It was an unusually bright January day when I met up with CIRITH UNGOL drummer Rob Garven to talk about the metal days of yore. With recordings over 20 years old about to be excavated [„Servants of Chaos”, a two-disc set recently released on Metal Blade Germany. -PMG], I felt it was high time to bring to light the valiant story of this unjustly neglected band. I hopped on Southern California’s 101 Freeway and headed northwest from the San Fernando Valley towards Rob’s coastal hometown, Ventura, California, a good 40 miles north of L.A. That’s where the Cirith Ungolites grew up and joined forces, back in the early 1970s—where they forged some of the 20th Century’s most unique and influential true heavy metal. With four albums under their belt, Cirith Ungol have solidified themselves as a cult favorite both on American shores and to the European epic/doom metal fanatics. As one of the bands who bridged the gap between heavy/progressive ’70s rock and balls-out ’80s metal, Cirith Ungol’s sound attacks the listener with Rob’s thunderous double bass drumming, Greg Lindstrom and Jerry Fogle’s intermingling fuzzed-out and plate-mail thick guitar tones, Michael “Flint” Vujea’s slamming bass, and Tim Baker’s distinctive high-ranged vocals that could turn raspy and guttural at the drop of a hat.
Over twenty-five years before a second generation black metal band (whom I will not mention here) would come along with a similar name there was CIRITH UNGOL. This unlikely moniker may have inspired more than a laugh or two from nonbelievers—those ignorant of fantasy fiction or heavy-as-hell rock. To the worldwide cult of metalheads, Cirith Ungol stands out above the masses, with a sound so massive and ominous that it still is remembered to this day, nearly thirty years after its inception. The band’s sunny hometown is by no means the dismal industrial dig of Birmingham, England, where Black Sabbath sprouted demonic wings. Still, seaside Ventura spawned a band whose work and imagery could best be described as doom incarnate! One need look only as far as such downer anthems as “Better Off Dead”, “Death of the Sun”, “Doomed Planet”, and “Finger of Scorn” to see that Cirith Ungol weren’t your usual happy-go-lucky party band.
The conversation between Rob and I drifted from his passion for cars, our mutual love for heavy-ass ’70s rock, and of course to the forthcoming European CD release of rare Cirith Ungol demos. For most of the afternoon, our words were nearly drowned out by the tunes blaring on the stereo as Rob and I roared down the Ventura streets and freeway in his red 1975 Ferrari Dino 308 GT4, the sound of the music eclipsed only by the maniacal sound of the four double throat Weber carburetors screaming in finely tuned unison at the top of their lungs. It seems Rob has traded his drums for a prancing gasoline-driven stallion—and traded the sound of heavy metal for the sound of a thousand gnashing gears. Few things can match the sound of a Ferrari, but this summer Rob completed major engine work himself on this car—and its mechanical symphony can truly wake the living dead! The whole way I had the lyrics from C.U.’s “100 MPH” from their third album ONE FOOT IN HELL stuck in my head: “Coming like a hurricane/A hundred miles an hour/We don’t stop for nothing/Cause we’ve got the power”. Though no cops bothered to mess with Rob’s Ferrari as we sped along, it was clear to see where the inspiration for the track had come from! While we prowled through Rob’s vast collection of rare ’70s vinyl, my questions turned to his band’s history. First the Ferrari exhaust roared, then tunes by the likes of Night Sun, Moxy, A Foot in Cold Water, Granicus, Tempest, Tin House, and other ’70s heavies assaulted our ears.
Perry: So, you guys were the first band approached by Brian Slagel to appear on his METAL MASSACRE comp., weren’t you? How did you hook up with him?
Rob: From what I remember—it’s different if you read the Metal Blade website—Brian was working at Oz Records, which was down on Topanga Canyon Blvd., and he was really in to hard rock. And there was another record store down there.
Perry: Moby Disc?
