In a vein similar to the Who's John Entwistle, Butler refused to let his instrument be buried in simplicity. He brought bass guitar out of the shadows and into the spotlight as a featured instrument unto itself. Matching a liberally percussive attack with bluesy swagger, sharp highs, echoing bottoms and endless fretwork without overtaking the song or losing his connection with the beat, Butler doesn't hold down rhythms so much as throttle them while never shaking his absurdly calm demeanour. Essentially, were it not for Butler noodling endlessly during "War Pigs" and "Iron Man" or twiddling with wah pedals on the opening quarter of "N.I.B.," we'd have no Cliff Burton, no "Anastasia/Pulling Teeth" and therefore no Metallica. Nor would we have Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer or any of the other thousands of metal-tinged bands with bassist stepping to the forefront and making us realize that bass guitars are just as virile and flexible as the wildest of six-string shredders.
However, mere months after the loss of long-time friend/band mate Ronnie James Dio to stomach cancer, Butler is uncertain as to what the future holds for Black Sabbath or Heaven And Hell. Taking a moment to discuss his fate as well as the 40th anniversary of landmark effort Paranoid (released on September 18, 1970, the day Jimi Hendrix was pronounced dead), Butler is hopeful for the future yet still coming to terms with the past.
Is there any real status update on Black Sabbath/Heaven And Hell at present?
Not really. We're all just on hold since Ronnie passed away. We did a tribute concert for his cancer fund a bit ago and that's about it. We're just wondering what to do next.
Condolences to everyone involved. It was a pretty big shock to metal.
Yeah, everything was going so well and then that happened.
Were you in the band braced for it at all? It seemed as if he was going to pull through and then all of a sudden...
It was one of those things when he was responding really well to treatment and everyone was feeling positive again. The tour was going ahead again and Ronnie felt up for it; was looking forward to the tour. About six weeks before that, it came back with a vengeance and hit him really hard.
It doesn't seem that people realize how you've not just lost a band mate but a friend as well.
Absolutely. It's really difficult because it's obviously never happened to us before. It's difficult to know what to, especially at our age. We're not sure. Do we start all over again? We're just gonna see how it goes. That's the thing. He's a very close friend of mine as well as someone I work with. It's a big part of my life gone.
Do you really feel like you'd have to start over again?
Well, getting a singer in and that kind of thing; the right person. It'll sort itself out eventually, I suppose.
Is there a silver lining?
Not at the moment.
Let's get away from this because I can't imagine how hard it is to discuss. This Classic Albums: Paranoid DVD (Eagle Rock Entertainment) was insightful even after years of everyone scrutinizing every aspect. How was it to talk about something that far back?
It was incredibly hard to remember 40 years ago. It seems like a lifetime ago, really. Because the album was done so fast and we were on tour anyway, it didn't really stick out in anybody's memory that well. We had five days in the studio, we went in and to us it was just like another gig. We played live in the studio practically ― minimum overdubs. With only five days, it really was just a gig.
A gig that's been resounding for four decades.
I'm glad we didn't know that at the time or else we'd never have finished it.
There's something to be said for magic that happens when you don't put much thought into it.
It's true because we didn't expect anything from it. We thought, "Two or three years and we're back to our normal, proper jobs." If you'd have taken time to think about it ― the impact that album had ― it'd probably be almost too scary to go on with. It's just good the way it turned out.
It's obviously done you well but is there any resentment of having to live with a lofty album like that? Kind of how Lemmy says he could never play "Ace Of Spades" again and be fine?
Nah, I think we're all grateful for it because at the time nobody gave us much of a chance, you know? We were hated by the critics and were so grateful to have that kind of success from that.
In the greater context ― including your solo records ― it sounds like you never expected Paranoid to be so pivotal. Do you have another album that was your favourite instead of this but you've just never admitted it?
Each one has its own merit because instead of being stuck in one vein, we always tried to progress as musicians. We just didn't want to be liable as a one-sound band which maybe we are nowadays. But at the time, we thought with each album we'd try to expand musically.
Back then there wasn't really anything to pin you down as though, was there? Even the term "heavy metal" wasn't around.
Yeah, there wasn't "heavy metal" like we have now. We were just a band doing original music whether it was heavy stuff or lighter stuff like "Planet Caravan" or whatever.
That song never gets its due, does it?
Yeah, a lot of people now ask me why we did that song. It's like, because we weren't in a particular genre at the time. We were just making our own kind of sound.
It provides dynamic to the album too. It's not all thick and heavy. There are melodic points.
Exactly. Yeah because y'know, in those days when you put on an album you expected to hear eight or ten songs that didn't all sound the same. That's what you needed: variety in an album. It did its job. It sticks out.
Then you got bands like Pantera covering it so it was "cool" again.
Yeah, I like how they stuck to the original way it was done: the feel and moodiness.
So now there's this resurgence in people wanting to hear Paranoid but you're still not sure as to the future of Black Sabbath/Heaven And Hell.
Well, Heaven And Hell is finished. It could only ever be with Ronnie. I'd still like to carry on with Tony (Iommi, guitarist) and Vinnie (Appice, drummer) doing something but it won't be as Heaven And Hell.
After the legal battle over the name between Tony and Ozzy...
Well, we're all talking again so that's a good sign... I hope. As far as the original band goes, there are so many places we never played that I'd love to visit. Japan for instance. We never ever played there or so many places in Eastern Europe or Asia that have opened up since the original band ― or since the reunion of the original band. When we got the reunion thing back together, we really only played North America and Western Europe. That was it. So it would be... eventually I'd like to go to places like Japan with the original line-up since we've never been there before. But it's easier said than done.
I guess there are a lot of politics around that sort of thing.
Yeah... it would be nice to finally go out on a note like that. A good one.
In the meantime, maybe you can work on your solo stuff. It's been a while since you put out a G/Z/R album.
It's been a really tough year so music has been very much on the back-burner 'cause of Ronnie. I'm gradually getting back to... I've got so much of my own stuff I've done, it's gonna take months to sort through it all when I wanna start up again. It's such a backlog. Once you establish a direction in your mind it makes it a lot easier but I need that. Once I get that, I'll just play through it all.
It's all waiting for you when you're ready though.
Yes and I'm certainly looking forward to seeing what I can come up with in the next few months. I've had some stuff lying around for a while so within the next month or six weeks, I'll take that, work on some new material and while we're sorting out other things, there's nothing stopping me from writing my own stuff. I've got plenty of inspiration.
Music is the great healer.
It's certainly a good way to get your feelings over. I could use that. Eventually.