HELSTAR (James Rivera) Interview
Back in October last year, and only a few weeks prior to the release of the latest Helstar album “Glory Of Chaos”, I got the opportunity of interviewing the band’s legendary frontman James Rivera. What I didn’t realise at the time was that there were plans for the band to visiting the UK for the very first time in its long career and, once these plans had finally materialised, I found myself talking once again to this great frontman, this time in person. James was gracious enough to do this interview having arrived in London following a long and, as you will soon find out, fairly arduous trip – an experience that left both his humour and high spirits intact! This interview begun by focusing on what took place in the first few months after the release of “Glory Of Chaos”, but also included an analysis of the current state of the music industry and also delved into James’ involvement in other project such as Seven Witched and Sabbath Judas Sabbath.
By Yiannis Stefanis.
• James, I had the pleasure of doing an interview with you a few months ago, prior to the release of “Glory Of Chaos”, still I could not resist the temptation of seeing you in person and try to get a feel of what has happened these last few months. To be very honest with you, I did not expect to see you guys performing in the UK. This is the first time that you play here right?
James: My first time in my whole career, so I am really excited to be here.
• Now, that is mental! Why did it take so many years for you to play here then?
James: Well, maybe it’s this ‘papers’ thing (note: you will soon understand what that means) – I don’t know (laughs). I have been to a few bands none of which ever came to perform in the UK – it just wasn’t in the cards! Back in the day when Helstar was really huge…we should have come when fu*king “Burning Star” (1984) came out as we were voted number one band on Metal Forces for God knows how long, you know? Crazy, but…I have no idea. But, like I said, for American bands it is a very complicated task. I mean, all that the UK asks is that you follow their rules and do what they ask of you before you come to play here, and ‘he’ didn’t do it! I had asked him about it, because I have heard about it…
• …he being the tour manager?
James: No, the promoter. He thought that it would be different coming with the ferry from mainland Europe; when you fly in here, things are stricter. We thought “well, maybe the ferry will not be so bad”, but then when I called him at five in the morning saying “dude, we have a problem – they just made us leave” (laughs). But anyway, we are here so that is all that matters!
• You know what; I find it very surprising still to see young people wearing Tigers Of Pan Tang and Manilla Road t-shirts in a UK show. In Greece, where I come from, there is a very energetic scene and that is something that seems to be catching up here too. I am not sure how things are back in the States…
James: It’s starting to catch up too! It’s kind of a cool thing because…like you know, for example, we are from Houston/Texas, right? We do pretty fu*king big shows there, but that’s because we’re from there. I would say that half of that audience is people who had been ‘there’ already for I don’t know how many years and the other half is the young kids who are sixteen or seventeen who were our shirts, straight-leg jeans and the whole nine years! Of course, they have slightly funkier haircuts, you know, but hey – whatever, you know? They are into Metal and that is all that matters!
• It’s funny to see how mental these kids go trying to find these basketball shoes and tight jeans over the Internet!
James: Old fashion high tops dude – yeah!
• That is a beautiful thing to experience and what is more beautiful is to see a band like Helstar finally being recognised here enough to have them performing in the UK! I am sad that your first ever show has to be performed in a venue as small as the Purple Turtle, but that is better than nothing!
James: To be honest with you man, I think…for our first time in London and because times have changed. If we first came here back in 1984 we would have played the Hammersmith Odeon – no doubt about that! But, you know, it is what it is today and things are different in the business now, so you’ve got to be careful. But all I can say so far is that we have done…show number four…five, and so far every day has been a home run! Now that’s great and, you know what? It’s realistic to play in front of one hundred and fifty to one hundred and seventy people, in such a capacity venue, but have it nice and packed instead of trying to be at the Hammersmith Odeon with a hundred and seventy people, as that would have been very embarrassing (laughs). In a way, man, this is a…every show has been so great and we…I think that we’ve got to do a lot of fu*king extra work, but I think that we are finally getting to that other point after this one again now, you know? That’s just what it is – we are trying to catch up to almost fifteen years of lost time! We never really got as big as Testament or Exodus, the ones that came out just like that and they are now big – bigger than they were back then, it even seems to be; I don’t know. Yeah; it seems like everything is just paying off again.
• Well, you have a beautiful album in “Glory Of Chaos” now out – an effort that we were both very excited for when it was to first come out and an effort that I am still very much excited for to this day. Every time I listen to it, it sounds fresh, it sounds interesting and it is a very straight forward and easily approachable album. Now, I can see you guys having a problem choosing which material to play for this tour as all ten compositions are equally strong contestants. Now that you are facing show number six for this tour, which are the tracks that stand out enough for you to include in tonight’s set list?
