Interview: Robert Garven - Cirith Ungol
Interviewer: Paul Hutchings
Back in the early 1980’s an album by a band from Ventura, California caught my attention. Their cover caught the eye first. A skeleton king in ragged purple robes, roaring defiance as a muscular albino prince with flowing blond hair, sword in hand, prepared to engage in battle. All this was set in an underground cavern, bathed in fluorescent turquoise light as evil goblins peered from behind pillars. This was before I’d even spun the vinyl. It was of course, ‘King of the Dead’, the second album from cult heavy metal band, Cirith Ungol. I was hooked and wore the album out with the repeated plays. 36 years later and the band are back with the stunning ‘Forever Black’, their first long player since 1991’s ‘Paradise Lost’. As week three of the lockdown period commenced, I settled back with a cuppa for a chat with Robert W Garven Jr, founder member and powerhouse drummer with Cirith Ungol at his home in Ventura, California, for probably the most enjoyable interview I have ever done.
The Razor’s Edge: Hello Robert. It’s an honour to speak with you. How are things with you in these strange times? Are staying home?
Robert: Yeah, we are doing what everyone else is. It’s depressing because the best stuff that has ever happened to the band is right now and we can’t do anything about it but when healthcare workers are sacrificing their lives and people are dying it’s a small price to pay.
The Razor’s Edge: It’s a nightmare I know. Thanks for your time today. Let’s go back to 1972. A different time and different music. What are your memories of those early days of the band?
Robert: Greg (Lindstrom – guitarist) and I were in an advanced literature class and we were given a copy of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ to read. We had a couple of things in common, music and cars and racing and we were into heavy music and every week Greg would turn up with new music that we’d go and listen to and then we were assigned literature which is where we got ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Of course, now it’s famous with movies and the like but at the time only a handful had read it, three large volumes, but we read it and it had a big influence on us. Greg started delving into Conan by Robert E Howard and sword and sorcery stuff and I was starting to read HP Lovecraft and horror. So that was our literary references.
Across the street there was a record store and we’d go in there and Black Sabbath’s first album was there, and we wondered who these dudes were and what they sounded like. No-one had heard of them and it’s ironic that I’m talking to you as most of our influences came from the UK at the time. When we played in London a few years ago it was a real brilliant experience. So we started getting into heavier music and decided, as most people do, to start a band and we had a buddy, Jerry who could play guitar and I had never played drums but I said, yeah, I can do that so I bought a snare and we started. We played with a guy called Pat Gallagher for a while and his whole family were in a band, like the Partridge Family, but he was trying to push us into more popular music, like The Beatles, and the rest of us rebelled and we split off from him and formed Cirith Ungol.
The Razor’s Edge: It’s interesting that you say that you just decided to play drums. Who inspired you to play?
Robert: Well, the joke is in the band that 95% of my drumming skills are style and 5% technical ability and that’s fine with me because you can always go on the internet and find someone better than you and it’s usually a child in Thailand or something and it’s amazing. I always saw myself as this kind of caveman. We just released a song called ‘Brutish Manchild’, rerecorded from the early days and we issued it on a flexi disc on Decibel magazine and that’s how I see myself!
The Razor’s Edge: You didn’t release an album until ‘Frost and Fire’ in 1981. That was put out on your own Liquid Flame label. It was certainly a heavy album with a real old school feel even then. What was the reason for putting it out on your own label?
Robert: When we started playing heavy music we were bouncing around everyone’s house and then my sister got married and we used her room in my parent’s house as the band room and we added bits of equipment, we had a four-track machine in the closet and a mixer and we started recording our own music. At the time we started to get serious and sent out cassettes and letters with no response, so we decided to put out our own album, and it had to have good art and be the complete package.
Now, people say that it sounded nothing like ‘King of the Dead’ but we took everything in our repertoire at the time that we thought was radio friendly because that was what we thought you needed. You know, there were album bands around, like Iron Butterfly, and the DJs on the radio station would put on ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ with 20 minutes left of their show so they could take a break. Every band wanted to get on the radio so what we did was wrote songs that we thought were radio friendly and a local station played two songs from ‘Frost and Fire’ on a night that was for new music and I remember listening to it thinking we’d hit the big time and the next day they said everyone likes your band but this music is just too heavy and it blew us away. At the time they were playing Sabbath and Deep Purple, so I think it wasn’t that it was too heavy it was just too different.
