Mike Bordin: Born To Back Ozzy

We’ve only been talking for ten minutes and already Mike Bordin is devastated, cut to the quick, nearly speechless. It didn’t start out this way: we were making amiable, getting-to-know-you, pre-interview chit-chat about fatherhood and the challenges of raising normal kids in a world of 500 cable channels, violent computer games, and IMs, when the discussion turned to the drummer’s thunderous work on the scalding new Ozzy Osbourne album, Black Rain. Having spoken to Osbourne a week earlier for another music publication, I asked the 44-year-old Bordin how he felt about recording the album piecemeal, and having his parts Pro Tooled and added to the mix, as if Bobby Flay were tossing jalapenos into a Cuisinart. It was a casual yet pointed question, and I had no idea I was dropping a psychological daisycutter on Bordin, who takes upwards of a minute to recover.

“That wasn’t the way it happened it all,” he says, his voice noticeably trembling. “Wait a minute. Is that what Ozzy actually told you?”

I refer to my text from the interview and quote Osbourne’s account of the recording process thusly: “I’ll tell you how we did this record: Zakk would come in, lay down some riffs, and then [producer] Kevin [Churko] would go, ‘That’s a main riff, that’s a verse, that’s a chorus,’ and so on. Then he would assemble everything with Pro Tools. So it was a different way of writing than what we used to do.”

Hearing this, Bordin exhales deeply, his mind reeling. “This is tricky for me,” he begins, “because I respect Ozzy so very much. But that’s not how it went down at all. What happened was, I got a call from Ozzy’s office on a Friday afternoon to tell me that Zakk was going into Ozzy’s home studio on Monday. Could I come in? I said, ‘Absolutely.’

“So I showed up at the appointed hour and Zakk and I went at it. Ozzy’s got a terrific new studio in his house. It was built by Audio One, and they don’t mess around. Ozzy told them, ‘Build me a studio and make it a great one.’ And they did. Anyway, the two of us went to work. Nobody from the label knew what Zakk and I were doing; everything we did was in total secrecy. Nobody was watching over us with budgets and schedules; nobody was telling us what to do. We were in Ozzy’s house, writing and playing – two adult men making big-time, hard-hitting rock music.”

Within days, according to Bordin, the two musicians fell into a rigid pattern of toiling and moiling. “Each afternoon we’d go into the writing room, we’d bulls**t for half an hour, and then Zakk’s ass would hit the piano stool and he’d start playing guitar through his super-cranked Marshall. Within 20 minutes, he’d have three changes; within 30 minutes, I’m playing them right along with him; and within another ten minutes we’d have an entire song recorded. Fresh. Real. True. Two musicians playing music together.”

After more than two decades of professional recording experience, Bordin has worked in a variety of settings, from rinky-dink studios to state-of-the art sonic palaces. “I’ve been there with 2" tape and razor blades to digital engineers saying, ‘Okay, just tap this and tap this, give me these samples and I can put it together.’ I’ve been there when people said, ‘Take it from the bridge and I can punch you in.’ But this album was different. To me, I feel as though we made this record by hand, the way bands used to back in the ’60s. I know that sounds funny, but I played complete passes on these songs, and I’m intensely proud of that fact.”

A Whole New Ozzy. One listen to Black Rain – a startlingly mature work from a singer who has made a name for himself by peeing on the Alamo and snorting a line of ants (to say nothing of his way with bats) – goes a long way toward underscoring Bordin’s claims. The results sound organic, boisterous, and spontaneous – as far and away from a pastiche as it gets. On slamming tracks such as “Civilize The Universe” and “The Almighty Dollar,” Bordin’s performances stomp and swagger with authentic, merciless authority. And on euphonious ballads like “Lay Your World On Me" and “Here For You,” he doesn’t just play drums; he plays songs. Bordin, as always, is a joy to behold, and the lightning celerity with which he unleashes on his high-and-flat toms – a forceful yet graceful battering that one can only describe as “balletic” – provides a fullness of feeling that amounts to its own kind of bounty.

The teaming of Bordin with bassist Rob “Blasko” Nicholson (who did, in fact, punch in his parts to guides played by Wylde; a minor quibble) makes for a rhythm section that is a rarity in the annals of heavy metal: sinuous yet playful, rock-solid and rubber band, an impenetrable fortress that occasionally opens up to let in a cool favonian breeze.

