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Robert Garven (Cirith Ungol) Interview
October 6, 2023 Joe Miller Interviews
Clad in wolf fur, a wild head of hair, and his iconic mustache, Robert Garven has been the thunderous beat behind epic metal gods Cirith Ungol from day one. Their ’80s output is among the most influential in metal history, helping shape the genres of doom metal, power metal, and death metal, just to name a few. After a nearly quarter century dormancy, the US metal warriors awoke from their slumber, this time to lay waste to a new millennium. On the verge of their second comeback offering, Dark Parade, we sat down with Garven to discuss 50+ years of heavy history. “Crown upon his head. King of all the dead.”
Greetings Robert and welcome to Defenders of the Faith! How are you doing today?
Robert Garven: I’m okay! How are you doing?
Great, thank you. Before we start, I’d like to apologize in advance. If I’m a little hard of hearing, it’s because my ears are still ringing from that colossal set Cirith Ungol played at Reggies in Chicago about 5 years ago now.
RG: *laughs* I’m probably still deaf from all those put together.
That was my first and only time seeing the band thus far. I felt like I was atop a mountain with a sword in one hand and the head of my enemy in the other, which is exactly how one should feel at a Cirith Ungol show.
RG: That was a fantastic festival (Legions of Metal). We loved being there. It was really cool. I’ve been to Chicago once before, but I had never been to downtown Chicago. It was more out in the suburbs. Outside of town, we went to a music convention where they had a bunch of guitars. This is funny. Some of the stuff I say is not really band related, but some of the stories are funnier than the actual band.
We went out to this…I think it was a school auditorium, but they were selling vintage guitars and stuff. There was a school table that was, not fragile, but you could push it over pretty easy. Its got the legs that fold out. I can send you a picture, but anyway, on this table was all these guitars: early Gibson, Martin. They had price tags on them like $100,000, $150,000. There was at least 10 of them on one table. As we walked by, I bumped into the table. They didn’t fall over, but they all kind of rattled. We were all joking, “Hey, stay away from that table!” *laughs* Then we walked up the street for some deep dish Chicago pizza. I can’t pronounce the name of the place…
RG: Yeah! We were joking because it sounds like the secret society, illuminati. Lou Malnati’s, illuminati’s…anyways, it was fantastic. We loved being in Chicago. It was a fun time. I never saw the lake. I can’t believe it, but we walked right around the corner and there was a White Castle. They said it was the first one in the world ever. It was kind of a weird story. Those are my Chicago memories.
A few years have passed since the release of Forever Black, which I still hold to be the finest metal album of the ’20s thus far. How soon after did ideas start coming together for this new album, Dark Parade?
RG: Forever Black came out right during the pandemic, which was horrible. I’ve been joking with people, and I wish I had the calendar in front of me. It came out on either March or April 20th. That was almost, where we live, the same day that the worldwide pandemic happened. I remember walking around the neighborhood with my wife or driving around or whatever we were doing. It was like in one of those sci-fi movies where you go to a town where there’s a million people and the streets are all deserted and nobody’s there.
I guess the only good thing you can say about it is people were trapped at home, so they had more time to listen to music. People all over the world died, so I’m not minimizing the real horror of the tragedy, but for the whole music industry and for us as a band it was hard because not only did we just reunite after this long absence, but some of the biggest shows we were ever gonna play were booked and they all got cancelled. To be honest, 3 years got taken out of our lives and it’s weird. If you’re young like you, 3 years, you look back and go, “That was a bad 3 years.” If you’re almost 70, 3 years could be your last year. That’s where we’re coming from.
Almost every time that we’ve put out an album, we started writing material as soon as the album was done. I don’t mean released, because we finished Dark Parade…we had a final deadline around February 20th, so we were done with it earlier this year. The joke is we wished we could’ve spent another 2 years mixing it down. Are you in a band? You look like you’re in a band.
Yeah, I’ve done bands and projects over the years. Nothing substantial, but you know!
RG: That was the joke. If we had one of those million dollar recording budgets, that’s what we would’ve done. They’d probably have to release the album posthumously because we dragged it out so long! That happened right then and we started working on the material right away. There’s a couple of misconceptions. We put out Half Past Human in the middle of the pandemic because after releasing Forever Black, we thought, “Wow, this is our first studio album in 30 years. We can’t put out another studio album in the middle of this giant shutdown.”
