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Interview with vocalist Tim Baker, drummer Robert Graven and bassist Jarvis Leatherby
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: December 1, 2019
Interview and live pictures by Humberto Sanchez
Thanks to Esa Valkeajärvi of Blow Up That Gramophone for setting up the interview with the band
Cirith Ungol was formed in Ventura, California in 1972 and took their name from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings saga. They were quite an oddball when they first appeared in the Metal scene playing their own unique brand of obscure Heavy Metal that had influences from psychedelic Rock to Avant-garde to Post-Punk, you name it. The band worked in a world of music that never really understood what the music was all about. They released four studio albums in between 1981 and 1991 that primarily gained cult status in the underground Heavy Metal community but unfortunately didn’t put much bread and butter on the table. They decided to end the band in 1992 without leaving much of a trace.
Much to the surprise of the band, Cirith Ungol climbed on the stage at The Majestic Ventura Theater in California on October 8, 2016, and that’s where the snowball started rolling, ultimately building up to the band’s comeback.
Cirith Ungol are doing well and The Metal Crypt was fortunate enough to meet them backstage at the Blow Up That Gramophone Festival in Helsinki, Finland.
Luxi: Welcome to Finland, Tim. As far as I know, this is your very first time being here, correct?
Tim Baker: Thank you. Yes, the very first time.
Luxi: Did you ever think of playing here in Finland earlier? We have lots of Cirith Ungol fans in this country.
Tim Baker: Yes. In fact, we played in Sweden before, at Muskelrock and stuff. That’d be the closest Scandinavian country. Sweden is pretty close. Right? Yes?
Luxi: Yes. Swedes are our western neighbours, yes.
Tim Baker: When I was thinking of Scandinavia, I was thinking of Norway and all this Black Metal. I guess there are a lot of classic Metal bands here too.
Luxi: Yes. That’s very true. Finland, or Sweden, or Norway aren’t only about Black Metal. There’s a bit more to it bubbling in the surface up here in the northern European countries…
Tim Baker: People that like, “Oh yes. Okay.” Hey, you live and learn. I didn’t know that.
Luxi: What else do you know about Finland?
Tim Baker: I know it’s supposed to be one of the happiest places on earth or something. They always read that in America. The happiest countries, Finland and Sweden – and all these places like that. It’s supposed to be really nice and clean. The people are friendly and stuff. Yes, so far, I’ve been really disappointed. No, I’m just kidding.
Tim Baker: No, no, it’s been great. It’s like this place is fantastic and been really cool so far.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
Luxi: Alright, let’s get this interview rolling properly. Cirith Ungol has a very long history, starting out in 1972 and you joined the band in 1976. How did it all happen for you?
Tim Baker: ’76? I don’t know when I joined. I have no idea. I have no recollection. It’s a long time ago. We met in school and I went up and I met Greg first actually. They invited me up to where they used to practice at his parent’s house and stuff, and it just took off from there. He had other singers at the time and things like that. I just ended up sticking around long enough and getting the job, I guess. Yes, more or less.
Luxi: You recorded your twelve-song demo album in 1978, which the fans know as The Orange Album, and released it on your own in 1979 because no label was interested in your music although you did send a good number of copies of it out. Is that the right story?
Robert Garven: Well, the story back then was we lived in Los Angeles and that’s where all the big record companies were. Every day the record company guys got tons of stuff and what they did is they never even listened to them. If they needed a cassette, they would just take a cassette someone sent them and erase over.
Tim Baker: They wanted to put “We Built This City” on us. They take this cassette you sent in and just record over it. That’s why we made Frost and Fire. Really. It was a demo, really. It was never supposed to be a record. It was a demo.
Tim Baker: Yes, because like I said, everybody was sending out cassettes to record companies like that and they would just throw them in the trash. We go, “Well, if we do something like that and send it to somebody they’re going to go, “Oh, what’s this?'” Maybe actually listen to it or maybe have some interest. And then the whole thing with Enigma and all the stuff went from there.
Luxi: Actually, some people consider The Orange Album, which is actually a cassette release only, as your first album because it had enough songs for an album.
Tim Baker: But nobody has one anywhere.
Robert Garven: Well, yes. Now here’s a funny story. I found a bunch of cassettes, a lot of old stuff that I’d saved from the band because I was…
Tim Baker: Archivist.
Robert Garven: Yes. Archive guy or historian or whatever for the band. Anyway, so I’m looking through my things just recently because no one had one and I find one. I’m like, “Wow, this is it,” because it has that brand new look, never been messed up. It turns out the cover was there, but the cassette was actually…
Tim Baker: “We built this city.”
