Interview with Bastard of Reality singer David Hillman

Bastard of Reality are a Seattle-based Black Sabbath tribute act. Bastard of Reality strive for an authentic Sabbath sound and performance, with much of their set focused on the first two studio albums. Singer David Hillman, who sounds uncannily like Ozzy Osbourne, was kind enough to answer some questions about Bastard of Reality, of course answering many questions about Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne along the way. (For a related article, please also see my previous article, Bastard of Reality | Seattle Black Sabbath tribute.)

Black Sabbath are a true protest band. The lyrics are as pertinent now as they were then. “War Pigs” could have been written at any time between 2003 and now, or really since the dawn of time. David Hillman.

Hi David, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions about Black Sabbath tribute Bastard of Reality. First, why Black Sabbath as opposed to Led Zeppelin or AC/DC or any other number of hard rock acts? What is special about Black Sabbath that you decided to form a tribute act? Why the name Bastard of Reality?

For me the idea of being in a Led Zeppelin or AC/DC tribute band sounds fun but there are some really good local guys and gals already doing a great job at it, so the Black Sabbath gig seemed to be the right thing at the right time. In doing the research for this project, we found that there were many, many bad Sabbath tributes and a few good ones as well. But as far as doing the whole production with the hair and costumes and authentically trying to reproduce the earlier shows, there was nobody on the West Coast that we could find and very few overall in the states. There was a void that we wanted to fill.

David Hillman, singer for Seattle-based Black Sabbath tribute Bastard of Reality, with Erik Tomren.

David Hillman, singer for Black Sabbath tribute Bastard of Reality, with Erik Tomren.

What led to the formation of the band and how did the individual band members come together? Was there any trial and error in trying to perfect the songs? As vocalist (“Ozzy”), are there any songs in particular that are challenging for you? Are there any songs that are challenging for the band as a whole?

I’m not really a singer as much as I’m a guitar player that forced himself to learn how to sing. And since I never dreamed I’d ever be in a tribute band, I sorta surprised myself when I told Eric [Getty] and Scott [Tatman] I wanted to try out for the Black Sabbath tribute band they were putting together. I’ve known those guys since grade school. In fact, Eric and I had the same guitar teacher. They played those tunes for months just guitar and drums before they found a temporary bass player.

A couple of months later I came in. When the word got out we were looking for a bass player, Bob [Crow] said he would love to do it. Bob’s a guitar teacher like me so I was a little surprised when he offered to play bass, but then again Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler also started out as a guitar player. Bob fit right in and destroyed those tunes on his first day.

Of course the tunes aren’t easy, so it helps that we’ve all been playing a long time. Eric and Scott had the songs pretty much fleshed out before Bob and I came in so it was really just a matter of playing them every week. The cool thing about being in a tribute band is that the songs are set in stone, so there’s no arguing about how a tune goes.

The guys make playing the music look and sound really easy so I can only speak for myself. Ozzy is a very intense singer so there is no coasting on any of the songs. Ozzy is a very, very good singer, much better than me and much better than I think most people realize. His range is both lower and higher than mine so that is a bit of a trick.

I learn something new about singing Ozzy every practice and every show. “War Pigs” and “Black Sabbath” were probably the toughest and took the longest for me to feel comfortable with because Ozzy is just out there by himself with little music on much of those two tunes. Geezer wasn’t one for writing lyrics that repeat. Most of the songs read like a manifesto, so remembering the words is a bitch.

According to the official band bio your first show was in December of 2010. Was that the Dec. 31 show at The Mix? How do you feel the band has progressed since that first show?

That was our first show on New Year’s Eve. I think we’ve gotten more comfortable being on stage and on stage with each other. None of us has ever been in a tribute act so we’re learning what to expect with that. We’ve either rehearsed or played a show almost every Saturday for almost two years so it’s become just something that we really enjoy to do.

(View a medley of Bastard of Reality’s very first performance. Footage was recorded on Dec. 31, 2010 at The Mix in Seattle.)

Many tribute acts don’t try to “dress up” to resemble the original band. Yet Bastard of Reality members wear wigs and period clothing, with fringed jackets and similar. You even wear costume jewelry to copy the cross necklaces that Black Sabbath members wear. Do you feel this provides a better experience for the audience? Does it make it easier to play the songs and imagine yourselves as original members?

