Interview by Parisa Eshrati
After a twenty year hiatus, proto-doom band Cirith Ungol has reunited to find themselves restored in all their power-metal-shredding glory. Ahead of their set at Northwest Terror Fest, we spoke with drummer Robert Gavern on all things past, present, and future for the band. We discuss their lyrical themes of sword & sorcery, dusting off the cobwebs for their reunion, and living the life goal of playing heavy metal in its true elemental form.
I think it’s really powerful how your reunion show happened to be at the same exact stage you played your last show on. I want to relate this idea of resurrection to how it plays out so often in sword and sorcery stories. In LOTR, for example, Gandalf sacrifices himself, but is eventually restored with even greater power. How do you view that reunion show/getting back together in general in those s&s terms of strength and restoration?
I appreciate the analogy and there was not lost a sense of irony about our reunion show at the same venue. Our hometown Ventura is a beautiful small coastal community and our reunion was a very powerful event and many came from all over the world to see the "Frost & Fire II Festival” The band had struggled for so many years, to see so many, from a new generation, that understood our music was a distinct honor, and somewhat overwhelming! I would compare our story to the recurring events in the Elric of Melnibone series. Without his sword “Stormbringer” Elric is weak, (like the band without our music). Once the sword was figuratively back in our hands, like Elric, with each conquest (show), we are becoming stronger by consuming the souls of our victims!
I also love how you’ve had this Spinal Tap-esque reunion story after noticing that you had a big cult following overseas. How did you guys find out about this overseas interest? And on that note, what other Spinal Tap parallels has Cirith Ungol seen throughout its career?
When the movie was released Greg called me up and said, “You’ve got to see this movie, it’s just like our old band!” Our music was originally exported to Europe and even after the band broke up there was still interest and I had done interviews with some of the biggest metal magazines in Europe; Rock Hard, Sweden Rocks, etc. trying to keep the dream alive. Metal Blade Records had been re-releasing the albums overseas, and there was so much interest that we released the double album "Servants of Chaos" which had unreleased material, as it was assumed, we would never play again.
Jarvis Leatherby, the bass player in "Night Demon" lives in our hometown of Ventura, California. He contacted me several years ago through mutual friend, Carl Valdez, who was the drummer in the punk band "Ill Repute". He shared that when they had traveled to Europe on tour with "Night Demon", they would see many fans with "Cirith Ungol" shirts on, and many knew of our band and our music, even though many had not been born when we broke up! I had sworn an oath that I would never touch a drumstick again, so I had always told him very politely, that I was not interested. Everything changed at the "Frost & Fire I Festival” in 2015. Oliver Weinsheimer from the very famous and exclusive "Keep it True Festival" had come over for the show, where we did an extended meet and greet, even though we were not playing. Oliver had been contacting me for probably 10 years for more, with an interest to have the band play at his festival. I had always told him no also, but kept in touch with him, as he was a very cool dude and responsible for keeping the flame of true metal alive in Europe! Jarvis said if we got back together, he would be our manager and offered us the headline spot at his next "Frost & Fire Festival in 2016. Oliver invited Tim and I over to the "Keep it True Festival IX", to check it out and see what we thought and if we were interested to headline at their 20th anniversary show. We traveled there and were treated like royalty, everyone seemed to know who we were and it was a first-class event. We were so impressed that there was no doubt in our mind that we wanted to be part of this new reawakening of Metal! If it were not for these two gentlemen, the band would have never reformed. The band and our fans and fans owe them both a debt of gratitude. When the ancient stars aligned, "Cirith Ungol" crawled out of its ancient slumber, to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting world!! As it turned out our longtime bass player Michael Vujea “Flint” could not play so we asked Jarvis if he would take over the bass duties. It made perfect sense because we would be traveling with our mates in "Night Demon" playing many shows together, and it has worked out extremely well.
Getting back to the Spinal Tap question, something really funny happened at the "Frost & Fire London Festival 2018”. The band had a rare day off in London and we were off to visit the English countryside and Stonehenge. A good friend in London drove us to a very nice lunch at a country estate, right out of PBS series Downton Abbey! The hosts were fantastic and we explored the estate, which had its own chapel. It was beautiful warm sunny day, which was unusual and everyone commented on the band bringing the sunshine from California! We probably lingered a bit too long, and then off through the beautiful countryside to Stonehenge! We finally get there and it must have been about 5pm but the sun was still high in the sky and there was a big sign, Closed! What! We all were blown away. This can’t be! How do you close a prehistoric stone monument!!! We decided to park and see what was up! Closed! If you want to come back tomorrow, they said! I explained that we had come from across the Atlantic to see this, and we were leaving tomorrow! I even jokingly mentioned we were like the band Spinal Tap, and they could not turn us away. A lady took me aside and said even though it was closed for the day, and the buses that drove everyone to the site were done for the day, if we walked the 2-3 miles, we could still see it. So off we hiked, joking and having fun along the way. We get to an intersection on the famous Salisbury plain and there were a group of guards. No entrance! Closed for the Day! I explained again our dilemma, and they had no sympathy! We were about to turn around and I was franticly trying to convince the guards how important the band was, our journey etc. Finally, one of the guards said, “If you hike along the gulley over there you can come across the rise and you would be able to see the stones! So off we hiked and lo and behold we came over the rise and there it was! It was an amazing experience, and a lifelong dream come true! We are finally here, if a bit away! Armand from Night Demon played the music from Spinal Tap, while he took a video of those who made the trek! There is so many more stories like this, we would need a book to cover them all!
