Helstar – The Sky’s the LimitTuesday, 20th April 2021
When it comes to traditional, US power metal forged in the 1980’s but continually evolving naturally, there’s nothing quite like Helstar to treasure. We all have our favorites in the catalog – some coming in during the Combat era of Burning Star, others loving the Metal Blade period where they often gained the Yngwie on steroids comparisons for A Distant Thunder or Nosferatu. Others have enjoyed the extreme textures added to their power sound of newer albums like The King of Hell or This Wicked Nest. In the end, no one can deny the band’s quest for glory, indoctrinate legions of metal followers worldwide, now navigating into multiple generations due to their longevity and quality records.
Signing with Massacre Records again, Clad in Black is a double album of new songs, classic covers, and a re-release of the 2016 Vampiro album that may not have gotten it’s just rewards the first go around. Plenty to catch up with vocalist James Rivera about – and in this half-hour talk we get to the compilation, thoughts on his songwriting and personal relationship with guitarist Larry Barragan, what excites and concerns him about the metal scene in general, and thoughts on possibly writing a book, creating a comic, and other realms he’d like to conquer.
Dead Rhetoric: Clad in Black is the latest double album Helstar compilation – a mix of new songs, cover tracks, and a re-release of the Vampiro record. Can you discuss signing with Massacre Records for the second time in Helstar’s career and how the idea came about to pull this effort together?
James Rivera: Yeah. What had happened is, of course it’s been close to five years since Vampiro came out when we left AFM Records. Which we realize now may have not been a good move on the chessboard, but you live and learn every day. We just wanted to do something different. I guess what we didn’t like about AFM at the time, although they did great stuff for us, it seemed to me like… promotion was a little weak, from what we wanted. We love Europe, we know that is our bread and butter, but we are a US band, and we feel like how come we aren’t getting played on Sirius XM, things like that. When you hear other European bands that are on Liquid Metal or the Boneyard. We started feeling that way, and when the deal was up with them, Dave Ellefson contacted me about his new label and it was an American situation. Unfortunately, being a new label, it didn’t quite have the arm power to put that record in front of the people like it really needed. It was a simple, sweet deal – one album at a time, and each album they had the rights to do with what they wanted for two years.
When that deal was over, we discussed what we were going to do. AFM, I had a meeting with them, Nils (Wasko) took me to lunch and I was in Hamburg, Germany for other business. He emphasized how much they loved Helstar and missed Helstar – we always would have a home if we wanted to come back. I reached out them to first, and they told me how much things have advanced with the whole Soulfood family. Soulfood is the owner of everything – AFM and Massacre. Now Massacre has become a part of that – for the bands like us, they are going to Massacre and some of the bigger names, are going to AFM. When that happened, that’s how it happened – he put me in touch with Thomas (Hertler), and I’ve known Thomas forever. We had a wonderful conversation. He was more than excited. He has been waiting for us since the band has gotten better, in the 80’s.
We didn’t have any leftover cuts from Vampiro. The whole idea was – the single and EP came out first. When I talked to Thomas, it sounds like they wanted to put a lot of love into Helstar. We didn’t want a bunch of money up front – we just want promotion, and get the band the attention it deserves for once. I have these trophies on my wall – thirteen albums, but what do I own out of it? Realistically we know the band is never going to be stadium status – who knows if we would get lucky and be Exodus or Testament status – we know that we’ve done our fair share of contributing to the metal community and the metal world. By now for most metalheads the name Helstar hits a soft spot in their hearts.
We just want the best that we can get for the band. I’m tired of putting an album out, two or three years go by, and we are out of sight, out of mind. Here is my vision of doing something for Helstar for the first time. We’ve never released a single, we have this killer ballad that’s been written, we’d love to put it out. Do a cover song on the flip side. Then release an EP, two more new songs. And then we do two more covers. Then we would re-release Vampiro, we would give that album to them, give that the attention it needs – and put this all together as a digipak. He loved the idea, he saw where we were coming from. Because all the big bands have always done that. The EP did so much better than he expected, that’s why he released it on vinyl. My idea finally worked. Helstar is almost reborn again. The amount of interviews Dustin has lined up for me, are four times more than I ever did for AFM, EMP, or any other label. We are talking in the US – I know that I will do thirty or forty interviews for Europe, that’s a given there. COVID did stretch the timeline out more than the original plan, but that was a curveball for all of us. The original plan was in May 2020, the “Black Wings of Solitude” single and video would be out, and then end of July while we were doing festivals, the EP would be released. And then November, the full-length record, so in 2021 we could do Keep It True, European tour. Everyone had plans. Thomas has been 100% into what we are doing now.
