Interview with vocalist James Rivera
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: November 20, 2016
Houston, Texas-based, long-running Metal veterans Helstar released their ninth studio album (not counting Sins of the Past which contained re-recorded songs from the first four albums) Vampiro at the end of August 2016 and it was their first one on EMP (Ellefson Music Productions). Vampiro is a concept album about vampires and other blood-sucking creatures of the night. Helstar wanted Vampiro to be a clear return to the time of the band's best known and classic album, Nosferatu, released in 1989. The album was mixed by Bill Metoyer (who has previously worked with Slayer, W.A.S.P., Armored Saint and Sacred Reich among others) and it is definitely a return to the vibe and feeling that made Nosferatu such a legendary record.
The Metal Crypt approached Helstar's current management company, Alpha Omega Management, and asked if vocalist James Rivera wanted to shed more light on Vampiro. He kindly answered our call and filled us in on things related to Helstar's latest opus, how they ended up on EMP and on their new management company and even slightly opened the door on their touring plans in 2017 and so forth. Read on!
Luxi: This is my "ice-breaker" question; how's life, James?
James: Well, as we say here, "any day above ground, I'm blessed." I guess you could say I'm doing pretty well.
Luxi: First off, I would like to know how you ended up on Ellefson Music Productions?
James: I've had a connection with Ellefson for many years; he semi-produced the Multiples of Black album that came out in '95. We remained friends throughout that time period and we actually did a project together called Killing Machine along with Jimmy DeGrasso in the early 2000s.
Then, of course, he got back into Megadeth and again, we've just remained friends, connected over all these years. When I found out that he had started a label, we thought of going to this situation and that's how that ended up.
Luxi: EMP is a very new label (formed in 2015) and obviously they are still relatively unknown to many. Did you see any risk there when you decided to accept this opportunity and signed with them? With the strong reputation that you guys have built around the band over the years I can imagine there were surely some other takers for a band like Helstar...
James: See, here's the deal, everything's a risk these days. It doesn't matter what you're on. We were almost going to start our own label and we certainly had an offer to renegotiate another full term with AFM but they were offering us less money. When you're with a label for eight years, you should go up the ladder, not down. That was a big slap in the face to us, although they did treat us well. Every label has its ups and downs. I've got nothing bad to say, it's just when it came to renegotiating to keep us, their offer showed how much they really loved us. I wanted something more than that. We felt that the only way to love ourselves more than they could was just to do our own label. But when you do that there are so many things involved; Who will package it? Who's going to promote it? Blah blah blah and what have you. When this opportunity with Ellefson came around it was almost like being on our own label but we didn't have to worry about all the headaches. In a way, this might be taking a chance, we'll see.
It's one album at a time and we're not signing our lives away to the label. So far, we've gotten more promotion and reviews than we ever got in our whole time with AFM. There you go. You can't judge a book by its cover just because it's a smaller thing compared to being onto another label. Sometimes that's the problem when you're with well-known labels. They have bigger fish to fry and you're always the small sardine. Sometimes you don't get all the attention you really need in the long run.
Luxi: ...And my sincere congrats on your excellent new album Vampiro. It is the 10th Helstar studio album in chronological order and as the album's title says loud and clear, this album is all about Dracula and vampires. What's so fascinating in telling stories about Dracula and vampires for you personally?
James: I've always been a Dracula fan, let's just put it that way. It's one of my favorite subjects and I've always wanted to be one myself actually. I've been into the Gothic thing ever since we did the Nosferatu album and I've remained that way for years. But who isn't these days? A lot of people are into vampires and it's a very intriguing story and situation if you really were to be one. Yes, I'm very into vampires and Dracula. I actually want an African fruit bat for a pet if I could have one.
Luxi: Many people, including me, see a strong connection between Vampiro and your fourth album, Nosferatu, released in 1989 and not only because both were concept albums. Did you sort of want to rekindle the spirit and vibe of Nosferatu on Vampiro and bring back some of those elements that have made Nosferatu such a highly appreciated album in the Helstar catalog?
James: Yes, common sense, come on. We named the album Vampiro going back to my favorite subject of all time. I was the one that told Larry that I wanted to go back to creating another concept album of Dracula and vampires. I started to feel that we were getting left out on something we did way before everybody else. I started to feel like we were getting cheated out of something we did way ahead of time and now the vampirism and the Twilight, all that stuff is huge. We just did it way ahead of time and back then I even wanted to have the fangs and be brought out in a coffin and certain people in the band thought it was stupid, "Yeah, whatever." Then look what happened 10 years later, a band called Cradle of Filth lived out the whole vampirism thing and now Dani Filth owns the Hammerfell (sic) movies so there you go.
