Heathen – Hypnotize the EmpireThursday, 3rd September 2020
When it comes to Bay Area thrash, we all have our favorites. Commanding attention through an intermingling of classic metal, speed, and thrash influences and putting their own melodic, semi-technical spin on things, Heathen are a personal favorite of this scribe’s tastes since their debut album Breaking the Silence hit the streets in 1987. By the time the second album Victims of Deception came out in 1991, alternative/grunge music ruled the media airwaves, and this style of thrash was passé.
Reuniting in the early 2000’s, it took until 2010 for The Evolution of Chaos to appear. Due to guitarists Lee Altus and Kragen Lum’s involvement with Exodus, Heathen would be on the backburner again until now. Signing with Nuclear Blast, Empire of the Blind is an amazing record that contains all the harmonies, twists and turns you’ve come to love from the group – synthesized into shorter, more focused songwriting. Conscious of keeping things relevant for today’s audience while maintaining the quality of what put them on the map in the first place, we reached out to Kragen Lum for a half hour talk about Heathen, the long wait between albums, where they stand in the Bay Area scene, honest talk about music business advice, and what it may take for Heathen to become more of a household word to metalheads in the US.
Dead Rhetoric: Being a member of Heathen since 2007, I’m curious to know your viewpoint on what the band meant to you prior to joining – and how have you viewed the work of the band from those early efforts with Breaking the Silence and Victim of Deception?
Kragen Lum: Well, I was a big fan of the band growing up. I was always into thrash metal since its inception, and I remember hearing “Goblin’s Blade” on KNAC, they had a metal show and I heard that song. It was a mix of the thrash metal stuff that I loved with the hard rock stuff that I loved in terms of the vocals. I was a fan, and loved that album and when Victims came out, I was blown away. To me it was like …And Justice for All, but on crack. More melodic and had even more diversity and more musicality, in terms of all the harmonies and Dave’s melodic vocals. It was an amazing opportunity when they asked me to audition in 2007, and I took it very seriously. I was pleased to become a part of the band.
Dead Rhetoric: Empire of the Blind is the fourth studio album – and a ten-year gap between studio records. What factors contribute to the long layoff from the studio – and does that make the band place even more emphasis on quality versus quantity when it comes to each record?
Lum: Well, we did a lot of touring for The Evolution of Chaos record. Particularly in Europe – we toured for about three years on that record. I had already started writing music for Empire of the Blind back in 2012. The main reason for the long delay is that I got sucked into the Exodus vortex, and started touring with them heavily. I spent five or six years touring hardcore with them, I think Lee told me that was more touring then they had ever done in the past. That was the main reason, we didn’t have the time to focus on finishing the record. Last year when I really started taking in to finishing it, I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself to write the best stuff possible and to live up to the previous records in terms of quality. When you are gone for ten years, or even five years, I think you have to come back with something really, really strong. Unfortunately, I buy a lot of music, I still buy CD’s, and I see a lot of the classic bands putting out stuff that’s not up to the level of quality I would expect from them. I did not want people to see the band in that way – I wanted to come out with something as high quality as possible.
Dead Rhetoric: There seemed to be a conscious effort to keep the songs in a tighter, focused timeframe compared to the past. Where do you see the major differences on this effort compared to the past discography – and what do you believe contributes to the distinction in sound Heathen has compared to other bands from the Bay Area or within your genre?
Lum: Well, there was a conscious effort to keep the songs shorter this time. In 2012 Lee, Dave, and I talked about this record at that time. The idea was to keep the songwriting style and sort of epic feel from Victims of Deception and The Evolution of Chaos and mix it with the shorter song arrangements of Breaking the Silence. That was the early decision to move in that direction, and I think that’s more or less what we’ve done.
As far as what things make Heathen different than other Bay Area bands…every Bay Area band had those early influences from Exodus and Metallica, that kind of stuff. The thing that sets this band apart are the other influences that come into the music. From my perspective the things that make up the band’s sound are the thrash metal sound mixed with an epic songwriting feel from bands like Rainbow, the harmonies of bands like Thin Lizzy, and then influences from the NWOBHM and stuff like that. Dave’s melodic vocals certainly set things apart, and we are able to have a lot of variety on the albums that other bands don’t do or maybe can’t because Dave for instance can sing a ballad. We don’t limit ourselves in terms of what we can do, a lot of the thrash bands put a box or walls around what they can do. We’ve always seen Heathen as more than a thrash band, so to speak. We follow that direction and write what we think sounds good, and that’s what makes Heathen a little different, particular the newer ones that are coming out that seem to have a lot of rules of what they do or don’t do.
