Victor Griffin and Jeff “Oly” Olson are industry vets. Victor found notoriety as a member of the doom-metal band Pentagram, found Christ and later formed the band Place of Skulls. Oly was a long time member of the band Trouble. Together, along with Pete Campbell (60 Watt Shaman, Place of Skulls) and Guy Pinhas (The Obessed, Acid King, Goatsnake), the band IN~GRAVED was formed. The album (self titled as “Victor Griffin’s IN~GRAVED) will release stateside on March 26h through Veritas Records.
I chatted with Victor and Jeff this past Friday about the new album, touring, Pentagram, and how Casting Crowns inspired a powerful jam on the new record.
Lee: Let’s talk first a little about your past experience. I want to talk about the new album quite a bit, but I want to make sure our readers have a little bit of context. You’ve talked in other interviews about your past, so I don’t want to get too detailed with that line of thought, but can you share a little of that testimony?
Victor: To summarize it, it was basically the sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifestyle from the late 70’s up until ’97. I had heard the Gospel when I was seven or eight years old. Even at that age I knew that what I was hearing was the truth. That stuck with me, even though I ran from that truth for all those years. You know, I’ve always written songs about death, the other side, the dark side…Through a series of family deaths around ’97… I had like four relatives, including my dad die within a year and it became pretty clear to me that it was time to make a decision. I think as we harden our hearts, as we get older, we tend to put that off. I believe that we can get to a place where your’e not convicted anymore and, like the Bible says, you can die in your sins.
I’m not sure how close I was to that. But around ’97 I decided it was now or never. I was tired of running. I accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. From that point on, I kinda got out of music for a few years and didn’t do anything. Obviously that meant quitting Pentagram, which I was on the way out of that at that point too, because that was always a fractured mirror waiting to fall to the ground in one sense or another. Once I started to figure out what God’s will may possibly be for me, that’s when I put together Place of Skulls. I did that for the past twelve years or so. It’s all built up until now.
I got away from God for a while around 2006 and had a series of dark times. Things happened and God showed me, “Hey, you’re pretty far away from me,” and He sort of jerked the rug out from under me. I’ve learned a lot since then. He’s shown me a lot and it’s really gotten me way closer to Him than I probably could have been. So, I think that He definitely did use my iniquity to teach me a lot of things I may not have learned otherwise, being so hard headed.
Anyway, I went back to Pentagram for a couple of years. I went back in 2010 and just quit that again last November. I went back there to be a positive influence with the band, but decided that the time had come to let that go as well. So, I just had some new songs. I started putting together the IN~GRAVED thing. Now it’s called IN~GRAVED, it wasn’t called anything a year ago. That’s pretty much it.
Lee: You mentioned in your interview with Zero Tolerance that you simply couldn’t return to some of those Pentagram songs. You started talking about their negative effect on you. Do you think people today don’t take seriously enough the messages they’re taking in through the music they’re giving themselves to?
Victor: I definitely think so. I think that the devil has gotten plenty of people deceived into thinking that he doesn’t exist. That’s one of his big ploys. “It’s all just a matter of imaging. This doesn’t mean anything. It’s all just for fun. It’s just all for Rock and Roll,” and so forth. People tend to think that it’s just symbolic and it can mean whatever you want it to mean, and all that. I think that the media (all kinds of media) is very deceptive and can have extreme influence on people, sometimes without them even knowing it until they’re so far down the road, you know? I think that comes with a lot of the thinking we have in today’s culture. Pretty much anything goes and all that.
When I went back to Pentagram, I was definitely not going to do some of the songs that we had done back in the ’80’s and ’90’s, just simply for the lyrical content. Even at the point of where I was considering leaving Pentagram again, last year, when I really started to pray about it and really started to get introspective about it… I really started to consider what kind of possible collateral damage I was causing with people. It’s like Scripture says, “you’re not to cause your brother to stumble in his convictions.” Our convictions can all be different. It doesn’t mean your convictions are wrong or another person’s are… obviously, that only goes to a certain extent… If you do something where you influence another person to feel that “that’s” ok, then at some point it can become a stumbling block. I was starting to feel that and wonder about that. I didn’t want it on my conscience anymore.
