Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath Opens Up About His Battle with Cancer and the Struggle to Make '13'

2011 was well on the way to being one of the best years of Tony Iommi’s life. The guitarist was on a successful book tour to promote Iron Man, his revealing autobiography in which he talks about his life and his career with Black Sabbath.

At the same time, he was reuniting with the original Black Sabbath members—vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward—to write and record a new full-length album, the quartet’s first since 1978’s Never Say Die!

But celebration gave way to concern when Iommi discovered a lump in his groin. Doctors initially misdiagnosed the problem as nothing more than an infection, but when Iommi’s condition worsened, his doctor biopsied the mass. At a follow-up appointment, he told Iommi the result: We found lymphoma.

“Once I heard my doctor say that, my whole world changed,” Iommi says. “I thought, Bloody cancerous lymphoma? Well that’s it. I’ve had it.”

This news came as such a shock that even today, as Guitar World sits across from a healthy-looking Iommi in a cottage in rural West Midlands, England, the guitarist’s affable disposition darkens when he recalls that grim period.

“Once they diagnosed it, I had to start the treatment right away,” he says. “And it knocked me about. I’d go through stages thinking, Can I do this? And then: Of course I can do this. I don’t want to die. I want to carry on and do what I’m supposed to do.”

Iommi’s treatment included an aggressive course of chemotherapy and radiation that attacked the cancer but seriously taxed his immune system. He began to feel sicker, lose weight and weaken, and had to focus what little energy he had into fighting his illness. Plans for the Sabbath record were put on hold. But as the guitarist’s body began responding to treatment, Iommi’s creative spark was rekindled. Much to everyone’s surprise, he turned his attention back to writing the songs that would eventually make up Black Sabbath’s new disc, 13.

“They thought I would pack up,” Iommi says. “But I asked the doctor, ‘Is it okay if I work?’ And he said, ‘Yes, you’ve just got to be careful.’ So I’d go in the studio and play for a bit. Then I’d get tired and I’d have to go and sit down. The guys would tell me not to push it.”

Iommi was determined to get the album made. And as Osbourne and Butler tell us when we catch up with them in a Los Angeles recording studio, where they’re putting the final touches on the album, he rose to the occasion.

“We all rallied around him,” Osbourne says. “But it’s not like we’d be saying, ‘Are you okay? Are you okay?’ We just got on with it. Sure, he looked tired, but he was a soldier and marched on. He still had more riffs coming out of him than anyone. None of us would go, ‘Oh, he’s fucking ill again.’ We’re bros. We grew up together. It’s like a family member getting sick.”

“It brought up how we’re all just mortal beings, and we aren’t gonna be here forever,” Butler adds. “Tony and I were on the Heaven & Hell tour with Ronnie James Dio, and six months later Ronnie was dead [from stomach cancer, in 2010]. We didn’t have any inkling that was gonna happen. When Tony got the cancer, obviously that was in his mind. We didn’t know how he’d respond to the treatment. So it was like, Let’s get the album done at all costs, as long as Tony’s up to it. So we’d write for three weeks, and then he’d go for his treatment and we’d all have three weeks off. But it didn’t affect his playing at all. In fact I think it really encouraged him and kept his mind off the cancer, which is the best thing you can possibly do if you have that.”

As Iommi got stronger, his future, as well as Black Sabbath’s, started looking brighter. The band continued writing and rehearsing, and making progress on the new album. On November 11, 2011, Sabbath held a press conference at Los Angeles’ Whisky a Go-Go to officially announce that they had reformed and would record an album of new material. But in early 2012, Bill Ward surprised everyone when he announced that he would not move forward with recording, saying he felt “ostracized” by the band and calling the contract he was offered “unsignable.”

“I was shocked,” Iommi says. “We were hearing stuff from lawyers, like, ‘I’m not happy with this. I’m not happy with that.’ We waited a long time for Bill and we wanted to sort it out. But at the end of the day, especially after I was diagnosed, I thought, Fucking hell, that’s it. We’ve got to get a move on. I might pop off next year! So I emailed him and said, ‘Bill, we can’t wait any longer. We’ve got to get on with it.’ And that was it.”

The band switched gears and began auditioning drummers but didn’t find the right fit until producer Rick Rubin offered the seemingly left-field suggestion of Brad Wilk, from Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. “We had our doubts, because they play a different, funky sort of music,” Iommi says. “But after a few days of rehearsal, we knew Rick was right. Brad was a really good player, and he was getting it. We liked his style and the way he tried different things instead of being regimented. It was sort of jazzy and loose, like Bill.”

