Pentagram’s well documented back-story is one of band break ups, drugs, failures, frustration and redemption.
And how could anyone with a love of heavy metal or rock ‘n’ roll not be absolutely smitten with the band?
Guitarist Victor Griffin has been central to its sound, songwriting and mystique for over 35 years and remains a hugely important figure in metal as well as a guitar hero of the highest calibre.
MI’s Tom Andrew talked to him about the past, present and future – and over coffees in a Belfast café, he began by asking how their most recent tour had been going.
VG: It’s going really good, we’ve been playing a few places we haven’t been before; Belfast and Dublin are new, at least for me. I think that when Pentagram first got back together around 2009 they did some stuff in Dublin. But yeah, first time in Belfast and a good show last night in Dublin and a great show the night before in London.
TA: Yeah, I was at the gig in London and I think you guys helped save the festival as there were a couple of cancellations and things like that I know the band on before you guys at the Live Evil festival (Destroyer 666) And I know if you guys hadn’t have pulled it off, it could have been disastrous. But, speaking from experience it was an awesome show.
VG: That’s good – we kind of barely made it ourselves. And loaded straight off the bus straight onto the stage. And the same thing happened in Greece and there were a lot of flight cancellations and a lot of bands didn’t make it there.
We ended up actually playing two sets. So we split everything up and threw some stuff down that we hadn’t done for a while. We even went back to the Death Row era and did the crazy makeup stuff just for kicks.
TA: That sounds incredible!
VG: Oh, you weren’t aware of that?
TA: No, I never knew you guys did the Death Row look anymore.
VG: We don’t, it’s the first time that we have since 1983 or something. We did like a 40-45 minute set for the matinee show.
TA: With the whole Death Row look, what was the inspiration behind that?
VG: It came from our influences in from the 70s rock era, it was such a total package with the showmanship: The Alice Cooper Group, Arthur Brown, David Bowie and Kiss, of Course. Those bands weren’t necessarily heavy musically, y’know? We were doing this whole other heaviness… We were calling it Doom metal before there was an actual genre of that.
TA: You guys must have been one of the first to call it that, I guess.
VG: It’s just the way it sounded and when Bobby and I met in ’81 we were really into taking it to the next level.
With the whole make-up thing, we didn’t do it straight away but definitely within the first year or two and then Joe Hasselvander left the band in 83 and things got a little bit dysfunctional for a while there and when we came back to it we toned back the make-up and it became more of just a high-energy show, in a way.
It wasn’t as dark, but that was also the transition of with the name from Death Row to Pentagram and then by the mid 80s we weren’t really doing the make-up or anything.
TA: I guess by the mid 80s, doing the make up thing would have been seen to a lot of people as a little bit passé.
VG: Yeah, I guess around then the hair metal bands started to become really big and it got a little cheesy.
When we were in the height of the make up thing was when Motley Crue broke out and they came out with their second album “Shout at the Devil” and Mick Mars’ makeup basically looked exactly like my makeup and they just broke and I was like, “I can’t really do that.” And it would look like I was copying him which wasn’t the case at all.
TA: Even bands like the Obsessed had a bit of a glam look going on during their first album.
VG: They had like the dark eyeliner going on and they were great. We played, like a lot of shows with them, a lot of double bills with The Obsessed and Death Row. We were all friends and hung out together. It was a fun time and that was when I met Wino for the first time back in ’81 and he and I hit it off really good and became really good friends.
TA: Were you guys living together at one point?
VG: We shared a house together in 84 in Rockville Maryland and that was also with Dale Flood from Unorthodox. So it was pretty crazy, so you had like the Obsessed and Pentagram and Unorthodox in one house.
TA: Neighbours must have loved you guys.
VG: Yeah, it was pretty crazy. I think we did a lot of damage to the house. I don’t know who ended up responsible for that. I know Scott’s name was on the lease but… (laughs.)
TA: I guess you guys didn’t get your deposits back.
VG: No, we didn’t get our deposits back for sure…
TA: Curious Volume’s the most recent album and to my ears it sounds like you guys had a lot more time to work on it and that it was also more of a band effort, is that the case?