Lee: With your situation, it’s definitely unique in the music industry. But, then you’ve got Brian Welch from Love and Death. He’s starting to work with and fill in for KoRn again. What advice would you give someone in that situation who’s going back to a band that definitely doesn’t jive with the faith that they’ve come to.
Victor: I’m not sure. It all depends on his convictions and the reasons he’s doing it. I think I read a blurb about that somewhere not too long ago. You can try to go back and take it from a different point of view, and all that. At some point, if your reason for being there is no longer being accepted by the people that you’re there to influence and support… then I think at some point you’ve gotta back out.
Like I said, I think that there is sort of collateral damage in people’s souls that may be influenced. And a lot of times you’re in these venues… the last couple years with the Pentagram shows, we played these huge festivals and smaller clubs, too. You can try to be that light in the darkness, but sometimes you get out there for so long, and your’e not really around people who can help you stay spiritually built up. It definitely starts to weigh on you at times.
Really, I think there were a couple of shows that we did where I was on stage playing and I was not even thinking about the music at all. I was just looking around at the circumstances. There was just such darkness in the place. It really reinforced my decision that I was going to leave the band. When people don’t care and don’t want to hear the message, or it’s the furthest thing from their minds, you’ve got to do what you can, but at some point… You’ve gotta be really careful. I just felt it was time for me to back out of it. I’ve been down that road before.
You almost get to a point where you can straddle the fence and I don’t want to do that anymore. Jeff and I have talked about it, I want to be straight up. I don’t really care anymore. I’m not going to try to baby people’s feelings because they think I’m being too conservative or not being open minded enough. I really don’t care. Jesus didn’t go around preaching and telling people about the way to heaven and how to get their sins forgiven to coddle them and not hurt their feelings. He said, “I come with a sword,” and “I bring division.” And, if that’s the way people take it, that’s fine.
The thing is, we’re going to be responsible for the people we’ve talked to and corresponded with in our lives. That we didn’t share that with them. I don’t know, man. I don’t know if I have any relative advice for someone like him or not. There were people who tried to advise me ten years ago when I said that I was going to take Place of Skulls and do this Christian band and go into clubs and bars and share the message of Jesus. Pastors actually told me that you have to be really careful, because you have to be very spiritually strong to do that. Several people said that they knew people who did that and eventually went back out into the world and weren’t living for God anymore. Just being a young Christian, I thought that I knew it all. I had a lot of pride (and arrogance, probably) and I thought that I could do this thing. But, like I said in 2006 it all fell through because of my being so far out into the world.
Lee: So, let’s switch gears into the new album. With that all as a backdrop, what’s the message that you want this new project to convey?
Victor: The last Place of Skulls album was very straight ahead as a Christian album. This album is lyrically similar… I don’t know how to write any other way at this point. It’s a bit more ambitious, though. I think with the style of the songs and everything in the lyrics that it can be accepted by a lot of different people, style wise. I’m not really going into it as, “well, here’s this concept album and here’s the way I hope it’s taken.” I just hope that there are some messages that if even one person can get out of it, that’s going to effect their spirit and soul in a positive way… I think mission accomplished.
Lee: Jeff, what do you feel that you added to this album? What do you think your influence is going to be on this album?
Jeff: Haha, I added keyboards. Haha. Well, so did Mike and many others before me who created this record. I just responded to Victor wanting a keyboardist with a heavy Hammond Organ style, which is wonderful because that goes all the way into Gospel and into the heaviest style of music there is (both secular and sacred). For me, I took it on as a challenge. It has become just a beautiful, beautiful… it’s beginning to be a Bible study, actually, with the text messaging. It’s beginning to be a heart warmer and a callous breaker in my life. Not that I have ever left the Lord, but I definitely am what you would call one of those people who got calloused and maybe a little hardened at times over the past twenty years. But, in going from a super-strong, almost evangelical lifestyle to just a phase of getting weaker and weaker. But, this project, which has turned into a band, has turned into joy and places to go. Then, rethinking the correct way is to ask God what His will will be in this whole plan. With the joy of that coming out through Victor and myself, it’s really fun.