As a huge fan of music, I really enjoy the show when a tribute act looks the part. When a band can convincingly re-create the music, the costumes and hair are the icing on the cake. It’s theater. It’s entertainment. People want to go out, squint their eyes, and imagine it’s the real band somewhere in England or wherever in 1970. It only cost them 10 or 15 bucks in a club instead of $200 in a stadium. The musicians don’t look like their grandparents, and they don’t have to wait 45 minutes in a parking lot before they can drive home after the show.

As a singer you give a very energetic performance, including even running all over the stage with a tambourine, similar to old Black Sabbath footage I’ve seen. Do you view Ozzy’s larger-than-life stage presence and banter as a necessary factor to Black Sabbath’s appeal?

I think Black Sabbath’s appeal is multi-faceted, and the things that make their music and shows appealing can be different for each fan. I think that by striving for authenticity, we give the people who come to see us the things that they want and expect from a Black Sabbath show. I certainly view the accuracy of our performance a necessary factor in Bastard Of Reality’s appeal. If I didn’t give it more than my all I don’t think that would make for an appealing tribute show. Ozzy’s got some big shoes to fill and I try to give a performance that I’d like to see if I were in the audience.

Is it difficult to sing like Ozzy? He has a very unconventional voice that seems like it would be a challenge to replicate. Does it require a lot of training and practice on your part? Maybe herbal tea to rest the vocal chords?

Guinness, Ricola, and the occasional Nat Sherman. It’s a bitch to sing like Ozzy. I listened to nothing but Black Sabbath for a year. I’m always finding something I’m not doing right. Like I said before, it’s a constant learning experience.

You actually play harmonica on “The Wizard” from the first Black Sabbath album. Did you play harmonica previously? Was it difficult to learn?

I was always a lousy harmonica player. I can’t remember how many times I’ve tried to learn. I was under the gun to learn to play it around this time last year, so I traded a guitar lesson for a harmonica lesson from a great harp player and was passable within a month. The lesson really helped me enormously on the technical side and being a singer and musician sort of took care of the rest. It really is worth the trouble to be able to play the harmonica on that song. “The Wizard” is a powerful tune and people really dig it. Some people end up at our shows with a skeptical attitude about us or tribute bands in general and “The Wizard” usually puts any of those feelings to rest, at least that’s what I’ve been told.

(Bastard of Reality perform “The Wizard” from Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album. David Hillman sings and plays harmonica. Recorded Dec. 3, 2011 at The Mix in Seattle.)

Worldwide, there must be countless Black Sabbath tribute acts. But there a number of local acts too as well, correct? I know Supernaughty is from Seattle, what are the other ones? What sets Bastard of Reality apart from the competition? Why should people see your band and not the others?

Supernauty is great, as is Hand of Doom. I think our attention to detail, the spectacle, and the accuracy is what sets us apart. We are huge fans and we work very hard to try to make you think you are at a Black Sabbath show. When the guys play the tunes, to me it sounds just like the album and it’s so inspiring that all I need to do is pound a shot of tequila, try to sing on key, and try to remember the words while hopping around like a man possessed.

Let’s talk some more about the music. Your website pointedly states that the setlists are drawn from the first six Black Sabbath albums, which leaves out two Ozzy-fronted albums, Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die! Why leave out these albums? As a fan, I’m fond of both albums and feel there are a number of songs that could be included, which many fans are just not familiar with. Technical Ecstasy has for example “You Won’t Change Me”, “Rock N’ Roll Doctor” and “Dirty Women” (which Black Sabbath had brought back into their setlists in the 1990’s-2000’s). Never Say Die! has the title track and “Johnny Blade”, and I’m sure other songs that could be worthwhile in a live setting.

We currently have around a 25 song setlist, which we can’t play every time out. There are certainly songs we have to play every show, and as we usually have limited time, the more obscure tunes have to be rotated. As a band we thought the first six records have the strongest material, but Eric the guitar player knows them all. I’m sure someday we’ll have to play a night of obscure tunes for the hardcores.

Your Dec. 3 show at The Mix had a setlist featuring nearly the entire first album and much of ‘Paranoid.’ Is that first album special for you, and why? Are you trying to capture this era aesthetically with your stage outfits? It seems like your stage presence is more based on the infamous 1970 Paris show than, for example their coked-out performance in 1974’s California Jam.

