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Diabolical Conquest webzine
Robert Garven interview
Interview with the Classic Heavy Metal band CIRITH UNGOL
“We let the music speak for itself, and it spoke volumes. We played loud, we practiced loud and we recorded as loud as the studios would let us! “
“I still feel the failure of the band can be spread around pretty evenly but it must be said that the record companies which knew much more of the intricacies of the business could have done something, anything to help promote the band.”
“I still think of Ratt, Poison, Motley Crue and Metallica as pretty sad acts personally and kind of surprised they ever made it. It just goes to show what I was told early on, “The music business is about business, and not about music”, which we found out sadly to be totally true.”
Diabolical Conquest homepage (archive)
Robert Garven Interview (archive)
It is my sincere (and even dire) hope that Cirith Ungol require absolutely no introduction to a reader of this rag. To call Cirith Ungol one of my favorite bands of all time would be a grotesque understatement, cheapening the band by mentioning them in the same breath as other musical entities. To suggest that King Of The Dead is one of my favorite records would be to suggest the agonizingly obvious, for in all earnesty I consider it the absolute apex of American heavy metal, alongside Secret Treaties, Tyranny & Mutation, Vincebus Eruptum, Queensryche and Awaken The Guardian, a record that has endured, through years of tumult and personal strife, as a perpetual source of comfort during periods of profound aggravation and acrimony, one of those monumental moments in musical history that affirm, in the breadth of 40 odd minutes, exactly why you bleed and obsess about this music- to experience those moments of transcendental bliss, that undiluted jolt of rock n’roll ecstasy/epiphany that floods your being with fulfillment and rapture.
King Of The Dead is a heavy rock monolith, a recording that brazenly defies the dictates of time and place, a burst of musical expression that is so ethereal, so mindwarpingly idiosyncratic that it is almost as though it were retrieved from another dimension and imposed upon a world that has yet to fully comprehend the sheer depth of its profundity. There are few things that could hope to match the record in sheer malefic, morose DOOM, the band welding a host of fantastical themes to craft unremittingly eldritch narratives of fear, loathing and impending Ragnarok. I don’t care what anyone says, next to Pentagram ‘s Day Of Reckoning and Pagan Altar ‘s Lords Of Hypocrisy , King Of The Dead is the penultimate summation of dread, every other doom album, in comparison, is but a mere ripple upon the shadow-shrouded bog that Cirith Ungol haunt and govern. Timeless, legendary, such trite superlatives do no justice to the legacy of Cirith Ungol , and it is testament to their fiercely individualistic flair that, in this age of contrived facsimile, no band has DARED to emulate the horrific sonic blueprint of Fogle, Flint, Garven and Baker. It was an absolute privilege to conduct a chat with Robert Garven, unquestionably one of the most distinctive/brilliant percussionists in heavy metal history. Count one of my lifetime goals fulfilled!
– Conducted by Nin Chan
Diabolical Conquest (Nin Chan): Hails, Robert! The word “cult band” is thrown around with such reckless abandon nowadays, but I do believe that Cirith Ungol are one of the the DEFINITIVE cult bands in heavy metal history- it is impossible to ‘’like” Cirith Ungol , one must pledge one’s unconditional, unyielding allegiance to Cirith Ungol, prostrate oneself before the black altar of the Master Of The Pit and faithfully chant devotional hymns of Frost & Fire on a daily basis! People who love Cirith Ungol , really, truly obsess over them, I know that I once listened to King Of The Dead for 5 hours on repeat while reading Stormbringer and Kull . Are you a little disturbed over the all-engrossing Cirith Ungol mania that seems to have consumed certain circles of the underground metal community? Conversely, does it frustrate you that all this almost religious fanaticism emerges posthumously, and didn’t save Cirith Ungol from an untimely end?
Robert (Cirith Ungol): Well I was not aware that any mania exists but it I am glad to hear of it. I am very passionate about my music anCirith Ungold interests and I am very happy that all the blood, sweat and tears we put into the music has not been for naught!
