Metal Nightmare metalzine issue 7. Features an interview with Robert Garven, ca. 2000
You want a truly classic metal band in every sense of the word? CIRITH UNGOL is that band! Despite the fact that they broke up several years ago (coming up on a decade very soon!), the love that many headbangers felt for them has never gone away. With the recent reissues of three of their albums on Metal Blade Records, there is also renewed interest, as many people did not get to hear this classic material the first time around. I wrote to drummer Robert Garvin last year, and even though he leads a busy life (as do we all), he found the time to respond to my many questions.
How did you guys settle on the name CIRITH UNGOL? Were you really into Tolkien’s books? Are you aware that these days it’s a really common thing to take a name from his novels?
Everyone in the band was a big “Sword and Sorcery” literature fan, especially Greg [Lindstrom, guitars] and I. He would always turn us on to the great writers who gave us inspiration for our music. We read all the books… Conan, Bran Mak Morn, etcetera, but the books that stood out in my mind are Michael Moorcock’s masterpieces: Elric, Hawkmoon, Corum among others. Greg Lindstrom and I met at an English Literature class where the teacher was reading Lord of the Rings… and Greg and I read it and it had an influence on our music and feelings. In retrospect I wish we had picked something easier to remember because a lot of our trouble has been over our name. People couldn’t pronounce it or remember it, but we figured once they did they wouldn’t forget it! We’ve humorously been called “Sarah’s Uncle” and “Serious Uncool,” for example! I know other bands are using the Tolkien angle. Led Zeppelin even made references to it in their earlier songs. I think he was an influence both then and now on many people. From the earliest of the early days
What can you tell me about the fact that your cover art and many of your songs were influenced by Elric? Was it natural to use Moorcock’s stories in your songs?
I think they hit a chord with us at the time. The whole thing about good and evil, chaos versus law, is a never ending struggle and we felt our music had the same duality about it.
Has Michael Moorcock ever contacted you about your Elric inspired songs? I know he did some songs with HAWKWIND that were based around Elric.
No, he hasn’t, but we have followed his career from the beginning and I think his works are mostly masterpieces… especially the Elric and Corum books!
Did Michael Whelan paint those album covers especially for the band?
No. They were all the original covers off the Michael Moorcock books. At the time we wanted a “Sword and Sorcery” theme cover called “Berserker” by Frank Frazetta, a famous sword and sorcery artist, but it was taken by the country rock band MOLLY HATCHET! I was reading Stormbringer by Michael Moorcock at the time and was thinking, “man this is the ultimate cover art!” I never thought we could use it but I contacted the publisher who got me in touch with Michael Whelan, who is one of the few people in our entire music career who was honest, friendly and kind, and we got to use it. I think we were the first album cover he had done at the time and we really wanted to use all his Elric series on our covers which we did! I told him that I always wanted to buy the painting for the cover of #1 (Stormbringer) from him if we made it big but we never did. He was quite successful then, but now he is probably the world foremost fantasy artist/painter/illustrator and his paintings cost a lot of money. It’s funny, DEEP PURPLE had an album named after the book and we got the cover. BLUE OYSTER CULT also had a song, “Bane of the Black Sword” which was based on Michael Moorcock’s writing.
Why did Greg Lindstrom leave the band after the first album? And why was it that he wrote all the songs and lyrics for the first release?
Greg had moved away to go to college and he started to be influenced by some of the new wave music at the time. Greg to this day listens to a lot of new music. He still buys about ten CDs a week, he also was the first to turn me on to REAL Hard Rock and Metal. The whole split was just a matter of taste… although there was a woman somewhere in there just like all band split ups… and we are still in touch and friends to this day. He still plays guitar every day but is not in a band. So much wasted talent from our band…. He was never a big fan of Tim’s [Baker, vocals] style and was pushing for us to replace him, thinking he was not commercial enough to be successful. I guess in some ways, he was right! The rest of us were very happy with Tim and decided to keep on the path chosen for us by the hands of Fate! Here is the real story to the second part of your question. We wanted to make it big, but all of our music was so heavy and dark, we thought we would use our most commercial material on Frost and Fire, so that we would get air time and stuff. Although all the lyrics and some of the music on Frost and Fire were written by Greg almost all of our songs over the years were a collaborative effort, some times “I” would even hum out parts until we got it right. Everything had to be perfect, sometimes leading to fist fights over riffs. Anyway, it just turned out Greg’s songs had the more commercial sound. After Frost and Fire came out it was only played a couple of times on the LA radio station KLOS because everyone said it was way too heavy….. So we figured FUCK IT!!! If they think that is heavy why are we holding back? Let’s show them something really heavy!!! We wrote about thiry songs with Greg that have never been released, some not even on tape. It was only understandable that we put some on King of the Dead. Greg did not leave until after Frost and Fire, so we were writing songs up to the day he left.
