Cirith Ungol; or, The Champions of Heavy Metal’s Unwavering Spirit (Full Band Interview)
Cirith Ungol had been dead and buried for a long time, even when I discovered them more than a decade ago. The denim-clad necromancers finally resurrected the esteemed titans of old back in 2016 when they headlined the second iteration of Ventura, California’s Frost and Fire festival. The fest served as a West Coast beacon for the sort of dusty LP-sleeved bands who sprouted in the 1980s -- often to relatively little fanfare at the time -- to only now be venerated by fans of all ages and idolized by contemporary musical disciples.
I had attended the first iteration of the fest largely to see Manilla Road for a second time, but the announcement the following year of a reformed Cirith Ungol appearance got my blood pumping out of control. Even more bands were pulled in from the four corners of the world to assault the gathered masses with triumphant riffs of heavy metal, but nothing quite compared to Cirith Ungol taking the stage. All hesitations and worries about the rust of time were sandblasted out of our skulls as the band launched into an epic run of their classic material, which felt even more gigantic and crushing in a concert hall rather than via a pair of headphones at home. As a bonus, one-time Invisible Oranges scribe Mitch Gilliam attended the festival as well and had an engaging interview with the band after their performance.
Early last month, I drove out from Burbank to Ventura to do much like Gilliam had, only this time my anticipation was not for a rare festival performance but rather to talk to the full band about their 29-year-in-the-making return to the studio titled Forever Black, which releases tomorrow.
The new album will hit the ears of fans like their mother’s best cooking hits their stomachs: absolute satisfaction in both cases. I make no qualms in already saying it’s a high contender for album of the year for me, with its dark epic metal bombast and riffs that demand stage-rail headbanging like barbarians banging upon the city walls of Rome. Just as doom infiltrates Cirith Ungol's music, the increasingly dismal reality of the worldwide Covid-19 Pandemic slipped into my thoughts while driving out to meet the band at their rehearsal space. Thinking back to then, it seemed hard to fathom how in only a few short weeks things would escalate so quickly to where they are now.
Despite how bleak and depressing the world has become since, I can still look upon that day as one of the best I’ve ever had. I arrived in what appeared to be an industrial shop and office space, the type of place where it takes you a few moments to realize you're in the right spot. I then bumped into one of Cirith Ungol’s guitarists, Greg Lindstrom -- after being assured I was in the right spot, I soon met the rest of the band in its current incarnation, including drummer Robert Garven, vocalist Tim Baker, guitarist Jim Barraza, and bassist/manager Jarvis Leatherby (also Night Demon ringleader). Despite all the work they had ahead for their evening, Garven gave me a tour around their rehearsal space, a spot just as much the band’s own clubhouse as it is a metalhead's dungeon.
After the tour, and while getting situated for the interview, Garven pointed out a box sitting near the base of his drum kit that he said contained a fan's ashes.
I inquired further, and Graven explained: “Oh yeah, his name was Hans Kuurstra and he's from Rotterdam. He went on to play in a band called Battering Ram. What happened was after our first album came out, he flew here from Holland to visit us. He came out and we got to visit with him. You know, he stayed like maybe a week or so. He'd come to all the practices and kind of pal it around with us. We took him around and showed him the sites. Unexpectedly, he tragically got sick and died, I think it was a year and a half ago or so. He had asked before he died for some of his ashes be sent to us. He had told one of his friends the greatest moment of his life was coming here because we were his heroes. So we're caretakers for some of his ashes for a while.”
While a bit morbid for some, I found the true story Garven told inspirational for human community and compassion, especially for a stranger half a world away coming to just hang out in awe of you and your young band. I suppose that should have been a sign for the type of openness and hospitality I’d soon experience from Cirith Ungol. After already getting a very friendly welcome prior, once the interview (which you can read below in its entirety) was finished I was given the chance to stick around and watch their rehearsal as a thank-you for my efforts to come out their way.
I hastily said yes and proceeded to sit in the corner of their rehearsal room as they pounded out a full-on headline-worthy concert set right in front of my eyes and ears. I got to hear the whole new album performed live along with previous reunion single “Witch’s Games” and a number of other tracks from their last album 29 years prior, Paradise Lost. I could have pinched myself and I still would have doubted that I was consciously experiencing what I felt for myself was like a personal concert of one.
Though I've opened myself, now, to a glut of hate mail for having been given such a dream opportunity for any Cirith Ungol fan, I will never forget that day for so many reasons. Besides the thrill experienced by their set, the band’s continued hospitality, and engaging conversation after the rehearsal finished, there’s the later realization that this was my last concert potentially for the rest of this year due to the pandemic. It was also a direct rehearsal for one of the planned sets at the Keep it True festival in Germany, now postponed of course.
Like many other metalheads, I’ve seen hotly anticipated concerts and festivals, a big emotional lifeblood for me, postponed or canceled. Of course, these are the proper actions to take and only fools would risk lives to see a concert, but it doesn’t make it any less terribly heartbreaking. It’s a loss of adventure and community that strikes deep and sharp, though hopefully a temporary obstacle that most of us will find a path through to the end of it.
What the pandemic reminds me of most right now while writing this introduction is Hans Kuurstra. The best time of his life was spending a week in the company of the members of Cirith Ungol to the point he wanted the band to keep some of his mortal remains with them. In just barely four hours, I could begin to see exactly why Kuurstra felt the way he did: Cirith Ungol is an epic metal band, thematically laden with fear and trembling, but it’s also a band of brothers who, without reservation, share with their fans a pure love for this metal community of ours.
