By Jarrod Dicker
New Brunswick, NJ, USA
All images courtesy billward.com
What is left in the rock & roll universe for Bill Ward to conquer?
The Black Sabbath rhythm-rouser has accomplished all there is to triumph in the music industry. He has won Grammy awards, been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, started a successful side project with the Bill Ward Band and, most recently, heads the Rock 50 radio show out of Norwalk, California.
But if you ask him, there is still more that can (and must) be done for him to strengthen his already legendary status;
“What I would like to do is become a better pianist and a better drummer; I have a lot to learn. I don’t think they’re enough years in my life left, but those are my personal goals as far as music is concerned. I hope I could be a better writer. If anything is there, I would like to be able to record a little quicker as well. I’m learning…”
Jarrod Dicker spoke with Sabbath’s drummer about his recent radio venture, three new albums due for release in 2010, his relationship with former Sabbath members, the Bill Ward Band, touring and much more…
THIRSTY: You’ve actively participated in Rock 50 radio over the years, an internet only college radio program from Cerritos, College in California (WPMD). On December 12th (2009) you put on an annual Rock Christmas show…
Bill Ward: Yes, it went on the air and ran from 11AM-1PM PST.
THIRSTY: Can you speak about what was played, who was featured and other notable happenings that you feel are relevant?
BW: For this Christmas, I played some of the standard things that we play on every Rock 50 show. An example of that would be Grace Under Pressure by Elbow. And I usually always end the show with either Paul McCartney or Pavarotti. We always play Type O Negative’s, Red Water (Christmas Morning) and that’s usually our showcase, right in the center of the show someplace. We always play that one, it’s perfect for Christmas. What we did this year, because it’s so close to the death anniversary of John Lennon, was to do a Lennon tribute. We played some things that would indicate world peace which John participated in. The rest of the show is dedicated to the “Best Of” metal bands that we’ve played throughout ’09. So it was a pretty straightforward Christmas show this time. Normally I’m a little bit more selective, but at first we had thought that we were going to have to cancel the Christmas show, but later found out that it was back on again. I just decided to break it into three parts. Type O Negative setting off after John Lennon and then the rest of it is just metal. We don’t play traditional Christmas songs, you know?
THIRSTY: Well that’s good because everyone other station is playing them at that time. How has this Rock 50 radio gig been progressing in your opinion? Are you receiving a lot of positive feedback? Have there been any particular moments you’d like to highlight?
BW: Well you see it’s exciting for me because I play basically whatever I want to play. And that’s an old fashioned concept these days. I’m really well-suited with that, in the sense that I have the freedom to play what I want to play. That’s one of the beautiful things about it. The other thing is that I get to hear all of my favorite bands. I don’t know what’s going to come out of it next. I get really excited because I’m a fan of a lot of the bands I play. I get to that place and it’s very exciting, it’s very reviving. It keeps me alive man, keeps me moving forward. So the bands that normally play on the show are really giving me a lot of high energy. It works very well for me in a lot of ways.
THIRSTY: What are you currently involved in musically? Does the Bill Ward Band still participate in the modern music scene?
BW: Oh yea! This year I’ve worked nonstop. I’m in the process of finishing up three albums, which are ALL my albums. When I write songs, I usually write everything (tracks), so I compose in guitar, bass, keyboards, melody arrangements, the vocals…just everything really. So I’m really active inside my own music…
THIRSTY: And I’m assuming drums as well?
BW: And drums of course [laughs], forgot all about the drums. But that’s what I’ve been doing throughout the year and I’m hoping to bring out three fresh albums in 2010. The first one hopefully in the spring, then one in the summer and then trying to get one towards the end of October, right before Halloween. So that’s what I’m doing right now. Well I go back into the studio on Tuesday, making sure the tracks are ready for 2010. I’m always busy.
THIRSTY: And how about playing live? Has the Bill Ward Band, or any other projects you may be affiliated scheduled an upcoming tour?
BW: I haven’t played live at all in a long time. The last time I played live was with ‘The Sabs’ (Black Sabbath) which was about four years ago. I’ve been really active in the studio, writing and spending time with a lot of musicians.
