I had the chance to speak with guitarist/producer Andrew Watt earlier in the year to get into his playing on the incredibly spirited, and especially scorching Ordinary Man album he made with Ozzy Osbourne. Around the time of the talk, he had just finished tracking the better part of Miley Cyrus’ Plastic Hearts album. He had also just begun recovering from his battle with COVID-19.
I’ve held onto the conversation for a while now, but being that it’s the end of the year, and considering Andrew was just nominated for Producer of the Year at next January’s Grammy Awards—for his work with Ozzy and Miley, as well as with Dua Lipa, Post Malone, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, and 5 Seconds of Summer—this is a great time to look back on a part of his impressive year.
The piece is presented as it had been prepped in the spring, and has been edited and condensed.
Among the many extraordinary circumstances that brought guitarist/producer Andrew Watt and Ozzy Osbourne together to make the metal icon’s new Ordinary Man album—the Prince of Darkness’ first full-length solo release since 2010’s Scream— you can trace the genesis of the project to a most unlikely source: famously tattooed and auto-tuned pop star Post Malone.
“When we get together, the guitars come out and we’re playing Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, and Sabbath songs,” Watt explains of his relationship with Post Malone, with whom he’s also collaborated on a handful of singles. “We’re music buffs, so we both love Ozzy and Sabbath. All eras of Ozzy—No More Tears with Zakk [Wylde], the Randy Rhoads stuff, and the Sabbath stuff. I think Post even played ‘War Pigs’ with my band one time at a Coachella party a few years ago.”
As legend has it, it was a different night at L.A.’s Rainbow Room, when a drunken Post Malone stumbled out of the Sunset Strip club cradling a portrait of Osbourne he had just bought off the wall, that gave Watt his eureka moment: ‘imagine if Post and Ozzy did a song together?’ Around this time, the producer had just befriended Ozzy’s daughter, Kelly, who passed along the idea to her father. Unfortunately Ozzy had been laid out by a series of serious health issues, including neck surgery following a painful fall. He’d been in agony at home on the couch for months, but after an introductory hang-out with Watt, where they bonded over the Beatles, Osbourne soon hit the producer’s Gold Tooth Music studio in Beverly Hills to cut a verse and the chorus for what would become “Take What You Want”, a crossover hit that combines traphouse beats with Ozzy’s inimitable voice and double-handed tap theatrics courtesy of Watt.
While Watt has a hard rock background—he teamed up with Deep Purple’s Glenn Hughes and drummer Jason Bonham as California Breed for an album in 2014, and issued the solo-heavy Ghosts in My Head EP on his own in 2016—the past few years have mainly seen Watt working with modern pop royalty, including Cardi B and Justin Bieber. When Kelly Osbourne asked him if he would be up for making a full-fledged rock album with the Godfather of Heavy Metal, the stunned songwriter responded with a non-committal ‘I don’t think I can do that.”
“I hope it didn’t sound rude when I said that,” he says in retrospect, “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to. It’s fucking Ozzy! He’s my hero! I would be a fool to not [make an album with him]. I was just unsure if I was capable, you know? I’m confident in myself as a guitar player, and I use the guitar in all my different kinds of music, but Ozzy and Sabbath, there’s such a legacy there. It’s the same thing if you had asked me to make a Robert Plant album. What’s the point in doing it if I can’t make the shit as good as Zeppelin? ‘I don’t want to make a shitty Ozzy Osbourne album’, that’s what I was thinking. It wasn’t because of him, it was because of me.”
In a story that only gets more star-studded, Watt credits Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer and frequent collaborator Chad Smith for giving him the pep talk that convinced him to take the project on— with Smith on drums, of course. The pair then drafted Guns ‘N Roses bassist Duff McKagan into the line-up, and banged out the beds for 10 songs in just four days. But when Watt first invited Ozzy back to his studio to hear the results, the singer’s ‘lax attitude towards the tracks had the producer thinking he just cut a bunch of duds.
“The little kid in me wanted to be validated. Making this epic bit of rock music for Ozzy, you just want to hear ‘I love it!’. Instead I hear, ‘ok, I’ll call you tomorrow,’ and he walks out. Everyone else leaves quick, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my fucking god, he hated it.’ I had a sleepless night that night. What the fuck do we do? Which other rock legend can we get to lead this? How am I going to tell Duff and Chad that he didn’t like it? But the next day, sure enough, I get a text from him, and it says, ‘Ok, Andrew, when do we start?’”
