Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath Opens Up About His Battle with Cancer and the Struggle to Make '13'
I’m sure nothing was the same after those words came across the doctor’s desk.
Yeah, my whole life changed. And they’re so casual about! They say, “The good news is that your prostate is really good. But the lump, we found lymphoma in it.” Lymphoma, what’s that? Well, I knew what it was, but I wanted to hear them say it: cancer. Once I heard that, it was awful. I thought, God, of all the times. We’re right in the middle of working on this record.
Did you immediately stop work on the album?
All my mind was on treatment and trying to get rid of it. That’s all I could really think about for awhile. I couldn’t think about the music. I had to get this sorted out, so everything had to wait. I was in terrible pain from the prostate operation as well. And then I started the chemo. I didn’t feel well and started losing weight. Then I had radiotherapy [radiation] every day. But I did say to the guys while I was in treatment, “If you come to England, then we can carry on.” I couldn’t move away from the treatment, and I was weak and tired. But I wanted to carry on.
What propels you to continue working on an album when you’re literally fighting for your life?
I was determined that it wasn’t going to stop me. I’ve always been that way. I can’t give in to things. Having my wife, Maria [Sjöholm, former Drain STH vocalist]—who was so great, put up with so much and never complained—and friends around me was actually the best thing for me. It helped get my mind off of it. I would be in the hospital a couple of days before they’d come. And then I’d walk in the studio and we’d start talking and we’d play for a bit. Then I’d get tired and I’d have to go and sit down. They were all right behind me, so it was good.
Of course, when I told Ozzy I have lymphoma, he said, “Didn’t so and so die of that?” [laughs] Thanks! I had to laugh. Typical him. But it was great he was there. You’ve got to be positive about it, and I try as much as I can. Sometimes I start going downhill a little bit, and then I perk back up. Like I mentioned, my wife has really helped me, as well as the people around me. I got so many nice letters and messages from fans saying, “You’ll be okay. Just hang in there!” Even Lance Armstrong sent me a letter. And when [Deep Purple keyboardist] Jon Lord was ill, before he passed away [in July 2012], I would get messages from him, saying, “Look, if there’s anything I can do to help with the treatments, just ask.” It really does help and makes you want to fight more.
How is your health now?
When I’d finished the chemo and the radiotherapy, I went to see the doctor again for my regular blood tests. I said, “So it’s gone now?” And he said, “No, it’s not going to go. You’re not going to get rid of it. But we can treat it and work with it.” I got all dismal, because I thought it was gone. He said there was a 30 percent chance of it going away, but I was probably going to have this for life. Now I get treatments to keep it from spreading. So every six weeks I go in for an infusion of Rituximab, which is one of the four ingredients when they give you the chemo. It takes a few hours, and it makes you feel a bit crap inside and a bit sick. But a couple weeks after, I start perking up again. So that’s how we are working it with the shows. I go out, then come back and go into the hospital for more treatment, more blood tests and all the rest of the rubbish. And then we do it all over again.
In the best of times, Sabbath are famous for summoning some heavy dark vibes. Did your health struggles add even more grimness to your riffs?
Yeah, it made the music even grimmer. I came up with some really grim riffs. [laughs] But the funny thing is, you come up with all these grim riffs and then you get together with the guys and we have so many laughs and so much fun. Ozzy will always say something that cracks me up. Geezer will say something and Ozzy’s like, “What?” And then Geezer will shout at him, “Put your hearing aid in!” [laughs] It’s funny between them two, and it’s great for me.
As if juggling cancer treatments and working on the record wasn’t enough to deal with, around that same time Bill announced he wasn’t moving forward with the recording. Did his decision surprise you?
It was a hell of a shock. We couldn’t believe it. We had just done the bloody announcement on 11/11/11, and shortly after we had a letter from lawyers saying Bill didn’t want to do it. We couldn’t quite figure out what was going on, because we hadn’t spoke about it. Bill hadn’t sat us down and said, “I really don’t want to do it,” or, “I’m not satisfied with what’s going on.” We wanted him to come back because he wanted to, not because he was bribed back. But it never got that far. It never got to him phoning up and saying, “I want to come back and do it.” But we love Bill, and we’re still the best of friends. I still email him, and I got a message from him the other day.
