Cirith Ungol – Idols in Black

Wednesday, 29th April 2020

Legacy bands in heavy metal often struggle when deciding to release new material to their legion of followers – no matter how large or ‘cult’ they may be in numbers. Considering this California act who were a part of the 80’s underground scene released their last studio record Paradise Lost in 1991, Cirith Ungol’s appeal has only grown in the interim. Cut of a different cloth than the burgeoning thrash movement, between their Lord of the Rings inspired namesake and a style that fit more with heavy and doom metal fans, their fascinating artwork from Michael Whelan led many to take a chance on the band.

After many reunion shows in the past few years in the US and abroad, the band hunkered down to record Forever Black – the fifth studio album. Fortunately for the diehards, it’s another testament to the band’s penchant for fantasy, mystery, stirring epic melodies and galvanizing rhythms and tempos. We reached out to bassist/manager Jarvis Leatherby for a talk about the events that took place to reach where we are at now, thoughts on maintaining the band’s integrity/legacy so many decades later, and of course a bit of talk on Night Demon to bring us up to speed.

Dead Rhetoric: I’d love to start this talk with your early memories of Cirith Ungol, and how it finally came to be that you resurrected the main members for a full-on reunion and gained the chance to be their bassist/manager as well?

Jarvis Leatherby: Probably the story that people would expect to hear or want to hear is like I idolized these guys, grew up watching what they were doing. The truth is, I never really liked the band, and I kind of thought they sucked. They were so weird, and from where we come from in Ventura, California – there’s such a rich history of punk rock and 80’s hardcore and stuff like this. Cirith Ungol was the only other heavy metal band from here, so that was the barometer. As a kid in every dollar bin in the record stores, or thrift store, you would find a Frost and Fire LP – original pressings that are now $100 a piece. Back when I was getting into metal, I wanted my metal records to sound like the black album (Metallica) at 11-12 years old. Cirith Ungol was too weird, the production sucked, the vocals were very crazy. I wasn’t into King Diamond when I was younger either because I couldn’t get past the vocals.

Nowadays that’s all different. More than anything I was friends with the guys. They had seen a lot of things that Night Demon was doing overseas, and that’s what they always wanted to do. I said that we can do this and make this happen. It’s a crazy, long story – there’s so much to it. At a certain point it was obvious that I would manage the band – I wasn’t trying to play in the band. We got Robert the drummer to first start playing again. He would come into Night Demon’s rehearsal space and jam on Dusty’s kit. And I called Jimmy to jam, a couple of old school Cirith Ungol songs. He agreed, and then Greg came in, that’s how we built it. It was a revolving door of Cirith Ungol.

I tried to get the original bass player in, but he lives in Las Vegas and he wasn’t available. That was the thing, and they wanted me. I still have a couple of guys that sub for me when I’m on the road with Night Demon, I’d like to keep the band rehearsing two to three times a week. I have two backups for that.

Dead Rhetoric: Forever Black is the latest album, and first new studio record since 1991. What sort of process went on with the songwriting and recording – as I’d imagine there was a sense of worry or apprehension in having this new record live up to the legacy of the past discography?

Leatherby: Yeah. It’s no secret that when old guys get back together after a long time, they usually don’t have it anymore. Besides playing the classics, writing new music, old guys for some reason want to be current, hip and trendy, into the now. Cirith Ungol 2.0, right? That’s the trend we see in rock and metal. I tried to not get too involved in the songwriting, I wanted them to write the songs. But I’m the editor or the last stop of it all. There were many times when there would be an argument about something, and I would have to say it wasn’t cool. The same thing where they weren’t going to wear some things on stage.

Even if you have a younger generation of fans – which is the case with Cirith Ungol, 80% of the people at the gigs are a generation or two below. They still want you to be yourself and authentic – even at 63 years old, they understand. You have them as fans, and there wasn’t a lot of that happen, but there’s been some things. Musically, if I would chop up a song, they would say it’s not Cirith Ungol. I would argue and win in the end, and then we would get a great review on a song, like “Witch’s Game”, and their response to me is ‘I told you we still got it’! (laughs). I refer to them as like my older brothers. It’s an interesting dynamic. We have our headquarters in the same spot, it’s very communal between Night Demon and Cirith Ungol.

Dead Rhetoric: Did they reach into the archives for some songs or riffs for the album, or is it all brand new stuff?

