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Tony Iommi: Through the Years. Interview to Rockcellar magazine

Over the past few decades, many contenders (and pretenders) have attempted to grasp the metallic throne – but no one has come close to Black Sabbath. They are the true progenitors of heavy metal. From Iron Man to Paranoid, Sweet Leaf to Heaven and Hell, Black Sabbath’s savage and brutal sound, borne out of sludgy, primal riffs and dark imagery, set the stage for every black leather and studs clad metal warrior to follow. Now the original classic lineup of the band is back with 13, their first new studio album in 35 years. On board for the thrill ride are founding guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and the inimitable Ozzy Osbourne on lead vocals–the sole holdout, drummer Bill Ward, having been replaced on 13 by Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine. Produced by Rick Rubin, 13, the band’s first number one record in the U.S., captures the lightning in a bottle molten metal alchemy redolent of their signature early work. Fear not – it’s no mere throwback or empty recreation of past glories. Rather, it is a robust effort that displays a vital band living in the present; certainly, the addition of slight modern touches makes 13 feel both contemporary and classic. The sonic architect behind the band’s titanic wall of sound is Tony Iommi. Like a master artisan, Iommi’s indelible muscular riffs have consistently delivered the thunderous firepower that keeps the mighty Sabbath engine revving into overdrive from generation to generation. Iommi was kind enough to grant Rock Cellar Magazine an intimate chat. 

Rock Cellar Magazine: When did you first realize Black Sabbath had made it?

Tony Iommi: That’s a difficult thing to answer. Have you ever really made it? I don’t know. I guess it all depends on what you classify as ‘making it’. It was great when we started having hit albums and stuff but I guess the first time we thought we had broken through on some level was with our first album. With that album we realized we had something different to offer and then the next Sabbath album came out, which was Paranoid, and that went to number one, certainly in most of the world except for in America. (laughs) Then we sort of felt like we were doing something and achieving success and knew we were on our way.

Rock Cellar Magazine: The last album the original lineup recorded was 1978’s Never Say Die. Hard to believe but it’s been 35 years since the version of the band recorded an album. At what point in the process of working on 13 did you realize, “Yeah, this is gonna work?”

Tony Iommi: Oh no, I never had that feeling at all about this record. We were fully confident with this record, fully confident. Everybody in the band wanted to do it. I had plenty of material written already. In fact, I probably had enough material for two or there albums. So we had the luxury of being able to pick which songs to start working on and that was very good for us. So I was pretty confident with what we’d got and confident with everybody’s attitude. That’s the main thing. Whatever great songs you have everybody in the band’s got to be really into wanting to do it and give their hundred percent. And that’s what really happened with the new record.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Pick one song on the new CD that best epitomizes what Black Sabbath is all about today.

Tony Iommi: I think there’s a few that really show who Black Sabbath is about today. One of them is a song called End of the Beginning, that’s a really good one. Another would be God is Dead. Both of those songs are very Black Sabbath-sounding songs. I think if you were looking for the Black Sabbath sound, those songs would be able to deliver what you imagined to be hearing. And that’s not always the case with us because we like to do different kinds if things. Like a song on the new album called Zeitgeist, that’s a totally different sort of thing. Sabbath has always been about doing things like that, acoustic stuff. We didn’t want to be stuck in one bag as doing heavy sounding songs because we do different stuff, jazzy stuff and all sorts of stuff if we’re let loose.

Rock Cellar Magazine: You’re recognized as the father of heavy metal. What went into the creation of that sound?

Tony Iommi: I love classical music and that’s had a big influence on me. When you play a classical record I like the tension in that kind of music. That’s what I wanted to introduce into what we were playing. I also like the drama and dynamics in classical music. That’s what I wanted to do with my riffs. I wanted to create some tension and drama. I wanted to create that same thing that you get like watching a horror film or listening to a real heavy classical album. I wanted to do that with rock.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Did your accident in the factory at age 17 – which resulted in you losing two of the fingertips on your right hand – affect the creation of what became the Black Sabbath sound?

Tony Iommi: Yeah. By that happening it made you realize something very important and that was whether you wanted to play or not. You can do it if you’re determined and go through what I went through, which was a lot. There was nobody to help me. I had to make everything myself, my fingertips and everything. So it made me more determined to want to do something. Yes, I think it made me create a sound and create a way of playing that was suitable for me. Obviously, it spawned a lot of stuff. (laughs) There were a lot of things I couldn’t do as a guitar player after my accident but I made the best out of what I could do by inventing stuff and making it comfortable for me. I also invented stuff for other people, hence the tuning down and using lighter strings and all that.

Rock Cellar Magazine: You are the master of guitar riffs. From your perspective, what makes a great guitar riff?

Tony Iommi: Well, I’ve got so many riffs. What I generally do is go into my studio for an hour or I might go in for ten minutes and just start playing some riffs and put them down. So I might do that for a few days and then I’ll start listening to them with a more critical ear, saying, “Oh, I like that one, I don’t like that and I don’t like that.” There might be no riffs that I like. What makes a great riff for me is tension, drama and dynamics, but also you’ll get some up-tempo stuff where you’ve got to create a different dynamic. With the heavier, slower stuff, it’s pretty easy for me to put in the dynamics. But sometimes the up-tempo stuff is a little bit more challenging. You have to look at it a little differently. I like to do changes; I like to do something that’s sort of catchy.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Speaking of riffs, you have created some of the heaviest and most unforgettable riffs in heavy metal music. Sharing your expertise, take us through coming up with the iconic riff in Iron Man.

