Cirith Ungol: Psycho Las Vegas Preview

Mercyful Fate might be the biggest draw at Psycho Las Vegas 2022 — but they can’t claim the thrown as the festival’s elder statesmen. In fact, a full decade before King Diamond and his cohorts jelled as a band, Cirith Ungol originated in Ventura, California.

To give you a clearer idea of how far Cirith Ungol to back, they played their first gig at anti-war rally during Vietnam. Thus, the band finds itself among Psycho royalty that also includes Alice Cooper, Arthur Brown, Blue Öyster Cult and … well, not many other festival alums. Even Goblin formed a year after Cirith Ungol.

The proto-power-metal group originally consisted of lead vocalist Neal Beattie, rhythm guitarist Jerry Fogle, bassist Greg Lindstrom and drummer Robert Garven. Cirith Ungol (a Tolkein reference, in case ya didn’t know) still feature Garven. But really, it’s the band’s latest addition, manager/bassist Jarvis Leatherby (also from Ventura), that is helping the group remain — as Gollum might say — “precious.”

In the latest installment of our preview series surrounding Psycho fest — which runs from August 18-21 at Resorts World — we picked Leatherby’s brain for a solid 45 minutes. That’s right: You’re about to embark on another epic, pre-Psycho read — so hit the toilet before you get started.

Thanks for making time for us while you’re touring overseas. You’re in Ireland today, correct?

JARVIS LEATHERBY: Yeah. And we’re going to be playing Wacken [Open Air] in a couple of weeks in Germany, so we’ll get to play with Mercyful Fate once before Vegas. It’ll be epic.

Have you met those guys before?

LEATHERBY: Yeah. Back in the day, I used to promote shows, and I actually worked with them on one of their first reunions.

Sounds like you have a knack for getting bands back together. What’s your strategy?

LEATHERBY: Persistence. With Cirith Ungol, it took me about a decade. But the cult following had really started to grow for those guys. My main band, Night Demon, we were touring Europe a lot and seeing a tons of Cirith Ungol T-shirts, tattoos … I would send pictures back to the band members and say, “Look, people really do like the band out here.” The band had never even [toured] Europe!

Are the crowds that come to Cirith Ungol shows even bigger now than when they reunited in October 2016?

LEATHERBY: Oh yeah, big time. The band hadn’t played for 25 years, and they never really got any traction in the 20 years they were together. But with the growth of the Internet and their records being distributed, that helped a lot. It’s a whole new generation of fans now. A lot of guys from the old days aren’t around anymore. So it’s a really cool thing for them.

So you’re finding that most of their crowds skew younger?

LEATHERBY: Absolutely. Ninety percent.

How did the orchestration of the Cirith Ungol reunion go versus the one for Mercyful Fate?

LEATHERBY: I didn’t reunite Mercyful Fate, I just put on some concerts when they did reunite. But with Cirith Ungol … Night Demon put on a festival in California called Frost and Fire in honor of their first record. I had them do a signing session, and a lot of the guys hadn’t seen each other in decades. People flew across the world just to meet them and get their records signed. That was another catalyst to help get them back together.

These guys didn’t just quit the band in the early ‘90s; they quit music and sold their gear. They were disenfranchised by the music industry. For a band coming up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was a lot harder back then. Dealing with the business aspect of it left a sour taste in their mouth, and they just wanted to get on with their lives. It took many years for the band to actually reunite. Now they’re happy they’ve done it, but now there’s a fear of the unknown.

Did you name your festival Frost and Fire because Cirith Ungol were your favorite band growing up?

LEATHERBY: No, not at all. [Laughs.] We’re both from the same town, Ventura, and they were kind of like the local pastime. You always knew about the band and could find their records in the dollar bin at the thrift stores. (Certain pressings of those records are now worth up to $100!)

When I came into metal, I wanted everything to sound like The Black Album. And Cirith Ungol’s stuff was older, and sonic qualities just weren’t the same. My ears hadn’t matured yet. I was never a really huge fan of the band, to be honest. But once I started to get to know the guys and dive into the material and aged a little more, I thought, “Wow, this band is really amazing!”

I understand now why they’re so revered. They’re such a unique-sounding band, and I have a lot more appreciation for it these days.

What was the reception like at Psycho in 2017, the first time you played the festival, and what was the impetus for wanting to return?

LEATHERBY: We had them play Frost and Fire II, which was late 2016, and many people came from across the world — to Ventura, of all places — to see the band. Then we had their first European show in 2017 at the Keep It True Festival. There were about 3,000 people there. My whole thing was, “If we’re going to do it, let’s really do it.”

