-By Zack Sigel
Bobby Liebling has been writing music since before your parents were born. His band, Pentagram, may be one of the most influential heavy metal bands in history; it’s certainly one of the longest lasting. But much of Pentagram’s existence has been defined by its struggle to stay whole. Liebling spent much of his career in various states of addiction to the kinds of toxins that tend to kill musicians on or around age twenty-seven. Because of this, more people have left Pentagram than have played on its records or in its live shows, with the intertwined futures of the band and Liebling himself always uncertain.
In 2011, the documentary Last Days Here showed Liebling at his worst, nodding off and scratching out subcutaneous insects. But the film ended on a positive note: Liebling beat his addictions, had gotten married, and a baby was on the way. He made a triumphant return to playing live, taking the stage at Manhattan’s Webster Hall to rapturous cheers. Shortly before the film’s debut, longtime collaborators Greg Turley (bass) and Victor Griffin (guitar) also rejoined the band. This time, it was for good. Now Pentagram has had a chance to reflect on the legacy they’ve left, and what comes next.
[this interview has been lightly edited and condensed]
Zack: Can you talk about the themes on the new album a little bit?
Bobby: Victor and Greg did most of the writing on this album. And it’s really [their] stuff. I’m happy with it. I’m real pleased with it. It’s very, very honest, and very simple and to the point.
Greg: It has… [crosstalk]… and the darkness.
Bobby: It has light at the end of the tunnel.
Greg: It’s coming up at the end.
Bobby: It’s not like our usual stuff when at the end you’re completely condemned.
Zack: Have you found that making music has …
Bobby: … condemned me?
Greg: Into what?
Bobby: I don’t know. Too many women, too many late nights.
Zack: It’s 2015, and you’ve been playing music for almost 50 years now…
Bobby: 51 this year.
Zack: 51 years, congratulations, that’s awesome. Have you found it’s gotten easier, or harder?
Bobby: [to the band:] What are you looking at? [laughs] It’s easier. Because I used to hide a lot of things, to be honest, and real ground level, I used to hide stuff from the band, stuff like that, all about the demons, things I wouldn’t volunteer. Figured I’d be ashamed of myself. But now I’m not ashamed anymore about that stuff. Because it’s like, well, I paid and paid, you know? Everyone’s gotta pay for all their sins. [This is an in-joke with the band; It’s how he introduces one of their most popular songs, “All Your Sins.”] I’ve paid enough and I’m comfortable now. I’m just trying to get old. Trying to still be here.
Zack: What changed to make you more open?
Bobby: The acceptance of the people I’m around has changed. I don’t think I’ve really changed. They’ve seen like, well, that’s just Bobby.
Greg: Well, we’ve seen him at his lowest, and that…
Bobby: Yeah, right.
Greg: … on camera, and it’s the real…
Bobby: … the real deal. Right? [laughs] Greg: So when you see him on camera, [that was] just a little glimpse of what Bobby was, and so you see that, at his lowest, and he’s come up out of that. He’s pretty honest, and straightforward.
Bobby: I told him, I screw up. I’m human, that’s all. Now and then you fall on your ass. You got one, that’s what it’s there for. [laughs] Pete [Campbell, drummer]: It’s there for a reason! [Bobby laughs] Zack: What about the role of spirituality, which I heard you recently discovered?
Bobby: It’s not recently discovered. It’s recently just really brought to the peoples’ focus. I portray a darker person than I realized I really was. Because we all have dark sides to us, and it’s just how much it manifests in the public, I think. They’re very lenient of me, because they know I say, I screw up too. We all do, that’s okay.
Zack: Would you say that you’re still trying to bring the same kind experience you’ve brought the last forty years?
Bobby: It really hasn’t [changed]. The people haven’t really played a lot of attention. They see Pentagram! “Oh, they flipped the cross!” That’s one little narrow passageway of many words that are misconstrued, or contrived into their more stereotypical meaning, or something like that. You know, Pentagram’s just five. There’s just five people, and that’s all.
Greg: You think, “Forever My Queen”, is that a dark song? When was “Review Your Choices” written? [The band has cited “Review Your Choices” as one of its more spiritual songs.] Bobby: 1969.
Greg: Right, so that’s not a new thing whatsoever.
Bobby: They’re written late-sixties, early seventies. All the ones that I wrote by myself. Now I just write lyrics when I write, because I shot my whole bolt musically, and my hands don’t work dexterously as they used to. So I don’t play an instrument when I write them.
Zack: Pentagram had a number of false starts in the 70s and 80s, as the band was struggling to find its footing. Do you think the world just wasn’t ready for the music back then?
