HELSTAR – Stirring Up a Wicked Nest
In the early 1980’s, one of the US metal bands that took the traditional template to more of a power sound would be this Texas band Helstar. In 1984 "Burning Star" put the band on the world map, and their stellar musicianship, guitar harmonies, and high octane vocals would be influential to many acts of their time.
Experiencing a second resurrection of sorts and signed to AFM Records, their latest studio album "This Wicked Nest" encompasses much of what they’ve learned in their 30 year plus history- knowing that to be relevant today, you can’t be purely relying on the past to get things done. Taking the time one Sunday afternoon to speak to vocalist James Rivera, you will find he feels that Helstar can still conquer new territory and enjoys the fact that people still care about the band’s output. Get ready to learn the many facets of Helstar in this entertaining interview.
Your new album "This Wicked Nest" seems to encompass all eras of the band musically and vocally, in terms of balancing the classic template that you started with during the "Burning Star" and "Remnants of War" albums and adding in a lot of the aggressive, darker elements of your last two studio records. Where do you see this record stylistically, and how do you feel the recording/ songwriting sessions went this time?
"You actually hit it right on the nail, it is the album that we feel is perfectly put together to embrace all Helstar fans from old to new. We never try to write anything too intentionally, because you lose the focus and put yourself into a box. We knew it wouldn’t be hard to think about the older elements that we used to use back in the day more than we do now, so that was a process that we went about this time. Influencing ourselves with ourselves (laughs) – does that make sense? Sometimes people can forget to influence themselves, and that’s what we did."
Your voice seems no worse for wear 30 plus years into the metal business – are there any special techniques or tricks you employ to comfortably keep things in shape, especially considering the high power scream action often used in songs like "The King is Dead", or for instance this album’s "Fall of Dominion"?
"Well, yes and no. I think that if I try to break it down scientifically it’s probably the things I do on tour to help me preserve my voice and take care of it another- or at least do what it needs to get its proper rest and be ready for show after show. On another phenomena situation I would say I’m just blessed with a voice that just happens to get stronger with age for some weird reason. The important thing is to do just a little bit of warm up before you go on- you don’t necessarily have to run off into a corner and do Pavarotti five hours before you do a show. The amount of sleep I get every night when I am recording or touring is important- I am pretty lucky because I think I was a cat in my previous life because I out sleep my cats and that’s pretty bad (laughs). Little gargle things that I do medically and scientifically that help out on tour and preparing for studio recordings, they help my voice. Plus what you drink on stage- everybody is a little bit different, I have two shots of Jager and room temperature beer, or room temperature champagne on stage for a performance. For others those things would destroy their voice, or the beer would dry out their throat, it’s just different for everybody."
You’ll be headlining this year’s Warriors of Metal Festival in Columbus, Ohio in late June – and you’ve had the privilege of performing there a couple of times (once as Helstar, and once with a solo band). What do you enjoy most about these US festivals like Powermad, the Classic Metal Festival and such, and how can we get things moving along stateside to develop the scene to be as strong as mainland Europe?
"Well, I don’t really know what to do with that. Unfortunately it’s our culture, we are different people in the United States and for these little festivals that are sprouting out- Warriors of Metal, Ragnarökkr in the Midwest- I think that finally sold out for the first time this year, so that is good news. It’s just a matter of people really applying themselves to really support it. It’s one thing when people say they are actually going to do something- it’s another thing when they actually do it. And you know, there’s living proof of that. I don’t care what a band’s event page on Facebook says- your event could say 500 people are attending, but usually half the people really only come. I don’t know what it is about the American culture, but we are just not dedicated to making metal happen again in our country- then the drinking part comes into play and people forget about what they were going to do to take things to first base the next day."
Do you think the size of the country has something to do with it in comparison to Europe where you can travel to things a little bit easier?
"That was going to be my next reason- the size of our country. We can’t get from one place to another in a quick fashion- so what is considered the heart of America? That’s the other problem- the USA is so spread out. That’s a big problem for real metalheads and real metal music to survive, it’s a way of life for us. In order to get all of the metal heads from the US and put them in Massachusetts where you are from, we could fill up the whole state and that would be it for America (laughs). We would have our own little thing- maybe not that small, maybe the state of Kansas would allow us to all fit there."
I wanted to go back a little bit through the history of Helstar if you don’t mind. You joined in August of 1982 after guitarist Larry Barragan has been after you for a year to be their singer- and you received a phone call from him weekly over a six month period. What finally convinced you to make the move from your cover band Scorcher to join Helstar?
