HELSTAR (James Rivera) INTERVIEW
Doing interviews is something that I really enjoy as I feel that I am given the chance to help artists promote their music. When my interviewees are as outspoken, positive thinking and outwardly enjoyable as the Helstar vocalist James Rivera, then the pleasure factor can reach unprecedented heights. In one of the longest conversations that I’ve had in months, I got to learn a few things about the band’s latest opus “Glory Of Chaos”, the upcoming Seven Witches release that James is participating in, what the best way to order a meal in a Burger King drive-through in the States is and finally, what one needs to do in order to retain one’s vocal abilities over the years. Enjoy.
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis.
- Hi James, thanks for calling mate; are you ready to do this interview?
James: Le’s go for it.
- I’ve had the pleasure of listening to “Glory Of Chaos” only for the last couple of days and one thing I spotted straight away is that it is a very direct and easy to get into kind of album, while being quite varied at the same time.
James: Yes, awesome, thanks, cool – I’m glad that it got such a reaction. It’s a bag of tricks and there are a lot of surprises in it for sure.
- Your previous effort “The King Of Hell” (2008) is one that went under my radar and it is sad indeed, as this is one album for which many people said quite a few positive things about and their descriptions matched what I felt when listening to “Glory Of Chaos”. Are these two albums really connected – is this a continuation of a similar approach to song writing?
James: It is, and though things are a little bit heavier this time round, these new compositions still have the classic Helstar signature style and sound – it is always going to be there!
- So far, what has been the reaction that you received by fans and media alike?
James: All positive! The worst scenario, one reaction was “one of those things that you have to listen to for a while in order to get used to it” and that comes from people who are really hooked with the old 80s sound, but this is a great record, so that is still a good reaction if you ask me (laughs). It’s like someone saying “dude, I just have to get used to you with a bold head” (laughs). The bold head is cool; I think that it is growing one me, you know what I mean? (laughs).
- James, I totally sympathise with you as I share the same condition with you (I laugh). One of Helstar’s trademarks is the fine balance you keep between classic Heavy Metal and Thrash; being always somewhere in the middle and getting the best out of both worlds. This time round, however, you seem to lean more towards the Thrash side of things, do you agree?
James: Oh yeah! This was a gradual thing that occurred naturally but also because we wanted to. It happened progressively, however, as we wanted the transition to make sense.
- So, how is it possible for a band that’s been around for as many years as you guys have to come up with ten compositions that are as strong and as fresh as yours? I mean, Thrash and Metal have been over saturated to such an extent that it is almost impossible to come up with a riff or melodic theme that hasn’t been played before. How do you guys do it?
James: You know what the best answer for that is? I believe that it is the gift that Helstar has is that we are capable of always creating something that’s along the lines of someone but that someone just doesn’t do that, you know? A Testament fan will probably love this record but will go “oh man, Testament never did a riff like that”, you know what I am saying? We have been educated and I guess raised on all the best metal music in the world, so it’s all in our blood now to create music that’s interesting to the people. We are not purposely doing it, this is how we write; and we can’t explain it -“ it’s the gift that we’re given. It’s the Helstar style!
- James, another thing I really enjoyed was your vocal performances as I find them to be more diverse than normal. You are definitely not doing yourself many favours there, especially when it comes to compositions such as “Alma Negra”! I am really curious to see how you are going to perform this song live!
James: Oh yeah (laughs) – it is really going to be part of our live set too! Actually to be very honest, that is an easy song to sing! I know it sounds crazy, right? I can sing like that 24/7 (laughs)! It’s cool to go to one of these ‘drive through’ in America and have to deal with a lazy person on the other end of the intercom! You drive up with your car, you place the order on the little thing and the person on the other end asks you in a typical way “welcome to Burger King, can I help you sir”? I hate it when I pull out on a fucking drive through and someone goes “yeah, what do you want”? They are lazy and don’t want to be working there, right? So I roll the window down and I go “Ok, let me tell you what I want”(note: at this point James pretends to place an order using brutal vocals and then bursts into laughing).
- You’re in a very good mood tonight James; that makes my job much easier and enjoyable!
James: Yeah I am indeed.
- If all the comments you’ve been receiving are positive then that makes perfect sense. In terms of creating these ten new compositions, was that part of a long recording process or an easy one?
James: You know what; it came really fast to be honest. I mean, all of the vocals, all the ideas were all done in the studio. There was a map of songs already available but everything was not re-rehearsed or pre-recorded or pre-rehearsed, because one thing that I realised about my vocals now is that, you know, you start writing a new record, you spend three months in the rehearsal studio wasting money on that and then you think that you’ve got all the ideas down. Then, when you go to the studio you change most things anyway (laughs)! It doesn’t make any sense! We now start doing a blueprint of everything by Internet back and forth, we get to the studio in order to rehearse once or twice and then we start tracking – that’s all we do! We’re tracking it and then start doing the vocals, we change the verses and melodies a little and when we listen back to things we normally think “man, this is killer – done”. That is the easiest thing of doing it now!
