The classic Black Sabbath line-up (minus drummer Bill Ward) made a triumphant return last year with the release of the #1 album 13 and the subsequent world tour and live DVD. The iconic quartet returns to North America starting Monday, March 31st at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. An integral player in this successful Sabbath resurrection is bassist Geezer Butler, the man who writes nearly all of the group’s generally dark, brooding lyrics. Prior to the tour, the thoughtful, laid back Butler spoke with A.D.D. about their new album and recent touring along with a wide range of other topics. This is far from your typical rock talk, as we explored the impact of religion and politics on his youth, being raised vegetarian and eventually going vegan, the changes in the modern day political landscape, the state of his hometown of Birmingham, England today, and what he has learned about life.
I hear a cat in the background.
Yeah, Biggie. All of our cats are called after rappers.
What are your other cats called?
Snoop, Biggie, Chingy, Em as in Eminem, Nelly, Puffy, and Dre.
So you’re like a crazy cat lady in training.
[Laughs] That’s me wife.
The new Sabbath album 13 is one of those that grows on me. At first listen, it felt very familiar, but as I got more into the grooves and the riffs…
It felt a bit like that when we were writing it. At first it just sounded ordinary to us, and then it grew on us. Then we started getting into it and expanding the songs and coming up with lyrical ideas.
It seems like in America, people look at bands getting older and dismiss their new music. They would generally rather hear the hits. But I argue that there are many classic bands putting out great music in their later years, like the last few Uriah Heep albums and the recent Duran Duran album. There’s a voice of experience that you gain as you get older. You’re writing music and lyrics in a different way and thinking about life in a different way.
You’re bound to. The first few [Sabbath] albums were written when we were in our late teens and twenties, and so much has happened over the years that when we came to do this album, we tried to recapture what we had musically, and then the lyrics reflected on what we’ve been through.
It’s interesting how some of the Birmingham metal bands like Sabbath and Priest, despite being considered anti-religious, use all this Christian imagery, which I imagine must’ve come from growing up?
It did, especially with me because I was brought up Irish Catholic and really got into it, until I was 15 or 16 when I started seeing the other side of it. But it was always interesting to me. That and soccer were me two big religions.
And then music eventually.
“I was brought up vegetarian. Me mum didn’t eat meat, and a lot of it was because we had such a big family. We had seven kids in the family, and me dad used to get about $30 a week to feed us on, so there was never that much meat around anyway.”
After your teen years, how often did you go back to church? Are you still connected to it at all?
No, not at all. At first, we took Holy Communion and that was about it. I like kids having a belief up to a certain age, then let them go their own way and make their own mind up. I think it was good for me to have been brought believing in with something, and I did get into it and believed in it up to a certain point.
My parents both went to church growing up, and my father particularly viewed it as a social thing.
That’s what it is really. As soon as you start meeting girls elsewhere, you sort of go off.
So that’s what the appeal was!
That’s what I was doing in the end. I was going to Mass every Sunday just to take a look at all the nice girls that were going there.
And the bad Catholic girls are a lot of fun.
The good Catholic girls not so much.
Your lyrics have always been thought provoking. The interesting thing to me about early British metal is that had this anti-authoritarian slant, and while I wouldn’t say it was politically liberal necessarily, you were encouraging people to think and challenge the norms.
There was a lot [of that] when I was growing up in Birmingham because there was a rebellious feeling in the air at the time. The hippie movement was going which was totally rebelling against everything. Two of me three brothers had been in the Army and absolutely hated it, and I was dreading being called up. Luckily, national service finished a couple of years before I was due to go in the Army. It gave you more of a sense of freedom. When the Vietnam War came along, we thought conscription would be back in England and we’d be called up to fight in the Vietnam War. That’s what started this whole rebellion thing about not going to war for anybody.
As you’ve gotten older, how was your perspective on life changed?
For me, it’s almost pointless voting anymore because it seems to be the same no matter what party or politics you stand for. It all seems corrupted to me. It’s all the same old people that rule the world.
Especially in this country.
I think that’s happening everywhere. Every time I go back to England, there are things that totally surprise me that you never think would happen in England, just all the CCTV everywhere. There seems to be so much control over people these days.
The Internet has really helped that. As much as people can access information and love to share their lives on Facebook, pretty much everything you’re doing is being monitored now.
It’s almost like people are afraid to protest anymore. I’ve noticed that especially in America. If you go out to protest anything, you’re surrounded by police who aren’t afraid to use teargas or rubber bullets or even real bullets.
Do you ever talk to your kids about this stuff? And how their generation views all of these things as opposed to you?
Me youngest son is very politically minded. He got his degree in social sciences at Oxford, and my other son has gone the other way. He’s gone really religious and is bringing his kids up in the Catholic Church. Two sons from the same father who have completely opposite ways of looking at life. My youngest is extremely left-wing, and I think it’s because he was brought up knowing wealth and money, whereas I was brought up having no money whatsoever. That’s where the church came in and made up for the lack of money because everybody knew each other in the street and everybody used to help each other out. The one thing that you get now is that it if you’re lucky enough to have your own house, it’s like everyone wants their privacy now. When I was a kid, everybody would be borrowing stuff off of each other and you would always see the neighbors every day. That seems to have gotten slightly out of fashion.
