Bill Ward: The Hellbound Interview

Photo (c) Christopher Wagner

Photo (c) Christopher Wagner

By Kyle Harcott

It don’t mean a thing if don’t got that caveman swing.

Heavy metal’s birth, squalling and screeching, is, invariably, always credited to the guitarist of Black Sabbath – who, while unquestionably the band’s de facto leader, is given free-pass, metal-mutha deity status for his uncanny ability to issue sheet lightning from his severed fingertips. As if heavy metal could thrive on tritones alone.

After all… what is lightning without thunder?

When the gods made heavy metal, it was the thunder issued from Bill Ward’s fists that set the scene, at least as equally as Tony Iommi’s lightning. You could not have had that demon birth with a lesser drummer at the helm. Mixing the satanic swing of jazz with sheer brute clobbering force, Bill Ward’s drumming turned the oldest form of long-distance communication into a manifesto of power. And a thousand children picked up sticks.

This summer, I fulfilled a dream and spoke to a personal hero of mine, Mr. Bill Ward, about his latest art project, Absence of Corners, as well as his radio show Rock 50 and the finer points of heavy metal drumming.

How did the Absence of Corners project come to fruition?

A few months ago, I was approached by Scene Four, who had already done some of these portrait series with other drummers, using similar techniques. They wanted to use me, and I was interested, so I said yes to the idea. At first, the idea -I thought- was for me to show up with my drums and just play in the dark. They were going to give me different-colored sticks. I didn’t realize that it would become much more than that.

Were you aware of Scene Four doing this before they approached you? Had you seen their other drum projects?

No- this was all brand new to me.

What did you take away from the project?

First of all, it was very therapeutic; it also put a spring in my heels, in terms of completing a project – at least in getting the prints to canvas and out to galleries. I liked my involvement in it. I felt rather good about some of the things they asked me to write – all the titles, and name of the collection. So I pondered for two weeks, and was able to look at the pictures, and come up with what I thought were some very good titles – and then go into depth about why I chose those titles, and what they meant to me. Very satisfying – I took away a number of different gifts from doing the project.

I really enjoyed reading your descriptions of each piece, and I was curious where the name Absence of Corners came from.

I appreciate you asking that, Kyle! I kept looking at the pictures, over and over with my morning tea, and I thought. “There’s something missing in these. What’s the common denominator of what’s missing?” I pondered for days on this, too. I could see where there had been some camera manipulation, or camera art, if you will – there were some vague triangle shapes, but overall, all of this work was basically sticks glowing in the air and smashing into cymbals – and then it dawned on me: “I know what’s missing, there are no corners.” And I thought, “Well, I can’t very well call the series ‘No Corners’!” So Absence of Corners it was.

Do you have a favorite piece in the collection? Is it possible for you to narrow it down to one?

I do have several favorite pieces, but my favorite favorite piece, talking one drummer to another, my favorite is We Focus, We Persevere. It’s about being a drummer, and the things we are as drummers continually learning, continually falling on our ass, and continually getting up again [laughs]; continually striving. And I’ve found, as the years pass, to continue to re-energize my playing, there are lots of things I’ve had to overcome – I’ll keep it simple and call it age! [laughs] But it’s like, using new techniques, or trying to maintain old techniques, and all the things we have to overcome or transcend in the process. I’m constantly learning, or trying to learn new things in drumming – I’m never at a finished place. So, as far as I’m concerned, We Focus, We Persevere was a fitting title for that particular picture. Incidentally, in that particular picture I think I was playing some jazz rather than rocking out. I seem to recall I was kind of in a smooth spot, because I played for exactly an hour-and-a-half, and I was playing pretty hardcore, but that particular captured moment was me emulating Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa.

How often do you practice?

Every day, but that’s not necessarily stick practice, I work on rhythms probably two or three hours a day. I work on out-of-the-box ideas, I reinvent ideas. I challenge myself, make it incredibly difficult to perform on some of things I do. For example, when I’m using my keyboards, I write with my left hand, but I play drums on the keyboard with my right, so that one hand has to play all the drum parts – so by the third or fourth hour of doing that, my hands are killing me. I’ve taught myself new techniques in the bathtub by putting my feet out of the water and tapping the side of the bath – trying to create rhythm against the resistance of the water, which is really difficult to do as well. But by playing and practicing these really hard rudiments, when I actually play stick-to-snare, it all fits much nicer, like, oh, this feels good, when the pedal actually rebounds. These are just little techniques I’ve built up over the years to be a better player.

