Not many bands can claim to have had a career spanning for well over forty years and still consider to be an underground outfit, but the Virginia-based Doom Metal legends Pentegram almost certainly belong to that category.
Having spent many years battling drug and alcohol addiction and having pushed the self-destruct button more times in his life that I have used my TV remote control, Bobby Liebling is now not only a sober and much focused father, but also happy to have added a new album in his record collection – an eleven track opus that listens to the name “Last Rites”.
Even though our conversation was plagued by a few technical problems, I believe that I managed to get Bobby to discuss many important issues with regards the new album, rights to previous releases, touring schedules and future plans.
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis
• Hi Bobby; good to have managed to reach you. Are you ready for our interview?
Bobby: Yep, let’s start. How are you?
• I am fine and my mood has drastically improved for the best since I started listening to Pentagram’s latest offering “Last Rites”. Even though this is still the end of April I believe that this little beauty might just end up becoming album of the year for me! I am so very impressed by what you have created here.
Bobby: Thank you so very much; I appreciate that – God bless you.
• It is truly amazing how, after all those years, you are still capable of surprising somebody like me with your new work.
Bobby: Are you familiar with our music? Have you been listening to us for a long time?
• Let’s just say that I have been a fan of Pentagram for the last twenty five years and, though I somehow knew that the new album was going to be good, I was still somewhat anxious – what pretty much happens when passion becomes part of the overall picture!
Bobby: I understand what you say and I appreciate your kind words – thanks man (laughs).
• One of the first things that I am interested in is your health. There were at least a couple of occasions where you were supposed to do a show here in London and twice such a show was cancelled, main reason being the state of your health. Are you OK now?
Bobby: Yeah, I am in a very good health and, as a matter of fact, I am leaving for a European tour next Tuesday.
• That is good to hear, even though there are no British dates involved, right?
Bobby: No, there are no UK dates and that really pisses me off because I want to play in England so bad – God you can’t imagine! I have always wanted to play there; that’s where I started with real heavy Rock stuff, something that started when The Beatles first came out, you know?
I mean, England is like the mother country as they say for Rock music, you know? I wish we could play there, I want it so badly, but they just don’t book us there! I keep on telling them “why are we not playing England”, “why are we not playing England”, “why don’t we play in the UK” and I just don’t know – it is all really up to our management. Nowadays I don’t run the shop anymore; I just take orders (laughs).
• Now, that is a very difficult thing to believe for a man of your status and experience.
Bobby: I understand it must be very difficult to believe it. I am so appreciative that Metal Blade signed us for three albums, finally, as we will get a distribution worldwide and not only in States and Canada and now maybe somebody will learn about my little band, right? Maybe we passed the audition (laughs).
• Bobby, there is a pattern with regards your previous releases; them being a mixture of old ‘unearthed’ tunes with new ones. With regards “Last Rites” does the same ‘rule’ still apply? Is this a compilation of eleven songs that are both old and new?
Bobby: It is exactly what you said, and that is the way I plan to keep things! Eight of the eleven songs that are featured here I wrote between 1969 and 1974 and the remaining three are brand new.
With most Pentagram albums the ‘ratio’ is either fifty-fifty or sixty-forty and that is simply because I wrote so many songs in the past and I don’t know what to do with them. I could not record them back in the day, but now that I get the chance to do that I am taking full advantage of it.
There are two songs which I co-credited Victor (Griffin: guitars) on as he helped re-vamp them and make them sound more modern. Unfortunately now that I have become a dinosaur you should expect things like that from me. I mean, I am now sixty seven years old and my wife is twenty four, you know, and my little boy is seven months old. It is amazing; my health is good – I mean, I do have a high blood pressure but that is to be expected of someone who has lived the life I did. I am straightened down now; I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs anymore and just focus on seeing my boy growing up.
I love my wife and we live in a quiet suburb outside Philadelphia, about twenty miles south of the town, and I just do my thing. Now that is getting closer to starting another tour, I am getting the ‘itch’ you know?
People think that us musicians live an easy life, you know, stuff like “yeah, it is quite glamorous to go on stage each night and make all that money for working only one hour each day”…well that is a load of bullsh*t!
People like us end up working more like twenty hours a day as we have to do sound checks, having to eat at a specific time or not eat at all, finish the show, pack up your gear and then head back to a hotel, or a plane or a bus…it is quite a regimented lifestyle and you never know when things start or stop! I hope that maybe now it is time for us to get to the top, finally, you know?
