Justin Greaves: Interview With The Infamous Musician

Few people in the sludge and doom scene have lived a life quite like Justin Greaves, having played in such legendary bands as Iron Monkey, Electric Wizard, The Varukers, and the illusive Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine. Plus plenty others. But these days Greaves is best known as the founder, core member and multi-instrumentalist of Crippled Black Phoenix, a bombastic, misery machine of a band whose lush, cinematic music has won them legions of fans around the world. With the release of their new EP No Sadness or Farewell fast-approaching and a few line-up changes throwing the band into upheaval, I caught up with Justin to talk about the last few turbulent years in CBP, idiots ruining Iron Monkey, recording in a broom-cupboard and an alternate universe in which he had made the soundtrack to Mad Max. Welcome to the world of Justin Greaves.

Crippled Black Phoenix

Hi Justin, thanks for doing the interview – I know you’re currently preparing to head off on another lengthy European tour to promote Crippled Black Phoenix’s new EP, No Sadness or Farewell, so I appreciate the time. It’s been a chaotic few years for CBP but a productive few – already this year you’ve released a double album, Mankind (The Crafty Ape), undergone a huge European tour, released a triple live LP, and now you’ve just recorded another EP. Firstly, how have you coped with the last year and what has inspired such productivity for you and the band?

I’m not sure I have coped to be honest [laughs]. I don’t know why it’s been productive few years for us – it certainly ‘looks’ like it has been. I mean, we put out the live album which was just from a gig anyway, and it was just lying around and Todd wanted to put it out on vinyl and because it turned out so well we figured we might as well do something with it. I’m not a massive fan of putting out live albums, unless they’re like official bootlegs or limited edition vinyl like we did, but now Mascot wanna put out the CD as well so we’re like “Why not?” – it sounds alright.

But you know what it’s like, it’s just a case of you have a bunch of songs and when they’re ready you want to do something with them.

It must be nice to have a label who are so supportive that they’re willing to put out all these things?

Well, I think they might get a bit coerced into doing things when I want to do them [laughs] – there’s a little bit of persuasion going on. If it was up to them they probably wouldn’t have pushed me to do this EP, but I guess it proves that they actually are supportive because they’re putting it out, so that’s good.

Before the most recent tour you parted ways with long-time CBP singer Joe Volk and recruited an unknown singer (Matt Simpkin) to fill in for the live dates – do you want to speak about why you parted company with Volk?

To be honest, I’ve avoided this question so many times – I mean, a lot of people have asked about it and I keep sort of saying the same thing: “He wants to do his solo thing blah de blah, we’ve both just moved on, next question” sort of thing. But the truth is there’s a lot more to it and it dates back a good few years as well. And you know, I’ve got nothing against the guy, it’s no disrespect or anything, I think he did a great job with the band and I’m grateful for it. But if you ask me “Am I relieved that he’s gone?” then the answer would be “Yes, I am relieved.” And I think that’s because, on a personal level, it’s never nice when you’re coming to blows on a regular basis and I think we’re both much better-off going our separate ways. I think we can just leave it at that.

How have the fans taken the news? How did fans take to Simpkin on the live dates?

Well, it’s always a bit weird. There are always some people who are upset and you’re never going to please everyone, all the time, especially when it comes to singers. It’s something that get a bit frustrating. But that’s because this band has never been about the lead singer and it’s never been about any one individual or even the group of individuals – it’s always been primarily and purely about the music. Without being too cold about it, it kind of doesn’t matter who is making the music – even with some of my favourite albums, I don’t know much about the band and I quite like that element of mystique. But these days with the Internet being a constant stream of information fans often want to know more and more and it can get kind of intrusive.