"Better cover songs! (laughs). No, the talent was a big improvement that had a lot to do with it. The Helstar members were more talented musically. The song selection- because we were all cover bands back then. They were much better- now it’s funny, when you are a signed band you still see some signed bands with that high school competition mentality. That was the way it was in those cover bands of the early 80’s- everyone was a rival. They wear those stupid spandex, we wear the black ones- at the end of the day we are all a bunch of idiots! (laughs). When you think back to those days… musically they were more talented and the set list is what it came down to."
Did you ever find out why "Burning Star" came out featuring a separate cover for the US and European markets? And at what point did Larry quit for the first time- because I’ve heard he wasn’t happy with Hector Pavon’s brother and family being so involved in the management/ business end of Helstar?
"We had no control over the other deal Combat made with Music For Nations. Now it’s very common, but we didn’t know it was going to come out via Music For Nations in Europe, we didn’t know what that meant. When they put it out they wanted to put it out with another cover, they didn’t ask us. It was right after "Burning Star" came out that Larry left, and it was just for a little while- about a year or a little less. We continued on without him as a four piece for a bit there, and I just knew that this was never going work, it didn’t sound right. So Larry attempted to put something together on his own- and that’s where he found bassist Jerry Abarca, and two other members to get something going on. We continued a few shows without him, late 1984 / early 1985, and then we started talking again."
"Remnants of War" launched a bigger career for the band in the United States. You were able to recruit Robert Trevino and Rene Luna from the local band Minotaur as well as Jerry Abarca, Did you worry that the lineup changes could splinter the band chemistry and creativity within Helstar?
"When we first got together we didn’t want that to happen. As a matter of fact, there were at least a few rehearsals of the "Burning Star" lineup but with Jerry on bass minus Paul. Those were the only conditions that Larry would rejoin Helstar, he wanted the new bassist and no longer wanted to play with Paul. There was too much of a family thing going on with those guys. That’s what destroyed the band- they went at it with the mentality of Tejano bands, you’ve seen the movie Selena? That was their mentality- their visions of Oscar being the manager, the drummer is the brother, the sister was the hairstylist and clothes designer, the other brother was going to be the lawyer- and we said what is this going to be, Pavon-star? This is a metal band, and Paul was going to marry the sister. So Larry saw that as a threat- Oscar had to go as a manager and Paul had to go because he was going to marry into that family. We didn’t want anyone outside of Hector playing drums to be involved from the Pavon family. Oscar did ruin our career- to this day we know that. Jerry got involved, we did have some rehearsals with me, Larry, Jerry, Tom and Hector, and it did sound bad ass. We had a show booked in San Antonio, and then somehow Hector and Tom got talked into quitting a couple of weeks before the show so we went and got Rene and Rob, and that’s how that lineup change happened."
During the "A Distant Thunder" period, you decide to move the band’s home base from Texas to California. The music evolved and I saw many comparisons to Andre and Larry’s guitar work as the power/speed metal version of Yngwie Malmsteen at times. Did everyone take their skill level up a few more notches and look at this as a possible full-time career at this point?
"Yes. At that point we were rehearsing all the time and we all made the move to California because we were signing to Metal Blade and we thought it was a better idea to move to where the metal scene was. Everybody took their playing a bit more seriously at that point. The bad thing with Helstar has always been timing- I’m sure we’ll get into that as you may have another question about this later."
"Nosferatu" is the fourth Helstar album, and at the time prior to writing the lyrics you read through Dracula 5 times. Did you sense a changing of the metal tide in America versus the long time support and appreciation you’ve always had in Europe?
"I did start feeling at the time that the scene was changing and things were changing around us. That album just really came out at a bad time. If that album had just come out now, who knows how big we would have become. That album came out at the tail end of when that style of metal was on its way out- the death metal scene was just starting to erupt from the underground and we were getting into different styles. Guns ‘N’ Roses type bands were big, the boots and spurs were taking off, so everything was bad timing for that album. We couldn’t figure out how we had created such a brilliant record that nobody liked it. The musicianship was great, but that’s not what the scene is into- so Metal Blade had to let us go."
After a demo you shopped for a new deal in 1990 failed to gain much attention beyond the press, Larry would leave the band and you would begin Vigilante. A new record deal came to the table, and you ran into Megadeth bassist Dave Effleson who would help work on what would become the fifth Helstar album "Multiples of Black". Can you tell us about the push and pull struggle in terms of the songwriting and recording of that album- shorter songs, and the change in your vocals?
