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awkward aural adventures

Crippled Black Phoenix – Justin Greaves Interview

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crippledblackphoenix

Bristol Feb 2009

Crippled Black Phoenix founder Justin Greaves shakes his head and takes 2 hand marked discs from his bag. He leans in and slides them across the table. ‘These were for one of the band at practise…but I think you really need to here this.’

The 2 discs in question are both the new albums from Crippled Black Phoenix, ‘The Resurrectionists’, and ‘Night Raider’. It has been a difficult, frustrating process to wrench the 19 songs that span the record from the peripatetic being that Crippled Black Phoenix has become. It’s a process that has driven Greaves to the edges of his patience and the limits of his sanity. ‘I’m not quite Axl Rose yet, though I believe I am… I’m a communist, christian version of Axl Rose singing onward christian soldiers in my head every night before I go onstage!’ He notes before cracking a broad grin and breaking into a full bodied laugh.

Formed in 2004, Crippled Black Phoenix represents a rebirth for Greaves. In 2002 his former bandmate in seminal sludge metallists Iron Monkey, and best friend Johnny Morrow suffered a fatal heart attack. It was over the next 2 years that Greaves descended to some of his darkest moments, forsaking music and moving as he notes, ‘to the middle of nowhere.’ Two years later, almost by divine provenance Greaves borrowed an old acoustic guitar, having cleanse his environment of all musical instruments, off of a friend and started to tinker with some of the sounds that had begun to fill his head. ‘I really wasn’t thinking about a band or even songs at this point.’ He recalls. But when long time friend, Mogwai founding member Dominic Atchinson, got wind of what Greaves was doing and offered to contribute bass parts to flesh out the demos things began to take form beyond mere skeletal sketches. The missing pieces came in the form of vocalist Andy Semmens and pianist Kostas Panagitou. Once they had entered the fold their was a quick realisation that this was something more than a mere cathartic exercise for Greaves. The strange ensemble was picked up by Geoff barrow of Portishead fame who booked studio time at SOA in Bristol and offered a detached perspective for the band. The end result was the exquisite ‘A Love Of Shared Disasters’. The title coming from a fortuitous mishearing of a remark Dominic made to Justin. ‘There was just so much shit going on around me and around us at the time and I thought he said. We love disasters!’

Since then the band has set to the road, taking it’s vast cinescope symphonies to the far reaches of halls across the globe and featured a host of revolving members as the band tries to find it’s natural form. ‘I’m a bit fed up with the way we’ve had this revolving door policy at the moment. I really want it to be more like a traditional band, but it’s hard with everyone living all over the place, me living in the middle of nowhere, and we keep losing people to things like school or work.’ Notes Justin. It’s against this backdrop that Crippled Black Phoenix have attempted to pull together a work of extreme ambition and scale. entering the studio over a year ago to begin piecing together what would become 2 separate but linked albums. ‘It sounds like we worked on it solidly for a year, which is a bit misleading actually,’ begins Justin, ‘I would never do that. I don’t think I could. It was half planned out this time and half completely random. Compared to how we’d recorded an album before, circumstances just dictated that we couldn’t do that again. So we finished recording the debut in the summer of 2006 and it finally came out in 2007, we played a couple of shows, so there were songs that we were actually playing life back then, such as ‘Burnt Reynolds’. But as soon as they were finished I was back in the studio working on songs, and I think there were a couple of songs that came out of rehearsals from that period too.’ However, plain sailing this was not as Greaves found he had incredible trouble getting in the studio. ‘So we’d have a week here and a week there and then couldn’t get in for a month. We’d have a couple of days booked or a week booked that would get cancelled on us at the last minute. It was just incredibly frustrating. We’d get phone calls asking if we could come to the studio the next day and because we were scattered all over the place we couldn’t get people in when we needed to, so say Kostas couldn’t get down to do his piano parts when he needed to. So in the end I think I just gave up and got on with it. Whoever was around we used and whatever I could do we got done. It should have been a lot more focused. I mean that’s what was really frustrating for over a year I’ve been really focused on what I was doing and what was coming out, but the way that I recorded the album was completely the opposite, it was chaotic.’

It’s a surprising confession for the creation of what has become two raging leviathan’s of albums. Across the records the band look to deal with familiar themes, death, loss, the transient nature of happiness, and all aspects of the oppressive bleakness of life. However, throughout there is a new level, a resurgent hope, that yes life is shit and it will almost certainly deal you the worst hand you can think of. But you can fight back, you can laugh about what ‘s gone wrong and you can get past it. Song’s like the relentless march of ‘Rise Up and Fight’ exemplifying this message perfectly. ‘It’s interesting’, notes Greaves, ‘I try and be as direct as possible with the songs titles, that’s where the real meaning is, that’s where the message of the albums is. We discuss the message, the meaning that I want to convey and then Andy will go and work his lyrics around that in a more abstract way usually. It’s a bit like doing line drawings then having them shaded, with depth and color added by another artists.’

Across the two records Greaves has been reaching into the depths of his soul, even into his subconscious with his dreams permeating the themes of the record. ‘God, I sound like such a tool saying this, but it’s the only time it’s ever happened. I just had a dream and the song came to me. The chords, the theme everything, and I woke up just in time to remember it.’ Recalls Greaves. ‘That was how ‘Song for The Loved’ came to being. As for the Night Raider…he’s a guy in my dreams, he patrols around the perimeter of my house at night and I just watch him.’

Greaves is a film obsessive, particularly war movies, and given the cinematic realms that Mogwai occupy it is no surprise that Crippled Black Phoenix incorporate spoken word samples across the records from places such as Kelly’s Heroes, Rollerball and on ‘Time Of Ye Life’, a powerful sermon from Evel Knievel taken from the end of his life after finding salvation. ‘It’s this incredible speech. But what’s really interesting is that it’s him at this school. He’s giving like a proper press conference but it’s to kids. When you realise he’s speaking to kids it kind of takes on this sinister edge,’ notes Greaves with fascination.

The resultant two records are magnum opus’, unique and individual journeys where each twist is a vital component of the puzzle. Yet to give Greaves one final frustration the it is unlikely that you will read too many reviews or features that mention the titles ‘Night Raider’ or ‘The Resurrectionists’. Instead there is a single disk 12 song cut up album entitled ‘200 Tons Of Bad Luck’ being released by Invada and pushed with the press. ‘They just don’t think that you can sell a double album right now, and they certainly don’t think that the music press has the patience to go through two albums or a double album…and they are probably right.’ He says fixing a dead set stare across the table. ‘It’s just a kicker, and I love Invada, they have stood behind everything that we wanted to do. But to have to put out ‘200 Tons…’ feels like we could be cheating fans, surely we should be giving them more for their money?’. Fortunately the albums are coming out as originally intended, though they may be harder to track down than the single disc ‘200 Tons…’ you will not regret a second of the time taken to hear these songs as they were intended. In their full glory they comprise what is quickly becoming one of the most interesting and rewarding bodies of work by British musicians in a long time.

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