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Bill Ward: From Jazz to Black Sabbath Part 2-2


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I try to look at drumming with humility and in doing so, I see the musician and I see the heart and I have no jealousy, or envy, or anything else.
Part 1 | Part 2

In part one of this interview—which took place on August 10, 2005, the day before Ozzfest pummeled through Seattle with an outstanding line-up that featured Rob Zombie, Shadows Fall, Zakk Wilde's Black Label Society, and Iron Maiden with Black Sabbath headlining and proving once again, after more than 35 years, that they rule the underworld of heavy metal—Bill talked about his childhood, growing up in Birmingham, England, as a drummer heavily influenced by blues, jazz, and rock and roll, and his career in the early days with Black Sabbath. Following completion of this interview, Bill also mentioned time, that is, playing in and out of time, citing the song "Black Sabbath" during which, as Bill pointed out, there are sections where there is virtually no time being played by the band at all. In the conclusion of this interview, Bill takes a deeper look at his musicianship and his own experience as a lifelong career musician.

All About Jazz: Can you talk about some of the things you have done musically outside of Black Sabbath?

Bill Ward: Well, I made a lot of mistakes in the sense that I didn't finish anything. First, when I finally dropped out of the public eye during the Heaven and Hell tour, I tried to do some things with other guys but, again, I didn't know it at the time but in hindsight now I can look back and go, "My god, no wonder you couldn't get anything done," because I was so fucked up all the time behind the dope. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't complete anything. And I get these crazy-ass ideas in my head to fly from America to England and at one time I did and I picked up a musician from England, brought him back to the States, and tried to do these incredible things and nothing worked out because I couldn't get it together.

So, I think I disappointed a lot of people, to be honest. I think I was more of a nuisance than anything else. So, those were my first early things (laughs). But it was after I got sober that I'd become more defined in '84. I started writing again. We did the Born Again album but I fell apart with the idea of touring. I got so much fear behind touring, I didn't talk about the fear, I drank behind the fear instead and that was a big mistake. So, I blew the Born Again tour and Bev Bevan, who is a very, very, very nice man, a very good drummer, took over the drum chair on that one.

In '84, I had reached the point where I tried to go back to the Sabs with yet another singer and at the time I just couldn't hang with the idea of trying to do something without Oz. All that was too fresh. It was just too much for me. I took time out and that's when I had to spend a lot of time in recovery. But at that point, that was the point where I sat down and I really started to look at music inside me that I hadn't attended to for years.

All of us were writing things on the side. We always did outside of Black Sabbath. But I started to become very vigorously interested in where it was. I tested my parameters, and that small start, if you like, has escalated into something that's absolutely blossoming because I've tested myself in production now. I've tested myself as a songwriter, I write parts for other musicians, I have my own drummer in my band. But I feel like over the years that I've really tried to learn a lot about just music, period. I even went to a drum teacher for the first time. When I was 50 years-old I kind of had cap-in-hand and felt quite ashamed of myself, and I went to Roy Burns and I asked Roy if he could teach me drums. He kind of had a smile on his face and he said, "Well, you pretty much know how to play drums already, I think." And I told him I didn't consider myself to be a drummer. If anything I consider myself to be an orchestrated drummer. I define that. But, man, Roy gave me some written stuff to learn. Oh man, I found it so awkward, so hard to read. So, I'm still just on eighth notes. I'm still there, you know. He started me off on quarter notes and I moved to eighth notes and I haven't been able to move on since then.

Even kids, little kids that I know that have just grown up into drummers, now have gone past their eighth notes and sixteenths. I mean, they do it and I'm looking at them going, "How do they do that? How do they play like that?" To me, those are real drummers. Those are proper drummers. So, for a long time there was very much of a wasteland in me because I didn't know. I thought, well, how do I categorize myself? I couldn't identify as a drummer. It's like these other guys pick it up and they seem to play in time and they seem to know all these things about drumming, and I have never been able to do that. I have no concept of what they're doing. I went to Roy Burns with all my heart and soul trying to learn how to play drums. I thought, 50 years-old, I'm going to learn how to play drums, finally. You know, I'm clueless. I'm absolutely clueless, yet I can play with a band and just feel the musicians and just play to wherever it's got to go, and that's something that just comes absolutely natural to me. So, I don't get it.

