“I had to compete against other drummers, not that that was on my mind,” he says. “It was like, you know what, if I go jam with them one day I’m going to be happy. But then the more you do the more you want to do, [laughs] just like any other good thing.”
A bizarre twist to the story has it that Rubin had asked Ginger Baker to play drums on the album. The mind reels at what that might have sounded like. Perhaps a teensy bit too crazy. “Yeah, but it would’ve been great, too,” Wilk says.
Wilk’s own first meeting with the Sabbath crew brought out the fanboy in him. He didn’t exactly faint, but … “Honestly, I’m not a guy who gets starstruck by people, and it’s only happened twice in my life. Once was with John McEnroe, when I was in Audioslave in New York, and just because I grew up watching him on TV, and I thought, Man, this guy McEnroe just kind of had this punk rock attitude, and ’question authority,’ and was really vocal about it, and I really related to that. He became a hero for me in the sports world.”
Then there was his first encounter with Black Sabbath in the flesh. He’s kind of embarrassed about it. “I mean, being over at Ozzy’s house, the first day I kind of gushed at them and just got it out of my system, let them know how important they were to me and how much I loved them, and how much I respect their music, and then it took me about a week after that to finally dig in and go, Okay, these guys poop and pee just like me and we’re gonna try and make a frickin’ great record together.”
Wilk’s preparations for the recording sessions included extensive discussions with Rubin about the direction of the album. Rubin’s advice that Wilk should listen to the first couple of Sabbath records was invaluable, as that special Sabbath feel and sonic aura – a rhythmic ebb and flow that had been achieved in part by using no click tracks – was what we they were shooting for.
“If you listen to those early Black Sabbath records, that’s what gave it so much character. They make so many records these days where we’re so used to being gridded up on the Pro Tools, and so you miss a lot of that character.”
As he hears it, there’s a push and a pull and a swing to both Ward’s and Iommi’s playing, and attention paid to the spaces between the notes, that gives Sabbath its distinctive sound. It’s an aspect of his own technique that has long held his fascination. “That’s something that I really get into, really listening to not just the beats that you hear, but also the beats that are going on underneath what you hear. It’s the space: You can call them ghost notes or whatever, but it makes it swing one way or another.”
A drummer can mentally and physically prepare all he wants, of course, but the timing and feel of the actual performances for the recording of an album’s tracks is going to have more than a little to do with his relationships with the other bandmembers, both in their playing styles and in their personalities. Wilk was fortunate, he says, to be in the recording studio every day of 13 with Iommi, Butler, and Osbourne.
“It meant so much to me, because all three of them are so important to the feel of Black Sabbath, including Ozzy’s vocals. Where he sings and how he sings, it’s so important to the rhythm, and you realize that going back to those older records. There’s something that goes on with how I will play a hi-hat that is connected to the vocal; whether it’s slightly opening it up a little bit or closing it, or just the feel of it, it often has to do with the vocal lines.”
Tony Iommi, besides his considerable other skills, is also a very rhythmic player who guides his drummers with the fluid flow of his riffs and melodic lines. For Wilk, the drum parts on the new Sabbath album were waiting for him to play – they were built right into Iommi’s riffs. “He is a complete badass, and it’s a testament to his riffs that this was the most instinctual record I’ve ever made.”
While as much preparation as possible for a recording session is a good thing, Wilk, though he was given Sabbath’s demo tracks to work with, found himself having to trust his instincts the moment the sessions began. “Usually when I make records I’ll spend weeks picking apart parts and agonizing over swings and ghost notes, but this was really like flying by the seat of my pants,” he says. “Everything just happened so quickly; it’s like all of a sudden I was rehearsing for a couple of weeks in a room, playing 16 songs together, and then all of a sudden it’s, ’Oh, we’re going to move all our stuff over to the studio in three days and we’re going to start tracking.’ I thought, Oh, really? Okay!” He laughs.
Armed with the basics he gleaned from the demo tracks, along with a newfound appreciation of the sonic intricacies of the classic Sabbath albums, Wilk had begun rehearsing the new songs with the band in batches of five at a time.