An Interview With Crippled Black Phoenix
I have been aware of the engimatic collective, that is Crippled Black Phoenix, for several months now, having posted this article. Initally, my interest came from the fact that the band had a member of Mogwai in its ranks. Since then, I have seen the band perform live here in Glasgow and have heard an unmastered version of their soon to be released album, "A Love Of Shared Disasters". I quickly came to realise that something special was happening with these "merry band of bastards". Here, Crippled Black Phoenix chief Justin Greaves (ex-Electric Wizard) talks about all the major components that went in to making one of the most interesting sounds in years.
There is an aura of mystery surrounding Crippled Black Phoenix, how did this project come about?
It's a mystery to me as well, to be honest, i'm not sure how it got to this stage so quickly. It started last year when i was prompted to start making some demos along with Dominic but alot of the songs date back to 2004. when earlier that year i saw a good friend of mine die in a car crash and for the months following i pretty much shut myself away and didn't go out or talk to many people, the guy who i lived with had an acoustic guitar, i picked it up one day and started playing tunes, just for myself to begin with but then i realized that being in that space at that time was to be productive musically and also i needed something to focus on, so, i started to record the tunes onto my mini-disc, before long i had loads of ideas, i wasn't going to do anything with them really. So last year i was thinking of getting the Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine project together again but personalities were getting in the way and i got fed up of trying so i called Dominic, the both of us had talked for years about doing something and this seemed like the time to do it. He came and stayed at my house for a short while and we made some updated versions of the older song ideas and that gave me the kick up the backside i needed. I then decided to give this music a name and around that time i met Andy when his old band Estoteric played a show with my (now ex) band (Electric Wizard), i loved his vocal style and we started on some ideas involving him and Kostas who plays keyboards with in Pantheist the band Andy now sings with. So now i had some idea of what i wanted to do and i promised myself to record some of the old songs i had written back in 2004. I was in touch with Nial since 2001 when i worked with his old band 16, he was the perfect guy for the extra guitar stuff and he fell right into place. So i had now the basic bones of an idea for a full album and when i spoke to Geoff (Barrow) things picked up and i got in touch with Joe, he come up with some vocals that i loved instantly and literally the next few weeks were spent recording the album. So it's a longer more involved story than that really but you get the idea.....
Who is involved in the band and what part does each member play?
Everyone brings something unique to the music, that's why it ended up with such a big line up of people, the songs are written by myself, although i don't know if it would have turned out quite the same without any one of the other guys......as far as who does what on the recording....as you may know, Dominic plays the bass guitar, Nial plays guitar, Kostas played the piano, accordion and various keyboards....oh, and the Harmonium, Joe sings and added the acoustic guitar, Andy did his insane vocals and i played guitars, drums and a saw. There is also the string players, Chipper and Max, Chipper plays with us live also, and there's a couple of appearences on the album by my dad, who played some mean guitar! Live we have Tom (Gonga) on drums and Matt (Team Brick) who multi-tasks. I must say at this point, i've seen alot of talk about Geoff being in the band, that's not true but he did sit in on some of the production and he takes a very close role on taking care of the band, alot closer than all the other labels i have worked with.
"A Love of Shared Disasters" is due out early next year, what can fans expect?
Confusion....with a whiff of the macarbe. No pretences . No over-loud compressed mastering. Just some tales of loss and redemption played with little or no fancy effects that alot of band resort to these days. I wanted to make a recording that sounds like the instruments are being played by humans with all the natural tones and imperfections, i feel nowadays alot of recordings are too manurfactured and clinical, especially with the overbombing of the "post rock" tag, things are getting too formulated, i know CBP will probably get put in that catagory but i truly believe it doesn't fit in with it 100% and i also realize that this album won't be what alot of people will be expecting, it'll most likely disapoint some fans of our other bands. I'm not trying to be different, i just wanted to do something different for myself, to make music that is honest and has no boundries or rules layed out.
With so many members, all involved in different projects too, was it difficult to get everyone together for the recording process?.
I thought it would be very difficult but actually we came together pretty easily, alot of the album was done with just myself and either Nial or Joe present, the others came and went over a period of a month, Dominic was on tour most of the time with Mogwai but as i recorded the bare bones i sent him the tracks as they were done so he was in the loop all the time. Actually, i don't think the full line up was together at any point. It was a very different approach to recording from what i've been used to, but it worked really well, there was alot of time for developing certain parts and the whole thing felt relaxed which is something bands rarely get. So yeah, i feel lucky to have found some incredible friends and musicians to work with who are really into what we're doing and were able to commit time to it.
The album will be released on the Portishead owned Invada imprint, how did this relationship come about?.
