After Pentagram’s first stop on their Fall North American tour, I had the opportunity to speak with Victor Griffin, guitarist of Doom giants Pentagram. We discussed the history of the band, its connection with the doom metal scene, as well as what’s going on with Victor’s other band, Place of Skulls.
Spencer: I saw you guys last night in Philly, I gotta say: great show. Bobby was crazy, you were tearing it up with those riffs. Awesome.
Victor: Thank you man, glad you enjoyed it. It was our first show of the tour, so sometimes it’s a little iffy on the first show, but everything seem to fall into place pretty good.
Spencer: Yeah it worked out pretty well. What did you think of the openers, Electric Citizen and Satan’s Satyrs?
Victor: Oh, I thought they were awesome man. Good bands, good people and we actually played some shows last year with them, playing some really good, tight rock and roll man.
Spencer: When I first heard the line-up, I was like, wow I have to check this out. Now I’m going to dig a bit into history here with Pentagram. You started Death Row in 1980, separate from Pentagram, correct?
Victor: Yeah, ’79 or ’80 I started Death Row kinda right out of high school with my friend Lee Abney who played bass. Then I met Joe Hesselvander who happened to be dating my sister, of course he was in Pentagram in the late ’70s. So that led to the introduction to Bobby because we were looking for a singer in Death Row at that point after Joe joined us. Then over the span of 35 years, we’ve been playing together, not continuously over that time.
Spencer: Yeah, such a long history as a band. What was your direction with the band before the Pentagram members came in?
Victor: It was sort of the doom influence, that’s the direction we were going in. I’d already written songs like “Death Row”, and “All Your Sins”, “Relentless”, “Dying World” a lot of the songs that I had written that ended up being on the first Pentagram album (of course Bobby wrote a lot of stuff too). We went in and recorded a lot of that stuff as the Death Row demo and that’s actually what ended up turning into the first Pentagram album. That was more of the direction, you can hear quite a bit of difference in the ’70s [Pentagram, versus] the early ’80s. A little bit darker, heavier stuff [with] the Death row era in the early ’80s, into what eventually evolved (with a name change) back into Pentagram.
Spencer: It’s kind of an interesting flip flop with the name change. And when the members of Pentagram joined, how did that change in what direction you wanted to go in musically?
Victor: Well it didn’t really. When Bobby and I met, and of course Joe was there and he wrote songs too. And that was the chemistry. We were all pretty amazed because the songs that I wrote, Bobby wrote, and some of the stuff that Joe wrote just meshed together seamlessly. It wasn’t necessarily the direction [that] changed, but the older material from the ’70s that Bobby brought to the band, the only thing that really changed about it was heavier guitar tones [and a] heavier style of playing. So you put in those different tones, and it really brought those ’70s songs into a different direction.
Spencer: I can really see that. You mentioned earlier in the early ’80s you recorded a demo and that turned into your first album, Relentless. Did the record label think the demo was good enough to release?
Victor: Yeah, it was kinda funny. We just went in to record a demo as Death Row and we had that on cassette at the time which is what we handed out at shows [and] mailed out and it was called Death Row – All Your Sins. Eventually it made its way in the hands of an independent record label up in New York and they were interested in releasing it. We went back in and did a little bit of remixing on it, and that was it. That became the first Pentagram album.
Spencer. Yeah, It’s one of my favorite albums of all time. I think the fact that it was a demo and it’s very lo-fi, I feel like that adds to the heaviness of it.
Victor: There was a reissue of the first album because we did go in and sort of reproduce and remix it a little bit for the initial release. When we got on Peaceville records later, they actually reissued that first album, but it was as the original demo mix.
Spencer: Interesting. What was it like making this dark, doomy music in the ’80s when stuff like thrash metal and hair metal were the craze of the time?
