Jarvis did it. Again. But it’s not the supremely overqualified techno-savior of Tony Stark or the blue Kodi Jarvis that appears just before Sports Devil demonically self-destructs again, but rather Jarvis Leatherby, the bass player of Night Demon. He convinced the members of the long-dormant, sword and sorcery-flavored metalheads, Cirith Ungol, to resurrect themselves. The band has been lying low for 25 years, sort of like Sauron on sabbatical between the end of “The Hobbit’’ and “The Fellowship of the Ring.’’
Playing their first gig since a different Clinton was president at the Ventura Theatre on Saturday night, Cirith Ungol is the highlight of a three-day festival, a cat-scaring noise explosion with a likely total of zero soulful ballads, Frost and Fire II.
This headbanger holiday kicks off Friday night at the Bombay with 11 bands, then moves a block or two to the Ventura Theatre with nine more bands on Saturday, with two more bands playing late across the street at the Sans Souci, and then the whole thing staggers through the alley and back to California Street and the Bombay on Sunday for three more live bands, a number of DJ sets and a Cirith Ungol signing session.
Named for a place you don’t want be in Middle Earth, Cirith Ungol gave it up in the early ’90s after a two-decade career that began in 1972. The rebirth is due to a most unlikely game plan, which ostensibly makes about as much sense as that lose-weight-in-your-sleep pizza-and-beer diet. They did none of the things rock stars on the rise are supposed to do. It’s the scenario of “The Decline of Western Civilization: The Metal Years,’’ without really trying. They were the musical equivalent of Warren G. Harding’s front-porch campaign when he won the 1920 election by scarcely leaving his house. Cirith Ungol did even less than that, and yet, it worked so well, and now in the oddest of geographical oddities, Germany (and a lot of other places) are coming to George Clooney, sort of.
The well-rested boys in the band remain Tim Baker, on vocals, Greg Lindstrom and Jim Barraza on guitars, the ubiquitous Jarvis Leatherby is playing bass and Rob Garven is the drummer. And all five of their albums are still in print on Metal Blade Records. These days — and a lot of days before that — Garven is the digital publishing supervisor for the city of Ventura with 38 years experience. Another in a long line of musical Cougars out of Ventura High, Garven — my old neighbor, just a poor guy with bad priorities — had stories to tell.
Hey, Rob, how’s the Cirith Ungol biz — what’s the latest?
I don’t know if you know but there’s a whole story behind this.
Good timing. Here I am. Let’s hear it.
Jarvis Leatherby — you know him as the bass player for Night Demon — and his band have been going to Europe for a long time and after he came back the last three or four years, he would contact me and say, “Hey Rob, every time we go to Europe, everyone has Cirith Ungol tattoos, Cirith Ungol band patches and they’re wearing Cirith Ungol jackets — they love your band and they’re all like, 30 years old. And half of them are girls and they’re beautiful. You should get back together and go play.” And I would tell him, “Ain’t gonna happen.’’
Need a roadie?
Exactly. Anyway, Jarvis used to front this rockabilly band but then he switched over the heavy metal because he told me, “The heavy-metal fan will go see you anywhere, they’ll buy your T-shirts and patches, they’ll tell their buddies about your albums and then they’ll go see you every single time you play.’’
Rockabilly fans won’t do that?
He didn’t really say that but what he was saying is that heavy-metal fans are the most loyal fans out there, and we could go over to Europe and play some shows; but I’ve got no drum set, we’ve got no practice place and I’m barely talking to some of the other guys in the band.
Wait a minute — a drummer with no drums?
When the band broke up, I was endorsed by Pearl and I had a really nice set but I sold it when the band broke up. I haven’t played in 25 years. Anyway, to make a long story short, last year Jarvis put on this festival in Ventura to commemorate our band, Frost and Fire. That was last year in October at the Bombay, and so he had a bunch of bands playing, and they asked us to just come and sign autographs. Every living member of the band showed up, so we sat there and signed autographs and Metal Blade came and brought several hundred records and they sold all the records.
But you didn’t play?
