For 45 years, Bill Ward has dedicated much of his creative life to rhythm. His career has taken him to every corner of the globe, earning him legions of dedicated fans, millions of records sold and a musical legacy that includes some of the most acclaimed recordings and heavy metal history. He sounds unique and his influence cannot be argued. Even at sixty-five years old, Bill Ward shows no signs of slowing down and is anxious to explore new musical territory. With “Absence of Corners,” he continues to venture beyond sound into the visual around taking on a new medium — rhythm to canvas. An extensive process from start to finish, “Absence of Corners” took nearly a year to complete. To create the dazzling works of art, Ward utilized a sophisticated formula to create the collections visuals, using an array of drumsticks and rhythmic accessories that produce light, much like a painter utilizes brushes and oils. Then working with Los Angeles art team SceneFour, the movements featured within the captured rhythms were then studied and developed into abstract artwork that showcases a dimensional normally seen by the human eye. Each piece in this limited-edition collection is highly personal, visually stunning and remarkably limited. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Bill Ward to discuss the process of bringing “Absence of Corners” to life, the challenges involved and what the future may hold for him in the years to come.
I wanted to start by going back to your very early years. What are some of the first memories of music in your life?
My first memories of music are three things. First, it was the music being played in the house; which was mostly American music. It was also the BBC music; which was more like polkas and orchestra pieces with accordions. Something that inspired me a little bit more was every Sunday the Boys’ Brigade would come down our street. Boys Brigade is trumpets and incredible drums! There were big marching snare drums and what would be the equivalent of a tenor drum and of course, the bass drums, cornets and trumpets as well. I was completely consumed by the image of the Boys’ Brigade passing our house. They were only six feet away from me. I was only a baby; three or four years old. I would sit on our doorstep and watch them. I took in every single thing I could possibly see, from the corner of the braiding on the drums to everything else. It was just incredible. The third thing was on Saturday nights, my Mom could play a little bit of piano and my Dad was a very good singer, they used to do a turn in the pub. They would come back to the house on those Saturday nights and have a party. There was a guy who lived about three houses down from where we lived and he had these traps, that is what they were called back then, which are drums. He would leave the drums in our front room after the party, because he was too drunk to take them home. He would always collect them on Sunday afternoon. Listening to the drums in the house was such a thrill for me. Listening to my Mom knocking out a tune on the piano and my Dad singing was really influential to me, especially as a child.
I am sure you picked up those drumsticks; you had no idea the heights it would eventually lead you to. Looking back on career, to what do you attribute your longevity?
Well, these days, not drinking or using! [laughs] That is very true. I think the passion I have had since I was a child is probably the greatest asset I think that I have. I never tire of anything to do with music. I never tire of anything to do with drums. I can remember the first time I was able to get some cymbals. I was around fourteen years old. I can remember the thrill that I had in obtaining these cymbals. I still have exactly the same feeling when I have my cymbals today! My passion for music is as strong as it has ever been.
Your latest endeavor fuses the world of music with the world of fine art. How did you get hooked up with SceneFour initially?
I got hooked up with them through my publicist. SceneFour have a little history of doing these kinds of things with other drummers. They approached me and my publicist explained it to me. Basically, I go into a darkened room and play my ass off! [laughs] I was given colored sticks which make all kinds of patterns and I get photographed doing that. That is about the simplest way of explaining it. I said “Yeah! Let’s do it!” It sounded like something that could be very adventurous. That is how we initially got involved. We did the session in the dark and I played for an hour and a half. Sometimes, if I needed to back off a little bit and get some air, I would change over to some jazz playing and just ride a little jazz before going back into hardcore playing. It worked really well because during the hardcore playing, I played with the colored sticks and during the jazz playing I played with brushes. These are brushes one would normally play drums with, not paint with. They had so many different colors in them, I believe they were specially made or specially designed. I had the technicians with me. They set up so many lights in different angles, they were on ladders and where shooting me from so many different ways; I didn’t really know what they were trying to obtain in that initial get together. They showed me the pictures and said “Isn’t this fantastic?!” [laughs] I said, “That is nice!” I was happier for them because I couldn’t quite see where it was all going at the time. A couple of weeks later when I got to see the designs much clearer on a computer screen, I began to realize what they had actually been able to create. They had been able to create some very strange and unusual pictures. On SceneFour’s part, there was some manipulation in terms of some of the photography being reverse photography, for example. I don’t know all those details because those guys know much more about the technical process than I do. I think that is where some of the faces showed up. For the most part though, there were just these huge streams of things. I had no idea how they got some of these images to come out of what I was playing! It is quite obvious when I look at the pictures there is so much information, I don’t know if it just happened as we did it. I know during the sessions, as I was playing, I was watching the patterns myself and becoming almost mesmerized and thoroughly enjoyed making all of these arcs and different things as I played with each cymbal, going to a floor tom-tom or playing at high speed. It was a marvelous experience and adventurous for the eyes.
