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A Quietus Interview

Crippled Black Phoenix: Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching As Unto War
The Quietus , May 11th, 2009 08:21

200 Tons Of Bad Luck is one of our favourite albums of the year so far. Hazel Sheffield meets Justin Greaves to get the lowdown on Crippled Black Phoenix

Justin Greaves has seen a few things — he could tell you a few stories if you asked him. Over the years he's found his feet in the nowhere town of Scunthorpe; journeyed straight through the hellfire of the hardcore and doom scenes as the drummer with Iron Monkey and Electric Wizard; and emerged, battle-scarred, in the role of epic, progressive soundscaper under the name Crippled Black Phoenix. Along the way he had a stroke, watched several friends die in a series of freak fatalities, and got caught up in a road accident that caused a steady decline into post-traumatic stress disorder.

Crippled Black Phoenix — as the name suggests — rose still-smouldering from the wreckage with A Love Of Shared Disasters in 2006. A kind of advanced form of musical therapy, this was a far cry from the concentric hedonism of his origins. Greaves's recent work is slow-burning and cinematic, fortified with the kind of artistic resolve that can only come from seeing the dark side, and surviving.

In the run-up to the release of their second album, 200 Tons Of Bad Luck, Greaves has been touring the states with bandmates — Donald Aitchison (Mogwai) and Joe Volk (Iron Monkey, Gonga) — whose names get dropped like panaceas into interviews, apparently to sugar the unwieldy experimentalism of his chosen craft. The fact is, Greaves's achievement outstrips comparisons both to these artists and to his previous work. Shot through with spliced, sylvan tone poems that focus on the hapless survival of the human against the odds, Crippled Black Phoenix is ready to hold a mirror up to the disaffection of post-rock idolatry — and bring a little black humour to proceedings.

A lot has been made of the fact that 200 Tonnes Of Bad Luck is ‘lighter' sounding than the previous work you've been involved in. Did you feel like you had loads of ideas of offload that you didn't have another outlet for?

Justin Greaves: "There was some of that, definitely. The way I feel about it is that you get to a certain point in your life and you don't care so much about what's going on around you, or feel any need to fit into a scene. When you drop that, all the other influences that you have start flooding out, so it kind of reflects my interests in music since the age of ten, that's probably what I'm doing now."

You're regressing?

JG: "Totally, in a way I'm regressing. My sister got me into punk when I was 13 or 14, and one day my dad got this massive box of vinyl in and just dumped it in my bedroom. It was full of seventies rock, so I grew up on a diet of Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and Journey while at the same time listening to Anti No-where League and all the punk bands."

The sound that you've managed to create with this album is almost like a movie soundtrack. Was film an influence?

JG: "I'm really into film, but it's not like I set out to make a soundtrack. I set out to construct an album much as if I was constructing a film, with different scenes. It's not a score for a film, but it works like a film with different movements and emotions."

Speaking of those emotions, your albums have really pessimistic titles – but you don't sound pessimistic and the music doesn't sound particularly pessimistic.

JG: "No, I don't think it's pessimistic. There's a difference between the first album and these two albums [200 Tons Of Bad Luck will also be released as a deluxe 2 CD boxset]. The first album was more reflective – it was more melancholy because that was what was going on in my life at that point. But I've got to this point where there's so much shit that's happened that I can't help but feel optimistic now, you can't help but laugh, you have to soldier on and find positive messages in things.

"I'm really opposed to bands singing about really depressing thing to kids. I saw one thing that really appalled me on the cover of a rock magazine: a really stupid emo band, My Bloody Chemical Whatever, and the quote from the singer was "It's okay to die." I couldn't believe what I was seeing – tons of kids are listening to this guy in their bedrooms at a very vulnerable age, and it appals me. The difference is that we might have some pretty depressing subject matter, but there's always a message of hope in there. I've discovered my new calling – I'm going to be a vigilante! It's all about vigilantism – we've all got balaclavas, we're ready to clean up the streets and get rid of all them miserable bands."

At one point you sample Evel Knievel, and I guess he's trying to preach a message of hope, but to me it sounds sad and desperate.

JG: "Remember how much of a rogue Evel Knievel was – he'd done time inside for spousal battery, he was an egomaniac, and he wasn't a very nice person. Then he goes into a school and he's giving this weird sermon, preaching a really positive message, but it comes across in such a sinister way. It's almost ironic – it sent shivers up my spine, and it had to be on there because that's what the album is about in some ways, just forgetting everything and starting again."

What about the scene that you wanted to get away from, was that Electric Wizard and Iron Monkey?

JG: "The way I felt about those bands was that I had all these things going on, and though I should probably have been doing this stuff years ago, I didn't know then what I know now. Back then I was just mates with those people, and we got together to start some trouble and get out of work and have more fun. You get caught up in those kind of things, and then all of a sudden you realise how minute the whole scene is. There are people hanging over you almost controlling what the music is about and what you can do or say; it's just really contrived. And though I still love that music, and I haven't ruled out playing the drums in another band like that, I've realised that I'm happier out of it, and I only realise that now I'm out of it."

What about your bassist, Dominic Aitchison from Mogwai. Is that kind of connection a help or a hindrance do you think?

JG: "I've found it to be a hindrance, though people say I should appreciate it. This is a new band, so I can't rely on other bands to do well, no one would respect me. I don't mind information – people knowing who's in the band and stuff – but when it gets twisted so that people think this is a Mogwai side-project or something, it annoys me. I get annoyed with it – just like when people dismiss us as a post-rock band."

What does the post-rock tag mean to you?

JG: "At the moment it means a lot of watered down bands that all sound the same, all really contrived and boring, and it doesn't really apply to what we do at all."

I read that you like to call your music Endtime Ballads.

JG: "Yeah, if people are going to tag us with something, and they tag us with that, then I reckon it's a small victory!"

I'll print that in big letters at the top of this interview then.

JG: "No, you've got to print in big letters that we're all vigilantes – we're all extreme communist Christians. We were just singing Onwards Christian Soldiers as we were driving out of Richmond – right outside a Baptist church as well!"


JG: "Nah, we're just a bunch of shit stirrers! But seriously, the vibe on this tour is the best one we've had – it's all on the up. I feel really positive about it all at the moment. But then, you might just have caught me on a good day – ask me tomorrow or later on and it might be a different story."

200 Tons Of Bad Luck is out now via Invada