After we pulled off their first gig in 25 years, and they showed they knew how to do it, we decided — because people were responding so well — to keep it going. The band had never actually toured prior to that — and still have not to this day. And I don’t think they ever will. It’s pretty interesting, a band that does one-offs their entire career. But that’s the way it is, and that’s what keeps it special. It’s been successful in that way so far.

Where have they gotten the strongest, best or largest reception?

LEATHERBY: I’d say Germany. It’s the capital of heavy metal. People really support it, and they really love the band. Also, it’s a place where a lot of people from other European countries will go to see concerts, because there’s such a big support for metal out there. [In 2020,] the band released its first album in almost 30 years, titled Forever Black, and it was #11 on the German charts when it debuted. Not on the metal charts — the actual charts. So Germany is a place we return to as much as we can.

And Wacken is the biggest metal festival in Germany, right?

LEATHERBY: I’d say the world, even. And the band is going to be playing on the main stage at 5 p.m. It’s us, [Udo] Dirkschneider doing all Accept tunes, then Mercyful Fate and Judas Priest. The guys are pretty nervous about it, but it’ll be a good warm-up for Vegas.

So you guys still get nervous, huh?

LEATHERBY: I don’t so much, but the other guys do. I have more experience playing live. They’ve been a band for 50 years, but I play constantly.

Had Night Demon played shows as large as the ones you’re playing now with Cirith Ungol?

LEATHERBY: Yeah, but since we’re a somewhat newer band, we’ve had to work our way up the ranks. Cirith Ungol kinda came in starting to play overseas as headliners, so it was a lot of pressure on them. For them, I think it’s something of a redemption story. But they still want to be able to play at a high level, and time is unforgiving. Deterioration and aging are facts of life. So I look at times like this as times I’m grateful for. I hope the fans are happy the band is still out there and able to do so well. Time is limited.

As someone who has organized a festival, what are Psycho’s strongest suits?

LEATHERBY: Obviously, from a financial end, there’s a lot that goes into it. Which, if you can pay for the talent, and you can pay for the atmosphere, you’re going to have a lot more legs. And they’ve successfully been able to grow that. Also, moving the festival around [from the Hard Rock to Mandalay Bay to Resorts World] is cool. They’ve moved around venues but stayed in Vegas, so [Psycho] hasn’t lost its charm. People like festivals no matter whose playing because they’re at a place they like and in an environment they like. It’s also a festival for which you don’t have to be a resident of Vegas to go to. I would think most people who attend it are not from there.

I appreciate the diversity of the lineups. It’s something I would never do with my festival, because we’re a true heavy metal festival. That’s our vibe. But I love tons of different music. Sometimes you get “metaled out.” Sometimes Night Demon is the only clean-singing band on a weekend of extreme metal. And now, bands can’t out-heavy each other, so at a certain point, it becomes redundant. You’re not in the same mood every hour of every day for a four-day weekend! So it’s really good to be able to step away from it for a minute.

I also like the whole “takeover” idea that Psycho has. The attendees get to descend on a hotel and casino, and take over. You don’t see an overwhelming number of other people staying at the resort that don’t fit in. And you can see a band in a bar or casino. I’ve been happy to see it grow and stick around.

Especially given how many bands you’ve promoted and worked with over the years, who are you most excited to see at the festival?

LEATHERBY: I’m only going to be there on the Sunday [we perform], because we’re playing NecronomiCon, which is an H.P. Lovecraft convention in Rhode Island on the Friday [before]. We’re getting in late on Saturday. I know Fate’s playing the same day we are, so I hope to see them again. And I wanna see something I haven’t seen. I’ll definitely go see something to get my head out of the “metal-ness” of the day.

Well, Raekwon and Ghostface are playing on Sunday …

LEATHERBY: Yeah, and I know Bone Thugs are playing that weekend too, which is really interesting. I saw them years ago. I’m not a big hip-hop guy, but you never know. Walking through the hotel, you just end up at places. Last year, I was there with Midnight and ended up seeing bands that I [didn’t know]. And it was pretty entertaining. I’m going to wander around and stumble across whatever I can.

Any old friends you’re hoping to catch up with?

LEATHERBY: Actually, Mike Vujea, the original bassist for Cirith Ungol, lives in Vegas, and he’s going to be coming out. Maybe I can get him to go up and play a song [with Cirith Ungol]. I actually wanted him to be in the band when I re-formed it, because the other guys are OGs. But him being out there and having other commitments, it just never worked out. I was kinda the bass player by default. Which I love doing, but … I’ve become quite a big fan of the band as well, and just like a fan, I want to see the original guys up there doing it.

