Long before Ozzy Osbourne was reality TV's foul-mouthed Prince of Bleeping Darkness, he was the Godfather of Heavy Metal. He earned that title fronting Black Sabbath, with '70s hits "Iron Man" and "Paranoid," and by later reinventing himself as a solo artist supported by full-throttle guitarists like Randy Rhoads and Jake E. Lee on songs like "Crazy Train" and "Bark at the Moon," respectively.
In 2009, Osbourne shifted gears again and hired young-gun guitar player Gus G. to replace Zakk Wylde, who had co-written Ozzy hits like "Mama, I'm Coming Home" and the Grammy-winning "I Don't Want to Change the World." With a shredding pedigree boasting the very un-Ozzy-sounding Grecian power-metal crew Firewind, Gus seemed like a wild card.
But that changed when Osbourne's 11th studio album, Scream, debuted at number four on the Billboard chart last year — coincidentally the 40th anniversary of Black Sabbath's self-titled debut. Containing Sabbath-heavy riffs, expertly played by Gus, and some of Osbourne's edgiest lyrics and best vocal performances in years — especially on singles "Let It Die" and "Diggin' Me Down" — it was an unexpected triumph.
"I look at it as the album that put Ozzy back on the heavy-metal map," the guitarist says proudly. "For all these years, he was doing the TV thing, and a lot of fans were complaining, but I think this was a good comeback album for him. I couldn't be any more proud just to be a part of it."
Pride comes through frequently as Gus discusses with New Times the travels, a few travails, and a farting pen — prior to playing with Ozzy at BankAtlantic Center on Sunday.
New Times: When did you first meet Ozzy?
Gus G.: I met him in the summer of 2009, when I did the audition for him. His bassist, Blasko, and I had been in contact a little bit before. He put me in touch with some guy at the management. That guy was like, "We might be looking for a new guitar player. Are you interested in coming down?"
Who says no to that?
Exactly! [laughs] It was scary at first. I was thinking, Can you even imagine if they invite me to be a part of the band and be the new guy? You'd just shit your pants. [laughs] At the same time, it's very exciting and challenging. Of course I said I'll audition, even if it means I'll just meet the man and play a few songs with him and go home. It'll be an experience of a lifetime.
How did you deal with the nerves of that audition?
[laughs] I just tried to stay calm. One good thing that really helped the nerves, to be honest with you, was when I arrived in L.A. and I checked in the hotel. As soon as I walked in, the phone rang, and it was Ozzy. It was the first time I ever spoke to him. And he said, "Thank you very much for coming down. Don't be nervous tomorrow. If you fuck it up, don't worry." He said, "I saw some clips of you. You're great." And basically that really calmed me down.
Obviously, things worked out, and you've gotten closer to him. Did you and Ozzy exchange Christmas presents?
Well, Ozzy got me an iPad, actually. I got him a [laughs] pen in the shape of a finger, and you pull it and it farts. He loved it. He took it with him everywhere with him for a while.
How has this tour been going so far?
Really good. It's the best tour I've ever done.
We saw that a church picketed your concert in Kansas City.
Yeah, it was like four people outside the venue protesting. [laughs] They really got their point across. Think about it, picketing at a rock show in 2011 isn't really the hot shit anymore. [laughs] Maybe in the '60s, but not anymore.
They've probably heard backstage horror stories from Ozzy's previous tours. He's sober now, so how much partying goes on these days?
Not much. We're pretty mellow guys. Nobody really drinks or does drugs. We keep practicing all the time.
What happens, then, after a typical Ozzy show?
We hang out backstage. We have a little chat. It's really relaxing. Ozzy will come in the room, and we'll hang out all together. That will be ten, 20 minutes; then we'll leave to get in a van, which will take us to the airport to get to the next city. We all travel together. We stay in the same hotels. We're in the same plane. It really feels like a band.
Onstage, though, Ozzy still goes crazy. One of his trademark antics live is spraying a foam gun at the audience and, well, everywhere. How close has he come to spraying you?
Oh, yeah. He's gotten me. Don't worry. [laughs] The foam has gotten all in my guitar. But it's fun. It's rock 'n' roll. Stupid shit happens. It goes up to my guitar-pedal board, but that's why I have it covered in nylon. Me and my [guitar] tech, we're well-prepared about all these things so we don't have any rock 'n' roll accidents.
How close have you come to any other types of rock 'n' roll accidents?
On this whole tour, the only rock 'n' roll accident was my fault. Last summer, we were doing a gig in Norway, and Ozzy said, "Let the madness begin!" And we go right into "Bark at the Moon." On my guitar, I have a "kill switch" — you can turn the volume on and off with it. I started playing the riff, and there was no sound. I was like, "Wait, wait, wait. Stop!" My tech is like, "What the fuck is going on?!" Everybody's running around trying to fucking figure this out, just at the start of the show. We were losing time. And in the end, it was just me — I had the guitar turned off.
What did Ozzy do?
He was having fun with it. He was like, "Don't worry. You always have that day that everything is meant to fucking break down."
On that same stretch of tour, you played Athens. What did it mean to you to play your own country with him?
It was a very special moment for me, a very personal moment. It was the first time he came to Greece as a solo artist. It was a magical moment, just the whole feeling of being at home and playing for your countrymates.
Did your family come?
Everybody was there. I introduced my parents to Ozzy. He really liked my dad and my mom. They loved him and Sharon too. It was cool.
Are you writing any material for a new Ozzy album?
I definitely have a lot of ideas. I've made a lot of riffs and some demos. We have been going back and forth, talking about it. But it's kind of too early to say anything, because we're still on the road. I don't know what the plan is once this tour is done. I'm feeling inspired, so if I get the call to go back in the studio with Ozzy — we just have to wait and see.
How are the Ozzy riffs you're writing sounding?
It's hard to describe. It's definitely not like Firewind. I guess you can hear my style in there, but if I would make another Ozzy album, I would like to make the ultimate Ozzy album — marry the classic stuff but with the new era. I'm just very inspired by the Randy [Rhoads] and Jake [E. Lee] albums. I'm writing in that vein and some more Sabbathy riffs. It's hard to tell, really. I could say it reminds me of Sabbath, but you never know how that's going to end in the final production with the whole band playing and the vocal lines. It's really early stages to talk about it.
Other than playing music, what's the best part of being in Ozzy's band?
Everything. It's the ultimate dream. Just having that position, playing with the Godfather of Heavy Metal, it doesn't get any better. What is there to add beyond that? It's the ultimate honor.