Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Heathen: An interview with David White

Bay Area survivalists Heathen return with a monster of an album in ‘The Evolution of Chaos.’ Have you read any of the press on it? All very well deserved praise for the creation of an album that might be their best yet. I spoke to vocalist David White and let me tell you. It was almost hard to put into words all the questions I had for the guy once I started thinking about it. Not only musical questions but also the time factor is as big a part of the Heathen story as their music. So I wanted to try and touch on that as well as historic and new facts.

Since 1986 (they formed in late 84) they have faced multiple year long periods of little or total inactivity due to management issues, personnel issues, label issues, disbanding issues, reunion issues so on and so forth. It seemed like every time they caught a break there was something to slow them down.

However it’s a new day for Heathen after working to reestablish themselves live over the past few years the end result is this new album and it's already a highlight of the new year. Let's hope some North America touring will be in the cards as the record demands it.

Where does Heathen fall on your list of priorities? Obviously you guys have been known to uh, take your time with things and we’re all getting older, so where does Heathen fit in your life in 2010?

David White: It’s definitely high on my list of priorities, especially now since all this is happening with the new record. My family is and always has been my first priority and we’re hoping that this record can do really well and who knows? Maybe be able to help my family a little too! But I work as a swim instructor by day but music is my obsession, so anything I can do to keep this thing rolling, to stay busy with music I’m doing it.

How much do you stay on top of the current Metal scene? Do you read up on either mags or on-line? How into the game are you these days?

I’m pretty into it. There is a lot of new stuff coming out all the time so I try to keep my ears open to a lot of it. As far as music in general I’m pretty well rounded so I listen to a lot of different stuff. I feel I’m a musician so I listen and am influenced by everything from classical to the newer stuff. But yeah, I try to stay up on what’s happening but my main focus has always been what I’m trying to do and what the band is doing. When we’re out playing live and there are newer bands on the bill I definitely try to check them out.

We played both the Thrasho De Mayo Fest in LA as well as the Keep It True Fest in Germany with a band called Merciless Death. They’re doing the old-school Thrash thing and I like them, Warbringer is another band I like, there’s a lot of bands out doing that style that I’ve heard and a ton more I’m sure I have yet to find. But I’m definitely open to everything. If someone passes me their CD I’m checking it out and if I can find any magazines these days same thing.

That’s good to hear, I know there’s a lot of bands out there, mostly of the older generation that don’t listen to anything outside of their own stuff. Maybe that’s the way they think it’ll keep it pure or whatever.

You have to try and stay current. Here in the Bay Area there’s some college and high school radio stations that still have Metal shows. Our main station is a classic rock station that still has a Metal show on Friday nights but that’s it.

As far as magazines, same thing there’s not many on the shelves, but there’s times you hit on the right places and there’s a few there. The guys from Rock Hard send me their magazine, which I can’t read because it’s printed in German (laughs!) but I like to look at the pictures…kinda like Playboy (laughs!)

How do you feel about the current scenes, the styles of Metal more specifically? I mean Heathen has always been this melodic band and I’m sure there’s some stuff out there that has you somewhat baffled at the attention these bands or these styles garner. How important was it for you to keep Heathen as pure as possible in the face of all these musical climate changes?

I think it’s just a natural thing to remain who we are. This is the type of music we like, yeah we like a lot of different styles but as a whole, especially for Lee (Altus) and I we tend to agree on a lot of different things and we like heavy music, but it’s got to have feeling. That’s why on ‘The Evolution of Chaos’ there’s a lot of different elements and there’s also a few things we venture into that we haven’t before. We don’t want to be afraid to go somewhere else and end up getting stuck in some rut, we want to be limitless.

If you listen to the middle part of “No Stone Unturned” or a song like “A Heroes Welcome” it’s definitely a stretch out for us. The original riff to that song was like a tribute to Thin Lizzy, a Celtic kind of feel which some people might say “Ah, that’s not Thrash!” or whatever but I think it can be appreciated by anyone who likes music. But to sum it up being melodic or whatever is just the natural thing for us.

Heathen has always been a band, like many Metal bands far more, well appreciated in Europe than here in the US. I know Lee spent some time there in the 90’s and ex-member Doug Piercy currently resides there. For instance the new album has been out a few months over there and the response has been pretty awesome, you know? Was there ever a time you felt like “Fuck this” let’s move to Europe??