I know that you were always into Granicus, Demian/Bubble Puppy, The Stooges, Captain Beyond (obvious GODS), Highway Robbery (a real KILLER) all among my favorite bands of the ‘70s. Did you also catch wind of Pentagram/ Macabre/Bedemon at the time? I feel that, along with Pagan Altar from England, they are Cirith Ungol ‘s only equals as far as despondent, despotic, demonic (post- Sabbath) DOOM goes, and another band that I have devoted much time to collecting and obsessing over. Also, you have mentioned that you are into Night Sun ‘s magnificent “Mournin’” album (truly, Look At Yourself Uriah Heep on a weird cocktail of amphetamines and acid, incredibly warped, mind numbing riffing and psychedelic turns on that album), the first two Scorpions masterworks and the legendary Lucifer’s Friend debut (unfortunately the only worthwhile album they put out)…were you into any of the other heavy German stuff like Tiger B Smith, Silberbart, I Drive, Blackwater Park, Hairy Chapter, My Solid Ground, Birth Control? Being Canadian, I also share your love for Moxy and A Foot In Coldwater …have you heard other Canadian monoliths like Bent Wind, Christmas and the FANTASTIC Charlee (Walter Rossi)? What are your thoughts?
Well, I have not heard of some of those bands but will be on the lookout for them. I do have the Pentagram CD and an album of Tiger B. Smith!
While there is a sizeable aesthetic chasm that exists between Frost & Fire and the masterfully morose King Of The Dead , and there is a substantive shift in lyrical content (more focus on sword n’sorcery imagery), I’ve always considered Frost & Fire a doom classic in its own right. Some of the lyrical fare is a lot more straightforward and rooted in the rock n’roll rebel aesthetic championed by Steppenwolf all those years ago, but the feelings of alienation, solitude, desolation, doubt and impending DOOM are already very evident throughout Frost & Fire , and of course this aspect of Cirith Ungol was already flaunted and celebrated on that legendary turn on Metal Massacre , “Death Of The Sun”. Sure, some of the tracks were a tad cheerful sounding, but the eccentricity of the riffing and the blighted, downtrodden slant of the morbid lyrics gave each song a very twisted, very sinister atmosphere. ”Sometimes, I take a look at the world/Sometimes, I take a look at the girls/I’m just a spectator I don’t get involved/I’ve got too many problems of my own to solve.”…That’s so fatalistic in its resignation/alienation, the ultimate acknowledgement of one’s crippling finitude. Yet, the album also featured perhaps the only glimpses of hope and optimism in the Cirith Ungol universe, “Maybe That’s Why” and “Edge Of A Knife” are anthems for the rock n’roll nomad. In many ways, I think Frost & Fire really can be looked upon as the WEIRDEST of the Cirith Ungol albums, and a true bonafide classic of sinister rock n’roll. What do you think of this assessment?
Greg wrote all the lyrics and much of the compositions on Frost and Fire and his genius shines bright here. We all took part in evolving the songs but his stamp is definitely all over the project. I wrote “Death of the Sun”, “King of the Dead” and “Doomed Planet” so my outlook was more morbid. Greg’s lyrics seemed to speak on a level of personal feelings, whereas my lyrics were all fantasy based, as was my life! After Greg left we decided that we wanted to go into the Sword and Sorcery theme, which responded to the literature that we were reading at the time. I don’t think it was such a deliberative decision but one based on where we were at, at the time
Cirith Ungol were never a reserved band, you guys really did everything in excess. To this day, the three Cirith Ungol albums remain the most unique sounding heavy metal records I’ve ever laid ears on- Jerry, Greg and Jim all boasted some of the most OTHERWORLDLY guitar sounds I’ve ever encountered, and your drum sound was like some mutant emanation from an alternate reality. I won’t even venture to ask you how you went about achieving that sound in the studio, but Cirith Ungol really took that element of pomp and theatricality of sword n’sorcery era Rush, ELP and Demons And Wizards/The Magician’s Birthday Uriah Heep to the early ‘80s- you attached light-emitting sensors to your cymbals, and Tim was wheeled out on stage in a coffin prior to shows…Clearly you took the image of Cirith Ungol very seriously. Was it very important to you to distinguish, visually, Cirith Ungol from all of your contemporaries? Did you ever feel that you were doing a bit of a Spinal Tap?
