HELSTAR - interview with Larry Barragan, October 2008
My memory is failing a bit, but as a kid in 85' or 86' I saw an unknown band named Helstar at L'amours in Brooklyn. For the life of me, I don't know who they opened up for. It may have been W.A.S.P., but I could be wrong. What I do remember however is that they all looked so young, and I remember how excited they seemed on that small but legendary stage.
But that's it; I don't remember ever hearing about them again. Not until 1995 when Multiples of Black came out and I was writing for various little magazines. Little did I know that Helstar would grow in popularity, enough so, that over twenty years later, those same kids from 1986 would get back together... a little older, a little chubbier, slightly balder, but still cool as hell. What follows is my interview with founder and guitarist Larry Barragan.
The reformation of the classic Helstar line-up seems to have slowly started when Metal Blade released the live bootleg CD in 2000. Did you have anything to do with that release? When did seriously get involved and begin thinking about reforming the classic line-up?
I really wasn't involved in the release of the live CD. Quite honestly, I didn't think it was that good of an idea because the quality of the recording was just as it implied, bootleg. But you know, Metal Blade wanted to put it out so they did. And I guess as far as the Remnants of War line up being reformed, it wasn't until after we did the 20th anniversary show for Remnants of War that we began to think that this is something we wanted to continue with. Then we started getting offers to play festivals in Europe and everyone really got excited about the opportunity to continue playing live and possibly record.
It is my understanding that you are the founder of Helstar. Can you give a bit of background on how you met James Rivera and the other members? What were the guys like compared to today?
Yeah, we started off like many other bands just playing in the garage. James was singing for another neighborhood band when I met him. I eventually convinced him to join Helstar and that's where it all kind of started. We produced a demo and maybe about 9 months later we were being signed to Combat Records. It happened really fast. As far as the other guys I knew Rob from high school. I don't know what it was, the water or something, but back then everyone I knew played in a band and they were all good. It was crazy. Jerry was from James' old neighborhood and I hooked up with Jerry after I had left Helstar for a short time. Russ was actually our drum roadie for the Remnants of War tour. So he goes way back as well. We were all just kids, didn't know what we were doing just kind of flying by the seat of our pants. We're pretty much the same guys except you know, we look older and some of us have less hair. But we still get along great and the jokes never stop.
Were you involved with the 1990 demo recordings after Nosferatu? Some of those songs I believe eventually ended up on 1995's Multiples of Black. What did you think of that record? Was there any animosity between you and James and Jerry?
None of the stuff I had written and recorded ended up on Multiples of Black. Those recordings ended up on The James Rivera Legacy. "Scalpel and the Skin," "Social Circle," and "Changeless Season" were songs I wrote the music to and James wrote the lyrics to a couple of them. But you know oddly enough, I never ever really sat down and listened to that CD. I mean, I've heard a few songs from it but I don't think I've heard it in its entirety. What I heard I liked. What was your other question? Oh, James and Jerry, yeah we hated each other (laughs). Nah, just kidding. I didn't leave Helstar back then because I couldn't get along with James or Jerry. I loved them like brothers. I left because at that time in my life I was about as low as a person could get. When I left I literally stopped playing my guitar. I put them in their cases and shoved them under my bed and didn't play a note for years.
Up until The King of Hell, Nosferatu was considered your classic album. Ultimately that album didn't get any label support, so are you surprised that as time passed by there was a growing interest in Helstar worldwide, especially Europe, Greece, and South America? When did you first realize that Helstar was gaining popularity 5, 10, and 15 years after its demise? Is it fair to say that Helstar is bigger than ever?
I am surprised that people consider that album as a classic, when that album came out mostly everyone slammed it. It wasn't just that the label didn't support us; it's that people just didn't like it. They didn't buy it. No sales, no label. No mon, no fun, sorry son, as James dad used to say. But now it's a classic (laughs). Where were you guys when we needed you in '89? Hey, that's just the way it goes man. But over the years James has done a great job of keeping the name alive. He's the reason we have the popularity that we have now. It blows me away how people in Europe and really all over are still fans. And some of them are really young too. They weren't even born when Nosferatu was released. And you know as far as being bigger than ever I definitely agree that we're more popular now than we were back in the 80s. I hope that popularity continues to grow.
James Rivera is clearly a better singer now than he was back in the 80's. Would you consider yourself a better guitar player?
You know I've never considered myself to be a great guitarist. I'm not this shredder, like an Yngwie or Rusty Cooley. I'll never be that type of player but I think I'm better now than I was back then. I can play fast when I have to. It's not my goal in life to be the fastest. I think sometimes one note can say more than a million. I listen to Dime and Zakk Wylde and the attack of their vibrato can make one note really sing. That to me is much more important. I mean don't get me wrong both those guys are lighting fast too but they're more than that. I try to make my solos interesting. I try to select my notes and be tasteful.
What other bands/styles have you been playing with between the two Helstar incarnations?
Before I rejoined Helstar, Rob and I formed a thrash band called Eternity Black, which right now is on the back burner. We'd like to start that project again at some point but I don't know when we'll have the time to.
What was the approach to The King of Hell? What kind of sound were you going for?
Well, we wanted it to sound heavy obviously. We wanted to make this the best sounding album we've made. We really took our time to get the sounds we wanted. This is our first self-produced album. If it doesn't sound good we have no one to blame but ourselves. So there was a certain level of pressure to do a good job. For the most part I'm really happy with the outcome. We learned a lot along the way. As far as the sound we were going for, I guess we were going for a beefed up Remnants sound. Our engineer Craig Douglas did a great job in getting us sounds and helping out with producing.
What influences from the past 15 years since Nosferatu went into what is the new Helstar?
Man, over the past 15 years we've listened to everything, Dimmu, Machine Head, Devil Driver, Killswitch, man a bunch of bands. Even the old school guys like Exodus and Testament and Sabbath. I'd have to say though that right now Lamb of God is probably one of my favorite bands.
What are the realistic possibilities of touring? Do most of you have day jobs?
All of us have day jobs so a long 3 month tour probably won't happen. But we can do a month long tour. Most of the shows we do here in the States are fly ins. Fly in on Friday night, play Saturday and leave Sunday. For Europe we will definitely need a month of straight one nighters.
Even though this is a new beginning for Helstar, in some ways it must feel like closure for you, that you and the band have come full circle, have a level of notoriety, and survived what seems to have been a bunch of label/management trouble in the past?
Yeah, very much so. I'm fortunate to have a second chance. I guess we all are. I never dreamed that we'd be doing this. Not at this level and not 20 years later. And I've said it time and time again but it's very, very humbling. When we walk out on the stage and people are singing along with the songs it's an incredible feeling that you never want to walk away from. You wish the shows would never end. Like I said James is a big reason for all of this. He carried the torch.
Larry, thanks for your time with these questions. I've really enjoyed listening to the new album and wish you, your family, and Helstar success. Cheers!
Well, thanks Alan. It was my pleasure. I hope to see you soon.
- Alan Gilkeson