Brad Wilk: Swinging The Chain

brad wilk

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.”

The Finger Of Fate

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.

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“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.”

brad wilk

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

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.

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“And then once we had 15 of the 16 planned songs, we went in the studio to record,” he says. “Funny enough, song No. 16 [titled “Damaged Soul” on the finished album] was just a blues jam that I had never even heard before. Rick was like, ’That’s what’s missing, you know, that’s what Black Sabbath is so great at.’ And that’s the thing that bands these days that love Black Sabbath miss about Black Sabbath; they get the metal part of it but they don’t get the jamming part of it, the jazz part of it, the funky part of it.”

The track’s heavily “Voodoo Chile”-ish vibe was a direct result of the band’s favored molding of song material out of spontaneous, bluesy jams.

“It was so great to have this song that was completely open-ended – you know, ’Here’s Part One, play the riff, here’s Part Two …’ That was one of my favorite moments: I was like, man, I’m here with Black Sabbath playing just really off the cuff, and it felt so great. That’s when I realized I really feel sync’d and locked with these guys.”

Listen To The Voice

Wilk’s ideas about his chess match – like relationship with the rhythmic styles of singers has radically altered his own sense of timing, feel, and flow. In Rage Against The Machine he had to interact with rapping Zach de la Rocha’s rigidly demarcated blocks of lyricism, a marked contrast to his work with Audioslave vocalist Chris Cornell.

“They were completely different drumming styles that showed how the vocals have a huge part in how I play drums. With Zach, he’s amazingly percussive with his voice, and he has such great rhythm, and that’s partly why Rage Against The Machine is so unique. There was a lot of room for the funkiness and the influences that I came to Rage with, and it just seemed to work.”

When Wilk moved on to Audioslave, his pairing with Cornell’s voice was another stretching experience – literally. “Chris is a guy who holds the notes out really long, so I wanted to make more of a spacious sort of sound, and that’s when I really started getting into the idea of having the note along with the space that your note creates. And they’re two very different things. The space that you create is as important as the note that you create. I took a lot of time thinking about that space, thinking about where it leans, and where the song leans.”

Such intellectualized stuff doesn’t exactly sound like the sort of thing one can practice. “I certainly couldn’t practice it in a room by myself,” Wilk confirms. “But that’s the beauty of playing with other humans, that it’s something that you can practice as long as there are people in the room, because you’re having human interaction.”

Understanding these concepts about the space between notes seems a bit methodical when you’re talking about it, but, according to Wilk, it’s more about feel and doing it than it is really thinking about it. “And if you’re thinking about it too much, you could wind up in a hole that you don’t want to be in. Music should be about an initial feeling and a vibe, and if you can keep that and make it sound as spontaneous as you can, that’s great, that’s my favorite kind of music.”

A drummer’s personal relations with the other members of a band will directly affect the way he makes the music, he believes, and testy vibes among the players can make for fertile musical grounds. “One of my favorite bands of all time is The Who, and those guys wanted to kill each other. But I remember getting The Kids Are All Right record from my brother and flipping through those pages and being awestruck by it, and then actually hearing the record, and it was amazing because they both made complete sense to me. The Who is a celebration of anger and frustration – and Rage was certainly of the same ilk.”

Sands Of Time

Recording an album with his childhood heroes was a full-circle experience that took Wilk right back to his youth. The tracks on 13 were laid down at the Shangri La recording studio, which sits aside Pacific Coast Highway near Zuma Beach, not too far from where Wilk spent his headbangin’ formative years.

“I grew up in the [San Fernando] Valley, and that was me in the room when I was 13 trying to emulate Black Sabbath. I was the kid going down to the beach with my ghetto blaster, blasting the Sabbath records, blasting Blizzard Of Oz.” He laughs. “So at the recording sessions, when we’d go outside for breaks, I could stand there and see Zuma Lifeguard Station No. 6, the exact lifeguard station where I used to hang out blasting these Sabbath records.”

The location’s sights and scents triggered the feeling.

“You know how a smell can bring you back instantly? I’d walk outside and I would get that smell and it was like I was a 13-year-old kid again – except [laughs] the real Black Sabbath actually were all in the room and we were recording an album.”

And as a fan and a player, Wilk couldn’t be prouder about being a part of the album’s creation. “When I got the record back after being away from it for a couple of months, I myself was blown away by it. And it was weird feeling that – to be blown away by something that you actually did sounds pretty big-headed, but it’s shocking because usually I’m my own worst critic, and I was literally just sitting there and listening to it and truly enjoying it, and going, ’This is so great!’”

Carry That Weight

Now picture again what Wilk’s mind was going through as he set about occupying the drum chair of one of the world’s most legendary bands, in the face of some seriously furious opposition to the idea that anyone but Bill Ward could ever fill the bill. (There’s even a Facebook page called “1,000,000 Black Sabbath Fans Say Yes to Bill Ward” – ouch.) Like, who is this imposter? “That’s a lot of freakin’ pressure,” he says with a slight grimace. “You know that you’re going to be judged by many, but at some point you just have to throw that out, and go for it.”

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One of the bigger challenges for Wilk was the fact that, as Bill Ward’s biggest fan, he intended his drum playing on the new Sabbath album to be a tribute to Ward’s drum mastery. But Wilk’s his own man, too, an artist obligated to bring as much of his own thing to the table when the tracks were recorded. “I felt really blessed that they let me come up with the drum parts, and it was something that was a weight on my shoulders,” he says. “Yet it also felt great to be able to have that creativity with this. On one hand every song that I played, in my mind it was like, Would Bill Ward be proud of this? Would Bill Ward be okay with the way I’m playing this? It’s an uncomfortable question to be asking yourself, and there was that coupled with a second question: Are you staying true to yourself and keeping your own identity?”

Any nervousness about his role was allayed by his Sabbath mates’ easygoing attitudes and playful camaraderie. It was helpful that the entire crew was “mature” enough not to bring their various dramas with them into the studio. “When we were all around together, it was great because none of them took themselves too seriously, and there was a lot of good times and laughter. And I just tried to absorb as much from my listening as I could – their personalities, their humor, their riffs, what Ozzy’s singing, what Geezer’s playing, what Tony was playing, and how they function as a unit.”

And to find his space in that unit without sticking out – not too much, anyway. “Because this is not the Brad Wilk record; this is a Black Sabbath record. That was always in my mind, too. I just want to do right by Black Sabbath.”

Wilk's Setup for 13 Recording Sessions

brad wilk

Drums Ludwig (Vintage)/ Gretsch
1 22" x 14" Ludwig Bass Drum (circa 1962)
2 14" x 6.5" Ludwig Black Beauty Snare Drum (circa 1970)
3 12" x 10" Gretsch Tom
4 16" x 16" Gretsch Floor Tom
5 18" x 16" Gretsch Floor Tom

Cymbals Paiste/Zildjian
A 14" Hi-Hat
B 18" or 19" Crash
C 18" x 19" Crash
D 21" or 22" Ride

For the recording of 13, Brad Wilk also used Tama Bell Brass and Gretsch snare drums, Remo heads (Coated Emperor batters, Clear Ambassador resos), DW 9000 and 5000 series double pedal, and Vic Firth Extreme 5B sticks.