I’ve been a
longtime fan of Cirith Ungol, an obscure band from just about an hour north of
Los Angeles, as I always thought they had something so special and unique about
them. Of course, like many at the time,
initially I didn’t get Cirith Ungol’s individualistic style when I first heard
their debut Frost And Fire around
1981. But by the time of its follow-up,
Kingdom Of The Dead, was released in
1984 there was no denying the band’s mighty muscle, superior playing ability,
Tim Baker’s unique voice, the unyielding fantasy-oriented lyrics and, obviously
the thing which initially caught by attention, incredible artwork. Songs like “Frost And Fire”, “I’m Alive”,
“Atom Smasher”, “King Of The Dead”, “Blood & Iron” and “Doomed Planet” are
classics and still unforgettable to me ever to this day. In hindsight, Cirith Ungol should have been
much more respected and renown than they were but despite keeping it together
from 1971-1993 it ultimately ended and all that remains are four classic
albums. Metal Nightmare (and sometimes
Ill Lit scribe) Tom Wren had the opportunity to speak with drummer Robert
Garven to shed “a little fire” on this classic act.
How did you guys settle on the name Cirith Ungol? Were you really into author J.R.R. Tolkien’s books? Are you aware that nowadays it’s really common in themetal scene to take names from his novels?
Everyone in the band was a big sword and sorcery literature fan, especially Greg [Lindstrom - guitar] and I. He would always turn us on to the great writers who gave us inspiration for our music. We read all about Conan, Bran Mak Morn, etc. but the books that stood out in my mind the most are the Michael Moorcock's masterpieces: Elric, Hawkmoon, Corum, etc. Greg and I met at an English Literature class where the teacher was reading Lord Of The Rings and it had an influence on our music and feeling. In retrospect, I wish we had picked something easier to remember because a lot of our trouble has been over our name. People couldn't pronounce it or remember it, but we figured once they did they wouldn't forget it! We humorously have been called "Sarah's Uncle" and "Serious Uncool" etc. (Laughs). I know other bands are using the Tolkien angle. Led Zeppelin even made references to it in their earlier songs. I think he was an influence then and now on many people.
What can you tell me about the fact that your cover art and many of your songs were influenced by Elric? Was it natural to use Moorcock’s stories in your songs? Are there any songs inspired by Hawkmoon or Corum, or any other of Moorcock characters?
I think they hit a chord with us at the time. The whole thing about good and evil, chaos vs. law is a never-ending struggle and we felt our music had the same duality about it.
Has Michael Moorcock ever contacted you about your Elric-inspired songs? I know he did some songs with Hawkwind that were based around Elric.
No, he hasn't, but we have followed his career from the beginning and I think his works are mostly masterpieces, especially the Elric and Corum books!
Did Michael Whelan paint those album covers especially for the band?
No, they were all the original covers from Michael Moorcock’s books. At the time we wanted a sword and sorcery-theme cover called “Berserker" by Frank Frazetta, a famous artist but it was taken by the country rock band Molly Hatchet. I was reading Stormbringer at the time and was thinking man this is the ultimate cover art! I never thought we could use it but I contacted the publisher who got me in touch with Michael Whelan, who is one of the few people in our entire music career who was honest, friendly and kind, and we got to use it. I think we were the first album cover he had done at the time and we really wanted to use all his Elric series on our covers, which we did! I told him that I always wanted to buy the painting for the cover of Stormbringer from him if we made it big but we never did. He was quite successful then but now he is probably the world’s foremost fantasy artist/painter/illustrator and his paintings cost big bucks. It’s funny, Deep Purple had an album named after the book and we got the cover. Also, Blue Oyster Cult also had a song “Bane Of The Black Sword" which was based on Michael Moorcock's writing.
Why did Greg Lindstrom leave the band after the first album, especially as he was responsible for all the music and lyrics on that album?
Greg had moved away to go to college and he started to be influenced by some of the new (wave) music of the time. Greg to this day listens to a lot of new music, he still buys about 10 CDs a week, but he was the first to turn me on to REAL Hard Rock and Metal. The whole split was just a matter of taste - although there was a woman somewhere in there just like all band splits - and we are still in touch and friends to this day. He still plays guitar every day but he’s not in a band - so much wasted talent from our band. He was never a big fan of Tim's [Baker] singing and was pushing for us to replace him, thinking he was not commercial enough to be successful. I guess he was right. The rest of us were very happy with Tim and decided to keep on the path chosen for us by the hands of Fate! Here is the real story to the second part of your question. We wanted to make it big but all of our music was so heavy and dark so we thought we would use our most commercial material on Frost And Fire, so that we would get air time, etc. Although all the lyrics and some of the music on Frost And Fire were written by Greg almost all of our songs over the years were a collaborative effort, some times I would even hum out parts until we got it right. Everything had to be perfect, sometimes leading to fist-fights over riffs. It just turned out that Greg's songs had the more commercial sound. After Frost And Fire came out it was only played a couple of times on the LA radio station KLOS because everyone said it was way too heavy, so we figured, “fuck it” if they think that is heavy why are we holding back, let’s show them real heavy!!! We wrote about 30 songs with Greg that have never been released some not even on tape. It was only understandable that we put some on Kingdom Of The Dead. Greg did not leave until after Frost And Fire so we were writing songs up to the day he left.