As a drummer, your emotions come through in your playing. What were you dealing with emotionally at that point and did any of the issues you encountered with Black Sabbath play into the final output?
That is a great question. I will answer it in two parts. When I was playing, I had been very upset. I wasn’t necessarily angry or resentful but I had been very upset. I had been having uncomfortable feelings, was very sad and I was grieving not being with the band. When I played the drums, there was very much the feeling of that. I think it really showed up in terms of my aggression. I can look at these pictures and see where I was being really aggressive or when I was just kicking back. At this point, I will add, I got in touch with just how sad I felt. At some point, not long after the sessions, I was asked to name the pieces and that is when I really felt I was coming into a true collaboration with SceneFour, in terms of their artistry. I realized when I was looking the pictures, the titles represented to me exactly what I was being reminded of, so much in fact, it was almost like looking into the mirror. It really was! I was just looking at myself and going “Oh my God!” Some of the pictures upset me, not angrily so, in terms of being very endearing. I didn’t realize how much they meant to me. It suddenly became very personal and more than just a drummer playing to the cameras and having pictures taken. It was way beyond that! It became far more therapeutic as I looked at the pictures and was able to name some of the names. Some of the names I did with humor. For example, “Hello, I Don’t Think We Have Met (Yet)”. I couldn’t resist because it is such an incredible picture. When I saw it, I examined it for days and came up with “I Don’t Think We Have Met Yet But My Name Is Bill!” [laughs] Whoever the person is who is viewing the pictures, whether it be a child, a guy of ninety-five or what have you, they will interpret what they want from it but the suggestion of “Hello, I Don’t Think We Have Met Yet” was something I really, really liked. It could be something from Mars or something that reminds us of ourselves and for me, reminded me of myself. With many of these pictures, I was reminded of myself a lot.
This was really a unique way to showcase your skills as a drummer — very outside-the-box thinking. How do you see yourself progressing or evolving in the future? Are there areas in music you are still anxious to explore?
Oh yeah. Thank you for asking that question because I feel like I am at the beginning. There are so many more things. There are certain rhythms I would love to be able to play more effectively. There are so many more things I would like to be better at. I am trying to improve on my beats-per-minute (BPM) on my bass drums. Back in 2011, I was rehearsing, playing drums and playing 132 BPM. Being in Black Sabbath, we usually won’t need 132 BPM but I was playing 132 BPM to over-compensate, just in case we were going to play something that was going to be moving along rapidly. I wanted to make sure I had more than enough to compensate. The reason I am bringing that up is because I am still practicing that now. I talk to some of my favorite drummers in the metal world. I look at them and say “How do you do that?! You must have legs that are on fire!” [laughs] I am learning from them on how I can advance with more movement from my legs. It is an area that I am really trying to conquer. I have gone through all kinds of ups and downs over the years. There was some good stuff I could do and there is other stuff that was really hard to do. Self-improvement as a drummer is a huge undertaking. It is going to be with me until the day I die!
You have had such a rich career and as you said, feel like you are just at the beginning, do you feel there are any misconceptions about yourself?
I don’t know. Everybody thinks whatever it is they think, you know. Well, there is one. [laughs] I think a lot of people think I am really rich. [laughs] I don’t know why I am bringing this up. I think it came up a couple of years ago, people thinking I am really rich. The bottom line is that I am in spirit, love, friends and family. The fact of the matter is I am a pretty average guy who tries to make projects. I am working on projects right now and we split our finances by paying to the household and if they is anything left over, we pay to the studio and move along slowly. It is a snail’s pace but we get there in the end. I don’t know. It annoys me when I read in the press that people have the misconception that I am a wealthy person. I think someone said I had at least 45 million in the bank. [laughs] It drives me crazy because it is just not the truth! [laughs] At the same time, in saying that, I am blessed and very fortunate that I am not destitute either. That is one of those things that goes out there in the public and they get that impression. You know, I get so much love, affection and strength from all of the fans, whether they are Sabbath fans or Bill Ward fans or my fellow musicians. I get some great letters just the other day from some very well known drummers who absolutely are in support of me as a person. I try to have a bit of humility in receiving this gratitude. I know everybody is going to say whatever they are going to say. If there are some things that really do bother me about things that are being said, I feel like I have always taken the opportunity to set the record straight. I do that because, even if it doesn’t change anything, at least I am setting the record straight.