To call Black Rain a “concept album” would be a misnomer, but two recurring themes are dominant: the Iraq war and global warming. While previous Osbourne albums were weighted with Delphic pronouncements – with Ozzy’s bleak, despairing, and eerie voice often sounding as if it were sailing in on a ghost ship – this time the singer gets right to the point, hurling unambiguous diatribes at his enemies (politicians) who are hiding in plain sight, clearly visible in the crosshairs. “People have to remember, this is the guy who sang ‘War Pigs,’” says Bordin. “He didn’t write those words; Bill Ward wrote them. But over 40 years Ozzy took them to heart. They’re part of his DNA. On this record I think he wrote every line. Plus, he’s sober now too; he’s very focused. I know he watches CNN a lot and he reads the papers. He’s pretty fired up about the state of the world.”

Even still, Ozzy is Ozzy. Returning to the discrepancies in recording, I posit the theory that the singer’s powers of recollection, even sober (going on three years now), are not without his trademark (and famously mocked) ineluctable trains of logic; that he is, plainly speaking, simply being Ozzy: devoid of malice, true to his heart, but certainly not the definition of an expert witness – in anybody’s court, kangaroo or otherwise. To some measure, this placates Bordin. “That could be,” he says, “and that’s no slight to Ozzy. He is who he is, and he’s a great man and a great artist. And like I said, his vision is really clear now. But what really stirs me about this album is, it’s really something special. It’s the complete opposite of the last record I made with him, which was my first record with him.”

The Last CD. That would be 2001’s Down To Earth, produced by Tim Palmer. The songs were torpid and unmelodic, the vibe arid. All involved agree that it isn’t among the strongest of efforts in the Osbourne cannon (the singer himself expresses a profound desire to take the album back: “It just wasn’t me, it was somebody’s idea of me”). The band then comprised new guys Bordin, bassist Robert Trujillo (ex-Suicidal Tendencies and now a member of Metallica), and guitarist Joe Holmes (filling in for Wylde who had bolted to run his own band, Pride & Glory, which morphed into Black Label Society). They struggled to make magic, but according to Bordin, “It was a trying experience, personally and musically. Coming from Faith No More, which I was kind of co-owner of, a kitchen-sink kind of band where everybody basically got to do whatever they wanted, it was weird at first to be in a situation where it was all about Ozzy. I knew in my head that being part of Ozzy’s band was going to be about serving the master, which I was cool with, but it wasn’t until I was in the thick of things that I realized to what degree I had to set aside my own ego. But there’s a different ego satisfaction you get from a gig like this, and eventually I wrapped my head around the concept that I’m there to help Ozzy and do the best I can to make things look right, feel right, and sound right. But I didn’t feel as though I was doing that on Down To Earth. Dare I say, nobody did.”

The reason, as Bordin sees it, was typical record company interference – too many cooks, untrained and otherwise, spoiling the broth – and an intransigent producer whose obsession with detail proved to be the album’s undoing. “Tim Palmer insisted on endless, almost pointless pre-production,” says Bordin. “That’s the surest way I know to kill a musical vibe. Once you get a tune down, you have to move on or the life of the song is gone. Also, Tim was trying to mold Ozzy into an alternative artist or something; he wasn’t letting Ozzy be himself, and it showed.”

Before recording got underway in earnest, Wylde returned to the fold (a deal was subsequently struck that allowed the guitarist to divide his time between Ozzy and BLS). “Thank God Zakk came back because he really saved the day,” says Bordin. “Again, it’s not an album everybody loves – I know Ozzy doesn’t like it – but the band just wasn’t the same without Zakk.”

Playing With Wylde. Bordin and Wylde have now played together since 1995 – the longest pairing of any two musicians in the Ozzy Osbourne band. In appearance and temperament, they make for the oddest of couples: Bordin, the dreadlocked, soft-spoken model of moderation whose easygoing mien borders on a Zen-like aura; and Wylde, the Confederate flag-waving “Berserker,” a leather-and-chains-clad mountain man with a beard that would make Billy Gibbons green with envy, and whose daily beer intake could surely merit some sort of underwrite from Anheuser-Busch. Grown men have been known to run for the hills at the mere sight of Wylde, whose countenance ranks a close second to that of Li’l Abner. Bordin, however, finds the guitarist an ameliorating and inspiring presence. “You can never have a bad day when you’re around Zakk,” he says. “When we work together, we have fun every day. He’s very much on the fly, very off the cuff, and that pushes me as a drummer. He wants everything to be as powerful as it can be. Sometimes that translates into total heavyosity; other times it means making a melody as beautiful and memorable as possible. Let’s put it this way: he never wastes your time. And he doesn’t want the music to be a waste of time. To him, there’s no filler. As a drummer, I really respond to that. It keeps me on my game.