Victor: (laughs) Yeah, you know, it’s kinda funny. We were playing what we were into. We didn’t really care what was going on in the music scene around us, what was popular and what was trendy or any of that stuff. We were all just bunch of guys who were influenced by the ’60s and ’70s heavy rock and roll and we wanted to take that to the next level of heaviness; add that touch of darkness to it and we didn’t really care. Around the D.C. area, [where] we were based from, we were able to cultivate a following just by staying active, booking our own shows where and when we could. [That] was also not an easy thing to do back then because unless you were a cover band, doing three sets of covers, it was really hard to play clubs back then.
Spencer: No one was really into that, it wasn’t in the public consciousness exactly.
Victor: Especially around the D.C. area. Yeah, we did that, we hung in there throughout the ’80s. We recorded the Day of Reckoning album in ’87 and got that out. But towards ’88, ’89, we were struggling. We wanted to get out on the road and do serious touring. Just the stuff we were doing, we couldn’t get the support to do it and that led to one of our first break-ups, more or less. We all pursued other opportunities and all that and ended up getting back together again in ’93 to record another album, also on Peaceville, kind of at their request. They wanted anther Pentagram album. We were kind of all over the country at the time, but we all came back to the D.C. area and recorded the Be Forewarned album. But even then, it was kind of back to the same thing. We could play locally or on the east coast some, but as far as getting serious tour support, we just couldn’t get the finances for it or the backing to do that. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, it was quite a struggle.
Spencer: I’m sure it was. This question kind of relates to that, what do you think of the recent doom metal scene and this resurgence of retro rock that I think has helped you a lot.
Victor: Yeah, I guess as time has gone on and then you have the addition of the internet and YouTube and it’s easier to discover all kinds of music, all kinds of artists now. So that’s helped a lot too. And just the tag “doom metal”, which is an unknown tag for most people, has grown to be somewhat of a normally addressed genre of music. It’s kind of funny, we were calling it “doom metal” back in the early ’80s when it didn’t even really exist I guess. In our minds it did, but it wasn’t really a form of music so to speak. But yeah man, so now there’s loads of bands doing it and that can be good and bad too. Because the way things are these days, anything that becomes new or starts to become well known, then you tend to get an over saturation, from all directions.
Spencer: Yeah, there kind of is an over saturation and it could just be a trend where people in a few years will move on to something else.
Victor: There are some good bands doing it and it can help us too. We’ve been able to persevere through all of this, and of course the Last Days Here movie came out a few years ago has really provided us with a ton of momentum going forward. We’ve been able to stay on the road and stay busy more than ever.
Spencer: Nice. You rejoined the band five years ago, and I heard a lot of former Pentagram members have had issues with Bobby and that’s why they quit the band and haven’t returned. What was the reason you returned five years ago after a long hiatus?
Victor: Like I was saying before, Bobby and I hit it off when we met in 1981 and we’ve never had a serious fall out or anything like that. A lot of the times, the reason for us splitting up was that the band would become stagnant. I would get bored with the whole thing. I wanted to move forward with some kind of musical career or opportunity. Maybe some other opportunities would present themselves, and I felt like I had an obligation for myself to check out other possibilities. Around 2009, when I heard that Pentagram was actually back together on the road touring, I was really curious about it because I hadn’t spoken to Bobby in a long time. Knowing he had some health issues from drug addiction, I was curious how he was getting along. I ended up going to see a show or two, and he seemed to be doing very well. We got a chance to hang out a little bit together. You know, old friends talking and reminiscing and things like that. He seemed to be doing well with his health and staying sober. One thing led to another, and it seemed like a natural progression that we would come back together.
Spencer: The last few years have been pretty successful for you guys.
Victor: Yeah, it’s been pretty amazing actually. We’ve had so many opportunities at a point in our life when we least expected it, after so many years. And it’s also amazing too because there’s such a wide variety of ages. There’s people like 15, 16 years old at all ages shows and people up in the 60s. It’s just pretty crazy to see a whole spectrum of age groups singing the lyrics to the songs and getting into the music like they are. We’re just really thankful for the opportunity.
