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Sleazegrinder webzine. Interview with Robert Garven
Tales from the Black Machine
Sleaze VS. Cirith Ungol
Although they are known mostly as an 80’s metal band, the mighty Cirith Ungol actually formed a decade earlier, kicking out the skeleton warrior jams in a pre-punk world, with only ancient fuzz-pilots like the Stooges and Blue Cheer as their guides. They were shock rockers and head bangers way before either phrase even made sense. Ultimately, the 1980’s rolled around, and Cirith’s hard rock crunch had developed into a thunderous screech of demonsweat metal, punctuated by the unforgettable banshee wail of Tim Armstrong. They got signed to fledgling indie label Metal Blade, and released a trio of earth-shaking albums, all of them featuring memorable fantasy themed paintings on the cover and equally memorable doses of super-heavy in the grooves. Unfortunately, Cirith hit their stride at the same time glam-metal did, and they often found themselves playing second cucumber to the latest spandex sensations, a frustrating situation for these seasoned head choppers. But Cirith Enduros, at least until the 90’s, when they disbanded, without fanfare. Meanwhile, their reputation as elder gods of the true metal movement grew in Europe, a continent preoccupied with all things metal, cementing their legacy now and forever as one of the wildest, weirdest ‘cult metal’ bands of all time.
I recently had the rare opportunity to ask Cirith drummer Robert Garven about the history and enduring legend of this mythical, magical heavy metal band.
First of all, pronounce “Cirith Ungol” for us. Because who knows, maybe we’ve had it wrong all these years. Like “Keltic Frost” instead of “Seltic Frost”.
The correct way is to pronounce it like a “K”; this is from the “Lord of the Rings”. However we always pronounce it with a soft “C” like an “S” like Searith, which is of course wrong, but hey, we all read the books. We should have read all the appendixes too, I guess!
When you first heard Tim’s voice screeching and roaring like some mad beast, did you think the band was blessed or cursed?
I really liked Tim’s voice from the first. He was a roadie of ours when we were an instrumental band after the departure of our first singer Neal Beattie. I am not sure how it started but we let him try out on some of our songs and it seemed to fit our music perfectly. I encouraged him and during recording I was his best cheerleader always trying to get him to screech higher! Tim was a smoker and I think that his voice deteriorated as the albums went by. If you listen to “Frost and Fire” many said that he was screaming but he is actually singing. I feel that his voice was the sharpest and best on this album. As a matter of fact he reaches some pretty amazingly high pitches! I always liked singers with high voices like “Pavlov’s Dog” & “Granicus”.
Forming a rock n’ roll band in 1972 must’ve been amazing. How many practices did it take before you started attracting teenage groupies?
I am quite disappointed to say this but we never had that many groupies, there were a few, but I always wonder why I missed out on that part of Rock & Roll. If there were any around Tim usually got them, as I was still carrying my drums around at 3 am after the gigs. Heather Locklear once wanted an album from me but I was with a mean girlfriend at the time so I wouldn’t give her one, which seems like a mistake now since she ended up marrying TL, who abused her. She followed me around a Swap meet in Thousand Oaks where she lived, when I was handing out album covers. My girlfriend at the time that was pretty territorial ,so I remember not giving her one, which sounds silly now!
Since you were all still in high school at the time, did you play school dances?
Only a couple, as no one could really dance to our music. I remember once even yelling in the microphone for people to sit down and that we did not want “Any dancing fools”. I think we were so into our music we took it as an insult and expected our listeners to sit down as if they were at a classical concert. We did play at a few outdoor concerts, which were great fun, I always liked playing outside, as the sound is always great.
Talk about some of the bands you all listened to back then. The Cirith Ungol sound is so distinctive that it’s difficult to peg what your original influences were.
Hell, we listened to allot of music. We used to scour record stores looking for heavy stuff. We sometimes would slit open the sleeve and slide out the LP. If you know what you are looking for you could see how heavy the band was by reading the grooves. We bought allot of junk also but some gems too. We were listening to Scorpions 10 years before they were even known in the US. I remember finding Deep Purple “In Rock” at the local Montgomery Wars and freaking out it was so cool. I was raised on; Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, Mountain, Jimmy Hendrix, Cream, Captain Beyond, Iron Butterfly Rush, and the list goes on and on. We also listened to quite a few bands that were great but never made much success, such as Lucifer’s Friend, Night Sun, A Foot in Cold Water, Moxy, Alamo, and Demian.
