Geezer Butler Rules
Geezer Butler is the bassist/lyricist for Black Sabbath, Birmingham, England’s finest contribution to the music world. Butler’s seismic bass playing figuratively and literally laid the foundation for heavy metal. Try to imagine a world without Black Sabbath – it’s no world I would want to live in. Butler’s a staunch supporter of Aston Villa Football Club, a vegan and a hell of a nice guy in person. Many years ago, I worked in the same neighborhood that Geezer lived in, and he’d occasionally come into the shop for a quick snack. Always polite, always friendly, he put up with a ridiculous amount of stammering and awkward conversation as I and my co-workers tried to figure out a way to say “You fucking rule!” without sounding like total jackasses. We usually opted for the suave, “You fucking rule, Geezer!” Only once did he come in while we had a Black Sabbath album playing – it was The Mob Rules, the band’s second with vocalist Ronnie James Dio, and a personal favorite (I’ve been through two cassettes and one CD since that day). Geezer just smiled and made no mention of the strange coincidence.
The Mob Rules version of Black Sabbath – Geezer, Metal God Tony Iommi, Metal God Ronnie James Dio and drum legend Vinnie Appice – is currently touring America under the name Heaven and Hell, in support of a compilation album of the Dio Years material. The live album from this tour, Live From Radio City Music Hall, came out just days before this interview occurred. The band sounds fierce, the new songs are some of the best Sabbath material – under any name – in years, and you can witness the majesty of Heaven and Hell live and in person at the Family Arena on Sunday, September 23. Tickets are still available, so get on it.
And yes, Geezer’s still just as friendly and down-to-earth as he was all those years ago when I first met him, and I’m still just as awkward and mumbly.
About sixteen years ago, I sold you a bag of popcorn in a strip mall in Chesterfield. What were you doing in Chesterfield?
GB: (Laughs). Yeah, we had a house there, ´cause me wife’s family is all from there. Me kids were born in St. John’s Hospital there. We had a house in England and in St. Louis, so we used to spend a lot of time in both places.
Do you have fond memories of St. Louis?
GB: Oh, yeah. I spent loads of time there. We’d go down to McGurk’s, the Irish pub. Loved goin’ down there. When I was younger, I’d go down to the Landing a lot. Mississippi Nights and places like that.
They actually just tore Mississippi Nights down.
GB: Yeah, my bass tech’s called Terry Wellesely [sp? Sorry, Terry, if that's wrong], he’s a guy from St. Louis. He keeps me informed of everything that’s goin on.
So when you’re out here for the show, are you gonna have time to visit with people and see the sights, or is it going to be a quick in-and-out stop?
GB: Me family’s gonna all be there, and all me friends from there are gonna come to the show. So I’ll be hanging out with them after the show for a while. But I think it’s just an in-and-out kinda thing, ´cause we got Denver the next night.
The day after the Chicago show on the first leg of the Heaven and Hell tour, there was bootlegged footage up on Youtube. Does that sort of thing bother you, or do you find it flattering that people are so devoted they’re sneaking in cameras?
GB: (Chuckles) It’s just, to me, an incredible phenomenon. I think it’s better like that, rather than you know, one guy coming in with a movie camera and doing a bootleg of the whole show. This way, on Youtube, it certainly gets your name out across the whole world. And it’s just snippets and stuff, instead of whole shows. So I think it’s great.
The guy who put it up said he was in the fifth row, and then other people who were there that night started chiming in with their opinion of the footage, but more about the show. Everybody said it was a great show, and he got a lot of hits. People were rabid to see how you guys were after all these years.
GB: Yeah, it’s amazing. It is free publicity. And when you’re in the entertainment business, that’s the greatest thing you can have.
That guy must have a great phone, because he had good footage and good sound.
GB: Yeah, I saw one (Youtube clip), and all you could hear was the bass – and it was the one night I made a mistake! (Laughs). That wasn’t very flattering.
The new Radio City CD/DVD version sold out at the store I visited (Now Hear This in Kirkwood – your source for all things metal), so it seems like people in St. Louis are snapping it up.
GB: It’s doing amazingly well. It’s number one in most of the countries in Europe in the DVD charts, it’s number two in the American DVD charts.
Yeah, I could find the album, but nobody had the DVD version after the first week. People really want the whole package. But I noticed in the liner notes for the album, Tony mentioned that the band had problems with the hall on that night and couldn’t get a soundcheck or a camera check. At that point, did you have a band discussion and talk about “are we gonna go on and film this?” Were you worried about technical problems?
