Place of Skulls Interview: Victor Griffin on As a Dog Returns, Spirituality, The New Pentagram Album, Playing Roadburn, Why Music Should be More Than Just Heavy Riffs, and Much More
Legendary American doom guitarist Victor Griffin — of Death Row, Place of Skulls and Pentagram — and I spoke over the course of two consecutive nights. When I called the first night for the interview, he was in the car, listening to an early mix of Last Rites, the new album by Pentagram — whom he rejoined earlier this year — and though that wasn’t the intended topic of the discussion, it was bound to take up some of the time.
What instigated the conversation was the newest record by Place of Skulls — Griffin‘s priority band. Dubbed As a Dog Returns, the album is unquestionably a reboot for the trio of Griffin, bassist Lee Abney (also of Death Row, who reunited for this year’s Roadburn festival in The Netherlands) and drummer Tim Tomaselli. In addition to getting back to their doomed roots, As a Dog Returns also revitalizes Griffin‘s lyrical explorations of his Christian faith, songs like “Breath of Life” and “He’s God” as open and honest in their subject matter as I found Griffin to be in our talk.
The second night of the interview, Griffin was in his studio working on some solo overdubs for Last Rites, and as we moved from Place of Skulls and his beliefs to his return to Pentagram and working once again with vocalist Bobby Liebling, whose sobriety has been discussed here in the past, Griffin took a step back to take a look at both bands’ overall place in doom, and his as well, opining on why in its 30-plus years as a genre, doom has never really hit the mainstream in the way of some other styles, and whether or not he’d even want it to.
Fact of the matter is this: I could go on and on about what Victor Griffin said or whatever, but what it rounds out to is this is one of the best interviews I’ve ever done. For The Obelisk or any other outlet. Victor Griffin was more sincere in his answering my questions than I could have possibly asked, and at the end of the second phone call, I felt like I genuinely knew more about his perspectives on life, music, and God. I hope that as you read through the 7,400-word exchange (with a centered photo to differentiate between the two days), that comes across more than anything else.
Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.
How’s the new Pentagram?
We just finished that up, and we’re working on the mix now a little bit. All the recording’s done. We’re doing production touch-ups and that kind of thing, then off to mastering. It sounds great. It’s pretty killer, really. We didn’t really know what to expect, as it’s been so long since we really recorded anything together, and Bobby’s doing really good and sounds pretty amazing on it. Especially compared to the last couple of Pentagram albums. But he’s doing really good and it shows on the album.
How many tracks are on it?
Talking about As a Dog Returns, was it strange for you to go back to Place of Skulls and pick that band up again after some time away from it?
Not really. It was sort of an unintentional break that we took. Lee and I both had some personal problems pop up. He suddenly was going through a divorce back in 2007, and I’d fallen back into a couple of old habits, unintentionally. So things were sort of messed up in both our personal lives. It was something we needed to attend to, and it just so happened that we ended up taking a lot more time off than we intended to. I just really couldn’t come back until I felt like I was mentally and spiritually ready. A couple of years ago, I wasn’t even sure it would ever happen again, for Place of Skulls at least. But late last year, we started jamming a little bit again – rehearsing and that kind of thing – and I’d been writing some new songs over the past couple of years, and starting to piece those things together. I started to work things out and we ended up going into the studio to record the new album a lot sooner than we anticipated. I just happened to talk to Travis Wyrick, who is the guy at Lakeside Studios, where we normally record – this is back last December – and he had some time open in late January, and said we could have three or four weeks. Initially I told him there was no way we could come in that early, but he said he didn’t have any other time open until midsummer, he was fully booked up until then, and we didn’t want to wait that long, so we just went in the studio with half the stuff worked out, half the stuff just (laughs) on a wing and a prayer and did what we did. It came out pretty good, I think, for the circumstances at the time. But I’m starting to get used to and to like the idea of going into the studio a little bit unprepared instead of everything fully worked out. I think you come up with some cool surprises that way. Some of the cool stuff happens on albums, I think, that you don’t expect, when you don’t have the stuff 100 percent rehearsed.
