Interview: Justin Greaves (Crippled Black Phoenix)

The initial attraction to Crippled Black Phoenix – at least for me anyway – was seeing bassist Dominic Aitchison’s name listed as a band member. Not sure that I’d recognize him walking down the street or even be able to pick him out on stage (other than the fact that he’d be the only bass player), but for the last 14 years Aitchison’s name has consistently been listed in the liner notes of the CDs of the band he helped form with Stuart Braithwaite in Scotland … MOGWAI.

Reading through the Crippled Black Phoenix legendary tale, however, it seems as if Aitchison’s initial inclusion with the band came after he encourage Electric Wizard drummer Justin Greaves to record some of the music he had been brewing in his head for years. Greaves did just that in 2006 with A Love of Shared Disaster in which he called upon the talents of many of his friends, including Aitchison. Three years later and the band – helmed, of course, by Greaves, is just weeks away from officially releasing 2 albums worth of new material to U.S. audiences. To coincide with the releases, Greaves and compatriots have just landed in the U.S. and are embarking on a short, 2-week tour.

On the eve of his plane flight to the U.S., Greaves spit out some answers (via email) to the questions I sent him. “I did my best with your smart questions,” his email began. “But I am very tired and need my head fixing.”

I have a lot of non-music listening friends who think Mogwai is only the name of the little fury creature in the movie Gremlins. So, when trying to describe Crippled Black Phoenix’s sound, I say it’s something like “Mogwai covering Pink Floyd for a movie soundtrack”. They don’t quite understand all the references but I think it points them in a certain direction. For those whose music collections leave a bit to be desired, how would YOU describe your sound?

Endtime Ballads. I think that sums it up, we’re always going to be tagged with something and most likely it’s going to be the wrong one as far as I’m concerned. A lot of people make the assumption, maybe because of Dominic’s involvement, that we’re a “post-rock” band, it’s just not the case, we have some quieter moments but i see it as being part of a film with different scenes and different moods. So i find it hard to say what exactly we are music-wise, so when we were talking about it during the first album sessions, it was said that it is like “endtime ballads” and we absorbed that idea, that and a bit of classic rock.

The Mogwai reference was what initially got me into checking out Crippled Black Phoenix. I know there is also the Electric Wizard background though I’ll admit to knowing very little about that band. Tell me how much the collective backgrounds of all the bands that everybody involved with CBP plays into the current band’s sound (if at all).

It does enter the mix, everyone’s backgrounds are slightly different but we meet in the middle. I think with this band we all try and clear our heads to what is going on around us or what we do or did in other bands. Maybe the name dropping of certain band names influence people on what they think they’re going to hear in the CBP music, but in reality we just respect the way we all play and try to come up with something honest, if that means we have parts that come from other things then so be it. My background is very different to what I’m writing now but that’s because i have always been influenced by things other than just the music I’m listening to or whatever scene I’ve been involved in, it can be quite a challenge sometimes for someone who knows our other bands to get into CBP I’m sure.

I love how you (or somebody) created the term “endtime ballads” to describe the sound because, while I know this wasn’t what you meant by the description, I often listen to CBP as I’m falling asleep. I feel like it puts my mind in a good place and perhaps even helps unlock some dreams. If you could create the ideal setting for somebody to listen to CBP (a “real life” soundtrack), what would that setting be (Time of day? Location? Things happening – or not happening?)

Goodness, I think I hear music when I’m isolated from everything, maybe in a time of reflection, so I guess the best setting would be when you’re feeling lonely and there are all the different emotions being let loose around your mind, for some folk that could be in the morning waking up and some when they’re drifting off to sleep. Different locations give different inspirations and i love when i hear a piece of music that connects with me and my surroundings at that exact point, and that could be anywhere at anytime, maybe it’s not to be pinned down to a pre-thought out scene, maybe it’s just luck.

Tell me about a song/an album that, when you listen to it, evokes strong memories from your own past. For instance, I have a friend who says that every time he hears something from Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream”, he can smell kitty litter because, when that album came out, he used to go to his friend’s house to listen to it. His friend had a stereo in the basement and they had to walk by the litter box to get to the stereo. Any songs do something like that for you?

I get that from certain albums, i listen to music mostly when I’m driving, so most of my memories and emotions relate to times I’ve been traveling. There’s a Three-Mile Pilot album “Another Desert Another Sea” which takes me back to a moment when my life changed, there’s a lot of weird feelings associated with that. Also a 16 Horsepower album called “Secret South” that totally reminds me of the Lake District, my favourite part of England…..that’s a good memory and makes me love that album all the more, it just works for me.