People kept saying, “Why don’t you rerecord some of your other material?” We said, “No, that’s ridiculous. We’re old. We wanna put out new material. We already did that. That’s old material.” But then we started thinking, “Hey, you know what? Instead of putting out a new album and having it languish in the middle of the pandemic, let’s rerecord some old stuff.” That’s where Half Past Human came from. I think it came out better than we thought. We actually breathed some new life into really old songs. People keep asking, “Is there a bunch of old stuff on Forever Black and Dark Parade?” It’s kind of confusing because we put that album out as a bookmark in between albums. It was never meant to be a new album of all new material. It was all old material and then our other stuff, guaranteed, is all new material.
On an album of colossally crushing epic metal hymns, what gave “Dark Parade” the edge in terms of becoming the album’s title?
RG: That kind of goes back to Tim (Baker). I’ve been sharing this with people too. Here’s another thing. Are we a doom band? Are we an epic metal band? It’s hard to put us into any kind of pigeonhole, but when our first album came out, Frost and Fire, most of the stuff we put on there was stuff we thought was commercially radio friendly. Back then, in the ’80s, you wanted to get on the radio. That’s the only way you’d ever get a record contract or anything. That’s why all the hair metal bands were popping up with hit singles. We were never a hit single band, but Frost and Fire was the stuff we thought could be hit single stuff at the time.
They played it at some L.A. radio stations and said, “Oh my God! This is too heavy!” We were like, “You’re playing Black Sabbath. How can this be too heavy?” I think the real story was it was too different. It’s strange. It’s different. It’s not like anyone else. Right after we put out the album, we got in touch with Brian Slagel who started Metal Blade Records. He worked at a record store. We were trying to shop the record around, even to stores. “Hey, can you sell our record? We’re a heavy metal band.” He put us in touch with the guys that helped us get it distributed and exported around the world, which brought the band into a worldwide audience which we never had before.
Anyways, getting back to the two sides of Cirith Ungol, we always had the sword and sorcery stuff. Then Brian goes, “I wanna start doing a record company. I’m gonna put out a compilation album.” On that album, we put on a song that we wrote, “Death of the Sun”. I wrote the lyrics for that. It’s about in the future, when the sun burns out, of course it probably won’t burn out for another 100 million years, so we probably can’t wait that long, but we’d probably all melt. It was like a primitive version of our earliest doom rock. People have called us the grandfathers of doom.
I’m not sure if that’s true, but getting back to what gave “Dark Parade” the edge is that we’ve always had these two sides: sword and sorcery and doom. They’ve coexisted. With all the bad stuff happening around us, a lot of the doom stuff seems being pushed to the fore. On our last 3 albums, Paradise Lost, Forever Black, and Dark Parade, side 2 is relegated to Tim’s vision of the downfall of mankind. I can’t actually answer your question because it’s a little more complex than that, but I really think it’s a progression from where we left off with Paradise Lost. We came back. We did Forever Black, which had a really dark feeling to it.
People have asked, “During the pandemic, did it affect your vision for this album?” I would say no, but it was also swirling around behind us. It probably affected us, maybe not superficially, but it affected our psyche or something. To get to my final point, we always try to put out one better album after another. We wanted to make this one heavier than Forever Black. I don’t know if we succeeded, but we think it’s very cool.
That serves as an excellent segue into my next question. Correct me if I’m wrong, but upon first few listens, Dark Parade feels much doomier than Forever Black. Was this a conscious effort on the band’s behalf or did it just come out that way?
RG: I think both. I think that’s what we wanted and it came out that way. One of the other funny comments is everyone says…that’s the other thing. I was talking to Armand (John Anthony), the guy who owns the studio. He’s the guitarist for Night Demon. Anyway, he recorded our last 3 projects and we were laughing about it. No matter what equipment we do any of our stuff on, people keep saying, “That sounds like it came out in the 1980s.” because we’re from the 1980s! It’s like if The Beatles put out a new album, it would sound like The Beatles.
That was the funny thing when we put out our first song when we got back together, “Witch’s Game”, people said, “Wow, I can’t believe they can write and it sounds like Cirith Ungol. How come it still sounds like them?” Well, you know! It’s basically Tim. I play some really weird drumbeats that most drummers don’t even understand. Tim has this voice. People are still picking on him saying, “He’s so extreme.” But with all the genres like black metal and death metal where the singing is so extreme, to me it seems like Tim is Frank Sinatra. People are still saying, “Oh my God! Do you have a future with such an extreme singer?”
You certainly have thus far. As a drummer, is it more fun for you to play slow, plodding parts like on “Cirith Ungol”, or the high speed, blasting sections like on “100 M.P.H.”?
RG: You know, there’s an old joke. How can you tell a drummer’s knocking at your door? The knocks start speeding up. A lot of times, and it’s not just me. I’ve always been a big fan of ZZ Top. They’re not traditional heavy metal, but they’re a pretty amazing band. I remember the first time I saw them, way back in the 1980s, they were playing stuff like “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers” and it was 3 times faster than it was on the album *laughs*. I don’t know. I enjoy both of them.
