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Metal/Prog Metal Interviews

Cirith Ungol

Interviewed by Mike Korn
Interview with Jarvis Leatherby of Cirith Ungol from 2020
MSJ: The first thing I have to ask is, how are you doing? I know you’ve had some health issues as of late.
Yeah! I’m doing alright, I’m doing okay. I had a stomach abscess, which is not a cool thing to happen, I’m back home and on the mend. Thanks for asking.
MSJ: That’s good to hear. It’s bad enough by itself, but during these times of virus lockdown, everything has got an added weight to it.
Yeah, like you don’t know if you’re dying or you’re not, you know? (laughs)
MSJ: Let me dive right into Forever Black, the new Cirith Ungol album. Was it a long, long process putting this together or did it click right away once you started work on it?
I think it was a long process to write the first single “Witch’s Game” when we got back together in 2018. That was the comeback song. But after that, things started rolling pretty quickly. Really, the original guys hadn’t written a new song in, like, 30 years. I kind of stayed out of it. I let them do it, let them write and then I would come in at the end and help with the arrangements.
MSJ: Are the songs that appeared on the album kind of the final forms of ideas that had been floating around for a long time?
No, no, no.  It’s all completely new.
MSJ: When you recorded the album, were you all in the same studio? Seems like a dumb question, but these days a lot of albums are put together over the internet.
Yeah, we were all in the same studio. Armand, the guitar player for Night Demon, he produced and engineered the album. His studio is literally right next door to Cirith’s rehearsal space, so that’s really, really convenient for us.
MSJ: A lot of bands would sell their mothers for a situation like that.
We almost did, yeah. We put a lot of work and a lot of effort into this.
MSJ: A lot of bands from the 80s attempt a comeback. Sometimes it’s successful, sometimes it isn’t. This album really sounds like the one that could have been right after One Foot In Hell.
That’s cool. That’s good to hear. That was our intention, you know. I came into the band as a fan and I’m not going to say I have final say over the project, but as the band’s manager, I pretty much do. There’s a lot of things I stuck to very hard on. At the beginning, they weren’t really happy, but now they appreciate it. Musically, I thought there were a couple of things that were a little too weird. The band is already weird! (chuckles) Again, I’m coming from the fan’s perspective and also as the manager of the band. As manager, my job is to protect the legacy of what’s already there. I take that position very seriously. They have actually been around since 1972!  They have four albums out. It was stuff that was weird back then but is now revered. A lot of bands that get to that cult-like level have tons of albums out...15, even 20 albums. They go through weird periods, and there are forgotten eras of the band. Cirith Ungol, on the other hand, is pretty intact. Four albums and now a fifth one 30 years later. It needs to stand with the other ones. And I think everyone did a really good job making that happen.
MSJ: The production has the sound of the earlier albums. I can spot a triggered drum sound a mile away, and there was none of that here.
What sucks is that a lot of old guys try to be current when they come back after a long hiatus. I think that’s the wrong way to approach it. That’s not the way we approached it.
MSJ: I know the last full Cirith Ungol album before this new one was Paradise Lost, which the band wasn’t really happy with. What was the issue with that and how did it affect Forever Black?
They weren’t happy with it because, basically, it was taken over by the producer and the label. I don’t know, I think Rob the drummer is the one who disliked it the most. Looking back on it, it’s a great record, and there are some moments on there that are pretty legendary for the band. And it’s the best sounding album, in my opinion. I have no complaints about it.
MSJ: You have no trouble playing songs from it live?
We played five songs from it live, so yes, definitely.
MSJ: Before Forever Black, you had a live album I’m Alive out last year. How satisfied were you with how that turned out?
Oh, we thought it was really cool. It turned out really good. We got to film some of the bigger shows we did around the world. We taped one show in Greece, and that’s what you hear on the album. That was really cool. We wanted to document the band getting back together and playing live, something nobody thought would ever happen. The band never really toured in its heyday, so nobody ever saw the band…only if you lived in LA.
MSJ: I was lucky enough to see you play at the Spring Bash show in Milwaukee…
Yeah, that was cool!
MSJ: It was real cool. If it wasn’t for this virus stuff, you probably would have seen me at the Blades of Steel fest in April. That’s now pushed to October. If things aren’t cleared up by then, we’re really in trouble!
(chuckles) Yeah, yeah. I’m thinking positive about it so hopefully by then, things will be settled.
MSJ: Now on Forever Black, you’ve got another masterpiece of cover art by the artist Michael Whelan. You have a pretty special relationship with him over the years. Tell us a little bit about how that came together.
In the 70s, the band cleared the name “Cirith Ungol” with Tolkien Enterprises, so we already had that locked down. Rob the drummer started writing to all sorts of folks associated with fantasy. He wrote to Michael Whelan because the band were big fans of the Michael Moorcock series about Elric, He was in on it, and they became friends. He came out to see us in New York not too long ago. He’s still rockin’ and rollin’! He broke his arm recently but still did this piece for us. Yeah, he’s still goin’, man! My thing with metal is it’s really half artwork, half music. (chuckles). The art for Cirith Ungol is almost more iconic than the music, I think.
MSJ: When I used to go to the local record shop in the early 80s, I’d paw through the import metal bin. Anything that had a monster or a sci fi image on it, I was automatically interested in it.
That would work most of the times, but you might wind up with a Molly Hatchet album. “What?” (laughs)
MSJ: I know Cirith Ungol got the artwork for One Foot In Hell and King of the Dead literally from the covers of Moorcock books, but it sounds like the cover to Forever Black was done specifically for the album, right?
No. It is a pre-existing Whelan piece. But I don’t know if it was ever used for a book cover or anything like that, though. I think it looks awesome. We fell in love with it right away.