I was going to say, a lot of people do that on purpose.
Yeah. We kind of did that on The Black is Never Far too, but not quite as unrehearsed as we were on this album. It becomes sort of a pressure-cooker situation, but I’ve really started to like it that way. You just really come up with some cool stuff that you would never come up with otherwise. I don’t know, I might end up doing the rest of the albums I ever do that way as well.
How was the process of piecing together the songs? How involved were Lee and Tim?
They were really involved with it. Probably more so on this album than any of the other albums. Just because, over the past couple of years leading up to it, I had bits and pieces of songs written and lyrics written, but not complete songs. We’d get together and jam and practice the material that wasn’t really finished songs, and I’d tell them that. They were more ready to go [into the studio] at the time than I was, but I didn’t want to hold those guys back. We would jam and practice the stuff and I would tell them, “These songs aren’t really finished. We need to somehow finish them out,” and a lot of the stuff we would just work out as we went that way. But they did have a lot of input. They just had a lot of good ideas along the way as far as segues from part to part and that type of thing, and I think we probably worked more closely as a unit on this album than any other thing we’ve done. I think as I get older, I’m starting to learn how to work with other people better. I’ve always been the kind of songwriter where I like to do my songs and present them to the band, where the song’s pretty much laid out. I think I’m starting to come around to where I’m maybe easier to work with from other people’s point of view.
What was it then that made you pick Place of Skulls back up again? Like you said, there were some rough times there. What made you go back to it?
I probably have to give a lot of credit to Tim and Lee on that. I was in limbo and wasn’t necessarily looking to jump back into music quite yet. I was still dealing with some issues, and those guys kind of were behind me as my friends, gave me all kinds of support. They really wouldn’t let me give up. Not that I was gonna give up, but they kept pushing me to get it going again, before I felt like I was ready, but maybe they could see something I couldn’t at the time. I really give them a lot of credit as far as getting the thing rolling again. It would have taken another year to do it if I didn’t have those guys pushing. I didn’t have any other prospects. I wasn’t interested in doing anything outside of Place of Skulls, and even Place of Skulls at the time. I give them a lot of credit. They supported me through the whole thing and were the main force for getting it back together, probably.
That’s got to feel good. I’ve always thought of Place of Skulls as “Victor Griffin’s band.” It must be nice to have that kind of support system within it.
It was, too, because I’ve always been in charge of my own thing. Even in the old days, with Death Row and Pentagram, especially between Bobby and myself and Joe Hasselvander, we’re all pretty headstrong guys. There was a lot of tug of war going on in Pentagram back in those days, because we’re all the kind of personalities that like to be in charge of our own destinies, as far as we can be in every aspect of our lives, but especially musically. It was nice to hand the reins over to somebody else and let someone else be responsible for even simple things. Something as simple as making a phone call and saying, “Hey, let’s get together Wednesday night and jam for a couple hours,” or whatever. Tim and Lee also were the ones, when we first started playing out again live, pushed to go ahead and start booking shows again. It is kind of nice to kick back and let somebody else handle those kinds of details.
What was the timing of Death Row getting back together and playing again, putting out the live record, and the new Place of Skulls recording?
That was another thing that really caught me by surprise. Joe Hasselvander and myself had kind of been on the phone a couple of times. Not for any real reason other than just to check in with each other, see how each other’s lives were going. We hadn’t really talked to each other in quite a long time. But towards the end of 2008, we started to talk a little bit more. He called me one day and had been on the phone with Black Widow Records, and they were interested in doing another live album. I was not particularly interested in it, because, for one thing, there’s been a lot of live tapes and CDs and that kind of thing, and recordings of Pentagram and Death Row, that have gotten released that, to me, aren’t very good quality and aren’t that good a representation of the band or how the band sounds live. But I realize there’s a lot of hard core fans who dig all that kind of unique recordings and that kind of thing. Anyway, they wanted to put together this Death Row thing, so Joe and I dug through our old tapes and archives and dug up what we could, and just went ahead and did it. Next thing we know, we’re getting offers from over in Europe to come over and play live. So we called up Marty [Martin Swaney] , the original bass player, and he was into it. I don’t think Marty’s played live in 13-14 years, but it was pretty cool. Pretty cool for a quick little reunion. It would have been really cool to have Bobby do it as well, but Bobby and Joe still have a little falling out going on from some stuff in the past, and it didn’t seem like that was going to be reconciled anytime soon, so we just went ahead and did a three-piece.