I’m not really a fast drummer. That’s not really my thing. Matter of fact, when all the thrash and speed metal came out, that’s one of the reasons we quit. We’re this traditional metal band. We came from Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple. That’s what we grew up listening to. Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and so on. To me, it was something that was so fast it made me nervous. To me, heavy is pounding. It’s like your heart beating. I guess your heart can beat fast, but it’s not really supposed to unless you’re scared or something.
I just love playing drums. I’m the first to admit, Neil Peart, before Rush got famous, we went to a bunch of their shows and hung out with them. He taught me how to spin a stick, which is amazing. I can say the guy who taught me how to spin a drumstick was Neil Peart. I never considered myself a technical drummer, but I always considered myself someone in the vein of like Bill Ward, someone who’s more of a heavy, crazy rock drummer.
I never knew that Rush story! Neil is my favorite drummer of all time.
RG: He was amazing. We lost him. If you actually go on the band’s Instagram account, you’ll see some pictures of us sitting backstage with them back then. I actually went to see them play at the Whisky with a couple of my friends when they were still around here in town. There was just a handful of us there. We went backstage and hung out with them. That’s when you smoked pot. Back then, everyone smoked pot *laughs*. They were really amazing.
They said a funny thing too. It didn’t really come to pass for them. They said, “We wanna play the heaviest music we can.” I love Rush, don’t get me wrong, but they’re more of a progressive rock band. It seemed like their career, they had so many records out that spanned this giant spectrum of every different kind of…I’ve even seen some, you know, 4 or 5 albums in, they had this thing where they almost look new wave. They’re wearing little skinny ties. We said the same thing. I was talking to Alex Lifeson about that and we both said we wanted to play the heaviest music ever.
Obviously, they went on and made hundreds of millions of dollars while we’re still struggling to do anything right. I think we’re at least staying truer to that original idea that what we wanna put out is as heavy as we can. Now is it the heaviest metal known to man? We think it is, but that’s left to our listeners and your readers to see if they share that same sentiment.
Tim Baker’s banshee wails on this album are as primal and powerful as ever. Besides King Diamond, he has to be the most distinct vocalist in metal history. I know Tim was originally a roadie for Cirith Ungol in the early ’70s. When did the band make the realization that he was the right fit to front the band?
RG: It’s funny. Our first singer, Neal Beattie, was here the other day. He lives out of town, but he showed up at my front door after band practice one day, so we went out to dinner and talked. He was an amazing guy. Once again, he was a good friend, so it’s not like we threw him out of the band. I think we were looking for something different. We said, “We wanna try something different.”, so he left the band and we played for a while as an instrumental group, which was really weird. In my brain, I’m trying to think of some other bands that were instrumental at that time.
RG: That’s who I was trying to think of that I couldn’t put my finger on! We played the Starwood and the Roxy. We played a bunch of places as an instrumental band. People came to see us, but we were still searching for someone. Tim…I’m not sure about the word “roadies”. To this day, I’m still a roadie *laughs*, but Tim was definitely hanging around the band. He did some sound at some of our shows. We always had someone back there working the board. Someone said, “Try Tim out! He has this wild scream!”
I think either before Neal completely left or something, there’s a song, “We Know You’re Out There”, about UFOs. Greg (Lindstrom) wrote the lyrics to it. It’s on The Orange Album that Jarvis (Leatherby) put out: A little orange tape that we made to get record company recognition and we never got any. Anyway, Neal and Tim are singing, if not a duet, tradeoff vocals. It’s interesting. That’s how Tim got in the band. You’re right about how distinct he is. He’s like Picasso. He has a Blue Period. I love the Frost and Fire stuff because his voice is like a razor blade! It slices through you, but then later on, he progresses. He wanted to be more like an opera singer. A crazy opera singer *laughs*!
To commemorate the release of Dark Parade, Cirith Ungol is returning to the legendary Roxy Theatre, where the band’s iconic live ’83 bootleg was recorded. What are your memories of that original show and what can the fans expect for this new one?
RG: Oh my goodness. I don’t remember that much because I just asked somebody the other day, “Is there a place to park?” *laughs*. That whole era of playing down there was a cool thing. Like you said, there’s a video of it with some cool things. One thing I remember was one of our songs, “Black Machine”, the way I recorded it when I played it live, I did a bass drumbeat on the second main riff and I do that to this day because I heard it on the video of us doing it at the Roxy. I went, “Wow, that sounds really cool!”, so to this day when I do “Black Machine”, I do this weird drumbeat in the second verse.
