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Interview with Cirith Ungol’s legendary drummer Robert Garven


Last Updated on 12:25 PM by Giorgos Tsekas

Formed in 1972, Cirith Ungol did never manage to gain the popularity they deserved. The nineties were unfriendly for traditional metal by all means, and the heavy / doom defenders decided to let it loose in 1992 rather than seek commercial success at all cost. Reunited they performed live again in 2016, releasing the single “Witch’s Game” in 2018, and on April 24th their fifth album, entitled Forever Black via Metal Blade Records. The band strikes again with a 4 track blast from the past EP.

We had the chance to chat with drummer and founding member of the band, mighty, Rob Garven, that shared with us, along with Greg’s participation in some of the questions, a glimpse of band’s stories from the old days (along with Greg), as well as band’s future plans.

Hello Robert, I’m thrilled that I get the chance talking to you, in Greece you guys are legends (as you‘re already aware of) and I’m really honored for this interview! Thank you in advance! I hope you‘re doing well.

Hello there! Let me start by saying that we really enjoyed playing in Greece (twice)! People we met and friends we made are just uncountable. Manolis (Karazeris – Up The Hammers Fest coordinator) is a good friend of ours, he showed us around and thus we managed to travel a bit here and there. We are really fond of Greek fans and Greek people.

Thank you so much! We really hope to see you guys here soon. It’s been almost three years since the release of Forever Black that sealed your glorious comeback, 40 years after band’s debut album.

In the middle of 2021, you are releasing your new EP, Half Past Human that drag us rather to the past, than led us towards the future. Could you enlighten us on how you came up with the idea of releasing these 4 well hidden gems, buried within band’s treasury? Two of the songs were recorded during the Forever Black sessions, if I’m not mistaken…

That’s a really easy question to answer. For so long, lots of our fans and friends wanted us to rerecord some old material and we kind of put that off, cause you know, we‘re getting older and it’s important for us since we got back together to create new material. It’s really positive that we‘ve completed Forever Black, we kind of wanted to hit that direction, though so many people were asking for some older stuff. Jarvis, our band manager and bass player (Night Demon bass player as well), suggested we should  do an EP so this way we could bring out some older music of ours, but not really having to release a whole album material. Plus the Pandemic was ragging and we really couldn’t go out and play, so we thought instead of putting out a whole album the EP would be the perfect vehicle to put these four songs on.

For sure, it’s a pity not having the opportunity to go out on a tour or something…

You know everyone around the word is going through that and even though things here are almost back to normal, still somewhere else people are still suffering. It’s like the weather … somehow in some countries they are still fighting it. We are hoping that this will be over soon so we can play more and visit our friends around the world.

We hope that too…Your EP was released once again by Metal Blade. Your relation with Brian (Slagel) goes way back, in late 70’s, when he was working in Oz Records in LA, thus long before forming his own label. Tell us a bit more about your relationship with this guy, and how important is working with a man you can trust your music to.

Well, Brian and Metal Blade Records have been just amazing! Yes we first met him when we were getting ready to put out our first album. He was working in Oz Records , as you mentioned, and we were trying to get the album showed around, trying to sell it to record companies and he got us in touch with the company that we actually ended up releasing Frost and Fire. He kept on saying that his dream was to start his own record company that was his goal. Not only Brian, but everyone that works in Metal Blade in US and overseas have really done a tremendous work promoting heavy metal scene around the world, and it’s really wonderful working with these guys! Everybody knows it, I’m always angry in record companies but I couldn’t be more pleased that since we were reunited all the collaboration we‘ve done with Metal Blade has been so rewarding. I feel that we couldn’t have been on a better label. They really understand us and to this day I think they are the dominant force in promoting heavy metal all around the world.

The opener, “Route 666”, in its shorter version can be found on “The Orange Album” and “Brutish Manchild”, that was printed for the Flexi series of Decibel magazine in May 2020. Tell us a bit about band’s route on the early days …. Was it a route straight as hell back in 1971?

