August 2010 - VICTOR GRIFFIN
There are only a few guitarists that have left their mark on the history of Black Sabbath-esque heavy music. One of them is Victor Griffin, who started his career in the late 1970's. His unmistakable guitar sound and his abilities as a strong songwriter, who has an innate ability to make you feel like you are in the storyline, form the basis for his first band DEATH ROW. At the very beginning, the group paid homage to Black Sabbath with a couple of cover songs, but Victor Griffin quickly realized that he wanted to write his own material. The results are a lot of tracks that have long since become classics and are well-known under the name of PENTAGRAM, but in actual fact their origins mostly dates back to the early days of DEATH ROW. It almost seems as if this part of US-doom history should sink into oblivion. Fortunately in 2009, Victor Griffin teamed up with bassist Martin Swaney and drummer Joe Hasselvander to reunite DEATH ROW for the second time after almost ten years.
Appropriately, Black Widow Records released a comprehensive compilation of all the early DEATH ROW recordings entitled 'Alive In Death'. Lastly, the icing on the cake was a mind-crushing tour in Europe, including two performances at Roadburn 2010. That is all the more astonishing when one considers that Victor did not neglect to focus on his main band PLACE OF SKULLS, because this year the band will release their fourth album 'As A Dog Returns'. Not to forget that he has supported his long-standing friend Bobby Liebling and joined PENTAGRAM for a couple of shows in the USA this summer. Those are enough reasons for Cosmic Lava's second interview with Victor after eight years. I am very pleased that he, despite many work, has taken the time to answer my questions. Dear reader, here we go!
Hello Victor, a few years have passed since our last interview and a lot has happened since. Let's start with DEATH ROW. I think that this is one of the few reunions that make sense, because it shows that DEATH ROW was a different band than Pentagram. Most people are not aware of this fact, or have forgotten it or whatever it is . What led to the recurrence reunion? What has inspired you?
Victor: It really wasn't my idea. Joe and I were talking back and forth occasionally around late '08 and he had been in touch with Black Widow Records. They expressed interest in releasing some rare Death Row recordings and I wasn't doing much at the time. Around the time it was released - I guess summer of '09; we got an invitation to play the Hammer Of Doom 2 Festival in Wurzburg. By the time I'd given it much thought, we were confirmed for the show. So things happened fairly quickly and without much planning, but it was cool playing again with Marty and Joe.
At the end of 2000 you've played the first re-union show in Washington along with Lee Abney on bass, Joe Hasselvander on drums and Bobby Liebling on vocals. What were the reasons you decided to choose bass player Martin Swaney this time and not to invite Bobby Liebling?
Victor: Marty was completely out of music for something like 12 years, and he and Joe were in recent contact as well. Marty was finally ready to jump back into music and Joe and I both thought it would be really cool to do something with Marty. He never really had the chance to do any touring or shows back in the 80's and 90's outside of D.C. very much. At the time, Bobby was busy with Pentagram. But the primary reason he didn't do it was because of some ongoing friction between he and Joe. I understand how some of the baggage from our past experiences can linger and there's still some animosity there. I really hope they can smooth things over some day.
In February 2001 DEATH ROW played their next show at the Jaxx in Springfield. Is it true that you plan to release a DVD/LP/CD album from this gig or was it just a rumor? Besides, I think that it would be an exciting idea, because the footage is really awesome.
Victor: It's just a rumor as far as I'm concerned. Black Widow Records has talked a lot about releasing that show but I'm not really interested. Other than being a collectable for a few hard core fans, I just don't see the point in continuing to release all these recordings with basically the same tunes over and over. Same goes for the Pentagram stuff. A lot of it is sub par quality and I'm just not into it.
Before Joe Hasselvander and Bobby Liebling joined the band, there was David Lafever on drums and Chris Durman on vocals. What happened to these guys and did you play any shows with the very first line-up?
