Holy Grail – The Grind Never Stops

Monday, 27th June 2016

Chances are if you love any form of traditional, power, or shred-oriented heavy metal and you are a regular concert goer in the United States, you’ve witnessed a show by Pasadena, California’s Holy Grail at some point over the past 9 years. Through three studio albums and a relentless tour schedule, the quintet has amassed their own faithful following who are psyched to champion a group that can be heavy and anthem-oriented one minute, then flash those searing high vocal melodies and arpeggio/ technical laden lead breaks the next.

In this year alone, the band have already traversed North America with Marty Friedman, Black Tusk, DevilDriver, and Savage Master – before going on their next trek with Exmortus and Spellcaster this summer. No rest for the wicked they say – so taking the time to do this interview at a recent tour stop in Worcester, MA, vocalist James Paul Luna handled the multiple interruptions well between club staff, the hefty wind blowing outside, and occasional bursts of background music from Johnny Cash to Motörhead lurking from the venue walls. Everything from album deadlines to attain the right attitude on the road, as well as a funny pajamas related tale of being forgotten at a Starbucks in Canada would be a part of this entertaining half hour discussion. Take it away James…

Dead Rhetoric: The new album Times of Pride and Peril seems to have an added emphasis on stronger hooks on both a musical and vocal front. Where do you see the progression of the band from your first album Crisis in Utopia into this new album, and are you conscious of stepping things up to another level time after time?

James Paul Luna: In terms of the progression, I feel like with each year of touring and playing that material out, we write to the maximum of our abilities, we get it down in the studio, and when we play it live we realize the stuff that we thought was really hard to play in the studio is now easy. With each cycle of that and playing out with other bands, gaining influence from those bands, each touring cycle and each album cycle matures the band a bit. The natural progression is we get heavier and faster riffs, but also with this record in particular it was more about making the best record that we wanted to make. Make it how we want to do it, and there wasn’t too much influence from a producer or a record label to dictate where things should go. It was us just making a really catchy, shreddy record- our interpretation of what that was. Beyond this record, I think it will be more of the same stuff, just kind of refined as we go along.

Dead Rhetoric: With many bands, the first album showcases a band’s strongest influences, the second album stretches the horizons, and by the third album they hopefully have developed their own style. Do you feel this record defines the Holy Grail style?

Luna: It encompasses it pretty well. It was the first album where we were able to shed our skin and become this new creature, trying out their own stuff. It was our first real experiment in that, it will be a lot more of that with our true perspective of things, a more honed direction. I can’t really explain other than through the music.

Dead Rhetoric: The first four songs in particular on this new album set a particular tone, establishing an anthem-like orientation right out of the gate. Does track order and flow matter to Holy Grail, and were there any particular challenges or setbacks that came up on the songwriting or recording front?

Luna: First part of that, the track order is really important to us. Even in today’s more singles-oriented marketplace for music, we still try to keep things to album-oriented music. Because we like listening to albums and the bands that we like are very album-oriented. We take that into consideration when we look at our track listing. We usually try to put some of our favorite stuff though towards the top, particularly for this album we had a general idea. We really had it being this rise and fall of a tyrant ruler. So side A would be kind of these songs of rising, and side B of songs falling. When we put the songs together and the lyrics, we had an idea of placeholders for what songs would go to the front half and second half of the record. And then as we finessed it each song fell into place.

Struggles in terms of song order, when it got to the vinyl version, we were a little bit over on our time so we had to refigure the song order, which was a little bit of a bummer because we had things set in stone. It worked great on the CD. One of the shorter songs had to be switched- it was only off by a minute. You still get the same idea.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you end up shifting set lists based on the situation with touring partners. As I would imagine being on this tour with Savage Master, which is a more traditional type of act is a little different than touring with DevilDriver, which is more modern and heavier?

Luna: Part of being Holy Grail is that we have a wide variety, a mix of modern and traditional stuff. With the Savage Master dates, yes we have been catering the set lists a little bit more to the old school metal sound. We still have a lot of our newer material in there that has our technical riffing. It changes on the fly sometimes, even when we are on stage in the middle of a set, we may put something else in there. For the most part, we take into consideration the audience we are playing to, sometimes cater to it. Other times we stick to a certain set of songs. I like to change it up, it varies. We play what we think are our favorite tracks from each record, and then pepper it in with a couple of songs that the fans request.

