Classic Interview: Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler Talk Heaven & Hell
This original interview appeared in the June 2009 issue of Revolver. Words by Mikael Wood. Photos by Dale May.
On a nondescript residential street on the Eastside of Los Angeles, a small fleet of black chauffeured sedans sits idling in the fading late-afternoon sun. Perhaps President Obama is in town, dropping in on an everyday taxpayer to get a sense of how the economic stimulus package is working? Nope.
Maybe Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie lost track of one of their kids and are now leading a door-to-door search party? Wrong again. The Dodgers have decided to forgo the draft and start searching for new players in random backyards? Afraid not.
As it happens, the vehicles are actually awaiting a far more motley crew: Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Vinny Appice, all of whom are finishing up a photo shoot inside a nearby home. Individually you know these guys as four of the heaviest hitters in metal. Together, of course, they’re Heaven & Hell, and this is how they roll.
The last time Dio graced Revolver’s cover, our heroes were heading out on 2008’s Metal Masters Tour alongside Judas Priest, Motörhead, and Testament. Now they’re preparing for the release of The Devil You Know (Rhino), their first official full-length under the name Heaven & Hell, which follows up the band’s 1992 album Dehumanizer. (Dio, Iommi, Butler and Appice originally reconvened in 2006 to record a handful of new tracks for The Dio Years, a Sabbath-era best-of, and in 2007 they put out the double-disc Live From Radio City Music Hall.)
True to its title, The Devil You Know—which the band recorded late last year at Rockville Studios in Wales—is a familiar beast, with Dio howling as dramatically as ever about pain, cannibals, and how religion’s light has left him blind over Iommi’s uber-metal riffs and Butler and Appice’s earth-shaking rhythm-section grooves.
Highlights include “Rock and Roll Angel,” with its spookily gorgeous Spanish-guitar outro, and “Neverwhere,” in which Dio raises eyebrows about how “the hand that rocks the cradle in the morning could be lurking ’round the corner with a gun.” But as befits the work of musicians whose collective idea of quality control seriously predates the iTunes era, Devil is solid all the way through.
“Anything they write is a hit,” says Testament frontman Chuck Billy, who fondly remembers “shooting the shit” with the band’s members on the Metal Masters trek. (In a neat coincidence, Testament’s final gig with its original lineup was an opening slot on Black Sabbath’s Dehumanizer tour.) Continues Billy, “It definitely doesn’t suck to have new Heaven & Hell music.”
To find out how that music came to be, Revolver corralled Dio, Iommi, and Butler for a candid, in-depth talk about where they’ve been, where they’re going, and what it takes (besides a Town Car) to get there from here.
REVOLVER You’ve all expressed varying opinions in the past about making a new studio album as Heaven & Hell. Why’d you finally decide the time was right?
TONY IOMMI Because we wanted to do one. [Laughs] We chatted about it and decided it’d be a good idea. That simple, huh?
RONNIE JAMES DIO I think it was a whole process. First we wrote the three tracks together for the compilation album. And then some speculation came along: “Will they do another one?” So we toured, and that cemented the relationship a bit more; we had to do that to find out if everything else was gonna work. Then we decided that, yeah, this is too good a thing for us to stop, so we’ll carry on. For us it wasn’t a matter of not being capable of doing it. That is the case for a lot of bands, but I would hate to think that people were asking if we were gonna do another album based upon whether or not we were capable of doing it. We’re damn well capable of doing it, and we’ve proven it this time.
How do you think the music on The Devil You Know compares to what you made together under the Black Sabbath banner?
GEEZER BUTLER It’s still heavy, as heavy as the others that we’ve done. We’re not doing disco or anything like that. We’re still carrying on where we left off on Dehumanizer and the three songs that are on the compilation album—that same kind of thing.
How much time did you spend writing in a room together before heading into the studio?
BUTLER We did probably six weeks of writing in Ronnie’s studio, then we went on tour for a month. Then we came back and carried on writing at Ronnie’s studio for another six weeks. With the current state of recording technology, you could easily make a record without ever being in the same studio at the same time.
DIO You could, sure. But you felt that working together was valuable.
BUTLER You just work off each other, and everybody inspires everybody else. And surprises each other, as well: You’ll come up with something and think, Well, that’s not gonna go anywhere. And then someone will come up with something that you wouldn’t have thought about. That’s where the magic comes in.
DIO You also need support when you do things on your own. You can sit in your own little studio and write for the rest of your life, but you don’t really know at the end of the day if the other guys are gonna like it. Luckily we don’t have a problem with that. If you hear something and someone goes, “No, it’s not right,” no one screams and yells and kicks. We always seem to know what’s right for us; I don’t think we try to really present too much that we’re unsure of, that one of us is gonna go, “That really is horrible.” But once again you need to be affirmed. You need someone to say to you, “That’s really good—I like that.” That’s, I think, why we like to work together, because we do support each other a lot, and I think we get the best out of each other.