Leatherby: We did two tracks of two songs that Rob and Greg wrote when they were in junior high. There are eight songs on the record, but we ended up recording ten. The other two we are going to be using for a different release. One of the songs is “Brutish Manchild”, and that is on the Decibel magazine flexi-vinyl track. It will end up being on something else and available on something else at some point. Everything you are hearing on Forever Black (are) brand new compositions.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you think the recording process went – especially considering they hadn’t been used to the studio process for decades?

Leatherby: It’s just… part of being a manager is the coaching. The worst part is being younger than somebody and having more experience than them. That’s extremely frustrating. A lot of it is just… it’s never as good as what you hear in your head or your mind, you know? You are making demos and you get used to the sound of those too. You can’t be so hard on yourself. You have to realize it’s the best you can do, that’s me and that’s what people like it for. Everybody has their own quirks. Rob, we joke about the fact that he is the only drummer with no sense of rhythm or timing. The two things you need as a drummer, but he has his own unique style and it seems to work for this band. Tim’s voice is so unique, but we’ll only get a couple of takes out of him. That’s what we have, and I think it’s great. There are different intricacies, Jimmy is always tweaking stuff, he’s never finished with a song until you tell him, ‘okay stop recording, it’s done!’. Jerry was the same way, back in the day before he passed away. It’s interesting, but we survived it. The cool thing is Armand from Night Demon recorded the record – so there’s not a lot of money spent in the studio. It would have been bad if we were paying a studio for this process. We’ve built our own safe infrastructure here to be able to comfortably do everything we need to do between both bands.

Dead Rhetoric: Describe what Cirith Ungol is like on stage versus the studio recordings – what do you think makes things so magical and memorable?

Leatherby: I don’t know. I think (it’s) the songs. On stage I’m like the traffic director- I am playing bass, but if I wasn’t playing and being the manager, I would be running around the back telling them where to go and what to do. The shows go by so quickly. The songs and the fan engagement really make things cool. They really want to be there, they know the songs. Some of the older albums, they sound so crappy, in your mind if you can play a song off King of the Dead or One Foot in Hell, it sounds awesome. But if you listen to the record, it can be tough to listen to. Live, you are hearing it in a much better light and a more personal way.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you believe that’s why it was important for the band to come out with a live record before this studio album?

Leatherby: No, no. I wanted to do that because… I didn’t want to make a new record. I wanted to be like, this is when the band reunited, here’s a bunch of shows they played, these sold out shows, and the band has redemption without making the Anvil movie. This is it. Then making the record – I put that off for a couple of years. As we discussed earlier – current events tend to form future trends. It is so hard after thirty years to make a good album. My job is to protect the legacy of the band. We don’t have to do anything unless it’s worth it. Otherwise we don’t need to do anything. I’m happy with the way it came out.

Dead Rhetoric: Can you tell us a bit about the cover concept for Forever Black? And can you discuss the importance of the band’s cover art over the years to maintain this solid theme that goes along with the lyrics and music?

Leatherby: Interestingly enough, the theme of the album is a post-apocalyptic idea and utopian society. Michael Whelan has had this piece of art, and we were talking to him about doing this. I think it’s great. Cirith Ungol, without the artwork of Michael, we are not talking about this band right now. We owe him a great debt of gratitude, we try to take care of him.

Dead Rhetoric: How does the band straddle the lines between their ‘legacy/cult’ status in the scene based on their past, while wanting to prove to people that you are still viable and worthy of attention currently because you want to create and develop new material?

Leatherby: Yeah, that’s a tough one too. The guys in the band, in their heads are like if we make a new album, then maybe we’ll get all this extra media attention and get asked to play Hellfest, Graspop, Bloodstock, Sweden Rock. They still have the mentality of trying to bust into the mainstream. My goal was accomplished with this record, as part of my job. Our only goal is to honor the legacy of the band and the current fans that exist. That’s what we were targeting. When you have that in mind, you keep your integrity. If stuff happens as a byproduct and you get exposed to more people, that’s great. But you can’t purposely try and do that, that’s what selling out is. It’s really interesting.

I don’t know what the ripple effect is if the band gets bigger, but I definitely think there’s been a lot of hype since the band reunited and things are still going well. The album is getting great reviews from people that have heard it, and I just have to trust that. If everybody likes it, then it was the right move.

