The PV Q&A: Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath on Religion, Seeing Spirits, and the Despair of '13'

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Promises, promises. Metal fans the world over took heart when legendary sludgemeisters Black Sabbath launched several reunion tours in the late ‘90s, then—in early 2001—began work on a purported comeback album with producer Rick Rubin, featuring the original lineup of vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward. Alas, nothing came of it; Osbourne returned to work on his next solo set, and other members went on to form spinoff projects like GZR and Heaven & Hell. A decade later, however, the band announced that they were returning to the studio with Rubin, who had made them listen to—and re-appraise—their gear-grinding eponymous 1970 debut to re-connect them with their bluesy roots. It took two years, but they weren’t crying wolf this time: The new 13 hit shelves, backed by Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk (Ward exited the sessions for personal reasons) and featuring dark, perambulating piledrivers like “Zeitgeist,” “Age of Reason,” “End of the Beginning,” and the rhetorical, thought-provoking single “God is Dead?” When asked why Sabbath had chosen this year to reunite, Iommi (who just beat lymphoma) joked that it was now or never. But it was Butler, the man behind most of 13's lyrics, who sat down to explain things further….

PureVolume: You once read spooky, metaphysical authors like Aleister Crowley. How has your taste in literature changed over the years?
Geezer Butler: Oh, all that stuff was back when I was a teenager. Now it’s mainly detective and crime fiction and stuff like that. I’m currently reading the new Ian Rankin book—it’s about a Glasgow detective. That’s the kind of stuff I like. And I’ve been reading Jo Nesbo, but everybody else has, too.
Ever thought about writing your own novel?
I’ve thought about it. And I even started one once. But then I read it back, and it didn’t work. I dunno. I’m my own biggest critic, I suppose. I can’t even remember the plot, it was years ago. But yeah, I’d love to be able to do it. But they’re so complicated these days and so well-researched and everything. It seems like it’s getting harder and harder to do it.
What do you collect?
Books. I’ve got quite a big library. And I collect guitars, and I used to collect comics.
Black Sabbath always touched on dark subjects. But 13, which feels inspired by modern society, feels creepier than ever, starting with the opening track, “End of the Beginning.”
Well, that one was about being cloned. It seems like eventually, people are going to clone the Beatles and stuff like that. I mean, it’s already happening now with a "Tupac" at Coachella, using holograms. But eventually I think they’ll start cloning people like the Beatles, and sending them out on endless tours. It’s incredible, what’s going to happen in the future, and that’s what “End of the Beginning” is about—technology is going to completely take over the human race.
“Age of Reason” continues the theme that the Industrial Revolution has doomed us to extinction, and corporate greed is only accelerating our demise.
Yeah. The world is owned by just a few people. It doesn’t matter what president or prime minister you elect. It’s still the same old crap.
What makes you happy, personally, on an average non-touring day?
I live in Beverly Hills, and I’ve got lots of dogs, so I take them for walks. Or I’ll just sit by the pool, reading. My dogs are all rescue dogs – I’ve got five rescues now, and they’re just like mutts. The closest to a breed is one that’s a Cavalier King Charles spaniel. But all of our dogs had been severely abused, and we rescued them from various places. And I’ve got seven cats, too. And a few scorpions out in the backyard. There are all kinds of things that live out in the hills where I live: scorpions, tarantulas, coyotes, and deer. Lots of deer. It’s great. I mean, it’s their territory, isn’t it? So it’s a we’re-taking-over-their-territory kind of thing. So you just have to find happiness within yourself. So I find happiness in rescuing animals—they’re so loving and appreciative afterwards, when you give them a good home.

You penned the lyrics for “God is Dead?” And, a la Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, it’s faddishly hip to be an atheist now. But why can't science and faith peacefully co-exist?
Yeah. That’s what that song is about. It’s about the guy that’s sick of hearing that God is dead, so he sets out to prove that he isn’t.
What do you yourself believe?
I’m not sure myself. I grew up Catholic, so I’ve always got that ingrained in me. I mean, I don’t go to church or anything like that. And sometimes I think it’s like science fiction, or just a load of fiction, and then other times I’ll go back to praying to Jesus. So I’m not really convinced about anything. But when I’m on a plane? I will always pray!
What do you think comes next, afterlife-wise?
What? When I’m in the ground? I think you just die, and that’s it. But then, who knows? I’ve seen a couple of ghosts—I don’t know if that means anything. I saw them when I was a little kid, at home. Me and my sister saw this old woman, coming down the stairs, and it really freaked us out. It was a ghost, just floating down the stairs. And it was a bit of a weird old Victorian house that I grew up in. And one day, I came out of my bedroom, and there was a guy just standing there, looking up the stairs, dressed in 1920s clothes. And then he just disappeared. But that was when I was a kid, around the age of seven or eight, and I never really had any of those experiences after that. But me and my sister saw the first one, so I didn’t imagine it. So I’m not sure if it was a spirit that lives within the walls of a certain place or what. Who knows?

There’s a palpable anxiety to 13. Where do you think humanity is headed?
The population of the Earth is just expanding and expanding. And pretty soon, there’s not going to be anywhere left to go. There’s not going to be enough water, oil, gas, or anything like that. So something’s got to happen in the end. It just can’t go on the way it is.
What life lessons have you learned from Black Sabbath?
Hmm. Just to know who your friends are and stick with them. Don’t ever stab them in the back.
You’ve been betrayed a few times, I guess?
Well, you know, everybody goes through it. You fall out and then you come back together. I mean, Sabbath have been in and out of love with each other. When we broke up in the late ‘70s, there was a lot of bad blood going ‘round then. And then you come back together and you forget it all, because these are your true friends. And they’ve outlasted everybody else.
Are you ultimately optimistic about the future?
I’ve been one of the luckiest people on Earth with my life, you know? I’ve got everything that I need. I’ve got a great band, great family, great friends around me, so there’s no reason for me to be pessimistic. So it all comes down to other people, I suppose—beware the other people. Religion’s gone nuts now, with Egypt and all that, and Sunnis against Shi’ites, Palestinians against Israel. It’s just endless. And it’s going to kick off in Africa, as well, like Somalia. And they never seem to learn. I mean, why can’t we all just live in peace for once? I’ve managed to do it!

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