But some people liked Matt [Simpkin] and some people liked Joe [Volk] and I know people are gonna like [new singer] John E. Vistic. I think Matt did an amazing job on the last tour, I really do. He stepped in, really last minute, he had a lot to learn and I mean, you’ve got to give him credit – he sang the songs note-perfect. But it’s about more than just being able to sing the songs, you know? You kind of have to be CBP if you see what I mean. But to his credit, again, I think even he knew he wasn’t quite right for the band and we all knew he wasn’t quite right. Some of the band wanted to keep Matt because he was note-perfect, but for others that didn’t matter because ultimately it’s about whether it works or not and we knew that we needed something a bit different. All credit to Matt though, I think he’s a great guy.

How was the last European tour? Was it a challenge to bring the ambitious songs on Mankind (The Crafty Ape) to the stage each night?

There were some songs that I thought we’d really struggle with but they were a pleasure to play and they sounded great but there was another couple of songs that I thought sounded good in rehearsal but then we played them on stage and it just didn’t work so we dropped them. It’s always a bit of an experiment when you record an album and then the band has to learn them. We’re not one of those bands that like “jams” songs and then records them. Our songs come together very differently – they’re demoed, we record them and then we sort of have to learn them to play them live, so it’s always a challenge. But you’ve just got to stick to what you do best; it was a challenge but the tour was one of the best we’ve ever done, even though it was so long. I don’t like to be away for so long.

Yeah, it looked pretty gruelling on paper – it was 31 dates in 31 days right? Did you visit any new places?

35 in all, but that’s because we we did a few shows in Greece then came home, then went off again, and we did one gig in London at the end. We visited Serbia for the first time and that ended up being one of the best gigs of the tour – it was brilliant.

What was so special about it?

Just the vibe mostly – you just find sometimes that you get somewhere and you get along with the people and the people just get it, and Serbia seems to be one of those places for us. And although there were only about 50 or 60 people there, they were really going for it – the energy from the crowd was amazing. The venue was a building that had been bombed during the war and the owner had just built a little makeshift stage and put in a bar so it was just this sort of shell of a building, really small, virtually no PA but it really didn’t matter because at the end of the day it was one of the best gigs. I much preferred that to playing in front of fifteen thousand people at Herzberg Festival, you know?

On that note, as I mentioned, CBP have also released a triple LP, Live Poznan 2011 AD, which was recorded on the tour last year. What was special about this show that it warranted a live record, and does Poznan hold much significance for the band in general?

My story with Poznan goes back to the Iron Monkey days, and it’s a great place anyway but I had a really bad experience there and I didn’t go back for years until I started Crippled Black Phoenix. And when I did finally go back there it was like the show in Serbia – we had such a good time and the vibe there was really good. So we’ve kept going back and it just seems to get better and better, and the recording was just an idea from the promoter in Poznan. There was also a film crew who wanted to film some of it and we thought “what better place to do it than Poznan?” The thing is, the show wasn’t even as big as the one we did in Warsaw – which is more of a bells-ringing, singing and dancing kind of a place – it was just in a little blues club, in the basement of a castle [laughs]. It was a really, really good vibe and I’m glad we captured that in Poznan because we just seem to have a special connection with that place.

Talking of filming, CBP’s made their first ever music video for the song “Laying Traps” in January this year; what made you want to make a video for it, what was the idea behind it and where was it filmed?

Well, we had some shit drummers in the video for a start [laughs – reference to the fact that I may or may not be one of the drummers wearing a Hazmat suit in the video]. I’d never really thought of doing a video for CBP before, but I’d been doing some soundtrack work with a director friend of mine, Sean Hogan (see next question), and we got talking about music videos and we thought it would be quite interesting. He’s a good friend and we thought it would be a fun thing to do really, and then Mascot [CBP’s record label] gave us a little bit of money to hire some costumes and for make-up and special effects and so on. Sean brought his own team and they were fantastic – they worked for free, they brought props and they made the banners which we now use as our backdrop on tour which is cool. The whole thing was filmed on the old airbase where I live in an old sports hall – the whole setting was really good.