- That only really works, of course, providing that you are given a certain amount of time by your label to work, right?
James: Yeah, we do sometimes wish that we would have more time but, you know, what we do is we go back to the old days when bands did write and record everything as they were doing back then. Rather like the old 70s Hard Rock bands and the early 80s Heavy Metal bands – that’s how they did it! They had so much time in the studio and they started writing themes and recording them as they went along.
- I believe that we are all slightly trapped by this whole modern technology thing! What we all expect from artists, both young and old, is something that will sound perfect; the sound has to be crystal clear, the production of the highest quality. As a result what you find are many albums that are technologically perfect but without much soul in them, so an album like “Glory Of Chaos” is a breath of fresh air for someone like me!
James: That is really good to hear! One thing that we definitely did do on this record is that we shared the lyrics between me and Larry (Barragan: guitars) and the melodies he pretty much leaves to me. Sometimes he may have an idea for a melody but one thing that I’ve got him used to, especially if you are going to go to the extreme with a very heavy album, is to at least make the songs memorable by creating some nice and catchy choruses. You can never loose when you do that. How many times have you said “God I hate that stupid song” and then the next day you are singing that song at work thinking “why am I doing that” (laughs)? We do actually go overboard; we really go out of our way to make sure that our choruses are very nice and catchy.
- I believe that it is fair to say that Europe has always been the stronghold of Helstar throughout the years. Obviously America has its own way of doing things, something that many bands attested to in the past. How are things at the moment? Has anything changed for the better recently?
James: It’s starting to change and we think that with this record it’s going to change! I believe that this is the right time for us to be doing this record. When you stand back and you look around at bands like Megadeth, Exodus, Testament, all those bands are bigger now than they were back then in the day because right now this style of music is popular again! We don’t want to miss the ship this time. We are a band that deserves to be in a level similar to that of Exodus or something – there is no reason why we shouldn’t be! That is something that I think that we see as pretty realistic with this record in America.
- So what is it that has changed in the psyche of the crowd and the attitude of the press that is going to help you guys?
James: I think that what is going to help us now is that Metal is very popular in America, with many bands making it big and we call it “Saturday Night Radio”. It’s the stuff that’s like XM Radio which is helping out everything.
- So there is a strong urge amongst journalists to promote this kind of music?
- That’s good news! So how does one promote an album like “Glory Of Chaos”? What have you guys planned?
James: What’s going to be a really good thing is that, as you said, Europe has always been our main stronghold, so they’ve got that down to being an art now. But also now, we’ve got a very positive situation for the US, so when the record comes out in the US it will be treated very well by a …not like a major label, but not like a small label either. It will be given some good attention, something that we were never really given before, and like I said our main focus will be to talk to this guy here today who will be handling all US promotion stuff. He is going to be working with a guy that’s in charge with a lot of bands making and breaking it in America. That guy is a good friend and he is a big fan of mine, so that’s good news already. This guy can get us online and on radio and even on cable TV as there are a few music channels there. I mean, after a while we’re going to be in a situation where it’s not like we’ve never had the talent to become very well liked, it’ just that we were never really exposed properly, so how can you like something that you don’t know about?
- And by the end of the day, this is all about politics right?
James: At the end of the day it’s all about money, power and politics, you know?
- Which is totally insane as it is music here that we are taking about!
James: That is why sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong era. I wish I was one of those 50s or 60s stars, you know? Back then you got noticed for your talent and you know what? You might have had the mafia picking you up and backing you up, but at least you made it big (laughs).
- James, what is it that makes you keep on going mate? What is it that makes you wake up every morning thinking “I want to sing in a band”?
James: You know dude, I think it’s just me! I don’t even think about it when I get up; I just know what I am and what I need to do. Every day I am always ambitious and always try to find new ways of doing things. I spend more than half my day in the music business, either on the Internet or the telephone. I try to stay in touch with the AFM guys as much as possible and I also believe in calling people. I don’t like to spend all my time on the Internet; I like getting on the phone as it is good to hear somebody’s voice on the other end of the line. I am constantly doing everything I can even with my tribute band. I am very busy but that’s all I know – really that’s all I know! I could have been a lawyer or this and that, but this is what I have chosen to do and right now there is no time to really put the brakes on the train. The train has to keep on going at high speed! This is the high speed train from here to fucking Texas – get on it (laughs).
- If only we Europeans could take that train!
James: Maybe one day they will build a track from here to Europe so people like me wouldn’t have to fly anymore!
