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Interview: Bill Ward of Black Sabbath: Absence of Corners/Presence of Light

“Absence of Corners” is Bill Ward’s debut as an artist, even though he’s been painting pictures with rhythm since he was four years old. Using lighted drumsticks and percussion brushes, Bill Ward used rhythm and emotion to draw songs. There is aggression in some and serenity in others but Bill Ward is in all of them — his soul exploding through air as he throws fireworks across the drums. As I sat in the corner of my tiny bedroom with a mp3 voice recorder, a laptop, and a phone I waited to talk to the legendary drummer of Black Sabbath about his artwork. What I didn’t expect was his apology for calling five minutes early or his openness about everything. A conversation about art and music became a conversation about life. I was moved by his empathetic nature and his humble brilliance. I totally understand why his fans love him. He’s real.

Ara: When you play, does rhythm create a color or picture in your mind?

Bill Ward: When I play, I visualize. I don’t necessarily visualize color. I visualize sound and energy. I’m an orchestrated drummer which means I don’t play backbeats. I don’t play 1-2-3-4. I play to whatever the music is doing. I ebb and flow.

Ara: What songs have created the most vivid pictures based only on rhythm?

Bill Ward: All of the songs that I played with Black Sabbath, but the first song that comes to mind is Black Sabbath. It is full of passion and I regard it as our rallying point. So the energy on stage when we play Black Sabbath is absolutely outstanding. I visualize just a huge sound and I mean,  it’s a huge sound. I put myself into it wholeheartedly to create as much volume as I can with my cymbals… whatever I can to add more to this ominous sound. A typical visual would be Iron Man. People say…”How did you begin “Iron Man?” How did you create Iron Man? How do you make people think it’s Iron Man?” So the only thing I could think of was a bass drum. Ozzy put a vocal on and I could see Iron Man– I could visualize Iron Man.

Ara: When I first heard about your art, I never imagined that rhythm could produce images that were so intricate. I looked at a lot of pieces and I was particularly fascinated with the piece “Hello I Don’t Think We’ve Met (Yet)”. I think I stared at that piece for about 25 minutes. I could see so many pictures within a picture.

Bill Ward: There has been some manipulation. It’s true, I created a lot of streams and things but there was a lot of camera work that was put into this, as well. So some of the actual faces and figure heads that you can see in there were created by camera imagery. I’m not sure what these guys did, but I think there were some techniques that they might have used to do that. For me I didn’t actually paint those while I’m drumming, I can’t bring about that image. So, does it feel like that’s misleading now? Is that upsetting to hear?

Ara: No, it’s not upsetting to hear I’m just wondering how you felt when you saw that picture. Did you appreciate that they did that…that they manipulated with the cameras or would you have preferred them to stay more organic?

Bill Ward: At the time of doing this I really didn’t have a whole lot of information on what the cameras were going to materialize. As we were doing the shoot I would say…”Is everything ok?” I was kind of blind. I was handed different colored sticks and I played as much as I could. I played different beats to create as many shapes as I possibly could and a lot of that shows up on the pictures. However, I didn’t know that there was going to be some camera added work. When I saw it I was like…”Well, that’s interesting. Not quite sure how I feel about that.” But then I was asked to title the pictures and that was when I felt fully involved. Not only as a drummer playing a fury of drum patterns but involved because I was able to look at the pictures and see that there was a lot more happening to me than I was aware of. I’ve been quite emotional lately over issues that were going on. I’ve been sad. A lot of different feelings. So when I looked at the pictures I thought…” My God these pictures really seem to actually show my emotions. For instance the piece “Grief”. I have no idea how that picture came about. And when I looked at it the only thing I could think about was grief because I’ve been grieving terribly for about eighteen months. And I felt such sadness. So, when I looked at it I looked at my grief and that’s when it became personal. That’s when it became vulnerable. That’s when it became much more than playing drums with different types of sticks. It became more than just camera people– three of four different cameras going off, lots of different lighting attitudes what have you. It became more than that. It turned into something really therapeutic, really personal, and really vulnerable.

Ara: So it was like looking at yourself? A portrait of yourself?

