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HEATHEN - Interview with Kragen Lum
By Wojtek Gabriel,
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US thrash metal band Heathen
Four albums in 35 years is not a result you can brag about, but to be honest, Heathen were not around for most of the 1990s and also, there are good reasons behind the recent period of non-productivity, as you soon find out. What's most important is that Heathen are back and with a bang. "Empire of the Blind" has been getting more than decent reviews and the guys positively look forward to the future, despite the timing for a new release not being the greatest. I discussed all things Heathen with the band's guitarist and main songwriter Kragen Lum.
It's been 10 years since the previous album was out. What took you guys so long?
Well, we signed with Nuclear Blast in 2012, we were touring for "The Evolution of Chaos" through about 2013 and I did a tour with Exodus in 2013 as well. But we started writing in 2012 and continued off and on whenever possible in between tours, and probably had about half the album done by 2014, but then I got pulled into the Exodus vortex, and was touring heavily with them for their "Blood In, Blood Out" album for about five years, and really just didn't have enough time free in our schedules to completely focus on the new record. So while I was writing sort of in between as often as possible, it wasn't until 2019 when we had a chance to sort of finish writing the album, do all the pre-production and record. So it's unfortunate that it took us so long, but you know, life takes its twists and turns and we just go along for the ride sometimes.
Is there's some kind of concept behind the lyrics? I mean most of them are about political and social issues...
Well, the lyrics are kind of diverse. I mean, there are some that are more social and political, there are some other ones like "Sun in My Hand" or "Shrine of Apathy" that are more personal and that's kind of been typical for Heathen albums, you know, there's a lot of variety in the music and in the lyrics. In terms of a concept, it's not a concept album or anything. There are some sort of musical and lyrical themes throughout it and perhaps the fact that it has an intro and an outro and that actually if you put the album on loop, it goes in a circle, that people think it's a concept album because of that. I mean, the social and political topics are in some ways sort of tied together and focus on the way that the media and social media is sort of allowing propaganda to be spread so quickly throughout the world. But like I said, it's not a concept album or anything. We just wanted to make a real album experience, where you want to listen to the whole album and there's a definite beginning, definite end and sort of a roller coaster ride throughout, that hopefully makes you want to listen to it over and over again.
Is there any specific meaning behind the album title?
It's sort of like a warning I guess of what our empire, meaning our civilisation or culture throughout the world, what could happen to it if we don't wake up and realise the amount of propaganda that we're seeing every day, and realise that searching on Google doesn't mean that it's the right answer. There's a lot of information on the Internet but also a lot of misinformation. And the same could be said about everything you see on social media and in the news media these days. So that's really it, the title was cool, it fit the overall theme of the social and political stuff on the album and I think once the song "Empire of the Blind" was written, that was really it, that was when we knew we had the right title for the record.
Have the lyrics for the album opener "The Blight" anything to do with the current pandemic?
No. It's interesting that it was the first single we released, and it was so quickly after the Covid-19 stuff started happening that people sort of started thinking that it was tied together with that. But really no, it doesn't have anything to do with that, it's just coincidence. The lyrics for "The Blight" are along those lines of what I was talking about before, about how people are being manipulated and their basic instincts are being fed into everything they see and read and hear on the news and social media. And it's sort of about how we as a culture are becoming more hollow and focusing more on surface level things that we see and hear every day and reacting emotionally to everything instead of thinking things through and wanting to look into things more, to see what's true and what's not true. So that's what "The Blight" is about. But it's interesting that people would think it was about the Covid-19 and everything. This band has never had good timing, so we certainly didn't expect anything like this would happen.
Instrumental songs like "A Fine Red Mist" are not very common in thrash metal. Who wrote that tune, and what was the idea behind it and behind inviting the Exodus guys and the original Heathen axeman to play solos on it?
I actually wrote all the music and all the lyrics on this record. So I wrote that song and my idea behind it was, I always used to love the instrumentals that bands would do, where they sounded like a song. It was basically a song, where the vocals were replaced by some sort of instrument, in this case guitar. So my idea was to try and write one of those sort of classic instrumentals, and mix it with, you know, sort of a shred kind of thing. And I wanted to do what I call the Bay Area shred off, where I had my heroes, you know, I grew up a fan of all these bands, you know, Heathen, Exodus, all of the Bay Area thrash bands, and I wanted to see if I could get these guys, you know, the original Exodus team of Gary and Rick and the original Heathen team of Lee and Doug together to play all on one song. And I called them all and asked them if they would take part, and they all agreed. So I designed this trade-off guitar solo section to have each one of these guys get a couple of leads and play off of each other like they did in the old days. And it's kind of a special moment for me, you know? Like I said, I grew up a fan of all these bands and these players, and so for them to all play solos on the album and all play together on the same song, it's kind of a special thing for me. And I am really happy with the way it came out and it was cool to have all of them agree to participate and get excited about it. I mean, it's the first time Rick has recorded since "Tempo of the Damned", it was a big deal to get him to come in and play, and I'm really stoked and really happy that each one of them participated. It's a killer song and it's a cool vibe with all the guys playing.