VG: We didn’t have that much more time to work on it but it was more of an overall band effort. Last Rites was the first thing that we did for both me and Greg Turley coming back into the band.
And I was a little, I don’t know whether I would say apprehensive but I’d also just finished a recent Place of Skulls album and I also had some songs written for the In-Graved thing that I later did, So I didn’t have a lot in the way of contributions (for the last rites album) I did a little co-writing on that album.
TA: In particular, the songs “Walk Alone” and “Curious Volume” off the new one really have your mark on them.
VG: We were trying to get more of a band thing going on this one and incidentally Bobby probably had less input on this one compared to the last couple Pentagram albums. I mean, Bobby still has a lot of demos from the 70s and we have to dig through that stuff and see what works and what doesn’t.
With “Curious Volume” Sean Saley originally recorded the drum tracks but then there was a little bit of dysfunction and he pulled out and then Pete came in…
TA: So Pete had to re-record the drum tracks?
VG: Yeah, at that point we had everything recorded but Pete and I have played together off and on since 2004 and he was the obvious choice and he really does his homework and he has the natural feel for the riffs.
TA: It must be a hard thing because normally you would record drum tracks first?
VG: There was a click track when we originally recorded them and it’s almost impossible to re-record drums without a click track. So we sent him the recordings that we had and he learnt everything structurally and everything and he really made it his own.
TA: Oh, he’s an absolutely monster drummer.
VG: Yeah, Pete brings a looseness with his style he’s got sort of a Jazz influence and he opens up everything a bit more.
TA: With having different songwriters in the band or does it cause a bit of creative tension?
VG: I think both, everybody’s got egos and we’re a little bit headstrong. Everybody’s not going to like the same thing or have the same idea 100% so sometimes you have to expect to compromise. But not to the point were you’re deconstructing someone’s song.
But there’s always been a little bit of that and sometimes in the earlier years there was a lot of screaming and yelling in the studio but we’ve all kind of matured on that point.
We’ve tried to avoid it being a set thing were Bobby gets four songs, Greg gets four songs, I get four songs… because you want to have the best album regardless of who wrote the songs.
TA: I mean, stuff like “Feeling of Dread” and “Committed to Vengeance” didn’t get on Pentagram albums and they’re amazing songs.
VG: They just didn’t make the final cut.
TA: but that must be a luxury to have.
VG: Yeah, I have a tendency to be very self-critical and over the years I’ve probably thrown away more stuff than I ended up using. So feedback off each other is a great thing where someone else can say “No, no. That’s a great riff…” When me and Pete were working on the In-Graved material I was sitting on a lot of riffs that I was half sure of and Pete would come back to me and say “That stuff’s great, man.”
I’ve got endless old cassettes and micro-cassettes and stuff on my computer of just riffs. But I have to record everything I come up with cause I can sit there and play a riff one day and then try to come back to it the next and then I can’t remember it…
TA: Or where you can remember the chords but not the rhythm.
VG: Or where you’re playing the same chord pattern but not coming up with the same melody line you were the day before.
TA: And do you share those with the other bands members and edit through them?
VG: I have before; recently I downloaded like 75 different riffs and shared them with Lee Abney the bass player in Place of Skulls. Cause we were talking about doing another Place of Skulls album within the next two years or something. And told him to pick out the ones that he thought were good or whatever.
Coming With Baggage
TA: do you have a set mindset on when you’re writing for Pentagram or when you’re writing for Place of Skulls? Do you know when it’s a Pentagram riff or when it’s a Place of Skulls riff?
VG: Not so much, I don’t really want to force myself to write one way or another. I just write whatever comes out of me. Sometimes I can be a little bit more intricate with the riffs with Pentagram because I’m not doing vocals.
So, I have to keep that in mind (with Place of Skulls) unless it’s going to be a strictly studio song. But then sometimes it can be a case of working on it because I don’t tend to be able to automatically play and sing certain things at the same time but if I work on them I can do it.
TA: When you started playing, did you start singing at the same time?