James: Oh…the number one song that we can never, never get rid of, whether we wanted to or not, is “Run With The Pack”, Ok? So, we’ve got to do that! Then, you know, we will have to play one from each album I guess. When it comes to the “Remnants Of War” album it’s weird because we don’t feel like there’s one song from that album that really has to be done – we just feel that we’ve got to do something from it. From “A Distant Thunder” we obviously have to play “The King Is Dead”, you know? “Nosferatu”; no doubt it will be “Baptised In Blood” – it’s certain songs like that, you know? And of the new album, you know, we are doing quite a few songs tonight, so that will be interesting for the new listeners as well, so…
• So, you are not willing to reveal them to me at this stage? Shame on you (I laugh).
James: It’s supposed to be a surprise (laughs)!
• Fair enough. In terms of vocal performances, “Glory Of Chaos” is quite a demanding album and you are indeed quite stretching yourself here which is fantastic, considering how many years you have been singing. Now that you’ve had the opportunity to perform these new songs live did you find that you had to rework certain parts in order for them to be performed accurately on stage?
James: No, not really! I mean, these songs are very easy for me to sing. Basically, as far as you said about me expanding my vocals and all that, I would have never put them on the record if I thought that I could not pull those off live. I have been doing all that stuff for fun when I am drunk sometimes; you should have been around a few days ago when I was doing my Danny Filth impressions on a driveway at three o’ clock in the morning (note: at this point James tries to re-create Danny Filth’s high pitch screams, quite successfully, if I might add).
• I have been meaning to ask you all along; how’s Jerry (Abarca: bass) doing at the moment? Is he recovering nicely?
James: Jerry has started his treatments and he’s going to be good! They told him that it might be stomach cancer; they are still trying to check it out, so if it is stomach cancer, it is small enough for them to be able to cut it out, so he will not have to do any chemo. Once you start that sh*t, you’re fu*ked- you’re done!
• Now, that must have been a real shock for everybody!
Jerry: Well, you know, we really wish that he was here, but, you know, it is what it is. We would have enjoyed things slightly more if Jerry was also with us, but unfortunately he’s not, so…
• Well, let us simply wish him a speedy recovery as the rest if of secondary importance!
James: Yes, indeed!
• The tour that you are currently undertaking in Europe is fairly short. Was that something that you chose to do or was it imposed on you?
James: It is our choice in a way because, although you are aware of it, I am really the only real musician in the band, and by that I mean full time. That is why I am playing in so many different bands as I need to be able to keep busy. With these guys, there was what you call the task of getting the original members back but it came a little bit with negativity as they cannot really throw away the lives that they have been leading for the last fifteen years as every single one of them has a corporate IT job. But the good side of it is that, because if the fact that they have stopped playing music fifteen years ago and they are finally now back in the game, they have always been with that same company and as a result have all this vacation time to use but they can only use it wisely. So we have to build our tours around those schedules. If it was up to me, the band would be on the road for eight months out of the whole year but that is just not the case, you know? Times are different, you know? They’ve got nice homes, nice families, nice beautiful families, and I guess that because it’s just me, my chick and my two cats, I cannot expect them to change their ways. My cats, on the other hand, will go “fu*k you – go back on tour” (laughs).
• Surely the fact that the gigs are so limited makes them more ‘thirsty’ to perform live, right? As they have a very limited amount of time that they can be on the road, every show is special, right?
James: When they are on the road, they love it – then they are full time musicians again.
• You have already mentioned that times have changed and this is something that I can also attest to, of course. Whether that is for the best or the worst; this is open for debate I guess, but you have been around for dogs years and you have lived that change from the very start. How does a band like Helstar, a band that started its career having taken certain aspects of this business for granted, can adapt to the whole change in the music industry and how can you make sure that you make the best out of the current situation? There are so many bands around fighting for attention these days and labels are neither as strong nor as influential as they used to be back in the 80s.
James: Well, you know, it’s just becoming such a…it is becoming tougher. It is even becoming tougher fir the labels to do anything for you that you want them to and then you end up thinking to yourself “why am I with a fu*king label anyway”, you know what I mean? It also depends who it is that they have working for them. I my case the guy (note: the AFM Records representative in the UK) did an excellent job. I mean, look at all these press people who are here tonight! I had this one guy in America who booked me two interviews! You know, it’s just frustrating man, you know? I guess that you can do…I think that one thing about the music business is that, unless you make it really big like the ones that are way up there and who they have no worries in the world like K.I.S.S. or Iron Maiden, when you are a band like us, I think that you always learn something every year. When you think that you’ve learned it all the we are always finding ourselves having a meeting as things always go wrong and in the end we always go “oh, next time we will do things differently”. We are always learning something, you know? I mean, Jesus Christ; how many times do you have to get beat up before you get it, you know?