MSJ: It fits. It wouldn’t have worked as well if you hadn’t gotten him or an artist a lot like him to do the cover. Let me ask you this...did you ever have any contact with Michael Moorcock himself, because he’s kind of a rock and roller himself?
You know, I actually didn’t know that. No, I’ve had no contact with him at all.
MSJ: I know he wrote lyrics for Blue Öyster Cult and even played around with Hawkwind a bit back in the day. He actually wrote the lyrics for the song “Black Blade” by Blue Öyster Cult, which is about Elric’s sword Stormbringer. (Ed. At Music Street Journal we’ve covered quite a few projects he’s worked on, including his band Michael Moorcock’s Deep Fix).
No kidding? I did not know that.
MSJ: Yeah, the guy who literally created the characters wound up writing the lyrics for the song. You can’t get any more authentic than that.
Wow, that’s crazy, man! You oughtta write a blog on it or something.
MSJ: I’ve been into fantasy literature as long as I can remember. The books now are all 800 page monsters that go on for ten volumes to tell a story. Back in the 70s, there were paperbacks that were 200, 250 pages long and they were cheap. That’s what all the Moorcock books were. I miss those days.
Yeah, totally, man!
MSJ: Tim Baker’s voice is just amazing on the new record and I was also blown away when I saw him play live. How has he maintained it over the years?
A lot of beer!
MSJ: So that’s the secret!
I guess so. He seems to have a beer every time I see him. Usually just one, though. Really, man, I don’t know. He doesn’t even warm up or anything. It’s just one of those things. That’s part of what makes the band cool. Without him, it’s nowhere near as cool.
MSJ: He’s got a very unique voice, and those are hard to find anymore.
Most definitely!
MSJ: Do you have one particular song on the new album that’s your favorite?
I kind of like the song called “The Fire Divine”. It has a kind of Blue Öyster Cult feel to it. Greg wrote that song. It’s hard picking one. I like the doomier ones, as well, but I like that particular track because it’s different. It’s fun to play.
MSJ: That was my favorite, as well. I also like the one called “The Frost Monstreme.” Moving on, I recently heard the comeback album from another 80s metal band. Are you familiar with Tyrant from California?
(chuckles) I am, I am.
MSJ: Their new album is great. They got Robert Lowe who used to be the singer of Candlemas and Solitude Aeturnus to sing for them now….
It’s great? Don’t throw that word around lightly…
MSJ: His voice fits that music so well. It’s like he was always a member of the band. When I listened to their new one Hereafter and Forever Black at almost the same time, I thought that these two bands really ought to hook up and do a show together. Have you ever played with them?
With Tyrant? Oh yeah, for sure. That’s happened before. I’ve got a pretty legendary story about it. We put on a festival in Ventura called “Frost and Fire”. So Night Demon, my main band, was playing the pre-party and we were headlining the show. It was our home town and our festival, so it was appropriate. The undercard was pretty stacked, sometimes with bands that we might open for somewhere else. Tyrant was direct support, and they insisted that they headline. Well, I wasn’t going to give them top billing, that was going to stay Night Demon, but if they wanted to play after us, that was fine. They threw a fit and insisted that they do that. There were about 600 to 700 people watching us when we played. And by the end of Tyrant’s set, there was about nine people. Yeah, they were terrible. That was Robert’s first show. I don’t think he knew any of the words then. Yeah, it was bad, it was really bad. And everybody that saw it knew it was bad, too. I hate to call bands out, but that’s a true story. It is what it is. Those guys were dicks. I respect their music, though, and their earlier albums were awesome. Shadow Kingdom has recently re-pressed those albums, so go out and buy those. If you’re a Tyrant fan, go out and support them, because they need it.
MSJ: I had no idea about this. I never talked to them in any capacity.
Well, that’s the problem when you’re in the music business. You have to deal with people as people. That’s happens sometimes. Anyway, it’s not a big deal anymore. I thought that anecdote was pretty funny.
MSJ: Have you had any thought to what comes after Forever Black for Cirith Ungol?
We’re working on another record right now, actually, It’s getting real close. I think it’s actually better. It kind of bums me out because it makes me wish we would have held back a little bit, waited a little bit longer. But, whatever…
MSJ: Believe me, this new album sounds like the very logical successor to what Cirith Ungol has done before. It holds up with past records very, very well.
That’s awesome! Thank you! I really appreciate that!
MSJ: It’s been a while since we’ve heard from your other band, Night Demon. What’s the plan for them, if any?
We’re actually dropping a new single this week! It will be available both online and on 7” vinyl, so there you go. The song is called “Empires Fall” and it’s the first original music we’ve put out in three years.
MSJ:
Is there an album on the way as well?
Yeah, yeah! We’re working on it right now. We’ve got a good plan this year, we’re going to be releasing a lot of things.
MSJ:
You’re a pretty busy fella. Got your finger in a lot of things…
I don’t really know what else I would be doing. Am I gonna sit around and be scared of the coronavirus or do I get out and make some music? You got to hustle. If you want to be in music full time, that’s the way you got to do it. Or at least start off that way. This year, we’ve got new music from both Night Demon and Cirith Ungol, and that’s great. In my world, that means things are really going full blast and going well.
MSJ:
Is there any other band that you play in directly? I know you manage some bands.

Yeah, I sing for Jaguar, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal band.
MSJ: Anything coming up from them?
I don’t know, we’ve been kind of scattered lately. It would be great to do a record with them, I would love to do that, but it’s been a long time since we’ve been together. It’s hard when people live in different places. One guy is now down in South America, the rest are in the UK and I’m in California. It’s challenging.
MSJ: This interview is available in book (paperback and hardcover) in Music Street Journal: 2020  Volume 4. More information and purchase links can be found at: garyhillauthor.com/Music-Street-Journal-2020.
 
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