HEATHEN – “We’re Going To Blow You Away With This…”
September 16, 2020, a month ago
One of the OGs of thrash metal, Heathen’s Empire Of The Blind comes over 10 years after their fourth studio album, The Evolution Of Chaos.
With a newly fleshed out lineup that includes stickman Jim DeMaria and bassist Jason Mirza joining longtime guitarists Lee Altus, Kragen Lum and frontman David White, Empire Of The Blind is balls to the wall thrash fury, layered deep with outside influences and lyrics that both directly attack and confront the madness that is 2020. Lum caught up with BraveWords for an in-depth one-on-one that dives deep into the new record, band chemistry, thoughts on working alongside Exodus and much more!
BraveWords: It’s been a long wait for Heathen fans for Empire Of The Blind, over 10 years since you guys dropped The Evolution Of Chaos. Obviously touring with Exodus for yourself and Lee Altus must have contributed to the delay. Is it a relief to finally have this record ready for Heathen fans?
Kragen Lum: “Yeah. I mean, honestly, the last few years have been kind of a whirlwind for me. We were doing a lot of touring for the last Heathen record, especially in Europe. I started writing songs for the new record back as early as 2012. And then I kind of just got sucked into the Exodus vortex and was on tour with them for what seemed like four or five years straight. So that time kind of passed sort of quickly. Lots of changes in life and everything during that time. I guess I just feel fortunate to be able to work on this Heathen record and be a part of the group and work with Nuclear Blast on the new album. We’re all really happy with the way that the record came out. It’s definitely been a long time coming.
BraveWords: Heathen has never been your atypical thrash metal band, and no more so is that true than with Empire Of The Blind. Has it been a conscious decision from the guys to constantly try to mix things up and stay fresh?
Kragen Lum: “The great thing about this band is, and even before I was in the band, the guys never put any boundaries on what the band does. The attitude has always been kind of like we’re going to write what sounds good to us and go where we’re going to go. I don’t think they ever really put any preconceived notions on anything, and they definitely don’t have rules or anything. A lot of younger fans that I’m kind of seeing, they have all these rules for thrash metal, but back in the ‘80s, like, bands didn’t have those rules. They didn’t care. They just did what they thought sounded cool. They didn’t care what tuning it was in, they didn’t care what tempos the songs were at. They just wrote what they wrote. And I think in a way a lot of the records that we hold up now as classics have a lot of variety in them. You know, if you go and you look at even the classic Metallica records that everybody loves, they have a lot of variety. There’s fast stuff, there’s heavy stuff, ballads, instrumentals. That’s kind of the vibe that a lot of the early Bay Area bands had. That’s why they all kind of sounded so different from each other, even though they were from the same place.
“That was kind of our philosophy with this record, to try and have a lot of variety and make something that was an album rather than just a collection of songs. That album listening experience has sort of dwindled over the years. For me personally, I wanted to take it back to the days where those bands in their heyday were competitive with each other, but it was a healthy competition. It was like, we’re going to blow you away with this, you know? And so that’s kind of where we wanted to go with the album. I think we all kind of had that mindset.”
BraveWords: What’s your take for how the lineup gelled for this record? It’s Jim and Jason’s first record with Heathen, and the transition seems to be seamless.
Kragen Lum: “With the new lineup, the whole concept behind it was to do away with the revolving door of lineup changes that this band has had over the years. I’ve been in the band 13 years and I think I’ve played with seven different drummers. So, you know, that was something that we just wanted to sort of put an end to. And so we really just talked about it and wanted to make sure that when we put together this new lineup that the guys all want to spend time with each other, not just playing, but hanging out.
“We’re all really good friends. I’ve known Jason since 1991 when he joined my band Psychosis, and before that he was living up in the Bay Area and used to go watch Dave’s bands at the time, Laughing Dead practice. So you know there’s a lot of history there with Jason and the band and me and also Jim. I mean Jim was part of Generation Kill, and they toured with us in Europe. I think it was 2013. And before that he was a drum tech for Tom in Exodus and spent a lot of time with Lee as well. There’s a lot of history there over the last few years with all the guys, and you can hear it on the record. It kind of came together and it seems like the lineup really gelled. Everybody’s working towards the same goal.”
BraveWords: You have songs like “This Rotting Sphere” and “The Blight” that observers could say seem to mirror what’s going on in today's socio-political world. How much of the writing process reflects what’s going on and how much is from your own personal lives?
Kragen Lum: “I would say it’s probably half and half in terms of like social political kind of lyrics and more personal stuff on the record. And it’s kind of always been that way with Heathen. If you look back at the last record, for example, ‘No Stone Unturned’ and ‘Fade Away’ were definitely more personal in terms of personal journey stuff that Dave was singing about. Some of the other lyrics are more about the social or political or war. It’s kind of always been these deep general topics with Heathen records. And so we really are just kind of taking that the next step forward. I can see how people would think this is maybe a concept album. It’s not. There are some common themes that run through the lyrics on some of the songs. There are other songs where I think you can interpret them that way, but that’s not necessarily how I intended them.
“A lot of people, simply adding that little instrumental piece just at the tail end of the album, are gonna think maybe it’s a concept album. That was really just an idea I had because I wanted people when they finished listening to the album to listen to it again. And if you put the album on loop the album outro, ‘Monument To Ruin’, goes right back into this ‘This Rotting Sphere’. So it was just kind of a cool homage to the album listening experience. If you go and you listen to something like Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son from Iron Maiden, they have something similar where at the end of the album you could start it over again and it’s this cool element to the album.