Bobby: The world was closed back then.
Greg: You could flip it and say the world’s starving now for good music.
Bobby: Yeah, because there’s very little originality. We’re kind of like a dinosaur band. I’ve realized that. And there’s nothing wrong with that. All kids are fascinated with dinosaurs, right?
[everyone laughs] Zack: I know I was.
Bobby: “When dinosaurs roamed the earth.” And we still do. So I’m proud of that. It’s like Grand Funk [Railroad, the blues rock band formed in 1969]. Now you go online, and you see on YouTube, for instance, there’s a two-hour Grand Funk special. I used to sit in the audience, and go, “Wow! Yeah, he is so cool, and their hair’s so long! They punch in to a whole lot of amps, and they play really loud!” And, well, we’ve always done that, and now we do it, and people pay attention to it, because there aren’t too many around like that.
Zack: How long has this been the current lineup?
Bobby: Pete just popped into the band, but…
Greg: Five years, basically.
Victor: [Pete joined] right at the beginning of the new album and saved the day for us.
Bobby: He saved us. Our drummer left us, in the midst of recording the record, and so we called up Pete, and he was there, more than happy to come down and help us out. We needed a lot of help! [laughs] We had to do the whole album over again!
Zack: How long did it take to write that album, from start to finish?
Greg: We started the new songs in November. And then we were in the studio in January with the new songs, and that was probably sixty percent of the new album.
Bobby: They had a lot of new ideas. I wasn’t participating particularly too much. I had a lot of things in my life, like issues going on. I was pretty dysfunctional. Again. So they did most of the writing on stuff. I co-wrote three songs and only wrote one song on the new album. I wrote that one when I was eleven years old, the first song on the album.
Zack: Wow! The documentary that came out a couple years ago had as its climax this big concert at Webster Hall, right in Manhattan. Was that the band’s comeback?
Bobby: It was more like a come-out. It wasn’t a comeback. There was no real pinnacle with that. People always speak to me and they say, “Well, how’d you feel like when you guys were [inaudible] years ago?” And it’s like, years ago? We were doing things. We rehearsed! On, and on, and decade after decade after decade, and nothing really happened, and no one paid attention to it.
Greg: I guess it was the beginning of the touring cycle for the band. Because the band never toured…
Greg: …really, before 2009 and then, like you said, 2010, was where it really became like a normal scheduled yearly thing.
Bobby: It became a vocation. It’s my job. It’s what I do for work, and what we all do for work. I mean, basically, you know. It’s not just a job, necessarily, a couple of guys work with other things like that. But a couple of us, that’s all we do. It’s music.
Zack: Around this time, how did you convince Victor and Greg to rejoin the band?
Bobby: [short pause] I’d been speaking a lot with Victor. I was really kind of lost, like inside. I really didn’t have any direction. And needed something to kind of pull things back in focus. Victor and I have been playing on and off since thirty-five years. And Greg’s been there for twenty of ‘em?
Greg: Yeah, more than twenty.
Victor: We’d kind of been back talking. And I came to Atlanta and saw you, and then came to Asheville and saw you. And…
Bobby: … got the itch?
Victor: We kind of stayed in contact. And then Russ [Strahan] quit the band, like two days before the tour. And Bobby called me, saying, “Oh, can you do this tour? It starts the day after tomorrow.”
Pete: “Yeah, can the bus come get you tomorrow morning?” [everyone laughs] Victor: And I was like, “No, that’s impossible.” I’ve got a different tour coming up halfway through your tour, and then he had another tour. Six months later, I said, “Well, if you haven’t found someone by then, I’ll do that.”
Zack: Were there any reservations about rejoining the band?
Victor: Well, that’s kind of why I went to see Bobby in Atlanta and Asheville, because I heard Pentagram was on the road, and the last time I’d seen Bobby was when Place of Skulls [Griffin’s doom metal band, which released four albums between 2001 and 2010] played in D.C., and remember you [Bobby] came up on stage and played some songs. I literally didn’t expect to see him again alive, after I saw him that time. So when I heard Pentagram was on the road, I was like, “I have to go see this for myself.” And he’s obviously doing much better and taking better care of himself. That’s one of the things that he and I talked about, before we toured, if he was sober and all that.
Zack: In April, you told Vice that you and your wife had separated but you were hoping to get back together. Has she been receptive?