I’m going to assume you recorded the drum tracks from these Scene Four sessions; do you have plans to do anything with those?

[Laughs] I wish we had! My oldest son asked me the same question, Kyle. He walked in the room, without even saying “Hi Dad”, saw the pictures, and the first thing out of his mouth was “TELL me you recorded the drum tracks!” And I said “No, nobody even thought about it.” So, no- we didn’t get them on tape.

Your radio show, Rock 50, is well-rounded and always versed in classic heavy metal, but also showcases loads of up-and-coming metal bands. Clearly you keep up. How do you choose what music goes on an episode?

Well – I like to make sure that I keep current with bands that are releasing albums, and so I try to give them some support, in the name of heavy metal! As far as I’m concerned, there’s very little in the way of credible air-support for metal bands, especially in southern California. So if, say, Slipknot has a new record out, they’re gonna be played. But I also try to play songs from lesser known bands, and I try to get the bands on the show when I can. I like to fool around, playing things that are compatible with the shape of metal, so it’s not unusual for me to play something operatic, or classical. I’m having a lot of fun playing around with it. Like, I might be playing Devildriver, and then, depending on how their song ends, the mood might allow for a sixty-second interlude of classical music. I’m always trying to deal with the moods and energy of the music. If I’ve done a five or six song set of high-energy songs, I’ll need to take a breath, so I want to give the listeners a breath as well. If I’m slamming six songs from some of the best bands in the world, that’s a lot of power coming at you. So I like to back off a little, let it breathe and then pour it back on again.

So you’re actually playing the classic role of deejay, in that you’re not just slapping together a bunch of songs and playing them, but literally piecing out sets and creating a flow to each episode.

Oh yeah, absolutely.

It’s kind of a lost art.

I appreciate you saying so, but it’s the only way I know. Kind of like how one would sequence and album’s order, so it seems the only way to me. I try to be really careful with the sequencing, even down to a song’s production.

Do you find you’re constantly listening to new metal bands? How do you find about out new stuff?

Well, I know a lot of the guys in the bands – but I keep my ear to the ground, and there are always friends who send me stuff to hear. Occasionally, I check in with my buddy Mike at Bionic Records, check out his roster of what’s new and go for it. Word of mouth, mostly. One of my friends in, say, Slipknot, will ask if I’m heard something, so I’ll go check it out. Lately I’ve been listening to some new Dave Lombardo tracks – and his stuff is incredible! He just blows me away.

What bands excite you as the torchbearers in modern metal?

Oh God, there are so many! Amon Amarth are progressing really well. And I’ve got to wave the flag for bands like Soilwork, who are not necessarily new, but what they are doing is progressing, and they’re playing so fucking well. Same with a band like Devildriver, where I’ll be listening and wonder “What are they gonna do next?” I’m blown away by those guys. Another one of my favorite bands is Celtic Frost. I also really like Today Is The Day. And – I know it’ll never happen, what with Henke’s passing, but I also wish we could have a reincarnation of Disfear.

Do you have a particular style or subgenre of metal that you’re drawn to?

Not really – if the music catches my heart and my ears, then that’s it. I usually find out afterward what the genre might be called. If it sounds great, I’m going to pick up on it – from Cryptopsy, or Arch Enemy, Krisiun – it’s all such good stuff, very dramatic ways of playing. See, it’s the energy that turns me on. I have an open mind, and I try to be critical of none of the bands, even if something’s not to my personal taste. After all, somebody worked really hard on that music.

You changed the face of rock drumming in the 1970s, and the hard-hitting swing you incorporated is legendary. What you think about the current state of heavy metal drumming? Are you a fan of blastbeat drummers, or is it still all about the groove?

I’m so-so on the blastbeat. A couple of my mates play that style. I’m not a huge fan, no – and the only reason for that is because it distracts me from other elements of the dynamics. It’s a little overpowering! But I think those drummers are fucking fantastic. My flag flies high for them, but I’m also so pleased and so happy that there’s been such an enormous and intelligent growth in drumming. I’m just blown away by it. A few of these guys I know pretty good, and I watch them play, and I don’t know how they do it. Gene Hoglan is one of my friends, and when I watch him play, I’m blown away; I can’t believe what his body can do. We’re really in great musical times, as drummers and bass players – from what we used to have. I think that drummers have come a long way, but they haven’t forgotten players like Gene Krupa, or the other jazz players. A lot of these guys are putting in jazz techniques and swinging. One of my newest records was a Children of Bodom album, and I can hear some of those jazz movements in what their drummer is doing.