Greg once asked me if I had ever seen the movie and I said no. When I finally saw it was less of a comedy to me than a very sad remembrance of my time as a musician. Most of that stuff actually happened to us (except for the drummer dying) and yes our amps really went to 11! In reality, until the last couple of years we had no show, it was all go. We would come on stage and everyone thought we were this little sissy band and we would proceed to blow everyone away. We never meant it to be like a competition but when you show up on time for your sound check, and don’t get one. Or you have to dress in the hallway because Ratt has 3 dressing rooms, or you get the electricity pulled on you so that Armored Saint can make the crowd wait an hour until they bless the stage with their self inflated presence, well you get the point. Until our final years, we were mainly an opening act and we were treated pretty badly. Since we did not understand the childish and infantile nature of (some) the bands we were opening up for we felt sort of betrayed by musicians we would have probably been civilized to in another situation. We were also not from LA but from 100 miles up the coast where it is actually nice to live, (unlike LA which is a hell hole to us) so we were treated like outsiders. Make no mistake, even from our days in high school we were a musical force to be reckoned with. We played loud and hard. I broke every cymbal I ever had (well almost) and I used to bleed on my drums. I remember a time when my whole set was covered in dried blood! Jerry and Greg and later Flint were no slouches either, Greg has always been very smart and he new his way around the fret boards, and or fretless boards, and Jerry was the only guy I ever knew who would destroy guitars by just playing them. We had a following that would come out to see us even in the driving rain. Later I had pyrotechnics that would shoot balls of fire off my cymbals, but we never set any place on fire!! I guess what I am saying is that we let the music speak for itself, and it spoke volumes. We played loud, we practiced loud and we recorded as loud as the studios would let us!
I can hardly think of another band that was as hell-bent on themes of DOOM as Cirith Ungol . Many of the songs you penned on the first three records are fixated with an oncoming apocalypse, and the absolute haplessness of mankind in evading it. Why was the band so obsessed with this nihilistic helplessness? It almost suggests that you read a lot of Lovecraft, that belief that mankind is incapacitated in the face of chaos’ designs (“Chaos Descends” and “Doomed Planet” are good examples!). In an ‘80s where speed metal bands where urging fans to seize the mantle and stick it to the man, Cirith Ungol were doling out unhealthy servings of debilitating depression. The cover of King Of The Dead is vintage horror- a helpless, avaricious warrior ambushed by a horde of simian beings and a re-animated skeletal being, once again suggesting man’s impotence in the face of the paranormal. Do you think Cirith Ungol ‘s doom n’gloom preoccupation was one of the reasons for the metal mainstream’s indifference towards the band? Cirith Ungol
I still feel the failure of the band can be spread around pretty evenly but it must be said that the record companies which knew much more of the intricacies of the business could have done something, anything to help promote the band. Metal Blade made one poster and set up one show for us. Enigma/ Restless had lots of connections and all we really needed was a manager and some tour support. Enigma did support us by setting up a show in Mexico City, and they did try to get us one manager a guy from England who turned out to be Guns and Roses’ manager, he wanted us to wear make-up like the Motley Crues of the time and we refused, so he refused to work with us, which is kind of sad but typical of the bullshit we experienced. I think I alienated allot of people with my constant badgering about getting the band promoted but I saw the talent we had compared to the other bands out there especially in LA at the time. I still think of Ratt, Poison, Motley Crue and Metallica as pretty sad acts personally and kind of surprised they ever made it. It just goes to show what I was told early on, “The music business is about business, and not about music”, which we found out sadly to be totally true. It was all about the promotion or lack of it in our case that made or broke bands. It is a testament to our will that we stayed together as long as we did for close to 20+ years!
While the band was plagued by poor management, I think one of the foremost reasons that Cirith Ungol failed to win much acclaim during their time was the fact that you folks were WAY ahead of your time. It is very possible that even if you were to unleash King Of The Dead even today, that you would STILL be misunderstood and maligned by the public at large. Cirith Ungol was a band that was too honest, too urgent, too dark and too damn odd to truly win the hearts of those preoccupied with discovering the most Satanic, fastest, or conversely, the most well-coiffed/well-permed heavy metal outfit out there. You brought with you lessons well-learned from a bygone ‘70s, but renewed and regurgitated forth these lessons in a form that hardened metalheads still have trouble comprehending today. I know that you labored VERY hard to keep Cirith Ungol alive and that you remain quite hurt about the demise of Cirith Ungol even today. Still, do you agree with my assertion that Cirith Ungol will forever fly above the heads of the mainstream? Perhaps it was a case of the band being born too late, for if, say, you were a product of 1971 USA you might have won a larger audience?
