After 25 years, California metal masters CIRITH UNGOL have hauled their undead corpses from an untimely grave. IRON Fist scribe J. BENNETT spoke with drummer and co-founder Rob Garven about life, death and resurrection.
It’s a Tuesday evening in late August, and Cirith Ungol are sweating their balls off in a Ventura, California practice space. “Some previous band blew up the air conditioner so when we come in here at night it’s like 100 degrees,” drummer Rob Garven explains. “We were gonna fix it but it’s like $10,000, so we bought a fan instead.”
A few weeks after we speak with Rob, Cirith Ungol will play their first show in 25 years when they headline the Frost and Fire Festival, a weekend-long metal extravaganza in Ventura that will also feature appearances from elder statesmen Grim Reaper, Omen and Ashbury alongside young guns Midnight, Visigoth and Night Demon. For Rob and his bandmates — vocalist Tim Baker, guitarist Greg Lindstrom and guitarist Jim Barraza (with Night Demon main man and festival organizer Jarvis Leatherby filling in on bass) — it’s pure vindication for a career plagued with label calamities, poor timing and bad luck. The band slugged it out in Hollywood’s greasy trenches for nearly two decades, riding out the 70s in album-less obscurity before sawing off a series of booming trad-metal slabs — ‘Frost and Fire,’ ‘King Of The Dead,’ and ‘One Foot In Hell’ — during the height of the hairspray-and-spandex 80s. Largely dismissed as “dinosaurs” in the Sunset Strip’s coke-addled vortex, Cirith Ungol found a dedicated following in Europe before going tits up the early 90s, not long after the release of their final album, ‘Paradise Lost.’
In that sense, the Frost and Fire fest — which takes its name from Cirith Ungol’s 1981 debut — is the band’s chance to reap some of the adulation and opportunities that passed them by all those years ago. “I’m hoping in our old age we can at least get a modicum of, if not financial success, at least be able to fulfill some of the dreams we had when we were younger, like going to Europe and playing in front of some larger crowds,” Rob offers. “And maybe do a new album — we already wrote a new song.”
Why did Cirith Ungol decide to get back together after all this time?
Rob: “Over the years, we turned down all kinds of offers. I still have all these bad feelings about record companies and stuff, so I kept saying no. But when Jarvis had us do a signing at Frost and Fire last year, and we met people who had come from Argentina, from Australia, from Italy, from Switzerland, who were telling us they love the band. Jarvis said if we got back together, we could headline the fest this year. Another guy wanted to fly us over to Europe. I started thinking, “I’m getting older. If I don’t do this now, it’s never gonna happen”.”
Did any member of the band need more convincing than others?
“Not really. I was always the guy who said, “No, I’m never gonna do it.” I swore a blood oath that I’d never touch another drum set as long as there were scumbags in the music business. A lot of my buddies were saying, “You’re gonna have a hard time getting out of that one!” [Laughs] But I never did. I avoided drums like the plague. When we decided to get back together, Jarvis goes, “Hey, can you still play drums?” And I was like, “I don’t know”. He offered to let me play the set at Night Demon’s practice studio, so we went over there and he let me in. I started playing really good, and this feeling washed over me like, “Why did I quit? This is something I wanted to do my whole life. What a mistake!” Then I realised what an idiot and an asshole I was.”
The hair metal explosion was happening in Los Angeles — an hour or so away from your hometown of Ventura — just as you guys were putting out your first records. What kind of run-ins did you have with that whole scene?
“We were the first band signed to Enigma, but then they signed Mötley Crüe and Ratt and Poison. So we had a meeting with Enigma where they told us they found us a manager — it was this English guy; I can’t remember his name. So he sat down and goes, “I want you guys to wear make-up and dress up like women”. We said, “We’re not gonna do that”. When the guy left, Enigma was like, “You blew it. That guy was big time. He thought you guys had talent but if you don’t listen to everything he says, he won’t work with you”. That ended up being the guy that managed Guns N’ Roses. If we could’ve seen the future, I would’ve been putting lipstick and mascara on!”
Did you play with those types of bands very often?
“Oh, yeah. We opened for Lita Ford once at the Beverly Theater in Beverly Hills, and we didn’t get a dressing room or anything. And then she didn’t show up. The story was she got in a car wreck, but what really happened was she got in a fight with her manager. That was maybe during the ‘King Of The Dead’ era. We did a bunch of shows like that — opening for Ratt, opening for Mötley Crüe.”
Cirith Ungol fell apart in the early 90s after almost 20 years together. What happened?
“We actually played our last show at the Ventura Theater [where they played Frost and Fire]. The day before the show, we had practice. After practice, I got new drum heads and tuned my drums and cleaned them all up and everything and then left. At this time, we had a couple of roadies who would move stuff around and set stuff up for us, which was cool in a way but one of them would also be whispering in band members’ ears, like, “You’re too good for these guys,” or “Nobody in the band likes you” and weird stuff like that. They were kinda breaking up the band.