Tim Baker: Whatever… I’m just kidding.
Robert Garven: Most of the songs are on there. We put some on Servants of Chaos, the compilation album that came out…I forget what year was it?
Tim Baker: 2001.
Robert Garven: 2001. Yes. No one has a copy and that is what we keep looking for. Now I understand why you say you think it might be an album and in a way, as Tim says, “Well, Frost and Fire wasn’t really considered to be an album, it’s be a demo.” We actually wanted to make a demo that was so fantastic that it would get people’s attention. In a way, we wanted it to be an album, but it wasn’t going to be an album, per se, we thought would be distributed and actually we found someone that wanted to distribute us.
RUNNING A RECORD LABEL OF YOUR VERY OWN
Luxi: Speaking of Frost and Fire, it was put out on your own label, Liquid Flame Records, back in the day. Was it your main purpose to release all Cirith Ungol records through your own label or was it just the only option for you back in the day?
Tim Baker: Well, not really. What happened was we did something like 500 copies on Liquid Flames Records. There may have been a thousand or something. It was mainly because we had gotten a distribution deal with Enigma who was a…or no, it was Green World before Enigma and then there was Restless. You know what I mean? They decided they liked it, they wanted to distribute it and stuff. “Okay, well, we’re going to make like 1000 copies or whatever.”
So we used our own name and stuff like that. Then after that, they go, “Well, let’s sign a deal”. They were just a distributor, that’s all they did, they weren’t a record company. We decided, “Well, let’s get into the record company business.” I think there’s only a thousand copies floating around that actually say Liquid Flame Records on the side of the record. All the rest of them say Enigma or Restless or wherever it is. It was a distribution deal at first and they decided to get in the record business and then it went from there. They started pressing them under their own label name, which was Enigma. That’s how that all started.
Robert Garven: To really answer your question, yes, that was our delusion that we’d have our own record label for the band.
Tim Baker: Like Metal Blade or something.
Robert Garven: Yes. For example, Mountain had Windfall Records, the Beatles had Apple Records. I’m sure it was our dream to do that but we had a lot of lofty dreams that crashed and burned. Well, we built the city on Rock and Roll [*chuckles*].
INFLUENCES OF EARLY DAYS
Luxi: The Frost and Fire album has a very unique mix of progressive Rock, Heavy Metal and even post-Punk influences, and it’s been topped off by your unique vocal style that at times reminds me of Axl Rose’s nasally rasp, sort of.
Robert Garven: That’s what you call influences. Well, influences we were influenced by. Just so you know, a lot of our heavy stuff, like some of the stuff on that Orange tape, we left off Frost and Fire intentionally because we thought, “Okay, this is going to be a demo,” like Tim said. “Let’s put on there the songs that we think are most accessible,” because back in the day– you guys weren’t even babies. This is prehistoric times.
Everything was on the radio. If you didn’t have a song on the radio, your band was going nowhere. I told someone they were our Top 40 songs or radio song, which they really weren’t, but we thought these songs actually you might be able to play some on the radio because they’re less–
Tim Baker: Threatening.
Robert Garven: Yes, than our other songs, “Death of the Sun” or “Half Past Human” or something like that.
Luxi: What bands inspired you to start out Cirith Ungol?
Robert Garven: Every day he would come to school and he would go, “Hey, Rob, listen to this band Mountain”. Hey, remember right across the school there was a record store? Remember going in and pulling out Black Sabbath’s first album. This wasn’t years later this was six months after it came out or whatever, looking at it like, “Who are these guys?”
Tim Baker: We were pretty Mountain, Dust, Budgie, Sir Lord Baltimore, etc. all the so-called proto-Metal bands. You name it. There were a lot of one-element bands, like Highway Robbery.
Robert Garven: We’d actually search. We’d go down, we’d drive forty-five minutes to Los Angeles because we live up the coast, in fact, our city is on fire right now. You might want to get home and look at that. Okay, just part of the city’s on fire. We would drive forty-five minutes to go to record stores, looking for imports because we knew in the United States, record companies weren’t going to put out very many things that we wanted to hear.
That’s where Brian, who owns Metal Blade Records, comes in. He worked at a record store, Oz Records, then went to another one in the valley called Moby Disc. We’d go in there and a couple of guys would go, “Hey, Greg, here’s a band you might like. Thin Lizzy, check these guys out.”
METAL ALBUM COVERS ARE COOL
Luxi: My personal experience with Cirith Ungol happened in 1984 when I grabbed a copy of the King of the Dead album at a record store here in Finland. I did not know anything about the band; you know, the times before the Internet, but I decided to buy the album because of the great album cover artwork. That’s how many were buying albums back in the days anyway.