I think that from my perspective being heavily into the whole Sword and Sorcery and Horror literature at the time my dark influences came from these. I am still a huge reader of H. P. Lovecraft and would encourage anyone who has not read this great writers works to seek them out immediately, Both Steven King and Clive Barker have said that if it were not for him that neither of them would have started writing. There was some weird stuff out during our time that was successful so I do not think it was that. I still believe that the failure of our band to make it was one of investment of money and lack of promotion by the record companies. This does not let us off the hook for not being better businessmen, but it seems that true artists are really not the best businessmen and visa versa. As far as us being born to late or early even though I have heard that I am not sure it would have made a difference, its all about the money.
One thing that you inherited from growing up with ‘70s records was a looseness and unmistakable SWING to your idiosyncratic drumming style- truly, there has been no drummer since that has played or sounded quite like you. Are you a self-taught drummer? To what do you accredit your highly individualistic and unmistakable drumming style, which is absolutely as crucial to the Cirith Ungol sound as Flint’s MONSTROUS finger-style bass-sound, Jerry Fogle’s shrill, piercing guitar shriek and Tim’s yelping screams? Was it always a conscious decision for Cirith Ungol to play and sound differently from everyone else, or did all these weird facets of the Cirith Ungol sound come about fluidly and naturally? Or, indeed, was a combination of both deliberation and spontaneity? Did you ever alter certain parts in songs because they were too straightforward/not angular enough/not distinctively Cirith Ungol enough?
Although I took some drum lessons later in my career. I was completely self-taught. Mainly by practicing, playing along with my favorite drummers and listening to their music for inspiration. I was inspired by drummers like Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, and Bill Ward who played sometimes against the grain of the music. I wish I were still playing as I can hear the drum parts in my head of our songs and hear new beats that would have improved them a little. As for the second part of your question I always tried to from my perspective, when I had a chance to help the songs evolve to become the best that they could be. I spent hours arguing over riffs with the rest of the band to get one note added or removed to make the song or riff better. That is my biggest beef with bands like Metallica I think sometimes there songs are too crude and needed more work. The best 20 seconds of music we ever wrote and or played was cut out on the mix down by Ron Goudie (the producer of “Paradise Lost”) because he micro-managed the recording sessions badly and forgot how the song went. I’ve said it before but this CD could have been the best we ever did but with Flint quitting and the overproduction and loss of any control by the band it was I think the worst. For instance, none of us were allowed in the studio while the others recorded. I played the drums to a forced click track without any emotion. When we protested we were threatened with the plug being pulled so we soldiered on. I cried when I heard the final mix….
I have read in other interviews that you are a heavy metal purist, in that you are not a big fan of the speed/thrash metal boom that arose in the nascent wake of Cirith Ungol , and I infer from that that you are clearly not enthused about the death/black metal that followed, either. However, what did you think of the emerging doom metal bands of the period, bands like War Cry, Trouble, Candle mass/Nemesis, Pentagram (the ‘80s Peaceville lineup), Mercy (Sweden). Of course, Cirith Ungol formed just prior to the boom of the NWOBHM, and there were quite a few bands that peddled a sound one might say was thematically akin to what Cirith Ungol was doing, like Angel Witch, Desolation Angels, Witchfynde, Demon, Witchfinder General, Electric Savage, Apocalypse, Tellurian etcetera. Did you ever have a chance to hear these bands? I’m curious to know whether you branded your work “doom metal” at any point of your careers (for, as I said, Cirith Ungol to me is doom DEFINED). Does it feel bizarre to you that Cirith Ungol were one of the foremost architects of a musical movement that has now become a global phenomenon, further elaborating upon ideas first set forth by the pioneers, Black Sabbath, Pentagram and Budgie ?