You have lived an incredible life and I am sure you have many tales to tell. Have you given much thought to telling your story in the form of an autobiography?
You know, I am clean and sober and I am only saying that because when I was about three years sober, I decided to write an autobiography. I started out and I realized it was full of ego, selfishness and self-centeredness, so I stopped writing it. I thought, “You know what? I am going to wait awhile until I feel like I have a little bit of humility.” Today, I feel like I have a little bit more humility than what I had at three years sober. I have been working again, slowly but surely, on a book. I am trying to treat it with care. I want to be very; very careful about talking about people I love and really try to give good detail to some of the things I felt were important in my life. At some point, perhaps we can release such a book! I just want to be careful that I am not a big blabbermouth. I don’t like all of the shock of “Oh, I went to detox 500 times…” and things like that. I don’t like and am not interested in the drama. I just want to write something I hope will be endearing for me as something my grandchildren could read, along with other people, and maybe get a good experience from reading it. That would be a great goal and it would be a good book, if it can be accomplished.
Obviously, you seem to have a self-reflective nature. What do you consider best part of being Bill Ward these days?
I feel experienced! [laughs] I feel like I am very well loved. I was just at a concert, looking at some other musicians last night. I met them after the concert and felt really, really loved by them. I am really grateful I am alive and to have the friends I have. I am very grateful for the outlook I have on life. It is an outlook that has become quite simple. I try not to complicate it and mess it up, you know? [laughs] There are a lot of things I used to fear that I don’t fear anymore. I simple don’t have the fears anymore. I am not so interesting in selfish things; I am more interested in people how their lives are going. I try to practice that. I think one of the greatest gifts I have is hindsight. With my hindsight, I have so many treasured memories. There is such a plethora of memories, I feel like I have an abundance of experiences that not only I can still enjoy but also share them with other people, so they can be useful to them or that they might enjoy listening to them. There are lots of things that I miss and lots of things I have enjoyed. That are lots of things I can’t do anymore — lots of things I could do at twenty-two that I can’t do because I am sixty-five. I don’t know, I feel worldly and that is because I am worldly. I have been to so many places. I love going to Central Park in New York; sitting there and watching the children play or watching the ducks. I love the whole experience of sitting in the park and looking up at the sky. There are lots of different things that turn the world around every day.
What is the best piece of advice you can pass on to young people, inspired by you, looking to make a career in music?
I would encourage them to be as honest as they can with themselves. You have to be true to yourself. If you are not true to yourself, you could fall apart by the time you are twenty-one. I have seen that happen over and over and over again. When you get on stage and especially when you are going through some of the rough stuff, if you don’t believe in what you are doing, then you are not going to make it on a thirty to fifty day tour when the food is no good, you haven’t had any sleep, you feel like shit and are missing your wife or family, whatever the situation is. If you don’t have that heart or passion for yourself or your music, then you aren’t going to make it out there. It gets rough, you know. I would definitely encourage your musicians or young people period, to stay as true to themselves as they can. You are going to have to make honest decisions about where you’re really at and have to learn to not be ashamed of those decisions. Sometimes, we make decisions and they are very painful. We can’t be ashamed of our decisions. We have to let things work out. Sometimes, if there are things we have done that we are ashamed of; these things usually have a way of working out in the end. They may not work out at that moment but they will eventually work out. I don’t know how that works but it does work! I would also encourage young musicians to be patient with themselves and be patient with other people. I can remember serving my first apprenticeship in rock ‘n’ roll, it took seven years. Many times I wanted to be there, up on the stage, in the spotlight. I thought was the criteria back then. I realized that it was nothing to do with the art of music but it is part of music and sometimes we have to be patient with where we are right now. I know that is really tough for the younger guys to do, it is tough for anybody to do! We need to be patient of where we are right now, see how things unfold, resolve and come about. Those are the things I have been sharing for a long time with my fellow musicians, especially the younger students. I care about them very much and, obviously, I want them to be successful as people first and successful as musicians. It doesn’t matter if they are going to be playing Carnegie Hall, Nassau Coliseum or The Grove in Anaheim, the gig is wherever the gig is. It is about enjoying the experience, being OK with yourself and doing the best you can.
Thank you so much for your time today, Bill. It has been a pleasure and I look forward to all you have in store for us in the years to come. It is very cool to see you pushing forward and continuing to challenge yourself — very inspirational!
Thank you, Jason! I appreciate it!
To check out Bill Ward’s incredible collection of drum art and to hear his thoughts on each piece, visit www.billwarddrumart.com. See more of SceneFour’s incredible collaborations at www.scenefour.com.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.