I was fortunate enough to catch your second set at Roadburn. On the main stage.
It was fun. I had a great time. It’s fun playing some of that old stuff, and it’s one of those things. Joe, Marty and myself, we seem to play really good together. We have a good chemistry together when it comes to playing the music – and same with Bobby – we all have good chemistry together, but it’s just one of those things where after we’ve been together for a while it seems like we can’t stand to be around each other. We’ve had these times where we’ve tried to get back together, “Oh, we’re older now, we should be able to deal with this,” but it seems like after a while we all start to figure out why we’re not together anymore again. One of those things. But Bobby and I have always maintained a pretty good relationship. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this thing with him now. The Death Row thing was really fun, really cool, and the tour went well and we had a lot of good reactions. We talked about actually doing an album and keeping it going, but it just hasn’t really worked out that way. Place of Skulls is my main thing and I don’t want to let anything interfere with what I’m doing with that, including Pentagram. I can’t be in three bands. First time in my life I’ve ever been in two at one time, and it’s quite a handful.
How is the vibe different between Place of Skulls and Death Row on this reunion?
Joe and Marty, when we play together, it’s almost automatic. It’s like a machine. We’ve always just played so well together, and it’s really just so easy to play with those guys. Not that it’s hard to play with Lee and Tim, it just feels like it’s more of an automatic thing with Joe and Marty for some reason. We all just click together for whatever reason, I have no idea. It’s pretty close to the same thing with Lee and Tim as well. Lee and I have played together off and on since we were in high school, which is a lot more years ago than I care to comment on. And I’ve been together with Tim now for 10 years, and we pretty much have that same thing. It’s just amazing that Joe and Marty and I could get together – we rehearsed the stuff like twice; we were just ready to go out and play. I guess just from knowing and writing those songs, playing all those songs together way back when, we just fell right back into it. But I have a much better working relationship, I think, with Lee, just because we’re such old friends, and playing with Tim for 10 years, it’s gotten really easy to play with these guys. I don’t have any problems with Joe or Marty. I don’t want it to sound like that. It’s just kind of different, but the same. There’s a different chemistry with all these guys. The friendship I have with Lee and Tim – those guys have really been there. Lee’s had to leave the band, and he was away for a while, but we have such a strong friendship that that’s really not an issue. Those guys support me in life in general, whatever the problem is, and I do the same for them. Outside of the band, we still have a really strong bond. I can’t really see playing with anybody else in Place of Skulls. Hopefully I don’t have to. We went through so many lineup changes in the middle of this decade.
There was a while there where it was pretty tumultuous.
Yeah, it was pretty hectic. We did the thing with Ron Holzner, then Greg Turley came in on bass, then Dennis Cornelius. Of course there was the thing with Wino, the one album. That looked great on paper, but in life it just didn’t seem to work. Plus we were all 500-600 miles apart. That didn’t help the situation either. But it’s never been a personal problem with anybody who’s been in and out of the band. It’s just always been circumstances.
Do you think of Place of Skulls as a vehicle or a means of expression for your faith?