Other people started doing concept albums and then I heard a remark by someone who did a concept Dracula vampire album and said that he did it because no one else has ever done it. I think his name is Yorn and if anybody had done it before then it must not have been that good or he would know about it. I'm like, "Dude we were doing this before you were born so whatever." We decided that we wanted to go back to capitalize on what one of our favorite subjects is and what we can write about very easily. Of course, musically yes it had to make a lot of sense. It had to go back to that style of Nosferatu, very harmonic, minor, dark, Gothic sounding. It only makes sense, it was a no-brainer.
Luxi: How would you describe the making of Vampiro album compared to the process for your previous album, This Wicked Nest, which was released at the end of April 2015? Did you find the making of Vampiro more demanding as it's a concept album and it seems like making a concept album isn't normally a short process?
James: The big difference on this one is we took a year recording it. It's been different than any album we've ever done. That's because we did it all in our home studios; we did everything at Larry's studio and Mikey did all the drums at his studio. That's a double-edged sword. The good thing about being able to do your own recordings in your own time, at your leisure, in your own home, is that you get to go back and rethink things and listen to things and go back and perfect it, though you can sometimes take too much time. That may also be the reason why this album is so good because we had time to listen to it and go, "Oh man, no I don't like that after all." We're all perfectionists but sometimes you can start becoming too picky and you could ruin a good idea. You have to be careful with that. That was the difference in doing this album compared to any of our other albums; the opportunity to go back, rearrange things, redo things to the point where it's like, "Yes that's what I wanted it to sound like," and I think that's why the album is so strong right now.
Luxi: Are there any other concepts out there that you might be tempted to create a concept album for in the future with Helstar? Like Donald Trump's totally insane and crazy campaign to be the next President of the United States of America for example, ha hah!
James: Another concept album of another subject, who knows. It's not important really. We don't really think that way. A lot of times our albums happen to come out with a slight underlining concept anyway just like This Wicked Nest about corrupt policies and governments of the world so there you go.
Luxi: Since the days of your previous album, This Wicked Nest, you have a new second guitarist named Andrew Atwood. What do you think Andrew brought into Helstar? What are some of his best assets both as a guitarist and as a person?
James: Yes, Andrew is a great kid. He's brought so much to the band's writing style. He was raised on Helstar, he's been a Helstar fan since he was nine. He lives and breathes Helstar. He obviously knew exactly what he wanted to do and this was his dream. Every kid has a dream like "If I had a choice I'd love to be in this band." Well, we were one of them.
Now he's living out that dream. He knew exactly what he wanted to deliver to the band to make it sound its best. As far as a full-on metal head, he knows everything in the book about Metal. He brings a lot of spirit back to the band that we were missing.
It's like that old saying, he definitely is "a breath of fresh air."
Luxi: Andrew also has his other band The Scourge. How is he coping with the situation where he plays both in The Scourge and Helstar?
James: No, we're all in different kinds of things going on. You just make sure you check your schedules. There's nothing that complicated about being in two bands, three bands. I've been in three, four bands at one time and it's a matter of just making your schedule. Not every band plays every day. Not every band plays every weekend or every month. No, it's never been a problem.
Luxi: How about Alpha Omega Management? Even if Alpha Omega Management is a new management company, which was just put together in May 2015, they seem to be growing quickly with many established and well-known bands (Venom Inc., D.R.I., Omen, Ancient, etc.) as well as lesser-known acts (Fallen Arise, Stonebreed, Dead by Wednesday, etc.) on their roster. Obviously Alpha Omega has some experienced and professional people working behind the scenes, right? Do you know some of these people personally?
James: Yes, Alpha Omega's been slowly but surely developing themselves as a strong management team but as far as the strong points, I don't really personally know the main people who are based in Italy. It's in its very, very infant stage. As far as professionalism, I would say give the credit to the Alpha Omega home office. I've seen them putting the tours together and they seem to know what they're doing. We're hoping that eventually in the assembly line, our turn will come for them to do something for us over there as well. Other than that, they've come a long way from not hearing of them at all to where they are now.
Luxi: One of the most epic songs off Vampiro is "Black Cathedral" which has gone down really well with audiences. The song lasts well over seven minutes and by Helstar's standards, it's one of the lengthiest songs that you have ever written. Only "The Garden of Temptation" off The King of Hell is longer. How did this song come about and is its length accidental or intentional?
James: It wasn't intentional, it wasn't unintentional. It's just basically the first song that we wrote and recorded. The story line in this song has certain elements you can't cut out. I think that when we started to write it, especially Larry in the beginning, things started developing but it just came out the way that it did, that's all I can say. It was a magical thing and really at the end of the day I never really looked at it as being that long of a song. I was more looking at it like "this is going to be one of the baddest songs we've ever written." Sometimes you can't put a time restraint on that.