Rob: Yeah, Moby Disc [a record store in Canoga Park, CA. -PMG]. And me and Greg [Lindstrom] would drive all the way to the Valley, ’cause there’re no good stores up here. And that’s where we’d go get the heavy stuff. And there was a guy in there with glasses who looked like Brian too. He called me and Greg the Thin Lizzy Brothers, ’cause we loved Thin Lizzy. I remember—this is after the band [Cirith Ungol] had been started—we used to make our own t-shirts. It wasn’t like actually having them printed. We’d actually draw the logo on a white T-shirt and wear it. People thought that was really cool. I even had these white tennis shoes that I painted like an American flag, but I got thrown out of 7th grade ’cause I had these. I was like this little nerdy guy, but it was during the Vietnam War, and I guess it was like a protest or something. Getting back to Brian, he worked at Oz Records, and somehow we got hooked up talking about bands we liked and how he wanted to start his own record label. He actually hooked us up with Greenworld Distribution, which was the forerunner of Enigma and Restless. In a way he did us a favor, but probably that was the worst thing we did in our career was sign with those guys [Enigma]. Even though we got our records out, we were totally screwed all the way along. What’s funny is maybe if we hadn’t have done that, we probably wouldn’t have had our first album out.
There’s another part of that that I haven’t told any of these other interviewers. We had this friend of ours, Randy Jackson, who was kinda this partier kinda guy. He’s the guy whose picture was on the album, who was credited as executive producer. He was just here last weekend.
Perry: How did the first album, “Frost and Fire”, come into being?
Rob: We were in a battle of the bands every year for 10 years, and every year we lost. ’cause they wanted dance bands. So they could throw dances with the winner and make money off it. But we’d always go and we’d kick ass. The other bands were doing covers of the Beach Boys and stuff, and we’d go out there and play “Frost and Fire” and some of our songs that’ll be on this upcoming [demo] CD. What was really funny about that is this one year the way it was all falling down it looked like we or this other band who we knew were gonna come in first place. When they went to go take the last round, they couldn’t get their guitar amp to work. So, what we did is we loaned them one of our amps, and they won ’cause they were a dance band. We always kept thinking if we hadn’t have done that they couldn’t have played. Even though some bands were pretty mean to us, we were pretty nice to every band, loaning them equipment and stuff. Which is kinda weird, especially in a competition. Anyway, we came in second, and we got something like $300 worth of free recording at this local recording studio. We’d already been together for ten years, and we had all these songs. We had our own little studio, but we’d never been to a big recording studio. We went down there and we started recording. I think we did “Better off Dead” and “What Does It Take”. And there’s another story behind this: even though the band was really heavy and into super-heavy music we knew in order to get on the radio and whatever you had to play shit that was pretty commercial. Which we all hated. But “What Does It Take” and “Better Off Dead” were songs we thought weren’t like Black Sabbath’s stuff, but more something somebody could listen to on the radio. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but those were the two songs we did originally.
We had this friend Randy, and he’d been in an oil field, and he was in an accident where they broke his back, so he got a bunch of cash. So, he said, “I’ll loan you the money to do the rest of the record if you pay me back.” So we borrowed money from him and I borrowed money from my parents, and finished recording the album. What happened was after we had the record out, we had nowhere to sell it. We had this record, and we’d made about 5000 originally. Which actually might not sound like many, but we stacked them up in my parents house and we had like six foot stacks, like 10 boxes 6 feet high all the way across. We had all these records, and we were trying to figure out what to do with them. Brian was selling some at Oz Records, and he hooked us up to Greenworld. That’s how we met Bill and Wes Hein, and those guys. At first they were really cool, and the company was importing all this stuff from all over the world and selling it here in the U.S., and they said, “Well, hey, we’ll sell the record.” They had guys that sat in cubicles who would actually promote it and call around to the record stores. Stuff that they’re not doing now for us, but back then these guys would call around. And all of a sudden…we just sold 5000 records like that. So we needed more money if we were gonna print up another 5000, and that’s when they said, “Why don’t we just put it out on their new label that we’re gonna start, Enigma.” And we go, “That’s fine.” But we wanted to see what it was all gonna be about. It turned out in the long run that—I’m if it was the best decision we made—we ended up signing a five-year deal with them. What was funny is the next band they signed was Motley Crue, and then right about the time our second album came out they signed Ratt, Stryper, and all those kinds of glam bands. Well it’s kinda strange. I remember Motley Crue—you’re probably not interested in this for our interview—had this real estate developer who spent a couple hundred thousand dollars on them. Promoting them, getting them gigs, and equipment, and stuff. When they got signed away to Elektra they told the guy to get lost. That’s why I never really had any respect for those guys.
