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INTERVIEW: CIRITH UNGOL
Originally formed circa 1972, the California heavy metal band Cirith Ungol released four albums between 1980 and 1991 before disbanding, and in the process amassed an ardent world-wide fan following. The band reunited in 2015 for the Frost and Fire festival, and are continuing to forge ahead with festival appearances — and writing new music as well.
Greek writer John Sleepwalker of Avopolis.gr returns to NCS with this interview of Tim Baker, Greg Lindstrom, Jimmy Barraza, and Rob Garven leading up to Cirith Ungol’s performance at the Up the Hammers Festival in Athens, Greece, on May 27, 2017.
First of all, what made a Cirith Ungol reunion possible after all these years? I think there was quite some interest from Greece too, for quite some time, but the band was very negative until now…
Rob: Jarvis Leatherby from Night Demon lives in our home town and he told me that when they traveled to Europe on tour they would see many fans wearing “Cirith Ungol” shirts, and patches, and many there knew of our band and music. I had sworn a blood oath that I would never play drums again, so I had always told him very politely that I was not interested. Everything changed at the “Frost & Fire” festival in 2015. Oliver Weinsheimerfrom the very famous and exclusive “Keep It True Festival” had come over for the show. Jarvis and Oliverasked to speak to the band alone.
Oliver had been contacting me for more than 10 years, with an interest to have the band play at his festival. I had always told him no also. Jarvis said if we got back together he would be our manager and Oliver invited Tim and I over to the “Keep it True Festival IX” where we were treated like royalty. We were so impressed that there was no doubt in our mind that we wanted to be part of this! If it were not for these two gentlemen, the band would have never re-formed. The band and our fans owe them both a debt of gratitude. As soon as were playing again we were honored to be offered to play at “Up the Hammers” which we are really looking forward to!
Greg: It took some poking and prodding by Jarvis and Oliver, but after meeting some of our fans at the first Frost & Fire event in 2015 who flew halfway around the world just to talk to us, I realized we had to give it one more shot.
Jimmy: What made it possible is that each one of us still had the ability to play music. We didn’t know until early 2016, when Jarvis invited us all to Night Demon’s rehearsal room, and we gave it a try. I had put the guitar down from about 1994-2002 and only in the past decade have found a new love for playing the instrument. It was something that was missing in my Life. Around 2010 Manolis Karazeis had connected with me on Facebook. We exchanged words in regards to a reuinion for a few years and always ended up coming to the realization that a reunion was unlikely to ever happen. I personally am blown away at Tim Baker’s vocal abilities after all these years. I had always kept a positive intention to reunite and I’m very pleased that we did.
You played your first show since 1991 at the Frost and Fire event. What were your impressions, and how powerful does the band feel on stage at this point?
Tim: I thought the show went pretty well for us not being on a stage for 25 years! It feels really good to be back playing with all the guys again – and more importantly, to be able to rekindle our friendship after all these years is very special too.
Greg: We rehearsed for ten months prior to the F&F show, and the show went pretty well. Right now, I would compare us to a normally aspirated V-8 engine, and as time goes on, we will add twin turbos for even more power!
Jimmy: A home town reunion show in the company of family, friends, and fans from around the world was very fitting. To be on the very same stage we walked off of 25 years ago suddenly had a feeling of resurrection. It was fantastic.
Rob: It was pretty special, so many fans from all over the world, came to our small seaside town Ventura, California. We played at the same venue where our last show was held before we broke up, so it had special meaning for the band. There was some pressure on us to put on a great show to wipe out some of the bad memories from the past! I am always critical of myself, and never feel I play good, but the other guys rocked! After the show a friend of the band played a recording he made of the show, which we listened to. I was quite impressed by the recording and now believe that for our first show in so long was very heavy. I felt the band had a very powerful sound and I think even though older we still have what it takes!