When this dark chapter in humanity’s chain of events comes to a close I look forward to celebrating, not alone but alongside my metal family with our fists in the air and headbanging galore in front of the once, current, and forever mighty Cirith Ungol.
Join the legion!
So only a few years ago you guys got back together and you hit the road playing shows where I think you've more than proven that you guys are still a great band. But how does it feel now composing songs again and taking them into the studio to record? What's that experience been like after so many years away from it?
Tim Baker: It's great. It's actually... not like, like they always say, like riding a bike where you never forget how to do it. That's not true here because it took a while for us to get back into the groove of figuring out how to write songs again, but it's been going pretty good. I mean it took us a while to write this last album. I mean we've had the songs for a while. So we've just been hammering them into shape and getting them ready. Then we finally got in the studio and recorded them but, you know, it was fun, and it was, uh, interesting. It wasn't too much of a bloodletting really.
Jim Barraza: It was a learning experience. We have learned what not to do next time and maybe some lessons were learned. For us to have the opportunity to go through the motions of that again, it’s just awesome. Never, never thought that would happen 10 years ago.
Was anything particularly challenging when you found yourselves in the studio?
Robert Garven: [long pause and then group laughs] It was different from playing on tape. It was way different from playing on tape.
Jarvis Leatherby: There's obviously modern technology now, which we tried not to rely on too much, you know, there's no sample sounds or anything like that. We all really played everything on there. But... also this time around versus every other time these guys made a record, there was time. I mean there was no real deadline until we created it and Armand [John Anthony], from Night Demon, produced the record. So we have that studio next door and we had time to do it. It wasn't like you're on the clock and you know that you're paying by the minute and sometimes just have to go with what's happening at the moment. I mean I wasn't there for the old records, but I know that's the case. I mean Rob, didn’t you take out a loan from your parents to do the King of the Dead album, right? [Garven nods in agreement]. And it's at that point, back in those days you had to know how to work in studios. That you're burning time, you're burning money and every second that that goes by...when you're out of money you're done, you know, like that's it.
Baker: It's much easier to record nowadays too with modern technology. I mean, back in the day everything was strictly on tape. You had to do editing where you're pulling the tape off the loop and slicing it with a razor blade, roll the tape and stuff it back. I mean that's ridiculous now, like caveman technologies. It's so much easier today to get things done in a proper, timely fashion. So it's easy to go back and forth for one thing and overdubs and all that stuff. So it's just so much easier than it used to be.
Leatherby: Funny enough, we actually have the tape machine that the records were recorded on but the recording studio here called Goldmine went out of business last year after probably 40 plus years. It's pretty sad actually, because it would have been nice to do the record there. However, we looked at that thing and were like, "Oh man! This is gonna be crazy, you know." Plus the cost of tapes is expensive too. It's at least $400 a reel and you're only getting 15 minutes out of that.
Baker: Yeah, maybe like two songs on a reel and it's like spending thousands of dollars just for tape.
Garven: My dream though is someday we go back and maybe just try to knock one song out or something. Just for fun to see what it would be like.
Leatherby: Dreams are good.
How many of the songs on the new album would you say were older material?
So it's all brand new? Was there any older material you thought about including that you just didn't?
Leatherby: Yeah, we recorded a couple of the older songs actually in this album session that were never unearthed before. Songs that Greg and Rob wrote probably when they were like in the seventh grade or something.
Greg Lindstrom: Not quite that old.
Leatherby: Okay, but ”Brutish Manchild”, the song that's coming out on the Decibel flexi, that's an old song that's that's been...
Lindstrom: Yeah that's been about 1979 or so.
Leatherby: 79? Yeah.
Garven: I think some people are angry that “Witch's Game” wasn't on the album or “Brutish Manchild” wasn't either. What I've been telling for all the interviews that I've been doing lately is that the truth is we wanted the new album to stand on its own. It's all new material that's not part of some other project, whether an old song or one from a movie or whatever. We wanted it to feel like we’re moving forward. Yeah, here's a new album we haven't done in 30 or 29 years and this is all new stuff.
When “Witch’s Game” came out I know my friends and I were all like, "Oh my god, this is great! We love this!" And then it was like, "Hey, where's more? Is a whole album coming or not?”
Leatherby: I think that was the guinea pig, though. I mean for that song we worked on it for a year because...
Baker: Well we had to write it twice.
Leatherby: Well, first impressions are everything so you want to put your best foot forward, especially when you make a comeback after 30 years. That was really the serendipitous thing about how it lined up where these guys contacted us wanting an original song for their movie. I mean the idea of a full length was always in the cards, but that was a good way to kind of kick it off and I guess beta-test the fans. To see like, "Are they hearing what we're hearing?" Luckily it was even better than expected, which is kind of cool nowadays considering with modern technology you know the haters are very visible. You can see if it's authentic or not, but we haven't seen a whole lot of that negative stuff, which is really cool. It's really easy to display your opinion if you like or dislike something, and hell like I'm guilty of that though I try not to publicly hate on things. I mean many bands that I love from the past, the current material is just not what it once was. It doesn't hold up to the classic eras of the bands. I think one thing we're fortunate enough to have is so many original members. Guys that were in the band at certain periods of time, important periods of the band, and it’s not just, you know, Tim surrounded by a bunch of like...
Barraza: Mexicans. Tim and a bunch of Mexican laborers [group laugh].
Leatherby: Yeah, the Mexican guy in the band is allowed to say that.