Several things happened to me as I was really, really growing up this time. I stopped looking at what I couldn't play and I stopped being angry about what I couldn't do, and I started to focus on what could I do and could I do it well, and if I could do it well and if I could do it properly, then what I decided to do was enhance that and let that grow, and I stopped wasting my time looking at other drummers thinking about, well, how do they play and how come I can't do that. And from that very day, when that happened—that happened a number of years ago now—I've been in love with other drummers. All the envy, all the anger that I felt, has all dropped away. It's nonexistent. I have such an open mind and a complete enjoyment for any drummer. Anybody, you know, I know that I'm going to enjoy their drumming because drumming now is something to me that has a totally different dynamic. It's like... how can I explain it... . Drumming now is... well, I see it without envy. I try to look at drumming with humility and in doing so, I see the musician and I see the heart and I have no jealousy, or envy, or anything else. I feel like I can really, really listen to a drummer whether he is 96 years-old or six years-old, and I give the six year-old just the same amount of credit that I would the 90 year-old because they are in the same process of achievement as drummers. So my outlook towards drumming has completely changed.

My relationship with my drums has gotten a whole lot better because I used to look at my drums and they used to be like mountainous to me. That looked like a mountainous problem sometimes and it's like, how can I overcome these drums? How can I master them? So, I just stopped trying to do that. I surrendered. Now I play them instead, rather than trying to overcome them. There's a big difference there, you know? Like learning how to play. Aynsley Dunbar, years and years and years ago, years ago, man—this is when Aynsley was playing with Zappa, years ago—he watched me, and I had this technique of playing up here like this, when I was a kid. I'm 22, 23 years-old and I like to play up high, and he suggested to me one time—I can always remember this; I don't think Aynsley would remember this, but I know I do—and he said, "Why don't you lower your cymbals and play from the shoulder a little bit more?" And today, I have lower cymbals and I play from my shoulder just like Aynsley taught me (laughter). I don't know, there's so many different things here that I'm learning.

But I've written a couple of albums and I've got another three or four albums in the works. I like working with all kinds of people. When I'm not with the Sabs I like to work with all kinds of musicians—rock musicians, metal musicians. In all walks of life, it doesn't make any difference—jazz musicians, brass—whatever it might be. Musically, I feel very rich. I feel that by surrendering up everything that I thought I wanted, instead I found an overflowing well or an overflowing spring that just brings up music endlessly all the time.

AAJ: What kinds of things do you do to practice and to stay in shape as a drummer?

BW: To stay in shape, I walk. Right now we haven't been doing that many gigs. We've had a couple of problems on Ozzfest this year and hopefully now we're back in the groove and we're going to be able to rock out with the songs, with the shows. But usually, playing a tour as long as we've been on tour—we've been on tour now for a little while—that normally keeps my weight down just playing, regular playing. These days I don't eat, like, anything that I want. I can't eat anything that I want anymore. I have to eat things that are good for me (laughs), which has taken a lot of getting used to. And that, again, by changing those things another release of anger comes, because at first, whenever you can't have something, with me at least, I'm always angry about, like, how come I can't still have large pizzas and all this kind of stuff. Well, the bottom line is you can't have large pizzas because you're going to die if you don't change. So, I try to keep myself very fit. When I am at home I do a lot of walking, every other day, 10 mile walks, eight mile walks, and I walk in the sand five miles to keep my back legs nice and strong.

As a drummer I don't need to have a lot of muscle, but I do need to have stamina. So, to maintain stamina, that's why I do the five mile walks in the sand. They build up back muscles, they're good. Drummers need strong lower backs, as far as I'm concerned. We're sitting on drum stools all the time, you know. I do some very light weights just to keep my shoulders intact. Over the years, mate, there's been so much wear and tear on my body now that my shoulders have gone. I have had one operation on my left shoulder because it was so torn up. It's just gone from playing. You know, it's ripped to pieces. I think most of my fingers are broken except for a couple. With that comes arthritis. It's just the wear and tear of playing over the years. There are all kinds of things that I do though. I can't say enough about massage. I'm talking about sports massage, or Chinese massage, or Japanese massage, where I can keep myself supple and try to keep relaxed. Meditation is a good tool; relaxation is a good tool, learning to relax. All these things are essential.

