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BLACK SABBATH: THE TONY IOMMI INTERVIEW

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With their monster riffs and iconic licks, four young guys from Birmingham; Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward  changed the face of music forever in the early 70s, when they delivered a darker, heavier, louder form of rock ‘n’ roll than we’d ever experienced before. Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut and landmark follow up Paranoid, blazed the trail for what we now call heavy metal music. The fabled power rock riffs kept coming with Masters of Reality, Black Sabbath 4, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and Sabotage. Then significantly in 1979, Ozzy was dismissed from the band due to his addiction problems and was replaced by Ronnie James Dio. Personnel changed regularly from 1982 after Dio left but the albums never stopped. In the meantime Ozzy was creating his own solo magic and keeping the legacy alive. Along the way law suits were filed, personal accusations were made and in 2011, the original four members buried the hatchet reunited to record an album titled 13. However old wounds run deep and the band couldn’t negotiate an amiable tour deal with drummer Bill Ward, so he was ousted and replaced by Tommy Clufetos. Now in 2016 Australian fans will see that version of the band for the final time when they play here in April under the tour moniker of The End. Longtime Sabbath fan Daniel Corran recently had the honour of catching up with his guitar hero Tony Iommi, to talk about the band’s career and the upcoming Australian tour.

Daniel: Hi Tony, it’s Daniel here on behalf of Australian Musician magazine, thanks so much for your time. You play Vancouver tomorrow night – how is the tour and what’s your routine before hitting stage?

Tony: Well the American and Canadian tour’s just been fantastic, all the shows. We usually do a meet and greet with the fans, we jam around for a bit and they watch and then after that it’s photographs with them, and then we have something to eat, and then sit and play for a bit as yes I have to warm up before every show.

Let’s talk guitars and in particular your road arsenal – how many guitars do you take on a tour of this size?

I take about 8 – 10 because I have the main ones I use onstage and then I have back up for each of those you know in case I break a string. But each night there’s 3 main guitars that I use, each with different tunings.

I wanted to talk about the Epiphone P94 Iommi model and the humbucker sized P-90 single coil pick-ups. I’m curious as to why you chose the P-90’s over humbuckers?

You mean my latest Epiphone? Yes, they are the Iommi pickups that I have on the Gibsons and I came up with those pickups many years ago when I went over to Gibson in Nashville and we worked for a few weeks on designing these pickups. They’d wire one I’d try it, they’d wire another one and I’d try it until they found one that I liked, and I’d test them onstage and you know, I still use them to this day.

When creating these pickups, what was the one crucial factor they had to get right?

Well I wanted it so that when you turn it down, it’s a cleaner sound and when you turn it up it’s got the balls you know, it has all the characteristics you want. It has the power but it has the bottom end as well with the top still coming out. It’s funny ’cause when we started doing those we had a lot of jazz musicians buying them which surprised me, but they really liked them.

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Your signature model Tony – the Epiphone Tony Iommi G-400 – with the USA Gibson humbuckers, is that your key guitar and the main one used on stage now?

Well my main tour guitars are from a company that I’ve used for many years, Jaydee, which until recently came on the road with me. I enjoy the Gibsons and the Epiphones too.  I want to incorporate the Epiphones into the show more, but I only received the new model just before I left England, so I haven’t had the time to work on it you know, to get it just right.

Speaking of Jaydee, your custom SG – aka the Old Boy, that’s been retired from the road and I’m guessing waiting for you back home in the studio?

Well that’s a fabulous guitar, he’s made some others that are very similar but they don’t have the age, the character in them that this does. No I’ve stopped using that on the road because I simply don’t want it stolen, it’s too precious and valuable so yes I’ve retired it now and I use a copy of that now.

That signature ‘Iommi tone’ captured in your Laney cabs  – the GH 100 valve head … for the young Aussies jamming in their garage with their buddies, how do they capture the ‘Iommi’ sound?

Well I use the Laneys but I’ve used lots of different amps over the years, Marshalls, Boogies, and I’ve always come back to using Laney. In fact I’m testing new ones on the road at the moment, new ‘old ones’ if you like, they’re copies of the original amps that we first used in Sabbath. Really basic, no boosters or anything in them, and they’re really working out great. I’m doing the same thing as when we first started, I’ve got the amp, a little booster that drives the input. It was weird because at Laney, at the factory it was amusing because the people working there, they’d never seen these before you know because they’re too young, even the oldest guy there hadn’t seen them! It was only Lyndon Laney who was building them himself back in those days. So it was fun when I asked them to do it, Lyndon was really pleased, so they had to sit down with this team and show them how they had to be put together, and they built about 10 for me and I have them on the road with me now.

So the Australian leg of the tour is next in April. You’ve toured Australia many times … do you have any lasting memories of those early 1970’s shows – playing Kooyong in Melbourne for example? Or was it all a wild party and there’s not too many memories?

Oh god, we had wild parties in those days but it was just fantastic, we had such a great time. Of course things have changed tremendously we don’t do that these days!  Just to go somewhere new in the beginning was really exciting, and it’s still exciting but back then we were young enough to get out and about to experience all sorts of things. These days we tend to get to the hotels, have something to eat, go for a walk and that’s about it. Certainly a glass of red after the show, a glass of champagne or a red wine but never drink before.