Baker: Witch's Game was a good, good thing to get our feet wet again. To get a new song out there and see if we could actually make it work out. See if we could hang around a song and you know. Though it was weird kind of doing something... to somebody else's vision. Well, because it's for a certain thing. So they sent us a...
Leatherby: It's an animated film.
Baker: Yeah, they set up a five page thing of the whole scene of the movie. It's like, okay, we'll write a song to tell this story because there's no dialogue in the movie. The Planet of
Doom is the name of the movie. It's all just driven by the music and the lyrics. So it was pretty strange to do that, but it came out pretty awesome I think.
Barraza: I would say, since we've been through that process, bring it on. We'll take on projects like that in the future for whatever... new Seinfeld [group laugh].
Leatherby: That's actually a keyboard, you know?
Are there any details on the movie that you guys know?
Leatherby: We've been waiting on it. It's been in production for probably two years before they even approached us. The deal is there's like 20 bands on this thing, but they're all legit bands and mainly stoner doom stuff. But every scene, every song is animated. So that takes an insane amount of time.
Baker: And they're all done by different artists.
Leatherby: Right, right. They did a big crowdfunding thing and it was super successful.
Baker: You can check it out online, if you go online Planet of the Doom, like they're on Instagram and elsewhere with trailers and stuff that. They sometimes throw up like scenes that they're working on and such.
Leatherby: Based on my experience in the industry, I saw the writing on the wall right away when we were approached to do it. That's when I made the deal to say, ”look, if we're going to come out with the first song that the band's done in a few decades we need to retain the rights to it and be able to release it right now while it's hot and while we're feeling it.” Otherwise what would have happened is we’d have this new record and we still couldn’t release that song till the movie is out. At that point, it's like, why do you need to do a single after you've already come back with a solid full length. In the end it worked out really well and it stands up properly as its own thing.
It's a good song.
Leatherby: Yeah, thanks. The artwork that Michael Whelan did is great and that speaks for itself. So yeah, I'm still proud of that one as its own thing for sure.
Garven: Since Invisible Oranges drove up here to do this I think we can give you a kind of like a secret exclusive that we never told anyone else or at least I haven't. The original title to that working title was called "Leather Wings". It wasn't a complete song but we were working on it and when we got that offer then we totally rewrote the song. Tim rewrote all the lyrics. So "Leather Wings" turned into “Witch’s Game”.
Baker: Yeah, but we had to do it twice! It took like a month to write the thing like what I thought they wanted. I sent it to them a week later or whatever and they go, “Ugh... well, we really only kind of wanted you to do this one scene, not…” So I kind of wrote something that took the whole story of the movie instead of just that one scene. So I'm like, “Oh, ok,” go back, and then rewrite the whole fricking thing.
Leatherby: But even still he had so much to tell in that story. There were so many verses. I'm like, “how long is this damn song gonna be?”
Baker: I mean it had to follow what they wanted.
Leatherby: So as a single that was cool. It had to be on a 12 inch because the song is that long.
Baker: It's for sure not a Beatles song. It's not three minutes long [group laughs].
Garven: Halvar, he's the protagonist guy in the movie. He's kind of like a viking biker guy that travels through time to go back to kill the guy that murdered his wife. I can't pronounce the monster's name or whatever but anyway his name was Halvar. That's the guy. So in our part of the thing he gets to like a cave and he goes in there meeting a witch. She reads his tarot cards, and while reading the tarot...
Baker: All you need to do is read the lyrics to "Witch's Game."
Garven: But yeah, he goes inside... I'm just telling you, that he goes inside each tarot card and he fights the monster.
Leatherby: I'm hoping to see that one of these days. But real quick, a funny thing about when you talked about older material being used for a new record. Angel Witch successfully did that on their last two records and I think some of those are the strongest tracks on them. Van Halen did it with their comeback with David Lee Roth and I thought that was a good thing to do. Because over time you change so much and it's hard to recapture what you were doing when you were young. Funny enough, with the exception of Paradise Lost... and I guess Frost and Fire since that was the first one... but like with King of the DeadOne Foot in Hell, a lot of the songs on those records were written by the band before the first album was even released, you know? So that's been a bit of a tradition for the band.
Baker: I wouldn't say a lot.
Leatherby: Okay, but a fair amount.
Garven: “Atom Smasher,” “Finger of Scorn,” “Cirith Ungol”...
Leatherby: “Death of the Sun” and “100 MPH." Right?
Garven: But we weren’t reaching back 30 years then.
Leatherby: Well, no [group laugh], but I'm just saying it's kind of funny how that would be the safe thing to do. In some ways that would be the right thing to do today. That would be a good thing you can fall back on and go, “Alright, at least we have this from the past and we're lucky enough to have this to rest on to at least kick off a return.” Right? It's a good safety zone, but what I’m saying is in reality that tradition had already been happening in the band.
So obviously a big part of the reunion was Jarvis came in as a new bassist and he became your guy's manager. So now that he's been in the band for a little while, what's your judgement of him, you know, being the new guy?
Garven: If it weren't for him we wouldn't be here. I mean that's the truth, really.
Barraza: I'll chime in on a positive note and say he pretty much lets us create but with oversight, which is for good reason. He knows for a song when it's put together finally and we're gonna record it now.