I’m not really into band videos so the idea was to go a bit vigilante with it and suit-up which meant I could cover my face, and as soon as that was decided then I was fine with it. And the “Laying Traps” thing is about bringing down the establishment and all that subversive loveliness so we thought we’d get some volunteers involved and get a mob going. Loads of people turned up which was amazing because it was a really, really cold day, in the middle of nowhere, on an old, abandoned air base.

Crippled Black Phoenix

CBP’s music has a very expansive, cinematic quality to it, and I know you’ve done a few film soundtracks, including horror/thriller director Sean Hogan’s most recent movie, The Devil’s Business. What’s it like doing soundtracks? Is it something you’ve always been interested in?

It’s something I’ve always really liked the idea of, yeah; I’ve always sat up and taken notice of movie soundtracks –  it’s one of those things I’ve always been really influenced by. I really got into the idea of doing it myself because I found that it enables you to make music that’s anonymous. You don’t have to do the press, you don’t have to have your photo taken, you don’t have to go on tour – all you have to do is make music, so it’s kind of music in it’s purest form, in a way, and it’s adding something to another artistic medium which is very gratifying. Like you say, some of CBP’s music could fit into movies here and there but I’m digging doing the soundtracks because it gives me more chance to make that miserable music I like doing [laughs].

So can you see yourself working with Sean again in the future?

Yeah, I’m actually in the middle of making some music for him right now for a theatre thing he’s doing for Halloween. And after that I think he’s looking to complete the funding for his next film (The Wait) which will hopefully happen next year. That’ll be a much bigger budget film. The Devil’s Business was made for no money – this one, the production value is gonna shoot up and it’ll be nice to record some music for it properly.

The Devil’s Business has been doing really well hasn’t it, and the soundtrack is coming out on vinyl soon too?

Yeah the soundtrack coming out on Death Waltz [Recording Co]  is really cool, it’s a really nice thing to have – I’m knocking up the vinyl releases this year! But The Devil’s Business is great – it’s doing really well and getting good reviews even though it was made, like I said, for literally no money so it’s really nice to see it doing well.

If you could soundtrack an existing film, what film would you choose and why?

Probably the Mad Max films – Mad Max, Rollerball, something like that. I mean, I really like those films and their soundtracks anyway but I’d have loved to have gotten my teeth into something like that.

Moving onto the new EP No Sadness or Farewell, it features a new singer, John E. Vistic who brings a lot to the band’s sound – is he likely to become a permanent member or will you work with different singers?

Well that remains to be seen, but it’s all looking good with Vistic – he’s done a really good job on the album. In an ideal world yes we’d want him to stay and for it all to work out and for us to just move on down the line. But it’s one of the things with this band – you just never know. I’m convinced that Vistic has the right motivations for joining the band and that he “gets it” but it doesn’t always work out. Not to be negative… I just really hope it works out this time so I don’t have to worry about it anymore. And that goes for the whole lineup, not just Vistic. But he’s definitely my kind of singer for this kind of music.

The EP also features a stunning vocal turn from Swedish singer Belinda Kordic (of Killing Mood). How did she get involved in the recording process and is she likely to feature on future recordings or in a live capacity?

Who knows? [laughs]. I asked her to do it because I had her album (Killing Mood) and it was on regular rotation in my car – I really liked what she did on the album and I really liked her voice and I always wanted to do more with female vocals anyway. Obviously we’ve had Daisy [Chapman] singing and we’ve had Miriam [Wolf] singing but I wrote this song and I knew that I wanted Belinda to sing on it. Now, originally she got involved on Mankind (The Crafty Ape) – she had sort of retired from music but we got in touch through mutual friends and she was up for doing it so she did it and it turned out really great and we kept in touch and then we ended up as a couple. So I asked her to do something on this EP and she agreed again. She may well feature on some CBP stuff down the line. But regardless we are actually going to make an album together under the name Se Delan. It’s kind of a big thing for me not just because it’s a little weird doing music with my girlfriend, but also it’ll be the first time I make a proper album away from CBP. I’m very much a one-band man these days; I went through a phase of playing in two or three bands at once and it was never very smooth going. These days I like to do one thing at a time so I can put everything into it, but I’m really happy to be doing the project with Belinda because it kind of takes the pressure off CBP a little bit – we won’t really tour or do much press, we just want to make some music, put it out there and just see how it goes.