We didn’t play. We just signed autographs and people stood in line for over an hour just to have us sign stuff. There were guys from South Central that looked like Hispanic gang members but wearing Cirith Ungol jackets. Anyway, we signed autographs at the Bombay for two days straight, and after the other bands were gone, people were still coming. “Sign my arm. Sign my girlfriend’s jacket. Here’s your albums. Here’s pictures of you, and posters.’’ Here’s what freaked us out — half of them were girls, beautiful girls. And everyone was asking us, “So, you’re playing next year, right?’’ and we’d say, “No — that’s just a rumor.”
It’s great to have fans.
Anyway, so Jarvis has that show and it was totally sold out and people would come up to him and say, “I’m from Germany. I’m from Switzerland. I’m from Italy. I’m from France. I’m from New Zealand. I’m from Mexico City,’’ and so this is a very cool thing. One of the biggest promoters in Europe came to the show, and took us all aside across the street to the sushi place, sat us all down and ordered some sake and he said, “Listen, if you guys get back together, you guys can headline some shows in Europe. Headline, not opening up, but headlining. And if you guys want to, I’ll fly you over to one of my festivals and you guys can be like the maids of honor or whatever and just sign autographs,’’ so Tim and I went over there and did that.
And when was that?
Like, April of this year. So he flew us over to Frankfurt but this festival was out in the sticks. The Keep It True Festival is in a small town and this one sells out every year in 30 minutes, and the reason he doesn’t move to a bigger venue is that he wants to keep it intimate. He just wants to keep it small and not become this massive thing like …
Exactly. So he’s been putting this thing on for 19 years and he said, “You guys could headline our 20-yearanniversary festival.’’ We’ve been offered to headline some of the most prestigious festivals in Europe. The offers are on the table.
So are you playing? Of course, you are.
We are, but we’re not going to announce it until the night of the show when we play in Ventura. And right now, I think we’re playing better than we ever did. I have a video of our last show at the Ventura Theatre — we played last night and we practice a few nights a week and we’re sounding better and better. I’m looking forward to having some fun playing for our fans.
OK, so what happened in Germany?
Here’s what was kinda weird: When we went over there to find out what it was going to be like, and we were so overwhelmed that we couldn’t believe it. The whole time we were over there, people would come up to us and ask, “Aren’t you Tim Baker from Cirith Ungol? Aren’t you Rob Garven from Cirith Ungol?’’ I told my wife when I got back that I felt like George Clooney in Germany.
The times I saw you guys play up here, nobody came to the show — what happened?
That is sort of true because you probably went to a show in Ventura, but earlier in our career, we played the Whiskey, the Starwood and we opened up for a bunch of bands. We played Perkins Palace with Lita Ford and Ratt. We played with Stryper — we opened up for them and we headlined some shows at the Country Club, and so for a lot of those shows because they were in L.A., a lot more people would come. I think Ventura is just not a hotbed of the hard rock music scene.
Hell no it’s not. So when’s the last time you guy played?
No, before that, a real gig, and how long have you guys been practicing?
It was in 1991 at the Ventura Theatre. The show went pretty well but after the show a couple of the members decided to quit the band, so it was just me and Tim, our singer, sitting in our band room and we’re thinking, “Do we really want to go out and find more musicians, teach them the music and raise them like children — so that’s when we decided to break up. We turned in the keys to the band room and I went off and got married, bought a house and bought a Ferrari and started working on that.
Does it run or is it a red planter?
Oh my God, yes, it runs. It’s a really nice car in good shape and kind of a rare car. It’s not worth a lot of money as Ferraris go but hey — it’s a Ferrari.
You ain’t ever gonna sell it, anyway.
Yeah, I know. So I actually bought another one recently, so I have two of the same model which is kind of weird.
So, after the band broke up, I kinda kept in touch with Tim and Greg a little bit. Everyone went a different direction — I’m doing better than some of the guys who are just making it, that but I’m no Donald Trump — I’m more like the guy that’s going to retire and eat cat food.
In your Ferrari. So before you face that Purina or Friskies dilemma, 25 years is a long time between gigs.