Did you ever think of replacing him? Was it hard to continue on after he left, since he had done everything for the first album?
There was plenty of talent to go around between Jerry [Fogle] and [Michael] Flint (he played a lot of the rhythm guitar on Kingdom Of The Dead and One Foot In Hell), but yes we always wanted a second guitarist, when we finally found one we liked it was one of the causes that drove Jerry from the band as he felt he was being replaced. Over the years we tried out keyboard players and violinists also, although no one ever worked out.
What part of the country was Cirith Ungol originally from? (I think it was LA?) How was the scene back then? What bands did you do shows with?
It all started in Ventura, California. The other member of the band at the time beside Greg, Jerry and I was Pat Galligan, his parents had a folk singing group that he was part of "The Galligan Family". He played rhythm guitar. Greg and I first met in 7th grade about 1969, we had several things in common, we both loved cars, especially Ferraris and music. We wanted to start a band and we knew Pat already played guitar and Jerry was starting to, so we started to jam. Pat was a big Beatles fan at the time so we stared playing all Beatle covers, first song we played was "Get Back". To make a long story short the rest of us were into more heavier music and so the three of us quit Titanic and started Cirith Ungol. Right away we started to write original music and play heavier covers, Mountain, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Black Sabbath, who were all happening around that time. We had some heavy jam sessions - I wish I had the tapes still, they would have been classic! Pat, Greg and I all sang in Titanic, after Cirith Ungol started we went to school with this guy named Neal Beattie, he stared singing for the band and he was great! He was also a great showman. You have to remember this was a long time ago. Iggy Pop was real big with us so Neal was influenced by him. He did a fair amount of rolling around on stage, some in very little clothing. We played in a local battle of the bands every year, we were always the best but the judges always wanted bands people could dance to, so they could have dances with the winner. Needless to say they never knew what to make of us, we always blew the other bands away with our on-stage theatrics and heavy sounds. One year we had some of our equipment stolen and were generally fucked with during one of these competitions, the song "One Foot In Hell" was about that night. We had this great song "Shelobs Lair" during which Neal came out on stage with little rubber spiders on his fingers and sang the song. (Shelob was a giant spider monster from The Lord Of The Rings that lived at Cirith Ungol, which was an evil castle in the book). Titanic actually ended in about 1972. That's when we started Cirith Ungol. We were really serious about the music then and even though Neal was the coolest we felt at the time that we needed a better singer. Although when I look back and listen to the songs Neal was good, especially if you compare him to some of the singers that are successful today! We went awhile looking for a singer and played all the big LA clubs as a instrumental power trio, which was amazing if you think about it because no other band was doing that at the time. Our music was so strong that we could pull it off. This is when we started to get a larger following. It was amazing because Tim was there right with us all the time, it turned out he was a natural. I think Tim's voice deteriorated with time. He was a smoker and when I listen to the tapes that came out before Frost And Fire I think he had the cleanest and sharpest voice. I liked the high-pitched voice like on "Better Off Dead".
Did you do any large scale US tours?
Mainly gigs in California
Did you ever make it over to Europe?
No, and that is sad as that is still where our largest fan base is. One of the reasons it has taken forever for me to finish this interview is that I have done about 20 interviews with all the large magazines in Europe. It seems we are very popular in Italy (where a really cool band Doomsword has done a cover of our song "Nadsokor"), Greece, Germany, Holland and Belgium. I even have had requests from Sweden and after this interview I am going to do one with a magazine in Malaysia! We did play in Mexico City once. It was really a good experience and we thought we were on our way. Little did we know of the treachery and betrayal that would hound us through our career as so many other artists have experienced
Can you tell me any good war stories from your shows or tours? Anything particularly funny or weird?