Did you ever think of replacing him? Was it hard to continue on after he left, since he had done everything for the first album?
There was plenty of talent to go around between Jerry [Fogle, guitars] and Flint [Vujea, bass]. Flint played a lot of the rhythm guitar on King of the Dead and One Foot in Hell, but yes, we always wanted a second guitarist, when we finally found one we liked, it was one of the causes that drove Jerry from the band as he felt he was being replaced. Over the years we tried out keyboard and violinists also, although none ever worked out.
What part of the country was CIRITH UNGOL originally from? I think it was LA? How was the scene back then? What bands did you do shows with?
It all started in Ventura, CA. The other member of the band at the time beside Greg, Jerry and I was Pat Galligan. His parents had a folk singing group that he was part of… THE GALLIGAN FAMILY. He played rhythm guitar. Greg and I first met in 7th grade about 1969, we had several things in common, we both loved cars, especially Ferraris, and music. We wanted to start a band and we knew Pat already played guitar and Jerry was starting to, so we started to jam as TITANIC. Pat was a big BEATLES fan at the time, so we stared playing all BEATLE covers. First song we played was “Get Back”! To make a long story short, the rest of us were into more heavier music and so the three of us quit TITANIC and started CIRITH UNGOL. Right away we started to write original music and play heavier covers, like MOUNTAIN, Jimi Hendrix, CREAM, and BLACK SABBATH, who were all happening around that time. We had some heavy jam sessions. I wish I had the tapes still… they would have been classic! Pat, Greg and I all sang in TITANIC, after CIRITH UNGOL started, we went to school with this guy named Neal Beattie, he stared singing for the band and he was great! He was also a great showman. You got to remember this was a long time ago. Iggy Pop was real big with us so Neal was influenced by him in his show. He did a fair amount of rolling around on stage, some in very little clothing. We played in a local battle of the bands every year, we were always the best but the judges always wanted bands people could dance to, so they could have dances with the winner. Needless to say, they never knew what to make of us, we always blew the other bands away with our on stage theatrics and heavy sounds. One year we had some of our equipment stolen and were generally fucked with during one of these “competitions”, the song “One Foot in Hell” was about that night. We had this great song “Shelob’s Lair” during which Neal came out onstage with little rubber spiders on his fingers and sang the song. Shelob was a giant spider monster from the Lord of the Rings that lived at Cirith Ungol, which was an evil castle in the book. TITANIC actually ended in about 1972. That’s when we started CIRITH UNGOL. We were really serious about the music then and even though Neal was the coolest, we felt at the time that we needed a better singer. Although when I look back and listen to the songs, Neal was good, especially if you compare him to some of the singers that are successful that I hear today!! We went awhile looking for a singer and played all the big LA clubs as a instrumental power trio, which was amazing if you think about it because no other band was doing that at the time. Our music was so strong that we could pull it off. This is when we started to get a larger following. It was amazing because Tim was there right with us all the time, it turned out he was a natural. I think Tim’s voice deteriorated with time. He was a smoker and when I listen to the tapes that came out before Frost and Fire, I think he had the cleanest and sharpest voice. I liked the high pitched voice like on “Better off Dead”. Tim Baker… Chaos descends!!!!
Did you do any large scale US tours?
Only mainly gigs in California.
Did you ever make it over to Europe?
No, and that is sad, as that is still where our largest fan base is. One of the reasons it has taken forever for me to finish this interview is that I have done about twenty interviews with all the large magazines in Europe. It seems we are very popular in Italy for example, where a really cool band called DOOMSWORD has done a cover of our song “Nadsokor”. We’re also popular in Greece, Germany, Holland and Belgium. I even have had requests from Sweden and after this interview I am going to do one with a magazine in Malaysia!!! We did play in Mexico City once. It was really a good experience and we thought we were on our way. Little did we know of the treachery and betrayal that would hound us through our career as so many other artists have experienced.
Can you tell me any good war stories from your shows or tours? Anything particularly funny or weird?
