After heralded British doom metal band Iron Monkey broke up in 1999, the band’s drummer, Justin Greaves, decided to branch out. He still played doom, but also dabbled in black metal, drone rock, and post new wave in various bands. He even scored a couple of independent films. But his main project for the last 10 years has been as the songwriter and primary instrumentalist for Crippled Black Phoenix, which has evolved from the gloomy, lethargic folk rock of their 2006 debut, A Love of Shared Disasters, to the sprawling melancholic prog of 2012’s No Sadness or Farewell and 2014’s White Light Generator.
The band’s new album, Bronze, is its darkest, most evocative and psychedelic release yet, sounding at times like a cross between Deep Purple and Pink Floyd, with slivers of Ennio Morricone. That Bronze holds together so well is remarkable, considering the turbulent circumstances that preceded its creation.
In 2014, guitarist Karl Demata quit, throwing the group into turmoil. Greaves put together a revamped lineup and, working with a light budget, he spent two months writing and recording Bronze, which seems influenced by the tension of the past two years.
It’s not the first time Greaves has thrived under pressure. He jumped back into the fray after the unexpected death of close friend and Iron Monkey frontman Johnny Morrow, persevered following an unpleasant stint with Electric Wizard, and put together a shoestring tour for his 10-piece band after bad business deals left him practically broke. For Greaves, it’s worth weathering the storm to create music without boundaries.
‘The biggest motivation for me is the fact that the music I want to hear doesn’t exist. So I make it myself,’ he said.
Did you want Bronze to be a triumphant return after the setbacks of 2014?
I just wanted to carry on what I’ve been doing without messing it all up, and to do it in an honest way. And I wanted to release some of the frustrations of the past, however many months or years it was since the last time we recorded.
Do you learn from your past records what to repeat and what to avoid?
You can definitely learn from what you’ve done. Starting with 2012’s No Sadness or Farewell, I’ve been on the path I want to be on. Before that, I was searching to find my way. Apart from the new album, No Sadness is my favorite album, but it’s weird because it’s not a popular one.
Bronze incorporates doomy, distorted riffs within a framework of more textural and atmospheric passages. It’s hardly a metal record, yet it seems to honor your past more than earlier releases.
Using loud guitars was one way to emphasize the emotions I wanted to express in some of these songs. But also, you can’t deny your roots. When the band started, I went well away from what I was doing before, and purposely avoided writing the kind of heavy music I really like. I don’t want to deny that anymore.
As adventurous as the songs are, they seem to focus on negativity and misery rather than joy.
That’s always been a thing with us. The first album, A Love of Shared Disasters, was really miserable and melancholy. And No Sadness was quite a sad album. I lost one of my cats when I was recording it, and I think that’s what gave it a melancholy edge. With Bronze, the bitterness is there, but there’s also hope. White Light Generator was like that. It tapped into the melancholy, but it was all about finding your way out of it.
You had a lot to find your way out of on Bronze.
We’ve always been a little bit about fighting the world, but this one is more about what we went through over the past couple of years, and the fact that we’re still standing after people tried to destroy the band.
You’re referring to Karl Demata leaving the band. That must have been a major shock.
At the time it really threw a spanner in the works and it took me aback. Why would someone do that? The stress of that was unreal. And then we did a tour and we changed management and booking agencies because we thought that was the right thing to do at the time to make things better, and it turned out they screwed us worse than anybody. It threw the whole tour into jeopardy. We were faced with canceling the entire three-week European tour on the eve of the first date. But we all pulled together and made it work. So it just shows you the strength of character of the guys in the band. Any one of these people could have walked away from the band over the past couple of years and I would have completely understood because I wanted to as well at times. But people stuck in there and it’s made us a lot stronger as a result.
[Demata responded to these allegations in a lengthy Facebook post in December, 2014 —ed.]
In addition to featuring doomy riffs reminiscent of Black Sabbath, Bronze includes numerous epic, ’70s prog passages reminiscent of Pink Floyd. You’ve covered Floyd’s “Echoes” and “Childhood’s End.” Are they a major influence?
I like Pink Floyd, but I never set out to write something that sounds like them. I try not to be influenced by anything in particular. When I write an album, I don’t listen to anything else. I just do the demos and listen to those and try to get what’s in my head out of my head. And I think that when you try and forget your influences and not be pinned down to any one thing, all your influences just naturally flow out of you.
You wrote and recorded Bronze incredibly fast.
We had to use a bunch of our advance money to save the tour that we did, so I had to commit to writing the album at a certain time. I got the songs together in March, and we recorded them in April. It took two months from conception to completion, but I think it came out better as a result because I didn’t have time to overthink anything. I just went with my gut feeling and wrote without obsessing over the music. If I stopped and really thought about what I was writing, I’d take forever to do anything, because I’d never be happy with the results.
The best psychedelic rock takes the listener on a mind-altering journey. Do mind-altering drugs factor into your creative process?
Would you be surprised if I told you I’ve not touched drugs or alcohol for 15 years now? I find inspiration from the world around me. Life is the best drug of all.
You got the band name from a line in a song by Iron Monkey.
Iron Monkey used to sit around drinking and smoking and we’d each write a line of lyrics and pass the book around and piss ourselves laughing. We ended up with the weirdest fucking lyrics. ‘Crippled Black Phoenix never fed’ was one of the lines in the song “Big Loader,” and it just stuck with me. Later on, I almost started a record label called Crippled Black Phoenix Records. And I called myself Crippled Black Phoenix when I played in Teeth of the Lions Rule the Divine with Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson from Sunn O))) and Lee Dorian from Cathedral. But it’s weird. Over time, it’s taken on its own meanings. Someone said something amazing one time: ‘It’s like the death of something immortal and it’s all about defeating the odds.’ Faced with complete failure, utter defiance is the only response. We’ve got to live our lives by that.
