Interview with James Rivera of Helstar

With the Texan metal pioneers celebrating three decades of doing what they do, with the appropriately named ’30 Years Of Hel’ live package, Planet Mosh caught up with Helstar founder and frontman James Rivera during the band’s most recent European trek, to look back over the band’s storied career, talk highlights and regrets – and discuss just how (he believes) bureaucracy gets in the way of them playing dear old Blighty quite as often as they would like…

First of all, does it seem strange for him to be talking about the band’s 30th anniversary?

“Yeah. I never thought this would happen when the band first started. But’s kind of neat that it is what it is…”

If someone had told him back in the early that he’d still be doing what he does three decades later, would he have believed them or would he have told them to go take a running jump?

“I definitely wouldn’t have believed them… I would have been like ‘what the…?’ I don’t think I even have been this in 30 years…”

Looking back, what does he remember about the earliest days of the band?

“As far as remembering actual details, it’s a bit vague! What I do remember is that is wasn’t taken seriously – it was just for fun at the beginning: doing backyard parties and that kind of thing! We never even thought about doing a record or anything like that… But, that led to the curiousity of going to see bands in clubs, and then we wanted to get to that level – to get into the main clubs that were around back then: but, we couldn’t get into the popular clubs because of our song lists – all the other bands were playing, you know, Loverboy and dance music, and we were playing Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and all that…”

What was the metal scene in Texas like when the band first started?

“it was fairly non-existent at first, but I guess we struck lucky because we released our demo around the time that heavy metal exploded all over the world, and then Texas became probably one of the best markets around…”

The band re-located to Los Angeles in 1987: was this an important step forward for Helstar in trying to break out of their local market?

“It didn’t really take us to the next level in the way that we thought it would, because we moved to the west coast at the wrong time: the boots and spurs stuff was just taking off, with Guns N Roses and all that, so we ended up just going back to Texas, where at least we were known and knew the scene – that old thing about it’s better to a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big sea!”

Helstar first toured Europe in 1988: what does Rivera remember of that time, and how important has Europe been to both himself and the band in the intervening period?

“Again, I don’t remember much of the detail, but I do remember it being a big deal and a big moment in my life – like ‘wow, we’re going to Europe’: that was a big deal and I was reallt freaked out about it! Now, it just seems like an ordinary thing to do… visiting Europe is a given every year, two or three times a year, depending on what I’m doing…”

The band have just returned to the States after another short run of dates across Europe, to promote their recently released ’30 Years Of Hel’ commemorative album and DVD. This jaunt did not include any UK shows: in fact, this was the third tour European tour in just under 24 months, a period in which Helstar have play just one gig in this corner of the world on their itinerary. When probed as to why this is the case, Rivera attributes it to a combination of bureaucracy and the inability/unwillingness of UK promoters to pay the cost of cutting through the red tape:

“There really isn’t any interest, which surprises me,” the vocalist answers bluntly. “Last year, it was a fan from another band who made it happen – but, we’ve never had any bites. And there’s more than London, I know that, so that’s what I don’t understand… it’s weird. I mean, we were number one in the Metal Forces chart, and that old school metal movement is very much alive and well – there were a lot of people at that last London show,,, We don’t understand it.

“Maybe it’s that the promoters don’t want to meet the terms… maybe they want you to come there and play for nothing! I don’t know… It could also be because of the fact that, unfortunately – and I don’t want to make this seem like a negative approach – the UK just fucks with you big time when you’re a US band! There’s so much fucking paperwork: nowhere else in the world but there – I mean, if you sing on a street corner, you better have that fucking paperwork in order… it’s just so difficult at the end of the day. And, when you think about things like the ferry costs, and having to get a work visa to perform for just one day, and all that… at the end of the day, when the promoter adds all that up, that’s what starts to kill the whole solution!

“I think the UK would need to be done on its own, say four or five dates, without the hassle of worrying about getting from mainland Europe and back again – because that cost an arm and a leg last time, and that’s when I started to realize that was probably why many bands don’t play the UK: it was nightmare going through all that paperwork. I think, politically, that’s really the big problem…”

So, if we got rid of all the government paperwork, then Helstar would grace these shores on a more regular basis?

“Oh yeah, of course – I think so, because the promoters wouldn’t have to worry about the cost of all that paperwork for five individuals, and I know it wasn’t something that was cheap…”

Moving things back into a more retrospective mode, what does Rivera regard as his own personal highlights of Helstar’s career?

“You know, this the third time I’ve been asked this question today, and it’s a great question, but I honestly have to say that the highlight is right now…”

Is that because the band have stuck at it so long?

“Yeah. And just the way everything is going for us right now. People keep asking us about this album, and what we did in the 80s.. but, to be honest, we were no bigger then than we are now… there was nothing to really highlight then: we put out some great, classic albums, but the band was no more popular then… in fact, now, it is getting more popular, and I think things are starting to click into a real popular little corporation for Helstar…

“For me to be able to say that this was our first headlining tour (of Europe), with a Nightliner and two buy-on bands – and we’re getting to that level… yeah, that’s a fucking highlight! For people to look back to, say ‘Distant Thunder’ in 1988 and say that’s a highlight… yeah, that’s your opinion, but this isn’t 1988 and the band was not anywhere near as big as it is now. For me, on a business sense, and musically, this is our highlight right now…

On the other side of the coin, does Rivera have any regrets, anything he would change or do differently?

“Well, of course: just wishing we had known more back about the business back then (when we were starting out) – maybe we would have had some of our highlights then! But, you have to take things with a pinch of salt and it is where it is now. Everything happens for a reason: I can always try and blame this, or point at this… if only we’d had a better lawyer, a better manager, a better label, not so many fucked up people in the band… hell me and what I was going through with the negative points in my life… all that stuff…

“But, instead of looking back with regret, and worrying and trying to pinpoint stuff… but, if there was one thing, it was at the very beginning and the bad management with ‘Burning Star’ [the band’s 1984 debut album]: that destroyed everything from the get-go!

“OK, it didn’t destroy everything – it just made our jobs a lot harder and harder, and my job harder… maybe that’s why it’s taken 30 years to get to this point! That’s how bad that mistake was. So, if there were any real regrets, something I wanted to tie behind the car and drag down the street, then that would be it…”

So, any plans for another of Helstar’s all too infrequent studio albums?

“Yeah, but it will be next year… we’re barely just cracking open the egg and haven’t even put it in the bowl to start scrambling it, or throwing in all the rest of the stuff, but we’re starting to move in that direction… We’ve got the eggs – we just haven’t cracked them yet! That makes a good omelette… we know they’re in there, but that’s just the first step – give us a dozen eggs to make the perfect omelette: that’s the point we’re at now, where we’re tossing around some ideas…

So, if it was to end right now, for James Rivera, is ’30 Years…’ a fairly accurate summation of how he would like Helstar’s contribution to the heavy metal canon to be remembered?

“Yeah. I think what’s important is to go out with a bang.. with every album having been better than the last one, and every tour having been better,,, but, then we may get to 35 years and the next five years have been even better… and then we could be like the Rolling Stones, going ‘it’s our 50th anniversary – what are we going to do now?’… but, I don’t know about that!!!”

• Helstar’s ’30 Years Of Hel’ is available now on AFM Records and can be bought by clicking on the banner below.

About Mark Ashby

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