How did you start the process of finding Bill’s replacement?
Well, at first we were using Ozzy’s drummer Tommy [Clufetos]. He was a really good player and a nice guy, and it enabled us to continue writing and coming up with ideas. But Rick Rubin wanted to use a different drummer. First, he wanted an English drummer. I said, “Well, who is around the same age as us and around the same era and has that sort of style that we want?” Most are either dead or packed up! [laughs] So he mentions Ginger Baker. And I was like, “Fucking hell! Throw the fat into the fire, you are going from bad to worse! We’ve got enough problems here already and then you want somebody like Ginger Baker?” [laughs] I can’t imagine what that would be like. He mentioned a couple of other big name people, and then moved on to some American drummers. Then he suggested Brad.
Were you familiar with Brad’s work?
We were familiar with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, of course, but none of us had ever met Brad. We told him to learn “War Pigs” and “Dirty Women” before he came in. When we tried him out, he was obviously really nervous. He’d only really played with those two bands for most of his life. So he was a bit shaky at first, but he got the style after we’d been playing awhile. He got to feel more comfortable, got relaxed and was playing different stuff. It wasn’t that perfect sort of drum thing where you play exactly the same thing every time. It was loose and really natural, which is probably what Bill would have done. Plus, we all liked Brad. He’s really a nice guy.
Rick Rubin is known for having an idiosyncratic hands-off way of producing records. What was your experience like with him?
Honestly, I didn’t quite know what to make of him at first. His whole idea [of preproduction] was, “Write the song. Call me when you think it’s ready.” So I would. Actually, I’d email him, because I couldn’t phone him…nobody phones him. So I’d email him: “Do you want to come down tonight?” And he’d pop in, have a listen, go, “Yeah, I like that,” or, “I don’t like it.” We wanted him to be more involved, like, “Well, what about changing that, or putting that bit there, or go to the A,” or whatever. But he was this elusive guy that we never really saw.
But when we started recording, he was there all the time…lying on the bed with the microphone. [laughs] Blimey, what a strange guy. [laughs] His way of working was he’d have us playing it live in the studio like we did on the first album. We’d play the song a couple times, then Rick would say, “Can you do it again?” After we’d finish, Geezer would be sitting next to me, and I’d say, “That sounded all right didn’t it?” And he’d say, “It was a good one.” And Rick would go, “Do another one.” [laughs] So we’d do another one, and another one, and then Rick would go, “I think we’ve got it, but do you want to try another one to see if you can better it?” Ozzy would be sitting in the booth going, “Fucking hell, we got to do it again?” [laughs] Rick definitely pushed us.
When you first met with Rick, he sat you guys down and played you the first Sabbath record. Were you worried he wanted you to make a throwback record?
I understood the point he was trying to make. He didn’t want an exact copy of that album, but he wanted the vibe of that album. Like, what would it be if this album was the follow up to Black Sabbath? What would we have done? It’s hard to wipe out 40-odd years and forget all the things we’ve learned. For us, you experiment and you move on. Your sound changes, and your way of doing everything changes. It’s really difficult to go back to the first page again. But I understood what he meant as far as creating the same vibe that the first album had, which was quite raw and natural.
When you started recording, did he offer any specific suggestions on how to produce that vibe?
We did a lot of preproduction on the tracks so we could go in and play it live. But when we got into Rick’s studio and started playing, he would say, “I’m not sure about that. Can you extend that part? Can you slow that down?” Once you’ve rehearsed it and gotten one tempo in your head, it’s really hard to change, especially without click tracks. But he wanted it that way. He’d say, “If it speeds up that’s fine. If it slows down that’s fine.” We’d gotten out of doing it that way over the years. But when we’d done that first album, it was all up and down.