Tim Baker: That’s one of the reasons we picked those album covers. Like Rob said, and you guys probably do the same thing, we would go somewhere, look through the vinyl, you come across the cover of Frost and Fire, King of the Dead, you stop and go, “Oop, what’s this? I bet it sounds good. This is heavy.” Anything we’ve ever done has a Michael Whelan cover.
Robert Garven: I know no one in Finland would do this, but in America we were less sophisticated. We take our fingernail and we slice the plastic on the album. When the owner of the store wasn’t looking, we’d slide the album out and we look at the grooves. You guys know that much about the extra grooves on the record. If it’s really loud and hard and heavy, crazy music the grooves are going to be really jagged. If it’s really soft like Folk music, it would be almost just lead-in grooves. We’d look at each other and we’d think, “What do you think?”
Back in that day too, if an album had one good song on it, we’d get home. We were all excited. If it had two, we were like, “Oh, yes.” When albums came out like Black Sabbath’s Paranoid or any album that had all good songs on it, the Montrose’s first album, what have you. We were excited.
Tim Baker: Fly the to Rainbow or something like that.
Robert Garven: Yes. A lot of times we’d take those albums we played once because it was bad and we had this place we’d drive to the top of a cliff and we’d throw them way up in the air and they’d go way up in the air and they’d down and they land on this dry lake bed, they’d just shatter. We’d all jump up and down, like we were destroying false Metal or something.
THE ENIGMA THING
Luxi: Is it true that you were the first band to sign to Enigma? I read this somewhere.
Tim Baker: Well, we were probably one of the first independent bands to actually do a record thing like Frost and Fire. Like I said, nobody had done it, really. Everybody did the cassettes or they got the guys in LA to come to the shows or whatever. You know what I mean? It can’t be like this. Like a showcase thing, which we did some of those, too, but nobody had actually produced something like that and to shop it around and things like that. I think we may have been probably one of the first bands to do that.
Robert Garven: He talked about Enigma, that’s Greenworld. We did Frost and Fire. Actually, after we did Frost and Fire, Brian [Slagel] said, “Hey, I want to start my own record label Metal Blade Records.” The guys at Enigma called us in for a meeting, “Hey, we’re going to make a label Enigma.” They showed us a logo. They go, “We’re thinking about doing your next album.” Tim, you remember that? It was kind of like a whole…
Tim Baker: No, I don’t remember that.
Robert Garven: We said, “Well, we want total control of this,” and so we did everything. They put the album out, but we had a complete say over everything.
Tim Baker: To answer the question, yes, I think we were probably one of the first ones to actually independently put out a record like that, a fully formed thing. Instead of like, “Here’s the cassette,” or a showcase or something like that.
OF SATIN PANTS, LEATHER PANTS, TIGER SKIN SHIRTS
Luxi: I also remember reading that there was one guy at Enigma that introduced you to a manager that wanted you guys dress up like girls, with a makeup, mascara and all that shit, to make you look like guys from Mötley Crüe, Poison or whatever, and with this image to sell more records.
Tim Baker: That’s his story. You have told that story. I don’t remember that going on.
Luxi: Is this all true?
Robert Garven: No. Well, they called us down there. I remember the guy’s name though I won’t say it right now because I don’t like to bring other people into this. They didn’t really say that, per se. That’s what our impression was. They go, “If you guys wear some makeup, we’ll change your music around, make it poppier.” Mötley Crüe don’t do that now, but at the time, they were wearing women’s clothing. They’d wear stuff on the outside. Matter of fact, I had a promo pack that I had recently sold on eBay. Some guy in Europe paid an enormous amount of money for it because, I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the original pictures of them. It was kind of off the charts.
Jerry, our guitarist at the time, and I think Tim didn’t remember, but I remember clearly, we were saying, “We just want to play straight Heavy Metal Rock.” On the cover of Frost and Fire everyone wore satin pants, so I’d get leather pants and a satin shirt or a tiger skin shirt. It’s not like we never did a little bit of that, but we weren’t ready to go the full distance.
Tim Baker: The full Poison, Cinderella distance.
Robert Garven: The other joke is people say, “If you could go back in time,” I’d be putting eyeshadow on right now. You know what I mean? Anyway, this gentleman, he told the record company, he goes, “Look, if these guys won’t work with me, I don’t want nothing to do with them.” He was either the first manager or the guy that discovered and did Guns N’ Roses.
Robert Garven: Because the joke was if you could trade success, if you would give up staying true to Metal to make money, would you do it? The answered back then was, “Hell, no.” The answer today is like, “Well, it would be nice to have a nice album.”