A question about "Shrine of Apathy". Why did you decide to include a ballad on an otherwise full-on thrash album?
Well, you know, a lot of bands that were thrash bands used to do ballads back in the day. And for whatever reason it seems like in recent years there seems to be some kind of rules to thrash metal. It seems like some of the fans only want you to be in a certain tuning or only want to hear something that's a certain speed and thrash metal has never been about that, it's always been about breaking the rules and not following sort of traditional guidelines. And Heathen has always had this element in the music, if you go back and you listen even to the first record to "World's End", there was a long acoustic section in the beginning, you know, "Heathen's Song", "Prisoner of Fate", you know, it's always been an element of the band's sound. And so "Shrine of Apathy" was written as a tribute to the friends and family that this band has lost in recent years, and we wanted to do a ballad in the true sense of a ballad, and what I mean by that is a song where it made you feel something, like "Dream On" by Aerosmith or you know, even "Stairway to Heaven", those classic ballads made you feel something, it wasn't just a soft song. Some bands do those, they're OK, but we wanted to do something a little bit different. So that song is a departure from a lot of the other stuff that's on the record. But like I said, you know, we don't really follow the rules and we write what comes from the heart and do what sounds good to us. And it was a good song and a great tribute to all the people that we lost in recent years. And David's vocal performance on that song is just killer.
You've always had some prog elements in your music. Where do they come from?
That's funny, we hate the word prog, ha-ha, we can't stand it. You know, there were a lot of bands in the late '70s and early '80s that weren't afraid to be musical and do a lot of different things, you could even call Queen progressive, Rush, Yes... But all of those bands, at the time when they came out, they were just rock bands. There was no progressive or anything, that label came later. So, you know, those elements are things that all of us grew up listening to, and again, we don't really follow the rules that people put on thrash metal. We just do what sounds good to us. And if something sounds good and we like the way that it's put together, then we go with it. So those sort of elements, you know, we do a lot of guitar layering, a lot of guitar harmonies, you know, the arrangements are not always the traditional arrangements and we're just trying to make good music and that's all that matters to us.
Lee writes songs for both Heathen and Exodus. Does it sometimes happen that riffs written initially for Heathen end up on Exodus songs and vice versa?
Yes, it does. I was just going through a folder on my computer of old demo stuff from 2008 when we recorded "The Evolution of Chaos" and I came across this file that said "good riff" and it was "The Ballad of Leonard and Charles". So I think what you probably have seen over the recent years, is that Lee is given the opportunity to write for not just one, but two bands. He takes his sweet time writing, he likes to be patient with it and he has written a lot of material that you know, Exodus has had new albums and Heathen hasn't, so he's written a number of songs that were originally meant for Heathen but went to Exodus. But he's able to adapt them. In some ways, like in "The Ballad of Leonard and Charles", there are some Heathen-like elements that are on, but it still sounds like Exodus. And I think vice versa. You know, both of us have played with Exodus and Exodus has always been an influence on Heathen and Lee was a huge Exodus fan, I mean, he basically joined his favourite thrash band of all time when he joined Exodus. I have his original Exodus demo cassettes on my desk right now. So, you know, there's certainly some things that are similar, and at the same time, a lot of things that are very different, you know, the melodic stuff and the melodic elements and guitar layering and stuff like that, those are unique to Heathen.
Jon Torres sadly passed away a few years back, so you have a new bass player, but you also have a new drummer. So how did the recordings go with a new completely new rhythm section, as compared to the previous album?