THIRSTY: On these upcoming albums, are you the sole musician or do you have a group accompanying you on the tracks?
BW: When I say I write, I write the parts and so forth, but I have other players that play the music. On the newest work, that’s coming out in the spring, Keith Lynch (Bill Ward Band veteran) is playing guitar. Paul Ill is playing some bass and then I have a couple of other guys that will play bass as well. Paul’s also from early years of the Bill Ward Band. And then I have my own drummer, Ronnie Ciago who’s playing on several tracks. I’m playing drums on several tracks too, so it’s pretty much a band album if you’d like. There are some guests coming onto the following two albums after the spring one, but it’s all under wraps right now [laughs]. They’re rock and rollers man…so they agreed to do it but now let’s get them all together in a room and nail it!
THIRSTY: Currently, how is your relationship with Black Sabbath alumni Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi?
BW: My relationship with Ozzy is brilliant. I am picking Ozzy first because I speak with him the most often. I talked to Oz a couple days ago. We speak once or twice a week, so we’re always in contact with each other. My relationship with Tony is very good at the moment. I spoke with him last week as well. And Geezer never talks on the telephone so I emailed Geez, I don’t know just a few weeks ago. I’m in constant contact with all of them pretty much.
THIRSTY: Do you still hold a relationship with Ronnie James Dio? Recent news revealed that he is battling cancer…
BW: Oh shit yea. For quite a while we did the whole Heaven and Hell album together, so I felt like I spent a lot of time with him. We wrote together and played together and did some of the business things together. I also spent a lot of social time with him and his family as well.
THIRSTY: In 1979, Sabbath made the decision to fire Ozzy claiming pressure from the record label and various other complications and frustrations. It was you who was chosen to break the news to Ozzy. Why so?
BW: I just thought that it would be easier if I just did it. I’ve been in that position before with other musicians; I just felt that I ought to do it. It just felt like the right thing to do at the time. It was a very difficult and depressing time for all of us. I felt it was the right thing to do, for me to talk to Oz. We were close. I volunteered myself.
THIRSTY: You left (fired) Black Sabbath one year after Ozzy's dismissal. How difficult of a time was this for you; 1) the separation from Ozzy and 2) your constant battle with addiction?
BW: Yes it was a very difficult time. I was indeed feeling the loss of not having Ozzy in the band. I also had something happen to me, which had nothing to do with Ronnie or Black Sabbath or anything. I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict and my addiction was running rampant with me. I was losing all “control”. I thought I had control of it and I did not. I was completely hit so hard with everything that I was unable to function properly. So I reached a point where I put the alcohol and the narcotics before the band and that had never happened before in my life (1980). This is something that I am not proud of, but it is something that happened to me. It actually became more important for me to drink and get high than to perform on stage. That’s changed a lot since; my priorities are the right way round again. But back in 1980 it was very bad…very, very bad.
THIRSTY: Tony Iommi and yourself performed together in the band Mythology circa 1966. How did this relationship first materialize?
BW: Tony and I have been playing together since we were school kids, around 16 years of age. We played in different bands together, and crisscrossed into different local bands. We both liked to play with one another, and we both liked each other. I got to really enjoy his guitar playing. It seemed like we were off and on in different bands together all the way up until Mythology. Tony got that gig and soon after called me up not too long after that and said the drummer is going to leave from this band, would I like to drop by and join them? I got on the next train and headed up to where they were. Back then, it was a big commitment because it was 200 miles away, and 200 miles in those days was actually a long way away. You would have to get on a train and it was a tremendous journey. We were based in a little city called Carlisle in Cumbria on the English west coast. So I started playing with Mythology and thought we were really good. We played blues and a lot of harder rock. It was very cool.
THIRSTY: Black Sabbath were “innovators” of heavy metal/hard rock, basically creating the genre from scratch. What was it that kicked you guys into this new direction, adopting a harder edge and creating this genre of heavy metal?