Looking back to your early days, you guys weren’t playing the typical style of metal popular in LA in that area, i.e. hair metal, speed metal. I read that you guys were actually the first band signed to Enigma, but they dropped you after you refused to put on a “hair metal look”. Can you talk more on overcoming those expectations, and how, if it all, playing outsider music informed your ethos as a band?
They actually did not drop us, we moved over to Metal Blade Records, as we were longtime friends with Brian Slagel the founder. Enigma did try to hook us up to a manager who wanted us to wear make-up, etc. and we refused. He went on to work with Guns and Roses… They were very disappointed in us at the time, but we were not that malleable and to be honest even if we knew there would have been fame and stardom, we would not have done anything differently. Hype, gimmicks, fads were not our thing….Heavy Metal in its true and elemental form was our goal, and our life’s mission!
During your years apart, were any of you guys playing music regularly in other projects? I imagine your songs aren’t easy to pick up after so many years since they’re so technical, so tell us about the process of relearning your songs, and overcoming the difficulties of picking up music again.
Greg played in a band Falcon which had two albums out. The other members just put it behind us and moved on. Remember we had been together for over 20 years without a paycheck, had 4 albums under our belt, and the industry was headed in a direction that we did not see any future. Actually, after getting back together it was more just shaking off the cobwebs. Those were our songs, and playing them was not that hard. Getting new equipment and finding a band room was more difficult. We were a bit older too, and trying to blend a music career back into our lives a bit challenging!
Lyrically, Cirith Ungol imagines itself in a world of sword and sorcery. Can you elaborate on how you’ve used themes of s&s and fantasy as a tool to understand and cope with reality?
I think it was more of us trying to compose a story. The band weaves a tale of darkness and despair through much of our songs. Some have called us the grandfathers of doom metal. I am not sure if that is accurate, but we were writing songs like; "Death of the Sun", in the early 1970’s!
It’s also interesting how your first show ever was at an anti-Vietnam war rally, because on the surface people might not make the connection how your lyrics apply to that situation, but it still seems very fitting to mirror today’s reality in these fantastical dystopian themes. I’m interested to hear your take in how your lyrics have held up so strongly in that regard.
We got together during the war in Vietnam and much was going on at the time. This era also spawned allot of pretty amazing music, and we were influenced with all that. We opened up at that show, and I remember there were undercover agents up in the trees taking pictures of the protesters. It was getting pretty crazy, and I remember as we were driving out, the police were pushing into the crowd with tear gas, shields and batons! I think you are giving us too much credit, man’s fall has been brewing for a long time, and it’s amazing easy to chronicle it to music! Climate change, rising seas, mass migration, over-population, disintegration of civil discourse and society, we are truly living on a Doomed Planet!
I know you guys have talked about working on new material, how’s that been going? What are the dynamics now of making new music, do you all still live in the same area or are you working together remotely? And I imagine that Michael Whelan’s artwork will make an appearance again?
In 2017 we learned about an animated movie in the works, "Planet of Doom" a movie about the exploits of a hero "Havlar the Brave", who 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. The movie has a group of talented artists working with a group of heavy bands working together for each segment of the movie.
We were intrigued by all of this because of our doom-laden song, "Doomed Planet", on our third album "One Foot in Hell". We contacted the producers and they were interested in using "Doomed Planet" for the closing credits in the movie. As luck would have it, one of the original bands dropped out and the producers asked if we would compose a song for a major segment in the movie. We had never worked on a soundtrack before, and it seemed not only a challenge, but a project right down our alley. The band worked closely with the producers to make sure that the song "Witch's Game" would fit the storyline and timing of the animation. Everyone is happy with the way the song turned out, and we can't wait to see it, and the finished movie. We wanted to release a it as a single to show that we could still forge some true metal, and as a placeholder till our other projects were released. For the cover we wanted something that would lend itself to the song and the movie. Michael Whelan had a very crazy Witch painting, which we saw and loved immediately. He modified the original a bit to fit the song, changing a few details, such as adding tarot cards to her hand.
The single received some pretty amazing reviews, as if everyone was surprised that we had lost the touch! The new material we are working on is very similar, and blends sword and sorcery themes with fiercely intense heavy metal! The new music conjures up images of the darker side of man’s eternal struggle. "A Churning Maelstrom of Metal Chaos Descending!"
With the exception of "Servants of Chaos" and "Witch's Game", we were extremely lucky to have been able to use Michael Whelan's unbelievable Elric series on all our studio albums, we plan to continue that tradition!
What else can we look forward to from you all in the near future? Any more plans for re-releases as well?
We have an extraordinary live album coming out on Metal Blade Records later this year, which is going to be epic. They have been doing over the top production and packaging on all the re-releases, and this should be no exception. We have some very exciting shows coming up, not only at the “Northwest Terror Fest” in Seattle, but at “Bang Your Head Festival” in Germany, “Septembro Negro Festival” in Brazil & “Blow Up” in Finland! A new studio album should come out early next year, along with some more rare but special appearances. They have just announced our two night (!) headlining "Keep it True Festival XX111” next year. We have a few tricks still up our sleeves, but I encourage anyone that wants to see the band to come out to one of our rare upcoming shows. We all have limited time on this planet and with the recent passing of some of our heroes, who knows what tomorrow brings….