When is a band not a band? It’s a question that has tormented many a single-minded musical visionary, and Crippled Black Phoenix’s founder, guitarist and chief songwriter Justin Greaves has certainly experienced plenty of emotional and logistical turmoil over the last few years. Formed as a somewhat amorphous vehicle for the music he began to write while attempting to move away from his former life as a respected metal drummer, this multi-headed crew nearly disintegrated in spectacular fashion two years ago, as acrimony erupted within the ranks and certain members battled with their nominal leader over rights to the band’s name. The resultant spat was duly aired in public, thanks to the wonders of social media, and in December 2014 Greaves stated on his own Facebook page that he was retiring CBP, concluding: “I don’t know what the future will hold but at this point I don’t need or want to be part of this.”
Two years on, Crippled Black Phoenix are back and poised to release what could well be their finest album yet, Bronze. Not surprisingly after successfully reclaiming his captaincy of the ship, Greaves is very pleased to be moving forward, with the personal and legal tussles of the past receding in the rear-view mirror. Buoyed by a refreshed and thoroughly harmonious line-up fronted by singer and guitarist Daniel Änghede, he is happy to admit that getting to this point has been an arduous and exhausting process.
“It’s been a weird one from day one, to be honest, because the whole thing was really just an accident 10 years ago,” he states of CBP’s formation. “It’s not like me and three mates got together, like it happened in my previous bands. When you do something purely for yourself and it’s out of a need to do it, it’s a different animal, but at the same time I’ve always been in bands and that’s where I feel comfortable. I ain’t a frontman. I wasn’t even a guitarist and I ended up playing guitar, so the whole thing’s been strange and a learning curve for me. With this band, there were a few people that came along and seemed to want to take advantage of that.”
With normal service resumed and with a more positive outlook than at any previous point in his band’s story, Greaves admits that the last couple of years have been “a blessing in disguise”, but he also admits that he has become more cynical and wary of placing his trust in people as a result.
“There are two kinds of people who play in bands,” he says. “There are those that are in it for themselves and want to make money but they pretend to be, ‘Oh, we’re all in it together!’ and then there are the people that really love being creative and want to play music and will go through shit to make things happen. This line-up in the band is the best it’s ever been. I’ve never had such an amazing bunch of people. I’m so lucky really because they’ve put up with my silly bollocks, but with all the recent trouble, any of them could have walked away at any time. I nearly walked away from it several times myself. But they didn’t, and I didn’t, and everyone’s more positive than ever and I can’t believe it. I’m so lucky.”
Part of this brave new era in the CBP story has nothing to do with luck, though. In reality, very few people ever doubted that the band was Greaves’ rightful domain and it’s hard to imagine the fans taking any other side in that dispute.
“Yeah, I know, but in my position I couldn’t see it,” he recalls. “When that kind of argument is being played out in public, it makes you really paranoid. I don’t know what people think and I try not to bother myself with that aspect of it, but when you do see people attacking you personally for things that, in the majority, aren’t true, then it’s like, ‘Okay, what do people really think?’ And the whole thing did knock us back. It set us back a good few years. But there you go, you live and learn…”
A vivid and enthralling encapsulation of everything that has made CBP so distinctive and admirable over the last decade, Bronze is arguably as dark and despondent as anything in the band’s catalogue, and yet the chemistry between the new line-up is thrillingly conspicuous throughout. Greaves explains that part of the process of rejuvenating the band involved signing their recent deal with Season Of Mist, with Änghede and long-time keyboard player Mark Furnevall as equal partners operating under the CBP banner. Today, responsibility is shared and the whole enterprise is beginning to feel a lot more like a real band in the traditional sense, albeit one augmented by several loyal comrades on session musician wages.
“I felt really comfortable with Mark and Daniel, so I said, ‘This is a really big thing for me, but I’m going to say on a business level that the band is the three of us now.’ That took some of the burden away from me because I felt like I was carrying everything. I trust them more than I’ve trusted anybody in the past.”
One obvious benefit of undergoing uncomfortable transitions in life is that Justin Greaves has not been short of emotionally charged subject matter for new material. As with the band’s previous records, Bronze exists in an often bleak and subtly nihilistic world, but while previous records either looked outward to the wider world and its troubles or inward towards more existential concerns, the new songs exhibit a spikiness that points more to defiance and pride than to fury or fear.
“Well, the Crafty Ape album was about fighting injustices, No Sadness Or Farewell was very sad and introverted and about fighting demons, but this one was definitely ‘We’re still here, so fuck you!’” Greaves chuckles. “Even the more miserable tracks like Goodbye Then, which is obviously about the black dog of depression, it’s personal but it’s still saying ‘Fuck you, black dog!’ [laughs] so there was definitely that feeling of defiance. Also, the whole thing about Bronze, it’s that quote from Mad Max, ‘If you’re gonna waste the bronze, you’ve got to do it big!’ If I’m going to do this then I’m going to do it right, you know?”
From accidental birth to today’s very welcome state of harmony, Crippled Black Phoenix have never taken the easy road, in either practical or musical terms. But then nothing worth having in life comes without a scrap or two, and if Bronze proves anything, it’s that all the bruises and scars make your skin thicker, your heart stronger and your music more powerful than ever.
“I’m just proud of the fact that we are still here,” Greaves concludes. “Music is a lifelong companion. I don’t know where I’d be without it, which is one of the reasons that when idiots come along and try to take it from me, they’ll never succeed because it’s part of me. I’ve got my soul as ammunition, and you can’t beat that, and you can’t beat the truth either. I just believe in trying to make genuine, honest music. If I ever run out of ideas, maybe that’s the time to quit, but I’m always thinking up some other stupid shit to do!”
Bronze is out now on Season Of Mist. For more information, see CBP’s website.