VG: I did. I’ve always kind of done that. From the time of learning to play guitar and figuring out my favourite cover songs I’d just be singing along and then with the Death Row stuff, before I met Joe and Bobby, Me and Lee (Abney) were rehearsing with another drummer down in Tennessee, so I was singing that stuff cause that’s how I wrote it. So that was just the natural thing for me to do, but I never planned on being the lead singer.
TA: I think I read somewhere that you guys were looking for a singer for Death Row and Joe said “I know this Bobby guy…”
VG: Yeah, we couldn’t find anybody who was into doing what we were doing. Everyone was doing just more upbeat rock ‘n’ roll and just the wrong kind of voice, y’know like a cock rock voice… like David Lee Roth or something. So it just didn’t work. And Joe was like “I know this guy Bobby and he comes with a lot of baggage…”
VG: Joe had the “High Voltage 45” and he played it for me and I knew immediately and said “that’s what we need! That’s him!” But, from Joe’s experience with Bobby back in the late 70s he wasn’t very enthusiastic about pursuing it.
But, because we couldn’t find anybody else even close to what we were looking for Joe said “I’ll call him and see how he’s doing, maybe he’s doing better these days…” and so we called him and drove up and laid out what we were trying to put together and that was my first introduction to Bobby… He and I hit it off really well, it was like we had known each other forever.
And, we brought Bobby down to just listen to us jam through the songs that we were working on and I had lyrics there and I just said “here’s the verse, this is the bridge…” and we jammed along and it was automatic really. We knew exactly what we were doing.
Even after that Joe had some second thoughts. So he and Bobby had a couple long conversations about the past.
TA: I know he was out after the first album and wasn’t on the original version of “Day of Reckoning”
VG: Well we didn’t have anything come out, because the first Pentagram album was just the Death Row demos (which were done in 81.) So when Joe left in ’83 I took a little time off and hung out in Tennessee for the summer and just regrouped and Marty (Swaney) stayed in the band and that’s when we brought in Stuart Rose, he was in another local band called Hellion around the DC area.
So we brought him in and he was part of that whole scene with Hellion, The Obsessed and Death Row and all that Maryland, D.C. and Northern Virginia Scene that was going on. So he basically knew all of our set and we just had all those demos because our first album didn’t come out until ’85. So Stuart was in the band for like a year, a year and a half until Day of Reckoning came out and that was with Stuart originally.
And then we’re going back to what we were talking about before about how hard it is to re-record drums because everybody’s timing is a little bit different, even if it’s not obvious, nobody really has perfect timing so to follow someone else’s meter is always going to waver a little bit.
But Joe really wanted to try to do that when he came back to the band and so if you really listen to that reissue over the original one with Stuart. I mean, I don’t know how much the average person hears it but I hear it a lot.
TA: I mean, I grew up on the reissue and then I recently heard the original and I was like “Whoa, this is so different!” I guess it’s just what you’re used to. I’m sure that for a lot of people who grew up on the original and then heard the reissue they were like: “I don’t like this!”
VG: So, you being of the opposite. How do you feel about it?
TA: I prefer the reissue but that’s probably sacrilege to a lot of people.
VG: See, I can’t even listen to the reissue because I can hear all these places where the drums waver off tempo just slightly from the guitars and then as he’s recording it he feels it and then everything comes back together so he had to adjust.
So I hear all those little things. And Bobby and I talked about this many times like “Oh, I can’t listen to this part…” But it’s not so obvious to someone who’s just listening.
TA: Speaking of the Washington DC area, I know there was a bit of a punk influence, I know you’ve covered a couple of Dead Boys tracks. But was it just 70s punk or did the hardcore punk movement around there effect you at all?
VG: Yeah it did because in the 80s the DC punk scene was huge. And we had a lot of friends (involved in that scene) and The Obsessed even more than Pentagram had a lot of respect from hardcore punk bands.
But there was a lot of respect between those bands and us because we were out on the outer fringes of the mainstream rock and roll cover band scene. And normally back then, you couldn’t plan a gig if you said you were playing all originals.
But, I was more influenced by the punk bands of the late ‘70s like the Dictators, the Dead Boys of course and the Sex Pistols of course, which to me is more like straight up Rock ‘n’ Roll.