As for former bands, in the ten years since Johnny Morrow tragically passed away Iron Monkey have become one of the most revered underground metal bands in the world and have inspired countless imitators. What is it like for you to see Iron Monkey gain all this recognition, the likes of which (by your own admission) they never received while you were still together? Is it weird seeing Iron Monkey become this massive source of inspiration for these bands?

Yeah it is weird because we never, ever would have imagined it when we were together, you know what I mean? With that band – you could just never imagine it. Obviously, you can take it as a compliment or whatever but it is kind of weird and it’ll never happen again. I mean, that time, and that scene and those people, the bands, the attitude and everything – it’s never gonna happen again. It was a product of its time I think and a product of certain people coming together and doing something. I’m proud of being part of it obviously but I don’t tend to linger on those past memories or anything. I could tell plenty of stories about Iron Monkey if I was asked, but it’s in the past and they are just stories now. It’s a memory, and sometimes it’s a fond memory and sometimes it’s fucking horrible to think about what happened.

Yeah, there were definitely some ups and downs with that band…

[Laughs] Oh yeah. Absolutely.

In May there was an all-day event in Nottingham called Morrowfest in honour of Johnny and it featured bands, or at least band members who had been in bands that you used to play with back in the day – do you have any thoughts on the event and why did Crippled Black Phoenix not play it (even though they were publicised as being part of it)?

Well the reason we didn’t play it in the end is because it would have cost us a lot to do it – it was in between a couple of tours and everyone had kind of gone their separate ways – Miriam was in Switzerland for example and a few other people were scattered elsewhere. It would have cost a lot of money to organise ourselves and we’re not rich – none of us had the money to do it. And to the organisers’ credit, they offered us some expense money to do it, but at the end of the day I’d have preferred it if he’d given that money to Johnny’s charity and given another band a shot at playing. I’d have loved to have done it but I can remember Johnny and I can honour Johnny in my own way, I don’t need to play a gig to do it. I don’t think anyone would have missed us really – we’re not the same kind of band, it’s not like CBP is in that scene anyway so I think it was probably better that we just bowed out really.

What are your thoughts on Earache re-releasing the classic Iron Monkey albums? Rumour has it that you were not consulted about the plans to reissue the albums on vinyl…

I’ve never been informed of anything Earache has ever done and that includes these vinyl re-releases, that includes the bloody double-CD version of the albums, that includes t-shirts – fucking loads of stuff that they’ve coined-in on the back of this band. I don’t think any of the band probably knew about it and if they did, I didn’t hear about it anyway. I think they just go ahead and do it and deal with the consequences afterwards, but Earache are like that.

I just thought it was in bad taste to re-release the albums to coincide with things like Morrowfest and then say they’re doing it in his memory because, and I think everyone needs to know this: when Johnny got really ill in Poland on that last tour, he had to go to the doctor there – that was the start of his kidney trouble and he was very, very ill. The doctor told him that he needed to fly home right away or he could die. So we called Earache and they refused to give us any money to fly him home because they didn’t want to put any more money into the tour. And so we called the management and they basically said the same thing – “What do you want us to do about it?” Fuck you as well then. And in the end it was the band we were touring with – Propane, god bless their souls – who gave us money out of their band kitty to get him home and we had to play the last few weeks of the tour with no singer.

The point is, Earache didn’t fly Johnny home when he could have died, then he did die and people want to to honour his memory and Earache want to sell records off his name. To say it’s in his memory when they didn’t give a fuck about him when he was alive, I think that is in very bad taste.