Victor: We only did one live show and it was under the name Overkill. We had been working on some of the Death Row material and got invited to do this outdoor festival at a drive-in theatre. We hadn't even named the band yet - just working on songs. I had the Motorhead 'Overkill' album setting there and said why don't we just call it Overkill for now. That was it - soon after I met Joe and Lee and I were off to the D.C. area. But Chris and David are still around. Chris plays mostly acoustic stuff these days and last I heard, David was still jamming around on drums and actually shows up at Place of Skulls shows sometimes if it's close.
Between 1981 and 1983 DEATH ROW played a lot of shows with bands like The Obsessed, Asylum and Hellion. I can well imagine that these must have been spectacular gigs. At this point in time punk was very popular and suddenly there are four guys that deliver their own extremely dark and threatening interpretation of 70's hard rock. How did the audience react during your shows?
Victor: It was pretty cool actually. We always had a certain allegiance with the D.C. punk crowd. I guess they realized we weren't just some top 40 cover band cruising for chicks and trying to be the next big corporate success. We were heavy and dark and just as anti-establishment as they were back then. So we got along great and even did gigs together at times.
Last year, Black Widow Records released the fantastic 'Alive In Death' compilation that provides a detailed overview on the early years of DEATH ROW. Are there any other unreleased recordings or songs which date from the early 1980's?
Victor: I'm certain there are still some old recordings around but it's mostly just different versions of the same songs - stuff that's already been released in one version or another.
I often asked myself if the 'Death Is Alive' compilation, released in 2000 by Game Two Records, is a bootleg or not. Could you please enlighten me?
Victor: It was an official release but I had very little to do with it. Bobby and Joe got hooked up with Game Two somehow and called me about the project. At the time, I was coming out of a very serious period in my life with several deaths in my family and had finally embraced Christianity. I simply told them to do it if they wanted but not to use any of my songs on the album. So they ended up using 'Live Free And Burn', which Joe and I co-wrote, and 'Burning Savior' anyway. Also 'The Ghoul', but I only had a small part in writing - that was mostly Joe and Bobby. Regardless, I didn't really care at the time what they did with it.
It is still a mystery to me, why nobody ever did a proper re-issue of the DEATH ROW cassette 'All Your Sins'. A lot of people would like to hear that album. What is the reason that it's only released as a tape and not as a record?
Victor: I don't really have that answer. That's a release I would definitely be behind if we had the right offer. Since the entire first Pentagram album was a Death Row recording, I think it would make perfect since to re-issue the original mix as such.
Did you ever receive any money from Peaceville from the sales of the first three records? You have at least written almost all songs on these records.
Victor: Peaceville has actually been very good about punctual statements.
Last year, DEATH ROW made their first appearance on the Hammer of Doom Festival. I wasn't the only one who was surprised about Eric Wagner's role as lead singer for the band. What was the reason for this decision and what do you think about your performance at the festival?
Victor: A couple of months before the festival, I began having some voice problems while rehearsing with Place of Skulls. This went on for a couple of weeks and I was really starting to get worried. So rather than risk a bad performance on our first outing with Death Row, I contacted Eric about doing it just as a one-off special guest appearance. He was into it so I sent him a cd and lyrics of the set we'd be doing. Then Eric, Joe, and Marty came down to my house in Knoxville a few days before we flew out for the festival for some intensive rehearsals. We ran through the set a couple of times a day for about 3 days and went and did it. I think musically the band was pretty good all things considered. Eric could've used a few more rehearsals to get a better feel for the songs. But he gave it a helluva go and we appreciated him stepping in to help us out.
A few month ago DEATH ROW was on tour in Europe together with Church Of Misery. You've played, amongst other things, at Roadburn 2010 and I can well imagine that the tour was a blast. How does it feel to be on tour again with Martin Swaney and Joe Hasselvander after all this years and how do you evaluate the first European DEATH ROW tour?