Leatherby: Yeah, it's kind of funny too because I get approached a lot to write music for classic bands. Sometimes I get pretty excited about it, you know, and I'm like, “wow, this is cool,” but those bands are in a position where they just have no inspiration. And they're not. They just need to make a record and they're looking for outside influence to get them inspired. In the case of Cirith Ungol I wouldn't want to write an Ungol type song and say, “hey guys, here's what I think the band would have written.” Neither would I call other friends that I know that are prolific writers, like I'm not gonna call Trevor from Haunt or Joel Grind saying, “hey, I need an Ungol track.” Or Jamie [Jameson Walters/Athenar] from Midnight because he can probably be like, “dude I've got three in my back pocket that I can't use for my band.” Those guys are big fans and they're songwriters, but luckily enough these dudes were able to come up with some pretty cool stuff.
How about your experience being in the band as well? How do you feel like you've gotten to know these guys from traveling, playing, and going to the studio with them? How has your relationship as a fan and also as a friend...
Leatherby: I don't know, I think I'm no longer a fan [group laughs]. But I think it's more like a brotherhood or family, where both bands, Night Demon and Cirith Ungol, we travel everywhere together and do stuff together all while looking after each other. My first job with Cirith Ungol is to protect the legacy of the band which means not always thinking of myself as a fan, but to think about the rest of the fans out there and do honor to them first. What do they deserve from this band? The people that have actually stuck by with the band or the newer generation of fans that are complete die hards. Without them it would have been the same old story that it was for this band, being isolated here in a beautiful beach town with doom and gloom music and not not having a vehicle to express that on a global scale. So that's been my main focus to take what's already there and if something new is going to happen it's got to live up to what's already been there, or we're not going to do it. We’ll keep grinding until it gets there.
Lindstrom: Well Jarvis is a, you know, about two generations younger than Tim, Rob, and I. He's kind of like a, like a...
Lindstrom: An editor in a way to keep us from our worst tendencies. Like saying, “I don't think you guys should do a 15 minute long solo jam,” or something.
Barraza: Or that we've heard that riff a billion times before, so play something different.
Lindstrom: Yeah, so just to save us from maybe our worst tendencies. I mean I'm still from a composition perspective still kind of living in the 70’s. It's just the way I write stuff.
Leatherby: And that's cool, because that's the stuff that I've always listened to as well.
Lindstrom: The way we mix it all together just comes out right.
Garven: Don't forget though, Jarvis is in a pretty unbelievably fantastic band with Night Demon. And so I consider what he's doing is like somewhat charity work for posterity [group laughs]. Well, you know, I mean seriously, he's in a band that's like head and shoulders above us.
Leatherby: No. It's a different thing, you know. The thing about Night Demon is we play classic style, but we've lived through all the other sub-genres that have come since, so we cannot help but be influenced by that. We didn't make music in the 70’s. So even though we were inspired by that there's always something through the years that seeps into our DNA. With the exception of Greg, when the band broke up, it's not like they went, “alright, next band!” It was like everybody just laid it to rest. It was as if they went into a witness relocation program for ex-musicians [group laughs]. For them I think that was a dark part of their past and it was like, “I'm leaving it. I'm leaving it all behind.” You always see bands, great bands from the 70’s and 80’s where they may have broken up in the 90s to split off into other bands. Like Adrian Smith from Iron Maiden had like a grunge band in the 90’s. That never happened with any of these guys. They never went away to follow a current trend or anything.
Baker: Or like how there's two Queensrÿches now, right?
Barraza: We kind of freeze dried ourselves. Now we've added water and are rejuvenating.
Baker: Just add alcohol [laughs].
In other interviews you've mentioned that Metal Blade Records founder and CEO Brian Slagel has played a part in keeping you guys alive in terms of the legacy of the band. How can you speak on the origins of meeting Slagel and the kind of the relationship you've developed with him over the years?
Garven: He worked at a record store in the [San Fernando] valley, Al's Records. The whole story with Frost and Fire was we'd sent out a bunch of cassette tapes to every major record label in the country and never got any response. A running joke was, there was a secretary...
Baker: By the way, cassette tapes were little tiny things with a reel in them that you'd put in your car [group laughs].
Garven: We still have ones for sale.
Baker: I know, we got the legacy box set.
Robert: Anyway, the joke was the secretary of the record company, she'd open up all these demos on cassette, erase them, and then use them for their own releases or whatever, right? So anyway, we decided to make a demo that would be just as good as any major record company release. At least that's what our goal was. So we’d become buddies with Brian at the store and we're saying, “we got this album coming out that we're making ourselves, but what do we do with it? Can you help us? So he kind of hooked us up with the guys that originally distributed and imported it to Europe. And at the same time, he's going “hey man, I want to start my own record label and I'm going to put out a record. You guys want to be on it? It’s a compilation thing.” That's how the whole Metal Massacre I came out with us on it.
Leatherby: That's like, it's crazy. That guy gives me goosebumps just to like hear that and how simple you say it, That's history. That's like, major, metal history!
Garven: Now, unfortunately, the guys he hooked us up with it's kind of like an abusive spouse. They put out the next several of our records, but we kept going back to them after we got beaten by them, you know. We'd come back because we had no one else to turn to.
Leatherby: Yeah, I mean really, the first Metal Blade release for them was One Foot in Hell. With Greenworld Distribution and then Enigma, Brian had basically just hooked the band up with them since Ungol had made their own album. They physically pressed their own album and he hooked them up with distributors. So the first couple albums weren’t Metal Blade releases besides them being on the Metal Massacre compilation.