Dead Rhetoric: You worked with Zeuss as a producer this time – how did this come about and where do you believe his skill sets or insights helped shape this record maybe a little differently than previous outings?
Lum: We talked about different producers to work on the record. I was out in Los Angeles visiting my parents, Zeuss happened to be there working on a Rob Zombie record. I met up with him, we were talking and he really understood the vision that we wanted in terms of the production. Honestly, it was great working with him. We were able to talk about a lot of the stuff ahead of time. We had a specific budget, but I wanted the album to sound like we had a lot more of a budget. We made a decision ahead of time, I recorded all the rhythm guitar tracks and my solos here in my home studio – we did the rest with Zeuss at a studio in Connecticut with the drums or Planet Z studios. He brought a lot to the table in terms of improving the songs, production ideas.
In one case he thought that a part of a song dragged on too long and he had a lot of great suggestions to help get us the production we wanted, which was half in the late 80’s/early 90’s and half in modern. We wanted that hybrid so that it sounded current and relevant but harkened back to the classic albums we grew up listening to, that it had a vibe and a feel to it. That was something we couldn’t really do without him. He’s great at listening to what bands want and allowing them to sound like themselves but he helps them improve on it. You listen to the records he’s done in recent years, Queensrÿche still sounds like Queensrÿche, Suffocation still sounds like Suffocation. He doesn’t put a stamp on it, he just gets the best out of the band and helps them realize their vision.
Dead Rhetoric: What can you tell me about the cover art this time?
Lum: Travis Smith did the artwork again. Travis and I have known each other for a long time, since the 90’s. He’s done all the Prototype album covers, he did The Evolution of Chaos cover. He and I talked on the phone about the artwork for this record. We came up with a general idea – in a weird way it’s an extension of the last album cover. It’s showing the next stage in the evolution of the world, so to speak. He has this really, cool unique way of visualizing the songs and giving the artwork a feel that I think it’s like those classic albums where you look at the artwork and it’s a visual representation of the feeling you get listening to the album. He came up with the piece for the cover, and a couple of other pieces that are inside the jacket of the vinyl or CD booklet.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you assess the abilities of Lee Altus versus yourself when it comes to guitar duties – are these specific traits that standout as far as rhythms and lead breaks that you each tackle?
Lum: Lee and I we have similar styles in a lot of ways. We are a few years apart so the influences are a little different here and there. In terms of recording, this one was a little bit different because I recorded all the guitars on this album. The way this band works is whoever writes the song records the rhythm guitars. That’s the same way that Exodus works for example. I tried to design the songs around who I thought would play which guitar break, that kind of stuff. When we play live, the stereo separation between the two guitar parts try to represent that in a live setting.
In terms of the rhythm stuff, we are similar. I’m a guy who analyzes things. I’ve been studying this since I was a teenager, I grew up in LA but I wish I was playing Bay Area thrash up in the Bay Area. Leadwise, we each have our thing. Lee is incredible with trills and these fast runs with trills that I can’t do. He’s incredible at those. We basically try to make each part when we are soloing fit the song – it’s not about showcasing a technique, it’s more about playing solos that fit the song and fit the part. That’s something we share, a vision of what a solo is. A lot of guys play a collection of notes or a bunch of licks – we try to write the solos to fit each song so that it’s song-oriented and not just shredding for the sake of shredding.
Dead Rhetoric: How would you assess the career arc of Heathen? And do you believe you’ve gained the same respect from the fans as you have from your musician peers and critics within the journalism community?
Lum: The timing of the release of Victims of Deception, I think altered the course of the band’s history. If that album had come out two years earlier before grunge took over and changed the whole metal scene, I think the band would have had more respect from the metal community. That’s one of my sort of pet peeves online, I’ll see memes that have Bay Area thrash, and Heathen will not be included. I don’t know why the band is sort of the red-headed stepchild of the scene. That’s how we see it, the band somehow that doesn’t get the respect that it deserves. And it’s probably because there’s been such a big gap between these albums. We’ve been consistent, but not frequently enough – it’s been one album a decade. We’d like to see that change, we’d like to reach more fans – the label that put out The Evolution of Chaos, while it’s a great label I don’t think they reached our audience. I’m still seeing people that remember the band from the first two albums but didn’t even know we released The Evolution of Chaos.
