Place Of Skulls guitarist/vocalist Victor Griffin is a bon afide doom legend. The Knoxville, Tennessee, native helped shape the American riff-led underground as a member of Death Row and Pentagram in the 1980s, and in the decade Place Of Skulls has been together, they’ve produced some of the finest traditional doom to be found the world over, in albums like Nailed and With Vision.
Griffin—who also rejoined Pentagram earlier this year and is featured on their forthcoming album, Last Rites—has just seen the release of Place Of Skulls’ fourth studio offering, As A Dog Returns, and recently took some time out to discuss the record, his faith, working with Pentagram again, and much more. Please enjoy.
Talking about As A Dog Returns, was it strange for you to go back to Place Of Skulls and pick that band up again after some time away from it?
Not really. It was sort of an unintentional break that we took. Lee [Abney, bass, also of Death Row] and I both had some personal problems pop up. He suddenly was going through a divorce back in 2007, and I’d fallen back into a couple of old habits, unintentionally. So things were sort of messed up in both our personal lives. It was something we needed to attend to, and it just so happened that we ended up taking a lot more time off than we intended to. I just really couldn’t come back until I felt like I was mentally and spiritually ready.
A couple of years ago, I wasn’t even sure it would ever happen again, for Place Of Skulls at least. But late last year, we started jamming a little bit again—rehearsing and that kind of thing—and I’d been writing some new songs over the past couple of years, and starting to piece those things together. I started to work things out and we ended up going into the studio to record the new album a lot sooner than we anticipated.
I just happened to talk to Travis Wyrick, who is the guy at Lakeside Studios, where we normally record—this is back last December—and he had some time open in late January, and said we could have three or four weeks. Initially I told him there was no way we could come in that early, but he said he didn’t have any other time open until midsummer, he was fully booked up until then, and we didn’t want to wait that long, so we just went in the studio with half the stuff worked out, half the stuff just (laughs) on a wing and a prayer and did what we did.
It came out pretty good, I think, for the circumstances at the time. I’m starting to get used to and to like the idea of going into the studio a little bit unprepared instead of everything fully worked out. I think you come up with some cool surprises that way. Some of the cool stuff happens on albums, I think, that you don’t expect, when you don’t have the stuff 100 percent rehearsed.
I was going to say, a lot of people do that on purpose.
Yeah. We kind of did that on The Black Is Never Far too, but not quite as unrehearsed as we were on this album. It becomes sort of a pressure-cooker situation, but I’ve really started to like it that way. You just really come up with some cool stuff that you would never come up with otherwise. I don’t know, I might end up doing the rest of the albums I ever do that way as well.
What was it then that made you pick Place Of Skulls back up again? Like you said, there were some rough times there. What made you go back to it?
I probably have to give a lot of credit to Tim [Tomaselli, drums] and Lee on that. I was in limbo and wasn’t necessarily looking to jump back into music quite yet. I was still dealing with some issues, and those guys kind of were behind me as my friends, gave me all kinds of support. They really wouldn’t let me give up.
Not that I was gonna give up, but they kept pushing me to get it going again, before I felt like I was ready, but maybe they could see something I couldn’t at the time. I really give them a lot of credit as far as getting the thing rolling again. It would have taken another year to do it if I didn’t have those guys pushing. I didn’t have any other prospects.
I wasn’t interested in doing anything outside of Place Of Skulls, and even Place Of Skulls at the time. I give them a lot of credit. They supported me through the whole thing and were the main force for getting it back together, probably.
Do you think of Place Of Skulls as a vehicle or a means of expression for your faith?
I don’t look at it as a means. I write songs, depending on what I feel, how I think and what I think is from my heart. I don’t write songs, going into it, like, “I’ll write this song because I think people are gonna like it,” or, “I’m gonna do this kind of riff because I think it’ll be catchy and the doom metal crowd will dig it.” It goes the same for lyrics. If I did that, I don’t think I would be doing a service to myself or whoever our fans might be. Because they wouldn’t be really listening to anything that’s coming to my heart.