Garven: Like Jarvis said, that company Greenworld turned into Enigma which did releases for like Berlin and a bunch of other bands. Motley Crue originally, Poison, and all that and then they turned into Restless who put out Paradise Lost. So I mean, that's that was our thing, with One Foot in Hell with Brian. I talked to him about it and at the time his company was really starting to kind of pick up steam. But I think the album that we did right then, the stuff we did was well... increasingly all the metal was getting harder and faster. Our stuff was still kind of like this antiquated thing, which today is called either classic metal, true metal or whatever you want to call it, like epic metal. But I'm not sure whether that time was right so after One Foot in Hell came out we kind of were looking around trying to see someone who would put out the next record and it's not that they weren't interested in Metal Blade but I'm not sure. Maybe the record sales weren't enough for something to work.
Leatherby: I'm really glad the band didn't make a thrash album though. A lot of classic bands did that and they were really bad.
Manila Road did a couple that were pretty good.
Leatherby: Manilla Road did, Anvil did, Angel Witch did and like it's... it just wasn't their thing.
Garven: I gotta be honest with you though. That's what One Foot in Hell was supposed to be. We kind of talked about that going, “okay, this next album…”
Baker: It wasn't going to be thrash.
Garven: No, I know but I mean, it's like okay we're gonna... like “Blood and Iron” and we had songs that we thought were gonna be more, you know, cater to…
Robert: Yeah, well, maybe not so much heavier but a different tempo or what have you. Whether that succeeded or not it relates to the number one question in the like 10 interviews in the last couple of weeks I’ve done. The question everyone has asked with the new album is, “how did you manage to get in a time machine and go back through time to write and record an album as if the last 30 years of music never existed?” I joke that’s a little bit weird to hear because I think of this as Cirith Ungol 5.0. I think this is a new version of us.
Leatherby: Let's give credit where credit's due. I'm not gonna take credit for any of the songwriting, but like with Armand and myself helping out the goal was always sonically to keep that integrity and have it actually sound like the band. I will take credit for absolutely refusing to let the Korn riff into one of the songs.
I heard about that earlier from Rob.
Garven: He said we had a Korn riff and I had to go look on the internet, look up Korn.
Baker: I'm thinking what vanilla corn? White corn? Like, what the hell is this corn? [laughs]
Barraza: You know why? We would rather stay with a few thousand fans than millions.
Leatherby: Well, I mean it's like, it's not guaranteed that you're gonna get a million fans by copying the flavor of the day. However, you're almost guaranteed to alienate at least half of your fans by doing that.
Baker: But we had no idea that's what that was.
Leatherby: I mean, I see it all the time. Like you get classic bands that have been in hiding for a long time, they reunite and they'll go to Europe playing a huge festival. Problem is they don't really have their identity anymore. So they come out and their wife bought them the new cool rock star clothes at Macy's or they've got their Black Label Society vest on thinking they're cool. They’ve got their new Korn riff filled song and then they play to all these people. And they're like, “we're back, we're back!” The sad reality is that abandoned identity was a special moment that you should enjoy, instead of having these delusions of grandeur of now becoming big rock stars. In some ways the industry hasn’t changed so much while in other ways it’s changed a lot, so it's way more about what you do for yourself now. I think it's a really good thing that this band has focused on just making the music good, first and foremost. From that is where all these other opportunities come because really, nobody's expecting this. Everybody's probably expecting this band to lay a turd at this point. I mean when the band came back it was big speculation whether they could even play. I don't know why it's anybody's right to assume that because they really don't know. But after that much time dormant, we've seen it with so many other artists where you're just like, “man, this is so uninspiring.”
Garven: So, you know, we had unfinished business and that's another thing where I’m thinking of all these guys that said that comment about the time machine. They all thank you for doing that. The irony is...
Baker: Well, we've never followed any trends.
I mean, that's for sure.
Baker: Yeah, well, yeah that's obvious.
Garven: So with my drumming, it's like I consider my drumming is 95% style and 5% technical ability, right? So with my drumming, Tim's voice, Jimmy and Greg’s guitars… how can we not sound like Cirith Ungol? Would that be like the Beatles putting out another album, if they were all still alive and yet it doesn’t sound like the Beatles? Of course they'd sound like the Beatles. So I’m more astonished that people are surprised we sound like who we were.
Leatherby: But I still attribute that to you guys not going off and continuing careers with other bands going into all these other styles. Yeah, even Falcon, the band Greg was in, it's very tasteful music and it's very true to the scene that Ungol is in. So there's no embarrassing moments there in between the band ending and reforming.
Baker: None of us made a disco album [group laughs].
Leatherby: The band came back and all we're doing is relearning the past for a couple years before even moving into writing new stuff.
Garven: How about recapturing?
Leatherby: No, no, but I'm just saying musically. Playing instruments again after so long. It’s not like riding a bike, you know?
On every Cirith Ungol album, including the recent live album and now Forever Black, you've used Michael Whelan's artwork. How did you first get permission to use that back in the day for Frost and Fire through all these years? Has there ever been a relationship with him or is it always just sort of impersonal business?
Lindstrom: Well, we first saw his artwork on Michael Moorcock's Elric series, actually their English import of paperbacks in the mid 70’s. We thought, we gotta get that art. We had to get it because actually our first choice had been Frank Frazetta.
Leatherby: Which Molly Hatchet ruined...
Lindstrom: Yeah, a Molly Hatchet album ruined that plan. I walked into a record store. Saw their album art and went, “what?! They took our album cover?” Yeah, but Rob then just wrote to Michael before our first album.