We didn’t see ourselves as that, we weren’t some experimental band like Genesis, we were just playing our version of heavy rock and were flummoxed by that so we decided that if that was our radio material and no-one wants it then let’s just go with what we want with even heavier material and that led to ‘King of the Dead’.
The Razor’s Edge: That leads neatly into my next question. My first album was ‘King of the Dead’. I was mesmerised by the whole album; the cover, the opening ‘Atom Smasher’ which exposed me to Tim Baker’s unique vocal style. He’s got quite a delivery and can still do it. What was it like when you first heard him sing?
Robert: We had another singer Neal Beattie, who was a fantastic singer and performer, but he was more like Iggy Pop, whereas we had a darker vision for the band, heavier rock. So, we amicably split and we ended up as an instrumental band for a while and Tim was there doing equipment and sound at our shows and his brother was one of our buddies and he said, “Tim can sing”. So, we laid him down on some tracks and were knocked out by it. There’s one of earliest songs on the internet called ‘We Know You’re Out There’ and Neal and Tim do a kind of duet. You can look it up on YouTube.
When we heard Tim, we said it was insane and on our first album his voice is like a razor blade, slashing through the music and that’s what I found it like at the time. Of course, he’s evolved his style now.
The Razor’s Edge: I was watching a video of you on YouTube the other night from a live show in 2018 and the great thing is that he can still bring it in the live arena, something that doesn’t always happen, especially as band’s get older.
Robert: He can. The funny thing is that back in the day we used to get tons of fan mail from Europe and when we first got it distributed we were friends with Brian Slagel of Metal Blade Records and at the time he worked at a store called Ozz Records and we used to go and talk to him and told him about the record and he said he was putting together the label. So, we said, that’s great, let’s work together. So he’s putting out an album, ‘Metal Massacre Vol 1’, do you want to be on it, and we said yes and we said we are trying to sort our album out and he put us in touch with this company that was exporting stuff to Europe and importing back so he hooked us up with them (Greenworld) and over the years they turned into Restless Records and we had several different projects but they were like most record companies at the time; they made you record available and did a bit of promotion and it was a love/hate relationship.
Anyway, we were getting a load of mail from Europe and one guy was mailing and saying “I love your sound but I hate the singer” and every week we’d practice and we’d spend some time answering all the mail and then a few weeks later we got another letter from the same guy and he said “Two weeks ago I said your singer sucks but I’ve been listening to the records and now I think your singer is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard!” It’s an in-joke in the band that even if you don’t like us if you listen to us enough then maybe we can change your mind!
One of the reasons ‘Flint’ our bass player quit the band was because he said, “I joined the band to play music but several hours a week we are sitting here answering fan mail”. And we said if people were taking the time to send stuff to us, we felt we had to respond. There was a guy in Belgium who used to send these amazing drawings on the outside of the envelopes, and we made one into a t-shirt not that long ago. It wasn’t like Facebook, you’d get three-page letters with drawings and stuff. So of course, we’d write back with an autograph or sticker or something just to say thanks.
The Razor’s Edge: And I suppose that’s the difference between those times and now where everything is so much more instant.
Robert: Absolutely. You know, we were fans ourselves and we used to go and hunt records of our favourite bands. There was a record store called Moby Disc that we used to spend time in, searching through all the crates and of course, we’d head to LA and we were probably too young to drive. I remember a friend telling me to listen to this band called Thin Lizzy and I don’t even recall how old I was, but I remember making my own t-shirt and wearing it to school. We were listening to Thin Lizzy and Priest and Scorpions almost a decade before most people did.
The Razor’s Edge: You split up in 1992; a time when traditional heavy metal was on the wane and grunge was taking over. How hard was the breakup for you as an original member of the band?
Robert: At the time the hair metal thing was big in LA, and there are some bands that I look back on, you know, there’s a band Winger who have a couple of songs I like but we were horrified by what was going on. They were twisting the music we loved and once one band did it, they all did it overnight. Suddenly, the entire LA scene was taken over by bands that looked the same and sounded the same, wearing women’s clothes, make-up and having the big Dolly Parton hair. At the same time all the metal bands who stayed pure were speeding up and playing faster and faster which, we saw as a blend between punk rock and metal. The music we play (ed) and listened to, and they call it ‘epic metal’, was where our influences came from and it was kind of hard to fit in with the scene. I remember after a couple of guys left the band and Tim and I were chatting, and we weren’t sure if we could move the band forward as there was no room for what we were playing that was classic heavy metal.