Ordinary Man is a most humble title for Osbourne’s fantastic return. Watt and co. cut a dynamic swath of songs—think flames-scorched metal (“Straight to Hell”); bone-rattling boogies (“From the Graveyard”); chorus-soaked, No More Tears-influenced arena anthems (“All My Life”); riotous proto-punk fury (“It’s a Raid”); and bombastic, Beatles-leaning balladry (“Ordinary Man”). Watt puts on a clinic throughout with his series of classically informed runs and an arsenal of heavy, yet undoubtedly hooky riffs, but the producer also energized the sessions with a pair of surly leads from Duff’s old GNR buddy Slash, and some interstellar guitar sonics from Rage Against the Machine six-stringer Tom Morello. Elton John even hopped aboard to provide piano and vocals to the title track.
Making Ordinary Man while enduring painful physical rehabilitation sessions led Osbourne towards writing a deeply personal and reflective set of lyrics, covering themes of substance abuse and contemplating his own mortality. Despite this, Ordinary Man is hardly morose; Ozzy gets some laughs in, too, whether warning us about alien invaders (“Scary Little Green Men”) or making a case for cannibalization (“Eat Me”). It’s on the title track, however, that Ozzy takes stock on his incredible 50-year career, and what it means to have lived for so long in the public eye as the face of heavy metal.
“The lyrics ‘I was unprepared for fame and then everybody knew my name’, it’s kind of me and my insecurities about being who I am, you know. You’re only as good as your last hit, and I hadn’t had a fuckin [solo] record out for ten years,” Osbourne added in a separate conversation, adding how working with Watt reinvigorated his spirit, helping him greatly on his ongoing road to recovery. “All I could do for the last year was think. I couldn’t do anything physical, couldn’t get out on the road. Getting off my ass and making a record was the best medicine I could possibly take.”
Back in the spring, Watt shared some thoughts on working with Ozzy and the other musicians on Ordinary Man, and how the current pandemic has temporarily put a pause on making more music with the Prince of Darkness.
We’re at a bizarre time, with the arts, among other things, being shut down because of the coronavirus. What were you working on prior to the pandemic? Earlier in the year you had posted an Instagram video of yourself tracking Nile Rodgers in the studio...
ANDREW WATT: My MO has always been ‘maybe we should jam sometime’. Earlier in my career when I would say that, [musicians] would be like “yeah...ok”, but a few people did, like Chad Smith from the Chili Peppers. He jammed with me when I had nothing going on, and now he’s one of my best friends and my most frequent collaborator. Now when I’m like ‘you wanna jam’ they take me more seriously. It’s awesome; it’s what I dreamed of.
Someone introduced me and Nile at Elton John’s Oscar party. I asked him to jam, and he called me the next day. He’s like ‘I’ve got one day before I leave town, you want to do this?’ He literally had his suitcase with him [at the studio]; he came before had had to go to the airport. We put down two different ideas, and then all this craziness started [with the coronavirus]. We didn’t get a chance to finish them yet, but we will. I played bass, Nile played guitar, and Chad played drums.
And you’re working out of your home studio [Gold Tooth Music]?
WATT: Yes, my studio is in my house in Beverly Hills. I just finished up an album here with Miley Cyrus that’s incredible. It has a lot of rock elements. Obviously everything is on hold until people can do their jobs again. For a big artist, you want to be able to sing these songs on TV, and perform them [live], and go to the radio stations to do the stuff you need to do in order for people to hear your music. It’s just an impossibility right now. A lot of people are unsure what to do, and how to release music in this time.
Is there anything in the meantime that you could say about your playing for Miley? Are you shredding it as you were on the Ozzy record?
WATT: We made a sound that’s very different than the Ozzy sound—because she’s a completely different artist—but there’s tons of guitar. There are guitar solos, but it was all [to serve] the melody of the song. There are a lot of live instruments involved, and she’s one of the best singers ever—she’s singing her ass off! That’s thing that people will focus on, for sure.
Do you remember which song got the ball rolling between yourself, Chad and Duff when you started the Ordinary Man sessions?
WATT: I think “Goodbye” was one of the first things we really worked out, because it was the loudest. That and “Straight to Hell,” those were really early ones. Those were done in the first day.
Those are definitely on the heavier side of this batch of songs.
WATT: Well, think about it...You get together with your boys, the first thing you want to do is rock the fuck out! That’s what makes the most sense.