Was it always the band’s intention to write concept-y, fantasy-based songs, or is there a suitcase full of early Cirith Ungol odes to pussy, beer, and the road? Because that would be awesome, if there was.
There were a few of those, I wrote a great song called “Flesh Dart” which we never recorded except in our home studio. Here is the last verse:
He is the ruler of the deep,
Upon his hands and knees he creeps.
He is the ruler of the land,
For he wields a flesh dart in his hand.
The time has come for him to rule.
He strains himself to flex his tool.
You live in fear of his command,
For against the Flesh Dart none can stand!
“One Foot in Hell” was also different, but Tim revised it to be more “Sword & Sorcery”. It was originally about a Battle of the Bands where we had some equipment stolen, and even though we were the best, we lost as the promoter wanted bands that would be good for local “dances”. We started mainly on the S&S stuff after Neil Beattie, our original singer, left the band. We were all reading the S&S stuff like Conan, Elric, Kane the Barbarian, Faferd and the Grey Mouser etc. So it was natural for us to use these influences. Greg was the one that turned me on to these classics! The literature there is pretty awesome and it had quite an effect on us. I still read it and horror like H.P. Lovecraft.
About what year did you start developing the action-packed stage show? Did you learn how to do pyro yourself? Were there any unfortunate accidents or near-misses? Oh, and for people who don’t know, can you describe what went on during CU show?
We really did not do too much stage show stuff until near the last half of the band’s life. We were pretty heavy from the start and even when we went out and played we blew most other bands away. Somewhere I got a catalog that had some pyro-stuff in it and I had some really cool things on my cymbal that shot balls of fire into the air, sometimes up to 25 feet. It was very cool. By the way, we never killed anyone. We also had a coffin made and the roadies would carry Tim out in it and tilt it up and open it and Tim would come out in a crown singing “King of the Dead”! There is a small pic of that on the new tribute CD that just came out in Europe.
So, 1977 rolled along and you were really getting cooking. Did punk rock have any effect on you guys at all? Did you end up playing with any punk bands around that time?
We listened to anything that was not wimpy, and Iggy was one of the best. As for punk I also liked the Dead Boys and saw them in concert at the Starwood in LA. Pat Galligan, who was in Titanic, went on to play in the Angry Samoans, and I worked with a guy Carl Valdez who was in the band Ill Repute. I like allot of punk and that’s why I guess we were so turned off by speed metal, because it seemed as if it was an unholy cross of punk and metal, I still don’t like speed metal or rap rock for that matter, however some bands I consider crossover, like Falconer , who I do like.
At the time you released your first album, heavy metal as a genre was just getting cooking. Did you guys even refer to yourselves as a metal band in 1980, or did that only become apparent later?
No, we were metal from the beginning. Greg and I would scour record stores looking for Heavy Metal bands, that is show we met Brian, We were one of if not the first of the independents that put out our first album out ourselves and went looking for an independent label. Brian Slagel worked at a record store, “Oz Records” in the valley, and he was the one that hooked us up with what turned out to be the company that helped us and screwed us the most.
They were called Greenworld at first and things were pretty cool. We were the first band they picked up and the next was Motley Crue. MC had some promoter that financed them with alot of his own money. The story is that when the got signed away to Electra that they dumped him. I figures, as I always thought of them as creeps. One of the guys at Greenworld, an English gent, wanted us to wear women’s clothing and make-up like Motley Crue and we said that we wouldn’t. I forget his name, but he went on to be Guns & Roses manager, after that Greenworld was not really that supportive of us. Brian was putting out his first album “Metal Massacre 1” and starting his own label Metal Blade Records. We were one of the first bands he chose. It is funny, because if you look on his website history, it mentions nothing of Cirith Ungol. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but Brian developed a strong dislike for me personally, which continues to this day. It is sad, but he took it out on the band, which is a shame, as we were better than most of the groups on his label at the time, such as Armored Saint and Lizzy Borden. Anyway, we were written out of the history, which is weird. With the exception of printing a poster for “One Foot in Hell” Metal Blade never did much to promote us at all either. They even discontinued all our re-released CD’s in the US. Metal Blade in Germany however, is run by a very cool guy, Michel Trengert. He has been a good friend to the band. We have never made much money from either group, but he was the guy that suggested that we put out our “Servants of Chaos” CD, which contained all our old and unreleased material, without him it never would have happened. Brian our old friend did not release it in America for whatever reason.