Yes, Paris 1970 is certainly where I draw much of my inspiration from. Our setlists draw heavily from the first three records. We kind of have this fixation about playing the first record front to back. This is just me talking but I feel the band was at it’s best then, when the drugs were still a good influence and before they started fighting all the time.

Also during the Dec. 3 show you played “Warning”, which is actually not a Black Sabbath song, but rather a cover of British blues project The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation. Do you find it a bit odd that you are covering a cover song? Do you ever play “Evil Woman”, the other cover song, originally by Crow, featured on Black Sabbath’s debut album?

We haven’t played “Evil Woman” yet. “Warning” is on the first record and also on the compilation We Sold Our Soul For Rock ‘N’ Roll. It’s one of my favorites, and I don’t find it odd at all to play it live. Like I said before, we just love playing the first record in order. I’m not sure why. I certainly dig it when the crowd sings along to “Warning.” I think that song has a special place in many people’s hearts, and reflects the fact that early on, before they were named Black Sabbath, they were a heavy blues rock band. I like to put together a show that I would like to see if I were in the audience. [If you would like to view hear the original versions of these songs, please see here and here].

Black Sabbath are often thought of as simply “heavy metal”, or they are known as a “drug band” (songs like “Snowblind” and “Sweet Leaf”). Yet, at least part of their catalog is social/political and covers topics that were of concern at the time: war, political corruption, etc. What is your interpretation of the band’s lyrics and their legacy? Are there any lessons that can be carried over to today’s political climate, or do you feel that the lyrics/mentality of early Black Sabbath are rooted only in that era?

Black Sabbath are a true protest band. The lyrics are as pertinent now as they were then. “War Pigs” could have been written at any time between 2003 and now, or really since the dawn of time. Many days I identify with Geezer on “Into The Void.” A space ship ride with the “Sons of Freedom” to a new planet sounds nice anytime you read the news. “Leave the Earth to Satan and his slaves!”

(Bastard of Reality performing “War Pigs” from Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album. “War Pigs” is often considered to be Black Sabbath’s most political song. Recorded Feb. 18, 2012 at Louie G’s in Fife, Washington.)

The original Black Sabbath lineup wrote a few new songs around 2000, including “Selling My Soul”, “Psychoman” and the unreleased “Scary Dreams”. Would you ever consider incorporating any of these into a setlist?

Something like that is always a possibility.

What about songs from Ozzy’s solo career, such as “Crazy Train”?

We never really think about going there. Certainly if we did any Ozzy stuff, I would vote for the Randy Rhoads era and would push for something more obscure like “S.A.T.O.” or “Little Dolls”. Eric tears that Randy Rhoads shit up!

At press time it appears the Black Sabbath reunion is still happening, but without Bill Ward on drums. Since the Nov. 11, 2011 reunion announcement there has been a number of setbacks for the band. First, Tony Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma. Then Bill Ward pulled out to an “unsignable contract”, eventually to be replaced by Tommy Clufetos. A further disappointment to fans is that nearly the entire 2012 Black Sabbath tour has been restructured as “Ozzy and Friends” and will not be a reunion at all. Gut check, will the new album and world tour happen? Do you have any thoughts about the current situation, for example do you feel Bill Ward has been treated fairly? Assuming a new album does come out at some point, would you be interested in playing any of the new songs live?

I obviously only know what has been publicized so I can’t give an informed opinion. Tony’s condition is of course a real bummer and we wish him and his family the best of luck in his fight. If he is healthy enough to record and tour then I do think it would be pretty stupid if they can’t work it out after all the announcements. You’d think the contracts would have been signed before the press conference heralding the reunion. I’d prefer the original lineup for both the album and tour. I hope they can work it out. Us playing those new tunes is possible, we’ll see.

As you are well aware, the Ozzy years of Black Sabbath are only part of their legacy. Do you have love/respect for other eras of the band, or do you only appreciate the original lineup? What non-Ozzy albums are your favorite?

Personally I favor the Ozzy stuff, but if I had to pick a favorite non-Ozzy era I’d choose Dio.

Have you ever had any communication with any Black Sabbath members or management? What would you say to them if you had the opportunity to meet?

Not yet, but we’re only getting started. I might say at first, “For Christ’s sake, don’t sue us!” I’d love to hang with Geezer. He seems to be the nicest and most down to earth, but really I’d love to hang with all of them. The stories would be awesome I’m sure, and I’m such a music geek they would probably have security drag me away before I could ask all my questions.