Tim Baker: We’d just have a couple of Ferraris.
Robert Garven: Yes, or something like that.
Luxi: You opened up for bands like Mötley Crüe, Ratt and Lita Ford in the mid-eighties, correct?
Tim Baker: Well, we never opened up for Mötley Crüe, no, but all the other ones, yes.
Robert Garven: I know we played with Ratt sometimes and Lita Ford. The show we played with Lita Ford, she never showed back up for the show. We played in a place called the Beverly Theater. She was dating, I think, Tony Iommi, at the time, of Black Sabbath. She got in a fight with her manager and never showed back up to the show. The story was that she’d been in a car accident, I think…
Luxi: What was it like to open up for the hair bands? I assume the audience consisted mainly of spandex and lipstick-wearing “girls” so to speak? Did this type of audience somehow like Cirith Ungol as well?
Robert Garven: Well there was a local journalist that actually came to that show. He said we were the surprise of the night. He actually kind of followed us for a few years because he worked for a big newspaper in Los Angeles at the time, The Herald Examiner. Los Angeles is a big city, it’s like New York or Helsinki or something. To have him come to see us that night was actually a big thing for the band. He tried to find other magazines or newspapers that he could write stories about us for, and not based on us paying him or being his friend. He really liked the band, so he went out and saw us playing live.
Tim Baker: That’s only one guy among the crowd. The rest of the crowd usually were, he always want to say, “Oh, they didn’t get it,” but it was really just kind of like, “What’s this weird shit?”
Robert Garven: Someone got it.
Tim Baker: Yes, I know, but most of it was just like, “Okay.” It was pretty different than anything else that was going on down there, so not quite mainly my fault but–
Robert Garven: That’s why we’re in Finland because they want eight people in the crowd not to get it and the rest of the crowd to get it.
Tim Baker: The rest of them, yes.
OLD LABELS MORPHING INTO NEW LABELS
Luxi: The next two albums, One Foot in Hell and Paradise Lost, you did for Restless Records, which was also based in California. What the story behind your transition to Restless Records?
Robert Garven: This is what happened. After One Foot in Hell, which is on Metal Blade Records, Brian was really busy with his record company and he really wasn’t that interested in putting out another record for us. I’m not really sure what it was at the time. We were still friends. We were trying to shop this record around. Once again, it’s like an abusive situation where the abused person keeps going back to the abuser again and again.
Tim Baker: Come on, man.
Robert Garven: Well, this is a true story. The first company we went with, Greenworld, turned into Enigma. Enigma got sold into Capitol Records. When they did that, they still wanted to keep doing their thing, so they morphed into Restless Records. Somehow, it’s the same group of guys that were working with our band. We went down there and kind of pleaded with the guys, said, “Hey, would you guys put this album out?” That’s how Paradise Lost came out.
END OF THE ROAD
Luxi: Why did the band eventually break up around 1992? Were you tired of all this label hassle, getting screwed by them and shit like that?
Jarvis Leatherby: Well, it wasn’t disco.
Tim Baker: It was just, basically, lack of support. Record company support, fan support. There wasn’t the infrastructure that exists now. The Internet and everything has just changed everything. You can get stuff done from there to here just over the Internet. Before, it was impossible to get a lot of things done. You actually had to call people up, know people, know this guy. You know what I mean? It was just totally different then than it is now. It was really just a lack of support.
We’d been doing it for a long time, four albums and never got anywhere. It was just a big frustration. Plus everything else that was going on in the music business. It didn’t look like we’re going to be doing anything. We just kind of said, “Oh, it’s time to hang it up, man.”
“DID THE SUN SHINE TODAY?”
Luxi: Did you feel that some of the label guys ripped you off, on some level at least?
Tim Baker: No, that’s like saying, “did the sun shine today?” You know what I mean? I mean that goes not with just us, that’s everybody, that’s the music business, man. No band guy is ever in it to make money. You think you might do that someday, but we were never in it for that, it was just a matter of being able to go out on tour and the money to do that. It a whole bunch of stuff, it’s kind of all that went…
Robert Garven: To answer your question, though.
Tim Baker: I just answered the question.
Robert Garven: No, but you went like me, you morphed into another question. His question was…
Tim Baker: I said what killed it.
Robert Garven: What really killed it too was me and Tim were the last men standing, we were sitting at the band room and all the other guys had left the band for the same reasons that he just eloquently told you about. It’s true, if you work eighteen years at a job and you never get paid, you don’t see any future and you may not even be there next week or what have you.