We were struggling like everyone else in the music business but we were lot younger at that time. It was 1976, so I was probably around 19 or so, when our songs were originally recorded for the Orange Album. We worked a lot on our songs for the new record, tried to make them heavier. Back then, we had a lot of energy, we hadn’t just started out (since we‘ve already been together for a few years) but we were trying to come up with our own style and sound and I think in these new versions we captured that. I know that lots of people wanted to hear those older original versions and I get that, but I red several reviews complaining about why we put out these old stuff, while some others went like never rerecord something you did etc.. That was though the message we were getting from our fans! We literally were trying to please our fans. Most of the times we wrote music for ourselves, and we hoped that other people liked it, and the main goal for us was trying to write this heavy music that we personally liked, we weren’t following any patterns or other things that were going on at the same time in the music industry. We were always trying to stay true to the routes of the heavy metal we grow up on. So by putting out this album we varied for that path and we tried to satisfy more our fans, in a way. We ‘ve done everything we wanted for our whole carrier, so maybe we can throw out something else just in between two full length albums just for their amusement I guess!

You changed your name from Titanic to Cirith Ungol, I guess you borrowed the name from J.R.R. Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings… Tell us how you came up with both of them, and which was the turning point for you guys to go along with Cirith Ungol at last?

Rob: Greg and I were in an advanced English class in 7th grade, which would have made us about 16 years old. We were assigned to read the “Lord of the Rings”, which at that time was not the cultural mammoth it is today. It was a big influence on us, and led to our discovery of many other “Sword and Sorcery” literature and art. Many people mistakenly feel that because we took our name from the books that we were overly influence by the “Lord of the Rings”, or that matter the Elric series we featured on our album covers. The truth is these incredible works of art influenced us, but were never intended to be something that defined us as a band or our music! It was just imagery that reflected the path we were on.

Greg: I don’t remember how we came up with “Titanic”, but we intended the name to mean “huge” or “giant”, and not the ship that sank after it hit an iceberg. Of course, everyone made jokes about the band going down with the ship!

Rob and I were huge Tolkien fans, so the new band name had to be something from LOTR. Minas Tirith, Uruk Hai, and Barad Dur were all on the short list of possible names. Of course, any of those names, like the one we picked, were a commercial kiss of death. “Sarah Who?”, “What does that mean?”, How do you spell that?”

You know Greg (Lindstrom) since the age of 13. Was it a school lesson that lead you deal with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings thematology lasting till nowadays, as we can tell by Shelob’s Liar lyrics (where Sam and Frodo fighting with the giant spider)?

When Greg and I first met we were in an English class. We used to meet every day before class and talk about cars, music and stuff like that … In the class we were assigned to read the Lord of the Rings and that inspired us. We never had any contact with that kind of literature at the time and that stimulated us to start reading other stuff like Michael Moorcock’s Elric (that appears in most of our album covers), but there’s a bunch of series that were considered sorcery literature… Conan too! Big muscled guy bearing a sword fighting a bunch of monsters and always trying to save the day and most likely there was a beautiful woman on the side with always a romance going on, or a female Barbarian heading along in his adventures. So when we were young that kind of literature was influential on us. Lot of people say how come you didn’t write more songs for Lord of the rings, or Moorcock’s series. All that influenced us a band, but we never wanted to base our entire existence or songs in others’ people work. We ‘ve already have had our name after Cirith Ungol from Lord of the Rings, our art covers were from the Elric as well, but when came to playing we wanted to create our own image and these were things that just inspired us along the way,  wasn’t necessarily something that we wanted to base our entire career on! Shelob’s Liar is kind of a rear song along with Cirith Ungol, which both came from Lord of the Rings’ books. Also in Forever Black we decided, we run again through all these material, and Tim said to me: “I think it’s time to write a song about Storm bringer, Elrics’ sword, cause it’s a huge influence not only on us but also on lots of people out there. Deep Purple had an album named after Stormbringer, Blue Oyster Cult wrote also a song about his sword, and so we thought the time was right to actually put something down in one of our albums, indicating our relationship to that series of books. Yet again, we never really wanted to base our entire career on that, and these were just things that inspired us along the way, not only us but also other bands that we grew up listening to.

Getting back to Half Past Human now… The feeling one gets while listening all 4 songs of Half Past Human (dating back to 1975) is this late 70’s sense given in a more modern way, following the exact same pattern of “Forever Black”. You have a really remarkable and unique sound! What defines underground (sound and mentality) for you and how are you managing not getting modern-ish in a bad way, I mean keeping your true and old school I would say sound?