• Well, you certainly deserve recognition as a band – something that ought to have happened various times throughout the band’s career but which never really materialised. Now, with a strong label such as Metal Blade by your side, things should start happening for you.
Bobby: Well, I hope so, and that means much coming from a man who has been listening to Pentagram for over twenty five years. I do give Metal Blade much credit for giving us this chance, you know?
I am also very thankful that I am alive too! I cannot really believe that I am still alive (laughs)! If there is anybody that should have died in his thirties that was me, but here I am, fifty seven years old, preparing myself to take on three tours this year!
As I already said, we are doing a European tour now and then we will do another one in July in the west coast of US and then we will come back and do the north eastern coast in August – it never stops!
The only thing is that I wish that I didn’t have to be away from my wife and child as long as I do, even though it is only a few weeks – that’s as long as we go out for. I love my family so much and, now that I see things clearly, I love them more than I could ever imagine!
• Do you find that, since you became a father, the emotions that you convey through your music are stronger and meaningful in new ways?
Bobby: Oh yeah, but not with regards my song writing! It’s just the…I cannot really believe it! I am looking at my son right now who, by the way, is watching Sesame Street (note: a famous kid’s programme) and every time they show the cookie monster (note: a character on the programme) and he starts laughing he just light my heart! It is a strange sensation to me as I never thought…if anyone told me in the past “are you going to have kids” my answer to him would be “are you crazy”? Now, I finally managed to settle down and as I only have so much time on this earth, I have to make a really good use of it!
• You mentioned that “Last Rites” features only three new songs, something that I failed to detect while listening to it as they all are quite homogenous. What I did notice was a difference with regards the production between songs. Were these new songs recorded at different times and locations?
Bobby: No, actually not! They were all recorded together and this has been the fastest recording that we have ever made for a Pentagram album, as we only did five rehearsals for it and I only participated in two of them (laughs). We recorded the entire album from the first note to the finished master in three weeks!
Everything was recorded at the same place, everything was mastered at the same place and all that took three weeks. The whole thing was quite successful as a result of my joy in being back with Victor (Griffin: guitar) and Graig (Turley: bass) – that’s a big deal to me!
These guys have been with me…when I first met my bass player he was seven years old (laughs)…as he is the son of my former drummer Joe Hasselvander’s girlfriend. He listened to Pentagram as he was growing up and he used to also love Black Sabbath and now he is in the band and that is pretty much a dream come true for him. It’s not just me now that lives a dream – it is a surreal feeling!
We were all focused on it to retain the Pentagram sound when recording those new songs which we did but at the same time give it a modern feel, which we also did, and not that kind of bothers me (laughs).
(Note: at his point, Bobby’s voice starts to distort so I announced to him that I would be calling him again).
Bobby: Yiannis, is it any better now?
• Yep, we are back on track! You were saying that the long-awaited Pentagram DVD will be coming out in June, right?
Bobby: Yeah, it is supposed to come out in June and then we are also…there was an album about ten or eleven years ago called “Human Hurricane” which contained a lot of live rehearsals that were recorded really well and those who were to release it went and jerked off. So, we started to record them ourselves and now on each tour we do we will have a thousand copies to give.
Last year we played in Nashville Tennessee and we have a new live album also coming out in July and in August another one. Then, a company in Finland will be re-issuing our album “Show ‘Em How” (2004) which is currently very hard to get…just things like that. I am trying to understand how the young people tend to like the sh*ty sound of some of our bootlegs that are even today being sold because to me it is embarrassing to listen to them (laughs). I cannot listen to that!
• I believe that it is really the honesty behind those recordings that people are attracted to – the sound quality is almost irrelevant!
Bobby: You like it because it’s raw?
• We like them because of the emotion that they convey! Nowadays, many so called ‘artists’ can go to an expensive studio and record technically demanding stuff, but that does not mean that they will necessarily have a soul and if you were to ask them to go on stage and perform their songs, chances are that you will end up being bitterly disappointed.
Bobby: I see what you mean; you realise that they are real songs! I am happy to know that fans see that even though bootleg releases – they only problem is that artists don’t get anything from such releases but simply get ripped off!
