Interview with vocalist James Rivera, Helstar (September 2010)

Tex-Mex metalheads HELSTAR from Houston are as cult as it gets. Since their inception in 1982, they are still as strong as ever. ďBaptized in BloodĒ is a cult favorite among thrash audiences and they have had a faithful but modest following since they formed. But outside of Houston or Europe, HELSTARís status is still somewhat unknown for a band of this calibre. With their seventh release, Glory of Chaos, they are ready to start gaining some recognition to more of a mainstream US thrash audience.

Calling from AFM Records offices in Germany on his promotional tour, vocalist extraordinaire James Rivera spoke about the early days, the new album and what he hopes happens to HELSTAR.

What led to the hiatus of HELSTAR which then led to the formation of DESTINYíS END?

After four classic albums, and maybe not really absorbing the reality of the whole business and what itís all about. There was a lot of negativity. That kind of stuff led to where HELSTAR finally disbanded in 1991. It actually never really did, I kind of kept it together but then we put out a really weak record, a Massacre record (Multiples of Black). It wasnít our fault, it was the budget they gave us and the production was really bad. The music was slightly different from the traditional HELSTAR, and by that time it seemed like things were pretty much over. That was about in í95 and I relocated to Los Angeles to join another band, and for a job. This band called CHAOTIC ORDER, kind of sounded like PANTERA meets QUEENSRYCHE, because of my vocals. We did do a demo and shopped it to Metal Blade and they wanted another HELSTAR. And I was like, ďYou dropped us because you said that was out.Ē In í90-í91 they were signing SOUNDGARDEN and GALATIC COWBOYS and all this psychedelic metal stuff, and that wasnít us anymore. Around that time period, they saw that power metal was going to make a comeback, and like everybody else, they jumped aboard the bandwagon. They said if we could find a killer band like that they would sign us in a heartbeat. So they didnít like the CHAOTIC ORDER stuff. I stayed in touch with a friend of mine named Dennis Golby who put me in touch with a band called NEW EDEN and said they were totally like HELSTAR and that I needed to meet them. We met, I went to one of their rehearsals and the rest is history. We were NEW EDEN, which were going to get signed, but we became DESTINYíS END after one member left and wanted the name.

Even with the all new lineup you had in DESTINYíS END, there were still some big similarities to HELSTAR. I mean, yes, itís your voice and everything, but did you have a certain sense to carry on the HELSTAR formula?

I think the music itself generally already offered that, it kind of lent that hand. I didnít really have to say I wanted to sound just like that, it was just there. Ironically, they were already writing music similar to it and it just fit like a glove.

The new album wonít be released until November, but after listening to it a few times now, I already know itís going to be received really well. What does it mean to you and what feeling do you have for it?

What it means to us is a breaking point of finally, maybe, getting some deserved recognition of the kind of band that we are. So far, everybody has had a great reaction about it. But you do have some people that are a little skeptical. They are saying itís like a totally different animal than the typical HELSTAR that theyíre used to. Writing material for this record came very naturally, but at the same time it came businessly and it came like the Taco Bell commercial, ďThink Outside the Bun.Ē We feel like weíre actually at a point where this record either does it, or just stay what weíre doing for the next 20 years again and not bitch about being in the business. I think that this is the album that means a lot to us because especially in the US, this is going to be the shot for us. Hey, maybe we can get this to an EXODUS or a TESTAMENT level. The musicís there. Itís a very big situation for us with this record and a lot of feeling went into it. When we listen back to it, personally, I think, ďGod, if people donít like this, then I donít know what else to do! (laughing).

2008ís King of Hell album was something heavier and darker that HELSTAR fans were ecstatic about. On Chaos, do you think you took it to even another level of heaviness, and what was your mindset while writing it?