We’re excited about it. We’re famous all over the world, but in the United States, people are really spread out. I know this sounds crazy, but if you’re in Europe, you can fly for 2 hours and go from Germany to Italy or England or to Sweden or somewhere like that. For us to fly over there, sometimes it takes literally 3 full days to get to Germany, play there for a day, and then fly back. There’s so many metal people over there. It’s easier for them to travel. Even being in a big city like Los Angeles, we’re excited about it. There’s a lot of metal people there to get them all together and excited and have them come out. No one wants to get off their couch nowadays *laughs*. We’re looking forward to it and it’s gonna be recorded and videotaped.
Officially this time!
RG: Yep, there you go.
I was reading an old profile on the band published by the Ventura County Star Free Press on September 23, 1978. In this article, you speak of how most of Cirith Ungol’s songs have been condensed to 3-4 minutes, except the “grand finale” which ran nearly 30 minutes. What song was the “grand finale” in those days?
RG: Wow…was that the full page one?
RG: There’s a long story behind that. A guy came out and photographed that. My dad was a businessman here in town and he was friends with the local newspaper. The guy goes, “I’m not supposed to do this.”, but he gave him all the negatives, so I had all the negatives from that. There’s some really cool photos plastered around here and there of us playing in our band room. The guy sat there and took pictures. I think it was “Cirith Ungol”. We’ve ended some of our shows on that now. I’m not sure it was a 30 minute song as much as the ending went on another 10 minutes. The song was 10 minutes and the ending was another 10 or 15 minutes.
Those were the days of the jam.
RG: Yeah! And there had to be the 10 minute drum solo. It only lasted 5 minutes, but the fans thought it lasted 30 minutes *laughs*.
Next year marks 40 years of arguably Cirith Ungol’s most iconic album, King of the Dead. Does the band have anything planned to commemorate this occasion?
RG: You know, until you told me about it, I never even thought of that. Metal Blade came out with an ultimate edition of that album. They did one for Frost and Fire and Paradise Lost too. I don’t know. I think that ship might’ve sailed when they did the ultimate edition, but definitely that was an amazing album. We’re playing a lot of those songs to this day. “Master of the Pit”, “King of the Dead”, “Black Machine”, “Atom Smasher”. We used to start a lot of shows out with “Atom Smasher”. It’s a heavy thing. That was a classic song. Some people think that’s our best effort. That’s why I think, to be honest, as we’re doing these other albums, we’re not thinking about that specifically, but I think that’s the thing. If we’re gonna make it better than King of the Dead, how are we gonna do that?
It’s been nearly a decade since Cirith Ungol first got back together. Did you believe back then that it would last more than a show or two, let alone festival appearances all over the globe and new music?
RG: No. As a matter of fact, when we got back together, I thought maybe a couple of shows and that was gonna be it. I forgot how amazing it was lifting tons of equipment *laughs*. It was like, “Hey, in my old age, I should be doing that again!” I’m joking, of course. I think playing was fun. It’s an adrenaline rush. Obviously, there’s people out there who love the band. Some people came to the show and said, “I waited my whole life to see you play.”
We haven’t really played a lot. We’ve done 31 shows since the band got back together. Some of them are bigger festivals. Some of them are smaller clubs, but there’s still people out there who probably want to see us. I think that’s what made me at least stay in the band, thinking, “Hey, if we’re gonna do this, we should do it now. We’re getting older.” Not only that, but I think a lot of us felt like we had a little bit more to offer.
Someone once said, “Your band will never be relevant. You’re just an old band playing old music.” I think when we put out Forever Black, that pretty much said, “Maybe we’re still not relevant, but we’re trying to be relevant.” Everything’s about how hard you try. Even if you don’t complete a goal, if you tried really hard to complete it, that says more about your character than not trying at all.
Expanding upon the last question, it’s incredible to think Cirith Ungol dates back to the early ’70s. Even come the ’80s, when the band was releasing their classic output, many didn’t know what to make of it as the music was so unique. Do you feel Cirith Ungol was a band ahead of their time and are just now getting their due?
RG: I don’t know. We wanna be one of those big bands that sells out 3 nights at a stadium, so I think we’ll never get what we feel like our due is. I’m joking, but in a way I’m not. Everyone wants to be…my wife says, “You’re gonna be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” I go, “We’re not.” *laughs* We were always different and I think the reason we were different is because we wanted a different outcome. We had a chance in the ’80s to sellout and become more like a hair band. We passed on that.
Our goal was to try to create music for ourselves and if other people liked that, that was fine by us. If other people didn’t, we weren’t betting on trying to get a giant commercial following. We were just trying to play some heavy metal that we thought was true to our roots. That’s the best explanation that I can give you. To be honest, I don’t know why we’re different, but we are.