Bill Ward: I absolutely felt mirrored. I felt like I was looking at a whole lot of mess of myself. I could see my grief. The titles are well thought out. I spent a couple of weeks working on the titles. I spent a couple of weeks looking at the pictures over and over. Some things came quite quickly and other things came slowly and carefully in terms of “Shall I say what this picture really means to me?” And I’ll give you an example of that. One of the pictures is “Arch of Doubt”. When I got the title and I started to think what “Arch of Doubt” meant to me and when I started to write about it, it really put me in a vulnerable place. I’m baring my soul. I’m connecting with whoever is going to be looking at these pictures and interpreting these pictures. You know, I’m at my bottom line. I’ve got no defense system. All of my defenses are down. I looked at it and I said…”This is Arch of Doubt”. I could see the prickly barricade that surrounds the arch and you know I couldn’t think of anything else but an arch of doubt. We pass through arches of doubt all of the time and so that’s what I envisioned. There’s just an innocence here. It doesn’t feel contrived or manipulated. The camera people did whatever they wanted to do. In the end it was a team effort but I wasn’t aware that I was in a team initially. I thought it was kind of them and me. Then it turned from them and me pretty quickly and it became us.

Ara: When you hear rhythm does it feel solid or hollow? Hollow as in infinite…something that goes on an on. Solid as in something with edges.

Bill Ward: Well, rhythm is everything. It’s everywhere. I would like to choose both answers. Rhythm is infinite. It’s the toll of the universe. There’s rhythm everywhere. My first realization of rhythm was being born in the place that I was born. Listening to the sound of all of the factories. I heard rhythm when the boy’s brigade would come down our street and play drums and trumpets. I heard rhythm when I was tapping the floor and didn’t know why I was tapping the floor. And I didn’t know why I was tapping the floor at three and four years old. My parents thought something was wrong. They took me to the doctor. You know what it’s like these days. You do something a little out of the ordinary and you’re in the doctors with a stamp on your head.

Ara: You have a diagnosis.

Bill Ward: Yes a diagnosis and usually some pills to go with it which totally screws everything up. I can’t really say that it’s too broad a statement. But rhythm is life and breath and water to me.

Ara: Do you think that drums create the most dramatic pictures because they are the most rhythmically aggressive instrument? Do you think that you could get this sort of picture from another instrument or do you think rhythm on canvas is something that is meant to be used exclusively with drumming?

Bill Ward: I think that is an incredible question. It could be the beginning of a huge franchise. Because as soon as you were saying that I was picturing a flute.

Ara: I was picuring a bass guitar because of depth of sound.

Bill Ward: I agree that drums are rhythmically aggressive and they are versatile in terms of where they can go. They can go over, under, inside, outside. They can join, separate. That’s a great idea. If you can capture the distortion of the bass sound… which you can see on a tuner whenever you tune a guitar. That’s a great idea. I wish you well with it.

Ara: You explained your art as “throwing your emotions on the drums”. Which emotions created the strongest pictures?

Bill Ward: Well, let me just talk about making “Flowers from my Heart”. That was during a jazz period. I never stopped playing but I was passed brushes that had special lighting inside of them. These are brushes that drummers use, not paint brushes. Well, as soon as I was handed the brushes I went to a jazz thing because I wanted to get my breath. I had been playing pretty aggressively for about an hour and a half. So, I was in a meditative state, I wasn’t noticing anything that was going on with me. But I was completely blown away when I saw the results of “Flowers from my Heart” because it looks like the drum kit is covered in flowers. It’s all quite strange. An example of anger would be “Soundshock” because I was just pushing it hard. There’s almost a kind of jazz shot on “We Focus. We Persevere.” What I like about that picture is that I can see my focus. I can see that I’m absolutely one with my drums. I could feel that happening. It’s almost like I was transfixed on what was going on. All of this was shot in the dark so the lights were my guide and the co-writer of what I was playing. They would influence me as to where to go. There’s anger in “Indestructible Youth” because youth is so pompous and brilliant. It’s true. These are just pictures. There isn’t a whole lot of manipulation. Most of the pictures are quite innocent because the camera grabbed what was going on. But “Indestructible Youth” was definitely out of anger. I know that I was in touch with my youth. I was in touch with the way that I view youth in all of its strength and its belief that it indestructible–that it will live forever. Yet, it is so fragile at the same time. I couldn’t see that I was fragile when I was 18 or 17 or 16. But we are so fragile and I think we only see that when we grow up and we get the chance to look back and then see our children grow up. I see the youth going at it and doing very dangerous things in my opinion. And I say…”Yep, that’s indestructible youth.” I still think very young. I’m not burdened with a lot of things that perhaps might make a person old. And a lot of that is because I’m in recovery from a lot of illness…self inflicted illness. And I’ve been in recovery for years and years and years. Basically most of the time that makes me feel young at heart even though I have my bouts of depression and despair. So my actual everyday thinking is that of an 18 or 19 year old person. However, I don’t have an 18 or 19 year old body anymore. The body makes its own boundaries rather we like it or not.