One interesting development several years ago was when early Black Sabbath concert footage was found, from Nov. 16, 1969. Do you think we’ll ever get to hear this material? How important is the band’s early material to their legacy? Do you feel it’s important that the band started as a blues jam band and that many of their early efforts were covers, or is this just minutia for diehard fans?

That stuff is always interesting, and usually minutia for diehards, but Ozzy is so huge that I think a broader audience would be interested.

Let’s talk a bit about your personal life if you’d like. Are you from Seattle area originally? What’s your family life like? What do you for a day job apart from Bastard of Reality?

Yep, born and raised in the Northwest and playing shows since 1987. I have a wife and 2-year-old son and I teach guitar full time. I never thought I could make a living off of music, but here I am.

What is your favorite music, apart from the obvious? Do you have any other hobbies that you like to do in your free time?

I like all kinds of music. Blues, jazz, some pop, metal, punk, real country, not the plastic shit Nashville typically pukes out these days. Classic rock, of course. Jack White is a genius, I like whatever he does. Them Crooked Vultures is pretty awesome. Ween rules!

I like to read and play cards obsessively. I used to pay my rent playing poker but currently I dig cribbage. I’ve been into watching all the Star Trek episodes on Netflix lately. I love to play music so I have another band called Men For Common Sense that plays around town. We are strictly improv so we never practice and write our tunes on stage, usually with audience input.

Do you listen to Black Sabbath for fun, or is it more of a job for you now? What are you favorite Black Sabbath songs or albums? I think one of my personal all-time favorites is “Megalomania”.

Like I said, I listened to nothing but Black Sabbath for an entire year so at this point I get enough at shows and rehearsals. As you can probably guess I’m an early Sabbath man and my favorites are on the first three records. The Wizard, Fairies [Wear Boots], Into The Void, War Pigs, [Behind the] Wall Of Sleep / N.I.B, Hand of Doom.

(Bastard of Reality performing “Tomorrow’s Dreams” from Black Sabbath Vol 4. Recorded Feb. 18, 2012 at Louie G’s in Fife, Washington.) 

Where do you see Bastard of Reality going in the future? How would you gauge the band’s success in terms of getting gigs, ticket sales, publicity, etc.? Have you seen a noticeable increase in interest since the Black Sabbath reunion announcement?

Always onwards and upwards. We want to play 20 Saturdays in a row in Vegas for $5,000 a show plus airfare, food, and hotel. But that will take time I suppose. I will say that this is the easiest band I’ve ever been in. We all get along, and we don’t mind working hard or rehearsing every week. I think we have filled a void, and the ease in which we have settled into the groove of playing good shows one or two Saturdays a month reflects our dedication. As far as the Sabbath reunion goes, I haven’t noticed anything but that could change.

Are you interested in creating original music with your bandmates?

We’ve talked about it, but where to find the time??????

Sharon Osbourne is hated by many a metal fan, but others feel she helped save Ozzy’s career and maybe his life. What do you think? In your view were The Osbournes TV show and Ozzfest positive developments, or negative?

I wouldn’t have any reason to hate her as I have never met her. I think she’s great for Ozzy. Managing bands is a tough gig. I certainly don’t enjoy it. Anytime a good musician can be paid well it’s a victory in my book, as so many get screwed from every angle. More power to Ozzy with all his endeavors.

What do you think is Black Sabbath’s musical legacy? I tend to think of them more as classic rock or hard rock, but they are considered heavy metal icons. They’ve been covered by Metallica, Pantera, and many other metal bands. I don’t know, just seems a bit odd to me, since much of their music I wouldn’t really consider “heavy metal” at all.

Their legacy will be different for different people. Hawkers of Devil music, The Fathers Of Heavy Metal, The Greatest Protest Band Of All Time. Whatever. I hear their influence in so much music. They are not as easy to pin down as many people may think, so I say why try to label them? I’m just a huge fan and enjoy the experience and the honor of playing their music. The coolest thing about our shows is that we are are a group of fans playing the songs for our fellow fans.

(This article was originally published at Examiner.com on June 4, 2012. Updates: Bastard of Reality has been on hiatus since 2015. The tribute Hand of Doom is no longer active. The Georgetown venue The Mix went out of business; the last show was on Oct. 31, 2015. Louie G’s in Fife will close on Aug. 29, 2020, an unfortunate victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

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