Rock ’n’ roll’s “Prince of Darkness” counts his blessings

When Ozzy Osbourne got sober about seven years ago, he had to rethink the way he did a lot of things—including recording. In the old days he would start work on an album by going into rehearsals with his band, and one thing would lead to another. “I was ready to party,” he says. “Take away the band and the alcohol and the drugs, and you’ve just got me thinking, ‘How do you do this?’” For the new album, Scream, he chose to write and record at his home studio with producer Kevin Churko. While he was initially skeptical that the Pro Tools rig could capture a truly hard-hitting sound, the pulverizing Scream silenced his worries.

“There’s parts of the album that are very, very heavy indeed,” he says. In fact, Osbourne says that portions of the new album remind him of Black Sabbath, the band with which he and three hometown friends from the English city of Birmingham practically invented heavy metal in the late 1960s and ’70s. After parting ways with the group, he reinvented himself as a solo star—and reinvented himself yet again with the  early-2000s hit reality show The Osbournes. In 1996 he founded one of the most popular and influential annual touring festivals of the last 20 years, Ozzfest, which hits the road this August for the first time since 2007.

The genial Osbourne spoke with us from his home in Hidden Hills, Calif., as he geared up for this year’s festival.

How does your writing process work with Kevin?

We bounce off ideas. I don’t play an instrument, so I have trouble communicating on a musical level. I don’t know if that’s the right way to do it or the wrong way. I’ve said to people over the years, “You know, I’m going to learn how to play an instrument,” and they tell me, “Don’t! You’re so unconventional.” And sometimes that really works. I’m not a clever guy, you know. I’m just me.

How did you shape the sound of the record?

Kevin was a big driving force. I can’t take that much of the credit because he was the guy who sat in my studio from morning to night getting these tracks down. I’m not one of these guys who sits there and says, “It needs to have a cymbal going” (imitates cymbal sound) for nine hours. I like to go home! The reason I used to do it with a band is that when I get that tickle up my spine I know I’m onto a good thing. Whereas working in the studio the way we did the last two albums, it comes together in the end but it’s not a spontaneous thing. I feel somewhat detached from the music now that I don’t drink. I have to rely on other people now, which my ego loves. But being who I am, my ego gets me into trouble all the time—or it used to.

Any singer has to have an ego.

It comes with the territory. My ego is my defense mechanism. Here’s the truth about me: I walk down the street, and if someone recognizes me, I go, “Oh, no.” At the same time, if I don’t get recognized, I go, “Oh, shit! Nobody knows who I am!” That’s the truth of it, man. Ego causes me to moan a lot instead of recognizing how lucky I am.

Why did you build the home studio?

I always wanted the luxury of doing an album in the studio with unlimited time. I thought, it’s going to cost a lot of money initially, but if I make a couple of hit records it’s paid for itself. But then, I’m not the business brain behind my thing, my wife is. I can’t negotiate a deal, I don’t know how it works. I’m good at putting myself into a guillotine. I get my head chopped off all the time. I didn’t get into rock ’n’ roll to be a businessman.

How did you find your new guitarist, Gus G.?

Auditions. I must confess I was doing my album and writing a book and doing other things, so my office made the shortlist down to 10. I went to the rehearsal room—and he shone more than the rest.

How can you tell when you’ve got the right person?

You don’t know anyone until you work with them. I’ve had guys get halfway through a tour and find God! I’m very wary until I get to know someone. Gus is a great kid, he’s a great player, but only time will tell if it works out.

You’ve got a reputation for finding amazing guitarists.

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had some phenomenal players over the years. I can’t take all the credit, because there are other people helping me. I don’t walk around with a black book going into clubs and saying, “Oh, that guitar player, I’ll put him down for the future.” Having said that, I could write a book on guitar auditions. The first God-knows-how-many kids just want to meet me, they can’t really play. Then I’ll get to the scientific section of the auditioners, who are like, “You know this song ‘Suicide Solution’ is in this key, but it would be much better in this key.” I’m like, “Excuse me, but what is the key it was written in? Play it the way it was written.” It’s a very difficult process.

Do you have to be friends with people you work with?

It makes it a lot easier. The best band I ever had in my life was the beginning of Black Sabbath, and it was because we had one mission. We were four guys from Aston in Birmingham, England. I went to school with Tony [Iommi], I was in a band with Geezer [Butler], and then this thing happened. We had a dream. Some business mogul didn’t manufacture us. You can’t buy that camaraderie. You don’t get that very often.

Why did you decide to do Ozzfest again this year?

None of us expected it to get as big as it did, and I lost the plot. I was doing it every year. Finally I said to Sharon, “This is like a day job where you just get the paycheck and go home.” It becomes routine. I wanted to relax and remember what I’m doing it for. So we’re starting it up again, and it’s either going to be good or it’s time to pull the plug. Either way I can’t complain, can I?

How do you keep your voice healthy?

I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I don’t stay out late anymore. I exercise with a vocal teacher before I start touring. But I get colds, I’m human. Imagine going to a ballgame and screaming for your team every other night of the week—anybody’s voice would get sore. And I’m not a singer who just stands there and says, “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. The next song I’m going to do…” I’m jumping all over the place.

What’s your goal at this point?


–Chris Neal

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