Garven: Well, he loaned me. Okay, we're thinking about Frank Frazetta. We saw the Berserker piece on the Molly Hatchet album, which came out like literally the same week as we were working on our album. So I was reading “Stormbringer,” which Greg had loaned me, and I remember looking at the book going, “Bam! This is an even better album cover.” I wrote to DAW books who put me in touch with him and he agreed to do it. Over the years he's been actually a friend. He came out to my house once, brought one of his paintings, which is called Demon Slayer, only about a mile or two from here. He actually left it on the staircase in my parents house. We went out to dinner and we’ve stayed friends with him over the years. He came to our show in Brooklyn, New York. Defenders of the Old fest from a couple years ago.
Baker: He brought out his family, his son and everything. It was pretty cool.
Garven: Yeah, he lives out in Connecticut. Tim and I went to, this is more important to hear, his show in Pasadena a couple of years ago and he had the Stormbringer painting there and it's just like some of the paintings on these wall things [pointing to some of the posters in the rehearsal room] and they were just glowing. They're glowing and Tim comes up to me to ask, “how does a human have this kind of talent?”
Baker: We were talking with his son about that. He goes like, “oh you know, he's got this one hanging over his computer desk. No big deal.” Like, okay dude [group laughs].
Garven: Yeah, you look at the Stormbringer painting and it wasn't that big, like maybe two feet by one and a half feet. But when you get up to it you can practically see the nose hairs in Elric's face. I felt like crying because it was just so beautiful.
Baker: He's really cool and I mean he's a really nice guy. He likes the music and he's always supported us, especially the fact that if you look around all the merch, all the bootlegs are copies of his stuff on them. He never really squawked about that, you know what I mean? He understands the business, that people are going to do that and stuff. We've tried to take care of him over the years. Rob made a good point about doing that. Like I said, he's a really good guy, a good friend and he supports us so we try to support him as much as we can do. Plus he's a great artist and we're lucky to have this stuff because that really helped us out. You used to go to the record store flipping through albums and stuff. So you're flipping through and you see something like Frost and Fire or King of the Dead it's gonna make you stop and go, “Woah! what's this?” It was instrumental in helping people discover the band so we have a lot to thank him for.
I mean, you're 100% right. I literally had that happen to me though not with you guys. I discovered you all a bit later but it happened when I saw his art that Sepultura used for their album Arise. I literally saw the album cover for the first time ever and was like, “I need this!”
Leatherby: Or even I think with Chaos AD, I think that’s Whelan too. You know, we call rob the Punisher because he just punishes the shit out of everybody but like it's pretty good to have on your side. Without his tenacity, especially back then, it's not like now where you can just email somebody you know. And the same thing with the band name in getting Tolkien Enterprises to sign off on that.
So they gave the okay?
Garven: Here's what happened with that, back then it was actually a cartoon, there weren’t the live-action movies yet or anything like that. So the guys that had the rights to the name in the US were Tolkien Enterprises. We wrote to them and they said, “yeah, we could use a name from the book.” Over the years, with the copyright, it's probably transferred to like who knows...
Baker: Disney or whatever [group laughs].
Funny thing with that series, you weren’t the first to sing about Tolkien’s world as I think that was probably Led Zeppelin. But in using a specific title from his works as a band name, I think you guys were the first to do that. And since then, I mean, you know just looking at like black metal bands it’s like half of them have names directly from Tolkien.
Baker: Well he had just gotten the name when I met him.
Leatherby: Yeah terrible choice [group laughs]
Baker: Yeah, exactly right but... [continued laughter]
Leatherby: Now looking back in the popularity of it all, it works you know but from a commercial standpoint...
Garven: Yeah, I think one record in and we were going “boy, I wish we'd done a one syllable name like Kiss.”
Leatherby: Well, it's funny because you talk about sending stuff to labels, like it might not have even had an opportunity to dislike the music when they just saw the name and were like, “what?!”
And speaking of Tolkein and fantasy, from the album art to some of your songs, including the song Stormbringer on the new album, Cirith Ungol has always been closely tied with Michael Moorcock, and specifically the Elric series. What is it about that work that engaged you so early on in life and made you decide to always keep it part of the band’s identity?
Leatherby: For my opinion, I wasn't there, but there were no chicks [group laughs].
Garven: I was gonna say, here's how the band started. Greg and I were in an advanced English class, like a literature class, and we were assigned to read the Lord of the Rings among other things. I was joking with some guy online nowadays since Lord of the Rings is well known and everyone has seen the movies these days. Back then though, Lord of the Rings was three like 700 page books. It was like War and Peace and so no one sat down casually to read them.
Baker: It wasn't Harry Potter.
Garven: Yeah, you were either assigned to it or someone said, “hey, you got to read this. It's fantastic!” So that's kind of where we got our first taste of that.
Lindstrom: I remember it counted as, because it was so long, it counted as like two or three book reports [group laughs].
Garven: But you know, within a matter of like a season Greg was already reading Robert E. Howard and Karl Edgar Wagner, like Conan the Barbarian and he's turning me on to all that stuff, just like I had that Elric book in my hand. So I don't want to say we transcended that, but that's kind of where we started. Where we’ve ended up is kind of a different place. People keep asking me in interviews, “like, so Tolkein, you dedicated your life to him. How are you now with that?” We've actually kind of noticed that we moved on, but that's kind of where we started. It doesn't mean that we don't appreciate that and I'll still watch Lord of the Rings if it’s on TV. Or maybe sometime I'll get one of the books out and start reading it. But it's not like we focused our entire careers on one man's work.