Hopefully Nuclear Blast and their promotion can help reach the audience that needs to hear this album. I’m hopeful to reach a different audience too. This band doesn’t just do thrash metal, so I’d like to see people that like more traditional metal, I think there’s something to offer a wider audience with this album and Heathen in general.
Dead Rhetoric: As a man in your late 40’s, how has your viewpoint on life changed from your twenties and thirties? Do you believe you made the right choices and decisions in those previous decades to set you up for the best opportunities and life that you have today?
Lum: Well, age gives you wisdom. So of course I know I didn’t make all the right choices. I was very fortunate to get into the video game industry in the late 90’s when it sort of saw a resurgence. I had a career as a video game producer for over a decade. I certainly benefitted from that, since I got laid off and decided to become a full-time musician, I’ve done everything I can to make decisions that allow me to pursue that goal and make the music I want to make. I make guitar books now – if I could go back and change some things, would I? Maybe. But I may not be where I am if I change those things. I’ve learned to take the opportunities that life gives you and do the best you can with them.
Dead Rhetoric: Do younger musicians seek out advice from you online or on the road – and if so, what sort of topics or discussions do you have that you make them think about and hopefully learn from?
Lum: Yes. I manage some bands now – I manage Heathen, I co-manage Exodus, I manage Defiance, also a band from Cincinnati called War Curse. They are a younger band. I talk to guys in younger bands all the time, they are always asking for advice on how to get their music out there. I try to give business advice as often as possible. One of the things that’s the most difficult in the music business is how to get money (laughs). How to make money. How to get the money that is owed to you that you don’t know exists. The publishing side of things is overly complicated, and the royalties side of things. I try to give them advice that will hopefully set them up for the future in terms of all of that stuff.
Unfortunately a lot of musicians are not interested in the business side of things. I think that’s normal in any kind of art that’s creative – they are wired to create and not necessarily crunch the numbers. I like to give as much advice to the younger musicians on that as much as possible because when I’m working with the legacy bands at this point, some of them still don’t have their royalty stuff set up. I am working on getting royalties for Heathen, Defiance, Atrophy, and a bunch of bands. At least try to get their royalty statements that they haven’t gotten for thirty years. It’s a cruel, disheartening business at times.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you view the differences between Heathen in the studio versus on stage- and what have been some of your more memorable performances over the years?
Lum: I guess live, we are one of those bands that when we write songs, we don’t worry about how we are going to perform this live. We want to make something that sounds incredible, and if it means if there are four guitar parts going like in the chorus of “The Blight”, we don’t worry about how we are going to replicate it live. Those parts are there as ear candy and make you feel something rather than be loud. Live, it’s definitely a little bit more of a stripped down approach. It’s the same thing that Metallica used to do, they can’t replicate all the guitar parts so they would do the two harmony parts live and there wouldn’t be any rhythm guitars. Those differences are normal for live shows. We like to make the live shows a little bit more aggressive than some of the studio albums have been. “Death by Hanging” live is going to be a little more aggressive than the studio version for example.
One of my favorites was captured on film, the Japan show when we played Thrash Domination. That show ended up… I got permission for us to include it in the bonus DVD for the reissue of The Evolution of Chaos earlier this year. That was one of my favorite shows, the audience was awesome. Some of the other ones… anytime we play in the UK or Dublin, they are rabid. We haven’t been down to South America, I would imagine it would be an awesome experience. Eastern Europe and Germany, shows are always great. We played in Dallas, Fort Worth – Lee missed his flight home, so we played without him. That was unique and interesting.
In the last few years I’ve had way more shows with Exodus so, those are the ones more fresh in my mind. But I’m looking forward to getting out there and playing more shows with Heathen.
Dead Rhetoric: What does the next year or two look like for Heathen in terms of supporting this release? Will you be seeking out another North American tour, as the last time I remember you hitting the road was opening for Destruction back in 2011…
Lum: Right now it’s hard to know what we are going to be able to do or not be able to do. We had a couple of tours planned in Europe which we would be out there right now. We had a South American tour too, and all those are cancelled. We are rescheduling as much as we can for next year. The virus makes planning difficult. Ideally we’d like to get on a tour in the US where it’s a good package – something like the Bay Strikes Back tour they recently did in Europe. It would be perfect for Heathen in the US. There is so much space to travel, the tour that we did with Destruction was tough. We had some good shows and had some where the turnouts were really low. We are still trying to figure out what the best approach is for North America, I think getting on a tour package with some bigger bands would be ideal for us. That’s what we are working towards.