Was Iron Monkey a crazy, fun project that just exploded into this legendary thing that got too big to reign in?
That band changed my life, and I look back at it with a lot of pride and respect for the other guys and a lot of love. But it was really shit at the same time. Things happened to us because we never, ever compromised, and the press got hold of that and they thought it was cool that things got broken at our gigs and people sometimes got hurt. But they weren’t big shows. We were only playing for 50 people a night. We were playing for petrol money and getting ripped off and when we didn’t get paid, we couldn’t eat. So we threw bricks through the windows of the venue and we got banned. It was great times as well as shit times. But unfortunately, it takes one of your band members to die for everybody to go, ‘Okay, Iron Monkey, they were this cool band and we were there and we loved them.’ No you weren’t. No you didn’t. Not many people knew us or liked us, and I’m fine with that. It just reflects the morbid side of human nature for people to try to turn us into this influential, cool band because one of the members died. Johnny was a good friend of mine, so I view the situation quite differently.
Did Johnny’s death change the way you viewed mortality?
When you lose someone close, it makes you rethink everything you’re doing and everything you’ve done. One of my biggest regrets is the fact that he called me up to tell me he was playing a show in London and I was working late so I said, ‘I can’t go. I’ll catch you next time, Johnny.’ And that’s the night he died. That stuck with me. I just feel angry that the hospital wasn’t looking after him like they should have been. That’s basically why he died. He didn’t have the proper care.
Didn’t he suffer sudden heart failure?
Both of his kidneys failed because he had a hereditary kidney disease and he was on the waiting list for a transplant. They tested his dad and he was a match, so his dad was going to donate a kidney. While Johnny was waiting for the operation, they put him on a nighttime dialysis machine. He went to play this show in London and then he came back to Nottingham and went to bed and hooked himself up on this dialysis machine, which raises your blood pressure when it pumps fresh blood around your body. The doctors weren’t monitoring him correctly, and he was suffering from high blood pressure at the time, so when he hooked himself up to the machine it gave him a heart attack in his sleep and killed him. It wasn’t even the kidney disease that killed him.
When Borknagar’s drummer Grim died of an overdose in 1999, you filled in for the band on tour. What was that like?
Borknagar were great! They were such cool guys. They probably wouldn’t thank me for saying that because they’re part of the Norwegian black metal scene and they’re supposed to be all evil and awful. But they were some of the nicest people I’ve played with. At the same time, I felt totally out of place. It’s weird how it happened. Someone recommended me to them and they just asked me so I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ I got a real workout playing with them. It made me a much more disciplined drummer.
How did you wind up doing the Teeth of the Lions Rule the Divine album Rampton in 2001 with members of Sunn O))) and Lee Dorian of Cathedral?
I’ve known Lee since 1988 when one of my first bands opened for Napalm Death in Birmingham. He was singing for them at the time, and we hit it off. He did Cathedral, and we were both on Earache and did shows together, so we became friends. And then we did The Teeth of the Lions Rule the Divine album Rampton, which resulted from a conversation me and Stephen O’Malley were having about doing something super seriously heavy, Melvins-style. Steve was staying at my house one time, and we had a bit of a jam. It was really spontaneous. We were supposed to do it with Mark Deutrom, who was in the Melvins at the time. He was going to play bass for us, but he disappeared. And then Steve said, ‘Oh, Greg’s around, the guy I play in Sunn O))) with.’ Sunn had only just started. If you listen to the first couple Sunn O))) albums, there are Teeth and Lions riffs on both albums. It was when the whole thing was starting, so it was almost like Sunn O))) with drums and vocals. We rehearsed it for one evening, and the next day we recorded it. We virtually made it up on the spot.
Have you ever talked about doing a follow-up to Rampton?
We’ve never said never. But it would have to be under the same kind of circumstances. The whole thing about the album was that it was really, really brutal and spontaneous. So it would be hard for us to do it again without it being a convoluted version of the first album. There’d be expectations there. But who knows?
You played in Electric Wizard from 2003 to 2006. It seems like it would have been a perfect fit, but it didn’t work out so well.
I’ve put Electric Wizard firmly in my past. It was enjoyable at first. The only thing I’ll say about that experience is when I got to know them, it wasn’t worth staying in the band. So I left.
In Crippled Black Phoenix, you play many different instruments. When did you branch off from just being a drummer?
I learned guitar just from picking up my dad’s guitars and other people’s guitars. I’m self-taught and I never played guitar properly until I left Electric Wizard. The same with piano—I wouldn’t consider myself a pianist by any means, but I sometimes write on piano. I like to record the drums on the CBP albums. I’ve done most of the bass and most of the guitars and all the weird samples, and that’s what I’m most interested in. I like messing around with sound. I play musical saw—that’s always good fun. You pick something up and you make a noise, and if you like it you use it. That’s my philosophy.
You’ve worked on the film soundtracks for The Devil’s Business and Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD. How is scoring for movies different than writing for a band?
I enjoy the anonymity of it. You’re making music purely to enhance something else that’s creative. And it’s a different discipline. When I first started doing soundtracks, I wrote all these crazy songs, and then I had to keep stripping them back and making them more minimal. Less and less and less. It was really tough to learn, but it’s a great skill to have, to be able to create more feeling by playing less.
Which do you enjoy more: Crippled Black Phoenix, or film scoring?
Right now, I wouldn’t say there’s any income from movies. Ultimately, if I were to have my own studio—which I don’t have—and I was making music every day for films, I would be very, very happy. But it’d be wrong of me to say I would stop doing CBP because I love that as well.