Frost and Fire IV starts tonight, and in four short years the heavy metal music festival has become one of the area’s most anticipated events. 2018, however, is looking to be its final year. Cirith Ungol will be the headliner on opening night, and two members of the Ventura-based doom-metal giant — Robert Garven, drummer and one of the founding members, and bassist Jarvis Leatherby, who also performs with Night Demon and helped create the Frost and Fire festival — spoke to the VCReporter about the band’s reunion, life since 2016, metal fans abroad and the challenges of running a multiday music festival. We published a condensed version in the print edition, but have the full (and very extensive) interview right here.
Cirith Ungol started as a band while you and your bandmates were attending Anacapa Junior High in 1971. Tell us a little bit about how you guys came together.
Robert Garven: One of the original founders, Greg Lindstrom, and I were in an advanced English class in seventh grade at Anacapa. One of our assignments was to read The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. . . . Greg turned me onto all my early influences, including bands like Mountain, Cream, Grand Funk Railroad. We decided we wanted to start a band. We had a friend, Jerry Fogle, who was a guitarist and I always wanted to play drums. Originally we were called Titanic, which also included Patrick Galligan (who went on to play in The Angry Samoans).
What local venues were you playing in the beginning?
RG: One of the first places we played was in the basement of a church on Ventura Avenue called the Catacombs. Back in the ’70s there were several places around town like this where young people could get together to socialize. We also played several times at the Foster Park Bowl, an anti-war rally at Plaza Park, several events for the city of Ventura. . . . Other shows were on the promenade near the pier, the National Guard Armory, the Art Center in Ojai, Camp Comfort, and at all the local clubs here and in the Los Angeles area. I still have posters for most of these events.
Tell us about how Cirith Ungol made the jump to the big time.
RG: We put out our first album, Frost & Fire, in 1981. A friend, Brian Slagel, who worked at a record store (Oz Records) in the valley, put us in contact with the company, Greenworld, which exported this album all over the world. We were the first band to sign to their new label Enigma, which eventually signed Mötley Crüe, Poison, Berlin and others. Over the next decade we had three more albums released. Although we had great press, and the albums received critical acclaim, we never achieved the financial success we were searching for. Brian went on to found Metal Blade Records, which [was] very successful and [became] our record company.
Did you have the opportunity to play with any of your musical “heroes” or biggest influences? What was that like?
RG: We were one of the headliners at a big festival in Würzburg, Germany, Hammer of Doom. We played with a German band, Lucifer’s Friend, which was one of our heroes growing up. In Baltimore we got to share the stage with another one of our early influences, Captain Beyond!
The band broke up in 1991, but reunited in 2016 — and kicked off the first Frost and Fire. What made you guys decide to come back together? What’s your band lineup now?
RG: When the band broke up in 1991, we had four albums out, and had built up a pretty amazing following all over the world. We never got a chance to tour, with the exception of an exciting show in Mexico City. Many of the bands we grew up alongside, such as Rush, really made it big, but we were struggling. After a few band members left the band, we decided it was time to hang it up. Fast-forward to 2015. A local musician, Jarvis Leatherby, had been traveling the world with his Ventura band, Night Demon, bringing back tales of a new generation of Cirith Ungol followers overseas. For several years he and a well-known promoter in Germany had been trying to convince me to get the band back together. I had been turning down all their offers repeatedly because I thought the band would never rise again. I even swore an oath that I would never touch another pair of drumsticks as long as I lived. We were invited to the first Frost and Fire event (named after our first album) and were amazed at the interest from fans who traveled from all over the world to see the show and to meet the band. The promoter from Germany, Oliver Weinsheimer, invited us to Germany to experience his famous ”Keep It True Festival.” We sat for several hours there, signing all our albums and memorabilia and meeting this new generation of Cirith Ungol fans, most who were not born when the band broke up! After seeing this amazing outpouring of support, which we had no idea existed, we agreed to headline Frost & Fire II and the Keep It True Festival XX the following year. Since then we’ve been nonstop flying all over the world playing some of the most exclusive sold-out festivals and shows. It has been a crazy two years!
The band lineup . . . is Tim Baker on vocals, Jim Barraza on guitar, Robert Garven on drums, Jarvis Leatherby on bass and Greg Lindstrom on guitar. With the exception of Jarvis, these are all original members of the band.
Do you feel your fan base overseas has been bigger than it has in the United States, or perhaps locally? If so, why do you think that is?
RG: The band has a large following but [fans are] spread over the entire world. That is why the festival shows are the best for us. We have consistently been playing sold-out shows overseas but if we played locally by ourselves, we may only get a few hundred attendees.
You yourself live in Ventura, although you’re on the road frequently. Is that true for the other band members as well? How do you manage to do that?
RG: It has worked out pretty well. We are older now and several members have full-time jobs, so what we’ve been doing is flying out to big shows and then returning. Last year we did do three big shows in a row, in England and Germany, and then upon our return we flew straight out to play a festival in Sweden. The 20-hour flights are not that much fun, but we have been to some pretty amazing places, and had some unbelievable experiences. Jarvis’ band Night Demon is getting more popular every year, and many shows our bands play together, or he will take a short break from his touring to meet us at one of our scheduled shows. Those guys are the best!
Frost and Fire has been wildly successful at home and abroad. Why are you thinking of making this the last one?