We have finally had enough of all those bootleggers so we decided to release those things ourselves, as we also know how we want them to be packaged and to sound. Those people who issue bootleg copies don’t care about such things – they only care for the money! The musician gets nothing in such cases and that is the downside of the music business. When I die.
God forbid, but which I will as everybody eventually does, my family is not going to get any pension from me and that is the biggest difference in comparison to most people. I am used to the idea, though, and I understand what you are saying.
• Metal Blade is a label that does not shy away from re-releasing classic albums that are difficult for most people to find. Is there any plan for them to bring out some of your most hard to find releases?
Bobby: No, I don’t think so because some of them have been quite recently re-issued by other labels like this company in Finland called Svart Records. I do not own a copy just yet but I have seen them and they are going to release “Be Forewarned” on vinyl as a gatefold which was not originally so.
It is going to be a double album, something that I haven’t yet managed to figure out how it is possible (laughs). So these guys have already released “Be Forewarned” and they are going to release “Show ‘Em How” next. “Show ‘Em How” was always very hard to get because it never had any real distributor or sub-distributor in the US and also I never saw a single cent from any of the three albums that we released through Black Widow – not a penny!
That is why we, finally and in so many words, kind of say “fu*k you” and bring them out ourselves, because I never signed any contracts – none, to do any of those records!
They were all word of mouth releases which are now getting heavily bootlegged so we are going to release them ourselves and maybe I can now make enough out of them to pay for my car insurance or buy groceries for my kid to eat.
I mean, I am proud of what I have done in that way – I have finally grown up and believe me, I didn’t think that I would ever manage to grow up!
• Bobby, listening to the “Last Rites” was a good exercise in detecting where younger bands such as Witchcraft and Paradise Lost have drawn their inspiration from, both bands being very popular here in the UK…
Bobby: I really like Paradise Lost and especially their album “Gothic” and yes, I do hear a lot of Pentagram influences in their music.
• So, how does that make you feel, especially knowing that these bands have reached truly high levels of popularity?
Bobby: Well, it is too surreal for me to either understand or comprehend it, especially when these bands show openly their appreciation towards our music. I am not used to this; I am not used to getting a bad in the pack and hear the words “you did good”!
I am used to getting ripped off and having people bootlegging our releases and stealing from us money that we earned with our sweat! I was used to walking around with no place to sleep, smoking drugs and shooting crack and fu*king everything up (laughs), so it feels good not to be doing that anymore!
My focus now it to keep my family safe, to keep my loved ones near me, to enjoy the musical addiction of our fans because I am a groupie myself – as big as one comes! I love meeting the people that I worshiped like Dick Wagner and The Frost, Stray, The Groundhogs; these people, when I was young and starry-eyed, I used to watch live – bands that most people would not even imagine that they could see! I saw the Groundhogs live! I saw Lord Baltimore and their album was the second release that I have ever bought – a brand new copy that has never been played and that has been autographed by everyone!
My “Hotter Than Hell” KISS album has been personally autographed by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley and they are both still sealed! Such things are too surreal to understand, I think. I hope to God that I can live long enough to come to grips with the fact that when people tell you this crazy line about being a legend to them or an icon, that I can actually understand that they are not simply saying to me “you are a very good fu*k up” (laughs).
• Well, I hope that you do live long enough, but not only for that reason. What I have gotten out of our conversation is that you now have a very positive outlook on life and that makes me personally feel very happy. I hope that you will continue to feel so in the future, for your sake and that of your family’s, and if that also means that you will get to record more beautiful music for us in the near future, all the better!
Bobby: I hope I can and I appreciate the time talking with you. I just want to say to all our fans that “as long as you keep listening, I will keep playing”! This is all I do; this is how I support my family! I finally have a nice car, I finally have a house, I buy furniture instead of heroin and I don’t crave for drugs anymore! My head is clear, I smell the flowers, the trees and fresh air, I have a dog…my God, I have a dog! If I had a dog twenty years ago it would certainly have starved to death! Now, I love my dog as I love my wife and my little boy!
It is all strange and very new to me but I love it and I am going to keep doing it for as long as everyone will keep listening and enjoying what we do! Without the fans, without you guys, there isn’t any Pentagram – you have to remember that!
• Bobby, on that note I want to thank you once again for doing this interview and wish you all success and happiness! Also, I hope to see you soon here in the UK!
Bobby: Thank you very much! God bless you, take care of yourself and be safe!
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