- You mentioned the Internet quite a lot so far in this interview. I used AFM records’ site to download the album and in order to collect information, however I always like to visit each bands’ website too. I tried to access both your official website and your MySpace page but none were quite up to date. One would assume that this is the best medium in order to promote one’s new album, so why is that?
James: Well, actually my MySpace page is always pretty accurate, you know, it’s always has everything up to date and same applies to the Helstar MySpace page – you will find those two. Our official website is being run by Larry and he’s been a little bit lazy recently! We make jokes about it because my girl does a lot of my business for me, she handles all my websites and my promotional stuff. She is the one that promotes everything online through the Internet and she’s been really upset saying things like “I don’t get it – Larry all he cares about is his Facebook and doesn’t even advertise shows on the god damn website”. Then I have to go to him and say “hey, get upon your ass, stop worrying about Facebook and things like today I cut myself shaving and put the shows on the god damn thing” (laughs). Some of that Facebook stuff is a joke to me after a while, people being like “run out of gas today”. We are doing two shows with Raven in the future and he hasn’t yet put these shows on the god damn website!
- I was going to ask you about that, as I believe that it is the 23rd and the 24th of October, right? Are we referring to the same N.W.O.B.H.M Raven that we all know and love, right?
James: Yeah! That’s going to be one hell of a show!
- Are these warm up shows to something much bigger that’s on the pipeline?
James: Yes, of course! These will be co-headlining shows and all we do is we are gearing up for now that I know that the record is not coming out in America till January, that’s fine because we are going to go out and co-headline with these guys in order to strike while the iron is still hot! So, we go out in October with Raven co-headlining; we are still going to do a full 75 minute set, but we are also going to do the official release parties in February 2011. The album will be out by then and it will all make sense then.
- So when are you guys going to come to Europe then?
James: We are going to be touring in Europe in December for one week only…I forget the dates now but the weekend that it ends is December the 19th. We start the weekend before that and we are going to try to squeeze in eight shows in a row.
- And knowing my luck, London is not going to be part of that tour, right?
James: Well, you know, we’ve been trying for ages and only now we heard that there is a guy in England who works for AFM Records, so maybe he can help. There’s got to be somebody out there that can get us over. The way we think about it, we can do three or four dates in England alone! We’ve never played the UK, so why not do London and maybe Birmingham and Leeds and make this a separate tour? Going to England is not that expensive because it is a lot closer to us than the rest of Europe.
- Plus it will be a pilgrimage to the land that gave birth to Heavy Metal.
James: Yeah, we want to do that, but don’t hold your breath on it. All I can do is try!
- James, you have been involved in many projects in the past and many good releases have come out with your name on them. Are you involved in any such project at the moment or is Helstar your main priority?
James: Well, Helstar has always been my main priority – that is my big company so to speak, and then I have my tribute band which is my other little company which is doing really well and it’s called James Rivera Sabbath Judas Sabbath and it is a tribute to Black Sabbath and Judas Priest; Sabbath covering of course only the Dio years. I have five bands in total; four in America and one here in Europe now and then I have actually re-joined Seven Witches a year ago and we are writing a new record now.
- Now, that’s great news!
James: Yeah, so we started a year ago and we recorded four complete songs, not demos but actually real songs in the studio, then Jack (Frost: guitar) scored a deal and now we are going to finish the next six songs. Then I leave for Europe from here on October the 11th, I go straight to New York and then I go into the studio with Jack. So, I don’t even get home until October the 18th and then four days later I have the two shows with Raven! So, that’s how busy I am, you see (laughs)?
- So when exactly do you sleep?
James: When do I sleep (laughs)? You will only really sleep when you’re dead! But you know, it is funny because somebody asked me earlier “how do you do all that” and I said well, when it comes to the tribute band I’ve been singing these songs for thirty years so I don’t even have to rehearse them. Helstar is limited to certain amount of touring and recording as most of the guys invest the majority of their time in their families and their jobs and that is good, that is all fine and dandy. Then Seven Witches will be another thing where hopefully we can start doing some tours too and we will then see what happens. The other interesting thing about Seven Witches is that it is not only me and Jack that re-joined from the “Passage To the Other Side” record, and you know Joey Vera was a good member and we had a good collaboration but he cannot play with us now, so we got another guy who is also good and that is Michael LePond from Symphony X.
- Oh wow!
James: Oh yes, and he is writing a lot of material! This is the most powerful Witches that’s ever existed! And you know what the other thing is? It is the first time that Jack managed to have one band all together in New Jersey! You see, that has always been the problem with Seven Witches; the band – I am from Texas, so that is not such a big deal, but the whole band was always from somewhere else! He never had a full band right there in his back yard! Now that this band is together, they also have a cover band that they work constantly upon so the band is getting tighter and tighter!
- This is one release that I am really looking forward to listening to.