How much time do you guys spend around one another when you’re not on tour or in the studio?
DIO Because Geezer, myself, and Vin live here in LA, we’re not terribly far removed from each other. We see each other a lot more than we see Tony, of course, because Tony’s in England most of the time. Geezer will see Tony perhaps more than we will because he has a place in England as well. But even then, you know, I think we spend enough time in each other’s pockets—and in each other’s purses, perhaps—that it’s nice to be away from it because we know we’re gonna be put together again. But we like each other. We have parties, you know? If I have a party, Geezer’s there, Vinny’s here. And we look forward to that—everyone likes to take the Mickey out of each other. It’s a very special situation. Last year you played the Metal Masters Tour. What were the audiences like at those shows?
BUTLER Quite a few of the older people.
But it was a mixture: You get the old fans from the ’70s, then you get their kids. Now you’re getting their kids.
IOMMI And some of the same women from the ’70s. Skeletons there in coffins. [Laughs]
Did that tour cement in your minds the influence you guys have had on younger metal bands?
BUTLER I don’t even think like that at all. It’s a gig, and you go on and play your gig. You don’t really think about anybody else. Just concentrate on this band.
DIO It’s nice to know that that happens, of course. We hear that all the time, especially in the case of Geezer and Tony, because of Sabbath and how important it was from the beginning with Ozzy and Bill [Ward] and Tony and Geezer, and what that did to young bands. So Vinny and I, our perspective is a little outside that, so we can see it. And of course we see it from what we’d done from Heaven and Hell onward.
IOMMI That created a whole new element. Heaven and Hell opened up a new world for us.
DIO It did. And now we’re on the third leg of it, really—the kids of the kids of the kids.
Maybe it’s a testament to the cyclical nature of the way music evolves.
DIO I think so. And it’s also a testament to the fact that we don’t chop and change—we do one thing, and I think that that’s always been our strength. We don’t apologize for that and we don’t write reggae songs or disco material. We do one thing, and I think people are pleased with that. Not having strayed somewhere off is really what has solidified our place of influence among the younger bands who are real adamant about the music that they like. Luckily for us, that music happens to be part of what
You’re heading out on tour soon. Will you be playing much from The Devil You Know?
BUTLER We’ll be doing some of it, I should imagine.
DIO It’s a difficult thing to do. People are so caught up in what you were. Luckily there are some great songs on this album, but you know, these things take time. It’s not like it used to be, when you were just flooded with hearing a band’s new material on the radio because everything was going so well. Now you don’t get that initial blockbuster attitude coming out, so you don’t really know what you’re gonna do. We’ll do some of them, not only because we want to but because we should.
BUTLER It’s all good live stuff. Before we even recorded it, we went into a studio and played the whole thing live end to end. So it’s all written with a mind to playing it at live shows. It’s just a matter of picking which ones.
The catalog of material between you guys—even just the well-known stuff—is immense. How do you choose what to spotlight?
BUTLER It gets difficult. As soon as you replace one tune with something else, everybody goes, “Why’d you take that out?!”
Do you feel a sense of obligation to give the fans what they want?
BUTLER Well, they’re the ones who’re paying the money, so you’ve gotta listen to them. I think on this tour, we know what people most wanna hear, so that’s what we give them.
Is there stuff that will always be a part of any Heaven & Hell set list? What are three songs you could never imagine not playing?
DIO, IOMMI, AND BUTLER [together] “Heaven and Hell.”
DIO “Neon Knights,” probably. Maybe “The Mob Rules.”
IOMMI We’re gonna reel off the whole set list.
DIO It’s amazing when you think about it. We love doing all the songs, and they work so well. It’s almost gotta be a sin to take anything out, because we know that set list so well. But we need to and we will.
As you prepare to hit the road again, are there places that you really look forward to playing?
BUTLER Well, of course, as the years have gone on, more markets have opened up and more countries have opened. Now you’ve got a lot of the Communist countries that you weren’t allowed to go to before.
DIO Like Canada. [Laughs]
Is there anywhere in the world any of you have yet to play?
IOMMI We haven’t done Dubai yet.
DIO We haven’t done Egypt.
BUTLER We haven’t done Iraq or Afghanistan.
That could take some time.
DIO We haven’t played India either. And we should, because it’s our favorite food. I’m sure we will this year, though. India’s become a hell of a market—lots of money and people who have it to spend now. But that’s about it. I mean, we played Iceland. What more do you want?