Pentagram's Bobby Liebling on His New Music, Living Sober, and Playing with Odd Future
Pentagram: the classic lineup.
Inspired by iconic pioneers Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, and the Stooges, as well as unsung hard-rock heroes like Sir Lord Baltimore, Dust, and Bang, Virginia-based band Pentagram forged a dark, foreboding sound in the early 1970s that should have made founding lead singer Bobby Liebling a rock star. Though blessed with preternatural songwriting gift and remarkable tenacity, Liebling was equally cursed by his own destructive appetites, which coupled with industry indifference, shady business dealings, and just plain bad luck to keep Pentagram struggling in the shadows for much of its existence.
That's all changed over the past decade. Between 2001's legitimate archival compilation First Daze Here on Relapse Records, which documented the band's oft-bootlegged early recordings (a second volume would follow), and the growing recognition of '80s-era Pentagram albums featuring Tony Iommi acolyte Victor Griffin on guitar as early doom classics, Liebling and company finally started to get their proper due. Now three years sober, with a wife less than half his age (it's true; check out her blog) and a new baby, the singer has reunited with Griffin to release arguably the most fully realized Pentagram album yet -- Last Rites, on Metal Blade Records -- in time to celebrate the group's 40th anniversary this year. All Shook Down asked Liebling about his past and his future via email ahead of the band's appearance at the Power of the Riff Festival alongside such heavyweights as Chicago post-metal band Pelican, German crust outfit Alpinist, and much more tonight at Mezzanine.
Some of the interviews with you talk about your early interest in '60s acid rock and proto punk, particularly acts from the Detroit area. Did any of your pre-Pentagram bands lean more in that direction?
I'm not sure we ever tried to really lean in one direction or another aside from just wanting to make it ever heavier. We took riffs and had inspirations from other initial ideas, but I think it's always sounded like Pentagram. Even in my earlier bands.
A couple of the songs on Last Rites - "Into the Ground" and "Nothing Left" -- were drawn from your pre-Pentagram band Stone Bunny. I was wondering how much material from prior to Pentagram's formation in 1971 actually made it to tape?
Well, you can't believe all those "pre-Pentagram" band names. Some were made up by this bootlegging creep named Marshall. He's been ripping me off and misrepresenting me and the band(s) for years. He owes me well over a million dollars. I boil over when I'm struggling daily to feed my baby and see him still selling stuff on eBay and getting away with it. If there are any lawyers out there who want to help me, please contact my manager.
So yeah, we recorded many rehearsals, but most of that stuff was lost. Or if it's around, well, I never had a PA or anything, so you can hardly hear me. We'd record that stuff for ourselves. There is another First Daze volume coming out in 2012. We are trying to find a deal for it now. I can say that this next volume will be equally great if not better than the first two volumes of our early '70s material.
Amid the struggle for recognition during the 1970s and '80s, did you ever consider relocating the band?
None of us had any money. It would have been great to live in NYC, but who can afford to live there? I was born and raised in Brooklyn, ya know? When I look back upon it, we were in D.C. for a reason. That grime and concrete infected my soul and our sound. I don't think we'd be Pentagram without it.
From what I understand, the reunion with Victor Griffin was contingent on you being drug-free and the elimination of any occult symbols. Is there any material that you were forced to drop because of subject matter?
Well, there are some songs that I'd like to do, but let me tell you: I also have a renewed faith. I'm living on the straight and narrow now, and I'm learning that when you give, you get back. I'm trying to live right and it's paying off. All that darkness and negativity that we portrayed only ended up making things dark for us -- all the time. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. We suffered for a long time. I need to do this for my family. I would also never mess up my relationship with Victor. I need him and he needs me. He's my true musical soul mate.
Besides both of you being clean, how has your relationship with Victor changed since the last time you worked together on Be Forwarned in 1994? Had you remained in touch during the time he wasn't in the band?
We always remained in touch on and off. We sometimes didn't speak for months and maybe years, but we always were close. He's my musical partner. This is the first album that I've done clean, and I think it shows. We made one motherfucker of an album! I'm very happy with it.
What was the creative process on the newer material heard on Last Rites? Did you co-write those songs with Victor or bassist Greg Turley, or were the new songs finished when you brought them to the studio?
We rearranged a lot in the studio. You know, Victor was on tour in Europe until a few days before the studio. We jammed for a few hours, and Greg and Victor flew to the studio. Victor was in there for weeks. The song selection process was, my manager and I sat down, separately, and pulled songs off of all the numerous old tapes. The idea was to pick songs that we felt Victor would shine on.
We both must have listened to 80 songs each. You know what? We picked the same ten songs! A few of the new songs on the album were written by Greg Turley. A few old numbers, such as "Into the Ground," were re-worked in the studio by Victor. Most of them are my old numbers that just got the "Victor Griffin" sound on them opposed to my old guitarist, the late and very, very great Vincent McAllister.