BW: I would have to say it started with the blues. Something happened after Mythology, when it finally got down to just me, Tony, Geezer and Oz; something happened when we got together. I don’t know what it was. For years now, I called Black Sabbath more of a phenomenon rather than a band, because we got together and would be chemically ok. We’re able to really enjoy each other’s playing, and enjoy all the different grooves, ideas and conversations. We all carry the same belief systems as well as what we didn’t believe in was the same [laughs]. It was something that we knew was strong, but even WE couldn’t identify it. We just saw it as having a good time, as having fun. It wasn’t something that we planned or replicated, saying, “Ok let’s go out and sound like this…” you know?
THIRSTY: Absolutely, but was there something, a catalyst, a method, anything that at one certain point you all turned to each other and said, “This is it”?
BW: There is something that happened. Mainly one of the biggest things that happened Jarrod is that we turned the volume up. The Who had already gotten the volume up. There were a couple of other bands that got the volume up. And that’s just what we did, we turned it up. It was pretty much that simple. And basically why we did it was because our audiences were still “listening”.
BW: Now what I mean by that is in the days of the blues bands coming through, everyone in England was just sitting on the floor and grooving. Sabbath in 1968-69 was doing more than that. We were jumping all over the stage. Ozzy was always saying to the audience, “Get up, rock out with us man!” We wanted the audience to interact with us and that’s where it separated Jarrod, up until that point in blues everyone was sitting on the floor. And Ozzy just said, “Stand up!” Sometimes he would tell them to. Then after they were standing up that’s when they started with the air guitars, and head banging. It was around 1969 when all that stuff started to happen. It was unlike the audiences when you went to see the Stones or The Beatles; everybody was basically just screaming and frantic. When you went to see Jimi Hendrix and Cream audiences, they were like “the heads” and would be head banging and getting up there. Sabbath really interacted with the audience in the sense that, we were only playing in small clubs, so it was very electrifying. Everyone was just in unison, head banging and getting down. It was just brilliant, everything was just brilliant. That’s what started us, we were playing some “up” stuff and the audience was just getting it.
THIRSTY: As previously mentioned by other music critics and historians, the drumming style you use doubles the bass and guitar riffs played by accompanying band members. How did you step into this method? Who inspired you to play this particular way?
BW: As far as drummers are concerned, when I was a child growing up I was really attracted to artists like Gene Kupra and Louis Bellson and Buddy Rich; a lot of the drummers that played in the popular Big Bands of the ‘40s. I would listen to their records. My mother and father listened to them because the GI’s in World War II had brought that music over with them. So my mother and father became real quick fans of American music. When I was growing up in the early ‘50s, four or five years old, I listened to these bands and thought it was great. It was pretty much all we had, except for the early rock and roll like The Platters and a few other bands that were still doing the “crooner” type ballads.
THIRSTY: So American music was in fact very influential in shaping your method of playing?
BW: When Elvis’ rock and roll came out, I was just blown away! We also had some English bands like The Shadows and The Beatles who I was really influenced by. There are just so many drummers that I love to listen to. Growing up as a kid, I think that the better part of me was interested in making wide spaces in music, so that huge amounts of sound could be dropped in between bass drum and snare. I also like to incorporate some of the jazz fills that I enjoyed as a child. So with those things, I was starting to bloom by the time I was about seventeen. I had been playing for a while; I was starting to get a few licks down. I was able to play wide, and what I mean by wide is “walls of sound”. It was the earlier drummers, the ‘40s drummers, some of the older guys, where I was really influenced.
THIRSTY: Being a part of the greatest metal band of all time, you must have held relationships on stage and in-studio with various other established musicians. What was your favorite artistic collaboration outside of Black Sabbath?
BW: Obviously we crossed the paths of lots of people. Back in the years of Black Sabbath in its heyday, we were bumping into all kinds of folks. The first that come to mind are Jimmy Page & John Bonham. We knew these guys, I mean John Bonham was a guy that played in Birmingham when we were kids. We all grew up as kids together. Luther Grosvenor who went to Deep Feeling and then went on to Spooky Tooth was a close friend. So all these bands were really coming together and jamming as were Sabbath as individuals. So we met a cross section of an enormous amount of people; Frank Zappa. Frank came in and jammed with us at Madison Square Garden. There are so many people.