I think after a couple of people left the band and me and Tim were the last people there and the “Hair Metal” thing was going on, Speed Metal thing was starting to explode, we weren’t Hair Metal, we weren’t Speed Metal, we were just, someone said, true Heavy Metal, like the stuff that we grew up on. I don’t think that ever died, but at this point when our band broke up, the flame that was burning, it didn’t go out but, boy, it was turned down.
Luxi: When did you start thinking that it would be nice to come back someday and do this whole reunion thing?
Tim Baker: We never thought that really.
Luxi: What was the initial spark for the reunion of the band?
Tim Baker: You blame this guy.
Jarvis Leatherby: I gave him the famous Hunter S. Thompson quote.”The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
Tim Baker: We never thought about it. Rob was never going to pick up a drumstick while there were scumbags in the music business. Well, they haven’t gone away, so something must have changed. Jarvis was really solid in his attempts to resurrect the band. Like I said, it’s because of the Internet stuff and the festivals that are all over Europe and things like that. Some of the other guys that we know that were in festivals and things invited us over and we just all kind of went “What? Well, okay, let’s try and get back and beat on the drums a little bit, play guitar and things like that.” Jimmy hadn’t played for a long time either. With his insistence and support, we just snowballed through the last what, four years now?
Luxi: Sometimes the world surprises you, big time.
Tim Baker: Yes, it’s crazy, man.
Luxi: The band’s reunion happened at the second edition of Frost and Fire Festival in October 2016 and you played at the same venue (The Majestic Ventura Theater in California) where you played your last show before splitting up in 1992.
Tim Baker: Yes indeed, it happened on the Frost and Fire too.
Luxi: And that’s where the snowball effect actually started rollin’ on, right?
Tim Baker: Yes, for the first one we were there signing stuff like that and it was amazing because, like I said, we’ve never been over here, been to a lot of festivals and things like that. To see all the people coming from Finland, Germany, you go like “Wow, man.” It’s amazing that people have that kind of support and passion for it. That gave us more of a passion and saying we can actually probably do this. That’s really what happened. I’m glad we did it, we’ll see how long it goes on and it’s been great.
Luxi: I think you guys have always been more popular here in Europe than you have ever been in the States…
Tim Baker: By far yes.
Jarvis Leatherby: The grass is always greener on the other side, you know. The reason it’s greener over here is because it rains.
Luxi: [*laughs*] It’s pretty much raining all the time in Finland. Anyway, now you have this new live album coming out, called I’m Alive and for the Cirith Ungol die-hard fans, there will be a nice-looking luxury boxset available as well, with all kinds of goodies in it. Would you like to tell us a little bit more about this whole thing?
Robert Garven: Let me answer a little bit and then they said our change was at 8:30 and these guys can keep talking, but since I’m the drummer I need to go over there and put my drums together.
Luxi: Yes, sure. No problem.
Robert Garven: Anyways, what really happened when we got back together, and that’s another long story we didn’t completely answer, but because of Jarvis, mainly, we got back together. The record company, Metal Blade, who has always been really supportive of the band, they kind of approached the band, they approached Jarvis and said “Hey, do you guys play, do you guys want to do a live album?” The theory was, we’d record a couple of our bigger shows in Europe, our first few shows and maybe do it for a live record. I could be wrong, but that’s how I remember it coming about.
Luxi: It will come out at the end of this month, I think, right? On Metal Blade?
Robert Garven: October 25th, I think.
Tim Baker: We had no idea what they were going to do. Then it kind of morphed into some giant box set with all the crazy stuff that’s going on. I was like, “Oh my God,” they kept adding things to it and doing more stuff.
Jarvis Leatherby: We weren’t involved in that.
Tim Baker: Yeah, I know that, but you know what I mean. It’s just amazing. It’s amazing to see…
Robert Garven: But it is also amazing because they were making albums again, when I heard there was going to be a live thing and there’ll be two records, I’m like, “Maybe we’ll get a gatefold,” because back in the day if you had a gatefold album, you’d arrived, your band was on top. The fact that they’ve done so much that they did, we’re kind of overwhelmed.
Luxi: Okay, one last question and then we are done. As we have lots of Cirith Ungol fans in our country and many of them have come to see you guys playing here for the very first time, what can they expect from your show tonight?
Robert Garven: Hopefully, just for us to actually finish.
Luxi: Okay, that was it. Thanks a lot for your time! It’s a pleasure to chat with you guys. Anything else one of you would like to add to wrap this conversation up properly?
Robert Garven: Actually, all the good shit’s said after I leave.
Jarvis Leatherby: Thank you for the interview.
Tim Baker: Yes, thank you.
Robert Garven: Thanks for the interview, man. Appreciated!