Rob: If that is what you feel when you listen to Half Past Human, then we have succeeded in our task. Our goal was to resurrect four old songs (by popular demand) with a similar “beast imagery” and breathe new life and heaviness into them from our current incarnation. I think what you are talking about is what makes it classic “Cirith Ungol”. To us, our new material seems modern, but we have not strayed much from the path we set out on so many years ago. We play what we consider true metal, and anything the band produces can be defined in those terms.

Greg: I would probably have quite a hard time writing a “modern” metal song, I’m just not wired that way! Remember the four songs on HPH were all written in the late 70’s, before we wrote the F&F songs. And for this release, we purposely did not change the arrangements from the way we used to play them back in the day. The production is for sure a big improvement over our old albums. Armand got us a great sound on this.

You‘ve cooperated once again with Armand John Anthony (Night Demon/Bewitcher), how did you guys met, and how is this rolling? Forever black was recorded in a studio of his. Where did you record all tracks this time?

Kind of sad thing, our original studio here in Ventura Goldmine went out of business… the owner had to move out of town and the price went up on the property so it was very expensive to keep… there are a lot of greedy people in the world that are forcing recording studios to go out of business. Armand was our friend (also played in Night Demon). Because of Jarvis, we played a lot of shows together and we became really good friends. So, his studio is just amazing and we started recording our stuff there and we’re really happy with it, it’s really close to our bandroom, so it’s easy to go there and record. Armand has been recording us for the last three or four projects we‘ve been working on, we feel close to him and we think he knows what we want. He’s always good in suggesting things, always trying to improve the sound that we are trying to look for, and it’s really worked out good. It’s a relationship that bloomed since it started, and I think with each project we do, we‘re getting closer to the sound that we wanted. I think the EP came out really good. I think our sound is progressing and the band is really happy with the overall outcome. Every project we do, we‘re trying to be better than the previous one.

Another stunning cover coming from mighty Michael Wheelan, continues the original Elric series cover tradition by painting this time Elric with Stormbringer sucking the soul out of this half man half beast on the cover. In your opinion what’s the power that an album’s artwork has? I mean does it have that much power, equal to the one that music in it withholds?

Amazingly, since we ‘ve been rereleasing albums on vinyl, the 12’’ covers are back, and that have made the artwork once again more significant, cause when the albums went away this giant canvas you can hold in your hand of art shrank down to the size a CD, and in some point it has just shrank down to the size of an image on your computer or you phone, so actually hadn’t that much landscape or area to evolve. I think it’s really important, and I know that there are people that bought the album just because they saw the cover and they were impressed with it. Michael Wheelan, an extraordinary talent, he’s birthday is coming up, just to know me and him we share the same birthday, June 29, and I think that Cancers are really sensitive kind of people haha. We used his painting of Stormbringer for our first album; we have a very good relationship with him and a friendship. I would say the same thing that I’ve said for Brian, Michael and Brian are two people that even though they are business partners and associates, you can call them family too. We felt that Michael’s Elric series really spoke to what the band was writing musically. These before they were book covers they were paintings by Micahel Wheelan and they stand on their own! What’s funny there… In Germany for a while I think on a computer game, they had some of the Elric’s paintings and some of them were legitimate uses of the paintings, but there was also a pizza spot somewhere up in Seattle and they had Elric holding a pizza in his hand pretending to be the Stormbringer haha … So, many people have seen his paintings, I mean beyond just our band, and to be able to use them as an album cover, this was a dream. The real dream back at the times was that if we ever were about to become famous we could use all of them! I don’t know if we did became famous, but we are getting close to using almost every one of the Elric’s paintings, I think there is one left if I’m not mistaken. To be able to share these with the world it’s been an honor! Every time I look at them I’m just amazed. The new album is one of his brighter works, its more colorful, we can see him stubbing Stormbinger into this beast. You can see his soul as its being stacked out of his body around Stormbringer and flowing up behind him in this orange cloud, it’s just chaos.

How difficult was to shake off the dust after your reformation (I mean we’re talking about a 25-year break)? Was the true metal fire still burning after all? What was the turning point for this decision anyway? Jarvis and his Frost & Fire Festival in Ventura, had something to do with it, I’m I right?