Nah, it is what it is really. I mean this is our home, this is the Bay Area and I love it here, maybe if I was to retire I’d go to Hawaii or something to chill on the beach because I like to be warm! But to be inspired musically as well as challenged musically this is probably one of the best places to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to be able to spend a concentrated amount of time over in Europe as far as the band is concerned, but this is home you know?

I think it’s important to try to make it at home, we had a really, really good showing in the States with the first record and I know there’s a lot of kids as well as older fans that remember us from the old days but I think it’s just a matter of getting the kids out as a whole for Metal in the States. I mean make it exciting again at the club level for the fans. All the big shows do really well, be it Ozzfest drawing all the Metalheads and Metallica doing the same, Megadeth too. The fans are there, it’s just a matter of reaching them.

Speaking of the first record, I have to admit speaking to you is very cool and I remember how “groundbreaking” the video for “Set Me Free” was at the time in 1987. There weren’t a lot of Thrash Metal videos out at the time and that served you well, you guys got a LOT of airplay back then. That had to be pretty mind blowing.

That was awesome for us, it really was. Even today people will tell me they see it every now and then on VH1’s Metal Mania, but I have yet to see it there.

You know right place at the right time is something no one can really say too many times about Heathen. However that was pretty much the definition of the phrase for you guys back then.

Yeah, I agree. It was all good but then unfortunately for us we had some management issues that prevented us from getting out on tour while the album was hot. That delay definitely hurt us but thankfully we did have the video to help us along sales wise. But yeah, that was a lot of fun back then…we’re actually gearing up to shoot a video for the new album…

Oh yeah? What can you tell us about that?

(David on the set of the "Dying Season" video shoot)

It’s going to be for the song “Dying Season” which is the first track off of ‘The Evolution of Chaos” and I had some ideas and our drummer (Darren Minter) contacted a film company out of the Sacramento/Folsom area and while we don’t have the biggest budget to work with, they were really intrigued about the challenge of doing a music video. One of the guys from the company came up with a treatment where it’ll take place on a battle field. I don’t want to give away too much information before it’s even done but as far as I can tell it’s going to be pretty cool.

The first major resurface of Heathen was at the 2001 Thrash of the Titans, how do you look back on that event some 8 almost 9 years later?

You know it’s funny, that show…my son was much younger when the band was originally together and then we split up. So as he got older he would hear this and that about the band, see pictures and all that stuff, right? So to be able to do that show and have my son there with me, all day was just…I mean he got to pull an all-nighter with his Dad!

A buddy of mine from Japan had come out to that show and he had a bunch of buddies he came with and at the time my son was learning to speak Japanese so he was way into hanging out with these guys. Then when the show was over all of us went out for breakfast at like 4 or 5 in the morning. As we walked up to the front door at 7 AM I just looked at him and laughed, that was our first all-nighter.

So that was a memorable event on many levels!

Definitely. But yeah, that was the original spark that started us up again, at least thinking about putting everything back together. A year later we were invited to do the Wacken Festival and that sealed the deal you know? We got to play in front of like 60,000 people and it was like, “You know what, I like this!”

You guys seem to be taking the Festival route, which is smart if you can do it as you play to a LOT of people in a shorter period of time versus killing yourself on the road for six months. How were the Thrash Domination shows in Japan last Fall (2009)?

Amazing…just amazing! Those kids had been waiting for us for a very long time and it was totally apparent. I mean it was just unreal; Kragen (Lum-Guitar) had played his first show with us at the Keep It True Fest in Germany which was a great crowd. But the Japanese kids were so out of this world, he keeps asking me when we’re going back!

A big part of Heathen was always the guitar duo of Lee (Altus) and Doug Piercy. Metal fans love their guitar duos and these two were always one of the best teams. I know it was strange for a fan to see Exodus without Rick Hunolt, maybe it felt weird for that band as well? But in Heathen is it strange to have an all new album out without Doug? Has he heard the new record, what does he think?

I don’t know if he’s heard it, he hasn’t, uh, called me to give me his examination of it (Laughs!) A few years ago we did do a reunion show with him and Carl (Sacco-Drums) at a club called Annie’s and that was a lot of fun. But he’s got two kids now and he’s busy doing his own thing. We couldn’t be happier with Kragen though, he was a big part of this album bringing in three songs. He fits in great.

