DATE OF INTERVIEW:
18th January 2010
METAL DISCOVERY: It’s a fantastic new album, but there’s been a bit of a delay in getting it out there as I gather some of the material was written a few years ago now. Why was there such a long delay?
LEE ALTUS: Because it’s Heathen, that’s why! [laughs] The last album was early nineties and there were a lot of things that have changed over time. Basically, back in the eighties, none of us had jobs and families, we lived with our parents, and dedicated ourselves a hundred per cent to Heathen. Now, we have families, and jobs, and responsibilities, and it’s hard to find the time to just do Heathen. Especially now, just coming back it’s not like you just, “okay, well, we’re gonna release an album” and all of a sudden quit all our jobs and this will support us. So just getting everybody together was hard.
(Lee Altus on what constitutes the oft used phrase 'old school')
"People pay so much attention to the old school production, the old school writing, and all this, and I always say - you know what, in the eighties, there was no old school. There was only one school that we knew."
Heathen - uncredited promo shot, 2010
Photograph supplied by, and used with permission from, Karl Demata at Eleven PR
Interview by Mark Holmes
Reforming in 2001 for Chuck Billy's Thrash of the Titans benefit concert, thrash band Heathen have remained active ever since. Recently releasing their first full length studio album in nineteen years, the rather stunning 'The Evolution of Chaos', the Bay Area metallers are perhaps ripe for rediscovery and are also set to introduce their music to a whole new generation of thrash fan. I spoke to founding member, guitarist Lee Altus, about the past, present, and future...
MD: So just circumstantial then, really.
LA: Yeah. And it’s like you write a song, and you’re just like “oh, I’ve got a new one, let’s work this out”, and then you call Darren and he’s like “I can’t do it this week, but I can do next Friday”. Then I call Dave, and he’s like “yeah, for the next two weeks I’m busy”. So that’s basically what it’s like.
MD: I noticed there are staggered release dates as well. It got released in Japan in December and I think it’s next week over here in Europe, and mid-Feb in the States although that was originally March I think.
LA: Yeah, well, basically we’ve been bitching at Mascot, you know. In this day and age, with downloading, all the record companies are in the position of bitching about “how does it leak?”, and now when it already comes out in Japan, I mean, I can guarantee you it’s gonna leak. It would be a miracle if it wouldn’t. A lot of people were really upset and here, in the States, people have been saying “the band are from the States, and we get the album three months later”. It’s not fair because they think it’s the band. I’ve read just the craziest comments from fans’ conspiracy theories where you read them, roll your eyes and just want to shoot yourself in the head! Some people were saying - “it’s because the dollar is weak so they’re waiting another three months, hoping that the dollar is gonna go up.” I mean, how do you respond to this?! It has nothing to do with us. If anything, we’re trying to push the release date closer. It’s the label. It’s the label who’s doing it; they’re responsible for the release dates. We work with them and try to make it as close as possible. Once you hand it over to the label, it becomes the management and label’s property.
MD: I noticed on Blabbermouth when the December date got announced for Japan, and I read some of the comments with people saying things like - “I can’t wait that long, I’m going to import it from Japan, and spend extra money…” That must be your more diehard fans, but…
LA: Well, yeah, exactly, there’s actually a lot more people that did that. I mean, in Japan, it’s not that big of a country so they underestimated how many records they’re gonna sell in the first week, so they were sold out in the first couple of days. But, also, all the people from other countries who said “screw it, I’ll just order it from Japan”, they kinda ran into trouble too in not printing enough for the first pressing, and they just sold out right away. All it takes is ten people from the UK, ten from Germany, ten from the States, and it all piles up, you know. So they underestimated it. I think it was just silly too because the way it was set up, the whole record deal with Mascot and the licensing…this is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like that to where you licence the record, and your licensee is able to release a record before you do. You know, but it’s Japanese and they have their shit together.
MD: I think in terms of the music there’s a good balance between your old school influences and a more modern thrash vibe going on as well. Did you consciously write material to mix the old with the new?
LA: No, not really. Again, with a lot of the old school fans saying “oh, the demo is this way, keep it old school”…and the music is all by feel. I mean, you don’t plan it out; it’s not math. You kind of just write stuff and it comes out the way it is. That’s why I think there’s the balance with old and kind of newer stuff because some of those riffs were written a while back, basically for the third Heathen album that was supposed to be sometime in the early nineties. And some of the riffs were written now. Once you mix them together, it’s just all one time. We’re not purposefully trying to be like the retro band or just like the old/new. It’s just Heathen, you know. People pay so much attention to the old school production, the old school writing, and all this, and I always say - you know what, in the eighties, there was no old school. There was only one school that we knew. What we were doing, we were not just suddenly gonna turn around and, on purpose, do that, you know, like how we did. We just go with the natural feeling and I think that’s the most honest way of doing it.