The goal is for every show to be better than the one before! In addition to “Keep it True Festival” and “Up the Hammers”, we are playing twice more in Germany at “Chaos Descends” and “Hammer of Doom“. We are playing a few festivals in the US — “Defenders of the Old” in Brooklyn, New York, “Days of Darkness” in Baltimore, Maryland, and “Psycho Las Vegas“.
Cirith Ungol’s current line-up is as close as it gets to the real deal (since Jerry Fogle has passed away…). Michael “Flint” Vujea is the only person missing. How important did it feel that everyone should be back together? And how did Jarvis Leatherby join the band?
Tim: It was very important to get as many of the members involved in the reunion, as otherwise it just would not feel right! When it became apparent that Flint was not going to be a part of it, we were more than happy for Jarvis to come in on bass – he is a great guy and a great player too. I also want to mention that my son Matthew is filling in on bass at most of our practices since Jarvis and Night Demon are such road warriors, and don’t be surprised if he shows up on stage sometime!
Greg: We wanted to get as close to the original crew as possible to capture that thirty-year-old vibe.
Jimmy: Something noteworthy is the fact that Jarvis currently is the 5th Bass Player I’ve played with during my time in Cirith Ungol (Flint, Bob Warrensburg, Vern Green, Greg Lindstrom, Jarvis Leatherby). My hopes were high that Michael Vujea would accept the offer, but upon his withdrawal, it seemed only natural for Jarvisto take that position. Time was running short and we had shows scheduled soon. We are very fortunate to have him aboard.
Rob: The definition of Jarvis Leatherby is “All Metal All the Time”! He is a powerhouse and a force unto himself. His goal was to get the band back together and no one wanted all the original members more than him. When it became apparent that that Flint could not play, he decided to step in on bass. He has done his best to play the original bass as it was written, and we are lucky to have him as a bass player and friend.
The differences between Frost and Fire and King of the Dead seem pretty vast in style… how did this progression happen? What memories do you have from creating material during those two eras?
Greg: Most of the songs on F&F were written during the previous 12 months and are slightly more mainstream sounding than the KOTD songs. If we had recorded F&F a year earlier, it would have been a very different sounding album. It would likely have included “Atom Smasher”, “Death of the Sun”, “Finger of Scorn”, and “Cirith Ungol”, since those songs were all written in 1977-78. I think a lot of the perceived difference is in the recording. KOTD is much rawer than F&F, which we played heavy but got recorded a little bit too cleanly.
Rob: Some of the difference was due to the time between albums and the band’s natural progression. On Frost & Fire we used most of our songs that had more of a commercial tone in order to secure either radio airplay, or major-label support. There is a bit of confusion here, which I can clear up. At the same time that Frost & Fire was released the band was playing other songs such as, “Cirith Ungol” and “Death of the Sun”. After the local hard rock station KLOS in Los Angeles played “Frost & Fire”, and “I’m Alive” on a local new band night, we were told the music was too heavy, which confused us a bit. We decided that if our commercial songs were too heavy, then on our next album we would really pull out all the stops, and play what we really wanted to, the heaviest metal known the man! The result was King of the Dead, “A Churning Maelstrom of Metal Chaos Descending!” Greg wrote all of the songs on Frost & Fire, and Jerry wrote the leads and myself the drum parts. On our other songs there was always a collaboration between all the members. I wrote some of the lyrics, “King of the Dead”, “Death of the Sun”, “Doomed Planet”, etc., and on the later albums Tim wrote the other lyrics. But the band always worked together to create that special “Cirith Ungol” style!
Jim Barraza was the guitarist for Paradise Lost, an album underrated in Cirith Ungol’s history. Mostly because it is less diverse and more straightforward than your known aesthetics. How come a reissue took so many years to happen? And what was the situation within the band at the times of its release?
Jimmy: “Join the Legion” and the three final tracks (Trilogy) will stand the test of time. It is my opinion that these songs deserve to be included in the best material Ungol has ever recorded. When we play these songs live, they definitely take more skill and stamina to play them well.