It is interesting how obviously the Lord of the Rings has blown up with the movies and everything but Michael Moorcock is still a bit, you know, kind of underground, I think.
Leatherby: I almost think that if you're a music fan that Cirith Ungol has helped the Elric book series more than anything else up to today.
For sure! I mean if I think of Moorcock I think of you guys and Hawkwind.
Baker: Yeah that's funny because the name of the band is from Tolkien, but none of the songs really have anything to do with Tolkein. I mean some of them do like the really, really old ones. But you know I don’t think I've ever written a Tolkein influenced song in my life. I haven't even read those books since like seventh grade.
Well, especially with Greg, Ro, and maybe Tim as well… if you were to find a young fan or something like that, what would you say to them in terms of, “yeah, you should check out Moorcock. You should check out the Elric series.”
Garven: Well, I think reading is good. I would say it’s always important to keep reading, but there's a whole bunch of literature out there. I actually at a young age, before I even started reading Lord of the Rings, I was reading H.P. Lovecraft and horror stuff. I think that affected me even more. You know, I belong to the Church and the Elder Gods. My house has a Cthulhu shrine and I mean I’m joking a bit, but I mean it all that means a bit even more for me.
Fair enough on that then. Moving in a different direction, your bandmate Jerry Fogle passed away in 1998 and it was noted he was a bit disappointed with how the band was when he left. How do you think he would feel now with it reformed and the kind of the success it's been getting?
Garven: I don't know. You know, some of that's not completely accurate about what happened when he left the band? We had been talking about getting another guitarist because we thought two guitars allows you to do harmonies. y]You can play rhythm and lead live at the same time. We met Jimmy, we were looking at a couple other guys, but we brought Jimmy in and Jerry thought we were replacing him. He kind of you know, Tim says sometimes in today's society Jerry would be considered someone that kind of had like some kind of social.. I mean he was really talented, but he also was very socially awkward. A lot of times he wouldn't talk and was generally really quiet. For some reason he thought that we were trying to replace him, although we sat down with him like we're talking to you right now and said, “hey, Jerry! You're the best guitarist in the world and you're the guitarist in our band. We want to bring someone on board to play rhythm and lead with you. So that we can expand our horizons.”
Baker: Yeah, like now we have two guitar players and people are still asking, “ how are you able to play that song on stage like that?” I mean, you can do it with one guitar player. We did that for forever.
Leatherby: Well, actually, there were two guitar players before. I mean, right? Greg and Jerry were both playing guitar when Flint [Michael Vujejia] was on bass right before Frost and Fire. There was that whole era, but basically the reason for one guitar player was just because they couldn't find anybody else right that fit the mold right here.
Garven: Well we like the power trio dynamic, kind of like Night Demon. Whenever there's a three piece thing there's some benefits to that.
Leatherby: But that's four guys [group laugh].
Garven: What, do you count the singer? [laughs] Yeah, the guitarists don't count the drummer and so the drummer doesn't count singers. No, I’m just kidding, but I want to get that straight because we love Jerry and it wasn’t any issue we had with him that had to do with him leaving. When he left and... I even remember a thing, and this is it, this is a true story. Jarvis may want to hear this. You may not want to put in your story, but you need to hear this so you understand how complicated this was. He had a buddy and Jerry was over hiding in this guy's backyard. We went over there like after practice one night to talk to him. I'm standing there, maybe Tim is standing there going, “Jerry look, you know, we don't want you to quit the band. And, you know, come back, let's go practice right now.” He's over in a corner and in this guy's backyard his friend goes, “Jerry doesn't want to talk to you guys.” So I mean, it was like he was talking through an interpreter. And we go, “well tell Jerry that…”
Baker: It was a bizarre situation.
Garven: “Yeah, tell Jerry that we want him to come back, you know.” So my point is it wasn't that he was unhappy with anything that we did to him but rather he was unhappy with the misconception he had about what was going on. So it's kind of complicated.
Do you feel there's, you know, after his passing, do you feel like there was unresolved...
Garven: Of course, but I remember we stayed friends with him. Even after the band wasn’t together anymore I would go visit him. He was really unhappy. He told me once the worst thing in his life was quitting the band. That was his biggest mistake. And then he drank himself to death.
Baker: Not because of that.
Garven: No, but I mean, he was...
Leatherby: If the band was still going, do you think that would have still happened?
Baker: What, if he would have done that?
Baker: Who knows.
Garven: But I mean, he kind of had complicated relationships with other people. He just was at a point where alcohol was the thing, a drug that was soothing and was making him...but I think put it this way, if he wasn't drinking and if he hadn't died from alcoholism then when the band got back together and they asked us to play again, we would have been the first ones to ask him to join in.
Leatherby: Yeah, it would have been like Iron Maiden with three guitar players.
Garven: And do you guys agree with that? Tim?
Baker: No [group laughs].
Garven: but I'm saying...
Baker: I don't know! [group laughs] Who knows what he would have done. I don't know what the hell he would have done. Like, maybe his buddy again would have said, “Jerry doesn't want to talk to you,” or he would have said, “let me dig out my rusty Flying V and put some strings on it and let's go play.”