As far as this new album goes, I realize there’s a lot of stuff lyrically that’s pretty way out there, as far as the issue of God and faith and all that type of thing. But it wasn’t to be a vehicle to proselytize or draw people into my way of thinking or anything like that. It’s really just how I feel about my faith, what I’ve been dealing with regarding my spiritual life, and how I see my relationship with God. How it’s grown, how it’s not grown, and where I’ve failed in those kinds of things too. And those couple of years off, when Place Of Skulls was down, I was dealing with a lot of issues that are quite personal, but at the same time, had a lot to do with my spiritual life and how I’ve failed in that area. Music and lyrics is just my outlet for expressing myself, and it’s not really a means.
I’m not trying to tell anybody that you have to think like I think. We all have a free will to do that. I wish people could just see it as me, as if I’m talking to you, telling you this is what’s happened to me in my life and this is how I’ve had to deal with it and the way I’ve dealt with it. That’s how I look at it. It just happens to come out in music, instead of a normal conversation. But there’s people who aren’t going to take it that way, and I understand that.
I knew when this album came out that there was going to be a lot of backlash about the lyrical content and all that. Frankly, I don’t really care. I never have cared, as far as what people thought about the music I play, the style of music or the words I write. And that goes all the way back to Death Row and Pentagram in the early ‘80s. It is what it is, and it’s where I’m at at the time. I feel like there’s integrity in it, so that’s the way I have to write and play music.
Tell me about working with Bobby again, rejoining Pentagram.
That’s something I never really planned for. Back in March, his guitar player, Russ [Strahan], quit the band suddenly, and he was stuck without a guitar player. He called me and wanted to know if I would fill in. He actually just wanted me to fill in on the one tour where they had a substitute guy, and one day to prepare. I couldn’t do that because I had other things going on, but I told him I would come in and do the May tour that we did, and that would probably be it, but once I got on the road with him—one of the big issues too, I wanted to see how Bobby was dealing with everything.
His past is no secret as far as the tendency on drugs and having problems with drugs in that kind of thing, and I didn’t want to get back into a situation with that. But once we were out, and I actually saw that he’s really holding it together and trying hard to maintain his sobriety, he’s doing a really good job at it. He’s come so far.
We talked a lot about it, and I told him that I’d be glad to do it and stay in the band as long as I could, as long as he was putting forth the effort to maintain his sobriety like he is now. Everything’s been working out pretty smoothly. Neither one of us had any idea we’d ever play together again, really. A year ago, I’d just assumed we probably wouldn’t. But the way things have turned out, it’s been pretty cool.
We just finished this new album, and we’ve got a couple of tours coming up in April and in the summer. It’s rolling along pretty good.
What was it like being back in the studio?
It was pretty relaxed, actually. We used to have some pretty serious wars at our rehearsals and in the studios. Disagreements that ended up in big, blown-up arguments and that kind of thing. We didn’t really have any of that. Bobby and I get along pretty good. We always have. We’ve never really fallen out with each other, the way the other guys in the band have. We haven’t always maintained contact over the years, but we’ve never really fallen out with each other.
We’ve always had a good working relationship, and we’re similar songwriters, so our material works well together, and our production ideas are very similar and so it’s always been pretty easy for Bobby and I to come to an agreement on how we want things to sound, what we want a song to do and all of that, all that goes into putting an album together. It’s been fun. Old times (laughs) coming back.
Bobby, with him being straight now, every situation is just so much easier to deal with. And as far as that goes, me being straight too. Back when I was in Pentagram before, really nobody in the band was very straight, but I think Bobby of course was way over the top, more than anybody else, and me probably after that, so we weren’t very influential in a good way on each other very much. Now we are and it’s working out really good. We laugh a lot and take things a lot easier. We don’t take ourselves so seriously anymore.
As A Dog Returns is available now on Giddy Up! Records. For more info, hit up placeofskulls.com.
JJ Koczan has the 7,400-word unabridged Q&A of this interview on his blog at TheObelisk.net. firstname.lastname@example.org.