Helstar is about to release the brand new album “Vampiro” and the expectations are already great as the conceptual and hopefully musical similarities with the seminal “Nosferatu” are obvious. James Rivera gives us all the details about the making of the new record, he talks about the possibility of the European Tour and finds another Hammer Horror fan on the other side of the telephone line! Interview: Sakis Nikas
Rockpages.gr: Helstar is back and you bring with you once again our favorite subject: Dracula and Vampires in general. You started with one song in your first album about Dracula, carried on with half an album about the legendary Vampire and now you dedicate a whole album to him. What made you revisit this theme?
James Rivera: Well, what made me revisit this theme…it’s a deep passion of mine anyways. When we were discussing what are we gonna do in our next album, we thought that maybe it was time for Helstar to do another concept album cause we are kinda good at that. We write a lot of epic tunes that can be tied in together in a sort of story. That was part of the reason…we really wanted to do a concept album but you know me very well, Sakis, I have a deep passion for Vampires and Dracula which is pretty much my second life. Also, someone played for me recently an album by a band that had a Dracula concept…I don’t remember the name of the band right now…but being a fan of Cradle of Filth and all this horror stuff, it started to piss me off a little bit. Helstar did that stuff a long time ago and we didn’t get the proper credit for it. And now the whole world is about Vampires and Zombies! All these TV shows…to hell with that shit. So, we decided to go back and, as you said, revisit this theme…after all, we do it better than anyone else and we had done it way before everybody! If things were as they should have been back in the late 80s then Helstar would have been in a different level. But of course there were two things that put a halt to that: the timing of real US power metal was fading out in the States anyways so the industry didn’t acknowledge it that much. The second reason is that the manpower that was needed at that time to do this might have been limited. Cause when you go to big stage shows you do need a lot of manpower. Sakis, when “Nosferatu” came out I had big plans for the tour…I wanted to be brought out of a coffin, I wanted to have the red-colored context on stage, the fans, the Vampire outfit…everything! Some of the band members didn’t like that idea and the label didn’t want to give us any extra money so the idea got shot down. So, we went out to promote a concept record like “Nosferatu” and we were wearing the classic metal outfit of the day with the skinny jeans and the white sneakers…nothing really elaborate to express this story that we had put together and the rest is history. Almost ten years later, here comes a band called Cradle of Filth, does the same thing and makes millions. In a sense, it’s kinda a slap in the face…but again, it’s nothing wrong to go back to that concept and capitalize on something that we had a really big dream of. Bottom line…we get another shot of expressing our love on one of our favorite subjects.
Rockpages.gr: I am a huge Hammer Horror fan and I always wondered why the American horror fans always preferred Bela Lugosi to Christopher Lee. Any explanation…?
James Rivera: That’s weird, Sakis, because I am one of the few Americans that don’t prefer Bela Lugosi. There is no other Dracula but Christopher Lee! As far as I am concerned, to this day, I haven’t seen anything as fascinating and mesmerizing as those classic Dracula movies from the Hammer Horror Studios. Christopher Lee has always been the true personification of Dracula. It’s kinda like James Bond…you can always get different actors and what you do is see the movies…I am such a huge fan of James Bond and Sean Connery. To me there is no other Bond than Sean Connery. But then again, some of the other guys did a fine job.
Rockpages.gr: I read somewhere –I think it was the Houston Press- that “Black Cathedral” is based on the excellent Hammer movie “Taste The Blood Of Dracula”. Is that right?
James Rivera: Yes, that’s exactly what it is.
Rockpages.gr: Christopher Lee and Ralph Bates are brilliant on this one and I love the 19th century Victorian London setting…
James Rivera: I love it…it’s really awesome, you know. It’s kinda one of the most Satanic movies of Hammer Horror. When we were watching the film again with Larry (Barragan) we were absolutely amazed at the fact that this movie was made in 1970! Where did all this stuff come from? There is the altar with the four black symbols…you have the Dio sign, the King Diamond sign, the Ghost sign…and all these came from a 1970 movie! Way ahead of its time.
Rockpages.gr: Many Helstar fans are wondering if “Vampiro” will be similar from a compositional standpoint to your seminal “Nosferatu” album. What can you tell us about the musical direction of the new record?
James Rivera: Well, anybody who has heard “Black Cathedral” knows the answer really…so, yes! It’s gonna be in the same vein as “Nosferatu”; that’s exactly what we’re doing. We tried to reconstruct or recapture if you like the musical quality and context that “Nosferatu” had…especially with the vocals. Larry insisted on the vocals…he wanted a similar feeling right from the beginning. He wanted the vocals to be even longer…overkill it! He said “James, let’s do this; let’s go for it. Let’s put at ease those old school fans that were kinda skeptical with albums like “Glory of Chaos” where we became a little bit angrier”. At the same time, I must say that we are not gonna go back to that style again…I mean we won’t copy that style because that was too long ago and we would sound outdated. So, if you put “Nosferatu” with the heaviness of…let’s say “This Wicked Nest”, that’s what “Vampiro” is all about. This is “Nosferatu” of 2016.
