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Life After Sabbath: Drummer Bill Ward Discusses His Art and Moving On from the Band

Written by: Marshall Ward

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Photo: Chris Wagner

Pouring rain, thunder, church bells tolling in the distance, and then three menacing chords from Tony Iommi‘s guitar open the title track of Black Sabbath‘s debut album.

Amid these eerie tones emerges Ozzy Osbourne‘s haunting voice: “What is this that stands before me? Figure in black which points at me. Turn ’round quick and start to run. Find out I’m the chosen one. Oh noooo!”

Forty-three years later, Black Sabbath are still going strong, albeit in different directions. While three original members — Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler — have reunited, released a new album called 13 and toured the world, drummer Bill Ward did not join the party. Different sides of the story have been presented in the press, but the upshot is that it involved lawyers, contracts, broken promises and many hurt feelings.

Sabbath in the early days.

Sabbath in the early days.

As his former band mates resurrected Black Sabbath for a final heavy metal hurrah, Ward stayed home in California engaged in more solitary forms of expression, including a new art exhibition he recently unveiled in Annapolis, Maryland.

Rock Cellar Magazine recently caught up with Ward to pick his brain about Sabbath — past and present — and the new ways he has begun to express himself.

Rock Cellar Magazine: First off, congratulations on your new art exhibit, Absence of Corners. Tell us how this body of work was created.

Bill Ward: I’m not exactly sure of all the technical parts behind it, but it’s almost like a discovery in terms of what the next indicated thing should be. How did the paintings or artwork arrive like it did? I’m going to have to give all that credit to Scene Four, you know. I think at one point there might have been at least two or three photographers when we originally set it up. We did the session completely in the dark, and I played for about an hour and a half, pretty hardcore all the way through, in the Spring of this year.

And so I just followed directions, really. They kept giving me different types of sticks with different colors, different brushes, and all kinds of things. And they just said keep playing, keep playing. And they had so many different camera angles, a camera above me, someone in front of me taking pictures. So I think it was an awful lot of work that went into all this to bring it out to whatever we see, what we’re looking at.

'Grief', one of Ward's art pieces.

‘Grief’, one of Ward’s art pieces.

RCM: The artwork conveys a wide range of moods, don’t you think?

BW: Absolutely for me they do. See, that was one of those things. I mentioned how we were figuring out the next indicated thing, based on what we had already created. Even during the shoot the guys would say, “Take a look, Bill,” but we didn’t have Arch of Doubts or Solidarity or Grief, we didn’t have those titles. That was going to be the next indicated thing, and the more I got into it, the more that I realized that this was far more than a photo shoot. It was far more than me playing drums for basically two different sessions. It was a lot more than that.

It developed into where it becomes almost the defining moment, and the progression of the work took me to a place that became extremely therapeutic for me. It’s been really, really good for me to do this. And I had no idea.

I didn’t know that this was on the other end when we started out. And to be honest, I don’t think any of us really did. I think we were just doing a good photo shoot and we had some nice ideas, but it became a lot more than that.

RCM: During the sessions, was it similar to how you would play if you were alone practicing?

BW: When I’m practicing, I usually play for about an hour, but I try to be hard on myself. In these sessions, I started out playing the way I would if I were just practicing, as I usually have a collection of music to play to. And some of it is quite easy to play to and some of it is quite difficult to play to. And I make it difficult for myself because I need to meet the bar, you know? But in this particular session, after about five or six songs that I would normally play to, the guys just said, “Can you just go hell for leather?” And I did.

And there was just this huge energy burst. I had a couple jazz interludes where I’d play just a little and lighten up a little bit, but that didn’t last for long as I would start tearing back in again, and putting a lot of energy into it. I wasn’t exactly sure what they wanted, but they were shoutin’ at me saying, “It’s great! It’s incredible!” So they were seeing something, so I was just going, okay well if that’s working let’s get more of that.

RCM: How did you feel when you first saw the images created from these sessions?

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