How much do you think the awesome covers of the albums helped your sales?
I think the album covers were just awesome. Michael Whelan is one of the greatest guys around. We shared June 29th as a birthday and he was genuinely the nicest guy we ever dealt with. We originally were looking at the artwork of Frank Frazetta. He did the cover of Dust’s album “Hard Attack”. We really like one of his paintings called “Berserker”, but the country rock band Molly Hatchet ended up using it and a couple other of his works. I was reading Michael Moorcock’s “Stormbringer” at the time “Frost & Fire” was in the works and thought that it was one of the best paintings I had ever seen. I wrote the publisher Daw Books who put me in touch with Michael and the rest is history. One of my only regrets is that he along with out lifelong photographer Greg Hazard never really got the money they deserved for their work.
I would embarrass them both if I told you how little they got, but both believed in our music and both probably thought that someday we would make it big, and then they would get the monetary reward that they deserved. Unfortunately that never happened, and to this day I feel that I still owe them. I even sent Michael Whelan the majority of the upfront money for “Servants of Chaos”, which after expenses was not much, but a token of how much we felt we owed him.
Being on an independent back then was pretty rare. Many bands tour without label support these days, but not so much in 1980. Did you find that being in an indie hampered your career at all, and were you ever courted by any major labels?
Never, we were never even able to get any professional management. We had several managers that ended up ripping us off, disappearing or worse. Our dream was to get on a major label but no matter how we tried to contact them we never seemed to get past the secretaries. I wrote countless letters made endless phone calls and sent many tapes out but never had a response. We went to industry conventions, tried to crash entertainment events to no avail. We thought that the guys at Greenworld, Enigma or Brian would help us get our foot in the door so that they would make more money on the projects they had the rights for but that never happened either. Brian was even the guy that selected the music on the creepy film “The Rivers Edge”, almost every Metal Blade band was in the soundtrack except us. This was during the time “One Foot in Hell” was out and we all were pretty disappointed.
The band really broke through in the 80’s during the height of the glam-metal era. What was it like seeing bands ten years younger get snapped up by major labels within months? I would’ve wanted to kill those fuckers. Can you talk about what that era was like for you guys?
Yes, that was all very depressing. The other bands on our label all had more support from the companies or managers or backers, Ratt’s manager was Milton Berle’s cousin or something and since Milton Berle was the first guy on TV that was their ‘in’. Motley Crue had the rich developer paying for them. We just never had anyone with big money or connections. We did get a few gigs as warm-up acts for the other bands on our labels, but without exception they were depressing experiences where we were always treated badly for little or no pay. We played with Ratt and Lita Ford at a very cool place, the Beverly Theater in Beverly Hills. Lita Ford was 4 hours late for her sound check, so we never got one, after that she got into a fight with her manger and never showed up for the show. Backstage Ratt and her had about 1000 square feet of dressing rooms and we were in a broom closet with ten guitars. I looked into Ratt’s dressing room and they were all putting on make-up, it was pretty pathetic. Motley Crue showed up that night and I remember them walking around dressed in Madonna-like outfits with women’s underwear on the outside and lipstick. It was pretty weird. Later they said Lita Ford got into some kind of car accident which we all new was bullshit, but we ended up having no sound check and having to rush our set, just so that the audience could sit for hours, waiting for the other acts to come on or not. We got a review in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, which said we were the best act that night. What is funny is that we had some very good reviews and influential media people that liked us, like the British magazine “Kerrang’s” editor, but good reviews don’t count for much, unless they are backed up by tour support and advertising. Metal Blade in Europe actually did quite a bit of press on the re-releases of our CD’s over there, and they sold quite a few. We still have the largest following of fans overseas, in countries like Italy, Greece and Germany. A funny side note a friend of mine was playing in Athens recently, and he told me when he came out of the club they were playing there was a large Cirith Ungol logo spray painted on the wall across the street. He said when you looked up you could see the Acropolis above it. He asked me what I thought about that. Well what could I say? It is all very depressing to me….