I don’t look at it as a means. I write songs, depending on what I feel, how I think and what I think is from my heart. I don’t write songs, going into it, like, “I’ll write this song because I think people are gonna like it,” or, “I’m gonna do this kind of riff because I think it’ll be catchy and the doom metal crowd will dig it.” It goes the same for lyrics. If I did that, I don’t think I would be doing a service to myself or whoever our fans might be. Because they wouldn’t be really listening to anything that’s coming to my heart. As far as this new album goes, I realize there’s a lot of stuff lyrically that’s pretty way out there, as far as the issue of God and faith and all that type of thing. But it wasn’t to be a vehicle to proselytize or draw people into my way of thinking or anything like that. It’s really just how I feel about my faith, what I’ve been dealing with regarding my spiritual life, and how I see my relationship with God. How it’s grown, how it’s not grown, and where I’ve failed in those kinds of things too. And those couple of years off, when Place of Skulls was down, I was dealing with a lot of issues that are quite personal, but at the same time, had a lot to do with my spiritual life and how I’ve failed in that area. Music and lyrics is just my outlet for expressing myself, and it’s not really a means. I’m not trying to tell anybody that you have to think like I think. We all have a free will to do that. I wish people could just see it as me, as if I’m talking to you, telling you this is what’s happened to me in my life and this is how I’ve had to deal with it and the way I’ve dealt with it. That’s how I look at it. It just happens to come out in music, instead of a normal conversation. But there’s people who aren’t going to take it that way, and I understand that. I knew when this album came out that there was going to be a lot of backlash about the lyrical content and all that. Frankly, I don’t really care. I never have cared, as far as what people thought about the music I play, the style of music or the words I write. And that goes all the way back to Death Row and Pentagram in the early ‘80s. It is what it is, and it’s where I’m at at the time. I feel like there’s integrity in it, so that’s the way I have to write and play music.
I guess you get to a point where, if you purposely didn’t address faith in songs and, like you said, your relationship with God, it would get to a point where it would be dishonest on some level.
Absolutely. That’s kind of my whole point. I have to write where I am and what I’m about and what I’m feeling at whatever time that may be in my own life, whether it’s the past couple years and what happened for the songwriting of this album, or what I might write next year for a new album. I don’t know where I’m going to be next year in life in general. I can’t say that I’m gonna write another album that’s gonna be lyrically like this one or not. It could be or it might be completely somewhere else. But there will always be – because I believe the way I believe – some of the content is going to have to do with eternity, faith, God, those kinds of things. Not that I plan it that way, but that’s just part of who I am, so it’s gonna come out in the music. At the same time, I like to be able to write songs that are gonna give somebody something to write about. Something maybe a little bit deeper that somebody could carry with them, other than just, “Wow, that’s a killer riff,” and it goes no deeper than that. If I can express a viewpoint or a fact or anything else that has to do with living life that could be an encouragement to somebody or help someone some way and give somebody something serious to think about, consider, contemplate and that whole thing, I don’t have a problem with being the guy to do that. Not that I’m saying this happens. I like music that makes me think and that means something deeper than just a heavy riff. I’d like to be able to give people who listen to my music something to take with them that’s more meaningful than that as well.
It’s a challenge too, in a way. For heavy music, it’s certainly not the convention be so open about their faith, and I think maybe that’s part of why you get that backlash that you mentioned before. On a basic level, it’s just not what people are used to.
(Laughs) I understand. I know it’s not what they’re used to, I know it’s not what some people want to deal with. They don’t even want to be faced with that subject matter. But I can’t sit down and write songs about smoking weed, getting high, partying and hot chicks (laughs), which to me is meaningless drivel after a while. It’s like, “What am I going to do with this?” And I don’t live that life anymore, either, so those kind of lyrics I’ve never written anyway, even when I was living that kind of lifestyle. It’s never been important to me, as far as to put those type of lyrics into a song. I’m not going to say my music’s any more important than anybody else’s, it’s just that, from my own personal taste in songwriting, I like to feel that I’m going a little bit deeper than that.
One thing I think is interested is that, on this record and on The Black is Never Far too, you have songs that are pretty up front – you know exactly what “He’s God” is about – but there’s some less direct material too. On that material, that perspective is always there. There’s a kind of hope in the lyrics that comes through as very religious or very Christian, even when you’re talking about something else. It’s interesting how personal it is.