"Yes, the songs were actually longer on the Vigilante demos. All those are Vigilante songs, but it was Dave’s idea that we should go back to the Helstar name because people would acknowledge that name more than some new band name. Now we realize that was a mistake because it would have been more appreciated if it had just gone under another moniker featuring the singer from Helstar. We would have had the space to not be compared too much to Helstar. The songwriting, he shortened everything because we were talking about being right smack in 1993, 1994 when not very many people were running around like us with black jeans, high top tennis shoes, and some cool metal shirt. He was helping to try to get us signed to a major- but no one was going to be interested in a band like us. He put two cents into what he thought would make the band be more successful on a commercial level, shortening the songs in terms of radio. We were miles away from becoming that- at least the European people liked the original versions of those songs that were faster, were longer, and a little bit more epic-style Helstar and I sang a little bit higher on those versions. It was murder-suicide situation- but we listened to him because he was Dave Effleson. We were possibly going to go tour with Megadeth, he tried his best and it wasn’t his fault that things didn’t happen for the band at that time."
How do you feel about your work through the years with Destiny’s End, Seven Witches, Vicious Rumors, and Malice in terms of studio albums and live performances?
"All that time frame were great years for me, and everything that I’ve ever done I’ve always put 150% into. I enjoyed all those moments. I’ve appreciated the membership and the musicianship that I’ve had with these people. Things just don’t work out for reasons- Helstar has been my baby and probably where I belonged the most and I’ve heard that from many people and luckily it’s in full swing for me again so I don’t need one of those other bands to be in anymore. I can just because I know Helstar is only going to do so much per year but I’m starting to feel pretty happy right now just being in Helstar and I’ve got my worldwide tribute bands so I don’t feel like I have to join another recording act just to keep busy all year. I learned a lot from all those different projects- they kept developing my voice through the years and what different people wanted me to do, my little bird. Jack Frost always wanted different things, Geoff Thorpe wanted different things, Destiny’s End was me anyway, but I sang a little bit more like a younger Bruce Dickinson with that band, so that was another whole style. After all those projects, especially now in Helstar with "This Wicked Nest", I brought all those elements throughout the years into this album. I’ve been getting a lot of praise vocally for this record and it’s very flattering, it’s nice to know that people are hearing that. I’ve combined everything I’ve done over the last 30 years of my career."
Is it hard to get inspired lyrically with so much recording through the years or do you just find a way to channel negativity and aggression through your words?
"When I am not touring and doing things I am working from home, my schedule starts at 9 in the morning and I turn on CNN Headline News and you can write a double album everyday (laughs). The craziness and the madness in this world is more than enough to write 3 songs per hour. Each little topic is just bizarre, and it gets worse and worse. You jot things down and that’s how I get my inspiration these days."
What do you consider some of your best work and most memorable live shows through the years in Helstar?
"Again, not being partial but this album contains some of my best work- and "Nosferatu" lyrically was some of my best work, not necessarily vocally. I think back to probably singing a little more like how I sing now, maybe 75% of what I did on "Nosferatu" fit the tones and storyline that made it a little more gothic. As far as live shows- the 30 year anniversary show that we recorded was probably my favorite show, best performance. There is nothing overdubbed, that is a real product out there with the double album and DVD. There were only 1 or 2 things I had to fix that I was unhappy with where I mumbled a word the wrong way. Hearing that was one of my best performances."
Do you see any major differences being on AFM Records now in comparison to your time with Combat and Metal Blade in the 1980’s and early 1990’s?
"There’s not much of a difference. You would think that with AFM not being as big of a label as Metal Blade was back then, we are actually getting a little more dealing with AFM. We are signed to a label that is 90% geared to promote this kind of music. That is what comes down to- it doesn’t matter who you are signed to, it’s do they love what you are doing and are they 100% into that style of music. They aren’t just trying to sign every nook and cranny thing out there. When we were on the tail end of Metal Blade, we had people in that office that were into all different styles of metal. One of the guys could love the band but the guy in charge of setting up your interviews can’t stand you. He’s got to do his job, but it’s minimal because he’s not into the band. That’s the big difference. If you don’t have everybody in the office totally blown away, a fan on their knees when you walk into the office- the workers in the office want you to sign their record collection, that’s pretty cool. You can tell they are busting their asses to try to get this record to be as successful as possible, that’s what you want."
What do the next 12 months look like for Helstar?
"In early May we will start our tour of Europe, we will do that and then do a West run of the USA. I am looking to get us into the East Coast tour also. We have some stuff lined up for the fall in the Mid-West- and we just got picked up by a booking agency in South America and there is a guy in Australia trying to piece things together. The other guys only have so much time off due to full time jobs, but we will do what we can."