I will be contributing my heart and, hopefully, my humility to this project. So, my prayer for others out there… I’m not a person that wants to shove the Word of God into them until they break. I want to plant a seed. That’s kind of my exegetical thoughts about what the Bible says in how to evangelize. God made lots of different types of people. He made the prophet types that are totally in your face telling you that you’ve got to get it together. For me, I more hope that my lifestyle and my way could be peaceful, but also draw people to the Scriptures.
My faith has been rekindled in these past years. First of all, through marrying my wife. And then, along the way, this has really been a fun opportunity that Victor held his hand out to. So, I’m taking it and loving it and every day enjoying it more and more. It’s funny, because I’m doing it on an instrument I would have rather not have done. I’d rather have been drumming because it would have been easier. I could have been lazy. The keyboards have been great, though, because it’s rekindled my keyboard playing and in having to transcribe music and dedicate every day to it. I don’t think I could have done this without the Lord, prayer, and intercession from friends and family. I think it’s going to be fun. I think it’s going to be in spreading joy, truth, and love.
Victor: I think this has been, with Jeff coming aboard, we’ve grown just from our phone conversations. Getting from the point where I first sent him the tracks and him getting the vibe… it took us a little bit to get on the same page. It took a couple tires, but it wasn’t hard. It seems like in that first session that Jeff did it just all fell into place. In the follow up phone calls we had talking about it and then all those calls seemed to lead to us talking about our spiritual lives. To me, it’s what I’ve wanted to do with the whole band. To have that spiritual continuity between players, with someone you can bounce ideas off of and talk about spiritual things with and have the same direction. Such things take priority, even over the music. But, then it all works hand in hand.
I don’t think we know where this is going, because everybody lives really far apart. It’s like a “through the mail recording” sort of thing. Everybody does their tracks, drops them in the mail, and we add them to the mix. Jeff and I have already been talking about writing songs for the next album and this one hasn’t even come out, yet. That’s a really good sign. From just what Jeff has done on the album so far, I’m just really excited after hearing how it all turned out to get together and do some collaboration.
Lee: You worked with Travis Wyrick on this album. How would you say his fingerprints are in the album? What effect did he have on the final product?
Victor: I’ve worked with Travis almost exclusively for the last twelve years. I recorded all the Place of Skulls albums there and recorded the last Pentagram album, as well as this album, there. So, his fingerprints are all over it, actually. But, he typically doesn’t do bands like us. I think the stuff I’ve recorded with him is the only band he has that sounds like the stuff was recorded under a pillow. I don’t mean that in a bad way. But, he doesn’t necessarily record a lot of bands that have the old-school metal, blues based hard rock, heavy metal sound. A lot of the stuff he does is the bands that are coming along these days; younger guys, and they all sound like some sort of version of Nickelback or that formula. But, he still does a lot of Christian bands, as well. He also does a lot of high profile stuff. He’s won like four or five Dove awards. He’s been nominated for Grammys for his work with P.O.D. and some others that I can’t think of off the top of my head.
He’s a cool guy to work with. He’s just one of those guys that won’t let you just lay a track down… as far as solos and vocals… and say, “ah, that’s good enough.” He’ll kind of pick at it. Unless, you’re just very vocal about it. Especially vocally, he’s just a really good vocal coach. When I’m in the booth he’ll go, “maybe try this melody with that…” And, I’ll say, “I don’t know if I can hit that note.” But, he says, “Nah, you can do it, you can do it, man.” He causes me to be a better singer. It’s always a good experience. It’s almost to a fault, though, sometimes. He’s actually gotten me to the point where I’m pissed off at him and going, “Ah, I’m not doing it again.” But, it’s all good. It always comes out really good.