So the ‘Ruined by Idiots’ Iron Monkey slogan could easily be applied to Earache then?

Oh god yeah – it applies to Earache, and it applies to the management, and it applies to plenty of other people who screwed us over. That band split up as a result of Earache, the management and various other things that were exasperated by that situation. I mean, we didn’t fall out among ourselves although we did kind of split into two with a couple of people doing a band here and a couple of people doing a band there. To be honest that band was probably never gonna stick together for much longer anyway because it was five very belligerent, strong-minded individuals who basically didn’t really want to do anything that they didn’t want to do, you know? [Laughs] It was never gonna last, but the end came because of other people, not because of people in the band.

What are your fondest memories of the Iron Monkey days?

I don’t know if there’s anything specific, we just seemed to always have a really extreme time – whether it was extremely good or extremely bad. So much shit seemed to always land in our camp – we weren’t very well respected, people generally ignored us or thought it was a bit of a fucking joke or whatever, and these are the people who now say “Oh, they’re such a classic band.”

Did that spur you guys on? People not getting it or mocking the band?

It didn’t really spur us on, we were just caught up in our own little world really. The thing is we didn’t take any notice of what was going on around us, we didn’t pay attention to the press or the London scene – we were never into the partying or anything, we just had a laugh together. And that’s probably my fondest memory – having a laugh with the guys in the band; making people go “What the fuck was that?” and then we’re all there laughing.

Crippled Black Phoenix

Another band that took people a while to catch up with is Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine, the project you did with Lee Dorrian, Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding you guys and Rampton. Could you briefly explain how it came about?

That was one of those things where we were all in a certain place at a certain time. I met Steve before Sunn O))) had even released their first album, and I think they were supporting Goatsnake on one of their tours – they were playing in some really small little clubs and I think I met him in Derby. So we got talking and we thought it would be cool to do some ridiculous band that would “out-Melvins the Melvins’ first album,” y’know? We just thought it would be a cool thing to do. And then Steve came over and stayed at my house and we got to jamming and talking about ideas; originally the plan was to have Mark Deutrom (who was in the Melvins at the time) to play bass on it and we booked a studio around the corner from my house which was like a broom-cupboard. But then Mark went AWOL – he just sort of disappeared – but as it happened, Greg was in the country at the time and he said “I’ll play bass on it” so he came and played the bass. And then because we were all friends with Lee (I’d known him for a long, long time) we said “Come do some shouting on it” and that’s how it happened. We just basically jammed it in the evening, just made it up as we went along and then recorded it the next day – we just did it all live in one day and that was it.

Do people still pester you about the band?

Yeah, occasionally, but the question is always: will there be another album? But who knows? I mean, me and Steve have talked about it and if we were ever in the same situation again and it was spur of the moment and it was spontaneous then it could happen but we wouldn’t want to plan it because that would turn it into something else and we’d probably be thinking about it too much. We’ve both been so busy with our own things over the last few years anyway that it’s rare that we see each other but every time we talk we sort of mention it. We came close to doing a second album – that was right before I started Crippled Black Phoenix. In fact, some of the really early CBP demos that we never used I originally did for the Teeth of Lions thing, it was really slow and heavy but then I got into CBP and that was the last time we really made an effort to do it. But who knows? I would never rule it out but I think it’s very, very unlikely [laughs].

Was Earth a huge influence on the project or did you just choose the band name (taken from Earth’s album Earth 2: Special Low-Frequency Version) because you liked how it sounded or how it represented the music?

I don’t think they were a particular influence on the music that we made but Steve was the one who brought the idea forward of using that name and it was a kind of a tribute to Earth. But we didn’t sit down and discuss that we wanted to do a band like Earth or anything, it was just a cool idea.

Are you ever likely to return to making sludge or doom music?