There was a five year gap between albums from ’86-91. Was the band still together all that time, or was that a reunion? And why did the trail run cold from there?
We were still together and playing however just like the break between 84 & 86 I was trying to get a record deal together for the music we had written. Of course Jerry left the band as he did not want to play with Jimmy as he saw a 2nd guitarist as us trying to replace him, which was not true. We all thought that having a second guitar would enable us to play alot of the intricate leads that we were writing. Unfortunately, Jerry was determined to leave the band. I finally got a deal with Enigma again (unfortunately). It was like a battered wife going back to her husband, as she had no place else to go.
Anyway, Enigma was getting bought by Capitol Records, so they changed their name and morphed into Restless Records. We had to wait about 2 years for them to get their act together, by the time they did Flint had left the band and Tim, Jimmy and I had to get a new bass player. Here the story gets rather twisted and suffice to say we had some members who were not probably best for the band.
What were the last days of the band like? It must have been difficult to let go of it after 20+ years.
Lets say it was not the best of times for the band. We did, however, write the best music we ever did, only to be destroyed by the producer of “Paradise Lost”, and the time it took to get the project off the ground. One of our roadies in the last days, I’ll call him “Dave”, helped break the band up by giving false advice to Jimmy, who, like Flint, could not see the big picture. We had met the bass player for Heart who was living in Ojai ,and he came and saw us a couple of times. He was interested in producing our next CD. I called Restless and told Ron Goudie who signed us and produced “Paradise Lost” about this new development. Within a week, we received a letter saying that Restless was passing on its option to do any more albums with us. My theory is that since Ron worked for the company, he paid himself, lets say $30,000, to produce our album. Since he was the only one that made any money on the deal, removing him from the equation meant that it made no sense to keep us around. As a side note, when Brian decided to re-release the CD’s in the US and Europe, they contacted Restless to see if they could get the rights to re-release “Paradise Lost”. It turns out the attorney we had at the time, Evan Cohen, advised us to sign a contract where we gave ALL of the rights for not only the album, but also the music to Restless Records forever. The contracts were very complicated, and we had no knowledge what we doing at the time. Restless Records has refused to allow anyone to this day to re-release the CD, and we cannot understand why. They would have at least made a little money off a band that they had thrown away, so no one has figured out why they have refused every attempt to re-release this CD. I believe that it is because of spite. I thought it sucked anyway, so I have no regrets.
Did everyone continue to play music after the band broke-up?
I sold my drum set the next month, and have never touched a stick since. I told Ron and those at Restless that I would rather never touch another drumstick than be in an industry with such scumbags as them. I have kept my word to this day. Tim refuses to have anything to do with the band, or me. Greg is playing in a band called “Falcon” with a cool guy named Perry Grayson who used to be in a Metal Blade band called “Destiny’s End”. Flint is in Las Vegas, and I have not talked to him in years. Randy, our long time friend and the producer and backer of our first album, passed away recently. I saw Jimmy recently and he is doing OK. He has his own construction business and enjoys skydiving as a hobby. He just started playing again and wants to do something musically. He was one hell of a guitarist. I feel that Flint and Jimmy really squandered their unbelievable musical talents.
How did you personally feel about the break-up?
I don’t want to blow my own horn, but I was the guy that set up almost all our shows, got all our record deals, did most of the artwork and publicity, and got our records re-released. I was also the one that financed “King of the Dead” with money I personally borrowed.
