The Time Is Now: An Interview with Bobby Liebling
For a band who have long been considered legends in heavy metal, American doom pioneers Pentagram have had an incredibly strange career that is now into its 40th year, and for much of it they were somehow never picked up by labels, critics or fans as the creative force they should have been, and are now recognised as.
Despite forming in 1971, their self-titled debut album was not recorded and released until 1985 following several line-up changes, aborted demo recording sessions and the writing of a reported 80 original songs. Even once that first major hurdle had been overcome, the band continued in a very on-off manner, periodically breaking up, reforming, recording a new album, and breaking up again. So far the band have released seven official albums, the most recent being 2011's remarkable comeback Last Rites. In each case, the new albums have always included a good number of tracks which were actually written and demoed in the '70s.
Founder and vocalist Bobby Liebling, the only constant driving force behind Pentagram for 40 years, reflects on why the band were never able to court the limelight; "We were underground. We put out a few 7"s but never toured. It was hard to tour back then unless you had a record label. It isn't like today when you can get in a van after booking a tour on the internet. It was frustrating that we played with some nationals but nobody seemed to understand or care about us back then. There were no underground labels that had any reach. Unless you were on a label... and hence on the radio... and hence on a big national tour with money behind it... you weren't known. I'd probably be dead by now if we had "made it" though. I stayed preserved in the underground."
“ I'd probably be dead by now if we had made it ”
- Bobby Liebling
Pentagram's triumphant return for two shows in 2009 has proven to be the start of some genuine momentum over the last couple of years, leading to appropriately high-status spots at European festivals like Roadburn and Hammer of Doom, and certainly in 2011 much of this can be directly traced to the excellent new album, but Bobby himself heaps much of the praise on returning guitarist Victor Griffin; "Victor is my music partner. He and I think the same. It feels right with him around and I am not at full power without him. He is my brother and I'm lucky to have him back alongside me! I've worked with some great musicians and I'm lucky for that but nobody comes close to Victor. He needs to be known and I hope Last Rites finally gives him the fame he so deserves."
The album itself presents a new sound for the band, with fuzzier guitars, smooth, deeper vocals from Liebling and a feeling that stoner metal sensibilities have been broadly embraced. "It's more about evolution," affirms Bobby, "Victor has finally perfected his sound. We finally got GOOD PRODUCTION. I know you all love that Relentless production but that was so half-assed. It was recorded all wrong. I feel that this is our best sounding album. I think that Victor carries this album in spots... his guitar needs to be heard. It'll take you away! This is my first album ever where I wasn't on drugs. Not smoking crack in the studio does wonders for my voice. I think I'll keep it that way."
Another dimension to Pentagram's inexplicable lack of acceptance and exposure Worldwide has been their absence from the live scene in many countries. Indeed they have never played in London, one of the most significant cities to play in the World; "London is the number one place I'd like to play. Ask my booking agent! The money wasn't right, the offers are low and it just wasn't possible for us to make it. The Mercy Beat scene was a HUGE influence on me. After that... so many UK bands spun on my turntable all day and night. The Groundhogs, Savoy Brown (with Chris Youlden), Ten Years After and, holy smokes, Wishbone Ash! I could go on and on." And in December he will finally get that chance, as Pentagram headline at The Garage with support from Horisont on the 9th.
And not before time either, given that playing live shows and selling merchandise is increasingly becoming the only reliable way for musicians to earn the money to continue making music. Bobby knows this, but has maintained a defiant desire to simply play his songs and have his music heard, by any means necessary; "All I know is that I've been ripped off for years. More and more people hear my music but I still can't pay the bills. Vinyl is expensive to make and to ship; it's heavy. But I do like the artwork element. I've got some great records, man. I do also like CDs though, they are convenient. As long as people hear my music, I don't care how or why or on what, I am happy if its available for people to buy and cherish. I will always love vinyl and as long as someone is supporting it, I'm all for giving the fans something special to buy.
"All I know is that I want to play. I just want to play on a big stage to as many people as possible. I finally want my music heard. I don't pay attention to the politics, just give me a stage and some real rivetheads to sing to. And I'll be a happy man. I do love to travel and see the world...who knew that I'd finally make it out of the sub-basement, I'm blessed and I want to survive and play my music. That's all."
“ Not smoking crack in the studio does wonders for my voice ”
- Bobby Liebling
As for the rest of the metal scene, Bobby sees glimmers of hope, and a desire amongst listeners for the values of older sounds; "at this point, people are sick and tired of soul-less music. They want to take it back to the roots of blues based rock. Music comes in cycles and the time is now, thank God! Pellet, my manager loves Reverend Bizarre and gave me their CDs.. I don't hear a whole lot of new bands that I love. My favorite new band is In Solitude! They are simply amazing and great kids on top of that. We toured together and I hope to again some day. I like bands that sing! I'm totally honored when people come up to me and tell me that I've influenced them. It's great, don't get me wrong but... I like bands that are musical with melody and singing."
And Pentagram have always fused those values with being crushingly heavy themselves. The recognition of that, and their contribution to heavy metal is so long overdue it's almost embarrassing for the genre to have to admit its failing this far down the line. But admit it has, and Pentagram are now getting to the level they have always belonged. A new live DVD will be released in August, around the time of a short US tour with Valient Thorr, and then they will return to Europe in December, including that historic first London show. The time is indeed now.
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