“He’s an unvarnished, no-nonsense kind of dude, and I mean that as a compliment. He’s on ten all the time. He lives life to the hilt. Here’s how I see it: every quarterback needs a pulling guard; every running back needs a tailback; every tailback needs a linebacker. If you had a band full of Zakks, it wouldn’t work. It would be too much of one thing, and that would make the music one-dimensional. The place that Zakk occupies on stage is his own. He’s passionate about what he does, he’s funny as hell, and he’s full of creative juice. His intensity comes from his creativity, and it’s very infectious.”

Bordin cites the song “I Don’t Wanna Stop” as an example. “That was a song where Zakk was playing vaguely reminiscent of Faith No More, where’d I’d normally play a lot of toms and I’d make everything up-front. But that’s not Ozzy. And I wouldn’t go up to Ozzy and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to remake your band in my image.’ So, lo and behold, there’s one part in the song where it was appropriate for me to play in my old style, but I wasn’t going to make it the basis of the song; I wanted to challenge myself and the material. I was looking for a primitive tom pattern, but one that wouldn’t necessarily sound like me, so I taught myself to play backwards – or rather, right-handed – which I’ve never done before.

“I didn’t change the position of the snare. My snare drum is played with my right hand – it’s an open style of playing. I use my left hand on the hi-hat, the ride cymbal and the China cymbal – all the effects are with my left hand. My kick drum is still the right foot, as normal. But I rode the floor tom with my right hand; I was completely out of my comfort zone. At first, it was strange to teach myself to play right-handed, it was an experiment, but it was a real breakthrough musically. Of course, now the joke is that I have to try to play it live every night that way, so I’m going to be practicing my ass off.”

When asked if he ever tries to prod Wylde to try similar musical experiments, Bordin haltingly answers in the affirmative, but he stresses that there’s a line he can’t cross. “If Zakk starts changing what he does because of my drumming, then I’ve made a grave mistake. He shouldn’t have to fit his incredible runs and solos around me – it’s the other way around. Same with Ozzy. I bring what I can do to Ozzy’s songs, not fit Ozzy’s songs into my drumming agenda. Drummers have to remember that we’re accompanying the music, the singer, the song. There’s no dishonor in doing that. Think of those great Motown drummers. Those guys were [incredible], but they never got in the way of the music. They served the music. Strangely enough, it’s the same with hard rock and heavy metal.”

Three Weeks Later. Bordin has left his home in California’s Marin County for Los Angeles. Rehearsals for Ozzy’s appearance at the yearly Ozzfest (which is now called FreeFest, as all tickets are being distributed for the bargain price of zip) are into their first full week, and the drummer is feeling energized. “I spoke with Zakk about what Ozzy said about the recording,” says Bordin, “and his response was something along the lines of ‘What the f**k?!’ Neither one of us can understand why Ozzy would say that. But whatever – I’m not going to dwell on it anymore. The album is great and I can’t wait for people to hear it.”

Bordin also happily notes that the band, in just one week’s time, is playing stronger than ever. Everybody is settled, broken in like a well-worn pair of shoes. Songs that once flummoxed the band have come together like second nature. Part of the reason, Bordin surmises, is he spent his spring months doing anything but playing the drums. “My new thing is, I don’t practice if I don’t have to. Once you get to a certain level – and I’m not trying to be cocky – you have to know when to let your instrument sit. Carry the music around with you in your head; carry it in your soul. That way, when you sit down to play, you’ll be dying to play, and everything will feel and sound new. After a while, too much practice gets in the way of playing.”

Another important aspect of the band’s new groove that is that this new tour will mark Blasko’s second run with the group. “He’s a true part of the team now. His playing is as solid as anything I’ve ever heard before, and we’re locking in together like a house on fire – which is funny in a way, because he’s so different from most bassists I’ve worked with. I come from the school of Cliff Burton, Robert Trujillo, Jack Bruce, and Geezer Butler – very strong fingerpickers, very melodic and all over the neck – and Blasko plays with a pick; he’s more of a ‘hold down the fort’ kind of guy. But there’s a comfort to playing with a guy like that, that makes this gig really fly. It’s not that he’s less of a musician, it’s just that he’s very dependable. You know where he’s going to be; you can set your watch to him, and that can really free you up as a drummer – less notes to deal with. Although when I played with Cliff, he could put all that information out there and you could follow him anywhere he wanted to go.”

The subject of Cliff Burton holds a special meaning for Bordin: the two played together as Bay Area teenagers. “We were in each other’s first bands,” Bordin says. “To me, he’ll always be a friend and a mythic figure. That’s why I get on with Zakk so well. He told me that when he was putting Pride & Glory together he ran an ad which said: ‘If you don’t know who Cliff Burton is, don’t even call me.’ That was our first bonding experience, and probably our most important.