What I’ve noticed about the metal scene is the split between the people in the audience and the people on stage. There seem to be more conservatives in the audience, while on stage and behind the scenes a lot of people tend to skew more liberal. Have you noticed that?
It depends. Everybody’s different. Some bands [and artists] are completely against what I’m for, like Ted Nugent who is the total opposite of me. He’s a hunter and loves meat, and I’m completely vegan and against any animal cruelty. You just meet different people. I don’t disrespect them. It’s just good to have conversations or have differences in opinion, even though it’s the same kind of music.
As long as people are having an intelligent discussion, that’s the key thing. The dialogue in Washington lately is just a shouting match.
America is so divided now, it’s unbelievable. And that’s happened maybe in the last 20 or 30 years, especially since the Iraq war. It totally divided the country.
What things were on your mind when you were writing the lyrics for 13?
They were just things from the news. I don’t know. I had to write some lyrics so quickly in the end. I was literally writing the lyrics the night before Ozzy would go in and sing them.
I really like the bonus song “Pariah”. What inspired the lyrics to that?
It’s mainly about what people think you are. It’s about being in the public side and what people think you are. Then when they find out who you really are, they get a shock.
We all have secrets. I think if we each knew some of the thoughts that any of us had at certain moments, we’d all think the other person was crazy.
You can ask the government.
I know you can’t do certain tunes on tour now because Ozzy didn’t sing on a number of Sabbath albums, but I wish you could play songs from Born Again. I wasn’t that thrilled about it when it came out, but in retrospect I think it’s a really good album.
Same here. Maybe Dehumanizer as well. I sort of never wanted to listen to that, and when we got back with Ronnie and listened to it for the first time since we recorded it, [I found] there is some really good stuff on it.
What I like about Born Again is that it has some of the most evil sounding riffs that Tony ever came up with, like “Zero The Hero”.
“Zero The Hero” is great, and “Disturbing The Priest”.
“It’s almost like people are afraid to protest anymore. I’ve noticed that especially in America. If you go out to protest anything, you’re surrounded by police who aren’t afraid to use teargas or rubber bullets or even real bullets.”
It would’ve been interesting if that line-up could’ve gone on a little bit longer.
Yeah, that’s when Deep Purple came calling for [singer Ian Gillan]. We had also fallen out with the manager we had, and things had gone all over the place.
I had heard a story that the album was recorded in an unusual way because you and Tony would be working late into the night, and Ian and drummer Bev Bevan would record during the day. Was that true?
No, but Ian went on holiday when it came to mixing it. Then when he came back off holiday, he blamed me and said it was too bassy. I kept telling everyone that the mix was too bassy, but somehow I got the blame. I was the one that was saying that there was too much bass on it. Of course he said, You’re the bass player, so you must be the one responsible. I said, Yeah, okay, you shouldn’t have gone on holiday.
You’re now vegan. When and why did you become vegan, and how did that choice transform your life?
I was brought up vegetarian. Me mum didn’t eat meat, and a lot of it was because we had such a big family. We had seven kids in the family, and me dad used to get about $30 a week to feed us on, so there was never that much meat around anyway. So I didn’t really miss it. Then the older I got, when we started doing up riders for the road, as soon as you would say you were vegetarian, people always would think you had fish for some reason. I said, How is fish a vegetable? I always had these arguments with them and I always had eggs and everything. I just decided to do vegan stuff, nothing to do with any animals or anything. I just went full vegan from there.
How old were you when you went vegan?
It was probably about 20 years ago.
That had to be tough then, especially touring Europe. How hard was it to maintain that diet on the road?
It’s fairly easy these days because we have catering at all the gigs. We just did a South American tour, and they didn’t really know what vegans were. I used to go to their equivalent of Whole Foods and buy these hot noodle kind of things. It is very hard on the road because even though there a lot of vegan restaurants these days, you don’t know where they are. Some of them can be 20 miles from your hotel. In NY or LA it’s great because there are restaurants everywhere.
I imagine it’s going to be difficult if you have a gig and you’re hungry. I imagine it affects your performance.
Especially when you start eating tons of bananas and things like that just to get your energy up.
What have been the biggest life lessons you’ve learned?
Know who you are and stay who you are. Always remember your roots. People I know and people that work for us have worked for other people…[certain older people] act like they’ve invented the cure for cancer, the way they treat the people that work for them. It’s unbelievable the egos that some people get. I just don’t get it.
You seem like you’re pretty down to earth.
It’s the best way to be.
I’ve heard that your hometown of Birmingham has changed a lot. Has it become more gentrified?
[Laughs] It’s a lot more Muslim. Where I used to go to church it’s a mosque, and the pubs I used to go to now are Muslim clinics and things. Sharia law and all that.
I imagine it’s not as much of a steel town?
All the industry’s gone. Today it has one of the highest unemployment rates in Britain, like 18%. It was always cars, steel factories, and coal mines, and obviously that’s all gone. The town center’s okay, but the area that I grew up in has the highest gun crime in England and the highest [use of] drugs. It’s a shame.
I’d like to check it out, being the birthplace of heavy metal.
It’s worth going. It’s certainly not like going to Detroit or anything.
If you could go back and give young Geezer some valuable life advice, what would it be?
Get a lawyer and get an accountant.