Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath Opens Up About His Battle with Cancer and the Struggle to Make '13'
“I’ve never seen Ozzy the way he’s been this time,” Iommi says. “He showed up for everything and was really enthusiastic. We’d be running through a track for an hour and a half trying to catch the right one. And Ozzy is sitting in the booth, sweating and going, ‘I can’t breathe in here!’ ” He laughs. “We’d go out and listen to the track and look back to see Ozzy still sitting in the booth. He hadn’t realized we’d gone!”
Butler, along with deploying tons of his massive signature low-end lines, shared lyric-writing duties with Ozzy. The two cover a lot of heavy topics on 13, such as methamphetamine addiction (“Methademic”), clone consciousness (“End of the Beginning”), Nietzschean nihilism (“God Is Dead?”) and pedophile priests. “ ‘Dear Father’ is about this guy who goes to confession, and it’s the priest that molested him,” Butler says. “He confesses that he’s about to murder, and he gets his act of contrition. And once he’s got it, he kills the priest.”
“You don’t wanna take a girl on a date to listen to this new Sabbath record,” Osbourne interjects with a laugh. “You should probably stick with something like Adele.”
When the dust settled at Shangri-La, the band emerged with the eight-song, 50-plus-minute behemoth 13. (The two-CD deluxe version includes three bonus tracks.) The epic record, which is scheduled to drop in June, possesses both the raw, aggressive abandon of early Sabbath and the gravitas and confidence befitting its seasoned members.
While Iommi still has to undergo periodic treatment sessions to keep his lymphoma at bay, for the moment the guitarist is feeling optimistic about the future and is especially looking forward to 13’s release and the upcoming batch of Black Sabbath worldwide tour dates.
“I don’t think we have to go out and prove anything,” he says. “It doesn’t have anything to do with that. We’ve already accomplished a lot by doing this album, and working with the guys was great. Everybody always said, ‘Do you think you’ll ever do another Sabbath album?’ But no one knew if it’d ever happen. Finally, I can go, ‘Yes, we’ve done one now!’ ”
In the following exclusive interview, Tony Iommi opens up about how he survived the biggest fight of his life while tracking the most highly anticipated heavy metal album of the year.
GUITAR WORLD: The original Black Sabbath lineup first reunited in 1997 for Ozzfest and then in 2001 announced that work had started on a new record. Why did those sessions fizzle out?
Well, we started writing, but to be honest we didn’t really have anything. We had done about six or seven songs, and we played them for Rick Rubin. I think he liked three or four of them. And then it just fell to pieces. Ozzy had The Osbournes [reality show] coming up, and his head was somewhere else. But it wasn’t just him; it was everybody. It just wasn’t gelling at that time. So we left it, and Geezer and I carried on with Ronnie.
Did working on the Heaven & Hell record [2009’s The Devil You Know] help you get back into the Sabbath mindset?
Possibly, yeah. Ronnie was really good to work with in that he liked the strange chords, the semitones and all that evil sort of stuff I like. It was great to work together as a team. We had a great vibe going. It was almost sad at the end of the tour, like, “Well, what are we going to do now?” I mentioned to Ronnie about doing another album, and he said, “Yeah! Let’s do it!” But of course, we never did.
It’s hard to imagine that you were sharing a stage and making plans with Ronnie and then, just a short time later, attending his funeral.
It was a terrible period. We had all these plans, and then poor Ronnie went through [his battle with cancer]. I was in L.A. for Ronnie’s funeral, and I had a phone call from Sharon saying how sorry she and Ozzy were about Ronnie’s death, and would I talk to Ozzy? I said yeah, and I spoke to him. He asked if we could meet up when he got back to England and talk about some stuff. And that’s basically what happened. We got together and talked about how much we missed playing and how nice it would be to do an album together.
After you reconnected with Ozzy, what came next? What were those first jam sessions like?
The first thing was the four of us—Bill, Ozzy, Geezer and myself—went to the Sunset Marquis in L.A. They’ve got a studio under there, and we wanted to go somewhere quiet where it wouldn’t be, “Oh, we saw Sabbath all together!” You can drive underneath the Sunset without anybody seeing you. So we went in, and I brought my CDs filled with song demos. I played them to everybody, and everyone liked them. So we started rehearsing at Ozzy’s home studio outside of L.A., because it was also quiet and nobody would know. Then we moved to England to rehearse for a while, just to get a different environment.
Because of all the time that passed since you last wrote an album with Ozzy, were you ever nervous that you might not click?
Well, we all knew we could still play. But the difference was the commitment that we all had. It wasn’t, “All right, I guess we’ll do this now.” We all really wanted to do it, including Ozzy, which was great. He’s been at all the rehearsals and was there for all of the recording. He was never there in the past, except in the very early days. He got to a point where he’d be there five minutes and go, “Anybody want a cup of tea?” And he’d disappear for two hours. [laughs] We’d be playing and be like, “What happened to our tea? What happened to Ozzy?” He’d be in the other room, snoring on the sofa. [laughs] But now it’s been so different. He’s been so into it all.
This was also around the time that you received the news of your cancer, right?
The diagnosis came when I was doing my book tour [in 2011] before we started rehearsal. On the book tour, I saw a doctor because this lump appeared in my groin. We thought it was just a swollen gland, so he gave me antibiotics. After the book tour, I was going to L.A. to start rehearsals. He said if it wasn’t gone in two weeks when I got there, I should see another doctor. So I did, because it was still there. He gave me more antibiotics, because I had developed an infection from this other problem I had with my prostate. It was too big and had to be cut down. So I thought the other lump was part of that. But it never went away.
So we were rehearsing and writing, and I kept feeling this pain down in my groin. And Ozzy kept saying, “You don’t look really well.” And I’d say, “Well, I don’t feel too good.” He also told me to go get it checked out. I was going back to England to have the prostate operation, so I decided just to wait until then. They said they’d take out that other lump while they were in there. I thought nothing of it at all, but they found out it was cancer.