GB: Yeah, we were worried about it – but there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. ´Cause it costs a fortune to have the cameras and everything fly in, I think a lot of them were from the West Coast. And some of them, like the directors, were from Germany. And so it costs a lot of money to set the whole thing up, and with all the gigs we couldn’t do a soundcheck, it was that one. We couldn’t get the camera angles, we couldn’t . . . you know, it was really worrying on the night, because we had to do the monitors while we were playing, the monitor mixes onstage. And it wasn’t until the fourth song maybe that the monitors were right for the place. You know, it’s always the way with us. When we do a live album, there’s always a bomb scare or something! (Laughs).
At least on the album part of it, you can’t hear any difficulties.
GB: Well, it’s just for us, the soundcheck. For all that investment into something, and you’re not allowed to do a soundcheck. It’s like the basic thing of a gig is doing your soundcheck, to get your sound right. And when you haven’t got a chance to get your sound right, or the camera angles, it’s panic time. But fortunately, the director had been at a lot of the shows, and we’d done a dummy run-through of the show in LA with the director there, so he knew what to expect.
During those first four songs, when the monitors weren’t right, did you think, “Oh, it’s not going to work out."
GB: Oh, yeah. In case you mess the whole thing up. ´Cause I could hear that Ronnie and Tony and Vinnie were playing great, and it’s sort of, “I hope I’m not the one that’s gonna completely ruin this whole thing!” (Laughs). It is a bit of a panic until you settle down.
Plus, it’s New York, which is always a nerve-wracking place to play.
Still? After all these years of playing out, you still get nerves?
GB: Yeah! ´Cause you get all these fanatics who come to see us in places like New York and LA. They’re like “ultrafans.”
One of the bass magazines recently went into great detail analyzing your playing style when you play with Ozzy in Black Sabbath and Ronnie in Heaven and Hell. Do you think there’s that much difference in how you play with the two of them?
GB: No, not to me. I just get on with it. (Laughs). It’s still me, you know? You’d have to bring in a different bass player to have a different style. You can’t possibly change your style just for the same kind of music.
The guy who wrote the article had this theory that because Ronnie wrote lyrics, he had more influence on the melody line.
GB: I think the songs are probably more intense (with Ronnie), that’s for sure. There’s definitely more bass notes in the songs, because the songs are more intense and bit more complicated. There’s a lot more chord changes and stuff in the Heaven and Hell line-up. In the original Sabbath, it was like a basic approach to stuff, and we got the ultimate heavy sound. Whereas the Dio Era is more melodic, more chord changes, musically more technical.
In your section of the album’s liner notes, you say this stuff is pretty challenging to play again after not playing them for years. On this leg of the tour, are you having fun doing these songs again?
GB: Oh, absolutely. Now, you know them backwards, so you start throwing in different things every night, which is another great thing about this band: There’s no two shows the same now. We do quite a lot of jamming in a couple of the songs. Like “Voodoo” and “Heaven and Hell,” they’re different every night.
All right, do you want to talk about Aston Villa’s chances this year?
GB: Yeah! I think they’ve got a great chance this year. In the top six, anyway.
Yeah, they drubbed Chelsea.
GB: I know, two-nil. I watched it on the Fox soccer channel.
The table was upside down, with Man City sitting at the top, but then Arsenal pulled ahead.
GB: I think it’s gonna be Arsenal or Liverpool this year. You know, I actually went to see the LA Galaxy against Chelsea in Beckham’s first game.
What’d you think?
GB: (Long Pause). It was OK for a . . . um. ´Cause there was about 12,000 Chelsea supporters there, believe it or not, so it felt like a proper game. And then the second game, I watched it on TV, and it was terrible.
Did Beckham make a bad choice coming to America?
GB: Oh, definitely. I think the Galaxy made a bad choice getting Beckham. Now he’s not gonna play till next season or something.
Other than that Chelsea game, do you go to a lot of Galaxy games?
GB: Not Galaxy. I used to go in St. Louis to see the indoor soccer.
They’ve folded again. The closest pro team is in Kansas City now.
GB: That’s surprising. St. Louis is one of the top places for soccer. One of my neighbors when I lived in St. Louis was from the actual USA World Cup squad from the ´30s or something.
And at this awkward moment, time was up. As I said, Geezer's still a friendly guy, and I'm still a big dork. Maybe if I'd been serving him popcorn, it would've been easier.