That’s right. I had sworn a blood oath that I would never touch another drumstick as long as there were scumbags in the music business. We’d actually been screwed pretty bad on our last record — as a matter of fact we signed away the rights forever without knowing that. Anyway, Jarvis said, “Can you still play drums?’’ And I said, “I don’t know,’’ so Night Demon’s drummer, Dusty Squires, let me use his set, so we went down to their band room, and they locked me in there and I played for about an hour.
Did you get tired?
Not really, and when I came out and I went, “I can do this.’’ We looked around for a practice studio and we ended up getting back into the same place where we recorded all our other albums, and now, we’re working on a new album.
Did the rent go up?
Yes, it did. Since I didn’t have a drum set, we were using Night Demon’s stuff until we finally got a band room, then this big company in Oxnard, DW Drums, who is actually the largest drum company in the world, custom made me a red oak set.
Do you realize that you guys have turned the rock ’n’ roll paradigm on its ear? Instead of play, record, tour, build a fan base and get signed, you guys retired and still became well-rested rock stars — how so?
Here’s what happened: Of all the many bands that are in demand to get back together, we were one of the bands that were holdouts. People have been bugging us for the last 10 years and we always said no because I was just still so angry with the whole band thing but when I started playing drums again, all this emotion swept over me. I had tears in my eyes because this is what I really wanted to do all my life — play drums. I couldn’t imagine why I had to quit doing something that I was supposed to do.
So drumming is like riding a bike — you never forget?
So would J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard or Michael Moorcock wear a Cirith Ungol T-shirt?
Well, I don’t know about that but Michael Whelan — the guy that painted our album covers, you know, he’s still a big fan of the band and every time he goes on eBay he sees 10,000 T-shirts with his pictures on them — he’s not getting any money, either. I talked to him about it and it pisses him off but it is what it is. He did the covers for all the Michael Moorcock Elric books, and I have to attribute a good deal of our success to the covers of our albums. We may not have been the best band but we sure had some of the best album covers.
Yes, you did.
All this stuff that has been happening — we really don’t understand it — but after going to Germany and seeing it, there’s no doubt there’s a large fan base for the band that has been cultivated by three different things. First, the albums have never been out of print so people have always been able to listen to the music. Second, every six months or a year, I would do a big interview in one of those giant heavy magazines in Europe. And finally, our photography guy — Greg Hazard — he’s done famous bands like Iron Maiden and stuff, but he shot all the pictures of our band — 99 percent of them and so they’re really good. So if you have an article without a photo — no matter how good the article is — a picture’s worth a thousand words. Even though I have Ferraris, I’m just a poor guy with bad priorities. (But) I’m flying him out to the show because we never paid him for his services, just so he can check it out — kinda like payback. So he’s coming out to shoot the show and hang out with the band and kinda relive the old days. So, you’ve had constant press in Europe, the albums have always been available and people buy the albums, read the articles and see the pictures — it hasn’t made us rich or anything but it’s made it so 25-year-old girls in Finland know who we are. It seems like every day someone sends me a picture of their Cirith Ungol tattoo. And the guys in the band? We don’t have any tattoos.
OK, so what’s next?
We’re going to play this show and play some shows in Europe starting in April. I’m going to retire in December but some the other guys can’t just drop everything and take off but we can play four or five shows a year and fly over there every couple of months. I’d like to take my wife with me after spending most of my life in the basement of city hall. And you know, the last few times we played, it rained. Jarvis said, “Oh, don’t say that,’’ but it actually did. Almost every time we had a big show, it just poured down rain.
Well, if the band thing doesn’t work out, you guys could always change your name to the Drought Busters and you can work as much as you want.
The reason we got back together is to play for the fans, and everyone is doing this as an act of love and to play good music for all these people that really want to come and see us. So we all feel sort of an obligation to these people. In Europe, there were people who knew who we were that we had no idea who they were — and we’re old men now — I mean, there were literally 5,000 guys that knew who we were. And it was just like, “Wow.’’
The power of music, there it is.
I guess, and we’re gonna bring it to Ventura for three days.