Ara: Did you decide to do this because it was interesting or did you decide to do this so your fans and the fans of Black Sabbath could see what you see and feel when you play?

Bill Ward: Initially I thought about it because it seemed interesting. And Scenefour had a history with other percussionists. They came to me and asked if I would be interested in something like this and I said sure, let’s try it. But I was saying yes to sitting in front of cameras in the dark and playing drums. I had no idea it was going to go step by step and turn into a therapeutic ascent from some of the recent pains I had been feeling. So, now it’s reached a place where I wonder what the fans think. I wonder what everyone feels about it, what’s the opinion. There’s already a huge question mark going on anyway with other things regarding Black Sabbath. So I don’t know how the Sabbath fans will perceive this. I know that they love me. I know that I love them. We have a lot of respect for each other. But I still don’t know what they’ll think. But the feedback so far has been very, very positive. I’m talking to people that say…”Well done Bill”, which is very cool. So that’s pleasing. I feel like I’ve been able to get a little bit of peace from it and get past a few ghosts. And at the same time other people are enjoying this as well. Which is pretty cool.

Ara: What did the other members of Black Sabbath think when they saw the work?

Bill Ward: I got a letter from Geezer but it’s kind of private so I can’t really say but Geezer had a very positive response to the art work. And the other two, I have no idea what they think.

Ara: Do you have any favorites out of the collection?

Bill Ward: Yeah, I certainly do. This is kind of an interaction thing and I didn’t know it was going to be that but there’s a picture and I call it “This Evening”. I call it “This Evening” because to me it looks like this evening. There’s a place in me often, at the end of the day where I’ll still have a lot of work to do, so a lot of the time, I don’t even see the evening. I don’t give myself the opportunity to look at the stars or see the moon. I’m usually doing something else. For some reason when I saw the picture and I named it “This Evening” it was almost like I saw a warmth and I was reminded of evenings I felt in my past. So, what came after that thought was this would be nice for someone to look at who doesn’t have an evening anymore. Maybe they have to wash the baby or get somebody who’s sick into bed so maybe evening doesn’t exist anymore. I thought this might be a nice permanent structure. It will always be this evening on the wall. It will always be there. And further to that you can depend on it– it will be the same tomorrow. And further than that it won’t hurt you and it’s reliable and it will always be there and you can count on it. That’s the kind of solidness that’s nice to have in life. Something you can count on. And that’s what “This Evening” means to me. Every evening I can look at this, wherever I am– in whatever frame of mind I’m in and it will always be this evening. The first time I realized it was this evening I warmed up and welled up and realized I’ve been here. Inside having a cup of tea or at Place de la Concorde in Paris or a glass of water in Rome. A warm evening in Columbus Circle in New York. I remembered all of my evenings where there’s been those magic moments..like the first time you fell in love and remembering those feelings. It’s just an event of joy. That’s what that particular picture brought to me.

Ara: Is there any other pieces that you’d like to discuss?

Bill Ward: I’d like to talk about some of my favorites if I could? I love Greece. It scares me. It actually terrifies me. I think…”My God I never want to go back there.” It’s a monolithic reminder that when I saw Greece, I had reached a very,very sad place in my life. And I thought…”I hope I don’t have to visit very many more sad places in my life.” I love “We focus. We Persevere.” That’s strictly about the drummer. What we do as drummers. We focus and we persevere. That means we get knocked about–we make mistakes. It means that we all screw things up. We don’t fall down, we don’t lie down. We get back up and we persevere. I also like “Hello, I Don’t Think We’ve Met (Yet)” that’s one of my favorites. I love “Cloven Apparition’s Ascent.” It just looks really weird to me and I couldn’t think of anything else that would match that title as good as that picture. It’s supposed to be a little gothic, a little black, a little dark. I’m looking at it and it’s a bit pinkish but the actual colors are a little darker. So when I looked at it, it made perfect sense to call it that.