Rob: There was quite a bit of turmoil during the latter stages of our career at that time — the extended time between albums, lack of professional management, and not being at the right place at the right time. Jerry left the band because he thought we were trying to replace him with Jimmy. What we were really trying to do was add a second guitarist. However, no matter what we tried to do to convince him otherwise, we could not get him to come back. Flint left the band, and came back after a while, only to leave again. We had signed a tentative agreement with Enigma Records, but they were in the process of being sold, and reforming as Restless Records. This delay, along with the musical genres of the time fading in and out, took a toll on the band.
This is a good time to correct a misconception about the delay between our albums. To set the record straight, we had most if not all of the material for each new album, right after the previous album was released. The delays were caused by outside influences that we could not control. The delay in the release was caused by Restless selling the rights to Warner’s Music and their refusal to allow it to be licensed. Metal Blade Recordstried for several years unsuccessfully to re-release it until somehow they finally got the chance, but it was limited to a small number. When we signed that contract for Paradise Lost we ended up signing away the rights to the music forever, without our knowledge, so unfortunately we have no control. There has been a systematic attempt over the years by the owners not to license the album, which we have never understood…..
Tim: I will agree with both Jimmy and Rob here – the holdup in getting the rights was quite strange. But as Jimmy said – some of Paradise Lost is as good if not better than a lot of our catalog.
Do you consider the possibility of writing new material too, or are you focusing exclusively on gigs? In the case of a new album, how do you think it should sound like? King of the Dead style would sound a bit “dated” in our times, but every new Cirith Ungol recording will be compared to it.
Tim: We are definitely writing new material and as far as what it will sound like, well we have no restrictions on anything! Some of it may hearken back to a KOTD vibe but with a more Paradise Lost feel, if that makes any sense!
Greg: I may be showing my age again, but I would disagree that anything on KOTD sounds dated. We are working on new material, very much in the CU style. I personally can’t write a song in any other style, so whatever comes out is probably going to sound like CU!
Jimmy: Currently focusing on Gigs, But seizing any opportunities to write new material and we have recorded some basic tracks for a few new songs. I think that no matter the outcome, any new songs that will ever be released will have a bit of KOTD flare to it, Intentionally or unintentionally.
Rob: We have already started working on new material. Tim has written some pretty incredible lyrics and we have a few songs almost completed. Obviously the goal is to release a new studio album on par with King of the Dead! Our style has changed a bit since then, but our hallmark has never been to play what is commercially popular at the time but to write songs that resonate with the inner consciousness of the band! We have plenty of older songs that we could and probably will re-do, however there is still more ultra heavy material in “Cirith Ungol” that cannot be contained!
Cirith Ungol had always been very much into J.R.R. Tolkien and Michael Moorcock. Do you think the aesthetic of the books somehow is translated into Cirith Ungol’s sound? The sound is obscure and epic, while weird and a bit “naive” (but in a good way, that of restless youth). And at the same time there’s a lot of depth and musicianship.
Greg: I never really thought of fantasy writers influencing our music, but for sure Tolkien, Moorcock, and many others (Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith) had a huge influence on our lyrics. And since the music needs to blend with the lyrics, I guess you could say that a lot of our music contains a fantasy aspect.
Tim: I think that we try to make the sound echo the lyrical content as much as possible. I’ve read Tolkien and Moorcock but not the others Greg mentions, yet. Paradise Lost in particular was obviously more influenced by old classic tomes by Milton and Dante. Some of our stuff is certainly cloaked in Sword and Sorcery but really they are a commentary on the rapidly approaching dystopian future of mankind. Or just about cars and girls, I’m not sure any more hahaha!!
Jimmy: I know for me, when I think of new riffs it helps to look at the album covers and get a feel for the mood and think what the sound track to this painting might sound like.. As I recall, that’s kind of how the guitar parts for the song “Paradise Lost” were inspired. After playing many of Jerry’s solos, I’ve come to a better understanding of the “weird” style of Fogle. I have appreciation for Jerry’s creative expression which parallels these classic fantasy books in the form of an original and obscure musical odyssey.