The Razor’s Edge: At least you didn’t move to put out albums that with hindsight you wouldn’t have been proud of which a few bands did then. Roll forward to 2015, and the small shoots of a reunion. I’ve read different versions of events so how did it start to progress?
Robert: After the band broke up, I swore I’d never touch another drumstick and it was bittersweet as I didn’t want to give up at the time. I tried not to go and see concerts as I’d be envious of the guys on stage and I avoided listening to our music as it brought back painful memories. Around 2003 Oliver from the Keep It True Festival in Germany started emailing me and asking us to get back together and I said that there was no chance of that happening. But he’d email every couple of years and ask the same question. I did graphic arts for the local municipal government and one of my buddies there was a drummer in a punk band called Ill Repute and he told me about his friend Jarvis (Leatherby), who was in Night Demon and who wanted to talk to me about Cirith Ungol. And at first I was not interested, but he persuaded me to meet, and he was telling me about their tours in Europe and how he saw people in home-made Cirith Ungol shirts, like I made for Thin Lizzy, and he said he’d been to a bar in Switzerland where they were playing ‘Frost and Fire’ between bands and he was convinced there was a market in Europe.
I’d say, appreciate that, but rock is not a place for old men. So, he said, well, I’m just telling you. And he explained that he was going to put on a festival in Ventura and was calling it ‘Frost and Fire’ after the first album and he wanted us to come along and do a signing session. So, we got together and said what harm could it do. The festival took place over two days, and there were people from all over the world and it was really cool. We had our signing session and we thought there would be a couple of people and there was this long line all with albums and pieces of memorabilia to sign.
We were impressed and Oliver had come to the show and he takes us across the road to a small bar and it was the original members of the band and Jarvis was there too, and Jarvis says, “you saw the success of this festival, if you guys get back together I’ll put it on again and you can headline”. And the irony was that the festival was held in the venue where we’d played our final gig. So, Oliver adds to it and says that he can fly us over to Keep It True which was in a few months so we could see it and offered us a signing opportunity. And he offers us to headline the 20th anniversary the following year.
This was all a bit to take in and so, Tim and I went to Germany and saw how it ran, and we had these huge tables with queues for people to sign. We came back and agreed to do it. We weren’t pressured into it, it was more an opportunity to play for those fans who wanted us to come back, a kinda call of duty. Some of these guys weren’t even born before we broke up which was quite amazing.
The Razor’s Edge: And how did it feel when you first got behind the kit again with your old band mates in front of you?
Robert: Jarvis had offered us Night Demon’s practice room and within a short period of time we decided we could do this but Flint lives in Las Vegas which is about four-five hours away and he’d wanted to play but it just wasn’t practical for him to come out to practice as much as we needed so Jarvis stepped in. It seemed a natural fit. So, we moved to ‘Frost and Fire II’ and there was no nervousness at all. But what was interesting was when we put out the single ‘Witch’s Game’ people were saying “wow, they sound like Cirith Ungol”. You know, if The Beatles had reformed, they would have sounded like The Beatles! It was the external forces that broke us up. We just had an extended break.
When we got back on the stage it was vindication that we had done the right thing. Of course, the irony is that although the gig was in our hometown there were people from all over the world there because if we relied on rockers just from Ventura there would be about eight people there! We could fill Wembley Stadium, but it would be two people from every city in the world.
The Razor’s Edge: I’ve been lucky enough to have an advance copy of the album to listen to. Having heard the live album last year, there wasn’t much fear that when I put ‘Forever Black’ on it was going to sound anything other than I expected it to. I mean that in a totally complimentary way. It’s a terrific album, capturing the old power of the band but with fresh new approaches. It’s what I would want from you. Tell me how the band decided to get back to writing.
Robert: It was hard to find a band room round here, and I drove past our old studio on my way to Night Demon’s practice room. I called the guy that owned it and said I see that your studio is still going and told him what we were looking for. He’d been on tour with some big bands doing sound mixing so we got the opportunity to use that for a year. Then the rent was raised so high that he had to shut it down which was a real shame on a studio that had been there 40 years and a lot of famous people had recorded there. He rented us a giant room and we set up our equipment and it was where we’d recorded our four studio albums. We were practising there in order to go and play live and we started working on new material, coming out with riffs and Tim writes prolifically, so many sets of lyrics, you know, we’d have to put out eight albums to match all his lyrics.