Dead Rhetoric: It’s evident that artists like Black Sabbath, Accept and Judas Priest obviously had an influence on Helstar in your career. What do the specific tracks you chose to cover for this release mean to you personally?
Rivera: They are the songs… with the exception of “After All”, when that was born we were about ready to release Multiples of Black, but the other two in particular, they were the songs we were doing back in 1982 when we just started out as a band in a garage. I also have that worldwide Sabbath Judas Sabbath band, and the mothership of that band is the current Helstar lineup, the Houston chapter. We do the best of not just Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, but also UFO, Scorpions, Accept, Iron Maiden, Angel Witch, you name it. Being that we have been playing those songs forever and those songs are still in the setlist when I do the tribute shows, we wanted to do covers that we could play in our sleep. It wouldn’t take a lot of work to do these songs.
Dead Rhetoric: You were able to tour with Flotsam & Jetsam across North America a few years back to support Vampiro. How do you think this tour went, and do you believe you have been able to spread Helstar stylistically to a second generation of metal fans considering the time you’ve been together as a group?
Rivera: Yes. The tour now… thank God you didn’t ask me too many details. On a financial level, and being my age, not being some young puppy band that still lives at home with mom, and travelling together in one station wagon… of course we weren’t in that bad of a situation, we had a minivan. It was very rough, but on the other hand, there were a lot of shows that there were a lot of old fans but then we had a lot of new fans. We turned heads every single night, whether it was people that were dying to see us because they never had a chance or whether people had heard of us, or people that never had heard of us and would buy every product you have at the merch booth. It was a very positive thing in the end.
Dead Rhetoric: How would you describe the bond and songwriting development you’ve established with yourself and Larry Barragan over the years? Are there specific highlights that come to mind when you look at the work you’ve done together with Helstar where you could hear something magical coming together?
Rivera: You know what? It’s everything that we’ve done when I go back and listen to it. From Burning Star until now… but now, one of the most magical things was to do something of simplicity. “Black Wings of Solitude” – we’ve never done a metal ballad, your typical “Fade to Black”, or “Beyond the Realms of Death”, “Children of the Damned” that kind of song. That song, and the particular time that we wrote it, we had a few tragedies that happened in our lives so it made sense. It’s everything we do, seems that way. He said the other day, ‘dude- we’ve been married too long’. We know how each other thinks. He knows now, he is purposely writing for the vocals to be more melodic than they were on Vampiro. He even said it in a recent interview, I am focusing more on letting James shine even more now. You can hear it in “Across the Raging Sea”, there is so much he is doing that allows him to breathe and sing. Since the ballad it’s changed a lot of things. We are trying to give the old fans the good, melodic, old school Helstar that they love, but trying to keep the new Helstar fans that love the heavier, darker Helstar sort of hatched in the new millennium. Keep everybody happy. At the same time, we are not purposely doing this – because if you purposely do that, the songs will sound like that. We have to passionately love the songs ourselves.
Dead Rhetoric: That is an interesting aspect you bring up. The fact that as an older band, how do you keep up with the times without seeming like you are jumping on a trend? The fans can sense that…
Rivera: Absolutely, that’s true. You have to stick to 90% of what is you, and then allow 10% for an influence of what you’ve heard here and there. Everybody learns from something or another. Or you go back to something you did before, and do something else that works. You have to stick to what is true to you naturally, you can’t just start writing something just to please the fans, because then it’s going to sound like a record like that, and it’s going to sound stale. You don’t want that.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you think the older bands are also at an advantage with the new technology, being more well-rehearsed than younger bands who maybe didn’t experience the big budget studios where you were on the clock?
Rivera: Of course. There’s nothing like getting in a damn garage in the middle of July or August in Houston and wearing your underwear and going at it for hours. Getting the songs down before you even go in the studio so that when you are in the studio, you pound them out in one week. The young kids aren’t used to that, they share files back and forth. It’s so robotic these days. That’s what is missing with a lot of the younger metal bands. With those three new songs, we rehearsed them separately before we started recording them. I didn’t go in there blind.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you see the state of the heavy metal scene today? What are some things that excite you, or areas of concern that you believe need to be addressed?