TA: Especially like the Dictators and stuff like that, with Ross the Boss doing ripping guitar leads.
VG: Oh yeah. I saw them, in like ’78 or something, The Dictators, Cheap Trick and AC/DC. On the same bill and I didn’t know any of the Dictators music but they were great and Ross the Boss was just ripping man. Great showman too, did the whole windmill thing
VG: But I really love the Dead Boys, probably my favourite of that style of band that’s why I wanted to do a couple of covers from them and particularly love those two songs (Son of Sam and Ain’t It Fun, both of which were covered on the “Late for an early grave” album.)
TA: And again great guitar playing. He (Cheetah Chrome) had a really weird style, he sounds a little bit like Wino almost, he sounds like he’s playing really near the bridge.
Amazing stuff, I was listening to a Government Issue compilation recently and I noticed their was a cover of Day of Reckoning on there and I completely wasn’t expecting it but the lyrics were changed to be about Reagan or something like that…
VG: Oh yeah, now that you mention it, Tom Lyle was responsible for getting the first Pentagram album out. He had a couple connections and got the ball rolling on some of the early stuff.
TA; let’s talk about the Be Forewarned album a little bit and how the reformation of Pentagram came about. It’s probably my favourite album that Pentagram has put out. In particular, there are a lot of layers to the guitar playing on that record. Were there any specific influences to your guitar playing with the harmonies and layering that you were using at that time?
VG: I guess a lot of it was just us trying to take it to the next level and you try and do that to a certain extent on every album, or maybe at some point you feel as though you have to pull back a little bit and get back to basics again.
And a lot of the influences on the guitar for me personally came from listening to the early Sabbath stuff, or more particularly Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, where Iommi started to do a lot of layering.
Before the Be Forewarned album happened, I had left Pentagram around ’88 and moved to L.A. just because there wasn’t much happening on the D.C. scene, we were playing a lot locally but we couldn’t get any tour support or get out on the road or do any proper touring.
And I just felt that I needed to pursue some other opportunities, so I moved out to L.A. for a couple of years and didn’t do much out there musically other than the demos which ended up being “Late For an Early Grave.” Then Peaceville got in touch with us about reissuing the first two Pentagram albums and recording a new album.
Either Bobby or Joe called me and wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing it and Marty was coming back too and that was the only way that I was interested in doing it was if it was us four and everybody was into it and I was ready to move back from L.A. anyway. So, I moved back East and we immediately started working and that’s how Be Forewarned came about.
TA: Were you apprehensive about coming back to Pentagram or were you more “Let’s do this!”?
VG: I think we were all pretty excited about it. We’d been away from each other for some years and at some point it all blows over. And especially because we all thought maybe this is the break that we all needed with the right label behind it and maybe there’s going to be the support there.
But unfortunately things didn’t work out like that and after a couple of years Joe ended up leaving the band again, as did Marty.
And then by the mid-90s Greg Turley came in on Bass and Gary Isom came in on drums and we did that for a year or two and at that point everything kind of dissolved again. We just couldn’t keep that momentum going.
TA: You never got out to Europe with Pentagram back in the day?
VG: No, In ’94 Cathedral came through D.C. and we did a couple of shows with them and then following those couple of shows I was approached by Lee and Gaz about coming over to Europe and doing the Cathedral tour which was actually opening for Sabbath on the Cross Purposes record.
TA: You’re not going to turn that down!
VG: Yeah, I was like how can I turn away from that? During the process of the conversation they mentioned that they were also going to get a different drummer from the one they had and so I said “what about a package deal with Joe and myself?”
So they talked to Joe about it and he was totally into it. So that was right in the middle of the production of the Be Forewarned album but that’s when me and Joe were going to go on tour with Cathedral. So, me and Joe had to leave right in the middle of the production of that album.
TA: That must have been pretty nerve wracking.
VG: Yeah, it was kind of like leaving your baby behind. So we went and did the Cathedral thing and they actually invited us to be permanent members of the band but it wasn’t very feasible, I was kind of a wreck anyway…
My personal life was kind of out there and I had some alcohol issues and some drug issues that I was in the midst of and some relationship issues which kind of amplified everything else. So I was kind of a wreck during the Cathedral tour.