I feel humbled to be even included with some of the greats such as Black Sabbath. I must admit that my tastes were and are for a more heavy beat. Even though I appreciate some of the death metal but just like rap I don’t get the monotone singing thing. I was also never into speed for speeds sake. A fast song is great but 10 on an album is limiting. I am impressed by a singer with a wide range, even though The Darkness only has like one or two good songs on their albums, man that guy has a great voice! You mention Granicus, there was a band from LA called Pavlov’s Dog and singer had a very high-pitched voice, which I really liked. I must confess I have been listening to allot of Queensryche lately and really like some of their albums such as Empire and Operation Mindcrime!
Keeping in mind the fact that you dislike the “crossover” of speed metal and punk rock that became thrash metal, I’m curious to know if you’ve kept abreast of recent heavy rock music. Could you name some of the bands that you’re into nowadays? Do you still attend shows of bands you enjoy?
Greg gave me two albums and said, “Hey I bet you’ll like these guys”. One was a band they played with Fireball Ministry, another was ASKA a band from Texas their album Avenger is phenomenal! There is also a band in Italy Domine, that has Elric on all their album covers and I really like their album Emperor of the Black Runes . I was also blown away by the covers to our songs that just came out on the Cirith Ungol tribute album. I think some of the versions of our songs are better than our original versions! I also got some Riot albums from Germany I never heard and they kick ass! I am also finding music I never heard. It is funny that you can still discover bands 20 years after they put out there work and be blown away by them. Another album I loved was from a band called Mrs. Hippie, thought they were great but the record company said they sold few cd’s so what is new!
I understand that you have always been deeply into Ferraris, and finally satiated a lifetime yen for your very own Ferrari. What is it about the car that has fascinated you for so many years? It would appear that a Ferrari is a strange rock n’roll fetish, when most blue-collar rock n’roll outlaws champion the Harley Davidson.
Well don’t get me started! I was attracted to Ferrari as a child, being born on the same day that Dino Ferrari died in Italy 50 years ago. I remember the first time I saw a Ferrari in San Francisco, I was around 11 at the time. I remember getting down on my hands and knees in front of it looking at the prancing horse badge and thinking that this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Many Ferraristi have similar stories. It is funny as we have some popularity in Italy and I have a love for all things Italian. I even have a Roman soldiers outfit that I wear around sometimes! My main love is the sound of the engines. The heart of every Ferrari is the engine and unless you have been in a 12 cylinder Ferrari at 8000 rpm redline there is no way to explain the mechanical symphony produced. My Dino is only an 8 cylinder but it has 4 double throat Weber carburetors and it has its own scream which I an enamored with. At night flames shoot out of the exhaust pipes! Actually many rocker and drummers have a love for the cars, as they are the pinnacle of automotive achievement! Period!
Of course, the Michael Whelan cover (one of the most iconic covers in heavy metal) of Frost & Fire affirmed the fact that Cirith Ungol were fantasy buffs. Which of the Elric books do you hold in the highest regard? Did Cirith Ungol ever contact Moorcock in the hope that he would do a collaboration akin to the one he did with Hawkwind? Also , choose a non-Conan hero: Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane. Who, and why? (Bran Mak Morn for me, “Worms Of The Earth” is one of my favorite Howard stories ever). How did fantasy sculpt the otherworldly vision of Cirith Ungol ? Are there any contemporary fantasy writers whom you particularly admire (I like Ursula LeGuin and Terry Pratchett)?
Well once again we find common ground “Worms of the Earth” is well……fantastic! Michael Whelan was one of the few people that not only did not abuse us but I feel that we never got to financially repay him for the honor of having his artwork grace our covers. My biggest regret is that he and Greg Hazard our long time photographer were never adequately compensated for the work that they so graciously provided. I know we were not either but that is not the point. I never met Michael Moorcock and even though I revered his works, Elric along with the Corum trilogies, I never had the pleasure to meet him. I think the covers to our first 3 albums were the best we could have ever dreamt of and I will always be proud to be associated to them even if only in the same sentence!
I have read interviews with yourself and Bobby Liebling of Pentagram where you both have described record-buying trips. Obviously, in an age where the internet was unheard-of and zines regarding heavy music were few and far between, it must have been very difficult to discern heavy music from the other slop. You stated in another interview that you used to determine how heavy a group was by looking at the grooves of the record. Did this often turn out to be a fruitful experiment? Describe an average record-buying trip in the late ‘70s. Also, were you into any funk and/or soul at the time, considering the considerable influence it had on a lot of heavy rock at the time, particularly bands like Trapeze, The Stooges, Power Of Zeus and Lincoln St Exit ? (I’m deeply into lots of old Motown soul, blues and hard funk like Funkadelic, Sly And The Family Stone, The Isleys, The Meters, Average White Band and many others). What would we be surprised to find in Robert Garven’s record collection?
