Helsott – Validation Through VindicationTuesday, 5th July 2022
People struggle to position bands in specific categories. Record labels often find it’s easier to promote the latest and greatest thrash, death, doom, power, progressive, black, or folk metal act outside of groups who meld two or more influences together. Which brings us to Helsott – a California group who mix folk, death, and power influences into their pagan metal style, not quite like anyone you’ve ever heard or experienced before. Their third and latest album Will and the Witch also takes on an imaginative Billy the Kid storyline – incorporating Wild West themes and native instrumentation at times to pull in the listener to that time period.
We spoke to vocalist Eric Dow recently and he was more than happy to delve deeper into the conceptual elements behind the new record, the numerous special guests, thoughts on playing live and the challenges in the USA versus internationally to handle the grind, the many hats he wears in the music industry, plus thoughts on the discography of Moonsorrow, Amon Amarth, and Blind Guardian, and more.
Dead Rhetoric: The latest album from Helsott is Will and the Witch – your third album for the group. Can you delve into the conceptual Billy the Kid storyline, and how you approached the musical components to tie into the lyrical content in the best way?
Eric Dow: Yeah, sure. I’m a huge fan of cinema and the Wild West. I thought of a concept, a prequel to the movie Young Guns. How Billy the Kid became such a fast gunslinger. That was the main part of the story, and the main goal. Once we had that then I asked myself, how did this happen? I let my imagination run wild, painted this concept that he met a voodoo witch doctor chick, and they end up falling in love and moving to the West together, getting into trouble with the Pinkertons, needing to meld their souls together in order for him to be fast enough to beat the Pinkertons. In my version of the story, Billy the Kid has a witch living inside of him, and that’s how he’s so fast.
As far as the musical content, we wanted to make sure that the listener wasn’t just hearing the story lyrically, we wanted to make them feel like they were a part of the story. We wanted to make sure that there were passages for every song, a lyric concept in that song that would have some specific musical instrument to go with it to make you feel like you were in it. Like a violin, sometimes maybe a banjo, or a sullen piano, or all of the above.
Dead Rhetoric: How did you decide upon the specific guests for the record – and where do you see the balance between the folk, death, and power elements within Helsott to develop a cohesive style that the fans can appreciate?
Dow: That one is tough, especially because in the past in reviews for other albums we’ve been accused of being too eclectic. People say that we don’t really have a good balance and that we do too much. This album was a little bit different because it was a concept and we wanted to make the album sound very cohesive. We really tried to make it sound like we recorded the whole album together at the same time, and I feel it comes across that way very well.
As far as the guests go, I always like to have a guest on all our albums, or multiple guests. It’s one of my favorite parts about writing music. Before the album came out, we played a show with The Three Tremors and at that Ripper Owens performed as one of the singers. We sat down and talked after the show, he agreed to sing on our album. We wrote the song “Independence Night” knowing he was going to be one of the vocalists on it. We knew we would need fiddle on this album for the Western feel, and we had Lethien from Elvenking play on our Tom Petty cover from the previous album. We knew we would ask him to do this. We always try to get someone from Arkona, we are such good friends with them. We’ve had Masha, we’ve had Sergey, we are friends with Vlad, and we’ve never really had him on an album. We knew he could nail the Native American feel with his flute, that was no brainer for me to get him on board. Kevin Storm, he’s an extended member of the band. We met him when he was touring with Heidevolk and us. He’s done art for our band, filled in on guitar on our last European tour. Just having him do something on the album was necessary. We needed a banjo player for this one, and I didn’t really know too many banjo players. Luckily, we live close to Knott’s Berry Farm, which is the oldest theme park out here. It’s all Wild West themed, they have bands that play there. One of the bands there has a banjo player, we asked him to fill in and that’s where Whistlin’ Rick Story came in.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the importance of videos and band imagery for the group – does it help engage your followers in a special way, giving more entertainment value beyond the recordings?
Dow: I think so. I’ve never been a fan of videos, I don’t really like watching them very much, especially with me in them. One of our themes, I don’t think we can do justice to because we just don’t have the budget. We have epic songs and epic stories in far off places, and it’s just unattainable for a band who doesn’t have a lot of money. We never really have gone for the music video, we have stuff of us playing live, but it doesn’t follow the story line. This time around, I knew I could do some videos with a Wild West plot, and when we started this album I knew we could put the money into this. It was very expensive but well worth it. These videos have had the most views of any video we’ve ever done. We are getting really good response from all of them, and we’ve played a couple of these songs already live and you can tell right away the people are reacting with those songs better than the other ones. It’s super important in my opinion.