• Many young bands that I have interviewed in the past seem to get into the self-promoting part of the business, using media like MySpace and Tweeter to advertise themselves and their work – it feels like they don’t trust the labels enough to do their promotion for them. Is this an aspect that you felt at some point that you also had to take ownership of?
James: It’s still that way, but like I said, a lot of times they are simply going to put the album out, they will do so much, but you will still have to run the whole show! They are not going to help you book a tour as they don’t get anything out of it- it’s all still up to you! It’s up to you to decide what it is that you want to do. They will put the record out but as far as booking – they have nothing to do with that. And most importantly, you don’t get a dime for tour support anymore – that’s history! If you sell CDs then all is well, but if you don’t sell up, then you’ve got nothing, you know?
• Don’t you feel that as a band you are in a certain privileged position? I mean, I am sure that there are a few guys who actually flew here to see you tonight.
James: No sh*t! Wow! I know that there are people from all over the UK here too – right!
• So, I mean, does the fact that you have acquired a legendary status through past endeavours help in you not having to rely too much on labels?
James: Well, you still count on them to put the record out and all…it’s weird. One thing I noticed about the labels is that, at the moment of the time when your record is getting ready to come out, you’ve got their undivided attention for so long and, after that, they won’t even be answering your e-mails. It’s pretty weird as it takes them such a long time to answer you and, you know what the most frustrating part is? It’s all the excuses! “Oh sorry – I had this and that” and I am like “I know; it’s just that my record is not coming out and I am not that important”.
• Most bands rely on gigs in order to sustain themselves nowadays…
James: Yeah, for me it’s mainly gigs, for sure! The advances are hardly nothing anymore and you do use most of it on the recordings anyway, so…but yeah, mostly the gigs is how you make the money.
• And you being involved in many bands mean that you have more opportunities to make a living.
James: I have more work. I guess that you could look at me as being a carpenter! You know what; I cannot survive doing one album each year – I’ve got to do thirty! That is the same way that I see it! I am just a guy that needs work! I mean, I do have a day job too, but mine’s easy. It is the same company that I have worked for almost twenty years and so I don’t have to go in – I work from home. But, when I don’t go in, I don’t make any money, but when I am home and I decide to call the boss and say “hey, I am going to do some sales this month” he will be Ok with that. He’s still around, so they don’t care, you know?
• I would like to ask you a question about “Call Upon The Wicked” – the new Seven Witches album. It has been out recently, right?
James: Yes, it is out! A video came out recently and the album did very well. I am not one of these people that brag about thing – I am only saying what I read on reviews that other people wrote. The best comments that I have seen posted is that it is as good as “Passage To The Other Side” (2003) if not better, which is very complementary for us – a very good record. Now, Michael Lepond (bass) from Symphony X did a lot of the writing, and then with Jack’s (Frost: guitars) collaboration and the chemistry that me and Jack already have…it is a good record!
• Are there any plans of promoting the record here in Europe through live shows?
James: You know what; we don’t really know what’s going on because Lepond is so busy with Symphony X and Jack is not like he really wants to tour…I don’t know what’s going on now! I am doing some dates in Europe in November supporting the record with my tribute band and what it is, is that I am doing a couple of festivals. I do one thing and then I start contacting some other people asking them “well, would you be interested”. Actually, I will be coming here for a few shows and not just one, so it will all start with the one festival where I told him my idea of doing the Seven Witches thing and the organiser said “hey, I like that”. Then I contacted another promoter and he went “hey, I’ll take it” and then another guy went “sure, why not – I’ll take that show”. What it’s going to be is James Rivera Sabbath Judas Sabbath doing a special night of Seven Witches, Men of Steel and all things from James Rivera’s career. We are going to do a lot of Seven Witches songs, Men of Steel songs, Helstar songs…it’s all going to be originals, plus we are going to add a few Sabbath and Priest classics there, so it’s all good (laughs).
• James, I hope that it all works well for you mate. It’s been awesome finally talking to you in person and I hope you have a great time in Greece.
James: You don’t have to tell me that man! You have the best gyros, ouzo…I get married every time I go to Greece (laughs). In Thessaloniki I got married five times last time I was there (laughs).
• Good luck with that then!
James: No problem man!
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