Yeah I never thought that we would get back together, and you know Jarvis was begging us to get back together, Oliver from Keep It True in Germany also  was writing me letters maybe in 2010 or 2011 asking us to play in KIT and we were saying no no, never gonna get back together. But then Jarvis put on a festival here, in our hometown, named it after Frost and Fire, and we actually met with a lot of people from all over the world asking us to reunite and play again. We never though it was going to be more than one or two shows, but when we decided to do it we thought we‘re getting older and if we are going really for it, it’s now or never. I think it was the right decision and we had a lot of fun, not only that, but we also got to share some new music! That’s another thing … people may have thought … hey these guys will do a couple of shows.. like old nostalgic rockers or something haha! But I think by putting out Witch’s Game and Forever Black people realized  that we still had some metal burning in our souls that we wanted to get it out, and that we ‘re not done yet. We are the older states of heavy metal right now but the goal is at least to release some more material. You also mentioned another thing, how hard was it… I think it was easier coming back from that break than coming back from Pandemic, cause heavy metal world shut down for a year… and it’s interesting to see how coming out shapes up!

Once you mentioned Witch’s Game…How was your experience working on the project Planet of Doom, being involved in a motion picture soundtrack with your single “Witch’s Game”?  We‘re talking about an animated feature length film in which the hero, Halvar the brave, seeks vengeance aboard a witch-born chopper, journeying across a psychedelic landscape on a quest to defeat the deadly beast Mördvél for the slaying of his beloved bride.

That was challenging, because how that came about was … I think Tim saw some videos on the internet and we thought it was cool cause we had a song called Doom Planet on one of our albums and seeing this movie called Planet of Doomed, we thought wow that’s kind of cool and so Jarvis contacted with the producers, which we end up being good friends with, and it turned out that they were fans of the band, and the goal was for us to write a song that would be on the ending credits of the movie. Each chapter of the movie is with a different artist combined with a different band for different segment of the story. All the artists and bands were already filled by the time we popped out, and we were like playing a song for the closing credits will be fine … Then one the bands dropped out and we filled the gap. We wrote a song for the movie. It was quite difficult cause there was limited time and the storyline changed in several different scenes. That’s why Witch’s Game starts quite heavier, it slows down, speeds up and then slows down again, had to follow the storyline of the movie. Tim worked with the producers and writers of the movie in order to shape the lyrics around the story so that they were fitting to what’s happening on the background, and I think it came out really good. It took a while though for the movie to be completed and they are still working on it as we speak. It’s hard to get such a project out, they have to get money to set it up, people to work on it, etc. There are some clips on the net and the instagram, or Facebook, or YouTube, and from what I’ve seen so far I’m really excited to be part of it and can’t wait to come out. I think this is going to be a thing that we will be remembered for because fifty years from now people may forget about the band, but maybe if Netflix in the future will show Planet of Doomed, then people will still hear our song.

Describe us how flows today the songwriting procedure for Cirith, unleashing hammering riffs and pounding metal in 2021 in contrast to 70’s middle 80’s era when it was all about gathering and rehearsing in your parent’s house?

You know we still are doing it in the same way. It’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks, so we (old dogs) are still doing everything the same way we did. Some people reviewing us say hey these guys sound like they stepped out the time machine or like this album was created right after Paradise Lost came out… and I think the reason is that we are still doing it the very same way. Everyone approaches us differently but this is the way we write. We come up with an idea; we have a series of lyrics that we are working with. We sit down and start with the riffs; we make sure that they are good. We argue about them from two weeks to six months… After that, we record a demo in our secret lair bandroom and we record. Though the technology got so much better so we actually closer to the quality of the finished product. Then we listen the demo and make sure that we are happy with it. Sometimes we do take two or three versions and we always try to evolve you know… do a better solo…different background vocals. Then we enter the studio having something ready so it’s not that cold … I ‘ve read stories from bands back in the 70s’ going in the studio to record an album and within three of four days they were doing it all from scratch. Our process may take longer, but we are really serious about it and our goal is always to create the heaviest music we can. We are very critical of our work so we are constantly evaluating of what we ‘re doing, so we’re hoping that by the time the album comes out people will realize that this is something that we put our hearts and souls into, and it’s basically us screaming into the darkness haha.

In your long path throughout the years you‘ve played with huge names, such as Lucifer’s Friend. Which are the bands that you guys would love to share the stage with, and you haven’t managed yet doing so, are there any?