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve been an active band on the live circuit/touring front. How would you describe the live performance outlook for Helsott – what do you want to get across to the audience, and what have been some of the more memorable performances/shows to date?
Dow: We always let it all hang loose, we are old school fans of metal: Pantera, Iron Maiden. We have that thought of being theatrical even if we don’t have as much money to put into it. We are bare bones, go out there and let it all hang out. We want to make the crowd interact with us and feel things if it’s only a twenty-minute set or an hour-long set.
We’ve had many memorable moments. We headlined the second stage of Cernunnos Pagan Festival in France in 2019. We’ve never played France before, so we thought it was kind of weird that they were putting us on last. I was doing an interview during the day, and I made a joke that I didn’t know if anyone was going to come and see us, to the guy that was interviewing us. He’s like everyone has been talking about us, the room is going to be packed. I thought, really? Sure enough, it was. The crowd went crazy, we even had a wall of death going on. That was one of the more memorable moments, it shows you how warm and accepting the metal community can be.
Dead Rhetoric: Being a part of the M-Theory Audio roster, which is very diverse in the bands and styles they release, how do you feel about the support Helsott has received? Do you have a good relationship with the staff, the roster, and a fair understanding of the promotion, push, and expectations they have for you and you for them?
Dow: Yeah. I’m actually the production manager for M-Theory too. I work for Marco, work with him, I consider him a mentor, a boss, and a friend. I do a lot of the promotional work with all the other bands on the roster. I have a great understanding of what the bands are doing, what we expect from them, and what they expect from us. Me personally, I think our roster is one of the strongest for smaller bands, we have a lot of licensing with other bands like Shadows Fall and God Forbid, bands like that. It balances out everything from rock and roll, sleaze rock, doom metal to pagan metal, and everything in between. Marco is just a fan of music, just as I am, I’m really happy with M-Theory and the support that they’ve given us. I can’t say enough about the label. Most of the bands on there would agree if you asked them.
Dead Rhetoric: You wear many hats in the music industry, being a part of management and promotion in your local area. What are your thoughts on the overall state of the metal scene – both locally and internationally? How would you assess the strengths and weaknesses currently?
Dow: For me the US is tough. The San Diego metal scene is killing it, they have a venue called Brick by Brick down there and it’s a local metal hub. They have tons of amazing bands coming out of there because they have such great support down there. At any given time there’s 200-400 people at that venue for shows. Whether it’s local bands or not. LA has always had a fickle scene – some days there will be a sellout show, the next show hardly anyone is there. San Francisco always has a strong scene, Portland has a strong scene, sometimes Seattle does really well. Then you start moving towards the East and things start to get pretty barren. Denver has a good following, Texas is tough – you can play five shows in Texas and get one good show out of those five. Some bigger bands can play all five cities in Texas and do very well. Then you have nothing all the way down to Florida, and then there are venues in Florida, there is a tiny scene in North Carolina, then you have to go to Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts to get any sort of, Maryland too, of a following. Sometimes Ohio and Chicago have a good scene too. To tour that circuit, you have to play a lot of the duds in between those markets. It’s really tough, mentally tough. I see a lot of bands get to San Diego after doing the grind of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona and then get to California and have the room packed, you can see it in their eyes how it is to be playing in front of some people. It really can wear on a musician.
Internationally, besides the bigger bands, most bands agree the festivals are where it’s at. It’s hard to do the bar scenes these days in Europe. Bands still do it; we still do it. It’s hit or miss – one time it’ll be great, the next time you are playing to five people.
Dead Rhetoric: Being a fan of acts like Amon Amarth, Blind Guardian, and Moonsorrow, what would you say is a favorite album from each act – and have you had the opportunity to catch them live? If so, what were your impressions when taking in their live shows compared to how they are on record?
Dow: All three are great live. I always like a band that is great live, that’s how I hold them to a higher level of esteem. Once you see them live. Amon Amarth – With Oden on Our Side and Surtur Rising are two of my favorites. I love Versus the World and The Crusher. I really dug the new single they put out “Get in the Ring”, which is the first one I’ve dug from them in a couple of years. It is cool, heavy, has the harmony in it. Moonsorrow, their first album Suden uni, that got me into pagan metal as there wouldn’t be Helsott without that album. I didn’t realize until that album that you could put an accordion, a keyboard on there with the choppy grooves and metal tones. Blind Guardian, I just love them so much. Obviously, Nightfall in Middle Earth is everybody’s go to. I love their whole discography, At the Edge of Time is probably not only one of the best well-written albums but best produced album. I dug their new song “Blood of the Elves” that just came out not too long ago. It reminds me of the old feel of the band. And live, I’ve seen all of them – I am friends with some of the Moonsorrow guys, whenever we see each other, it’s always hugs, kisses, and drinks.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you value most in life now? Where do you think you’ve seen the greatest growth personally?