Actually, the more radical the groove usually meant the harder the music. It actually works. Take out an album like Black Sabbath Master of Reality , the heavy songs have the rough grooves the mellow ones are devoid of any swiggles. The needle has to ride the groove to produce the music and the more movement the more music. What is funny is that I have learned to appreciate other styles of music as I have matured. I did see “Earth Wind & Fire” at the California Jam in 1974!!! We also did a remake of Arthur Brown’s “Fire”, which was more psychedelic, but he had a funky streak I think.
I think it’s very clear that classical music has always had an important role in Cirith Ungol ‘s development- while Frost & Fire was clearly blues-based, by the time King Of The Dead came around Jerry’s solos were obviously derived largely from neo-classical scales, and songs were written in a much more unorthodox minor key fashion. The acoustic melody the ends and closes “Finger Of Scorn”, as well, has a distinctive whiff of medieval folk to it. How responsible were you for this metamorphosis? When did the band collectively decide that they no longer wanted to do blues-based songs?
“Finger of Scorn” was one of our original pre “Frost & Fire” songs, which Greg wrote. I do remember humming out my versions and changes to riffs to the band and making some pretty major additions and or modifications but I cannot remember which songs I had the most influence on. I think the confusion lies with “Frost & Fire”, which we wrote to get noticed and popular and so it was intentionally all of our most accessible or radio friendly or commercial songs. We wrote and played heavier songs before and after but that album was meant to launch our career. Unfortunately it was considered too heavy by the radio stations in LA, and though it did receive much underground and college airplay it was not apparently what we needed to succeed. After Greg left we said well, why try to appease an audience that we were to heavy for anyway so we made a conscious effort to make the next album much heavier and gloomier.
I have always thought that One Foot IN Hell was/is a great record, but it is not even close to being on the same level as the first two as far as I’m concerned. Really, I think the album exhibits a much straighter, much more reserved style of playing and composition compared to the first two masterpieces. You play much more in the pocket, as does Flint, and while Jerry’s leads still spill over everything, the songs are a lot more conventionally “epic heavy metal” and less wild/reckless/extroverted/fill-intensive. What led to the band pursuing a more straightforward, restrained direction? To my mind, this album ALMOST (and I mean almost) sounds dated, it bears some of the hallmarks of ‘80s epic metal of the time. Was this a period when Cirith Ungol felt like they needed to fit in a little bit more, or?
The problem with One Foot in Hell is that Brian Slagel who owned Metal Blade Records wanted to take a large role in the production of the album. I think this was the beginning of where the band started to lose control of our vision and it is evident in this record. There were solos left out or changed, and multi tiered vocals ala Styx “Serpent is Rising” that were removed. I also did not like the final mix. We also recorded the tracks in LA, whereas with the first two albums we recorded them across the street from our band studio, so we had less time and were in a strange location, which did not help the sound or mood. Brian to this day does not like me and I suppose his feelings toward me, which I have tried to unsuccessfully patch up over the years, was taken out on the band. This again probably was my personality, negatively affecting the bands success which I will never forgive my self for. I am not a poser or bull-shitter so I guess it was hard for me to be something I wasn’t. I was always bugging the record companies to do stuff for the band and I think they saw me as a pest. I think they we all pretty short sighted as we could have been as big a commercial success as lets say Metallica, with the proper promotion. Money = Promotion, Promotion = Success. Once the head of Enigma hid in a closet because he thought I was there. I have a clear conscience as all I tried to do was promote the band and our music. On the other hand as all the guys we dealt with the exception of Metal Blade in Europe seemed pretty unscrupulous and I am going easy on them. I know we have been ripped off for allot of money over the years, but I made the decision that as long as the albums or CD’s were available that the money did not matter. Once again it comes down to greed vs. integrity. I think we always tried to take the high road.