I didn’t enjoy it for what it was, it should have been a highlight but I was glad when it was over.
TA: sometimes, life has a way of doing that. Something which should be a golden opportunity doesn’t pan out that way.
VG: Sometimes we have a way of trainwrecking our own opportunities.
TA: And then it was a couple years on from that where you moved on to the Place of Skulls stuff. The first record “Nailed” isn’t available super easily at the moment. Are there any plans to reissue that album?
VG: There is, it’s been out of print a little while now, along with “With Vision” too and we’re working on that right now and I actually want to go in and re-do some of the vocals as that was my first official outing as lead vocalist and I’d just like to re-do some of it and because there are still copies of the original out there.
So I just want to re-do a couple of things. So we’re going to do a reissue of that and the “With Vision” album and also put them out on Vinyl too and I want to put that album out with the original artwork as Greg Turley played bass on that whole record and I want to have artwork that pays a little more tribute to his involvement on the album.
TA: Yeah, cause there’s only the three guys on the album cover for that record.
VG: There was some outside influence on that which I’ve come to regret because Greg’s my nephew. So I want to get the original art or a version of it (on the record) even if it’s on the inside on the reissue of the album. So, I want to do that and at some point over the next couple of years do a new Place of Skulls album.
TA: So, I think I’ll close up pretty soon, where to next for Pentagram and yourself in general?
VG: This is basically the last leg of the Curious Volume tour and then after that we’re talking about what songs we have that we can start recording a new album between the first of the year and March. So we’re thinking in that direction now and we’ll see how it turns out.
TA: Curious Volume had quite a lot of new material on it so are you hoping to continue down that vein?
VG: We would definitely like to focus more on new stuff and actually Bobby has some new stuff too.
TA: Wow, like full songs?
VG: I think he has a lot of full songs and we’ve actually talked about sitting down together and co-writing… he and I never really co-wrote other than “All Your Sins” which is the main thing we wrote together and “Burning Saviour” but that was a nine minute song and he literally wrote three sentences on there.
So to me that wasn’t an official co-write even though it was credited that way. So we’d like to see what happens and obviously Greg and Pete are going to be in that whole mix as well. Pete has a lot of riffs too.
That’s the plan as far as the foreseeable future and we don’t want to have that long gap and at this point we really need to keep the momentum going and stay busy.
That’s what I’m trying to do cause I have a Place of Skulls album to do at some point but Pentagram’s the priority because that’s the main thing and I’m kind of branching out here and there doing some acoustic stuff.
TA: I guess there’s always been a good amount of acoustic guitar with your stuff and some really cool layering of acoustic and electric guitars going on like with “Burning Saviour” or “The Black is Never Far”…
VG: Oh that might be my favourite song I’ve ever written.
TA: You can tell it’s a really personal song.
VG: Actually the whole album is.
TA: So would the acoustic stuff be more in the vein of “The Black is Never Far.”
VG: Yeah, after the last Pentagram show on the tour I have three acoustic shows coming up and then Pete (Campbell) and Dan (Lively) my guitar tech is coming along to play bass on it, so we’re doing that and it’s kind of a trial run for the acoustic thing… I wouldn’t say I’m uptight about it but it’s going to be a different experience.
There’s going to be a couple of Place of Skulls songs and a couple of Pentagram songs as well. I’ve worked out an acoustic version of “Broken Vows” which is kind of unusual and Bobby and I actually did an unplugged version of “Sign of the Wolf” several years back.
We did an interview and they asked whether we could do an unplugged thing and it was very spur of the moment and “Sign of the Wolf” lended itself to that whole open chord acoustic playing type thing. so we worked that up that afternoon and did it.
And then other than that I’ll just do a bunch of cover songs, like some country influences I grew up with like Merle Haggard or David Allan Coe and a couple of Motorhead covers; “I aint no nice guy” and “Iron Horse” which is kind of what I did on the solo album going from Stepphenwolf’s “The Pusher” to “Iron Horse.” So that should be interesting.
– Interview by Tom Andrew ::: 09/02/17
– Pics by Brian Riderick, Ollie Olson & Stefano