Imagine, if you will, how you would feel had you been asked to replace an iconic drummer in a superstar band that you yourself have idolized for virtually your entire life. How’re you feeling? A little bit stressed? A whole lot honored? A tad jaw-droppingly awestruck? No doubt about it.
Now put yourself in Brad Wilk’s shoes. Wilk was handpicked by none other than legendary producer Rick Rubin to play drums on the new Black Sabbath album, 13, after the band failed to come to financial terms with their founding drummer, the great Bill Ward. The album – the band’s first in 34 years with the core crew of Ozzy, guitarist Tony Iommi, and bassist Geezer Butler – is obviously a very big event, and the fact that Ward did not take part in the making of it has disappointed, to say the least, the more purist Sabbath fans who were counting on that heavy magic that only Bill Ward can provide – or so they claim.
Wilk, best known as the drummer for Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave, is for his part eager to set the record straight about his “occupation” of Bill Ward’s throne. He is, at heart, a hardcore Black Sabbath fan whose primary goal, he says, was to do Bill Ward proud.
“I grew up with the early Black Sabbath records, trying to emulate Bill Ward. They were my heroes, and I spent so much time listening and really absorbing – and I’m not just listening; I mean I’m listening to what was going on in-between. Bill Ward is probably the only Black Sabbath drummer that had the funk and the jazz in his influences, and it made for a unique, special band.”
Capturing that inimitable sound on the new Sabbath album presented Wilk with a few challenges, personal and artistic, which he conveys with an iced tea in hand in the courtyard of Hollywood’s Cat & Fiddle restaurant.
“All I wanted to do was make a record that was of the same ilk as the earlier records,” says Wilk. Producer Rubin and Wilk were on the same page about that. “Rick called me up, and he’s like, ’Go listen to those first two records,’ and it was so cool to go back to them, because I listened to them endlessly when I was 13, 14, 15 years old. But this time I didn’t just go back and listen, I went in my studio and listened like I was 13 or 14 again, but with a lot more experience under my belt.”
Wilk had already considered himself a Ward aficionado, but as he dug in further he discovered he still had a lot to learn. Seems that Ward had been playing things Wilk hadn’t heard before.
“I was listening to ’Hand Of Doom’ the other day and I’m like, Man, this is the blueprint of Rage Against The Machine. It’s just so political, it has so much energy, and there’s actually deep-seated funk – Bill Ward could be sampled for days on hip-hop records; there’re certain moments of Black Sabbath where it’s like a slower version of Clyde Stubblefield. It’s a huge aspect of Sabbath that most either miss or just look over.”
His immersion in Ward’s artistry only deepened his respect for the man, and, he says, made him feel the pang of Ward’s absence from the new Sabbath album. “I love that guy, and it’s a shame that he didn’t make that record. The honest truth is, I’d much rather have had him make the record than me.”
Wilk’s invitation to jam with the Sabbath guys had happened seven months before he even got in a room with them. He was excited about the overtures, sure, but somewhat wary, too. “They approached me and I just said, ’You know, I definitely don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, and maybe you guys can work it out with Bill.’ And I had heard that Tony was ill, and I thought, Wow, this record really needs to get made, and if I don’t do it, somebody’s going to do it. So when I got the call and they asked me if I wanted to go to Ozzy’s house and jam, I said, ’Well, okay, I will.’”
It was the first time Wilk had met his heroes.
“It was just really surreal. I mean, I’m jammed in a tiny room with them, literally, so they’re like right next to me; their amps are right next to me, and, you know, I play in loud bands, and this was certainly the loudest f__king s__t I’ve ever heard. So the intensity of it, coupled with the reality of it, made for about a week and a half of me just trying to wrap my head around what was happening.”
Although Sabbath and Rubin auditioned several other drummers for the project, they liked what they heard in Wilk, and kept inviting him back.