Luxi: People have always wondered how you keep your voice in such a great shape year after year. Are there some things in your life (smoking, alcohol, etc.) that you consciously avoid?
James: Your voice is a god-given thing that's all I can say. I'm just blessed that it's gotten stronger over the years. There are certain warm up things that I do all the time before I go on. Tons and tons of sleep is very essential on tour which is why I'm probably a cat lover. When I get to snuggle with my cats we love it because we get to sleep for hours and hours. Cats love to sleep and so do I.
I've never been a smoker, that's one thing that might help. As for alcohol, no I don't avoid it, I love alcohol. Jägermeister is the best thing for your voice actually. Other than that, I really don't know how to explain it. I learned how to sing properly many years ago and I stick to that rule of thumb. As long as you do that, your voice is going to last forever I guess. For some people, it hasn't, or it's gotten weaker. With me it went the other way around and that's just one of those phenomena. I guess that I do question it but at the same time I don't. Just accept that you have this gift and enjoy it.
Luxi: Gigging is very important and crucial for any band nowadays to make some money as record sales have drastically collapsed with the advent of the Internet. What does the rest of the year look like for Helstar gigging wise and what about next year? Do you have extensive touring in the works for 2017?
James: Gigging is important, but we gig according to the guys' vacation time especially with Larry and Mikey. They have very professional jobs as IT guys but they've been with the same companies for years. They get a sufficient amount of vacation time and we use it wisely. For the States because the Metal thing still isn't as big as it used to be unless you're one of the "Giants" we do a lot of the weekend warrior stuff in different regions. In Europe, yes we will go for three weeks straight and so we're planning for the rest of this year. We have some weekend warrior stuff going on to finish out the year. Mid-February through mid-March is when we will hit Europe.
Luxi: Helstar have also performed twice on the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise; first in 2013 and then again in 2015. What you do you think of Metal cruises like this? Do you see a Metal cruise as a perfect thing for bands to meet some of their fans as the whole ship is essentially a VIP area? The fans undoubtedly enjoy it very much, feeling like VIPs...
James: The Metal cruises are okay though the problem with them for us is it kills a lot of vacation time for our guys just to be in one area for a week. We started to realize that maybe it's not the best thing for us to do but they're a lot of fun. I've been on it three times and now I've gotten to where I could live without being on it again. It gets a little old being on this one piece of equipment for almost a week and doing the same thing every night. I'd rather be on tour to be honest, going through different countries rather than being on a ship to see 40 different bands on one piece of equipment.
As far as arranging something like that, I don't think I'd ever want to get my hands into something like that. But it is a cool thing that everybody feels like a VIP person like you said. But to me it's one of those things that I can live with it or I can live without it.
Luxi: How about playing at big festivals around the world then? Do you prefer doing them perhaps a bit more than let's say playing at some small club where the overall feeling may be more intimate and where you can connect better with your fans? Or does it not matter as long you can go on stage to enjoy the evening together with your fans?
James: When it comes to playing live as long as the shows are good and there's a great audience I don't care whether it's the big festivals and 50,000 fans or small club with a 100-people capacity and it's full. It's all the same to us. The energy does not change one bit. The energy can be a little more intense with the smaller crowds since you're more personal and close up but the bigger festivals sure do give you a hard-on just the same.
Luxi: Are there some places in the world where you would like to travel to and perform live for your fans out there? What are some of your personal dreams that you would like to achieve with this band before Helstar's story is completely written (hopefully not any time soon)?
James: There are tons of places to go that I think would be unique. I'd love to go to India. I've heard that Metal shows are making it huge in India. That would be a different experience, something different than Europe. Japan, I love, I've been there already. Australia would be another thing on my bucket list, Scandinavia has always been on my bucket list and now that's finally going to happen for this next European tour. There are at least four dates that I can see already now happening in the Scandinavian areas. Those are some exotic places that I would like to perform in. Traveling to new places is something that I would like to see happen for Helstar before our career is over, get to some more exotic countries where I know some of the Metal stuff is going on but very select bands get to go there like Iron Maiden. I heard that they do like these huge shows in India but getting to get to Scandinavia for the first time is a start then Australia seems a little more like a realistic thing and then maybe one day China and far Asia. I've heard that that's another unique area to go play.
Luxi: Thanks so much for your time James and all the best both to you and Helstar in the future. You are entitled for the last words...
James: You can't end an interview any better than saying thank you for all the years of your support and your admiration because that's what keeps me going. So as long as you keep giving me that I'll keep giving you what you guys like; great records and great Metal. Thank you very much!!
|Other information about Helstar on this site|
|Review: A Distant Thunder|
|Review: Remnants of War|
|Review: Sins of the Past|
|Review: The King of Hell|
|Review: Glory of Chaos|
|Review: Glory of Chaos|
|Review: This Wicked Nest|
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