Obviously, one of the prime contributors to the vile and despotic atmosphere of King Of The Dead are the oppressively SLOW rhythms that dominate some of the numbers. What made Cirith Ungol decide to play at such an indolent pace, particularly since bands like Venom and Motörhead were bulldozing forwards at an amphetamine-imbibing speed?
Maybe it was the amphetamines they were taking! J Seriously the pounding rhythms we wrote were what we felt. This was our roots and we were not going to jump on what I considered an overnight fad (Speed metal) at the time. To me heavy is pounding, beating, throbbing like a heart pounding in your chest. And yes, the heart speeds up and so did our songs. If you heart pounded as fast as some of the speed metal songs you would have a heart attack and die! I think the rhythmic pounding is akin to the Native African or American drumbeats, which is where I feel I got allot of my hereditary drumming thought from. Kind of like Cthulhu sending dream messages to his minions, I was receiving these beats from my prehistoric Neolithic ancestors.
Do you think bad press was crucial in hindering Cirith Ungol from more substantial commercial success? Consistently bad press did wonders for the likes of Hellhammer, Sodom, Venom, Death, Bathory among other bands, and of course Black Sabbath had their share of nemeses in the press. Surely the extremely polar reviews must have helped to cultivate the lore and legendry of Cirith Ungol ? Do you have any recollections of especially harsh reviews? What did reviewers usually take issue with (I suspect it would be Tim’s vocals?)?
That is technically incorrect. The editor of “Kerrang” magazine had us on his top ten list for King of the Dead . We had numerous good write-ups in the LA newspapers. The LA Times said that the song “Alive” by “Pearl Jam” was a blatant rip-off of Cirith Ungol’s “I’m Alive”. In Ventura we had several big articles including a font page, section two, full page write up on the band. Many other articles over the years are the same. When they re-released our first 3 cd’s in Europe on Metal Blade Germany, they sent me press packs from all over the world with 3 & 4 page full color articles on a band that had been dead over ten years!
I know that you’re probably not into a lot of the more extreme metal that comes out nowadays, but I’m sure it must make you quite proud to know that bands that are as influential as Celtic Frost, Hellhammer, Darkthrone (Norwegian black metal legends), Death SS have all namedropped Cirith Ungol on multiple occasions. I think it’s very interesting that Cirith Ungol has had such an enduring influence on all dark, foreboding metal. Does this knowledge, in any way, make up for the anguish you have experienced at the hands of Cirith Ungol ‘s dissolution? For, though Cirith Ungol may not have had as long of a life as you had hoped, the band’s immortality is virtually assured at this point.
This is all very humbling and makes me feel once again that my life was not completely wasted. That we had had some positive effect on someone or their career is very fulfilling.
You have spoken in various other interviews that the release of Servants Of Chaos was the proverbial last straw (sorry for using such a corny maxim!) that really severed and estranged you from several members of the band. Could you speak a bit more about this? I must applaud you for your dedication in re-releasing the remaining Cirith Ungol tracks, and I thank you on behalf of everyone who has given the record innumerable spins since its release.
I think some of the members think I am somehow making money off the band, which of course is ridiculous. I had over $100,000 in receipts I spent on the band before we broke up. I borrowed the money from my parents to record “King of the Dead”, which I paid back. At one point I paid the band rent of two of the band members for over a year. I could go on and on but what purpose would it serve. Suffice to say I helped support the band for more than 20 years, physically, mentally and monetarily. The only money we got to release Servants of Chaos went to the mastering lab, the few hundred dollars we had left over Greg and I agreed to send to Michael Whelan. In fact Greg and I spent some of our own money to get the project out and as soon as we signed the contract with Metal Blade it had a hidden clause in it that combined all the other re-release royalties guaranteeing that we would never make a cent on the deal. On a lighter note royalties that were made on Servants of Chaos were supposed to be deducted from the monies owed on the re-releases but never were. I contacted Metal Blade and Brian said he would look into it. I never heard back from them. People asked me if I was upset that bootleg albums existed of some of our material. My reply has been that since we have never made any money from our legitimate record companies why should we be upset at someone who would promote our music by releasing a bootleg?
