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Exclusive interview with Tony Iommi to Birmingham Mail: the new album, his battle against cancer and how he wants to work with a showbiz legend

 

 Paul Cole of Birmingham Mail writes: “It's 8am, an ungodly hour for any self-respecting rock star. Let alone the godfather of heavy metal, the man who put the black in Sabbath. Tony Iommi should surely be tucked up in bed. He’s 65, for goodness’ sake, and battling cancer. But such is his excitement about a new album and a big Brummie homecoming that the adrenaline is flowing. His features are animated as he talks about his newfound enthusiasm, and his lust for life – lots of it.

After breakfast, he’ll be making his way to the Shangri-La studios in Malibu, where the new Black Sabbath album is taking shape. Then he’ll be packing for the band’s return to the road on a trek that will take him to Australasia, North America and Europe.

“The recording and rehearsals have been going very well indeed,” he says. “There’s a really good feeling about it all. We’re very pleased with the new album. But after all the work in the studio it will be good to get out and do some shows.”

Titled simply 13, and due for release in June, the album is a return to the Sabbath the fans love best. It’s full of bruising guitar rock riffs, including three songs which each clock in at more than seven minutes long. A glance at the titles confirms that we’re back in familiar surroundings – End Of The Beginning, God Is Dead and Epic. End Of The Beginning, the first single, gets an apt premiere in the season finalé of US cop show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Screened in America on May 15, it sees the band performing at a gig as detectives investigate a trail of murders linked to the sins in Dante’s Inferno.

“I have to admit that it’s not what I expected,” says Iommi. “I could never have imagined that the album would turn out so well, but it has. I think it sits comfortably with our first three albums – Black Sabbath, Paranoid and Master Of Reality – and I think it’s one you’ll like. We wanted it to sound like the way we played in our early days, back to basics, and we recorded pretty much all of it almost live as a band. We didn’t want to go through the usual trip of recording the drums, the guitars and the vocals separately. So we played together. We’d also written more songs than we ever have for previous recording sessions. There are 16 tracks in total, and all of them will appear in some form or other on the album when it is released. There will be different versions, including a deluxe edition.”

But how is Sabbath founder Tony Iommi getting on with Ozzy now? Especially as the strong-willed rockers are spending so much time cooped up in the studio?

They’ve had their differences over the years, the wild man of rock and the inventor of heavy metal. For a long time it seemed they only talked through lawyers. There were wrangles surrounding Iommi’s continued use of the Black Sabbath name, eventually leading to the band being renamed Heaven And Hell, after the title of one of Sabbath’s iconic albums. But Tony Iommi says that he never doubted he would one day be recording with Ozzy again.

“The truth is that Ozzy and I have never really fallen out personally,” he says. “When there have been issues, it has been purely business. Even when there has been a problem we’ve carried on talking. There’s never been a bad vibe. Ozzy was the one who kept on at me to go to the doctors because he was concerned about me, and he has been very supportive since I was diagnosed. In fact, all the guys in the band have been great. Even now, when we arrive at the studio they ask how I’m feeling, if I’m up to it, making sure that I’m OK.”

It was early last year that Tony Iommi’s world was turned upside down.

He was diagnosed with lymphoma after bandmate Ozzy pestered him to get a pain in his groin checked out. The guitarist thought it might be a recurrence of a prostate problem, and was stunned when he learned he had cancer.

In an interview with the Sunday Mercury last November he admitted that he lay awake at night, wondering how long he had left to live. “I was gutted,” he says. “I went home thinking - Christ, that’s it, I’ve had it! Cancer meant death to me. I started writing myself off. I would lie awake at night, thinking about selling this, getting rid of that, and preparing everything: who should speak at my funeral and where I’d want to be buried. But I also kept thinking - I’m not ready to go yet. I’ve got too much to do, and I like being here.”

And here the Lapworth rocker most certainly still is, thanks to treatment at the Parkway Hospital in Solihull.

“Please give all the people at Parkway a good plug,” he says. “They’ve been so good to me. I couldn’t be doing this without them. I have to have an antibody administered by drip every six weeks or so to keep the lymphoma in check. It sort of coats the cancer cells, stops it from going anywhere else. I have to come back home no matter where I might be in the world.”

“The tour dates are arranged so that I can always get back for treatment. It’s the only way I can manage my illness and keep on the road. I’d love to play more shows than we’re doing but my health has to be sorted out first. The infusions I have are part of the chemotherapy regime. It’s relatively new treatment and they don’t know what all the side-effects might be yet, but I wanted to try it. After each session I feel sick and tired, and that lasts for a week or so. I’m finding that it takes around 10 days to fully recover from each round of treatment, but if that’s what it takes, I have to accept it.”

“In myself I’m feeling OK now. When I first found that I had the illness, it was a dark time and I was a bit spaced out. Since we’ve been in rehearsals and recording sessions, I’ve felt pretty good – great even. I think that the album and tour have given me something immediate to get my teeth into, something to accomplish.”

“It’s not a case of taking your mind off the lymphoma – you want to be strong about it, but there’s this little doubt in your mind that keeps nagging: what if this pops back – but it is something to get excited about.”

He has, he says, been told there will be around a one-in-three chance of the cancer returning, but also that it is unlikely to be the death of him.

“Medics say that the condition is manageable with treatment. I enjoy where I’m at now, I really do,” he says. “It’s a good place. I’ve got a good home life and a good family, great friends and support. And I’m fortunate because I’m still able to go out and play music.”

That’s what will bring him home again in time for Christmas. The latest set of Sabbath tour dates, announced just a few days ago, includes a huge homecoming at Birmingham’s LG Arena on December 20.

“To be finishing off our European tour dates in Birmingham just before Christmas is great,” he says. “There’s no place quite like your hometown. No place quite like Birmingham. It was at the Academy that we played our first reunion gig and the welcome we got was incredible. Just what the doctor ordered. Now we’re playing at the NEC. It’ll be all our Christmasses come together.”

Tony Iommi, says Ozzy Osbourne, “is the strongest man I’ve ever known.” He shakes his head in admiration, and exclaims: “He really is the Iron Man. Tony’s fine,” says Ozzy, “but he can only go out on the road for six weeks at a time because he has to have infusions or some s**t for his immune system. I was amazed that during his chemotherapy he was still writing songs.

“My heart goes out to him, because when Sharon had cancer a few years back, she was so sick from chemotherapy she could barely get out of bed. It’s like having a football kick to the nuts. The chemotherapy is worse than the cancer. Sharon was like the possessed kid in The Exorcist, having seizures all the time. Tony is doing really well, though.”

While bandmate Ozzy has been telling the world he wants to duet with Adele, Iommi has a legend in mind - “My regret is that I never had chance to work with Frank Sinatra,” he admits, “But I’ll tell you what – I’d love to record something with Tom Jones! He has a fantastic voice and stage presence, even now,” explains Iommi.

“I’ve met him several times over the years, and I went to meet him backstage last time he performed in Birmingham. We got to chatting, and I checked my watch because it was getting closer and closer to his stage time.

“I’d better be going now, - I reluctantly told him – we’d had a great conversation about music, - No way, stick around! - he said, and we carried on talking. He’s a really nice guy and it’s good to see him on The Voice as a judge. I’m not surprised his team won last year.”

Read the whole interview on Birmingham Mail.

Pre order your version of Black Sabbath’s 13 album from Blacksabbath.com

 


 Paul Cole for Birmingham Mail, 14 April 2013

Photo Shane Hirschman

 

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