I hear a lot of things and read a lot of things that are people’s perspective on what being a Christian is and that kind of thing, or having a strong faith in God or Jesus Christ, and it seems to me that the secular world tends to look down on people with a Christian faith, as if they feel like they’re better than the non-believer in some way. I’m sure there are a lot of people who tend to feel that way, but everything in every belief system and in everything, there’s certain people who are just wrong in their way of thinking. That’s also a very religious way to think. I’m totally not into religion whatsoever. To me, religion is man-made. You have to act this certain way and you have to do this certain thing, you have to pray so many times I day or whatever, before God’s going to like you. To me, that kind of stuff is religion, and trying to force other people to conform to your actions to be approved by whatever god it may be… In my lyrics, I like to convey that although I believe what I believe, I’ve also failed at it. Probably more than most people who are also believers (laughs). I write a lot about that. My struggle. Even though I have this faith, I still struggle with my past, I still struggle with things that I don’t do anymore, but my flesh would still love for me to be doing some of the things that aren’t right for me to do, or are wrong, actually. I’ve always felt like I’ve been a fairly irresponsible person, as I’ve been growing up, but after I reached my late-30s and into my 40s, I realized I need to be a more responsible person. I can’t do things just on the fly and let the chips fall where they may. I have to try my best to live a decent life, a good life, and be a picture so people can see that I am what I say that I am and so that I am what I say I believe in. But it doesn’t always work. We’re all human. I’ve slipped up terribly, and I’ve done it in front of people. I’m sure there’s people who’ve looked at me and said, “Ah yeah, you say this and you sing these words and you write these lyrics, but look at you now.” But that doesn’t make me better or worse than anybody else.
You mentioned a couple times spirituality as a means of coping with what you view as personal failings. How do you address that on As a Dog Returns?
I don’t really speak about specific things in the lyrics, as far as specific happenings or anything like that. Over the years, being in the whole atmosphere of clubs and on tours and the whole rock and roll thing, and having a susceptible personality, or an obsessive-compulsive personality with an attraction to drugs and alcohol and all that stuff, whatever else might come down the road, pretty much, it’s hard to keep yourself in that place and keep your head about you. It seemed like gradually, over the years leading up to 2007 or so, I found myself back in a place that I didn’t really want to be. It seemed like I was letting the world around me have more effect on me than I was having on it, with spiritual issues and beliefs and that kind of thing. Different ways, without going into details, a lot of songs on the album kind of address that. I think if you read the lyrics you can get that feel, that there seems to be a little bit of regret in some of the lyrics, but also, there’s a sort of brighter light of hope that, hopefully, by the end of the album, can be felt. The Black is Never Far was a bit of a more depressive type of album.
Was that edge of hope something you tried to bring out of the songs consciously, or is it just how it turned out?
I didn’t want to write a bunch of depressing lyrics that didn’t offer any hope at the end of the thing. It seemed like in life in general we’re searching for that hope all the time. When we get up, we have to have some kind of hope to even be able to get out of bed. If we don’t have any hope for anything, there’s really not much point to leaving the house. I think that, from my perspective, a spiritual perspective, I tried to leave each song with that hope, a spiritual hope. Letting go of regrets, letting go of failures and forgiving yourself as well as other people. Sometimes it’s hard to forgive ourselves when we feel like we’ve screwed up or whatever the case may be. Sometimes I have a harder time with that than I do with anything else. I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself sometimes. I always have. But also, there’s a couple of songs that don’t really have anything to do with my own personal issues too much. The song, “The Maker,” the first song on the album. That song, lyrically, is addressing the subject of abortion, and people’s different viewpoints on that and how we come to this place in the world today where we tend to – this is probably going to be a controversial thing, especially these days – but we regard life as this divine or precious thing, and yet we basically have these clinical killing machines. The song takes scriptures that talk about where life came from, how it’s given and how we want to rule our own lives but we also want to have the power to take life. It’s a little complicated.
Tell me about working with Bobby again, rejoining Pentagram.