Ara: Favorite Film?

Bill Ward: The film that’s been saving my life is “Love Actually”. Before that it was “The Hunt for Red October”. So lately it is “Love Actually” because there are so many twists and turns– so many sacred moments. It’s about losing things and gaining things. And there’s just something that’s very tender and loving. Some of the scenes in the movie are when people fall in love. It’s really touching to me right now. I’ve been really, really sensitive lately. I could watch a seal diving into the water right now and probably cry. Do you know sometimes when your feelings are in your throat? And mine have been lately so my senses are very heightened right now. A cup of tea is more than just a cup of tea. So when I’m watching “Love Actually,” it’s more than just a movie to me, it’s an anthem. Whenever I watch it I find some kind of sanctuary and peace of mind in parts of the movie.

Ara: What’s your favorite place in the world?

Bill Ward: That’s a tough one. Can I say two places?

Ara: Sure

Bill Ward: Well, when I’m in London, I love Kensington and walking through Hyde Park. I go down to Whitehall and I usually have a cup of tea in the little coffee shop there. I love walking through Hyde park. It’s absolutely one of my favorite things to do. And New York Central Park. I don’t have my walking partner right now. I did have a walking partner and he used to walk with me through Central Park. That was Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath. I haven’t been there in a little while. When I go to Central Park, I just sit on the grass and people watch. I love it. I love watching the kids running around and falling over and watching all the different dogs. And all the great Hyde Park dogs…there’s so many great dogs in Hyde Park. I absolutely love New York…Long Island, Brooklyn, the Bronx. I had a couple of buds come in the other day. One’s from Brooklyn and one’s from Long Island. We talked about music for about three hours. They had just flown in. I love flying. People snicker a little bit because they know that anyone who’s just come into my life is going to get asked about their flight. I’m just fascinated by it.

Ara: Favorite band?

Bill Ward: I’m going to give it to the Rolling Stones because they’re a proper band. They’ve held together through thick and thin. It’s very sad about Brian. They’ve held onto each other no matter what and it looks like they support each other. So I call them a real band. To me, my criteria of a real band is a band that are friends, who love each other, who work together, play together, try to have each other’s back, that really and truly listen to each other and try to support each other. That’s what I’ve tried to be anyway. That’s what I’ve tried to do. I’ve failed at doing that from time to time but that has always been my goal. Years ago Black Sabbath was like the four musketeers. So, for a moment in time I got to participate in the four musketeers because we were definitely all for one and one for all.

Ara: What was the first album that you ever bought?

Bill Ward: I think it might have been the Shadows. It might have been the Everly Brothers, Del Shannon, Little Richard, Elvis. Those were my guys. I was brought up on the Platters, the Ink Spots, and jazz. We played that in our house everyday. Count Basie, Glenn Miller.

Ara: Do you have a favorite album?

Bill Ward: I’m going to say the very first Black Sabbath album because it’s so fucking innocent. It’s so innocent and so lovable. We were just four very angry, yet very loving men. It’s rough around the edges, it’s gritty, it’s unplanned, there’s mistakes galore. And I loved the intensity of the band at that time. They were the most marvelous thing that ever happened to me.

“Nowhere to Belong”
“We Focus. We Persevere”
“Hello, I don’t think We’ve Met (Yet)”
 –Bill Ward “Absence of Corners” debut

About Ara Harris

Music junkie, Atari 2600 bringer backer, word maker upper, loves to photograph and write about suburban decay. Ara grew up on a corner lot in small town Ohio. She began escaping the micro minds of the Midwest by listening to music, watching b films, and touring the cities in her mind. She wrote poetry on the back of algebra tests and asked Lou Reed to take her to prom. Two decades later she self published a full collection of poetry that one reader described as “a Tom Verlaine riff in every synapse”. She believes that we all have a gift, we just have to find it.

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