THIRSTY: Have you ever crossed paths with Jimi Hendrix?
BW: Unfortunately I never got to do anything musically with Jimi. I was still a bit young when he was laying it down. I did have the pleasure of meeting Mitch Mitchell sometime afterwards and fortunately for me, I met him about two years before he passed away. I’m very grateful that I was able to meet Mitch. We talked about EVERYTHING. We would have probably been there all night if we didn’t have to leave each other and go on with other things. I’ve gone through losses as well. John Bonham’s death was a huge loss for me. Cozy Powell died, that was a big loss for me. I’ve known countless musicians, including Cream’s Jack Bruce. We’ve played on sessions and have collaborated on things. So, yea there is a host of people.
THIRSTY: What modern bands are you into? You mentioned some before when you were speaking about the Rock 50 radio program…
BW: Yea, all the guys in Metallica are all friends of ours. Some of the bands of today like Slipknot and Slayer, The Haunted and In Flames as well. Basically a lot of gothic rock artists. I know a lot of guys in those bands. They’re just really cool people that I’ve known for years. I love their music and they’re all special musicians.
THIRSTY: Sabbath’s album Paranoid was the second full-length album released under this moniker. Being that it is one of the most spoken about albums of my generation, what was the temperature at that time in the Sabbath camp throughout the recording process and eventual release?
BW: For me, it was music coming from a band that was now on the road all the time. We had quite a lot of success with the first album (Black Sabbath), so we were everywhere. It was completely nuts. We were in and out of England, all over Germany, all over Europe ALL THE TIME. We were crossing the British Channel, I don’t even know how many times a month. You gotta have some sea legs for that [laughs]. So we were a band that didn’t quite know what was going on, but we knew that we had a new batch of songs; Iron Man was one of them and I loved the fact that we had Hand of Doom also. So we had some songs that we thought were cool and went into the studio. We were literally a live band and would go into the studio that way; pretty much the same way the first album was done. Somebody captured the sound, and not too bad in my opinion…
Ronnie Ciago and Bill Ward
THIRSTY: As you said, being a “live band”, were you able to easily obtain the “live” sound you desired while recording the album in the studio?
BW: I’ve always been a little bit hard on myself when it comes to that. The sound that we had in the studio compared to our live sound wasn’t the same. Our live sound was just a monster, a MONSTER ON FIRE. Our studio sound was always a little bit tame; however I know that the producers and engineers did their best to capture the band and movement which was going really fast, like New York fast. We had like a week to do it so we just let it all out. That was the kind of general head space we were in. When we finished it, we were off to wherever we had to go then; a business meeting in London, or to play here or there.
THIRSTY: Sabbath was just in full throttle at that moment…
BW: Gigs were just chaotic. We were playing everywhere. We were doing two shows a day at that particular point in my life, which was a lot. When Sabbath would go on stage, we wouldn’t hold anything back. We’d go on stage and play literally to the death. And when we were doing 2 hour shows back in 1970, they were just killers. By the time the second show was done, we’d be leaving to go to a different city, and were spent. It was really hard work. We were loving it, so it’s not like it was HARD work, but physically it was exhausting.
THIRSTY: Are there any specific moments you remember from the earlier gigs?
BW: Well Black Sabbath was at the Star-Club in Hamburg (Germany), just like the Beatles were. We would play 7-8 shows consecutively there. But these weren’t like the shows we started putting on when Paranoid came out, they were a lot shorter. At that time Sabbath was a live band that would come into the studio. That was that, you know, we would leave the studio and then go back on to doing what we had to do. That’s what Paranoid was like; it captured a time. Whatever’s captured on that vinyl is a moment in a band’s history; a band that’s walking into the studio and then walking out of the studio at the other side of the album. It’s a picture of us in late 1960, early 1970.