Bobby: I don’t think we’re gonna be able to work things out. I wish we could. I love her very much. I’ll always love her. I also love a lot of people. I love myself, I love God, I love you guys in the band, I love my folks. Some things just work out that way. You can’t control your destiny but to a certain extent, and then the rest of us put it in a higher power’s hands. That’s what I do. People go, “Oh my god!” But they don’t think about it every day [that] you’re constantly calling upon God to come out, and sometime’s the closet’s empty. Sometimes you can’t resolve certain differences. It’s just like my little boy. I miss him horribly. And I cry about that a lot at night. I really get upset. He’s five years old now, and it just seems like yesterday we had him. I still love my wife. You don’t just get with somebody and have a child just for funsies. [laughs] You’ve got to kind of keep it an ongoing thing. It’s a partnership. Give and take.
Zack: To get a little bit theological for a second, the new album discusses the corporeal realm, the body and the spirit, and the fragility of the body. What do you envision spiritual ascension to be like?
Bobby: [short pause] I’ve been on the other side of the wall. I’ve died, clinically, and not spiritually. It feels good to know that you’ve got a family of people. The band’s almost like the only family I have. My folks are still alive, but my folks are very old. My father’s ninety-five, and my mother’s eighty-five. They’ve been married sixty-four years, my folks. And they’re going to go soon. You guys [addressing the band] are like my brothers, and sons and fathers and the whole thing kind of rolled into one. It’s a family here. I feel part of a family. I have very few friends. I live alone. I have a young lady that lives with me now, helps take care of me a lot. She’s like a mommy. [laughs] She’s like twenty! [inaudible] So was I, once upon a time. But that’s neither here nor there.
Victor: I think for everybody, as you get older you realize all this is going away. And every day you get closer to that. As you get older, you start to realize how close you are getting to that, to it all going away …
Bobby: And you see it’s more …
Victor: It’s got to be more than this, you know?
Bobby: Yeah, it’s frightening. It’s also quizzical.
Victor: But as far as what to expect …
Bobby: You don’t know. Well, you hope. Hope is a strong thing.
Victor: But what do you put your hope in? You can say God with a little “g” or you can say God with a big “g.” If you look in the scripture, it says it hasn’t been seen or heard or even come into the imagination of man of what God has planned. As long as you believe in him, you can count on him to be there in the afterlife. If all it was what something that was similar to this world, it wouldn’t be much hope for.
Zack: Yeah, the lyrics reminded me a little bit of Ecclesiastes. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Was that in your mind when you were writing at all?
Victor: Well, for me personally I always have spirituality in mind. Or with songs like “Dead Bury Dead” or “Close the Casket”, those are straight out of spiritual stuff. Actually, I wrote those to Bobby. Not for Bobby, necessarily, because they’re also for me. They’re also for anybody else who puts their belief in that direction. But kind of for Bobby, because he talked a lot about dying and death, it’s kind of all he ever wrote songs for the most part, really. I’ve been fascinated with death since I was about eight years old. I have no idea why.
Bobby: I think everybody’s fascinated by death.
Greg: Because everybody’s going there.
Bobby: It starts to be heavy on your plate.
Victor: I guess it depends on how much you just blow it off. [But then] it becomes this tangible thing, and you might get there when you’re eighty or you might get there tomorrow, even if you’re twenty years old. There’s a lot of that in our songs. There’s the same elements in our songs, in the 80s. When Bobby and I met, [we wrote] songs like “When the Screams Come” and “Review Your Choices” and all that, and I wrote songs like “Death Row” and “Dying World” and all these songs, and when we put them together it was really seamless as far as the subject matter and point-of-view go. So we always had those kind of songs and even when the band was perceived as being this dark, evil band, this really goes back to being, well, not necessarily. We’re looking at life. We have the path of darkness or the path of life.
Zack: Has the name “Pentagram” taken on new meaning?
Victor: I think it’s sort of taken on no meaning. We perpetuated that image in the 80s, and I guess through the 90s too, but I think that we all kind of grew up and then with the album that everybody has now, I think it’s just a word. But people know it, because it’s the band.
Bobby: As well as the insignia of the band. Now it’s just like our hand.
Victor: There’s no symbolism behind it. We dropped all the pentagrams, Baphomet stuff long ago. Upside-down crosses. Anything related to that. So it’s…
Bobby: It doesn’t have any symbolism, as far as the word. It’s just another word in the dictionary. It’s all P-Q-R-S. It’s just a name.
Greg: I don’t think it means anything now.
Bobby: It’s the name of a rock band.
Zack: So you guys are going on tour around the country, and also in Europe. You have this new album out that people tend to love.
Pete: Say that again! [everyone laughs] Zack: Are you feeling optimistic about your legacy?