The End tour is not just a goodbye to the fans but also in support of the latest album 13. What can the Aussie fans expect from the show? And would you say there’s any surprises in the set list?

Well the set list is going to be classic Sabbath songs, we’ve brought in a couple of songs that we hadn’t played for many years but it’s mainly the songs that people want to hear, and if you don’t play them people say “well you never played this, you never played that” so you know, the show we put together I think is working really well. I mean we have tried some different things out but people want to hear the real classics, because we can play some tracks off the new album which people like but because it’s the final tour they really want the classics that they know, the nostalgia of it all.

Given almost 50 years as a professional musician, I’d be interested to hear who your personal favourite artists are, be they metal or otherwise?

I listen to a lot of different stuff and I go through different phases, for example I might play as silly as it sounds, a Doris Day album for a couple of weeks or Frank Sinatra I play a lot. I like a varied amount of things it’s not just all rock or metal stuff. It’s generally something more relaxing. When you play Sabbath on stage it’s important to have that difference, it’s the spice of life you know.

I’d like to preface this next question with a bit of background. I was in a car accident in 2005 and at the time hadn’t been overseas before and it was impetus for me to travel – and so I planned my trip around fulfilling a boyhood dream seeing Sabbath live, and was lucky enough to be at the first show of the Ozzfest tour that year, the Tweeter Centre in Boston. With about 30,000 other punters there and you the massive black curtain with the purple Master of Reality writing over it – and man when that curtain rose it sent shivers down my spine as you and Geezer, Bill and Ozzy opened with NIB.  That feeling when you walk out in front of tens of thousands of people, the energy in the air, and knowing how much the music you created means to them, how does that make you feel?

Oh yeah that feeling will never go away, there’s no better feeling than when you walk out onstage and you can play to the people who like your music. And you can see them enjoying it and we enjoy it, just an amazing feeling. There’s nothing better for me, the only downside for me in this business is the other side of it, all the traveling and all the other things can be hard, but for that 2 hours there’s nothing like it.

In the day and age we live in Tony, it seems like many young bands seek their 15 seconds of fame on TV or the like, but there’s nothing like doing the hard yards on tour for example. Your advice for young Aussie musicians?

Well I think that’s it, that’s the key, you’ve got to get out and play live. Unfortunately the way the business has gone, with TV and these shows, whatever they’re called, I think you need to get out and play live, play to people, you can’t go on and mime and not have all these gadgets behind you, nothing like being able to actually play. And not just to show off, you have to play from within yourself whatever you feel is good and that’s it. You don’t have to play a million notes a minute guitar-wise, you can go out and play with feeling, and that to me is so important. I mean there’s plenty of great players but there’s nothing better to me than to hear someone play with great feel. And I think with some of the newer guitar players that’s where they’ve missed it a bit, they’ve gone for all this fancy stuff. It comes out more emotionally in the music if you play what you feel.

You’ve written many of the greatest riffs of all time. If I had to choose an absolute favourite moment of a Sabbath track, it’d probably have to be the bridge of War Pigs that leads into your triumphant solo – when playing live onstage with Geezer and Ozzy, what song, what part of which riff – really hits the spot for you?

It’s funny you saying that, I actually had that feeling the other night, I looked over at Geezer and Oz and I thought well this is the last time we’re going to play here, and I just started honing in on the individual playing, I mean Geezer was just playing some fantastic stuff. You take it for granted, because we’ve been doing it so long. But yes, you do get those moments.

I recently watched the Freddie Mercury tribute show from 1992 where you jammed with the guys from Queen and guested with James Hetfield during Stone Cold Crazy, I have the old VHS tape. Re-formed Sabbath played Live Aid 1985, and when I’m craving a good Sabbath fix I watch the live footage from Paris in 1970. So many landmark shows throughout your career, personal favourites over the journey?

Playing Madison Square Garden for the first time was a real thrill, and we played a succession of shows there and they gave us an award for the highest attendance at the time. As you said so many to choose from, but the shows at the Garden come to mind.

I’m a massive Dio fan, rest in peace, and I’d like to ask you if there’s any truth behind the folklore of whether Ronnie snuck into the studio after hours during the recording of Live Evil to alter the mix?

Well we don’t know, we just heard that he had, the engineer told us. He said that Ronnie was coming in and wanting this changed and that changed, and then we’d come in the next day and want things changed. It was the engineer that started us off telling us because we’d go in the next day and say, well that sounds different and then eventually he was getting frightened and nervous and said you know, Ronnie’s been in and fiddling about. That’s what he said but who knows.

Black_Sabbath_SabotageLast question Tony, the record cover of Sabotage … Bill’s in bright red tights! Can you share with us the story behind that?

As it happened we got there to do a photo session and Bill had a brainwave, his wife was there at the time and he asked if he could wear her red tights. Yeah I know (laughs). I can’t remember the reason why he did, I can’t remember if he forgot his trousers or what not (laughs).

http://www.blacksabbath.com/
Australian and NZ dates:
April 15 Perth Arena, WA
April 17 Adelaide Entertainment Centre, SA
April 19 Rod Laver Arena Melbourne, VIC
April 23 Allphones Arena, Sydney Olympic Park, NSW
April 25 Brisbane Entertainment Centre, QLD
April 28 Vector Arena Auckland NZ
April 30 Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin NZ
https://www.livenation.com.au/

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