“I have a love hate relationship with social media. I really enjoy the communication and enjoy a lot of the content. And then there’s other stuff where I just can’t stand it. I think many people are that way. The thing that really gets me about all this is just the way that social media is being used, and traditional media. Both are being used to manipulate people in this country. We don’t know what is fact or fiction. I mean, even with the news media. Each one of the sides, there’s opinion in each one of the news stories. Whereas in the days of old, it was about getting the facts. So all of that kind of stuff is a concern in where is it leading us? And so a lot of the social and political themes are sort of tied into that throughout the album. And then obviously more personal stuff like ‘Sun In My Hand’ and ‘Shrine Of Apathy’ in particular, those are much more sort of personal lyrics.”
BraveWords: Coming from Santa Monica and growing up as a teen in Los Angeles, how familiar were you with the Bay Area Thrash scene?
Kragen Lum: “I’m probably about five years behind those guys in terms of years and everything. But I grew up listening to that stuff and I quickly realized that the Bay Area was the scene that I loved all that music probably more than all the other stuff that was coming out. Growing up in L.A., I was trying with my band Psychosis at the time to replicate that Bay Area sound, but doing it in Los Angeles? It was tough. The scene at that time was filled with more of the glam stuff. There was a period of time where bands like mine were more or less banned from playing some of the clubs in Hollywood, for example, because they didn’t want the mosh pit and all of that stuff. And we would put our fliers up for shows and then go back down the street to go to our car and there would be a Poison flier over ours. So we were definitely aware of it. At the same time there were a lot of bands in the L.A. scene that I loved, like Dark Angel. If somebody had to say what was one of your favorite bands during that time from L.A., it would have been them. I saw them every chance I could and they were awesome. So I was definitely aware of it and knew I was kind of like in the wrong place at the right time. If I had gone up to the Bay Area, maybe I would have been able to kind of get involved with one of these bands a little bit sooner. But, you know, life takes you where it takes you and I’m just happy that I’ve got the chance to play in not just one, but two of my favorite Bay Area thrash bands.
“At the end of the day I’m a musician and I like a lot of different kinds of music. I went to school for music. I don’t play all the styles that I learned, of course, but I try to use the knowledge that I have to put it into what I do. And it’s been great. I mean, I even enjoy doing one off things. I played some solos on the death metal band Abysmal Dawn on one of their records, played a show with them ... I enjoy doing that stuff. I have a lot more music in me that’s been written that hasn’t even been recorded because frankly, there just hasn’t been enough time. I mean, if I go to my roots, I’m a thrash metal guy. So even with the Prototype stuff I’m probably the more of the thrash influence in that band. And the other guitar player, Vince, is more of the Rush influence or prog influence. It’s definitely been cool to do all these various things. I love making music and I love working on music related projects. I’ve released several guitar books. It’s great to be able to have the opportunity to do all of that stuff.”
BraveWords: Take us through your time touring with Exodus while Gary filled in with Slayer. We know you have a close bond with those guys. How cool was that experience?
Kragen Lum: “It was a huge honor to be asked to fill in for Gary. I took it very seriously. I wanted to do everything in my power to make it sound like Exodus if you closed your eyes. I definitely enjoyed it. It was great. I’m fortunate to still be working with the band. I work as part of their management team, so I still interact with them all on a daily or weekly basis. And it was really great. I mean, they were always one of my favorite bands since I heard Bonded By Blood. So to be able to do that for a few years was incredible. I would have been a fool to say no. The Exodus guys are amazing humans. They’re great people. They’re different in the fact that if there’s a young band that is playing on a bill and there’s not enough room on the stage for them to set their drums up in front of the riser, the Exodus guys would take the drums down in a heartbeat, whereas most bands wouldn’t. They still remember and understand what it was like to sort of come up playing this kind of music and they’re just great people. It was awesome to be able to not just play with the band, but get to know those guys on a personal level.”
BraveWords: Obviously the best laid plans for touring are up in the air for just about every touring artist at the moment. In a perfect world, how would you like to see the next year or so go?
Kragen Lum: “Well, our plans were to be on tour right now. Unfortunately, all the tour stuff that we had ... we probably had about three months’ worth of tour dates booked for this year, and the album was supposed to come out in June. We delayed it a little bit, but at the end of the day we felt like, look, people are sitting at home, they need entertainment, and we don’t want to hold on to this record for what might be another year before we can go on tour. People have waited long enough for it, over a decade, so we just decided to try it and release it. It’s definitely a strange time to release music. We can’t go out and promote it in the same ways that we normally would. But, you know, it’s also a different marketplace than I think it has been in the past. There’s a lot more streaming, which unfortunately in terms of revenue is not good for us or any band now. But we just really got to do whatever we can to promote it and hope that people listen.
“We’re finding with Nuclear Blasts’ promotion that there are a lot of people that didn’t even know we put out The Evolution Of Chaos. We’re just going to try and find all those people that maybe didn’t hear that record or hadn’t heard Heathen for one reason or another, and do whatever we can to sort of promote it. Next year we’re scheduling tour dates and we’re just going to have to see what happens. There’s no way to know how things are going to play out at this point. So we’re just going to prepare for the best kind of situation and try and do the touring that we were gonna do this year, next year.”