Bordin sees his place in Osbourne’s band, going on 12 years now, as inevitable. Beyond the Cliff Burton connection he shares with Wylde, he holds Osbourne up on an even higher pedestal. “I was ten years old, just getting into music, when my mother died,” he says softly. “I could have gotten mean and bitter and things might’ve wound up very differently for me. But one of the bands that I gravitated to was Black Sabbath. Their music wasn’t being played on the radio, it wasn’t on jukeboxes at the pizzeria – you had to go to a friend’s house and discover it in the basement. It was an underground thing, which made it more special. It’s no joke that Black Sabbath saved my life. I always dreamed of meeting Ozzy and telling him that.”

That conversation took place in the late ’80s, when Faith No More was enjoying its first brush with success with the album The Real Thing. At a party RIP magazine threw for the band, not only did Osbourne show up, but he jumped on stage to sing “War Pigs” with the group (they had covered the song on the record). Afterwards, Bordin approached Osbourne and nervously introduced himself. “I told him how important Sabbath was to me growing up,” says Bordin, “how his music got me through a lot of tough times. He could tell that I was being sincere, that I wasn’t just giving him the standard lines.”

Years later, Osbourne, looking to shake up his band, remembered the dreadlocked drummer who spoke so sincerely of his love of Black Sabbath. When the phone call came from Osbourne asking Bordin if he’d be interested in joining the band, the drummer admits that he wasn’t surprised. “I was destined to play with Ozzy Osbourne. I had prepared for it all my life. I remember the phone call as plain as day. I didn’t freak. I didn’t get nutty – it just seemed normal in a way. Not that I wasn’t excited; of course I was excited. But there’s just certain things that are meant to happen in life, and for me, this gig is it.”

MIKE BORDIN’S 5 TIPS FOR BEGINNERS
1. Be a team player
2. Practice like a son of a bitch (despite what I said earlier about not practicing)
3. Protect your hearing
4. Don’t be afraid of any piece of music
5. Love what you do, or don’t do it

Groove Analysis: Bordin Bashes Black Rain

By Brad Schlueter
Originlly published in DRUM! Magaznine’s Augst 33007 Issue

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since Mike Bordin first became known as a unique hard rock drummer with Faith No More. He’s always stood out from other drummers with his long dreadlocks, deep, flat rack toms, and his left-handed playing style. Now with Ozzy Osbourne, Bordin proves he can slam with the best while perfectly supporting the song. Let’s check out some of his playing from Black Rain.

“I Don’t Wanna Stop”

This tune starts with a clever tom groove that has the snare on counts 2 and 4, with the bass drum playing every third eighth-note creating a four over three feel. His right plays quarter-notes on the floor tom and his left hand travels between the high tom and his snare. Bordin bounces his leg on the hi-hat pedal playing eighth-notes under all this mayhem. Note that on the video for this song, Bordin plays the bass drum pattern on counts 1 and 3, which is simpler than the recorded drum part. We included the left-handed sticking Bordin uses for the fill leading into the simpler chorus groove in lines two, three, and eight (righties will probably want to reverse it). Later, he plays that same four over three bass drum and snare pattern, but this time it’s under straight quarter-notes on sloshy hi-hats.

DRUM! Notation Guide

“Lay Your World On Me”

For those of you who only know him as a basher, Bordin has a softer side as well. For the ballad “Lay Your World On Me,” he plays a simple boogaloo groove with brushes for. He adds little embellishments like soft triplets, drags, and open hi-hats for texture.

“God Bless The Almighty Dollar”

This track features some of Bordin’s best drumming on the disk. At the guitar solo section midway through the song, he plays a fill to set up the double sixteenth-note floor tom/bass drum hits that fall on every third eighth-note. There’s a measure of 5/4 that occurs at his big fill that’s bound to throw some drummers off. He repeats this interesting cycle varying the fills slightly before returning to 4/4, and playing a cool sextuplet fill around his kit.

Mike Bordin's Gear

Drums: Yamaha Oak Custom (In Matte Ozark Black Oak Finish) 1 24" x 17" or 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6.5" Mike Bordin Signature Snare (w/ Puresound snare wires)
3 14" x 12" Tom
4 15" x 13" Tom
5 18" x 16" Floor Tom

Cymbals: Zildjian
A 15" Rock Top and A Mastersound Bottom Hi-Hats
B 19" K China
C 21" A Sweet Brilliant Ride
D 22" Z Custom Power Ride
E 19" K Medium Thin Dark Crash
F 20" A Medium Brilliant Crash

Mike Bordin also uses Yamaha hardware, DW pedals, Vic Firth sticks, and Remo heads.