James: Yeah, we even got a title for it, or at least we think we do, and the record will probably be out either February or March and the other things about Witches? Helstar are going towards a heavier, more aggressive direction so the Witches will allow James Rivera to be James Rivera to the fullest. The music is more melodic and it’s more like my traditional voice, so you will now have people saying “I don’t really like Helstar as they are now but I love Seven Witches”, so I feel that I really cannot loose either way (laughs).
- Well, you can never please everybody, can you?
James: Yeah, my dad says “well, you can please some people sometimes but sometimes you cannot please all people” (laughs).
- James, the way you use your vocals is quite demanding and straining and you’ve been doing this for many years now. How do you manage to keep doing all those high pitch vocals that people know you from?
James: Well actually I know quite a few things that you can do in order to take care of your voice and I also do a lot of things that can abuse my voice. One of the main key things for maintaining a good voice, especially when you’re on tour, and I believe that I must have been a cat in my past life; anyway, when I do get home after doing the Seven Witches record and you ask me “when do you sleep”, well, I’ll sleep until the day before the Raven show and then I will have to go and rehearse (laughs). I take the phone off the hook and I don’t do shit, I only go into a coma! I also have two cats that sleep a lot, so when we get together in the bed, oh my God – we are fucking lazy as shit! We don’t get up for nothing, not even if the house is on fire. Sleep is one of the best things that you can do for your voice and I do sleep a lot when I get the chance.
- We recently experienced the unfortunate passing of Ronnie James Dio, something you have been quite vocals about. You were obviously a big fan and there is really only so much that you can say about a man like him, right? I assume that the music world is slightly poorer now that Ronnie has passed away, right?
James: You know what dude, yeah! I find it like…God, we just lost one of the main ingredients to what we believe in! One of our biggest Gods has disappeared out of the sky! Well, he is in the sky now but he’s one start that’s just doesn’t shine anymore!
- It is an even more difficult thing to comprehend when you realise that musicians like him do not come out every day! We have reached that stage in the evolution of Heavy Metal where you no longer get those massive stars and artists anymore! Now it’s more about the quantity rather than the quality!
James: Yeah! I mean, he is one guy that will never been replaced! We will never replace Frank Sinatra; there are certain people that are legends. This was a one-time thing that we had and that’s why they will always be remembered!
- If you were to ask a hundred Helstar fans to name their favourite album, changes are that most of them are going to opt towards “Nosferatu” and that is a decision that I can sympathise with. At the same time, it must be fairly annoying to you when you realise that people always look towards the past instead of appreciating the new music that’s on offer, right?
James: Like I said before, you will always have people that are stuck in one mode, but there are only a handful of them – they do not make up the majority of our fans. So no, it doesn’t bother me because again, if you think about it, “Nosferatu” was a great piece of work and it is something that I am very proud of! It’s not like I believe that it was a piece of crap, you know? It’s still very flattering. Conventionally what is happening is that most of these people are loyal, they try to stick to what you did in the past but then eventually they come around and go “oh, this new stuff is pretty good after all”. And you know what? The funny thing is that when “Nosferatu” first came out it got bad reviews everywhere – nobody liked it. Now they love it, saying things like “oh my god, it’s a classic”. Yeah, but when it came out, that’s the album that killed Helstar, because it was too technical! If you remember back then it was only a few people like you that were fans that said things like “this is great, these guys have put so much work” but the majority of the people were like “what are they doing, this is a little bit too neoclassical, come on”. They hated the record! Now it’s considered an all-time down in history Technical Progressive Power album and we’re like “Ok, but you didn’t like it then, now you love it” (laughs).
- That is human nature I guess – there’s not much we can do about that!
James: It’s human nature – exactly!
- If somebody was to come to you today and say”look, you have as much money at your disposal as possible to do something truly unique with Helstar”, what would you choose to do? How would you spend it?
James: Oh, wow! Well, I would probably spend a lot of time in the studio creating the most ultimate record with a lot of different characters in it and maybe even take some of the “Nosferatu” elements and make all kinds of things – make one of those albums that Rush used to do where the whole album was about something. Then I would film a video in Iceland!
James: One of my fantasies is to go and visit Iceland for some reason – don’t ask me why! Yeah, it’s been a theme for me now; I would do a killer video in Iceland, maybe in the very middle of the North Pole or something – something really different and something really cool! Maybe also start some sort of fund for animal abuse or something!
- James this has been one truly enjoyable interview for me – I hope it was the same for you. Thank you very much.
James: It was. I know that you live in the UK, but where are you originally from?
- I am from Greece.
James: I knew that the moment I saw your name. All I know how to say in Greek is “where is my god damn ouzo” (laughs). It was nice talking to you man, thanks a lot, I have to move on to the next one. See you soon – we will work on getting into the UK.
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