I’ll tell you another funny joke…We would always go down to Greenworld to help do stuff and promote the band. One night we were sticking our album and Motley Crue record into a package to mail out. We had pictures of us and brochures, and stuff we made up ourselves. Motley Crue had all this stuff they [Greenworld] made up for them. We’re out there doing it like hundreds at a time. Sometimes we’d take a Motley Crue record and break before we’d put it in the package to mail out. I mean, basically, Motley Crue treated us like shit. I thought Motley Crue sucked, and I didn’t like their album. Some people liked it, but to me they were just a glam band. I’ve got a picture from that same thing I took that night. Tommy Lee and those guys had beaufon hairdos a foot tall. And we thought, “These guys are fags.” That’s what we thought at the time. Even if it was like a joke or something, I thought it was just bad taste. Anyway, we hooked up with Greenworld, and they put the record out. About the same time we made enough money to pay Randy off. We paid my parents off. I borrowed money from the bank. We paid them off. So, we’d actually broken even. The problem was we were never given any money for a second album [budget]. So, I went to the bank and borrowed twenty of thirty thousand dollars over a several year period to record “King of the dead”. I was going through thess period where I was having these really bad headaches, and I was freaking out. Just stress related. ’cause if this thing didn’t go, I was gonna be hung out on a limb. As soon as “Frost and fire” was over we had the [new] music written, but it took so long to raise the money, go in the studio and record the album, paying for it as we went along. And the whole time too we were waiting for Enigma. There was something going on there, I can’t remember with that. They were switching over to the different name or something. And it took three or four years in between records. Which is crazy. We put out “Frost and Fire” in ’81. I think they released their version in ’82, and “King of the dead” came out in ’84. So, the reason for all the breaks between our albums is ’cause we didn’t have any money. If someone said, “Here’s a budget. Go do a record.” We could have had ten records out.
Perry: So Enigma didn’t advance you a recording budget recoupable from album royalties when you signed with them?
Rob: No recording budget, no tour support, no advertising. Part of the deal for “King of the dead” was we had two half-page ads in like HIT PARADER and KERRANG. I did all the artwork for that myself. And that was recoupable. After our first album was already out, Brian wanted to put out his METAL MASSACRE compilation. We played a couple of times in L.A. at places like the Whiskey and the Starwood, and Brian would come and introduce us and stuff. And I remember him saying, “Hey man, you guys are one of my favorite bands, and I want you to be on my record.” We ended up being the first song on the second side. I think we kinda taped that too, ’cause the first song on the first side always has to be something that people recognize or like so much. But I always found that on a lot of the heavy albums that I like, the first song on the second side is always the heaviest. I don’t know if that’s true with a lot of albums, but that’s how we saw it. So, that’s where we first did “Death of a Sun”. We actually went into the studio with Brian. We recorded it, and he mixed it. I think he actually even paid for it at the time. “King of the dead” cost a lot of money ’cause we spent a lot of time doing that. But not one song. We went in did the basic tracks and the solos all at once. That’s gonna be re-released on the new double CD.
I remember Brian as being very cool back then. We’d go over his house every once in a while. I know he was a big fan of Iron Maiden at the time. He must’ve known Metallica because they were on that record too, but I don’t remember them being as good of friends as we’re led to believe today. Here’s what I’d say: I’m not even sure if Brian even likes me as a person, but I have respect for him. I have friendship that goes back with him, and I overlook anything [bad]. I felt we didn’t get that fair of a shake from Metal Blade on “One foot in hell”, but I still like Brian as a person. I wish that we were still friends. What I think’s funny is that if we were big right now, I would put my record out on Metal Blade because of I’m friends with Brian. If Metallica were such big-ass friends with him, and they could do anything they want to they could be making Brian a millionaire. And they could be supporting a thousand other metal acts. Every time they’d sell ten million records that’d pump money into the metal scene for Metal Blade Records. So, that’s my question. If these guys are such good friends, why are the guys in Metallica not supporting Metal Blade. I guarantee…it’s like we got three offers for this new double CD thing in Europe, but because Michael [Trengert] and the Metal Blade office in Europe are so nice to me…that’s why I went with Metal Blade. I feel like when you shake hands and you’re honest with people and people treat you write, you should reciprocate. If we sold a million copies, and he goes, “Hey, remember I’m the guy that put out that record no one else wanted to,” I’d probably go, “Hey, fine, we’ll do our next big record with you.”
Perry: How did you wind up on Metal Blade for “One foot in hell” in 1986? Did the five-year deal with Enigma run out?