The last new thing these guys know is from the 1990’s. Generally speaking. I’m always looking at it from the outside looking in. What’s the result that I want, and then work backwards from there. What are we really here to do? There are more songs being written now, and I didn’t want this band to put out many records. Don’t be surprised though if there is another record, and it’s even better than this one. They are good with writing some more stuff. The clock is ticking on the band – we have a pandemic going on and they are in their 60’s. At the level and heaviness that’s happening here, it’s not the Rolling Stones, you know? There is an intensity to this music, to play it at a high level, we got to get it out now. It’s going to happen now or never, again. I don’t want this to just be an open-ended thing. We still need to go out and play the classics.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for things related to Night Demon, as I know you have a new 7” single that came out – how are things looking for the third full-length?

Leatherby: We’ve been preparing for this for quite some time. The past three years we spent touring the world. We took some time and leased out a 2,500 square foot warehouse – right next to our studio. We took time in 2019 and built our headquarters for Night Demon and Cirith Ungol. The timing was perfect for us. As far as the Night Demon stuff – we live in an instant gratification society these days. We’ve been hyping things for so long, you have to do that with tours and festivals. We have a single and wanted to drop it on people. We have a lot of stuff that we will roll out in 2020. We had a whole plan, and had a lot of stuff in the can ready to go before this went down. We will release music, we have a schedule, and we will focus on that when it comes out.

Cool enough there will be a ten-minute video posting of the making of this song. A friend of ours Rob used to make us these mix tapes when we were on the road – and he put this band Le Griffe, this NWOBHM band I had never heard of, “Fast Bikes”. We thought about covering it, so we decided to do that for this single.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you see the state of the worldwide metal scene in 2020 – things that you are enjoying, things that worry you, things that could be better?

Leatherby: Things that I’m enjoying. Looking at the bands I work with, I’m busier than ever. Things are good and moving in the right direction, there is a lot of creativity happening. Cirith Ungol and Night Demon on the same day putting stuff out, that’s a good time for me. There are a lot of bored people out there now. Things I’m afraid of… I try not to live in fear. You have to live your life. The state of metal – somebody asked me about this a week ago. It’s still here, and I don’t know where it’s going. We are all here to curate it, and we’ll keep doing that. As long as everybody else is still into it, we are into it. For me as a business, my business grows. It’s pretty cool to see growth in something that people say is so underground or so dead. It’s really not that way. The tables are turning – extreme music is getting really popular, and a lot of extreme people are getting into classic music, and classic styles. It’s starting to cross pollinate in a cool way, especially in North America. It’s a good time to be alive and make music.

The world is changing, and we just have to adapt to it. You just have to find a way to survive, live, and be as healthy as you can. This is a good time for people to look inwards and reflect on their lives. Things will be different, and people might not have a job to go back to. We are looking at least for the next month for people to be forced to take a vacation. Take this time to find out who you really are – that way when things start going a little bit back to normal, you are in the right direction to go. It’s a hard reset for everybody – so there’s a lot of positivity to be had for everybody. The media scares people so much that they aren’t even in that mindset, they are panicking.

Dead Rhetoric: How is your health after your hospital stay last month? At what point did you know something was wrong and you knew you needed to seek medical attention?

Leatherby: It’s great, I’m at 90% right now. I had an infection in my lung, which they thought was pneumonia, but it was a bacterial infection. Extremely painful, I thought I was passing a gallstone or a kidney stone. I couldn’t even sit down for two days. I’m able to treat it with antibiotics. I was in the hospital for five days, and that’s not somewhere where you want to be. I couldn’t even have visitors. It’s a good place to be if it’s life or death and you need to be operated on, now. But other than that, it’s just a guessing game.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the schedule for Cirith Ungol, Night Demon, Jaguar, or any of your other metal endeavors over the next twelve to eighteen months?

Leatherby: Everything is on hold. Every band that I work with has had something cancel – tours, festivals, etc. Every one of them. We plan pretty far in advance. We are still scheduled for Bang Your Head in July. Maryland Doom Fest hasn’t been canceled yet for Cirith Ungol, and we have a show in Brooklyn scheduled in June. All I hear from reports though is those could be cancelled. We are trying to play it as safe as we can, and do normal things. I want to be common sense guy right now, and try to stay positive.

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