That’s something I never really planned for. Back in March, his guitar player Russ [Strahan] quit the band suddenly, and he was stuck without a guitar player. He called me and wanted to know if I would fill in. He actually just wanted me to fill in on the one tour where they had a substitute guy, and one day to prepare. I couldn’t do that because I had other things going on, but I told him I would come in and do the May tour that we did, and that would probably be it, but once I got on the road with him – one of the big issues too, I wanted to see how Bobby was dealing with everything. His past is no secret as far as the tendency on drugs and having problems with drugs in that kind of thing, and I didn’t want to get back into a situation with that. But once we were out, and I actually saw that he’s really holding it together and trying hard to maintain his sobriety, he’s doing a really good job at it. He’s come so far. Hanging out with him, we talked a lot about it, and I told him that I’d be glad to do it and stay in the band as long as I could, as long as he was putting forth the effort to maintain his sobriety like he is now. Everything’s been working out pretty smoothly. Neither one of us had any idea we’d ever play together again, really. A year ago, I’d just assumed we probably wouldn’t. But the way things have turned out, it’s been pretty cool. We just finished this new album, and we’ve got a couple of tours coming up in April and in the summer. It’s rolling along pretty good.
What was it like being back in the studio? You mentioned personality clashes before and you guys wanting to be in charge of your own destiny.
It was pretty relaxed, actually. We used to have some pretty serious wars, at our rehearsals and in the studios. Disagreements that ended up in big, blown-up arguments and that kind of thing. We didn’t really have any of that. Bobby and I get along pretty good. We always have. We’ve never really fallen out with each other, the way the other guys in the band have. We haven’t always maintained contact over the years, but we’ve never really fallen out with each other. We’ve always had a good working relationship, and we’re similar songwriters, so our material works well together, and our production ideas are very similar and so it’s always been pretty easy for Bobby and I to come to an agreement on how we want things to sound, what we want a song to do and all of that, all that goes into putting an album together. It’s been fun. Old times (laughs) coming back. Bobby, with him being straight now, every situation is just so much easier to deal with. And as far as that goes, me being straight too. Back when I was in Pentagram before, really nobody in the band was very straight, but I think Bobby of course was way over the top, more than anybody else, and me probably after that, so we weren’t very influential in a good way on each other very much. Now we are and it’s working out really good. I just got off the phone with him, as a matter of fact, half an hour ago. We laugh a lot and take things a lot easier. We don’t take ourselves so seriously either anymore.
Did you really get to take part in any of the writing for Pentagram?
Not so much on this album. I just didn’t have the time to do it, with the Place of Skulls tour a month and a half ago. Then I got back from that and we went straight into rehearsing material for what we were going to do on this album, so most of it is Bobby’s stuff that he’d written. I think it’s six or seven songs that Bobby wrote by himself, then there’s a couple of co-writes, several co-writes, actually. There’s a co-write with Bobby and myself, and then Greg Turley, who’s in the band now, the bass player. He contributed three songs, two of them are co-writes with he and myself, and then one’s a co-write with him and Bobby. But I didn’t really contribute that much, as far as my own songs that I wrote buy myself or anything like that. I just did some co-writing. But it’s cool. I didn’t have the time, really, and I didn’t have the material ready. I’ve always got riffs, but as far as having a lot of completed songs to present to the band and be ready to record, I really haven’t have time to do a lot of writing since we finished the Place of Skulls album.
It’s a lot to go from one band right to the other like that. Especially putting so much of yourself into Place of Skulls, that’s got to be a different experience, those two recordings.
Somewhat. Bobby’s come full circle. He’s completely straight now, and he’s kind of come into his own spiritual awakening as well. We see very eye to eye on just about everything in life these days. Being in the studio with him, other than me not doing lead vocals, wasn’t really so much different than being in the studio with Place of Skulls. Of course the bass player and everything was different. I don’t know if you know this, but also, Gary Isom didn’t play drums on the new album either?
Who played drums?
Tim Tomaselli, my drummer in Place of Skulls, came in and did the drums.
What happened to Gary? Is he out?