“After I left that night, this young kid came over who was a local drummer and a friend of ours. He was maybe 16 or 18 and he wanted to play my drums. The roadies and the other guys in the band who were still there should’ve been like, “No, we have this big show tomorrow”. But this kid sat down and literally beat the shit out of my drums. When I showed up at the theater the next day, every one of my drums had big half-inch dents in it. I was beside myself. I was like, “How did this happen?”. So I yelled at everyone and then we played the show. There were quite a few people there and we came off decent, but the next day pretty much everyone except me and Tim quit. The band was flaking out, anyway — a lot of the guys were fill-ins by that point. At the same time, we were getting screwed by the record company we were on. It was a very painful decision, but we decided to break up.”
You guys had bad luck with record labels back then, didn’t you?
“That’s why I was so bitter for so long. All of our records except one was on one version or another of Greenworld or Enigma or Restless. It was all the same company, all the same people. We were like an abused wife who keeps going back to the husband that beats her. We kept going back to these guys because we knew they’d get the record out and we knew they’d get distribution for us. But they were like a pitcher who winds up and only throws the ball halfway to the plate.”
At the time, Cirith Ungol had more success in Europe than in the States, didn’t you?
“Our fanbase has always been in Europe. Most of our records sold there. Almost every night, we’d come down to the band room and respond to fan mail for hours at a time — most of it was from overseas. That was one of the reasons that [bassist] Flint [Vujejia] quit. He was like, “Fuck, I wanna be in a band. I wanna play. But we’re sitting here answering fan mail for four hours every night. When are we gonna make any money?”. But I think me and Tim saw the long game plan more than the other guys.”
What’s the story behind original guitarist Jerry Fogle’s departure? He split even before the ‘Paradise Lost’ album.
“For a while, Jerry and Greg were both playing rhythm and lead guitar. After Greg left, it was just Jerry but we were always looking for another guitarist so we could do the more complicated stuff on the albums live. So we found this great local guitarist and brought him over to try out, but Jerry had it in his mind that we were trying to replace him. Jerry was a great musician and a really good guy, but he was almost like an idiot-savant type person — he had a complete mastery of the guitar but some of his social skills were lacking and I think he just didn’t understand what was happening even though we talked at length about it. So he ended up leaving. I kept trying to get him back into the band, but it ended in tragedy. He ended up drinking himself to death years later.”
The last Cirith Ungol album, ‘Paradise Lost,’ is being reissued by Metal Blade around the same time you play Frost and Fire. How did that album ultimately play into the band’s demise?
“We were signed to a three-record deal with Restless Records. When ‘Paradise Lost’ was coming out, we told them they needed to get it distributed in Europe because that’s where most of our fans were, but the label they talked to about distributing it wasn’t interested. We were actually talking to a guy who played in Heart and Tucky Buzzard about producing our next album, but two weeks later we got a letter in the mail from Restless saying they’d decided not to take up our next two albums. I think that was because Restless was paying themselves a bunch of money to produce our albums. They might have kept putting out our records if we weren’t trying to bring someone else in. All this was happening around the time we played [what ended up being] our last show. It just wasn’t as pleasant a time as when we were doing the ‘Frost And Fire’ album.”
All the Cirith Ungol album covers are paintings by Michael Whelan, the great swords and sorcery artist. How did that end up happening?
“We were looking for an album cover for ‘Frost And Fire,’ which was self-released, so nobody was helping us do anything. We really loved swords and sorcery/fantasy novels — Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock and stuff like that. Greg would read those books and then bring them to me. Frank Frazetta was big back then and he did the cover for Dust’s ‘Hard Attack.’ We originally wanted a painting of his called ‘Berserker,’ which is a guy on a horse jumping over a bunch of bodies and swinging a sword over his head. But a week or two later, Molly Hatchet came out with that painting on their album cover. So I was reading ‘Stormbringer’ by Michael Moorcock, which had the Michael Whelan painting that became our first album cover. But at the time, I was just thinking, “This would be the best album cover ever. But how do we get in touch with this guy?”.
“So I wrote to DAW Books, the publisher in New York, and told them we wanted to use Michael Whelan’s ‘Stormbringer’ cover for our album. He contacted me and we hit it off because it turned out we were born on the same day — June 29th — so I sent him the material and he really liked it and he was kind enough to let us use his painting. He ended up doing album covers for a lot of people, but back then we were the first one he ever did. I told him, “Save the painting. When I get a lot of money, I’m gonna buy it”. About 15 years later, he called me and told me he was gonna sell it because he needed the money. I actually called him a couple weeks ago and told him that we were working on a new album and we’d like to use another of his paintings.”
Last but not least, are you nervous about being onstage again after 25 years?
“Well, rock is a young man’s game. But you know what’s weird? I think we’re playing better now than we were when we were together. Tim sings just like he did on the records, and we play all the songs as good as the records, if not better. I think some of it is experience and some of it is a lot of water under the bridge. We already did everything wrong before: We thought we were gonna be big and make a lot of money. But we’re going into this with a totally different mentality, and I think people are gonna be surprised by the show. We’re still evil. [Laughs] We’re still children of the devil.”