Prior to writing the songs, you were bonding over the Beatles with Ozzy. More often than not, he’s got a big ballad on his albums digging into this melodic side of him. I guess that’s where the title track comes in?
WATT: Let me give you my thought process as I’m going through [making the album]. I’ve made some music that’s sold some copies, but my dream is rock and roll. I was in [California Breed] with Glen Hughes and Jason Bonham, we toured with Slash. I have friends in the rock world, but I have no real rock music that I’ve made of any note up to this point, right? So I’m sitting there with Duff and Chad, playing guitar. It’s big shoes to fill, making music for Ozzy. I just let myself go back to being a 12-year-old fan. Not thinking about selling records, just what do I want to hear as that 12-year-old.
What’s arguably one of the best Sabbath songs— and one of the best Ozzy moments ever— is “War Pigs.” You can’t argue with that! It is what it is. So what makes “War Pigs” great? You’ve got these riffs, and there’s these holes where the music stops and then Ozzy sings. And then the riff comes in again. [I’m thinking] We’ve got to make holes for Ozzy’s singing, because that’s a thing that the fans will love. That’s where “Straight to Hell” came from. It’s riff, riff, hole, riff.
And then I love Guns ‘N Roses—“Mr. Brownstone” is one of my favourite songs, same with “Paradise City”. Those songs have that half-step, chromatic thing that Duff is so incredible at writing, having mastered it with Slash and Izzy. With “All My Life”, I started coming up with the chords and Duff started coming up with that [style of bass line]. We zeroed in to what I think is an amazing Duff riff. It has elements of that. And then Chad is the most bombastic motherfucker that exists. He can not only lay it down, but he can out chop anyone.
We were trying to make dangerous sounding music. We didn’t want to sound safe. It’s not perfectly gridded—the click was on to keep us going, but we’re pushing and pulling, being three guys in a room that are playing.
You’re obviously writing for Ozzy through all of this, and you mentioned playing to Duff’s strengths, but were you also writing songs with Zakk Wylde’s playing in mind, since he’s still Ozzy’s guitarist?
WATT: And he will be forever! But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about the musicians that were there in front of me, and I was thinking about Ozzy. We didn’t even know when we were making this if Ozzy was going to sing to the stuff, or if he was going to hate it. It was new relationships. I wasn’t able to sit down at that moment and think ‘Zakk will play here, Slash will play here’. It wasn’t done like that. It was more that I have to be the best guitar player I can be, because I’m presenting music to Ozzy fucking Osbourne. Duff and Chad, they don’t need an introduction. I have to prove that my riffs are worthy of Ozzy singing on them.
Going back to what you said, me and Ozzy talked so much about the Beatles, so I had to give him a big ballad. Those are great Ozzy moments! I had these piano chords from the chorus of “Ordinary Man” for years. I’d show them to people all the time, but they never made it into a song. Duff and Chad are in the room, they’re playing along, and we decided to walk it down into the “All the Young Dudes”-style verses. The second we started playing that, Chad said ‘this reminds me of Elton John!’ Duff was like, “Dude, this is so ‘November Rain’, we gotta get Slash on this’. Those are wild ideas! Like, ok, yeah....first we’ve got to get Ozzy to sing this, then once he writes the best lyrics ever let’s get Slash to play the solo with the wind blowing in his hair, and then Elton John will play [piano] on it. Give me a more ludicrous situation! The amount of times that I cried during the process of making this song, I’m embarrassed by it. Every dream I had as a child was coming true.
Since we’re talking about the song “Ordinary Man”, there’s this video online of you going wild as you’re watching Slash tear through his solo. And that wasn’t even the take that made it on the album! What can you say about having Slash in the studio? Did you give him much guidance, or did you just let him do his thing?
WATT: Slash was early to the session, he rung my doorbell while I was in bed. I’m getting out of bed to go answer the door for Slash. This is, like, what the fuck is life?
Anyways, Slash came in and obviously it’s fucking Slash, you want to let him do his thing. He’s such a humble, cool guy, though, and the reason why all these musicians worked so well together is because no one had an ego. They just wanted to do their best for the song. I’d let Slash know that there was going to be an orchestra on “Ordinary Man”, and he really left room for that—he played beautifully, melodically, and quoted the vocal melody. He really took his time to build that lead. And you’re sitting there watching Slash rip the fucking end lick, that fast part that only he could play... the only way you could wipe the shit eating grin off of my face was to put the entire world into a pandemic.
Can we talk about your own soloing? On “All My Life”, in particular, you’ve got those two sections that start with the same triumphant motif before branching off into very different sequences of bends and runs.