Yeah, we intentionally did it with King of Hell. We became darker and heavier than anything we ever did. We started pulling away from the polished neoclassical power metal. We started throwing a little more dirt on it. What we were doing was kind of letting people know what we did almost 20 years later. It was a good way to present that we are here 100%. But we were also trying to give little hints that in our hearts, this is 20-something years later and weíve all adapted to different styles of music besides IRON MAIDEN and JUDAS PRIEST. Iím a CRADLE OF FILTH fan, and a DIMMU BORGIR fan and a DARK TRANQUILLITY fan. You got Larry (Barragan) and Rob (Trevino) who are hardcore LAMB OF GOD fans, SEPULTURA ... all that stuff is involved. Youíre a product of what you consume, and it was just meant to happen eventually. And when you listen to a lot of the Swedish death metal bands, I donít know how many bands Iíve met whoíve said that HELSTAR was a big influence. So weíre thinking that we created this, so why canít we do it? (laughing). I think we have the right to step up to the plate and create the energy level of what we used to write a long time ago.

This lineup is pretty much 1986ís Remnants of War album reunion, with the exception of Mikey (Lewis), as is the same lineup for the King of Hell album too. How has this lineup gelled and what is its strongest asset?

The strongest asset is Mikey. It wasnít so much that naturally we knew that we wanted to be a heavier band. His drumming is what made it natural for us to really go for the throat on this one. The elements that he brought to the riffs changed everything. He is a very strong asset to the band right now.

I recently saw a video interview with the band where you all mention that youíre just metalheads making music that you would like to hear. I get the sense that you do still love playing and performing, and metal in general. Whatís kept you going all these years?

The passion. Obviously, because itís not the money! (laughing). Personally, because of the different things I do, Iíve gotten to a point to where Iíd say at least 75% of my living is finally coming from the enjoyment of being a singer. Itís just the passion and love. Itís like a drug, youíre never going to get off it. Itís within our souls and we all feel the same way. Thatís what keeps us together now, I think now, especially since we united. Everybodyís grown up, weíve had jobs, families, 401K plans, except me. But I see how much they missed it while they were gone. Weíd all one day love to be a MEGADETH or whatever, and that might not be a reality. But I think itís the little bit of dreaming everyday that keeps you hanging in there.

You have also been a major part in other bands like FLOTSAM AND JETSAM, SEVEN WITCHES, VICIOUS RUMORS, KILLING MACHINE and others. Were you glad to be a part of these bands and what did you try to bring to them coming in as a new singer?

Iím proud of everything that Iíve ever done in my life. When I came into those bands, I came in trying to at least deliver what they expected for that nucleus. With FLOTSAM, we didnít know where that was going. I was pretty much hired for the tour. So I tried to as much as possible, sound like Erik, which no one can. No one can sound like anybody. To deliver the goods as good as possible, even if it does sound different. With VICIOUS RUMORS, I actually did want to come in and turn the knob up a little bit on the heaviness and the darkness. I was somewhat a fan many years ago and I just thought the band could go a notch up. And of course we did that with Warball and the album was very well accepted. as a matter of fact, it was compared to the best album since Welcome to the Ball. Thatís a big pat on my back, because Carl Albert, those shoes will never fit. As much as I tried to wear them, that was just a phenomenal singer. So you have to deliver the goods in a sense that youíre not disgracing what was there. Witches was a situation where I got to be myself 100% and thatís what Jack wanted. What he wanted was James Rivera. So it was almost, and is, like being in Helstar because itís me, 100%, and thatís why Iím back. It was me and a lot of producing by him and Joey Vera to create James Rivera to another level. Killing Machine was another thing where Peter wanted James Rivera, he didnít care what I did, just be me. And that was after Witches, so I took the elements that Joey and Jack produced with my voice and took it a notch up, and basically, itís all Killing Machine.

Any plans for a US tour?

We have some dates in Texas, of course you know we live there. So we are doing two co-headlining dates with Raven. When the album comes out in January (US) weíre hoping that itís plastered all over XM Sirius Radio like everybody is except us. Thatís what Iím hoping for. If that happens, then I can see Artist Worldwide or somebody start booking Helstar on a real tour in America. Thatís the master plan. In a perfect world, if that worked that way then it would be awesome. Thatís the key right now, is to see what this record does. Weíre hoping to Hell and praying to God that any Testament or Exodus fan is going to love this record. These guys are blowing up bigger these days than they were back in the day, so please somebody just recognize that these guys (Helstar) need to be on tour with Slayer. Thatís what weíre hoping.

Interviewed by Kelley Simms

Helstar - Glory of Chaos

Album available on AFM Records on November 1st 2010.