Rivera: The one thing that excites me is the younger generation that is into the real metal. When you do a show and go to a show and see twenty-year-olds and younger that are becoming proficient at their instruments at thirteen and fourteen. Andrew Atwood gives guitar lessons, and he gets tickled to death at his students. They come in and he says, ‘what do you want to learn – Puddle of Mudd?’. No, they want to learn the song “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Iron Maiden! (laughs). Wow. What’s happened, Matt is people our age are now parents. What happened is the lifestyle that we lived, the music that we listened to, our children are listening to it. And it’s not like they are forced to. My son is the biggest metalhead in Houston, and the biggest James Rivera fan for sure. He’s got hair longer than me, and the kid never wears anything besides Helstar, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest shirts. It’s all he talks about – it’s so bad that if I take him for a dinner out for his birthday, I’m like ‘dude, can we change the subject?’ (laughs). He is like a little encyclopedia. We will sit down, and right away he’s like ‘you know the drummer from Cradle of Filth? He’s like, blah blah blah…’. How do you know all this? Are you a government spy, an employee. Rob Halford’s car…. Dude. Can we talk about something different on my time off, the new James Bond movie or Godzilla? That’s the part that is beautiful.
The part that concerns me, especially here in America, we need to be brought more as acceptable as a mainstream music as it is in Europe, especially Germany. Let’s talk about Scandinavia, the mayor of Helsinki, that’s all she listens to is Children of Bodom! That’s what bothers me. We lack all fairness. What about metalheads? Why can’t we get the attention we need? We aren’t rioting in the streets. Why is our music not as important as Justin Bieber? That is my concern, is someone going to step up to the plate for our art? Metalheads we are not a trend, or a fad. We are a way of life. At the end of the day, how we think about music, it shouldn’t be put in a category… like the Grammies select certain metal bands, but those bands that should win never win. It’s one of my concerns – will that ever change? And if that doesn’t change, we will be pissing in the wind, and that’s very unfair. We are the more talented people out of all that garbage. People might get pissed off – I’ll say country music has some good talented musicians, but we can blow that out of the water. Could those guitar players play “Baptized in Blood” to save their lives? We are beyond minorities.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s left for you personally that you want to accomplish in the metal realm? Are there specific places you would like to visit?
Rivera: Yes, matter of fact in the metal realm I would love to tour South America, love to be able to finally get on XM radio when the full-length album comes out. Maybe Jose (Mangin) will finally let another band with Hispanic roots get on there. I would like to accomplish a book, and put out a comic Vampiro. Vampiro will be about me, as a superhero. A friend of mine told me on Facebook that there is already a Marvel comic that is a superhero that is a vampire. I replied back, yeah – but is he a rock star also? All kinds of things I like to accomplish beside music. A biography about Helstar or myself. Or a movie. The sky’s the limit, depending on how much of a budget you may have to do it. That’s the reality of it all.
Dead Rhetoric: What changes (if any) have you seen in your range, tone, and delivery over the decades? Are there specific exercises or tools that you employ to keep things in shape, especially as you get older?
Rivera: It’s funny you ask that question. You aren’t the only one. If I have a six-interview day, at least four people will ask that. First of all, I truly believe it’s a God-given gift, and I can’t explain why it’s gotten stronger and the range better. Larry is like I blow away what I did in the 80’s, and he thinks I really am the undead. If I broke it down scientifically, over the years I have learned some tricks to take care of my voice on tour. One thing is a lot of sleep. Thank god I must have been a cat in my past life, I am big cat lover. Boy when it is time to go to bed, we make sure we get those ten hours. There is nothing like having two cats purring in each ear. A lot of people mistake me for being lazy, it’s because sleep is the number one medicine for your voice. I discovered a gargle from my voice doctor – gargle with hot water, a tablespoon of baking soda, a tablespoon of salt, and two aspirin. All these little things, I took vocal lessons so I know how to breathe from my diaphragm, good stuff. It’s all that in combination of the gifts. And the other thing, believe it or not, and it’s been a monkey on my back, Jägermeister works like wonders. And not that I am an alcoholic, it’s got licorice bark in it, and that’s one of the best things for your vocal cords because it’s slippery.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for you and Helstar in the next twelve months? Has work begun on the next studio album, and if so how do you see the songwriting taking shape?
Rivera: The majority of the music is completely written – we’ve even got one or two extra songs. We will start recording the vocals soon. Mikey will do the real drum parts, I’ll do the vocals, and keep doing it at a pace as we are shooting for a September release. Shows, we are at a halt even though things are opened 100% here in Texas. People aren’t going out, promoters and club owners are still hurting, so they don’t have the money that they used to have to pay the bands. We can’t bend the rules and start playing for door deals, once you go down that hole you are never coming out of it. It’s sad, because we have Clad in Black, and we should be doing San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, playing Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, playing Poughkeepsie, New York City, Philadelphia. And we can’t right now, it’s sad.