With Wilk in place, Black Sabbath set up camp at Rubin’s Shangri-La studios in Malibu to record the album. Rubin had the band cut the basic tracks live in the studio together to help capture the vibe of the early Sabbath records. These sessions were also the first time Osbourne had tracked a studio record with Sabbath since the contentious, drug-addled experience of recording 1978’s lackluster Never Say Die! Not surprisingly, the singer felt a twinge of performance anxiety.

“The pressure on us was terrific,” Osbourne says. “I didn’t want to sound hokey, trying to cop Paranoid or Master of Reality. But at the end of the day, you just have to go with your heart and ‘let go and let god,’ as they say. I’ll know if I’m cutting corners and if I can do a better vocal take or melody.”

“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.

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.

Did Rick’s desire to capture that old feel extend to the gear used on 13, as well?

I knew that was his intention, but I was shocked when I walked into the studio and there’s like 20 amps there. I go, “What’s all these?” And the engineer said, “Well, we brought in all these vintage amplifiers for you to play.” I already had my own Laney signature amp there, but he’s like, “Well, these are old Seventies amps.” And I was, “Okay, let’s try them.” So I tried them, and I didn’t find one that remotely got close to the sound.

They thought just because the amps were vintage, they would produce that old sound.

Yeah. But anybody who had an amp back then, like the Who or whatever, would have them worked on and modified. I remember borrowing a Hiwatt from Pete Townshend in the Seventies, and I thought, Oh this is great, I love this. So I call Hiwatt and ask them to send some amps down. Of course, they sent some and they sounded nothing like Pete’s. That’s because he had them worked on! It was the same with the Marshalls. So this time I knew it wasn’t going to sound great, but they kept going on and on about all the vintage stuff.

At what point did you push back on the engineers?

They had this old Laney Klipp amp. I’ve been with Laney for a long time, and I knew the early ones used to blow up. So I said, “Blimey, I’m surprised that hasn’t blown up.” And they went, “Oh, no, it’s never blown up.” So I start to play, and I hadn’t been in there an hour and it blows up! [laughs] And they were like, “I can’t believe it’s blown up!” [laughs] So I go in the next day and they’ve got four of these Klipps. I don’t know where they’ve gotten them, because Laney can’t even get them now. I went, “Oh no. I’ve been down this route. I started off with this. I started this bloody stuff!” I’ve gone through all this and now I’m here, and somebody is telling me how to get my sound. That’s a bit weird. So I had to draw the line.

After all that, did you end up using your signature Laney model?

Yeah, the Laney Iommi model. I had two. I had one out about 10 or 12 years ago [Laney GH100TI]. And the new one, Laney TI100, which has a couple of channels. It’s got preamps and everything built in. I did the bass channel like I did in the early days. I used to plug into the bass channel with the treble boost to give it that sort of sound. In those days boosters were unknown. Nobody used them. It’s supposed to be a clean sound. So I tried the same method with my own Laney. At one point, Rick was saying it was too “metal” sounding. I just plugged it into the other input and said, “I can get the sound. I’m the one that started that sound.”

Did they also try to dig out your ’65 Gibson “Monkey” SG from the Hard Rock Cafe?

No, that’s still in the Hard Rock in New York. In those days, I used it because that’s what I had, like the amps. It’s what you had so that’s what you’d work with it. And I got used to it and I really liked it. But it was really temperamental. If you touched the neck, it would go all out of tune. And of course things come off in the years—bridges and stuff. So I stopped using it. It was in a case for years. And then we talked with Hard Rock about it, and I decided to retire it there. It’s better to be where somebody else can see it than be stuck in a box in storage.

What were your main guitars on the new record?

I’ve still got my old Jaydee [“Old Boy” SG], which I really like. J.D. [John Diggins] originally came along to work for me on the road, and he made this first guitar at home on his kitchen table. I kept it for a while and never used it. But then one day I started to use it and I liked it. So now he’s made me about four or five to go on the road with. For the recording, he made me a new Jaydee: a white one with an aged look. I used that, and I used my old Jaydee. Gibson Custom Shop made these limited-edition Iommi SG models, which are really great. I have the first six of those. But I don’t actually think I used one of them on this album.