I also paid most of the bills. At one time Jerry and other band members did not have the resources and could not pay their band rent for a year, guess who covered them? All the music was a shared endeavor, but I would also fight to the end to get each riff and or composition just right if I thought it sounded wrong. Not to say that the others did not participate, but I was the mover and shaker. The problem is the tenacity, passion, drive and perseverance I exhibited, which helped motivate and promote the band, was also misunderstood and unfortunately alienated some people. For that I am truly sorry. It seems that without me there would have been no Cirith Ungol, but because of my personality, the band may not have reached our full potential. Since I believe the band meant the most to me, I am the one who was the most affected by our demise. When I look into the mirror and deep in my heart, possibly I am the one to blame for Cirith Ungol’s failure. This is the burden that I must carry the rest of my life, and is my greatest sorrow. All I ever wanted to do is play drums and I still dream at night about getting a new set, or the band getting back together. I am haunted and tortured by the ghost of Cirith Ungol, and I am not sure that I will ever find peace.
Were you involved in the 2001 retrospective CD? How did that all come about?
As I said earlier that was the brainchild of Metal Blade in Europe’s very cool and very smart Michael Trengert. He suggested the idea to me and Greg and I got all the material together that we could find in hopes of releasing allot of stuff that no one had heard before. There are some real gems in there, including some great instrumental work by Greg, and a version of “Fallen Idols” that showed what the album “Paradise Lost” would have sounded like if we would not have had a producer destroy the musical compositions and arrangements. All in all, I was very happy with it, even though Metal Blade saw fit not to release it in the US. Tim was opposed to it, as he thought there was going to be some questionable material on there, but since the tapes were deteriorating, it was then or never. I decided that since the tapes were legally either Greg’s or mine that I was going to go for it for our fans. Unfortunately, it seemed to have cost our friendship.
Are you surprised that after all these years, people are still interested in your band? Or did you figure all along that Cirith were gonna be ‘classics’?
I am not. I thought that we were heads and shoulders above the “Metallicas, Motley Crue’s etc.” I considered us more in the league of bands like “Rush, Judas Priest, Scorpions, etc.”. Unfortunately, we never got the chance, support or money to prove it.
I think we had a great pool of talent that was wasted, but there were so many other bands better than us, that only had one album that have fallen by the wayside so we were not alone. The music business is not about music it is about business. I am not completely happy with the legacy we have left behind but I am proud of “Frost & Fire” & “King of the Dead” as they are the albums that we had complete control over, and if we could have remained in control of our music the rest would have been as good!
These days, Cirith Ungol are considered to be pioneers in the ‘true metal’ movement. Which as gotta be nice. Honestly, though, don’t some of these European kids take this ‘old gods’ thing too seriously? I mean, at the end of the day, wasn’t Cirith Ungol a rock n’ roll band?
Sure it feels great to be appreciated, but it is also a bummer to think of what could have been. But life goes on and hopefully Karma, too. I think we weren’t just a rock band, we were very serious about what we were doing, and maybe that was our downfall. I’m not sure we were pioneers, those came before us, but we did try to raise the bar of what an unsigned and self-produced band could achieve.
Do you think you’ll ever get together with the fellas again, if even for a one-off gig? And if not, what’s the obstacle?
We have been offered large sums of money to regroup to play in Europe but Tim is not interested and Tim is the one that everyone wants to see, so that has not gone very far. I would be interested in a reunion, but I think that it would be best for our fans if we never played again. We were so good back then, and seeing a shell of what we once were on stage seems pretty depressing to me. Heavy Metal like Formula One racing is a young mans sport, over 30 and you lose your edge!
As a matter of fact, this month a Cirith Ungol tribute CD and album was just released in Europe, by two very good friends Bart Gabriel and Sven Sostak. It is on Solemnity Records, and has bands playing our songs and many are as good if not better than our versions. As of yet it is not available in the US, but if anyone is interested in getting a copy information can be found at our official website.
Finally, and most importantly…have you ever ridden the black machine
Personally, no. I tried to climb aboard but was thrown off. However I drive a red machine on weekends. My other dream was to get a Ferrari. After the band broke up and I paid off all the bills I got married bought a garage with a small house attached, and realized my dream. Weekends find me in the garage listening to bands like ASKA, Fireball Ministry or Riot, taking apart my carburetors (it has 8), or taking something apart. Since my dream of music has died, this is my passion now, and it runs deep, very deep.
Right on. Thanks for taking the time, Rob.
It was good talking with you. I will end with our mission statement:
The being called Ungol is dead, its resurrection is doubtful. But heed its teachings oh faithful, for 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!