I had met Geoff and Paul briefly when EW played a show in Bristol, they were talking to Jus Oborn but he didn't give a shit about their apparent enthusiasm for the band. So anyway, i felt i should talk to Geoff, really just to say that i wasn't the same and to thank them for the help, we got talking about the CBP demos and i was interested in working with Invada, i was also talking to other labels about doing this album but decided against it as i realized just how artist orientated Invada are. I think they're one of the truly independent labels still around who don't focus on just one style of music. So we agreed to start recording pretty much straight away, which was great and our relationship has got alot closer as a result.
Having recently heard an unmastered copy of the album, I was amazed at how diverse each track on "A Love of Shared Disasters" is, was this intentional or did it happen naturally.
Oh, wonder how you got hold of that! Yeah, it is quite diverse, i know it's easy to say it came naturally, but the truth is it did. There is a definate journey from the start to the end of the album which was more about placement of the songs and that was intentional, but as for the music, it really is just what comes out, i think it just reflects what state of mind i was in at different times as i wrote the tunes, and then the developement of the whole thing whilst in the studio with the other guys kinda shaped the way it came out, i just didn't want to drop songs because they are different but at the same time i believe there is a common thread running through them all, they're each an integral part of the journey.
One song I am very intrigued by, is "The Cobbler". I just can't quite understand the spoken word part, what is this song about?
It's actually spoken in old Lincolnshire dialect, that's where i was born and raised. It's an Alfred Tennyson ballad written in 1880 and it's about a cobbler who works hard and gets married and then has a child, which i'm sure you can hear is when he turns to the bottle and becomes a drunk. His wife starts flirting about and when he gets plastered one time he beats her and smashes up the house, this leaves him feeling ashamed and goes on a journey to find redemption, he finds it and also finds the beauty in his wife that he'd forgotten about, basically he turns his life around all by himself and works things out. This sort of thing is what really connects with me, you can apply this story to modern times, even though it was written over a hundred years ago, it still rings true. Y'see when you strip things down, ignore all the modern troubles in the world, we are pretty much the same as people back then, we have the same feelings and temptations but in the time of Tennyson people more often had to sort their problems out for themselves, there were no councilers or AA groups, families just had to deal with hardship by themselves and i think that's a better way personally, it builds character, if you learn from experience it's a lesson you won't easily forget.
The band recently completed a short UK tour. Was it an enjoyable experience and what was the best gig of the tour?
It was good, better than i imagined really, everyone enjoyed it and we played with some great people like Voice of the Seven Woods and Craig B. The highlight for me personally was the Birmingham show, we got to the venue and there was water pouring through the roof onto the stage, so the good Capsule people moved the show over the square to a theatre, it was a great space in which to play and the show was great even though it was seated, it's the kind of place i want to play every show, it really suited us. Bristol was also good, but as it was the first show i didn't really relax into it, we only had a few evenings to reherse with the full line-up and having nine players it had the possibility of being total chaos, but it worked out great. We could have spent more time developing the live band but i think it was a good thing to do those shows, it brought us all together for the first time and that's important, i wanted to try out the album songs and really just prove to ourselves that it could be done, i now know what should be done for the next shows. We accomplished what we wanted to achieve and enjoyed the company, like i said before, i am lucky, it's such a great group of people involved in CBP.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Glasgow gig in October, especially "Sharks and Storms", how did you find the Scottish audience?.
I'm glad you enjoyed it, i think every tour has a donkey of a show and Glasgow was ours. We set off from Bristol that morning and the drive took alot longer than we thought due to traffic etc... and everyone was very tired and when we got to the venue nobody was there to organize it, we had alot of equipment/sound problems and i think it just took the edge off it for us, i'm not complaining or making excuses, it just didn't feel great. I really love playing Glasgow, my mum is from Hamilton and i have a strong connection with Scotland in general, so i always look forward to visiting, next time will be much better i hope.
You recently told me about CBP's plans for the album artwork, filming and live visuals. How important are these aspects to the band?
Very, very important, i truly believe that when you get into a band you get into the whole package, the music comes first but it doesn't tell you the same thing if you don't have the imagery to go with it, it really tells you alot and creates an atmosphere, this is why downloading is such a rip-off, i can't understand how you can enjoy music quite as much when you have nothing to acompany it. I think music and art go hand in hand and if you get it right the effect can be amazing, i mean, i buy records and CD's sometimes just on the artwork alone without knowing anything about the band/artist, i've found some of my favourite music like that and the flipside of that is the fact that i might miss out on some great bands based on the crappy artwork, it can put me off. Metal bands are the worst for this, it doesn't matter how good the album is if i'm not going to get past the bad logo or cover. As far as CBP is concerned artwork and visuals work are important on many levels, like i said it creates a certain atmosphere in which to capture the listener and can also help tell the story even if it's subliminal, so when you see all this put together with the music it gives you more of an experience and that's what it's all about. We do plan on having the live projections, that kinda fell through at the last minute when we played the shows in October and it was a shame so next time it will be sorted. I want the CBP shows to be an experience like as if the audience is inside the music and can forget about everything outside just for a while, if i can do that then i'm happy. Having said all that, i do think it's also about entertainment, not everyone is going to buy into the stories or undertsand what's behind the music, so it has to work on both levels, the album has to be listenable, the artwork has to nice to look at and when we play live we have to entertain and keep peoples attenton, it's a fine balance to get all this right but that's what i'm aiming for. I know all the reasons why this music and visuals are the way they are, but not everyone will see that, i'm happy knowing that but i also want to give something to the listener, i just hope that people can get something from it, whatever that may be.