Most of our live shows during our career, we were opening up for larger acts. Most of the time we got pretty screwed on the lighting, sound, dressing rooms, and stuff, which made us pretty angry. So most of our shows were pretty brutal. We had to prove ourselves and I truly believe that audiences were really awed by our performances. Other than that it is hard to remember any good stories, only bad ones that would piss a lot of people off. I do once remember playing with the band RATT. They took both giant dressing rooms, we had to tune twelve guitars in a broom closet. I remember looking in their dressing room and they’re putting on lipstick and makeup for two hours. We once played with Lita Ford. Her band took a two-hour sound check so we didn’t get one. Supposedly she got mad at her manager and never showed up for the gig. They rushed us through our set and the crowd waited for another hour and a half until they decided she wasn’t going to show. The next day the newspaper said she hurt her arm or was in a traffic accident or some other bullshit.
Out of your releases, which one is your personal favorite? How about which songs were your favorites to play live?
King of the Dead was our best album, the reason was that we had total control over it. Every album could have been this good if we could have exercised complete control over its production and other things. This is the album which I feel is our best effort. The reason the long wait between albums is because when you are financing them yourselves, you have to come up with the money to pay for things like studio time. Plus being on all these independent labels their time tables are slower. I also did all the layout and design of the first three covers, all this while we were all working full time trying to sponsor the dream.
I was saddened to hear of Jerry Fogle’s death. Can you tell me what happened? Jerry Fogle, RIP
Jerry quit the band after the release of One Foot In Hell because he was depressed at the fact we had been together for about fifteen years and although we had sold quite a few albums and had lots of fans worldwide we could never seem to get the support we feel we deserved. Our goal was to get signed to a major record label, so we could go tour Europe, where we had always dreamed of going to play. We would work at the band room four or five nights a week answering fan mail, writing new songs and playing for our local fans. We kept waiting for a big break that never came. After Jerry left the band he stopped playing, and his life seem to spiral downhill. He was drinking pretty heavily, and he finally drank himself to death, alone sad and unhappy. I talked to him recently before his death, and he finally admitted that his leaving the band was a huge mistake which he had regretted all along. The sad thing about his death is the loss and squandering of so much talent. Listening to Jerry’s solos sometimes bring tears to my eyes, he played with so much feeling and emotion. One solo that comes to mind is the double lead in “Cirith Ungol”, the intertwining guitars weave a tale of sadness and hopelessness which I feel is the high point in our long and sad tale. I miss him very much, not that we were that close at the end, but I miss his talent which is lost forever!
What’s everyone doing now?
Tim still lives in Ventura and is a machinist, Greg lives in LA and works as an engineer. Flint lives in Las Vegas and is a sound engineer. I still keep in touch with them all. Greg and Flint are still playing music but not professionally. I think all of us had dreams of continuing the band, and I know that all of us are disappointed about the breakup.
If the opportunity arose, is there a chance that CIRITH UNGOL would reform?
Of course. My dreams and nightmares are filled with this thought. Although I have not touched a drum since 1992, I KNOW I could jump on a set and play as if I never stopped. However the pain of the treachery of our past record company dealings makes it hard to walk away from our semi-comfortable lives to become abused and ripped off again!! I know that both Tim and Greg are interested, but the logistics still make it a long shot….
Do you know how well the reissues have been selling?
All the re-releases are selling very well. The problem is of course since we cannot tour is that it is all based on past history.
Was anything special done with the packaging for the reissues?
In Europe they were supposed to put color booklets in the CDs, something that did not happen. But I am still confident with support such as yours that Metal Blade will release a CD of live and unreleased material. I have enough for at least two CDs and some of the music is the best we ever did. They’re home recordings but the solos and the vocals are unbelievable and probably better that most of what we did professionally!!!
Are you still listening to metal music? Are there any current bands you like, or are you mostly into the old classics and favorites?
I still listen to metal, but it’s mainly the classics and favorites like you said. There is a band in Italy called DOOMSWORD who did a cover of a song of ours, “Nadsokor”. I think they are very cool. I have heard some of DREAM THEATRE, which I like also.
Any final comments to all the headbangers and rivet rats out there?
The being called Ungol is dead, it’s resurrection is doubtful. But heed it’s teachings oh faithful, for on these memoratic disks contain the wisdom of the ages, and by your iron fists the horror, of false metal be extinguished. As you now join the swelling ranks of the Legions of Chaos, together we will drive before us the cringing herd of False Metal, crush their spineless lackeys, and purge the world of their mutant plague!!!
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