Yeah, you know, there are! Unfortunately, many of them have passed away. You mentioned Lucifer’s Friend, we played with them, that was an absolute dream and I was standing out.. you know… that’s another thing  we are not rock stars, we are rock fans, so, you know, I was out in the crowd when they were on stage and there was almost tears in my eyes. I mean … I was listening to them when I was in high school when we were recording the Orange Album! So actually playing in the same stage with them sharing that stage with a band of that magnitude … I mean wow. What was even more amazing was I gave        John Lawton my number and I said hey drop me an email or something… and I think he sent me an email in Christmas Time asking me how I’ve been doing, it was like getting a birthday card from Tony Iommi or something haha. It was really amazing right? There are still some acts that we are looking forward to play when allowed. We played with Loudness here in our area, ooh long long time ago, probably in the 80s’, and so playing with them again might be another experience. There are of course the big bands too, like Judas Priest! That would be like the real dream to play with, but I’m not sure if we ever are going to be in the position to do that. We haven’t given up and I think the longer we stay together and put out material and is well received, the larger venues we can play. That’s our goal to play on some of these bigger fests, cause that way you can get to more people. Personally, I love the outdoor stages because you can really crack up the volume, and I love to hear my drums sounding like thunderstorm hearing them bouncing up, that’s my fav part of being in a band to be honest.

The upbeat rhythm of yours on drums keeps flowing all over this album. When did you start exploring drumming world? What’s your musical background in any case?

I am a self-taught drummer and have periodically attempted to improve my art through formal lessons or academics. I am not sure any of that helped! My style in pretty unique, and even though many do not appreciate, or even understand what I am doing, I am proud of my catalog of work and consider myself more of an artist than a musician. My drumming is throwback to man’s earliest primitive rhythms, spanning the time from when the first Brutish Manchild took a stick and beat in on a log, into the middle ages when blacksmiths pounded molten metal into the stuff of legends on the anvils of doom.

The pandemic gave you the time needed to focus on any new staff, should we except from you sooner or later another material- (full length)?

Yeah we are working on another album; I don’t think that’s a secret. I’m not sure there is a real rush to put it out though cause we are getting ready for some shows and we are between an hour and an hour and a half so we are trying to cut down the set list to fit it within an hour. We are looking to all our songs and all the material we want to play and the joke is that if we put out more albums, we won’t be able to play any of our new songs. It’s a blessing that we have that strong material in so many albums, so we are trying to pick and choose what we should cut from our set and it’s almost like king Salomon cutting the baby in half. I mean dropping Master of the Pit or King of the Dead? We hope that some of the people want to hear some of our newer stuff too! We hope that some of the material in Forever Black is so strong that people want to hear them. You mentioned Witch’s Game, that’s an amazing song and I think playing it in front of crowd that have never heard us play that before would mean something! I saw Black Sabbath when they came out with Vol. 4  and they started be playing Snowblind … they played the entire album from beginning to end… being a heavy metal maniac, hearing this stuff for the first time LIVE has a great impact on you! It certainly had on us! That’s our goal, come up with some sets that will include Forever Black’s material too. Getting back to your question we are going after another record, the dream would be coming up with ten more, but yet again if we did that many what will we play on stage?

Many shows, even yours, have been cancelled and rescheduled due to corona, we all hope that everyone makes it through safe and sound, but are there any plans for the band to perform live? Or are you looking straight to 2022?

I think we have a few shows booked here in US, because travelling to Europe might be more restrictive. I don’t want to mention any specific dates because what happened in the last one year and a half is we announced gigs, people got tickets and then shows were cancelled or rescheduled. The US dates are on our Facebook account and on instagram. We have also booked some shows for next year and I hope that we will be able coming back in Greece too, well that’s the plan, but for this year we really have to work on our new material and play these shows in the States.

The floor is yours… Any last comments

Thank you Penny, and everyone in Metal Invader, for supporting us for so long. We have a lot of good friends in Greece; we can’t wait to get back. I hope everyone picks up our new EP, Half Past Human, and if you don’t have Forever Black grab that too. We are trying our very best to get out and play, we are looking forward doing some shows and want to tell all fans out there thank you for the support all these years! We‘re not done yet, we still have a few more tricks up our sleeves (hitonas haha).

“The frost preserves and the fire destroy us like pouring rain on the sands of time.”

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