Most of our live shows during our career were opening for larger acts. Most of the time we got pretty screwed on the lighting, sound, dressing rooms, etc. which is pretty angry so most of our shows were pretty brutal. We had to prove ourselves and I truly believe that audiences were really awed by our performances. Other than that it it’s hard to remember any good stories only the bad ones that would piss a lot of people off. I do once remember playing with the band Ratt. They took both giant dressing rooms, we had to tune 12 guitars in a broom closet. I remember looking in their dressing room and they're putting on lipstick and make-up for two hours. We once played with Lita Ford, her band took a two-hour soundcheck so we didn't get one. Supposedly she got mad at her manager and never showed up for the gig. They rushed us through our set and the crowd waited for another hour-and-a-half until they decided she wasn't going to show. The next day the newspaper said she hurt her arm or was in a traffic accident or some other bullshit.
Out of your four releases, which one is your personal favorite? How about which songs were your favorites to play live?
Kingdom Of The Dead was our best album, the reason was that we had total control over it. Every album could have been this good if we could have exercised complete control over its production, etc. This is the album which I feel is our best effort. The reason the long wait between albums is because when you are financing them yourselves, you have to come up with the money to pay for studio time, etc. Plus, being on all these independent labels their time tables are slower. I also did all the layout and design of the first three covers, all this while we were all working full-time trying to sponsor the dream.
I was saddened to hear of Jerry Fogle’s death. Can you tell me what happened?
Jerry quit the band after the release of One Foot In Hell because he was depressed at the fact we had been together for about 15 years and although we had sold quite a few albums and had lots of fans worldwide we could never seem to get or the support we felt we deserved. Our goal was to get signed to a major record label, so we could go tour Europe, where we had
always dreamed of going to play. We would work at the band room 4 or 5 nights a week answering fan mail, writing new songs and playing for our local fans. We kept waiting for a big break that never came. After Jerry left the band he stopped playing and his life seem to spiral downhill. He was drinking pretty heavy, and he finally drank himself to death, alone, sad and unhappy. I talked to him recently and he finally admitted that his leaving the band was a huge mistake which he had regretted all along. The sad thing about his death is the loss and squandering of so much talent. Listening to Jerry's solo's sometimes bring tears to my eyes, he played with so much feeling and emotion. One solo that comes to mind is the double lead in "Cirith Ungol", the intertwining guitars weave a tale of sadness and hopelessness which I feel is the high point in our long and sad tale. I miss him very much, not that we were that close at the end but I miss his talent which is lost forever!
Was the band broken up at the time? Or if not, did you break-up because of it?
He left in about 1987 and the band broke up in 1992.
What’s everyone doing now?
Tim still lives in Ventura (machinist), Greg lives in L.A. (engineer), Flint lives in Las
Vegas (sound engineer). I still keep in touch with them all. Greg and Flint are still playing music, but not professionally. I think all of us had dreams of continuing the band, and I know that all of us are disappointed about the break-up.
If the opportunity arose, is there a chance that Cirith Ungol would reform?
Of course, my dreams and nightmares are filled with this thought. Although I have not touched a drum since 1992 I KNOW I could jump on a set and play as if I never stopped, however the pain of the treachery of our past record company dealings makes it hard to walk away from our semi-comfortable lives to become abused and ripped off again!! I know that both Tim and Greg are interested but the logistics still make it a long shot.
Do you know how well the reissue of One Foot In Hell has been selling?
All the re-releases are selling very well. The problem is of course since we cannot tour so it’s all based on past history.
I hear there’s more reissues coming? Will there be anything special in them, like liner notes or bonus tracks?
In Europe the were supposed to put color booklets in the CDs, which is something that did not happen, but I am still confident with support such as yours Metal Blade will release a CD of live and unreleased material. I have enough for at least two CDs and some of the music is the best we ever did. It is home recordings but the solos and the vocals are unbelievable and probably better than most of what we did professionally!
Are you still listening to metal music? Are there any current bands you like, or are you mostly into the old classics and favorites?
I still listen to music but it's mainly the classics and favorites that you mention. There is a band in Italy called Doomsword which did a cover of a song of ours “Nadsokor”. I think they are very cool. I also like Dream Theater.
Any final comments to all the headbangers and rivet rats out there?
The being called Ungol is dead, its resurrection is doubtful. But heed its teachings oh faithful, for on these memoratic disks contain the wisdom of the ages, and by your iron fists the horror of false metal be extinguished. As you now join the swelling ranks of the Legions of Chaos, together we will drive before us, the cringing herd of False Metal, crush their spineless lackeys, and purge the world of their mutant plague!!!
Frost And Fire (Liquid Flames, 1980)
King Of The Dead (Enigma, 1984)
One Foot In Hell (Metal Blade, 1986)
Paradise Lost (Restless, 1991)