THIRSTY: This is a question I like to ask older, more established musicians: Now that we are in the digital age of mp3’s and music piracy, it seems that the concept and idea around a record has vanished. Fans prefer to buy singles rather than listen to the entire piece of work. What are your particular feelings on this matter?
BW: I have some feelings about it. If I say anything, I must preface it by saying that we were all brought up (Sabbath) in the age of the ‘60s at a time when how you made a record was that you would release it out and people actually bought it [laughs]. So it’s very different today. It can be a little bit frustrating. I think it’s a shame that we get bootlegged so much, we were always bootlegged anyway, but now people are just grabbing a copy downloading it and not thinking twice about it. It’s just difficult for me to be supportive of that. I mean, it’s always been music first and money somewhere down the line. But now, it’s really tough to actually make a living in this business.
THIRSTY: That’s why touring is up, so bands can generate some income…
BW: These days records aren’t selling and a lot of bands are making money not only through touring but also through their own merchandise. And even newer bands are getting those ripped off. There has to be a bread and butter responsibility attached to it. I think that a lot of bands, including Sabbath, have all done their fair share of being on the stage and putting their necks out and putting their balls on the line and doing all kinds of charitable things. We’ve been involved in a lot of these things, working towards a greater awareness in music. So when it comes to downloading something, and not wanting to pay for it, it’s an individual choice you know? I’m not going to slag anybody for doing it, I’m not going to say they’re just assholes or whatever; they’ve just been brought up in a different age when they think that’s ok.
THIRSTY: As I said before, we are in a more digital age. Do you think that music piracy and “ripping off” musicians is a product of the times?
BW: Now it’s this ruthless dog bite dog world, but it was definitely like that before the whole “age” you speak of. The ‘60s and the ‘70s had their assholes as well. What really pisses me off isn’t what necessarily is happening with me, but what is happening with younger bands. They’re some great musicians who need to be cut a break man, and someone needs to invest some time in them. The only ones that invest time in them, what once was enormous record companies, are falling like broken giants now. I see a lot of the casualties coming out of it. It’s a shame, there’s a lot of people in the industry who I wish weren’t in the industry because they don’t know anything about the industry or music or anything. You asked me a question there, and a little long and drawn out answer but there it is…
THIRSTY: What other music do you enjoy listening to besides metal? What are you currently listening to?
BW: Right now I’m in the studios, so I tend not to listen to anything. If I listen to anything at all, it will be early rock and roll because that’s a very neutral area for me, or I’ll listen to classical music. I like to be away from the stuff that I enjoy, especially when I’m in the middle of a lyric or a verse or trying to finish a part. I also need a break for my ears as well, if I’ve been mixing or laying tracks, I have some special ear plugs that I use. Once I finish working, I put the plugs in so when my driver brings me home I usually will just wear my earplugs and be in silence. I have to rest my ears up. When I’m not recording or doing anything musically I will listen to any kind of music on the radio. If it’s a good hardcore song, I’ll usually go with that. I like all the classic stuff obviously; I listen to Oz’s stuff all the time. The last show that we went to this summer was O Fortuna written by Carl Orff. That was the last concert I went to, I don’t think I’ve seen a live band for at least six months.
THIRSTY: So in your musical career you’ve accomplished all that could be desired; Grammy’s, Hall of Fame induction, etc. What else should we expect from Bill Ward in the near and distant future?
BW: I don’t really think in those terms of Grammy’s or awards. If those things come, then that’s a nice thing. What I would like to do is become a better pianist and become a better drummer; I have a lot to learn. I don’t think they’re enough years in my life left, but those are my personal goals as far as music is concerned. I hope I could be a better writer. If anything is there, I would like to be able to record a little quicker. I’m learning…and the other thing would be to play a good album, if I make a good album. The next album that’s coming out I really like. I think there are great songs on it. I’ve enjoyed the journey getting there and I just hope the public likes it. That’s really what it’s all about for me. I would like to tour with my own band and I would still like to tour with Sabbath. I’m not over the hill by any means; I have the energy and desire. It’s the passion that holds you there and puts thing back together and makes things go round. Every single day I wake up with these things and I feel very fortunate.