Rob: When I first met Greg, we were in an advanced English class, and one of our assignments was to read The Lord of the Rings. At the time Greg was a prolific reader and he was reading all sorts of “Sword and Sorcery” literature. He turned us on to all sorts of great books, Conan, Kane, and Michael Moorcock! I think the imagery and tone of the books and artwork has influenced our style, but we have tried to create an alternate universe musically. By staying true to ourselves we have managed to cultivate our unique style of metal.
We were hoping to have an album cover that was painted by famous artist Frank Frazetta, but then the cover we had wanted came out on an album for the band “Molly Hatchet“. We were quite bummed out. I was reading the book Stormbringer by Michael Moorcock at the time and I remember looking at the cover of the book and thinking this would be the best album cover of all time. We contacted the publisher DAW Books and they put us in contact with Michael Whelan, who turned out to be the best friend the band ever had! We were extremely lucky to have his fantastic illustrations grace four of our album covers. He recently had a rare show near Los Angeles, and Tim and I traveled to see it. His work is so fantastic it defies description. The painting “Stormbringer”, was there and I was mesmerized by its imagery! We got to talk with him, and he is interested in possibly doing another Elric cover for the band! Unfortunately we never got to meet with Michael Moorcock, but needless to say his work influenced our music greatly!
What bands of your times that you never played with would you pick to join you on stage now? And what bands would you bring back to remember the good days?
Rob: I have many favorite bands new and old. I really like Dexter Ward, Night Demon, but also bands such as Powerwolf. We are playing with the band Lucifer’s Friend, and Captain Beyond at some upcoming shows, both which are on my top ten list of bands! There are so many good bands — if I could pick a few they would be Thin Lizzy, Sir Lord Baltimore, Dust , Trapeze.
Greg: There are so many! I’m excited to be playing with Lucifer’s Friend later this year at Hammer of Doom in Germany, and Captain Beyond in Baltimore. Since I’m a ’70s guy, I would love to see Mountain, Stray Dog, and Trapeze re-form with as many original members as possible, and show us how it’s done!
Jimmy: Rosae Crusis and Dexter Ward! And I’d personally like to play with the Cirith Ungol Tribute Band Finger of Scorn and/ or lay down some tracks with Dexter Ward one day.
What are your expectations for your upcoming show at Up The Hammers Festival in Athens? Personally, I don’t know what to expect, but I know for sure some of your most die-hard fans live here.
Tim: I think it will be fantastic!! The Greek fans/friends have ALWAYS been some of our most ardent supporters. To finally go there and play for them is like a dream for us, and I really look forward to meeting everyone and putting on a great show for them!!
Greg: I’m really looking forward to visiting the cradle of civilization, and looking forward to a great show!
Jimmy: I’m sure that the Greek fans will fuel the fire and get us pumped up to give the best performance we possibly can. Looking forward to seeing everyone at Gagarin 205/Athens, Greece on Sat, 27 May 2017
Rob: I am expecting the Greek fans to go crazy! We have had many fans from Greece since the early days and it was our dream to travel here to play for them. I think there will be much emotion onstage and in the audience that night! It will be “A Churning Maelstrom of Metal Chaos Descending!”
Last question is a silly one. How do you pronounce your name? Sirith Ungol, or Kirith Ungol?
Rob: In the book it is pronounced with the “K”, but even though we were prolific readers, we probably did not read the appendix in Lord of the Rings, which outlined that, so we always pronounced the band with a “C” sound! Everyone else can pronounce it however they like!!
Greg: I know J.R.R. Tolkien is rolling over in his grave, but we pronounce it as “Sirith Ungol”.
Jimmy: I pronouce it “Searith Un-goal”.
Tim: I pronounce it “Arthur”.