Well, you know, the process for recording was different than it had been in previous years. We all live in different places in the United States now, so it's not as easy for us to get together and play. You know, a lot of the stuff I had written and demoed here in my home studio, and it was more or less ready to record. In terms of line- up, we wanted to put an end to the whole idea that we don't have a stable line-up. This band has had many, many line-up changes over the years and we just wanted to put that to a stop. So, you know, we've known both Jason and Jim for a number of years, Jason was in Psychosis with me since the early '90s, Jim not only had already toured with us when he played with Generation Kill, and Toxik a couple shows, but also he had been a drum tech for Tom Hunting for a little while. So we knew both of them very, very well, they're both great people, they're both great musicians. And in terms of what they brought to the recording, they both brought a lot of energy, great performances and really helped us take all the songs to the next level. It's been really great having both of them in the band, there's a sort of a band camaraderie that we haven't had in Heathen for a long time. And it's just really too bad that we can't be out on the road with the guys, but you know, we can't control what's happening in the world in terms of Covid-19. We just have to do our best to stay positive and stay focused on promoting the album however we can.
Having started back in the mid-'80s you're an old-school thrash band. Is there anything in particular you guys do to stay relevant on the current thrash scene?
I don't know. I mean, we have a different mentality, we have that old-school mentality of no rules for writing. In terms of staying relevant on the scene, it's very difficult these days to get people to stay focused on your music. Everything has a very short life span and people have a short attention span. So it's certainly difficult for an old school band to jump into the world of social media and everything else, but we just do the best that we can. We have a great label to support us, they've given us a long list of not only interviews to do but promotional videos to make and radio IDs to do and all kinds of stuff and they've been fantastic in terms of promotion. There are fans out there that didn't even know about the last album "The Evolution of Chaos", that are hearing about it for the first time while we're promoting the new album. So, you know, it's been great working with them. And you know, we're just doing whatever we can to sort of adapt to how things are playing out right now in terms of Covid-19 and adapt to the new world of social media and everything else. Things change, except our idea of what Heathen should be. I think that's always been consistent.
Like you said, you played with Exodus for a few years when Gary joined Slayer. How was it for you, you know, standing on stage alongside your heroes?
Oh, it was great! The first tour I did was in in Europe in 2013, I filled in for one of the "Exhibit B" tours and it was great. It was a little nerve-racking filling in for a guy that is one of your guitar heroes in a way, but the great thing about Exodus is that they're like a family and they welcomed me into their family and treated me like part of the team. I'm still involved with them, even though I'm not playing guitar for them anymore, I'm part of their management team and I work with them on a regular basis on all kinds of projects. So, you know, it was a great experience playing with them. I got to play shows with many of the bands, including all the Big 4. Playing a couple of shows with Metallica as the headliner was a huge deal. Teenage me never would have expected that I got to not only play with one, but two of my favourite bands of all time.
When you're performing live with Heathen, do you prefer to play the classics or the new songs that you co-created?
I like both. I'm a fan of the old stuff, you know, I grew up a Heathen fan so playing stuff from the first couple of albums is great. I love playing "Hypnotized" and "Opiate of the Masses", stuff like that. I love playing "Breaking the Silence" and "Death by Hanging", "Goblin's Blade", all those songs, they're all fun to play. You know, it's going to be harder, the more albums you have the harder it is to put a set list together. Fans want to hear certain songs and there are certain songs that you want to play. Like on one of the tours that we did for "The Evolution of Chaos", we wanted to play songs from the new album and because one of them was 11 minutes, we could only play four songs. So, you know, there are going to be some new songs we want to play, and some older songs that we want to play, and we're just going to have to see how much time we have, build a set and probably not be able to satisfy everybody's requests.
OK, time to wrap up. You can't really make any plans these days, but let's say that the whole pandemic situation is over soon, what's next for Heathen?
Well, you know, we're doing everything that we can to sort of try and reschedule tour dates for next year, you know, dates that we had planned for this year. It's kind of difficult at this point. We don't know what's going to be allowed or not in terms of a band from the US travelling to Europe, touring throughout Europe, all of that. It's going to be difficult to plan until we really know what's allowed or not. But we're staying positive and we're just working on whatever we can and preparing that we're going to be able to do a little bit of touring next year. And if for some reason the pandemic continues or just not feasible for us to do it next year then maybe we'll start working on the next record.
Interview by Wojtek Gabriel

Heathen on Bandcamp: heathenthrash.bandcamp.com
Heathen on Facebook: facebook.com/heathen.official
Tags: Heathen, thrash metal, Bay Area thrash, Kragen Lum, Empire of the Blind
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© 1997-2020 Wojtek Gabriel. All rights reserved.
Unauthorised use of any works published on this website is prohibited.
Materials may not be reproduced in whole or in part by persons, organisations
or corporations without the prior written permission.