Greg: Well, I guess back up a little bit. The album — I’m going to talk about the album [everyone laughs] — because I thought about it a lot, like how it came to be, and how it is. We all call it just a heavy rock album, but this is the first time, even since when we recorded Last Rites, we hadn’t been together that long after reforming. Not even a year. Because it came out in ’11, right? We recorded in the fall of 2010. So, this album, we actually toured together for four years before going in the studio, and we’ve been getting fans’ reactions to songs, and getting live feedback over and over from songs, from people all over the world. And then we go into the studio and record something like this and to me it came off as what we thought we were feeding back to people, and writing new music like, “Oh, this is what they want to hear.” To me, the new album’s something brand new but also a snapshot of the whole [discography], from the beginning to all the different periods of the band and leading us forward to something else.
Bobby: It’s a culmination of everything, past and future and present.
Zack: Some of the themes deal with anger and redemption. What do you hope the fans will take away from that?
Bobby: I hope they’ll be uplifted, of course. I mean, you don’t do it because you want to piss them off or bum them out. You want them to look at it objectively and just enjoy the music you’re playing.
Greg: So far so good.
Victor: I think there’s an additional aspect to that. If someone comes up to you, or sends you an email or a message, and says, “I had a really difficult year last year, and such-and-such song really encouraged me to get through a terrible time”, and things like that — how can you beat that?
Bobby: You can’t!
Victor: Just to have a part in a complete stranger’s life over a song you wrote.
Bobby: People realize you’re not alone.
Victor: [At live shows], the feedback from the crowd is awesome, energetic and feels great. But to take it to the next step, higher and deeper than that, is to actually have an effect on somebody’s personal life, with something they’re going through. Your music can help them deal with that.
Zack: You said you wrote “Dead Bury Dead” and “Close the Casket” for Bobby. How was your reaction to hearing those songs for the first time?
Bobby: I liked the songs. I’m not overly analytical about the songs. It’s like, they’re songs, they make you feel. You’re just try to get from stepping stone to stepping stone in life and they’re just little spots.
Victor: It’s like when we’re playing, like you said, when we played “Last Days Here”, you’ve almost broken into tears on stage.
Bobby: Now I really do. It’s real touching, because it’s very personal. [short pause] It means a lot to me. Because I don’t know how long I’ll be here, or what’s going to happen, and I’m aware of it. When I was younger, I was like, well, I’m going to be here every year, and now I’m in my sixties and I never thought I get near that age. I feel like an old man, but nevertheless I feel like I’m reawakening to myself. There’s still a spark somewhere in me that keeps sizzling. The quest of life is, to me, without getting into all the sentimental bullshit [laughs], is what everybody thinks about, as you get older. And older and older and older. I’m here. You know, I’m here. I’m here. [I’m] a reflecting pool, for people, their ideals, and stuff like that, [and] they can relate with you. You’ve been there, you’ve done more. The more you’re here, the more you do. It’s just all part of wisdom in life.
Zack: How has the music writing and playing style evolved through the years?
Greg: It hasn’t. [everyone laughs] Bobby: I’m still on the stuffed dinosaur thing.
Zack: I noticed that Curious Volume does sound —
Pete: It’s a lot more funkier. I feel it’s the best musical Pentagram record ever. And [I say that] as a fan, not even being in the band! [everyone laughs] But even if I didn’t play on it, I would listen to it and I’d go, “Man, those riffs are the shit.” I think it’s the best musically written Pentagram record in the whole catalogue.
Zack: Do you guys agree?
Greg: Yeah, but I’m biased.
Bobby: My opinion changes my feelings day to day.
Greg: I’m just happy with it.
Victor: I feel the same way as Bobby. My mood and what album I’m listening to [can affect how I feel about it.] It needs a little time to settle in. I mean, I think it’s great, but …
Bobby: … you thought the last record was great, and we now did this one, and we think this is better, and hopefully keep striving on and on.
Victor: I look at it more like it’s where you are related to a specific time, when you record and write that particular album. We just write the way we do and put it out and that’s all there is to it.
Bobby: We don’t gate ourselves in to this little corral. Our sound is our sound. It comes out that way over and over because that’s what we are.
Greg: But after Last Rites, we all talked and had a direction of what we wanted to do. I think we achieved that direction.
Victor: Yeah, on this album we definitely wanted to go just more straightforward, and less dynamic. Last Rites was a very dynamic album. It was kind of just getting back to straight heavy rock.
Pentagram is currently on tour in the US and Europe to support its latest album, Curious Volume.