I’ve driven home before, after being in the studio, and listened to the rough takes in the car… and thought; “Ah, I don’t like this at all.” But then after I give my ears a rest and get away from it for a day or two, it’s like; “Yeah, this is killer.” It can be tough sometimes. But, I haven’t given up the thought… I’ve recorded with Travis for so many years now… It might be interesting to go somewhere else for a change. Just to change it up a bit. Just to keep things interesting and bring in other influences and ideas. That’s really why I’m so excited about this band. With all the different bass players on it, with Oly on it, and Mike who did keyboards on three songs. Just having all that input and all that character from these different players on it. It’s just really cool, having the opportunity next time around where we can all collaborate together. At the very least, you know, to have Jeff and I. Who knows who else will be on it.
Lee: We had several reader questions, one of them was whether this would just be a studio album or if there would be a tour in support of the album?
Jeff: We’d love to tour everyday if we could. I do work, so I will be able to do blocks of touring for this group and will be dedicated to that. There will be times when I’ll have to shift to Thursday, Friday, Saturday and night shows. For me, that could be meeting the group or flying in, we haven’t sat down and talked about how this is going to go. So, as we start this, we’re definitely playing live. Live is going to be very fun. It’s going to be loud and powerful and mixed and dynamic and we haven’t even met yet. I just know the chemistry of all the players we’re talking about here. The way Pete hits the drums… Guy’s experience, in terms of the European connection with this. It’s going to be loud and intense. It’ll be very very exciting. What’s great is that live will be different that what’s been out at a lot of these festivals for a while. That might be a reflection of the old way that hard rock, which turned into metal, sounded in this group. The way the keyboards are going to punch out, the way the dynamics of the song writing is going to be… these interesting sounds that are the roots of what turned into much of the evolution of hard rock, metal, and the many categories of metal (especially the slower, doom sound). I think the live show is going to be very fresh for the youth that have heard their metal being played (even their “doom”/ hard rock). They get to see a style that was done a ways back with a fresher production style and newer equipment that gives this really powerful edge.
Victor: This is definitely a band. This is not just a one-off album or project. I think that’s the perception that people have because of there being so many different guests and players on it. And, I can understand how people would think that. Now that everything is unfolding and with where we are now, I am definitely looking at it as a band situation.
Jeff: Same here.
Victor: Whatever we need to do to make it work as far as scheduling and things like that, I’m totally open to it. I see a lot of potential in a lot of ways for this being fulfilling for everybody involved. It’s definitely going to be a serious band situation, not just; “Oh, let’s go play a few shows.”
Jeff: Bands seem to be more fun. I’ve been working on something of a solo thing myself and it’s just the nature of knowing that everyone is going to show up in a room and be… tight…. I just can’t wait. That’s the best part of this; being a band.
Lee: I wanted to ask about a few of the songs on the album. I just picked two of my favorite songs off the album… if that’s selfish, whatever… that’s the way I went with it. So, let’s talk about “Late for an Early Grave.” It sounds like something of a testimony song. Would that be a fair assessment?
Victor: The thing is, I wrote that song in like 1988. So, that was 8-9 years before I actually came to Christ. But, I look at it now as that. It’s kind of funny. I look at a bunch of these songs that I wrote way back, and it’s almost just prophetic… the lyrics. It can be taken that way. I just thought it was a cool title, at the beginning. It was a pretty good description of the way I was living then. It was just one of those old songs I pulled out because I wanted to record it properly. It had never been recorded properly. I’ve recorded it as a demo, and it came out on a solo album I did six or seven years ago. But this is the first time it’s been properly recorded.
Lee: Now, I know you’ve gotten questions about this one, but “Love Song for the Dying…” You mentioned in another interview that it was inspired by a Casting Crowns song, so can you talk just a little bit about the heart behind that song and the impact of where you see that song reaching out to?