Leatherby: But you know what? That's one of the cool things about the power of music. I never knew him, but I can listen to the records and especially I can watch old live shows. Looking just at his improvisation, for somebody that didn't know how to actually use his voice to speak freely on his own. He was able to channel that through an instrument. And like, every time I hear that I always think as a musician I hate when people say that, “this is my way of expressing myself.” It's like, well no, there's a formula to music and it takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and practice. You're basically just repeating a composition, you know, but when I see his improvisation I realize he really never played anything the same twice. There's some stuff in some songs that I'm like... I just have to keep rewinding that lick that’s got me going, “what the hell! It’s just so soulful,” and then the next minute his cable comes out and you just hear buzz. That was maybe the physical or social awkwardness but there's these moments that are captured, that are just so authentic and there's something that it does to me internally that I just can't find recreated. Jimmy did say that one time that they were playing at Club Soda, which was this old club down here. In typical Ungol fashion there were probably no more than 20 people there but Jerry showed up in the middle of the set. He was having a drink at the bar and kind of just like laser eyeing on Jimmy through the whole set. And then after they finished, Jimmy looked for him and he was gone.
Barraza: Yeah, that's true.
Baker: He was giving you some psychic lessons [laughs].
Garven: 20 people, 30 people... the irony is that's Ventura, we play in LA and we played the Whiskey or the Country Club. We'd have 200 or 300 people drive to LA to see us but Ventura was a joke. Someone says “hey, how can we guys don't play in your hometown.” and it’s because eight people would come... or less.
Baker: Until some guys started putting on these festivals around here.
Leatherby: Well even at Frost and Fire Fest, dude, you know...
Baker: It was all people from elsewhere who came in. It wasn't people from around here. It was people from like all over the world.
Leatherby: Eighty percent of sales were outside of California, consistently, for that fest.
Garven: Joe, you mentioned you were there.
Yep, that was a great show! I mean you know him Jarvis as you work at Metal Blade too but Alan from Primordial I’d met him some years before so when I saw him there I was like, “what are you doing here? He was like, “I'm the biggest Cirith Ungol fan in the world, so of course I'm going to be here!”
Leatherby: Yeah, totally. It was cool that year. The band had reunited and Metal Blade actually moved the company meeting up a whole month so that all the all the staff from Europe could attend the fest. So yeah, that was a great time. I wish I could relive that moment.
To get a little bit more from Jim and Greg, how do you both feel about the album? How do you feel about the work you've done for it and how do you think the fans will receive it?
Lindstrom: I think they're gonna like it. I think it's a logical step forward from Paradise Lost. Except there's more good quality this time. Paradise Lost I think it's sort of like 50% good and 50% not so good. But I mean, everyone says the same about their new album, right? That it's, “our best material,” but there really are some good songs on this new one. It's probably the best sounding studio album we’ve done, just sonically. So I'm happy with it.
Barraza: Under as much time as we were able to spend on it. It is what it is and I’d say I'm happy with it. Once again, when you get more time you can work more, like dial things out, you know. We demoed and the demos are in the box set, so people will be able to hear those. I kind of considered making this album like the real demo, you know. I'm saying this because it's been so long since we've done it as far as the songwriting goes, based on as much as we could come up out of ourselves. I think we had a few live shows prior to recording. So we didn't really get to practice a whole lot prior to going to the studio.
Baker: I mean we demoed them a bunch of times and stuff.
Garven: Yeah, we demoed it in here, including the Korn riff that was going to be on Nightmare...
Baker: Don't mention anymore the Korn riff! [group laughs] Anyway, it's like anything else really. When you're done with something you always kind of look back and go, “Oh, we should have done this. We should have done that. We could have changed it,” but I mean, I'm sure if we had our way we'd still be working on it. We'd still be in the studio tweaking stuff until I'm 70. There certainly comes a time when you have to step away and go, “Okay, done. It's finished, you know, and now it’s time to move on.” So it's just as good as I think that we could have made it at, like Jimmy said for the time we had to do it in, but you get to a point where it’s just, “Let's put out a record.” So yeah, I think it came out pretty good and the songs are great. It's probably our most consistent album, for sure. I think the fans are gonna love it.
Barraza: I'm kind of kept up with technology, like computers and all that. So as far as recording, I do quite a bit at home. I just know that if I was in a position of owning a studio, like Armand does, I could sit there in the middle of the night without anybody around and just make bookoo recordings and tracks which would be...
Baker: You'd probably still be doing it right now.
Barraza: Yeah, I mean, it would be like Boston where it went on and on and on. Make it too huge.
Baker: Yes, and years later we'd have to step in to say, “Hey, you're done!”
Barraza: So the best I would say, the best news of it is, the band is sounding at its most natural state and that's what the fans are getting back. It's not overly produced, too overdubbed, or anything like that.
Garven: I mean, if we do something again, we're gonna do it even better.
Lindstrom: We're always thinking ahead when recording and doing studio stuff. How are we gonna play this live now and not make it too crazy to play with 18 guitar overdubs? Yeah, so gotta be able to be played live and still sound somewhat like the album.
Garven: So we added only 17 overdubs [group laughs].
Just one final question, kind of more of a fun one. Not from Alan of Primordial but another friend of mine who's a big fan of yours from Ireland wanted me to ask you this: how come there's lyrics to “Maybe That's Why” even though the song's an instrumental?
Lindstrom: Well, I guess the real reason is we ran out of money for more recording. So we did actually play it live a few times with me singing.
Baker: Greg and I will do it on his next solo album with vocals this time [laughs].
Lindstrom: Yeah, we actually played that at one wedding reception right before Jimmy joined.
Baker: Oh, that's right!
Lindstrom: We played that song like three or four times because that was the only slow wedding type song we had [group laughs].
Cirith Ungol's latest album Forever Black releases tomorrow via Metal Blade Records.