Well, the thing is, it wasn’t anything with Gary on a personal level, it’s just that everything came together really quick. You can look at it two ways. We actually had the studio time booked for three months, and the studio we recorded in is Lakeside Studios. It’s Travis Wyrick’s studio, and he does a lot of high-profile stuff and he’s booked all the time, so we had the studio time booked, because we had to book it in advance. He’s just too busy and too booked up for us to say, “Hey, we need to come in three weeks from now.” So we had to do it three months ago. We all knew the studio time was booked, and if we didn’t do it when we booked it, we wouldn’t be able to get in there until July. Gary had started a new job up in Maryland, and was having some problems with that, getting time off, and so we ran into some issues with that, where he was only going to be able to rehearse a certain number of days, which weren’t really going to be enough days for us to get the material ready to record. We kicked it around a lot – it was a really hard move to have to do it – but we would have never been able to pull off this recording with the schedule we were going to have to try to do with Gary, so we bit the bullet and had to let Gary go as far as the studio thing goes, and then I brought in Tim from Place of Skulls, because we’re all together all the time anyway, so he was able to do it with no problem. I don’t know right now where things stand with Gary. I’m hoping that there’s not going to be a lot of bad blood with the whole situation, but we at the time didn’t really have any choice. We had our backs against the wall. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Gary’s out of the band forever, it’s just that the way things worked out, we weren’t able to record with him this time. We’ll see what happens.
That’s a bummer. He’d been in Pentagram all along this round, too.
That’s what I mean. It was a really hard thing to have to do, but with his schedule, we were going to end up having to wait. The studio was booked, and I even tried to move the studio time back so we could work out a different thing as far as the rehearsal goes, and it wasn’t possible. He said if we didn’t take the studio time that we booked, we wouldn’t be able to get in this particular studio until July, so it turned into a little bit of a hairy situation. I hate, I hate it for Gary. Gary and I have always been pretty close, and he’s been with Bobby this whole time, this whole round of Pentagram, and he’s put a lot of effort into it, so I hate to see something happen to it, but we tried a lot of ways, a lot of ideas to make it work, but nothing seemed to really hold up.
Tell me about the Place of Skulls European tour. You mentioned it just before. How were those shows?
It was a pretty good tour. We haven’t been to Europe since 2006, and we had been consistently touring Europe a couple times a year until then, so we were having pretty successful tours, but we lost a lot of momentum with taking this three or four year break before we got back over there. So it’s kind of a rebuilding process. The tour was good. It wasn’t great, if you look at it as far as some of the venues and attendance. There were a few of the shows pretty low in attendance, but we expected that, just from being out of the scene for a little while. It’s kind of, “Out of sight, out of mind.” But we also had some really, really good shows as well. A few festival shows we did, Hammer of Doom, Doom over Bielefeld, Dutch Doom Days, it was good, and we’ll be going back in April and we fully expect it to be a lot stronger the next time we go over. I wish that we could get more support in the States. It seems we never play much in the States, which kind of sucks. It’s where we live, but we hardly ever play here. So I don’t know. Possibly the Europeans seem a little more open at times to what Place of Skulls is about or where we’re coming from than people in our own country (laughs).
It’s inconvenient, but I think you’re probably right about that. It’s a different scene over there.
That not only goes for us, but everybody in this scene who is able to go and tour over there feels the same way. It’s just a whole different feel. Bigger shows, bigger everything as far as doom metal goes. It’s still a pretty small scene here. If you can get a couple hundred people to come out to a show here, that’s a big deal. But there’s consistently bigger shows than that happening over there all the time. I don’t know. One day maybe it’ll grow a little bit, but we need the fans for that to happen.
You’re going back over in April. Is Place of Skulls going to do Roadburn?
Yeah, we’re gonna do Roadburn. We’re going over March 30, and we’re going to do up until Roadburn, which I think is the 15th or 16th of April. So it’s going to be a couple week’s worth of shows for Place of Skulls, then it’s a back-to-back tour for Place of Skulls and Pentagram. The last show for the Place of Skulls tour will be Roadburn¸ and the first show for the Pentagram tour will be Roadburn, so I’ll be there for two more weeks with Pentagram. I’m gonna be pretty cooked by the time I get out of there, for sure.
Yeah, you know, while you’re already over there, you might as well book another tour.