Spencer: It’s crazy you see all kinds of people there. Every Pentagram has had a mix of old and new material, so how did you pick songs for the new record out of all the songs you guys have written?
Victor: Normally what we do (and this is kinda the same with Curious Volume), Bobby usually has quite a bit of material on old demos that he’s written and he hasn’t written a lot of material over the past ten, twenty years. Except maybe for lyrics for music that didn’t have lyrics. So, he usually has some old demos of songs that he likes to pull out and wants to get recorded properly, finally. We go from there, and I always have some songs to contribute and Greg Turley (bass player) contributes songwriting as well. So, this album with all those contributions combined, we have four, five older songs from old demos, and six brand new songs, which we kind of collaborated on together. This album probably has the most brand-new material of any album we’ve done since Be Forewarned back in [’94]. Of course some of the new stuff will be new because they never heard the old demos, but as far as the age of the songs. But again, it’s like your earlier question too, even with that and it being 2015, once we rehearsed the songs and played them together as a band with our songs and styles of now, they still come together seamlessly, stylistically.
Spencer: Switching gears just a little bit, I know you reformed Death Row separately from Pentagram a few years back.
Victor: Joe Hasselvander contacted me, and this was before Bobby and I got back in touch, and he wanted to do a Death Row thing. I guess he wasn’t certain of Bobby’s health either, so we were just going to do it as a three piece, with, him, myself and Marty Swaney on bass. And I was going to do the vocals cause I’ve been singing for while myself. We got together and did a European tour. It went really well and had a really good time. Right after that also was when Bobby and I came back together and he really wanted me to come back to the band. Another point to that was his guitar player had quit suddenly right before a tour. So, that was also one of the catalysts that brought me back in the band. And then Joe Hasselvander is the drummer for Raven also, and they stay on the road quite a bit too. So, we did the Death Row thing and the plan was to keep it going, but with everything else that was going on, it kind of just took a backseat to other things.
Spencer: Could you see a Death Row reunion possibly?
Victor: I think that would be really cool, it’s hard to say at this point. We don’t stay in contact very much and I’m not sure what Joe and Marty are up to these days. Of course I’m not sure how Bobby would feel about something like that either. It might be something, who knows. It would be kinda cool to do that with Joe and Marty, get back together with those guys for a reunion.
Spencer: Yeah, that would be cool, but who knows what’s going to happen? One last question: How’s Place of Skulls doing?
Victor: We’re good, man. We have been rehearsing pretty consistently over the past year or so, working on new material. We have our sites set on recording a new album, possibly next year maybe. Starting to get live shows out again, it’s been a while since we’ve played live. We have a show coming up in Knoxville, Tennessee, kind of a warm up gig for us. Looking forward to that, that’s on November 7th, in Knoxville Tennessee, that’s where we’re based out of. So we’re doing that, really happy about it. Lee Abney, my bass player in Place of Skulls was the original bass player of Death Row as a matter of fact and Tim Tomaselli‘s the original drummer from 2000. He’s there, so it’s the original line-up with Place of Skulls, we’re having fun and looking forward to getting back out there too with a new album.
Spencer: Nice, that’s cool. That’s all the questions I got for you. I really appreciate this interview man, Pentagram is one of my favorite bands. You’re up there with Sabbath and Judas Priest to me.
Victor: Great man, really appreciate it Spencer, thanks for the conversation. Glad you were at the show last night.
10.11. FIN – Jyvaskylä, Lutakko
11.11. NOR – Oslo, Vulkan Arena
12.11. NOR – Stavanger, Folken Club
13.11. NOR – Bergen, Hulen
14.11. UK – London, O2 Islington Academy
15.11. UK – Manchester, Sound Control
17.11. FR – Nantes, Le Ferrailleur
18.11. FR – Paris, Glazart
19.11. GER – Bochum, Matrix
20.11. GER – Würzburg, Posthalle (Hammer of Doom)
22.11. ESP – Barcelona – City Hall