Your stuff hasn’t been readily available in the U.S. though I suppose you’ve got digital outlets such as iTunes. I’ve read that you’re going to be doing kind of a “greatest hits” compilation from “The Resurrectionists” and “Night Raider” for a U.S. release as a single disc. Why not release both? How much did you have to cut out to fit everything onto one CD?

We are releasing both, the single condensed version was a compromise, the publishers and label thought it best to put out a normal length album, they probably thought that nobody would pick up two albums at once and certainly think that the press won’t take it or review it. It’s all a game, one which I don’t fully agree with, although i do see their point. I wanted to just put out the two full albums, and to get them released the deal was that the label could release the single CD version, then also release the two albums in a box together. It all got a bit confusing really, and from what i can tell, people are into the box version, i don’t think we should under estimate real music fans, they still exist and will but into something that’s interesting, maybe people are getting tired of cheep music with no substance. I think we should be giving the buyer more value for money, give them something that will last a while. So, anyway, there were a lot of songs left off the “200 Tons….” album, so if you want the full story and hear the songs as they are intended to be, then you just have to get the box, hopefully that won’t be too hard!

I’m very interested in the way you use spoken word samples. How do you pick those? Are you always on the lookout for something you think you can use in a song? Do the sample come first and you build a song around those or do the songs come first and you insert appropriate spoken word dialogue?

I love to hear some dialogue that inspires me to write, but I don’t write a song specifically for the words, it’s just good fortune to get spoken word and music to fit together, usually I’ll have a song and at the same time I’ll always be on the lookout for interesting things to use, when I hear a piece of dialogue that fits in with what I’m writing then it gets used, but I will only use words that means something to me, I don’t think it can be done for the sake of it or forced together, that’s why I’ve not written more songs with talking as part of the music, because these things don’t happen easily or often for me.

The release date (at least what I’ve noticed through Amazon) for the “200 Tons of Bad Luck” is mid-April. Will you have the CD available for sale at the merch table on this tour or will people have to wait? Also, so that people can come prepared with enough cash to the shows on this tour, what type of merch will you be selling and do you know approximately what you’ll be charging?

We shall have merchandise at the shows, unfortunately all the vinyl sold out, so we’ll have CDs of the new albums and the first album, the box and shirts, caps, hoodies etc…. the usual crap. I’m not sure exactly how much things will be but we’re not in this to rip folk off, we are fair…..if ye catch us in a good mood that is.

You’ve got a rotating cast of contributors to CBP. Who will be in the touring band and are you making any compromises due to economic factors (like, will you be bringing over fewer band members because travel costs are too high?)?

We’re touring with the medium size band, we won’t have the two drumkits or the brass and violin, but we will have the cello, piano, synth/organ plus the normal guitars/bass drums set up, there’s 8 players this time, so we haven’t stripped things down at all really, we want to do the loud set….and that we shall do. Dominic is unclear whether he’ll make al the shows due to the fact that Mogwai are starting their tour on the last day of ours, it’s frustrating for both of us, especially when we had this tour booked for months and the Mogwai machine takes Dominic away at the last minute. We also have a new guitarist, Karl, he is just too bloody good actually, we may have to make him a bit more sh-t like the rest of us! Putting together this tour has almost destroyed me, but i just couldn’t give up on it, so many things have tried to prevent it or tell me it won’t happen, but faced with complete failure, utter defiance is the only response.

Does the timing of this tour have anything to do with the fact that Mogwai is set to kick off their U.S. tour very soon? Was there any talk of CBP playing any shows with Mogwai or are the logistics of that happening too difficult to pull off (mainly because it would require Dominic to pull double duty)?

Dominic loves to pull double duty!

Actually, I don’t think we’d get to do that, we have played shows with Mogwai, but i think it’s probably a bit too close to home for everyone, I mean, I really like the guys and spending time on tour with them i know would be a doss, but to be honest, their smack addiction is just too much and the thing with the swan whipping in tight speedo trunks and gestapo boots kind puts me off the idea. You know that they’re all Foreign Legion runaway’s, right?


Check out this cool fanmade video somebody made using Crippled Black Phoenix’s “Really, How’d it Get This Way” song atop Dr. Who footage. It fits perfectly.

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