Victor: I think that that Casting Crown album is one of the best albums of all time, from beginning to end. It’s not even really a rock album. I got turned on to that album like five or six years ago. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard this. It’s one of those albums I’ve played so many times and never gotten burned out on it. It’s just such great song writing. I just can’t express that enough. That one song that they have, “Does Anybody Hear Her?,” is about this girl… I’m not taking any credit for “Love Song for the Dying,” it was so influenced by their song. I just took and wrote my own song based on the idea that they laid out in their song. It’s about a girl who’s looking for the meaning of life, but she’s looking for it in all the wrong places, like we all do. We’re looking for it in friends, partying, sex, and all these things where we’re just not finding it. And, we’re also just not finding it in religion and things like that.
A part of that song reflects that where she goes into a church searching for the answers, but she has a bad reputation… so in this church, all of these good Christians are giving her the stink-eye because they know her reputation and say, “What’s she doing in here?” But she’s the very type of person that Jesus came for. She got shunned trying to find the answers in church. So she left and went back to the streets looking for answers back where she came from. It kind of ends that way.
By the end of the song, the problem is not resolved for her. She’s still looking for the answers. The last line of the song is, “to be absolved with grace, by Jesus.” That’s pretty much it as far as the song and how it was influenced by Casting Crowns. Obviously, the IN~GRAVED song is a lot heavier than the Casting Crowns song.
Lee: Another reader asked, and this is a broad question… so if you just want to pick a few of them… what lyrical themes are going to be covered on the album?
Victor: I think if you just rounded everything out, it’s going to be the spiritual themes that we all have to deal with, face, and think about. That’s about our lives while we’re living here, but, more importantly, our life after we die and leave this earth and what happens then. I’m always trying to pull into that. I do it a lot of different ways lyrically.
The thing is, trying to develop that common ground with people to where they don’t just turn you off, because they assume what you’re going to say. So, I like to approach it from a lot of different levels. People have so many different attitudes and opinions on life after death and the things of this world that people tend to put importance on that have no real importance whatsoever. When I told the band I was leaving Pentagram and he was trying to get me to stay and was telling me he would die for the band… and I was like, “man, you’ve got your priorities completely screwed up.” I mean, no one is going to lay on their death bed and wished they’d played another gig, or put out another album. That’s just from the musical standpoint. No one’s going to say, “I wish I’d spent more hours in the office.”
We tend to sink our lives into these things. So, to summarize the album, I address some of those issues. Like the one song, “Love Song for the Dying,” it addresses religion, as opposed to a relationship with God. It’s trying to find that and looking for it in all the wrong places. I think that kind of summarizes it.
Lee: The final song on there, “Never Surrender,” sort of leaves on a challenge. What’s your hope with that song, or even the album as a person leaves it that they come away with?
Victor: That song kind of has a two-fold… there’s sort of a flip side to that coin. The chorus says, “never surrender your mind.” That’s pretty ambiguous actually, because it doesn’t talk about, “What are you talking about surrendering or not surrendering? And in what aspect?” There’s always the religious arguments or the spiritual arguments that Christianity is for weak minded people, and this sort of thing. So, a secularist could say, “never surrender your mind to this whole Christian outlook or philosophy.” But, it’s also, “never surrender your mind to the deceptions of the world.” So, it kind of works both ways. It’s really just a straight up rock song. I’ve heard people say it has sort of a Ramones-vibe to it. I think it ends the album on a very level playing field. You don’t have to take it one way or the other. Wherever you are, it kind of works. So, it kind of ends the album on a light note.
Lee: I always ask this one question at the end… who is better, Batman or Superman?
Jeff: I liked watching Superman when I was really little. Then when I was not so little, I liked Bruce Wayne in the old Batman show. I’m going to say Superman. The old, old television. Not the comics, because he was like a fat guy. He was a normal human being and he was supposed to be Superman. He didn’t even fit into his tights! That’s the first show, it might even have been black and white. And then, my relative, Jimmy Olson was on the show.
Victor: I was never a big Superman fan when I was a kid. I used to love Batman… the old Adam West series. I didn’t realize how corny it was until I was older. But then, I actually became more of a Superman fan after I saw the Christopher Reeve movies. I thought those were really cool and just sort of… they kind of gave a backstory. Probably at this point, I’d have to pick Superman, too. When I think about it, the older me would have picked Batman, probably.