Tony Iommi: Wow, that was forty years ago (laughs). Let’s see, I was having a cup of tea at the time…(laughs) Every song has to give me a feeling. When I play a riff I have to feel it deep in my bones and Iron Man was one of those riffs, same as the riff for Black Sabbath as well. Those kinds of riffs you really feel. Those riffs really hit home where you think, “I really like this riff. This is good.” That’s sort of how that riff for Iron Man started. I just happened to play a riff, as we’d do in any Sabbath rehearsal when we got together. I just came up with stuff there and then. I never sort of worked on it at home. I’d always come into the rehearsal and we’d just jam and I’d come up with these riffs. I don’t know where they come from, I don’t know how they came, and I just came up with them. And the other guys would get excited and go, “Oh, I like that!” and then you knew it had something special. I know I liked it and when you heard their feedback that they liked it, then you felt like this was a riff worth keeping.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Same thing with Paranoid as well where the riff was borne out of rehearsals?

Tony Iommi: I very rarely worked up riffs at home. It was always when I walked into the rehearsal room and everybody in the band looked at me to come up with a riff. It was sort of expected then that the guitar player comes up with a riff. So I’d walk in with nothing thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to come up with something. If Bill (Ward) hit the drum in a certain way, it could help inspire me to create a riff or maybe I’d just come up with one on my own and then everybody would out their parts into it and then we’d lead into the next section. Once you got the first riff going I could sort of see what direction I wanted to go in with the next one.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Are you surprised that certain riffs that have become classic and others that you believed to be equally as good if not better have not connected with the public?

Tony Iommi: Well, yeah. Certain people have latched on to things like Iron Man and Paranoid but there are some great other things, without blowing me own trumpet or our own trumpet as a band. We’ve come up with some really good riffs but Iron Man and Paranoid really seem to have captured people’s imagination. The riff in Paranoid is not a particularly great riff. It’s just a very simple thing but it’s powerful.

Rock Cellar Magazine: They say something writing simply is much harder to do than creating a complicated piece.

Tony Iommi: Absolutely, that’s completely true. I’m not a technical player by any means and I can’t do all this whizzy, fast playing, which it think is brilliant but I couldn’t do it. I look inside. What’s important is it has to come from the soul when I play and try and come up with a riff. I don't look at it thinking "Oh, people are gonna like this", I look at it as to how I'm gonna like it. It’s got to come from inside and if you’re satisfied then you hope that people are gonna like it when you do it.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Coming from an industrial town like Birmingham, how did that seep into the band’s sound?

Tony Iommi: Yeah, Birmingham has seeped into our music. The area where we came from was pretty shitty. So you probably had the anger from where you lived that had to be diverted into music. I think the industrial side of Birmingham came out in the music of Black Sabbath. I used to work in a factory and I think it really did add to creating the music.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Seems like it must have given you a sense of wanting to escape and get out of Birmingham and make something of yourself.

Tony Iommi: Oh absolutely. It was definitely a case of wanting to make something of yourself. All the time when you were growing up it’s, “When are you gonna get a proper job and do something with your life? Why are you messing around with this stuff, playing guitar?” (laughs) It pushed me more to do something with my life and in music. It gave me that determination.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Black Sabbath has been blessed with two talented and charismatic singers, Ozzy Osbourne and the late Ronnie James Dio. Characterize what each brought to the band.

Tony Iommi: They’re both very different kind of singers. I mean, Ozzy’s voice is instantly recognizable. He’s got an instantly recognizable voice. When we first started working together it was an instant sound that now people recognize. Two totally different singers. Ozzy’s very much like an entertainer as well and he had that unique voice that was recognizable. When we started working with Ronnie you had to write in a different kind of way. Ronnie was more of a singer’s singer; he had more of an operatic kind of voice. Ronnie would very early go out of key. You’d write things different for Ronnie.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Heaven & Hell was the first Sabbath album to feature Ronnie James Dio on lead vocals. Did writing for a singer like Ronnie offer you more freedom? Tony Iommi: It was good at the time because it was exciting. We’d lost that excitement with Sabbath up until that point. It was going downhill. We were going through a lot of bad stuff. We knew we had Ronnie come in it gave us that sense of “We’ve got to do something!” It made us realize, “We’ve got to make this album good!” That urgency paid off. And it was a good for me ‘cause it was a different style of writing so it made me look somewhere else. Working with Ronnie opened a new side of writing for me. Where Ozzy sang a lot to riffs, Ronnie didn’t particularly want to sing much on riffs, he wanted to have a riff but sing on the chords.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Thinking back to your formative years, what’s the best live show you ever saw?

Tony Iommi: To be honest, growing up I didn’t see any shows. It was different for us. In our day we didn’t have the money to go to a show. They didn’t have shows where we lived; the shows we had ‘round by us were gang fights. (laughs) Later on when I started seeing shows, I’d have to say the best live show I ever saw was when I went to see Zeppelin early in their career. I was best friends with John Bonham and went to a few of their shows and was really impressed. I knew John from some of the earlier Birmingham bands he’d been in, which were good. There were some good bands coming from Birmingham.

Rock Cellar Magazine: People like The Move and The Idle Race.

Tony Iommi: Oh yeah. But that’s as far as I can tell you because I didn’t go out of Birmingham to see any other bands at the time. (laughs)

 Read more on Rockcellar Magazine.


Ken Sharp to Rockcellar, 15 November 2013


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