So, all along we were writing new stuff and during this time there was a movie coming out called Planet of Doom which is an animated movie a bit like ‘Heavy Metal’ in the 1980s and of course, we have a track on our third album called ‘Doom Planet’ and Jarvis was in touch with them and they were fans of the band and wanted to use ‘Doom Planet’ for the closing credits. We were all sad that we couldn’t be used in the middle of the movie, but one band dropped out and they contacted us and asked if we could provide another song. So, Tim spoke to the producers and got a feel for the movie and that’s where we got ‘Witch’s Game’ to fit in. When we put it out, we decided it would be the single. It was changed from its original title ‘Leather Wings’ and the lyrics and some of the music changed. Metal Blade decided to release it as a single which we’d never had before so that was cool. The response was amazing with lots of positive comments.
We felt that we had picked up from ‘Paradise Lost’ and we’d already been talking about a new album and after ‘Witch’s Game’ and that started the ball rolling.
The Razor’s Edge: It’s been a long time since you recorded as a band. How was the recording process this time around?
Robert: Yeah, we returned to the days in my sister’s old bedroom and bought some new equipment and mics and stuff and we already had been doing a lot of digital recording whilst we had been writing music for ‘Forever Black’. The thing about the digital technology is that you can correct so many things so easily, like the odd snare beat which is out of place, you just drag something over to replace. I remember a track on ‘Paradise Lost’ the producer letting loads of tape spin and cutting it up and in my opinion some of the best work was on that tape. I still have some of it at home. It was the actual ‘on the cutting room floor’. We tried to do it as old school as possible, but you have the ability to work with it in a way you couldn’t before.
The Razor’s Edge: I just wanted to pick out one track on the album which resonated with me and that was ‘Stormbringer’, which is the big epic piece in the middle of the album. It links neatly with the themes the band has followed and the Michael Whelan artwork of Elric on the covers. Was it deliberately placed centrally to hold focus? It feels to me like it is in the right place.
Robert: That’s cool and I appreciate you saying that. I was pushing the band to do a ballad and they were saying that a ballad was a love song. Now Tim’s lyrics were perfect for this and covered the relationship between Elric and Stormbringer. [For those who don’t know, Elric’s sword Stormbringer was bound to him -their relationship was love/hate with Stombringer taking the life of his one true love whilst also saving him on numerous occasions. Stormbringer was bound to Elric] I kept telling Tim that this was the case and the lyrics made it a love song because Elric loved the sword but he hated it as it brought him all this power but killed the only person he ever loved. Where it ended up on the album has more to do with the evolution of the music and now, we are back on albums with limited time per side’ so we were placing tracks to enhance the flow. So ‘Stormbringer’ wasn’t there by default but because of the way the album flowed.
You asked me about my drumming influences earlier and I must mention that on ‘Fractus Promissium’ there’s a drum beat I do in there which is a nod to Budgie and Ray Phillips who was one of my biggest influence. I recently read his biography and I got in touch with him and told him about the new album and there’s a nod to Phillips on ‘Fractus’ which goes back to ‘Whisky River’ from ‘Squawk’. It had one of the first double bass drums on it and that’s something he mentioned to me. I remember that they played at the Whiskey A-Go-Go a couple of times when I was young, and we headed there only to find out that the show was sold out. In those days they played two sets and we waited until the midnight show, managed to get a seat in the small balcony above and ordered a beer or two. And Budgie came on and the next thing I remember is the waitress shaking me “hey buddie, the concert’s over” and we’d been waiting all that time to see them, and I’d fallen asleep! And this anecdote is in the latest version of ‘Pecking Order’, one of the books about Budgie.
The Razor’s Edge: You had planned to launch the album with the headline show at Keep It True Festival in Germany. I’m assuming that it has been cancelled. That must be truly saddening for you. What are you able to do to mark the release?
Robert: Yes, it’s a real disappointment. ‘Forever Black’ will be out on 24th April and we will be able to support the advance orders and hopefully those that have ordered it will enjoy it and it will provide some solace despite the dark subjects in it. We are in the same position as loads of other bands and people are dying so it’s a wait and see situation. Of course, half the band are over 60 too so we need to take that into account.
Cirith Ungol will return with ‘Forever Black’ on 24th April on Metal Blade records. If you like muscular, epic heavy metal I urge you to grab a copy.