Could yopu elaborate on the band's plans to record a trilogy of albums. Is there a narrative or a story within this trilogy?.
When we started on this album there was no plan for the trilogy, the idea came as we progressed through the recording, it started because i had to drop four or five songs in order to get it all into 80 minutes, it was a choice to either make it a double CD or carry over the ideas to the next album, i thought a double album would get boring and also i would like to work on some of the ideas a bit longer, so it was just mentioned that it should be a trilogy of albums that somehow tie in with eachother. The narrative is pretty simple really, it all about the journey from a normal life into chaos, then depresson, then understanding, then finding your own way out if it, so "A Love of..." is the first part, like an overview of what's to come, stories from the past that connect with certain parts of us now and also personal feelings about loss and how to deal with it. If you listen to the finished album there is definate first & second halves the first half is sadness and giving up hitting rock bottom with "Long Cold Summer", then it's all about finding you way out, understanding what's happening and trying to accept it, though it might not always work. So the feelings will carry over to the next installment but it'll be a progression, i feel it might be more about frustration and anger, i want to go tell it like it is, most things are shit and most people are rubbish, once you understand that it might be easier to accept life as it is, find you own space in it and be happy, if you never see the worst life has to offer then you'll always be shocked and have nasty supprises along the way, how can you ever relax? This is all subject to change of course, it'll depend on how i feel i guess, but that's my plan....in my head, this thing has taken on a life of it's own now, i'm just trying not to fuck it up.
Material has been written for the next album, can you tell us anything about the new songs?
Yes, there's plenty of new material but also some old songs that never made it onto this album, i think we'll re-work some of them. One new track we played as the intro at the shows, the one with the accapella bit in it. The new stuff is more of the same in many ways but there's some slightly more rock songs and also some more orchestral tracks, it's an expansion on what i've written so far and i'm alot more focused now. It's the unorthodox way CBP and the album came together, i never expected all of this and in some way i wasn't ready for it, i had alot of doubts in myself, but now i know what has to be done. It's therapy for me and i found at last that i really enjoy it and i'm not afraid of admitting it, so yeah, it's more confusion but this time i have a plan on how to control it.
Will the same musicians be involved in the next albums, or will there be some additions?
I'm sure it'll be the same, i love the band and so far we work really well together, although there might be some guest players too. Also Matt (Team Brick) will be involved, he came onboard for the shows and worked out really well. I'd like it to be recorded as the live band. One thing i don't want is this to be regarded as just a "project" band with different people on every recording, it may have started out as some kind of project but it's grown into something far more than that and is still growing, this is a band now, i hope it carries on this way.
What does the future hold for CBP, in terms of touring?
We'll do something after the album is out, there has been talk of something in the US and we've had some offers in Europe. Touring is not a priority for us and i only want to play the right places, but we will be taking care of business, so expect some kind of touring. The thing is that it's such a big production to do it right, with all the players, added strings, light and visuals show, and for a band like us that's a big undertaking because we're still really doing most of the work ourselves plus everyone has their other commitments so we need to find the time when we're all free. If it happens, it has to be done right and i don't want to accept anything less, that might mean we don't tour as much as we'd like but when we do it will be a good one.
You have christened CBP's music "endtime ballads", as the recording progressed did you stick by this statement?
Oh yes, i got the fear of being misrepresented and i know that will happen when people form an oppinion based on the media's need to catagorize everything, so i thought we'd better give it a name, then whatever your oppinion at least you know what to call it. Just taking care of business, that's what we're doing, CBP is all about endtime ballads and that is what it shall be known as.
Just a quick note, "A Love of Shared Disasters" is due out in very early 2007. I have had the pleasure of hearing the album, although it was unmastered, it is full of grandiose arrangements and is busrting with ideas. Each song offers something different and the Crippled Black Phoenix guys are concocting something special here. I tried to cover as many angles as possible, but if you feel I missed out on something, feel free to ask away at the Crippled Black Phoenix forum