(Laughs) Yeah, yeah. Might as well. We set it up that way. We have this Vibra Agency that does our booking in Europe. They’ve been booking Place of Skulls for years, and we were just talking about the idea. I talked to Walter, who is the promoter for Roadburn, and he wanted Place of Skulls and Pentagram on Roadburn, and I was like, “Well, I’m in both bands, we’ll have to figure something out. We’d love to do it.” So this was what we came up with. We figured, yeah, we’ll go play the tour for two weeks with Place of Skulls, play Roadburn, be done, then I’ll just jump over to Pentagram, play Roadburn, stay for two more weeks and do a tour. I’ll probably be sleeping for a couple weeks after that one (laughs). I’ve never done anything like that. I also just wanted to do it, just to do it (laughs), just to push myself and see how it comes out. We’ll see. I think it’ll be cool.
I don’t know the routing or anything, but I bet you’re going to get a lot of the people at the Place of Skulls shows who then go and see you on the way through with Pentagram.
Yeah. Some of the venues are going to be exactly the same venues. We’ll be coming through doing Place of Skulls, then a couple weeks later, coming back to the same venue for a Pentagram show. They’re a little bit mixed up. I think there’s only a handful of venues that are the same for both bands. Which is cool. Makes it more interesting for me, so I’m not backtracking, going back to the same places I just came from.
What do you think about the way doom has grown over the years? To think back to Death Row, The Obsessed, and Saint Vitus – “doom” wasn’t a name. How do you feel about the way doom has mushroomed into what it is now?
I think it’s great. When we were doing the Death Row thing, we would sometimes call it “doom.” We would say, “We’re gonna have a doom band.” Or sludge. We used to call it sludge metal and weird stuff like that. I’m not saying we coined the phrase “doom metal” or anything like that, but we used to kick around the term doom before there was doom metal, because there was no better description for it. Obviously it was Sabbath-influenced stuff, but as far as it finally evolving into a genre of music, I think it’s really cool. I know that Bobby and Joe and Marty and Wino and everybody I know, the guys in Vitus who were all doing this stuff when the few bands back in the early ‘80s, when we were all doing it in different parts of the country, not knowing (laughs) that those other bands were even out there, it’s very cool, and we all feel honored to be there on the ground floor of the whole scene. But that’s been 30 years. It’s grown substantially since then, but at the same time, it hasn’t had the kind of growth you would think something like that would have in 30 years. It’s still not something that a mainstream music fan or music listener even knows about in a lot of places. There’s a lot of pockets now, here and there, of people in different cities like Chicago, Austin, New Orleans. You can always have good shows in some of those places, but in the United States, it’s so hard to tour driving across the country. You hit these few cities where you have the really good shows, but then you have to play some of the smaller places to get to the next place, and you still will only have 50 people sometimes turn out, or 75 people or whatever. I think it still has a long way to go as far as bands being able to support themselves financially on the road and doing tours that do better than just break even sometimes. Obviously it’s not about the money or none of us would have started to play this kind of music to begin with.
What do you think it is that’s kept doom back from that kind of mainstream audience?
It feels like a very personal type of music to me. It’s a kind of music that reaches down inside you. It’s very personal, it can mean a lot of different things to the listener or the writer of it. I can only speak for myself, because I’d had problems with depression, OCD, and all kinds of personality quirks growing up, and when I discovered the heavy bands I was listening to back in the ‘70s — Sabbath, the original Alice Cooper group, I was a big Steppenwolf fan – there was something about all those bands. They didn’t really sound alike, but they all addressed a lot of other things besides the typical, standard love song-type songwriting that was on the radio. They were addressing deeper issues than girlfriend/boyfriend-type things and all that. I think it appeals to people who maybe are a little bit deeper and have thought about life. I don’t know if that makes any sense – I don’t even know if it’s true, really – but it seems to me that the people who really are into this kind of music are a different breed than the mainstream. I’m not even sure I’d want the music to become mainstream. I’m sure it would take a lot of the soul and spirit out of it if it did. I’m sure it means a lot of different things to a lot of people, but there’s a certain camaraderie in this scene where everybody relates to it and understands what the music’s about, that I don’t think the mainstream public’s ever going to grab hold of, really.
Tags: Death Row, Giddy Up, Knoxville, Maryland doom, Metal Blade, Pentagram, Place of Skulls, Tennessee, Victor Griffin