Breathing, especially in hard rock—I know breathing is important when you are drumming, but breathing in hard core rock, like in some of the songs we do, I have to conserve energy, conserve my breathing, and then when I'm coming to a crescendo, I need to find more air at that point. So, in order to find that extra air, what I do is I shallow breathe from the center, in my stomach, so I can conserve the air I need for when the crescendo comes because I can't always get air from nowhere. One has to breathe when you are playing.

But I learned to do that and then I didn't know this but I went to a master class to see Louie Bellson, and of course Louie talks about that, and I was just so pleased because I didn't know about that. It's a technique that I learned and I had to kind of learn how to do that because, especially when you've got so many different things all at one time going on, it can get really busy sometimes on a drum kit. When I first saw Louie doing that I felt really validated. I felt like, oh my god, this is something I've been doing for some years and I didn't even know! (Laughs) But when Louie pointed it out, the importance of it, especially with double bass drums and just breathing shallow, relaxed breathing, totally relaxed, you're actually very relaxed when you are playing. And then having all that extra breath when you need it for force so you can bring out force in crescendo, I think that that's very important.

Things that will create more independence or create awkwardness for myself, I try to make things difficult and awkward, especially in practice. I like to do things like that and I do those on a daily basis without even thinking. It's like isometrics, like force against force, well, this is the same kind of thing. I don't even know that I'm doing it. There are all kinds of patterns that I do on different materials. If I find a good floor, you know, when we go into a place sometimes like the doctor's office and they've got a good floor so you just feel that (taps on the floor with his foot), you can feel that sound. And so I'll just put other patterns up here somewhere (taps on the coffee table) completely independent of the patterns down there, and try to do different things to try to make things as ripped apart as possible. Right now, stick practice to keep flexible is important. I was doing some stick practice earlier. I have an incredible little practice kit on the road with me. At the gig, it's about two 20-inch bass drums and they're the ones that don't have any sound in them. They have the little, like, tennis racket heads.

AAJ: Oh yeah! I have never actually seen those.

BW: Oh, they're totally cool. They're totally cool. But the 20-inch action, it's so smooth, you know, it's like 20 inches, man. It's like having grease on the neck, man, especially when you're playing these lolloping big drums that I play. I mean, the drum kit that I use is over 26 years-old, the one that I'm currently using on the stage. 26 years-old, man.

AAJ: Is that your old Ludwig kit?

BW: No, it's a Tama. It's one of the very first Tama kits. Yeah, custom made. Special little designs on that one. But I have other kits that are somewhat newer (laughs). But when I play with Black Sabbath I always use the Tama kit. They like the sound of that kit, and that's the first kit that we used on Heaven and Hell.

So, yeah, I try to think outside the box all the time. A lot of the time I'll just beat (taps out rhythms on the coffee table)... . You do all that stuff all the time in the doctor's office while you're waiting. I mean, I don't know what people think of drummers sometimes because drummers will just start slapping it around in the doctor's office, the dentist's chair, you know.

AAJ: I gave Elvin Jones a photo that I took of him in 2000. I went back to the dressing room at the Jazz Alley and I was just going to show it to him, really, and all of a sudden I was overcome with this urge to give to him. So I gave it to him and he was like, "Thanks." (Laughter) You know, because he was eyeing it. Michael Shrieve was back there with me and as we were walking out, before the gig was about to start, Mike says, "You just had to give it to him, didn't you? Don't worry about it. I know how it is."

Gregg Keplinger was telling me about this time when he had an old pair of 16-inch K's (vintage Zildjian hi-hat cymbals), like really old 16-inch K's.

BW: Very nice. Yeah.

AAJ: He went back there to show them to Elvin and he had to hide them because Elvin had his eye on them.

BW: Oh, shit. Cymbals, man. Everybody is always looking for cymbals. Everybody is looking for cymbals all the time. Absolutely, yeah. We are trying new things all the time with cymbals. I am trying out some very heavy 26-inch bells and cymbals. Sabian have been really flexibly trying to make some things. But we always seem to be experimenting and trying to move forward a little bit. Really, all it is, and I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel here, the wheel was really good. There were really good wheels in the 1940s and '50s (laughs), and all I'm trying to do is basically get something that I started out with.