I’ve never put my ego before my job as manager of the band. I’m here to protect the legacy they’ve built and make sure it’s intact as they move forward. All while letting the guys be creative and make music that stands up to the old stuff. That’s why that comeback record took so long. I wanted to make sure it was something that was faithful to the original. And it was — I was just trying to keep it on the brain. Doing the right job is to be responsible for the legacy of a band from the fans’ perspective too. I’m always thinking about the people who are coming out to see the band and paying money to see the band before myself or even the other guys in the band. Once we have that intact, then things run smoothly.

Given that last year was the 40th anniversary of Frost and Fire, was there any discussion about playing that album the whole way through?

LEATHERBY: Not really, because there’s only a few songs off that record that are really classic songs. That record, it’s not very long, and there’s some kind of weird, off-the-wall stuff on it that I wouldn’t consider good songs in the live set. But we did do remakes of the original tapes. A lot of people were like, “What the hell?!” But we made it the way that band imagined it to sound back then. We also remastered the original record and released that too.

I thought it was a cool thing to do, because these guy produced and released this record on their own in 1981 … there was a lot of limitations with that. You always wonder, “Hey, how would something sound if you had the time or the money or modern technology to help it along a bit?” That’s kind of the way we approached it. If you listen to it, it just sounds more clear and good. There’s nothing on it that’s fake or recorded or anything like that. It was a fun project to do.

Was the band surprised about the explosion of “Lord of the Rings” in mainstream popularity?

LEATHERBY: Yeah, I think so. And there’s an animated series coming out that I’m trying to get some Cirith Ungol music on. I still have a letter from 1978 from the Saul Zaentz Group, which was J.R.R. Tolkien’s attorneys, basically granting the band permission to use that name. That’s a pretty cool piece of history to have. The band was reading those novels in the early-to-mid 1970s as kids.

I think it’s a blessing that [the stories] have been made into blockbuster films and become more popular in the modern era, because the name Cirith Ungol is so weird. It’s been a blessing and a curse to them. Now it’s something where people go, “Hey, I know what that is.” [The popularity of “LOTR”] has helped a lot.

Are you guys planning to do anything different with your setlist at Psycho? I imagine your setlist is a bit similar from festival to festival, no?

LEATHERBY: It’s similar, but last year we put out an EP called Half Past Human that had rerecordings of four songs that were recorded before Frost and Fire but never released. There’s a song on there called “Brutish Manchild” that’s pretty cool, and we are starting to put that into our live set. So what’s old is new!

Do you get equal say in the creation of the setlist?

LEATHERBY: I’m like the editor, the final straw. What I try to do — even with the songwriting — is to let these guys do as much as they can and get the songs to a point where they like them, and get the setlist to a point where they like it. Then I come in at the end and knock it down like a Jenga tower — and make them pick up the pieces. [Laughs.]

Imagine this: These guys put out a new record with eight new studio tracks in 2020. It sold really well. It got great reviews. They’ve been a band for 50 years now. They want to play those songs, right? But I’m going, “Hey, look, we have an hour to play, and we gotta play the hits. So let’s pick and choose.” A lot of times, I’ll get handed a setlist that has four new songs, and I’m like, “Well, they’re not radio hits, so they’re not three and a half minutes. They’re five and a half, six-minute songs. That’s just not going to work.”

I understand their frustration about it. We battle back and forth over stuff like that. But, in the end, I will make myself win, because I’m speaking for the audience too, not just myself. I’m able to be more objective about it. It’s a give-and-take, but I’ve earned their trust throughout the whole process, and they’re not too stubborn. I didn’t want to be their bassist or their manager, but that was their insistence.

I’m kind of out of the zone, being in the band. I’m on autopilot when I’m playing and focusing on making sure the set is going well. I’m grateful to have so much live experience that I can do that and not have to focus so much on playing.

Wrapping it up, what’s your most salacious Vegas memory?

LEATHERBY: The first time I was there, I was 17 years old. I was on the first tour I was ever on. I got a fake ID and got into a strip club. That was the first time I’d ever been to one. I basically fell in love with a stripper and thought we were going to get married. And that did not happen. [Laughs.]

One time, I went there for a wedding, and I was going there to check into the hotel … I was pretty young. I was giving the woman at the desk some attitude. I’d already had some drinks. And she said, “Fuck it, you’re not staying here.” I said, “I have a reservation, and I already paid!” And she said, “You don’t now.” The manager came out, canceled my reservation, and I wasn’t allowed to stay at the hotel. That was the first time I realized not to fuck with Vegas.

Psycho Las Vegas runs from August 19-21 (or August 18-21, if you count Thursday’s pre-event pool party). Get your tickets here.

For more Psycho Las Vegas 2022 features, check out the Bad Penny’s new profiles on Witch MountainYakuzaThe Gaslamp KillerChurch of the Cosmic SkullBeats AntiqueBelzebong and Mothership.

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