You guys have a European tour kicking off at the end of April. How much are you looking forward to playing this new stuff live?

Oh man…we’ve been playing the old stuff for so long I can’t wait to get out there with the new material. Some of the shows we’ve played since we got back together we’ve played “Dying Season” and “Arrows of Agony” just to throw them out there, but man if we could go out there and play the whole new record I’d be beyond happy! I love the old stuff, but I’m really looking forward to being able to mix it up live.

Speaking of which, how do you look back on the Heathen catalog? Are you able to step back and look at things subjectively or are the songs so close to you they’re simply snapshots in time?

Well for me the songs and the albums are very much a big part of me. When I look back it’s an evolution of what we’ve done and how far we’ve come, another step towards…well whatever, really. It’s another piece of art that we’ve done and we’re trying to achieve a superior record than before. Like I said earlier I am proud of the old stuff, but at the same time I’m a little sick of it too. I mean for the longest time we technically only had two original records so I’m so happy to have a fresh record of material to pull from. In doing that I think it will give some life to the older stuff too.

‘The Evolution of Chaos’ was recorded and produced by and recorded with Juan Urteaga. I know some of the other stuff he’s both recorded as well as played on and this definitely is some of his best work. Was this your first time working with him?

Yeah, well we recorded our [2005] demo by ourselves on Pro-Tools but we didn’t really know what to do as far as a full-on mix, all the drum sounds and all of that technical stuff. So Juan being a friend of ours mixed it for us and really made that sound like an album! So we definitely wanted to work with him when it came time to do this album. So yeah this was the first time with him in the studio.

What was cool was to see was Juan was credited with a few lyrics and some music if I’m not mistaken. Was this a studio collaboration or how did this come about?

Yeah since he’s a singer, he used to sing with a Death Metal band…


Yeah, cool, I didn’t know you knew! So where I’m coming from the melodic side, he’s from the extreme side there were a lot of ideas and different suggestions where things worked out for the better! Some songs we would change a musical part or two or when it came to the vocals I’d throw out an idea as would he. The song “Controlled By Chaos” that’s a song where Kragen wrote the music as well as the lyrics and I recorded them with Kragen’s lyrics and melody.

After we did it I wasn’t 100% into it and thought I’d like to take a crack at a few ideas I had. So we did this while we were in the studio and Juan definitely helped on that one with some killer suggestions and I was open to that.

I started this interview asking you about how “into” the current scene you are. I mean it [the scene] is so different these days, everything has changed. With file sharing and downloading, to us old guys that’s foreign. I will never, in my life understand how someone couldn’t want…product. I don’t think I ever will.

Yeah well, unfortunately there’s a lot of people out there who think that everything should be free. My view on it is it’s really fucked up the music business for the artists. When the business started it were always the labels and the managers ripping off the artists. The labels and managers made all the money and even though laws were changed, they just changed the contracts. These days not only are you getting burned by the record company think about all the people that are downloading. Yeah that burns too.

Maybe there are people, the true fans that downloaded it [the new album] when it was not out here or whatever, they wanted to have it as soon as possible. But they went out and bought it when it came out here; I have no problem with that. Look at shelf space in major chains for music, it’s shrinking. That’s a direct reflection of all that downloading.

So I wanted to do something a little different for this interview. So after I spoke to David I found this classic Gene Ambo photo of the band. I saw Gene a few weeks ago at Alice In Chains and asked him if he’d give me some background info on the shot for this interview.

Gene Ambo: The shot was taken in Feb of 1988. This pic was taken in Debbie "Ty " Coons gangway in Wrigleyville. I 'm not sure where they were playing maybe Medusa's or Bedrock. All kinda blurry. I know we were hanging at Debbie’s and shooting pool and drinking after the show and we all wanted to do more pix .

I had shot them in California and with Paul’s [Baloff] other band Piranha so we had history. We had done a session in the basement of the venue earlier that day and at Debbie’s on her back porch that night. I ran a cord out her back door plugged in and we just hung out in the snow for about 10-20 freezing minutes.

Someone…Yaz (Mike "Yaz" Jastremski) started tossing snow around and hands got cold fast and everyone grabbed gear and beer and ran inside. It was like 10 degrees out. First thing I remembered was to not let my gear get wasted into drunken a beer-n-snowball fight...but I thought the snow looked so cool once I started shooting so I ripped a whole roll.