Gibson also made me this custom ES-175 jazz guitar. Actually, they’ve been making it for me for five years. They made it for my 60th birthday, and I’ve just had my 65th, so I don’t know what happened. [laughs] It went wrong somewhere. Years went by, and I thought, Well, they’re never going to do it. And it turned up a week into recording. It’s a one-off black 175, and it’s really lovely. For the acoustic track “Zeitgeist,” I used a big Taylor [815L], which is a great guitar, and the 175 for the outro solo.

What were some of the main effects you used this time out?

My setup is quite primitive, really. I had a board built to use with Heaven & Hell, with a long delay, which I don’t use now, a chorus and the wah-wah. The wah-wah was the old Tychobrahe, which I’ve used for years. Then the company started making the Parapedal, and I use them now. I’m actually not sure what I’m using right now for the chorus.

Let’s talk about some specific tracks. How did “God Is Dead?” come together? Is that main riff one of the things you had stockpiled from your studio demos?

I actually came up with the sketches of that heavy riff when we were first writing at Ozzy’s house in L.A.

Geezer has a very active bass line in that track, which never gets in the way of your riffs. Can you speak about how your styles complement each other?

Well, we’ve really built it up from playing together all these years. He knows exactly what I’m going to play and can follow it. And we do the same things: he’ll bend the strings when I bend the chords and so on. Geezer always knows what to play, and I just love his style. He always knows how much to put in, and also what not to put in.

“God Is Dead?” has a relatively short solo break. Did you have that in mind from the start, or was it part of the editing process?

I never know how long we are going to do a solo part. On “God Is Dead?” it was actually longer, but Rick moved things a bit. He let the riff go for a bit and then brought the solo in. On some of the others, the ends become a jam and the solos go on longer.

“End of the Beginning” starts with a very simple early-Sabbath-style doom line, which you steadily build into an upbeat galloping riff. When you are writing, do you consciously think about how to structure build-and-release dynamics?

I suppose so. Once you start off with the riff, you never know where it’s going to go. You just put in another and then another, until it sounds like it flows. I’ve always done it like that. There are a lot of different riffs in some of them. You could make five songs out of one song, really.

That song also has two wild solos, which are both pretty long. Did you track those in pieces?

The end of that song was one of the jams where we kept it going. Geezer always follows me, so when I’m recording I always have to concentrate and think, Well, if I try something here and I go to the wrong thing, it might all go to pieces. That’s why sometimes I put the chords in, so I can then relax and work in a solo. And I know if I make a mistake in the solo I can do it again. But when you are doing the song live, there’s no room for trying things or for making mistakes.

Wait—so you did that outro solo live? Wow, was that nerve-wracking?

Yeah, it was. I told them, “Well, I’ll just play, and when I go back into the chords, you’ll know the end is so many from that.”

So you were laying down the solos live. But what’s your process like when you are writing them? Do you plot them out in advance?

No, I can’t sit down and work out solos. I’ve never been able to do that. I just play them. And if I don’t capture them in so many takes, I’ll just leave it and come back to it later.

“Epic” contains one of the album’s most lyrical solos. Do you ever think about Ozzy’s parts when you’re soloing?

Yeah, I know where Ozzy might sing or roughly where he might go. I did the main theme for “Epic” at home in England, and we started putting in the tempo changes and stuff in L.A. And since Ozzy was there while we were doing it, I knew what he’s going to do, roughly.

Because of all the expectations around a new Sabbath record, did the weight of your own legacy ever distract you during this process?

Well, you know it’s got to be good. But you can’t let that take over. Otherwise you’ll be all over the place and get too confused. You can’t be led by what everybody is expecting. You’ve just got to play. If you start following trends, it doesn’t work. You’ve got to believe in what you are doing. This is what we do. And if we like it, we know our fans will like it.

You’ve completed the record, are recovering from cancer, and are about to hit the road. Have you come out of the other side with a clearer vision about what you want to accomplish in the future? Or are you just taking it a step at a time?

It’s really hard, because I have to take it in stages. I don’t know what’s down the road. I just do what I can and enjoy it while I can. No one knew if Sabbath would ever put out another record. So that’s done. And now the next thing, of course, is to do a great show. We don’t have to prove anything. We just have to go out, play our music and enjoy what we do.

Photo: Travis Shinn

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Brad Angle

Brad is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and video producer. He is the former content director of Revolver magazine and executive editor of Guitar World. His work has appeared in Vice, Guitar Aficionado, Inked and more. He’s also a die-hard Les Paul player who wishes he never sold his 1987 Marshall Silver Jubilee half stack.