Dow: That’s a tough question. I value my family, I value being able to actually make a living, or what someone would say is a semblance of a living, in the music industry. I know it’s very difficult for people to say they are in the music industry and that’s all they do. I am in bands, I promote, I book shows, I run the Wacken Metal Battle in the US, work for M-Theory Audio. You have to hustle to make this a living and make this a part of who I am and what my life is. I’m very proud of this.
I think this would also be the same as the great growth and what it means to me. If I knew what I know now twenty years ago, I think I would be rich. We would have a killer band signed by a big label, huge advances and I would have been able to do it right. Twenty years ago, I was just a young kid and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you handle the variety of criticism you may receive for your work in Helsott? Do you take into consideration the source, and have there been valid concerns that you believe may have been beneficial in the long run?
Dow: No, I don’t give a shit. I like a good review like anyone else, it makes you feel good, it makes you feel validated. A lot of people are confused about what we do and what we are. Unfortunately, that shows in a lot of half-assed interviews, or past reviews. I can usually tell if it’s going to be a review worth reading within the first couple of sentences. If it’s somebody who thinks that Slaves and Gods is a Viking album, we have pyramids on the album cover! It’s really frustrating when I see that, it just means that these people aren’t doing their research before they actually write stuff that’s going to be on the internet for as long as it’s going to be up there. Sometimes I don’t even bother reading it.
Criticism – some people say we are too eclectic, that we don’t know what we want to do, and that there are too many different styles on our album. I take that to heart, and I understand what people are saying about it, but I also think that’s Helsott and that’s who we are, and that’s what we do. We have so many different influences within the band that we can’t help but being that way. It’s ironic that Will and the Witch ended up being so focused of an album. That’s certainly not something that we are doing because of the critics. They got what they wanted.
Dead Rhetoric: What hobbies, interests, and passions do you like to pursue away from music when you need that recharge and energy boost?
Dow: I like major league sports. Sometimes I’ll watch football, sometimes I’ll watch baseball. Mainly though I am an NHL guy – I like the Detroit Red Wings my whole life. Being able to watch a hockey game, especially live, it charges my batteries and gets my mind off of music, gets my mind off of the seriousness of work. My wife and I also like to go to Las Vegas and just get away for a couple of days, play some adult video games, gamble and drink a little bit. Listening to music on the drive to Vegas, listening to music in our hotel room, music is always going to be with us. It’s a way for me to get out of the work mode and work zone of music.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider some of the biggest challenges and obstacles that Helsott faces in trying to ascend up the ranks and gain an even stronger following beyond your local scene into national/ international territories?
Dow: Just that the people are confused as to what we are and what we do. They hear pagan metal from California and automatically laugh at it and scoff at it, think it’s Vikings on surfboards or whatever. That’s not what we do at all, that’s not even close to what we do. A lot of people attribute paganism with racism, and that’s a problem. A lot of people just think pagan means Viking – which it’s not. Pagan is just a vast thing. You can sing about Germans, Egyptians, Romans, Celtics, everything. We get pigeonholed as this wanna be Viking band from California.
One of my main things is you come and see us live, and we can always change your mind. We are one of those live bands, that’s been a huge hurdle for us. And keeping the lineup together, keeping the momentum going. We’ve had trouble where we have done tours and then lost two or three members of the band. And we have to stop, find members, teach them the songs, slowly regain the momentum again, and then someone else will go or come back. We were on fire back in 2019, we did an international tour, and then COVID hit. We had two years of downtime, and everyone is trying to get their momentum back. Once Helsott gets on fire, something else happens. I have no intentions of breaking up the band for any of those reasons, I just keep looking forward.
Dead Rhetoric: What is in the pipeline for activities with Helsott or any other bands/projects from the members of the band in the next year or so?
Dow: We will try to get as many gigs as possible. We have already started writing the material for the next album. We have to tour for a few years before we think about the next album. We have a show in December in England, we may bring our Viking gear for that show. We want to push this album as much as possible and focus on Helsott.