Riff Lord Tony Iommi Talks Black Sabbath's Reunion

You may be skeptical of a new album from a bunch of sixtysomethings best known for eating bats, not getting along, and tarnishing their singular reputation as heavy metal's inventors with reality TV and butt-rock. But we hereby testify that the following statement is, to the best of our knowledge, completely true and correct:

The new Black Sabbath album is pretty darn good.

Yes, pretty darn good, as in, better than a B-minus and not quite Paranoid, and way, way better than we had any right to expect. The raw production and sinister riffs of 13 sound like what would have happened if the Black Sabbath of 1968 had gone into the studio with the Rick Rubin of 1986 — which, as we found out from talking to original Sabbath guitarist and Reigning Lord of the Riff Tony Iommi, is sort of what happened. (They were minus original drummer Bill Ward, who, due to contractual disagreements, did not join original members Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne, and Geezer Butler for this reunion.) Prior to Sabbath's show at Shoreline Amphitheatre next week, Iommi told us about the bottomless well from which his dark art springs, and how the band managed to make one surprisingly satisfying album for lucky number 13.

The doom trio: Tony Iommi, center, with Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler.
The doom trio: Tony Iommi, center, with Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler.

SF Weekly: Did you have to reconnect with your sense of doom to write this new album, or is that connected all the time for you?

Tony Iommi: That's connected all the time, I'm afraid. That's what I do.

I imagine that you have a giant closet of riffs somewhere, and that when the closet gets full, you put out a new album.

Well, I have got a closet full of riffs, but I very rarely go back to them, to be honest. I always think, "Well, I'll put this away, and I'll put that down," and when it comes time to do something, I always seem to come up with something new. For this album, I did write purposely, so I could have an armory of songs or ideas to play to the other guys. I didn't want to walk into a room and everybody look at each other and go, "What we gonna do now?"

You're one of the grand masters, if not the grand master, of the guitar riff. What makes a good one in your mind? What do you look for?

I have to feel it in myself; it comes from within. You do a riff and you think, "Oh yeah, I really like this." I'll go back to [it] and listen to it again and go, "Yeah, I like this." I mean I've done thousands and thousands of them. I can walk into the studio and play for a couple of days and just come up with no end of riffs. I might not ever use them.

I heard that at the beginning of work on 13, [producer] Rick Rubin made you all listen to a certain record.

When we first went to Rick's house for this album, it was like being naughty boys. "Can I just play this album?" "Uh, yeah." And he didn't tell you what it was, he just said, "Can I play this album?" And it was [Black Sabbath's] first album. "Well, yeah, we've heard this." And he said, "No, no, I want everybody to listen to it, just listen to it." And we did. We sat there and listened to it in its entirety. It wasn't a joke, it was to try and get us to realize the basic root of that album, which was the blues element and the jamming element and the raw element. I could see what he was trying to get across. I mean Ozzy said, of course, [makes nasal voice] "Oh, what the fuck is he playing us the first album for? We've heard that!" [Laughs.] But [Rubin] says, "Look, forget all the other albums you've done after the first album and treat the new album like it's your second album." Which is bloody hard to do, to be honest, because you've gotten a way of working over those years. The idea here was to go back to the root of it all, and the real basic sound. And it was good to do that, because we did lose track of it over a period.

Songs like "Age of Reason" sound almost more like Jimi Hendrix than Black Sabbath.

It came out that way, because we were playing it live. That's another thing with Rick Rubin. This way was back to everybody playing in the room, which was brilliant. But Rick wanted me to play the solos live, which I haven't done for years. I've normally put the backing track down, then go in and put solos down. And I'm going, "Well, I don't really know what I'm going to play yet." And he'd go, "Well, just try something." He encouraged me to try different things, and that's what happened on "Age of Reason" and "Damaged Soul."

Did you enjoy working with Rubin?

At first I was a bit apprehensive, because I didn't know how he was going to work. We all were. But at the end of the day, yeah, I think it worked out really good. It's good to have somebody in control as such, because to control this band, it's hard when you're one of the members. I really did stipulate that when we got together that we need a producer. It's alright saying, "Oh yeah, we can do it ourselves," which we probably could. But you get into this stage where you lose track again, and you start, "Well, I'll put an overdub on that, and I'll put a harmony on that," and it gets out of control. By having somebody like Rick, he kept us to the basic thing. I actually did put a couple of harmonies on when he wasn't there. But then he took 'em off.

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