Rockpages.gr: How important to the making of the record was the fact that you had two new guys on board? I am referring to Garrick Smith and Andrew Atwood…
James Rivera: Both of them are really important to Helstar. I mean…first of all, Garrick is such an amazing bass player. Pretty soon this kid is gonna be a star. As for Andrew…well, Sakis, these two kids live and breathe metal! They are half my age and they are metal junkies! Andrew is a walking heavy metal encyclopedia! They are both brilliant kids and amazing musicians. I love them! Andrew has brought some things on the table that was mind blowing! One song sounded like “Abandon Ship”…my God! This kid knows his metal and not only that but let me tell you that his favorite band of all time is Helstar! So, what more can you ask for? And Sakis…I know that you are worried that Rob Trevino is missing but let me tell you that Rob is still on the sidelines, doing a lot of producing from home…every song still passes his desk! I don’t want people to think that Rob’s not around or that we lost another original member…a longtime member.
Rockpages.gr: James, that’s great to hear because I was kinda worried when I received the press release from Alpha Omega Management and I noticed that Rob was not on the line-up…
James Rivera: Right! To get this straight, Rob is overwhelmed nowadays; he is full of responsibilities and he has a big position in his job. His children have grown up, they are almost in high school and Rob –apart from being a great musician and friend- he is a great family man. He might not have the time for Helstar right now but he is still giving us his two cents and he is as important to us as ever! Just think that he came to the Helstar show last Friday and when the promoter asked me to write down the names of the Helstar members, I instantly put Rob’s name on the list. To me, Rob is still a member of the band.
Rockpages.gr: Lots of cool things are happening at the Helstar camp. You signed a record deal with Dave Ellefson’s EMP label, you are also now part of the Alpha Omega Management and all in all “Vampiro” kicks off in the best possible way. Do you feel vindicated after almost 35 years in the business?
James Rivera: Well yeah…we’ve finally gotten to a point where I can get some help…we have a label that it is genuinely excited with what we are doing. Also there is a clear strategy on things…Ellefson is a smart guy…for example, I was happy when I noticed that singles are back. I always thought that singles killed the music industry; killed the album format. 99.9% of the labels don’t want to put out anything until the album is ready. But the truth is that we need some excitement; we need to build some excitement over “Vampiro” and I believe that by releasing “Black Cathedral” months before the release of the album we have achieved that. You release one song and everybody’s going crazy! Everybody cannot wait to hear the whole album…that’s excitement! Also, you put out another single and pay attention to be another killer one so as to grow everybody even more impatient! This way we have almost 6 months of promotion!
Rockpages.gr: James, you should mention to Dave (Ellefson) that it would be a cool idea to release a hard copy of the “Black Cathedral” single…
James Rivera: Yeah! We talked about it…in any case; you got to remember that EMP is the mothership of everything that’s going on. In Europe we have SPV and maybe they would consider releasing a hard copy of the single.
Rockpages.gr: Speaking of cool things, you are working once again with Bill Metoyer. He was definitely one of the guys who really captured Helstar’s spirit on a record. How does it feel to be working once again with him?
James Rivera: Oh man…it feels great! I mean, I never really stopped working with the man! He just knows exactly what he is doing. On this record, Larry did most of the job on the whole recording but as far as the mixing goes…my God! Bill is amazing and always does a phenomenal job. When he listened to some of the stuff that we were working on…some rough demos of our songs, he said to us “guys, you should let me mix this album” (laughs)! We had to bring Bill back for this album. After all, he is part of the Alpha Omega Management that got us there in the first place. Bill Metoyer deserves much more credentials and it’s great to see that after all these years he is finally gets the recognition that so rightfully deserves! He has done so many classic records and he has gone through some hard times but he is now back and I couldn’t be happier for him!
Rockpages.gr: James, here in Europe, Bill Metoyer’s name is legendary!
James Rivera: I know! I will let him know about it.
Rockpages.gr: How about your other side projects…? Do you have anything in the works or there is simply no time for other bands right now?
James Rivera: Not really…I am doing, of course, Sabbath Judas Sabbath…I just have to return to Europe with that but I know that things are tough right now in Europe. The only thing that I’ve been asked was to sing on a Shadowkeep project; Shadowkeep is a band from UK. Then I just got an offer of recording a couple of songs for a nostalgic act called Rocka Rollas…they don’t have a singer so they want someone to record the vocals. Obviously, right off the bat I thought that this would be a Judas Priest kind of band but it turned out that they are more like a Helstar sounding band. That’s probably why they want me to do the vocals (laughs). Nothing’s solid yet.
Rockpages.gr: Are you planning a European Tour for the promotion of “Vampiro”?
James Rivera: Yeah, of course! There are no concrete plans yet but we are working on it and I am sure we are gonna visit Europe for the promotion of “Vampiro”. Let me tell you that we are working on some things that we are make every Helstar fan happy at the end of the day. Patience is the best policy!
Rockpages.gr: 2017 marks the 35th anniversary of Helstar. Have you thought about celebrating this special occasion with a release or a show?
James Rivera: Well, we haven’t put much thought into it…we celebrated “Remnants of War” 20th anniversary, we celebrated in 2012 our 30th anniversary; then we did a salute to “Burning Star” (laughs)! Maybe what we could do, just for the hell of it, is an official, nicely recorded 10-track album of the covers that we used to do back in 1982 when we were starting as a band. We had already done in the past “White Witch” which is one of the covers that we used to do but it would be fun to do a whole album of those early covers.