You know, in some ways it's like, my god, where did those cymbals go to? So everybody that's got good cymbals are hanging onto them. I've got all my original—not all of them now, because a lot of them have gotten broken over the years—but I still have my original Zyn, but there's no way that I'll take them on the road. I did all of my first recordings with the Zyn, and I used them since I was a kid, you know, because I couldn't afford Zildjian. There was no way I could afford Zildjian. But the Zyn cymbals were affordable and, at the time, they had a great sound. But, I do have them. They're pristine, but there's no way I'll play on them. I won't use them. The cymbals that I used to pick up years ago in the early seventies, I might pick something good up at Manny's in New York, or pick up a cymbal or two in Nashville on Skid Row, whatever it might be.

You can't find for the love of money—anybody that's got cymbals, they're going to hang on to them. So, trying to find cymbals now, I'm really well-supplied with all my rock cymbals from Sabian but I'm trying to find the cymbals that I used to play on for authentic rock, for the authentic sounds of the late sixties and 1970, and introduce that into the world of Sabian. So, that's why we're trying these enormously large 26-inch major heavy crash-rides. We've got some great cymbals, and they would all work. It's hard work using them live, but they would work extremely well in the studio. I definitely have great cymbals to use in the studio, you know, with the Sabian line that they are making. But to be fair to Sabian and myself, all these are in their prototype stage right now. We're trying to work on making just these much more—that embraces the past and can still maintain a very solid sound in the now, of where we are right now, and for hard rock playing, or, as people call it, metal playing.

AAJ: What kinds of things do you do to stay creative?

BW: I don't do anything that I'm aware of. My life is so full (laughs), it's everywhere, it's every day. I mean, I don't know what that is. I don't know, my creativity is abundant. Every day, I'm either writing something or singing something. It's just incredibly alive. I don't do anything. It seems to be just there and there's always, always lots of information that presents itself every day where one can feel sad or good or bad, or you can just be so sensitive that one can write something lyrically or try to capture something.

I try to avoid the many open doors, you know. I wrote that in a song once that Ozzy sang years ago on the first record that I ever made, my first solo album. But sometimes there's a lot of open doors, you know, and I try not to walk in those doors because it's easy to want a big mistake. So, I have to be careful for that because there's things that I can definitely enter into which will stifle creativity, things that I walk into which can be painful or negative, so I won't find creativity there. In the end, there is creativity because one has to come out of that with the pain, so the pain is always creative. Pain brings so much creativity all the time anyway. But for me, I try to enjoy laughter every day, and I try to enjoy the good things that I see in my life, and I try to focus on doing something as best that I can, especially with my playing, and take it lightly. I take it seriously but in a light-hearted way and I think it's really important to go easy on yourself. It's supposed to be about fun here so I have fun and that seems to keep all the creativity alive as well.

AAJ: What can you recommend to musicians who are trying to become successful in the music industry?

BW: Stay true to yourself, and always challenge your idea of success. Always challenge your idea of success. Look at your ideas of success because, as you grow older, your ideas of success will change and you'd better be damn sure that, if you're playing the truth in your music, then make sure you are doing that because if you ain't, and you are on tour and you're doing a world wide tour and you end up somewhere where there is no food, there is no shelter, the hotel got fucked up, the bus broke down, the plane couldn't fly because of the storm and the hurricane, you know, then be prepared to meet those every day challenges because that's what being on the road is like and if you ain't being true to yourself and you have just been playing pretend, you're going to break apart. You'll break apart. You will fall to pieces. You'll disintegrate. The reason you will disintegrate is because you are not there. You are only pretending.

If you are playing in a band where you feel like you are just doing this for the money or this is just a stepping stone in my career, then you ain't going to make it through a tour. You might make it through a tour. Let me come off of my high horse for a second. Let me just step down and try to say this with some humility, but I think to be able to live in this industry and to be happy in this industry you have to be true to yourself. You have got to be true to yourself and be honest about what you play. You're going to wear that badge. That's the badge you wear and if you ain't proud of that badge and if you've got misgivings about it, then it's going to fall apart. It'll fall apart on that 18-hour flight to Malaya. It'll fall apart somewhere. It'll fall apart in front of that Russian audience. Whatever it might be, it'll fall apart.

