bass player for Black Sabbath, Butler helped introduce a new vocabulary of occult-tinged distopian themes and soul-crushing musical heaviness.

With the release of his band GZR’s third albumOhmwork (out May 10th on Sanctuary), and the original line-up of Black Sabbath back for a stint on the Ozzfest tour, this summer is turning out to be an eventful one for the 55-year-old bassist. In his surprisingly gentle, unmistakably Brummie voice, Geezer spoke about the writing process for the new album, the roots of his dark outlook, and why we shouldn’t expect any surprises from Black Sabbath.

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PopMatters: For people who are unfamiliar with your music outside Black Sabbath, how would you compare Ohmwork with your former band?

GB: I don’t compare the two whatsoever. I never try and sound like Sabbath. Sometimes something might sound like Sabbath — which is bound to happen.

PM: How is your approach to making music different now as compared to back then?

GB: The writing situation is totally different. In Sabbath we always used to write stuff in a band situation. Us all together jamming about and seeing what came out of it. We’d pick one thing that we’d like and try and expand on that and make it a song. Whereas the GZR thing, I do everything at home first, and Pedro the guitarist will work on something or I’ll work on something and then we’ll play it to each other and pick the ones we like and expand on that. Once we’ve got the song almost completed, then we’ll play it to Clark [Brown], the singer and he’ll pick out which parts are good for vocalising and what’s the verse and what’s the chorus and all that. The final step is rehearsing it with a drummer.

PM: It sounds like more of a process of putting things together now.

GB: That’s right.

PM: The new album continues with the darker themes that have always been foremost in your music. Why focus on that?

GB: I like to deal in the reality of life. I mean, I’m too old to sing about women and things like that. I’ve been perfectly happily married for 25 years, and have a nice life. Inane things don’t interest me. There’s a lot of things going on in the world that do interest me — as a member of the world. I just feel helpless — not being able to do anything about what’s going on in the world; so the only release for me is through the music.

PM: Is everyone helpless?

GB: At the moment. Unless you’re a multi-billionaire.

PM: I guess the power of the democratic process is not your thing.

GB: It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter who you vote for. It’s still the same billionaires that run the world. The people don’t usually get much out of it.

PM: I still feel that most of the people in politics are there because they actually want to help people.

GB: I don’t really think it’s the politicians. They’re just like puppets of the people who really rule the world. Politicians are just there to give the public something that they think they’re doing something about.

PM: Your lyrics are actually of a protest nature, but a lot of heavy musicians take the darker themes you write about and turn them into cartoonish things or a celebration of devilish stuff — how do you feel about the way heavy music has evolved?

GB: I think a lot of it is imagery — skulls and that kind of thing. It appeals to primarily young men, very much male-oriented. I just think it’s a macho thing as well. If heavy metal bands had big pictures of Jesus it wouldn’t have the same impact. When you’re a teenager or in your early twenties you like to mess about with the darker things in life.

PM: From a larger perspective, how do you feel about the subculture that your music played such a large role in spawning?

GB: I’m fine with it. As long as kids who pay money to see it are fine with it, fine by me.

PM: It seemed that for some time the trend in nu-metal was to focus on one person’s internal situation, while your message has tended to be more external in nature. Is that something you’ve consciously tried to do? Or is it what you do because of who you are?

GB: It depends. A lot of the lyrics on this album are by Clark and about his life. He’s had a bad life. A lot of my stuff like, “Pardon My Depression” for instance, is about how many people are in depression these days, and I’ve suffered with it as well, so it’s a general thing. “Dogs of Whore” obviously is about a warring general, so my lyrics are probably what’s happening with people in the outer world and Clark’s lyrics are about what’s happening in his world.

PM: You obviously give a lot out to GZR and you’ll also be playing with Sabbath this summer, is it hard to go from one to the other? Does one affect the other?

GB: No, they’re totally separate things. The GZR thing I’m totally in control of, it’s my responsibility; Sabbath I’m just part of it. It’s sort of like second nature, the Sabbath thing, the songs — I could do ’em all backwards now. It’s very much a four-part thing. I’m not really in control of it.

PM: In regard to your own music, do you make a conscious effort to update your sound — keep your ear to the ground?

GB: I’m just focusing on what pleases me at the time. I don’t really listen to modern metal music these days. If you try and imitate you just look like an idiot. Especially at my age, if you try and catch up with what’s going on now it just doesn’t work. You’ve got to be true to yourself and play what you like doing.

PM: Do you not listen to modern metal because you don’t like what you’ve heard or because you’re just listening to other things?

GB: I’m probably too old for it. I just can’t get into it for some reason. Some of it’s good but I can’t sit down and listen to a whole album. It’s not the same values. I like listening to musicianship rather than a sound kind of thing.

PM: Some of it’s really produced and shiny.

GB: It’s totally produced now. People go and get the right producer. It’s almost like a conveyor belt of what metal’s supposed to be like these days. It’s not music to me. There’s so many bands that sound the same now I can’t tell one from the other most of the time. Last year at Ozzfest, I honestly didn’t know which band was on.

PM: In regard to Ozzfest — What can we expect from Black Sabbath out on the road this summer?

GB: I’m not really sure. Probably the same ten songs we always do! (Laughs)

PM: Well, they’re ten good ones!

GB: (laughs) I know me and Bill [Ward, Sabbath’s drummer] are desperately trying to get Ozzy to do some new stuff. Or more obscure stuff.

PM: What would be examples of more obscure stuff?

GB: Anything that’s not “Iron Man”, “War Pigs”, “Paranoid”, the usual “Sweet Leaf”. Something like “National Acrobat”. Stuff we’ve never done before. We try and do this every tour, and nothing seems to get done.

PM: How about “Supernaut”? You guys think you could whip that one out? I think that’s my favorite one.

GB: I’d love to do it, yeah. Anything away from the usual.

PM: Rhino records released the Black Sabbath box set last year. What do you think when you look back at those albums?

GB: I’m surprised at how good it is. Because when you’re doing it at the time, you don’t realize it’s gonna last. We were just doing it for a laugh, really. We didn’t think we’d make a career out of it. You don’t realize how good it is at the time. When you look back, you realize it has stood the test of time. It’s really great to have that catalogue of work that I can look back on.

PM: What do you attribute the enduring popularity to?

GB: I think it’s the honesty of the music. We were an honest band. On the early four or five albums before we got caught up in all the politics of the music business, we were just seeing the world from a different perspective than anybody else was seeing it at the time. We were seeing it as working-class people being brought up with not much hope in the world and the music and lyrics reflected that. We weren’t going for any poet prizes or anything like that. We just did it purely and simply for what we were feeling at the time.

PM: Do you still feel that same lack of hope?

GB: I don’t feel a lack of hope. It’s just disappointment really that after all these years we’re still fighting meaningless wars for a handful of people. People are making billions from the oil and don’t care about these young American soldiers that are being massacred there, or the innocent civilians that are always being murdered. It’s horrible. It’s disappointment more than lack of hope.

PM: Before we end, do you think you could summarize your music or outlook on life?

GB: I think just honesty. It’s just honest music. It’s not made with an eye on what sounds good for radio, and it’s certainly not made to make us millionaires. That’s all I can say, just honest. There’s nothing on there that I’m not proud of.