Victor: I considered it pretty successful for a band that has never toured before. Playing with Joe and Marty is great! They're really two of my all-time favorite musicians to play with. The music just happens so naturally when we get together. It was always that way. I mean at times, we've certainly had our disagreements but when we turn the amps on and Joe gets behind the kit - it rocks man. It's like perfect musical chemistry.
You're investing a lot of time and energy into the reformed DEATH ROW. Wouldn't it be a particularly attractive idea to record a new album?
Victor: We've kicked the idea around pretty seriously actually. But we need a good record deal to do it. If the right label with the right budget came along, who knows? It's always a possibility.
Finally, just one additional question: how is your relationship with Bobby Liebling today? I've noticed that you've supported Pentagram a few weeks ago, because they have lost their guitarist. How did it feel to share the stage with B. Liebling again?
Victor: Bobby and I are good in our relationship. I'm one of his biggest cheerleaders when it comes to his sobriety and personal life. He's been doing really good keeping it together over the past year or so. As long as he's trying and putting forth an honest effort to stay clean and being honest with me, I'll be there indefinitely. He's made a lot of mistakes as we all have, and he's no less deserving of another shot and forgiveness than any of us as long as he's being honest and putting his best foot forward. I love Bobby and we've always had a certain bond.
He requires a lot of patience sometimes but we know each other pretty well and have a great deal of mutual respect and love. I'm proud of what he's doing with his life these days and congratulations once again on his marriage and baby. It's been a long time since I've played with Gary Isom too - it was back in the mid-90's when he and Greg Turley were in Pentagram. So it's pretty cool playing with that same line-up again. We all get along great on and off stage so it's been fun. Greg and I are really close too the past few years and so that's made it especially enjoyable as well.
Ok Victor, let's talk about PLACE OF SKULLS. The new album, named 'As A Dog Returns' (promo video for the upcoming albumhere, and here's the review), is finished and it will be released in fall 2010. Meanwhile Lee Abney is back and there is another cover version on the record. This time it's 'Desperation' from one of your all-time faves Steppenwolf. What else can we expect from the fourth record and do you know which record label will release it?
Victor: The new album is very dynamic - even more so then what we did on 'The Black Is Never Far'. I'm really pretty blown away when I hear how the songs have continually progressed. Tim and Lee are such great players and though we were extremely unprepared to record this album in a technical sense, I love the looseness of not knowing exactly what we're going to come out with. It's probably hardest on Tim because he's the first to lay down his tracks. So on some of the stuff we actually would have to stop and discuss where a certain part was going to go, and re-structure parts right on the spot.
I'm really proud of the job they did. The Steppenwolf song 'Desperation' has always been another one of those songs I've loved and wanted to record since I was a kid. It's such a heartfelt song lyrically, and as you know Klaus, Steppenwolf has always been one of my favorite bands. But anyway, all the heaviness you'd expect is on this new album, plus some of the same dynamics we've implemented before have really come through on this one. I can't wait for people to hear it!
When will PLACE OF SKULLS return to Europe?
Victor: We've got a few weeks in Europe coming up this October through November. We're doing Hammer Of Doom 4 as well as Dutch Doom Days 9, and possibly one other festival. I don't have the rest of the itinerary just yet but Klaus at Vibra Agency is working on it, so I'm sure the rest will be confirmed and posted soon.
How do you manage to care about two bands? I can imagine that it's a lot of work and very time-consuming.
Victor: It is, but so far it hasn't caused any significant conflicts. As I've told everyone involved, Place of Skulls is my priority. If it comes down to a scheduling situation, I will go with Place of Skulls and Pentagram will have to re-schedule. That's just the way it is. But I love all these guys in both bands - the chemistry we all have together is very relaxed and non-stressful, so the work that goes into it is rewarding.
Thanks a lot for your words and time, Victor. I hope to see you soon here in Germany. All the best.
Victor: Thank you my friend. I've enjoyed our friendship over the years and can't thank you enough for all your support. Looking forward to seeing you and everyone else on the road soon!