Dead Rhetoric: So you actually know a few more songs than what you would normally play out just in case fans ask for other songs?

Luna: There’s probably about 15-20 songs we could pull from, just from the last few albums. It’s cool.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider success to look like at this point for Holy Grail?

Luna: I guess success to me… we are already pretty successful as compared to a lot of my friends that are in bands, musicians that are on the road. We are not totally eating crap, we are starting to profit so that feels successful. The next step in that whatever success means would be to get more renowned outside of the US, get over to Europe, South America, Japan and make it open to other markets worldwide. To be able to tour the world on each album and stay busy in that realm that would be the next level of success.

Dead Rhetoric: You’ve done more North American touring than overseas, has it just been by choice that you’ve decided to concentrate your efforts here?

Luna: It just kind of worked out that way. We wanted to get to Europe a lot more often than we have, we’ve been there once in 2012. We are chomping at the bit to get back to Europe, Australia, and Japan. It just seems to have not worked out for us. With this album cycle we are hopeful that it will bring us back over to these places.

Dead Rhetoric: What are your thoughts on performing in clubs versus larger festivals?

Luna: Each one has their pros and cons. Festivals are great because you can play to a lot of people at once, but also you don’t know what gear you are going to be playing on. It’s kind of like, fly in, fly out- you may be jet lagged and not be able to sleep the night before. Then you end up playing at 10 am your time but it’s really 7 pm there, or just festivals in general is a lot of load in here, get your stuff there, back and forth. Small clubs I like because it’s intimate and you are right up front with the people. You can get a little more wild. I just like performing in general, each side has its pros and cons. The pro overall is getting to play for people.

Dead Rhetoric: What are some of your earliest memories surrounding hard rock and heavy metal growing up?

Luna: I remember in high school, there was a band that loved Metallica and most of the guys I knew at the time were into Load and Re-Load, football jocks. So I had a really bad impression of Metallica, and then I heard Ride the Lightning and Kill ‘Em All, and I knew that this was next level stuff. Through the course of the years I was always into hard rock like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and stuff. Got into Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath- and eventually I started playing with guys that were older than me and exposed to me a lot of classic metal – Scorpions, In Trance. When I heard Mercyful Fate Don’t Break the Oath for the first time, I knew that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life- along with Judas Priest Sad Wings of Destiny. I knew I had to play stuff like this, this got the wheels turning to play this classic, Maiden/Priest style.

Dead Rhetoric: The live marketplace is very active for heavy metal these days. Many tours hit the same geographical area or city on the same night. How do you handle the night in and night out grind when things aren’t totally in your control – especially in terms of lower than anticipated turnouts?

Luna: You just (are) glad for what you’ve got, don’t let it get to you. There have been some days where it’s a low turnout, there are still people that came to see us and we will be back here again. You never know- we played a show on a Monday in Texas and there were floods everywhere, and people couldn’t make it. We performed like we were playing to 10,000 people. Some you win, some you lose.

Dead Rhetoric: Have there ever been times where you’ve faced dangerous situations either on stage or in terms of travel?

Luna: We’ve been lucky to not face anything too dangerous. I did get left in a Starbucks once in Canada, and no one had their phones on. It took two hours for them to find out and two more hours for them to drive back. We drove there straight to the venue, loaded on stage and played without any breaks, that was one of those hectic shows. It wasn’t too bad- thankfully I told my story, my family had called and were trying to buy stuff. I only had my cell phone and my toothbrush on me, I was only in my pajamas. My wallet and all my other belongings were in the van. This was about 3 years ago. They just saw my sleeping bag in my bunk and thought I was asleep. But now they check and get a visual confirmation.

Dead Rhetoric: Do younger or opening bands ever ask for advice – either on the business end or just general topics, and if so what types of topics and words of wisdom do you impart?

Luna: Yeah, it depends on what they ask. Yes, I impart whatever wisdom I can. A lot of times it’s like ‘how do you get on such and such tour’? You get a booking agent, or get a manager that can talk to a booking agent, and then they have to give a formal contract. You just explain how the business works sometimes. Also, I tell them that they just need to keep playing. Work on the music and play out as much as possible, even if it feels like a grind in the beginning. You are going to keep grinding, the grind never stops.

Photo credit: Ammo Photography

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