Jarvis Leatherby: For the simple reason of focus and sanity. My band Night Demon has spent much of the last four years on tour, traveling the world. These events take a lot of effort to get off the ground, mainly because most performers and patrons are coming from other states and other countries. There’s so much advance planning involved that it has forced Night Demon to have to decline some really great opportunities over the years, due to our nonavailability in the months of September and October.
It’s not purely selfish, however. We feel that a lot of the underground culture that used to exist in Ventura is dying a slow death due to gentrification and just the general cost of things going up. There’s definitely still a strongly conservative backbone to the town. People do like traveling here for the environment, but there’s little to no support locally for an event this cool and of this magnitude.
What were some of the struggles you had getting this year’s event off the ground?
JL: Mainly the new immigration laws for performers. We’ve lost thousands of dollars in attorney and immigration fees trying to get some of the bands over. It’s a lot of work, red tape and money just to file such applications. I travel all over the world regularly, and it’s easy for me as a United States citizen to pretty much go anywhere. It’s a shame that we as a nation are so closed off from the rest of the world. They have so much to offer.
Is this absolutely going to be the last Frost and Fire? What’s the likelihood that it’ll come back — what would need to happen?
JL: It will be the final edition in Ventura, and anywhere else for the foreseeable future. I never say never, so it does have the possibility of coming back, but for now it needs a break.
Same with our sold-out London edition. The only reason why we did that in the first place was because Live Evil and Brofest (the main traditional heavy-metal fests in the U.K.) had also decided last year to stop. We saw this as a possibly catastrophic event for the scene if heavy metal died in it’s birthplace. We came in, did our thing, and inspired those two festivals to start up again. And that’s what we are all about. Not competing, but inspiring.
What bands are you looking forward to the most on this year’s lineup?
RG: All the bands are pretty fantastic and it would hard to pick one. We played with many at some of our other shows and really like the diversity of “heavy metal” that a festival like this has to offer!
JL: All of them. I know that sounds like cliché answer, but in all honesty . . . there’s no filler on our festivals. Everyone from top to bottom is a headliner in their own right. We bring the best of the best in all of heavy metal for this event.
Your latest album, Witch’s Game, is coming out on Oct. 5, and its music will be used in the animated film, The Planet of Doom. Can you tell us a little bit about the film?
RG: About a year ago we learned about an animated movie being planned called Planet of Doom, a movie about the exploits of a hero called 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 artists working with a group of bands for each segment of the movie.
We were intrigued by all of this because of our 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 segment in the movie. We had never worked on a soundtrack before and it seemed not only a challenge, but an interesting project. Seeing the calibre of those involved, we knew we wanted be part of this! The band worked closely with the producers to make sure that the song would fit the storyline and timing of the animation. Everyone is happy with the way it turned out, and we can’t wait to see the finished movie which will be out in 2019.
Being in the studio was pretty magical. We always enjoyed our time creating and recording our unique brand of metal and this was no exception. We were lucky enough to record the song at the studio of our good friend Armand John Lizzy from Night Demon. Legendary fantasy artist Michael Whelan, whose fantastical artwork has graced all of our albums, painted the cover. This is amazing, as he is considered on of the finest fantasy artists of our generation. We are humbled and honored to have collaborated with him.
What else is on the horizon for Cirith Ungol?
RG: We have a double live album coming out next year on Metal Blade Records, and the plan is to start working on a new studio album. Of course, our limited-edition single was just released recently and we’ve been very excited by the reaction to it, which has been very positive. The band is already booked at some very big shows next year, and we are extremely excited about what the future might hold. We are not young anymore and there’s no guarantee how long this will last. However, we’re having a good time, still creating some fantastic music, and I think we have a few surprises left in us, before we do our final exit stage left. Stay tuned!!
Anything else you might want to share with VCReporter readers?
RG: I would encourage anyone with a sense of adventure to come out to this very unique-to-Ventura event. I am a Paiste cymbal artist and my drums were custom made by DW in Oxnard. My set is a thing of beauty! Fans from all over the world will be descending on Ventura to attend and experience our California lifestyle. They’re mostly under 30 and extremely well behaved. We have played shows in Europe with thousands in attendance where I never saw any law enforcement presence for three or four days, and during this time I never saw any fighting, problems or ill behavior. The music is loud and aggressive, but the listeners are some of the kindest and friendliest people I’ve met in my life. Come out and see local metal legends Cirith Ungol and we will deliver “A Churning Maelstrom of Metal Chaos Descending!”
What’s the most metal experience you’ve ever had as a member of Cirith Ungol?
RG: We played a festival 200 miles south of Berlin, which was previously in East Germany. It was named after one of our songs, “Chaos Descends,” and was in the middle of a forest. The stage was set up where two mountains came together to form a valley, with a river running through it. It was one of the most scenic places I’ve ever been, and playing there was a highlight of my career. When we got to our song “Chaos Descends,” the crowd was humming the melody louder than we were playing it on stage. Playing in such a beautiful location, I felt as if power was channeling through the mountains and trees up through my body, while I was playing drums.
Frost and Fire IV takes place Oct. 4-6 at the Majestic Ventura Theater, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura. For schedule, lineup, tickets and more information, visit nightdemon.net/frost-and-fire–2 or check out the festival page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/frostandfiremetalfest.