I wouldn’t say that I’m not interested in it anymore, I’m just not inspired that way at the moment. It’s just a different time for me really but who knows what the future might bring. Obviously it’s been a huge part of my life, being in super heavy bands and stuff, and of course I love that music but I’m not as inspired these days and there aren’t many bands that make me think “Wow.” You’ve got to have some kind of motivation to make the kind of music you make.

Saying that, I’d love to be in a band playing drums on stage again because I really miss it but I’m not going out of my way to find something like that. I kind of slowly drifted away from that whole scene, if you can call it that, because people started making music almost to compete with their peers – to make the “next big heavy fucking album” or whatever – and I don’t feel that that’s the best motivation for making music. But who knows – maybe one day.

Do you listen to much new music?

No. I have an insatiable appetite for new music but it’s getting harder to find music that I like – you can fall into thinking that you’ve heard it all and it’s rare to find something that really grabs you as “new” or “different.” I’m not saying that CBP are making anything new or original particularly but I guess many artists make music that they want to make because they can’t find it anywhere else and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m keeping an ear out for new bands all the time but they don’t fall in your lap like they used to. The networks aren’t the same, you don’t have as many DIY distros or anything, and you don’t have as many record shops where you go in and they’ll play something for you and say “Check this out” you know?

On that note, do you have any feelings about record labels like Hydra Head going out of business?

Well, it’s a shame, and I hope people start to realize that not paying for music and downloading illegally is causing the downfall of indie labels, and also record shops and distribution, basically the whole network. It’s a long and emotional subject that we could talk about for days, and it’s not easy to make a stand when most people see the constant easy access to music as a good thing, which i can understand, but at some point there won’t be any labels to support underground bands, then we’d be left with really shitty quality music made in peoples bedrooms on one hand, and the major labels squirting out their dogshit on the other. Labels like Hydra Head deserve more than what’s happened to them, they are one of few labels that genuinely support their bands and strived to release really good and interesting packaging for underground bands. Obviously, these days, the good guys don’t win. It’s all disappointing and pretty scary.

With the release of the EP coming up, do you ever worry about how the fans are going to react to the new material?

I tend not to think too much about what kind of reaction we’ll get because we should just be trying our best to do a good job and that should be enough. People pay good money to come see us so we always make sure that we try to put on a suitably good show. I’m a big worrier like that because I never think we’re ready before we go on tour but we’re always OK by the end [laughs].

So you find your feet by the end of the tour then…

[Laughs] Yeah, the last gig is always not bad.

At this point in time, the term ‘supergroup’ is a rather lazy descriptive for Crippled Black Phoenix isn’t it? That’s not what the band is about anymore is it?

It never was. It was never a “supergroup” – there’ve been plenty of misconceptions about this band, and I don’t even know what it is really but it’s certainly not a “supergroup.” There’s nothing super about being in a group – being in a group is shit!

What’s next for you? Are you going to take a break after the next tour or do you want to keep making new music?

I think the next thing I’ll do will probably be the album with Belinda; I’ll probably work a bit more with Sean [Hogan]. As far as CBP goes, I think we might do another small tour, maybe in March or something, but we’ve had a lot of things come out this year and I don’t want us to overstay our welcome, y’know? But I’ve definitely got another CBP album in me and I might want to record it this time next year. Sooner or later I’ll have a bunch of songs ready and I’ll get impatient and want to do the album, and it could be soon or it could be in ten years, who knows?

…and it could be a quadruple album?

It might be! It might be a quadruple album that’s basically one song, it might be a 97-track EP. It could be a project called Gibbon Dream – we’ll play super fast with no distortion and everything’ll be tuned-up really high. Long live Gibbon Dream!

Cheers Justin!

Stay up to date with Crippled Black Phoenix on their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/pages/CRIPPLED-BLACK-PHOENIX-official/111441865546099.

Interviewed by: Tom McKibbin
Photos by: Shirin Kasraeian