WATT: Usually how I do it is I listen to the section right before I play, to understand the chord movements, and the melodies come to my brain. I sang [the first part of both leads] into my phone, like a voice memo. I love themes that you can sing back.
Loving Randy, who was very classical; loving Zakk, there’s a classical side to him as well, plus the ability to shred harder than anyone; Tony’s playing was very themed as well—I’m thinking about those things, trying to do something like that, a theme people could sing back. That’s my favourite solo that I played on the album.
How about something like “Goodbye”? There’s a lot of ebb and flow, starting with some gloom and groove before you jump up the tempo for a fuzz-heavy solo. Are you also working an octave pedal throughout those leads?
WATT: No, I use a Univox Superfuzz from 1968. It’s got two sides to its sound, and I keep it wide open. I keep it direct. In the middle section, where Ozzy’s singing ‘sitting here in purgatory’ and you hear the heavy guitar come in... those single notes? That’s direct fuzz. I had this idea of mixing direct fuzz with the other guitar tones, and the direct fuzz sticks out. It almost sounds like a really dirty synth. That’s all over the album, but the rest of the tones are anything from an old 10-inch Supro, to Orange heads, to a 50 through a 4x12 cab.
You’re part of an impressive pantheon now. In terms of the guitars these players used across Ozzy’s catalogue, you think of Tony Iommi’s SG, Zakk’s bulls-eye Les Paul, Randy Rhoads' polka dot V. Was there a go-to guitar for you on these sessions?
WATT: I was very lucky to be gifted Mick Ronson’s Les Paul. He had two Les Paul’s, a custom and a standard, both of which he shaved down. The Standard went through many hands over the years until I got it. That’s the main guitar on this album. It plays so well—He played “All the Young Dudes” on that guitar, you know what I’m saying? There was a lot of pressure [for making Ordinary Man], so I wanted a little help from above for this, so I picked up that guitar and played the best I’ve ever played in my life. I hadn’t really used it much before, except for one other time where it did something absolutely magical on a song called “The Lay Down”, by Dram and H.E.R. It was this one-take solo, the band was jamming and I ripped it out. That was the first time I realized it could be special for me. It did the same thing for me on this Ozzy album, but I also used a 1964 SG special all over it; Ozzy gave me a 1959 Les Paul Junior of his, which he bought in Birmingham, and I used that all over the album, too. I also used a different Les Paul Custom, some Strats, and some Teles. But that Mick Ronson Les Paul, pretty much all the solos were played on that.
Can you talk some more about the dynamics of the album, presenting a gorgeous ballad like “Ordinary Man” alongside something like “It’s A Raid”, which is more of a balls-out party song.
WATT: It’s total carnage! I love “It’s a Raid”. Post loved it so much that he wanted to sing on it. He wasn’t supposed to be on Ozzy’s album, but Ozzy was like, “Sure, let him sing”.
Tom Morello also guests on the song.
WATT: I was catching up with Tom for whatever reason—I think he loved the Post/Ozzy song—so I told him I was doing the album with Ozzy. I had him over before [the album] was mixed, and he fucking loved it. He was saying all this crazy shit. I’m sitting there looking at him, like, ‘he’s so passionate about it, how can I not have him play on this album?’
He played a little bit on “Scary Little Green Men”, because it’s this alien song, and he gave us a bunch of weird sounds in the bridge. [Me and Chad had also] made “It’s a Raid” as some Motorhead-ish sounding shit. It was just bass and drums, there wasn’t even guitar on it yet. [I said] ‘Tom, you should play guitar on this!’
It was just so much fun to record that together...just playing this power rock, you know? Fast, punk stuff. He played guitar on one side, and then I doubled it on the other side with a different guitar to get a different tone. There’s some direct fuzz on that song as well, in the middle section, which is riff heavy. Tom played on two tracks, Slash played on two tracks, and the rest of the guitar [on the album] is me.
We’re at this particularly weird moment in time where the pandemic has put everything on pause, but Ozzy has been quite vocal about wanting to make another album with you. Have you been in contact with him much?
WATT: Every single day! Even while I was going through the coronavirus, Ozzy checked on me every day and offered to help as much as possible. He’s family to me. I will make Ozzy Osbourne albums until he doesn’t want to make them anymore. If he tells me he wants to make another one, then we’re making the album! Ozzy Osbourne is going to make more music with me, and I couldn’t be more excited about it.