So I think having a purpose for really wanting to play and just being there in your heart—be as one with your heart because that way, then, when you're as one with your heart you can take anything. It doesn't matter about being seasick. It doesn't matter whether you've had any food for two days or not. Your heart is strong, man. You know you're powerful. You're a musician, and you can hang through just about anything—divorce, not seeing the children, loneliness, contempt. Some of the enemies on the road are contentment—contentment itself, being content with were you are, that can be an enemy; complacency is an enemy; isolation is an enemy; loneliness is an enemy—and all these things are family friends when you are on the road. When you're out for a long time, all these things become just fucking neighbors. They lie on the bus with you when you're in your bunk. They just sit and ride alongside you when you're on the aircraft, you know. They are with you all the time and we learn to live with these things when we have a good, strong heart, and you get a good, strong heart by being as honest as you can about your music.

So, if you feel in your honest heart that you ought to be playing in a garage band, that's where you feel the strongest, then for fuck's sake play in the garage band. There's no shame. It's great because I think sometimes people look at music by, "Well, that band must be great because they played at Madison Square Gardens, and this band in the garage must be crap." People look at things like that, in that way and that's not the truth at all. That's not the truth at all. The same spirit can exist in the garage as it can at Madison Square Gardens (laughs). It doesn't make any difference in the end, and I've been on both sides of that. I've played at Madison Square Gardens and I've played in the garage too! And I played in the garage after Madison Square Gardens. So, you know? You have to survive that too. You have to learn how to play Madison Square Gardens and when all that's over and done with, how do you still carry on? So you have to learn how to carry on as well and be content with playing in the garage.

So, the journey is long. Yeah, I think if you are fortunate, the journey is long. But I love my fellow musicians, I really do. I must sound like the president there, but I love musicians and I have a deep respect for musicians, period. This particular question is a great question because I like to be asked this. It's like, how do you stay alive on the road? What are some of the things that young musicians need to know? And I would definitely steer them down that path, all the time. I have three children, two of them are musicians, and all the time I encourage them to be honest with themselves, all the time. Be honest about your music. Ask yourself: Does it feel good? Does it feel real? Do you get a kick out of it? And if you do, you'll be able to take that all the way around the world and live with it every single day because you believe in it, and you believe you are strong. We believed in Black Sabbath, for God's sake, and that's why we were able to take it all the way around the world all the time because we believed in ourselves and we believed in the band and we believed in each other. That's a very strong bond when you believe like that. It's like, yeah! We liked what we were doing. We thought that what we were doing was important.

AAJ: Do you feel good about where you are as a musician right now?

BW: No, and I can tell you why even though I shared that earlier with you I feel very good about the things that I am learning and the new things that I am entering into as a musician. I'll tell you for why, because something that's never left me is my perfectionism which is borne out of my ego. So, my perfectionism will always say to me, "You think that's good? Well that pretty much sucks!"

So, to answer your question, in reality yeah, I love the things that I involve myself in for the most part, but, I mentioned earlier contempt and contentment, I'm never really content. I always want to move on to the next thing and there is so much more to learn. It's just like, god! (Laughs) It's school every day. School is in every single day. So, I'm just trying to learn and I realize that I just know so little. I just know hardly anything at all after all these years. You know, it's like man, I don't know anything. But I can laugh about that too. I don't take that too seriously.

But perfectionism will always come and spoil it. But I'm aware of perfectionism now, so I try not to let perfectionism rob the magic moments. I enjoy the moments when something gets recorded and you go, "You know what? That's great! I really like that." Or you know you played something that's really good. I won't let perfectionism come in and destroy that, but sooner or later the perfectionism will sit down and have a quiet talk with me and try to say, you know, that wasn't good enough and everything. So, I have to be careful when my head starts telling me it wasn't good enough and I've found ways through that now, as well, in my recovery. I've found ways to say, "You know what this is? Good." But, constantly I want to move on to the next thing. I'm always moving on to the next thing.

I have one more song to record for my newest album, Beyond Aston, which has been five years now I've been trying to get this CD delivered out here in the real world. One song to do. In the meantime, I've written so much more material for at least another three or four albums so, backed up—there's all this other stuff. Because of one song that I've got to get right on Beyond Aston, there's all this other stuff that's just backed up. I'm terrible. That's perfectionism (laughter). That's me with my ego again, you know. It's awful. But, you know what? I'm being very honest about it too. It's real. I'm not ashamed of it. There's nothing to be ashamed of.

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