Aside from Gene, which drummers do you think are changing the face of heavy metal drumming these days?

Brann Dailor from Mastodon, absolutely; he reminds me of things I like to play. Those deep floor rolls. That’s me all over. Or he’ll go into swing time. I love what he’s doing.

I’ve also got to credit Dave Lombardo, he’s such a good drummer – and I don’t mean just in Slayer, but unto himself, Dave’s a really great drummer. Same for Brian Tichy; so many good players, changing heavy metal drumming, and constantly bringing in new techniques. Sometimes I’m like, “I didn’t know we could do that!”

You played on an demo by The Mezmerist in 1983, which has recently been unearthed, and was recently rereleased by Shadow Kingdom Records. What are your memories of that session and the album?

Pretty vague, to be honest. I remember that was when I was just getting sober – again. It was my last time sobering up and I remember Tom Mezmercado –perhaps it was my disposition at the time- but I always felt like Tom was getting in my face. He probably wasn’t – he was probably really nice! But honestly, I don’t really recall much.

How would you have even been drafted to play on that record? Were you asked by Tom?

Yeah, I think it was Tom – we kept bumping into each other. I was doing a lot of going in and out of recovery, and I barely knew my name all of the time. My memory of that time is really sketchy, but I’m glad they finally got that record out after all this time.

You have another solo album forthcoming, Accountable Beasts. As a fan of your first two solo records, I want to know how this album compares to Ward One and When The Bough Breaks?

This record’s much heavier; I’m playing drums on seven of the tracks and I’m taking all kinds of risks, trying new things. I’m up to 120bpm on double-bass drums, which I’m really pleased with. You know, in Sabbath, there were plenty of heavy bass drums, in songs like “Die Young” or “Symptom of the Universe” – but on this new one, I pushed myself to 120bpm, which I’m really happy about.

You see, I want my performance level to be up, so I trained, prior to recording, at 132bpm. I worked really hard on that, I still do, and I can sustain that level for about 20 minutes. I go in and out with my metronome, but I stay pretty steady. I overcompensate on this so that, for any band I might be playing with – whether it’s my bands or the Sabs, I want to be sure I’ve got more than I need. I can’t see the day when Sabbath are going to do up to 120 beats, but if they do, I want to be sure I’m ready to go to 120 beats if I need to.

Coming back to Accountable Beasts, I’m sorry it’s taking so long to come out. We’re at the very end of the road on it, but it’s a homemade record – totally homegrown, out of our own expenses – so it takes time. There’s no release date in mind as yet, but maybe an end mix date of mid-October, 2013. We know who’ going to master it, but we’re still on the endgame of the final mix.

As your solo endeavors are self-financed – how do you feel about the idea of artists reaching out to their fans for funding, via marketing plans like Kickstarter or Indiegogo?

If it can work for the artists, and for the people supporting them, then I’m all for it. If bands can find extra money to launch that way, and they’re accountable and transparent, then I’m all for it, especially for young bands that need to move forward, but they’re stuck. We considered it for our production of Accountable Beasts, but the idea fell by the wayside, and we decided just to carry on, on our own – but for a second, we considered Kickstarter to finish the production. If it helps the young artists, I say go for it.

Do you have any plans to release your vocal album Beyond Aston soon?

For sure. Beyond Aston has all the tracks recorded, and it needs to be mixed again. Once Accountable Beasts comes out, I’m going to redouble my efforts on Beyond Aston. I’d love for it to come out 2014 – but the completed album is intact, I don’t think there’s much left to do except mix it.

Finally: There is a rather funny facebook page in tribute to you, called Bill Ward’s Red Pants On The Cover Of Sabotage. Have you seen it, and are you perpetrator behind it?

No! To be honest, I don’t know anything about it. Talk about a clusterfuck of a photo session! The truth is, we thought we’d done well getting the artwork together – but then nobody showed up with anything for us to wear!

But hey, if folks can have a laugh out of it, great – we need more laughter on this planet.

Sean is the founder/publisher of; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.