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By Wojtek Gabriel
A few years ago, the unexpected happened. The underground US metal legend Cirith Ungol, who were reluctant to play any shows or record any new songs for years, came back. Surprised by the number of fans that still worshipped them, they finally decided to give it another shot and played their comeback show at the Frost & Fire festival in 2016, followed by further appearances at various metal events around the world. Earlier this year the band hit London, which was a perfect occasion to speak to the band’s co-founder Robert Garven, who confirmed that a new Cirith Ungol album is coming our way!
So, Jarvis from Night Demon asked you to do a meet & greet at his festival and as it turned out you still had huge following. Did you realise at all that after so many years so many fans still remembered you?
We knew that we had some supporters as Metal Blade Records had kept most of the albums available after the band broke up, but it wasn’t until Jarvis and his band Night Demon came back from touring Europe and he told us that everywhere they played people asked about Cirith Ungol and had our shirts etc. When he put on the first Frost & Fire Festival in 2015, so many people showed up for autographs that we were amazed.
As a result of that meet & greet you decided to reunite. But you’ve surely had many offers over the years so, why did you always say no?
Oliver from Keep it True Festival had been contacting us for about ten years, but we always told him no. When the band broke up it was a pretty done deal and I don’t think anyone thought we would ever play again. We worked so hard and for so long, I think all of us thought it had been put to rest!
Two years ago, you played your first show after the come-back, in your hometown. How did it feel to be back on stage again?
It was simply amazing, especially to see so many from all over the world, come to our home town to see the band. We had some history with the Ventura Theatre, as it was where we played out last show before the band split up, so to play there again to a sold-out show was awesome.
You’ve had one guitar player in the band most of the time, but now both Greg and Jim are involved. How did it come about?
Greg was one of the original founding members so it was only natural that we asked all the original members to play. When Michael Vujea “Flint” first joined the band, we had two guitarists for a while, Greg Lindstrom and Jerry Fogle so it was not unprecedented.
You’ve got Jarvis on bass guitar these days. Was Flint not available?
When the band got back together we approached all the members. Michael Vujea “Flint” lives in Las Vegas and even though he was interested it was impossible for us to get him onboard due to this logistics problem. We are still in touch and I talked to him just the other day!
Have any of you played in any other bands since disbanding, apart from Greg who’s in Falcon?
No, I even swore a blood oath that I would never touch a drumstick again…
So, you came back and now you’re headlining bigger shows than back in the day, with no new releases out for 25 years. Don’t you find it weird?
Yes and no. We worked so hard for so many years I think my bandmates feel like this is what we were born to do. We are a bit older, and not as handsome on stage as back in the day, but I feel we are playing at the same level. We just played Rock Hard in Gelsenkirchen, Germany and that was our biggest show to date and it was amazing. We had a very big audience and response. We are picking up steam at every show and hoping we can play many more festivals!
A few questions about the band’s history now. How did it come about that the band’s roadie Tim became your singer?
Tim had been friends with the band for a long time and we had this small recording studio in my sister’s old bedroom at my parents’ house where we recorded our music and practiced for years. We were always looking for a singer after our original crooner Neil Beattie. So, we were recording songs and we asked Tim to sing and it turned out really well! Some examples you can hear on “Servants of Chaos”.
You started in the early ’70s, but when you were releasing your first three albums the glam rock scene was huge in California. How did you fit with that scene?
It was horrible, it always seemed like we were out of sync with the times, but we stuck with it for so many years because we believed in the heavy metal! Plus, we never really got the whole fad thing and thought true metal transcended all of that, and that was what we were shooting for. However, the whole music scene seemed focused on one trend after another and we just kept slogging on!
I remember reading somewhere that you had a management offer from a guy who later managed Guns ‘n’ Roses. Why didn’t it work out?
He wanted us to wear make-up and women’s clothing. Our record company at the time were very upset with us. They signed Mötley Crüe and Poison a bit later…
So, you played for some 20 years and released 4 albums but you never achieved the commercial success you deserved. Was that the reason for calling it quits?
It was hard working twenty years without a paycheck. We could not find a decent manager, had been taken advantage of by our last record company, and had lost some of our core members. After that show at the Ventura Theatre, we came back to the band room and the rest of the guys quit leaving Tim and I the last guys standing. We seriously considered trying to find new members but the speed metal thing was taking off and we were not playing that either so we just decided to hang up our stuff and go home… It was a very hard decision, but not sure we had any other choice…
Why do you think your core fanbase has always been in Europe and not in your home country?
That’s easy, as with the exception of a few bands like Mountain or Grand Funk Railroad, most of our influences were from European metal bands. Not only that but our dream was to play in Europe and the UK, and now our dream has come true. Also, people in Europe, all they had to judge us on was the music and no hype, and I think the music speaks for itself!
The first 3 albums have been re-issued many times, but “Paradise Lost” wasn’t for years. Why?
We had a very expensive lawyer, recommended by the record company, who looked at the contract and said it was good. Turned out we sold the album and most of the rights to the songs away forever. Metal Blade Records fought for years to get the rights to re-release it. And they did a hell of a job on that, and the reissue of “King of the Dead”! Ironically it is owned by the Warner Music Group, which used to be Warner’s Brothers Records which was our dream to be on, when we started! Not sure if they even know what it is, but the record was for some reason very hard to get the licensed.
There was a cassette tape box set out last year. Whose idea was it to reissue the albums on tapes?
That was a Metal Blade Records in Europe’s idea. At first we were unsure about it, as I think I may be the only guy with a cassette machine in the band, but the limited edition sold out. It was really well made and like all of the reissue packaging Metal Blade Records has done it was over the top! I was proud to get a few copies and it is one of the nicest things I have ever seen!
I’ve read that a live album is coming out soon?
Metal Blade Records is releasing it late 2018. It will feature another Michael Whelan masterpiece Elric cover, what more do I have to say!
I know you’re also working on your 5th studio album. How is it shaping up? Are you working on some old stuff that wasn’t published back in the day or is it all new material?
The plan is to do another album and I am very excited about it. We have some new material and I promise we will not release anything unless it is heavy and in the tradition of Cirith Ungol. We have a bunch of old songs and will probably record one for old times’ sake!
I assume Michael Whelan will be doing the cover art for this one too?
Yes! He has been one of the constant supporters in our bands entire career. He even came out to see the band play in Brooklyn at “Defenders of the Old”! Tim and I were lucky enough to see an exhibition of his work in Riverside, California. It was so amazing I had tears in my eyes. He had the original “Stormbringer” on display and I asked Tim how could a human have so much talent. His paintings seemed to have some unearthly glow. There is no way you can ever capture that on paper. I have some photos on the bands Instagram account (cirithungolband), but even those cannot do justice to the originals or capture the soul of his work.
Cirith Ungol has never made it big in a commercial sense, but you enjoy a cult status in the metal underground, to the point where fans who were born after you disbanded dig your stuff. So, why in your opinion your music has stood the test of time?
We have fans that have travelled to almost all our shows, fans that say they just came to see us, at the largest festivals, fans with Cirith Ungol images tattooed all over their bodies. The band is amazed by all this, but not entirely surprised. The music we wrote was heavy, it was original, and we put the “Blood & Iron” into every song. I urge any reader to come out to one of our rare shows and witness the “Churning Maelstrom of Metal Chaos Descending!” That is Cirith Ungol!
- Interview by Wojtek Gabriel
- Cirith Ungol on facebook: facebook.com/cirithungolofficial
- Interview Robert Garven