Of course, Cirith Ungol fans unanimously agree that Paradise Lost is a mere husk of what used to be an absolutely glorious band. Yet, the pre-production demos of Paradise Lost suggest that the album could have been absolutely as good, or even better, than One Foot In Hell . Could we revisit the tumultuous days of Paradise Lost and recount just why the album turned out the way it did? I understand that, following the disastrous management issues that ensued with the release of Paradise Lost , the band dissolved and you vowed to never play the drums again, as you were disenchanted and disillusioned with the music industry. This, of course, is a promise that you have kept to this day. Does the prospect of creating new music not haunt you, though? How have you managed to smother that hunger for the past 15 odd years?
The events have left a bad taste in my mouth. I have briefly alluded to them above. Bottom line is the longer we were a band the less control we had over our released music. This caused deterioration in the product and our morale as a band leading to the final debacle that was “Paradise Lost”! It is very sad as I think we had a few more great albums. If Jerry, Flint and Jimmy had not chose to abandon the cause who knows what might have happened. At least Tim stayed till the bitter end, unfortunately he is the band member I have the least contact with and the one whom I was probably closest to. Greg and Perry wanted me to play some role in Falcon but I politely abstained.
I have read that Tim Baker was not your original singer, and that he was but one of your roadies who was fortuitously discovered following the departure of your first singer, whom you had every intent of recording an album with. How different would Cirith Ungol have been without the outrageous pipes of Tim? Really, I think many fortunate things happened to distinguish Cirith Ungol as an iconic band- the brilliant covers, the breathtaking synchronicity of the band (the live bootlegs of the band reflect that in terms of musicianship and pure chemistry, Cirith Ungol was absolutely the best heavy metal band of the ‘80s), three flawless albums, the discovery of Tim, I just maintain that Cirith Ungol were ahead of their time.
Our first singer was Neil Beattie and he was a great guy and a fantastic showman. I think that some of the music we created with him was pretty good and if you could hear it you would be surprised how good it was. Although I could not imagine the band without Tim, parting with Neil was especially painful as we did it for our career, with little sensitivity to him at the time, which I now regret. We had a lot of fun together.
As musicians, I think Cirith Ungol were absolutely in the highest tier. Listening to your live performances, the degree of chemistry is absolutely staggering….which prompts one to ask, how often did Cirith Ungol practice to develop that sort of understanding with one another? How much improvisation would go into a typical Cirith Ungol performance (I know from bootlegs that I have that some of Jerry’s solos would change dramatically)?
Like some of our earlier influences, Mountain especially comes to mind, the original band played together for many years and was very comfortable with some onstage and practice improvisations. Later on as our music got more complicated and the band had spent less seat time together this was more a rarity. However the high point was when Greg & Jerry would do some grueling battling guitar solo’s, usually ending up with scraping guitar fretboards, general mayhem and resulting in the defacing of some rare guitars. We would always go out with a bang and our climatic endings were a special favorite of mine. I would usually save the drum solo for last and pour ever last ounce of energy into a frantic beat down broadside, culminating in a devastating powerhouse blowout!!! Come to think of it, it would always end that way!!!
I think it is very admirable that you always took Cirith Ungol very seriously, that you invested so many years of toil into maintaining the band in the face of considerable odds. You can take heart, I think, in the fact that Cirith Ungol are finally starting to get their just due. I do wish I could thank you in person, I am very sincere about my devotion and adoration of the band, and cannot really imagine life without the first two masterpieces. Please use this space to say anything you feel hasn’t been expressed in this interview, and I wish you the best of luck with any of your future endeavors, Robert. Thanks!
I appreciate your wanting to due an interview with an aging leftover from a previous era. I am proud that our music still has an effect on listeners and am gratified by all the accolades and support we have received since the band’s untimely demise. I just wish that we could have been able to tough it out a little longer, ensuring some commercial success which would have allowed us the freedom to create more substantive music. However everything must end and at least Cirith Ungol did not end up being a parody of its former self as some bands I will not mention have. Please visit one of our official or unofficial websites, and please pick up the Cirith Ungol tribute CD if you get a chance, it is really good. Metal Blade Records have discontinued our CD’s in the US, and they are available in Europe for an undetermined amount of time time so if anyone is interested in picking up one of our four available CD’s now is the time. Rest assured that no money will go to the band, however once they are gone the are gone!