Rob: The reason we stayed on Enigma was we were thinking they were going to do a bunch more for us, which they never did. I remember going to Brian’s house and giving him a copy of “King of the dead”, and his exact words were, “This should’ve been on my label.” So I go, “Well, look these guys have kinda fucked us over. We’ll sign with you and do our next album, “One foot in hell”, on there.” That’s another whole story about that album. At time Brian was like right across from the Reseda Country Club, and he had a little office. But I’m sure that when we came out with it in Summer ’86, over the three month period I think every week they released an album. Let’s say there was like twelve. Maybe a couple a week. I just remember this enormous number of bands. And it’s like at Metal Blade they promote the one band for a couple of days and then they’re already on to the next band. So, they really didn’t have the people or the machinery in power to actually promote our band or any one of these bands. Flotsam and Jetsam, who came out around that time…I don’t think they were doing that good until the guy in Metallica died, and when the guy went off to join Metallica. So, all of a sudden everyone knew about them. Same thing with the guy who used to be in Metallica. And I don’t really follow them too closely, but …
Perry: You mean Dave Mustaine and Megadeth?
Rob: Yeah! If he hadn’t have been in Metallica you wouldn’t know who he was. I’m not saying these bands are bad I’m just trying to say that the luck they got was being hooked on with Metallica when they hit big. We recorded “King of the dead” where they did some of the Megadeth albums in Venice. It’s scary as hell. It wasn’t really my choice, but we went down there. I remember parking the car and walking in like gang territory.
Perry: So, that’s 1986 with “One foot in hell”, and then about 5 years until “Paradise Lost”. What happened?
Rob: There’s a whole story behind that. Jerry left the band after “One foot in hell”, which is really kinda sad. We picked up a guy Jimmy Barazza, who was a great guitarist. He had some of his own personal problems, but other than that he was a really good guitarist and wrote some really good songs. We found Jimmy because he was a local guitarist playing in another band. Just like how we found Flint originally. Our goal was to get Jimmy and Jerry to play double leads. That was the thing. Jerry was such a good lead guitarist, but he wasn’t that good at rhythm because his brain was on a different wavelength. He couldn’t play really standard chuggy rhythms for some reason, because that’s not where his brain lay. He wrote all this weird avant garde heavy metal crap for his solos. So, we thought we’d get a guy that would be really good at rhythms, you’re gonna play leads, and then you’ll trade off. Jerry kinda felt like we were trying to replace him, which we weren’t. That’s not the only reason, but he ended up leaving the band. He was tired of coming to practice, writing fan mail, paying a hundred bucks a week or so to keep the band going. After literally being together for 15 years, we never made a penny. Every month I’m going, “You gotta give me your band rent, and I need $100 for postage, and the phone bill’s $300.” And after a while he’s just going, “Well, what the hell am I doing?” After Jerry left we were with Jimmy. We recorded this “Paradise Lost” stuff in our home studio. We wrote all these songs, and we were ready to do it. By this time Enigma was going through bankruptcy with Capitol Records. And I talked this guy Ron Goudie into doing the record. So, we got ready, we signed the deal and everything. What was funny about this whole thing is they had to go through their bankruptcy and set up a new company and this and that before we could put the record out. So it was 3 years from the time we signed the record deal till the record came out. None of that was our fault. It was all because of the bullshit with the record company. After the record had been out for three weeks we got a letter in the mail saying “Sorry but we dropped your contract.” We had a contract with them, and every record would’ve meant more and more money, more and more control with tour support. After the first record came out, they couldn’t get it released in Europe. They didn’t even try. They kept telling me, “You go to the guys in Europe and try to get your album released there.” I go, “I’m in the band. You guys are the record company. Why don’t you call one of your buddies in Europe, distributors, and get it released. Well, I wrote letters. I talked to the guy at Roadrunner Records, and he said PL was too dated sounding, and no one would listen to it. No one liked it. So they didn’t want to put it out. I don’t know what Brian was doing at the time, but basically they put it on me to do all the promotion for this album—and I wasn’t a record company. So what happened was, is the band pretty much splintered over that whole thing.
(To be continued…)
Perry M. Grayson
6442 Pat Ave.
West Hills, CA 91307
Conducted January 6, 2001 by Perry M. Grayson
Copyright © 2001 by Perry M. Grayson
Where is the continuation from issue 11/12 on website? On the previously website: PSYCHEDELIC FANZINE – ISSUE #11/#12 (DOUBLE ISSUE): “CIRITH UNGOL (US)” is only text, not links or continue with interview.