MD: Definitely. The artwork is pretty stunning as well. It kind of looks like it has apocalyptic overtones with the evolution of human being from ape to man to death. What’s that exactly supposed to represent, and who came up with that concept?
LA: Well, it was more Travis Smith. It’s not like a big concept; it was more of a…Kragen, he knew Travis Smith and said “let’s give him a shot because he’s always done cool covers”. Once we saw it, we were like “that’s the one; that’s it”. So it’s not like we worked with him or anything else; he just basically kind of envisioned it, and presented it to us, and we just loved it right away. I mean, again, it was from some old schooler who’s like “oh, you’ve gotta do the old school cover”, and I’m like, you know…
MD: In terms of the lead guitar work on the album, I think it’s completely mindblowing…
LA: Oh, thank you.
MD: Do you always strive to improve your skill level on guitar, or would you say your playing abilities have peaked?
LA: No, I mean it’s not…somebody asked me that the other day and I said, “well, the older you get, your fingers slow down, or this…”. I mean, it’s not like you’re an athlete where at a certain point you peak and no matter how much you work out you just can’t compete with the younger guys. Here, it’s all skill so, as long as you practice and try to better yourself and learn new licks and new tricks, you can always improve yourself.
MD: Would you consider yourself a virtuoso on the guitar?
LA: Oh, absolutely not! [laughs]
LA: No, absolutely not. I mean, there’s so many good players out there, I just try to stay afloat!
MD: There’s some pretty virtuosic playing on there from what I hear, so it’s certainly getting that way.
LA: Thank you, I appreciate it, but there’s so many good guitar players out there that I’m just trying to steal licks from them, basically!
MD: That’s a very humble answer! Kragen’s obviously the newest recruit to your lineup - how has he fit into the band both as a musician and a person, and what qualities has he brought to the band?
LA: I think he fits in great…we’re always praising him on how good he fits in. Comparing him with Doug, I think personally he fits in better. He’s a very laidback kinda guy. Doug was more intense and crazy which was kinda like also his personality when he was playing so it was great with him but, personally, there was a lot of fighting going on. Kragen is very easy to get along with and his playing is also great. When we were looking for a guitar player, with Heathen it’s always been required that you play lead and rhythm really good…the rhythm is not that easy three chord kinda thing, and there’s a lot of harmonies. By playing lead I don’t mean that you should just be able to play fast or whatever, you’ve gotta play good. So, you know, we were looking all over the Bay Area and it was so hard to find a guitar player. I was kinda shocked myself because back in the eighties, everywhere you turned around…everybody played, and everybody played good. Now, it’s totally changed. I mean, I understand it’s different times. So we would always find someone and that guy’s rhythm is very good but he can’t play lead, or the other way around…he’s really a shredder but too bad he can’t play rhythm. And we finally found a guy all the way in LA, ironically. Growing up in the Bay Area, we always hated the LA scene and everything else, all the posers, and now…[laughs] So we end up going there and talk to Kragen, and I was just amazed because he was like the guy who was trapped in the wrong place! He was a huge Bay Area thrash fan and he knew everything about us.
MD: So he was a Heathen fan before he joined the band?
LA: Oh yeah, absolutely. Some of the songs, when we got back together, I had to remind myself how to play them - he knew how to play them better! He had to show me the songs that I wrote! [laughs] So yeah, he fit right in and just finally finding that missing piece…I’d almost given up on it and said I’ll record all the rhythms and bring somebody like Terry, that was in Heathen but didn’t work out because he didn’t play rhythms, so he can do the leads and at least we’ll get the album done. But luckily we found Kragen and it all worked out…for the better.
MD: All the guitar work on the album, yourself and Kragen, is phenomenal. That’s why I’d put you in the virtuoso camp because it’s not just, like you say, technical abilities, you’re after something more and you play with a lot of feeling as well rather than just technical leads and speed.
LA: Yeah, I think a lot of the new guitar players in metal focus on the wrong thing, like how to get faster and they don’t realise…I mean, I did that too, it’s a common mistake; you just wanna get faster. But then you realise the guy who hits one note and it makes you wanna cry…how’s he able to do that? And then you try to do it and you realise, wow, that’s a lot harder than hitting a hundred notes in one second. So that’s when you kinda turn around and try to work on more of a feeling and melody.