HELSTAR “Interview With The Vampiro” 

By Dr. Abner Mality

Lestat thought he was a rock star! HA! He had nothing on “El Vampiro”, James Rivera, the voice of HELSTAR, SEVEN WITCHES, DESTINY’S END and so many others! When it comes to heavy metal bloodsuckers, Vampiro leads the pack!

So it was I grabbed some garlic and holy water just to be on the safe side and set out for Houston, TX, where James keeps his crypt. HELSTAR has ruled the metal roost in Texas since the early 80’s and they are still at it today, releasing a new EP “Clad In Black” as well as a reissue of the classic “Vampiro” album. James fully embraces the vampiric lifestyle, going so far as to make fangs and capes part of his daily regimen. So far, the authorities have been unable to link him to the unsolved murders of young women plaguing the city…

Enough! Time to learn more of HELSTAR and the life of a metal vampire! Onward we go...

WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: Let me dive right into this. What was the first thing that bit you, the heavy metal bug or the vampire bug?

JAMES RIVERA: Well, to be honest, it would have to be the vampire bug, since that’s been around since I was about 5. I think back then my mother was kind of worried because I was so fascinated with those movies.  I’m like, you and Dad were the ones dumb enough to drive me to those kind of movies!(laughs) But back in those days, life was different. You didn’t worry as much about what your kids were exposed to. 

WC: Well, you didn’t have to worry as much as you do now, there’s so much worse that kids can see. If I can ask, what was the vampire that fascinated you the most. Was it Lugosi’s Dracula?

JR:  No, actually the ones I was introduced to because of my age at the time were the Hammer vampire movies. Back then, what was cool was they had triple features and often those would be all Hammer films. So much has changed since then.

WC: Those are some of my favorites. I’m a horror movie fiend myself. My favorite of those was the one called “The Brides of Dracula”.

JR: Oh yeah! That was a very good one!

WC: Even though it didn’t have Christopher Lee, it still had a lot of memorable scenes.

JR: Yeah, the windmill turned into the shape of the cross!

WC: And Peter Cushing burning the vampire bite out of his neck! Now how about heavy metal? What was the first band you can remember thinking, wow, this is something I can really get into?

JR: Well you know, at that time, it wouldn’t have been classified “heavy metal” because the term really hadn’t been born yet. I actually do a tribute to him now because he was my very first was ALICE COOPER. At that time, what he was doing was probably called “acid rock” or “shock rock” or “hard rock”. He definitely wasn’t the OSMOND BROTHERS or the JACKSON 5. (laughs) I was in the 5th grade when I was into ALICE COOPER. Every Thursday, for the last 30 minutes of class, it was “bring your own record” day. You had a time you could play the album you brought. At the time, I imagine the teacher was pretty shocked by it. So ALICE would definitely be the first guy I was influenced by. But then immediately after him came BLACK SABBATH. So there ya go! To me, you can’t get anymore metal than that. It was about my first year in middle school when some guy gave me the BLACK SABBATH LP. From there, my life was completely sold to heavy, dark music.

WC: It sure worked out great for the rest of us because of that. (laughs). You’ve just released the new “Clad In Black” EP with a mix of new songs and covers. Are all the new songs inspired by Dracula or are some coming from other tales?

JR: No, actually just one of them is. Of course, I wrote the majority of that one. It’s the ballad, “Black Wings of Solitude”. “Dark Incarnation” is about a very evil, satanic witch, who could be Dracula’s cousin, if I wanted to say that and tie it in. “Across The Raging Seas” is simply about the Japanese kamikaze pilots.

WC: I saw that song title and in my head, I thought it was about the ship that carries Dracula’s coffin across the sea!

JR: (laughs) Well, you know what? If you want to think of it that way, that’s fine with me, too.

WC: Oh, I really like the songs about historical subjects as well.

JR: Well, that’s kind of the agreement I have with the band. The band has given me the love and support and all the encouragement in the world to live out my vampire fantasies. As a matter of fact, my nickname has recently changed. I’m now known officially as James “Vampiro” Rivera. That’s what the people who are close to me call me now...”hey, Vampiro, want another beer?” (laughs) Yeah, yeah, I’ll have another beer. Now that I’ve planted that seed and found that image and stage persona, after the show is when I take pictures with all the fans. “No, no, no, dude, I want the fangs in the picture!” So now I’ve just stopped taking them off and I leave them on all the time! (laughs)

WC: The last time I saw HELSTAR, it was at Spring Bash up in Milwaukee. Wish I could have gotten a pic with you.

JR: Oh yeah, yeah! 

WC: You’re the vampire and I’m the mad doctor. I’ve got the bloodstained labcoat. Would have been a good picture! Hopefully another time…

JR: For sure!

WC: The cover songs on “Clad In Black”...what kind of criteria did you use to pick those songs?

JR: Well, first of all, with the exception of “After All”, which was written years after HELSTAR first formed, the other songs were ones we played when we were first started out. It was what we call “the garage days”, because that’s where we used to play. “Sinner” and “Restless And Wild” were songs in our early setlist when we did backyard parties and high schools. Now, here we are many, many moons later, and I’ve created a project you may have heard of. It’s been around for 20 years. It’s been a little dormant for a while, but I created it to keep me busy in between international recording and tours. It was called SABBATH JUDAS SABBATH. I created chapters...I have a Chicago chapter, as a matter of fact. It had Jason Ward from FLOTSAM and Scott from Rebel Radio. We did some shows and we had 7 chapters in America and 4 chapters in Europe. The reason for that is it allowed me to fly into different markets on a low budget and have a different band but play the same show. The mothership of SABBATH JUDAS SABBATH, which is the Houston chapter, is basically the entire HELSTAR lineup. So when we went to Europe the last time and played festivals, we had to play twice because the promoters loved the idea of having HELSTAR play one night and then SABBATH JUDAS SABBATH play the next night. Over the years of just doing SABBATH and PRIEST, especially the smaller club  shows, you get jokers yelling ‘SKYNYRD!” (laughs) Or ‘MAIDEN!” or “SCORPIONS”! 

That was all stuff we played back in the garage days. So we started incorporating covers from other bands. And now it’s advanced to James Rivera’s SABBATH JUDAS SABBATH Metal Extravaganza. So we play BLACK SABBATH and JUDAS PRIEST and other metal gods like SCORPIONS, ACCEPT, IRON MAIDEN, etc. So that’s what’s happened and those songs are in that setlist. It’s almost a lazy way of doing it, if I’m honest, because it’s 3 songs we can play in our sleep. But we did them very well and most of the people that have heard them loved them. I’ve been told we’ve done an exceptional job on them...well, we better, we’ve been playing them for years! (laughs)

WC: I have to say, that’s a very original concept, having the different chapters that you can insert yourself into in different cities. I’ve never heard of anything quite like that.

JR: It’s almost like taking the TOM JONES/ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK approach. They travel and they have different bands. They have a different band in Chicago, they have a different band in New York. I never rehearse with the different band chapters, I just send them the setlist. But I know the musicians in different areas of the US, Slovenia, Holland, the UK, I knew they had the capability to play to the level I needed them to. So I’d send them the setlist and say I’ll see you boys at the show, get on stage with my tuxedo, and say “Hit it, boys!” (laughs) Just play the songs!

WC: Has the Covid situation for the last year or so actually made you more productive as far as songwriting goes?

JR:  Yeah, as a matter of fact, it did. We recorded “Across the Raging Seas”, we recorded all the covers during that time period. But the most creative thing I came up with during that time period...I’m infamous for having tribute bands. If I’m in SEVEN WITCHES and HELSTAR, it’s not enough for me. That’s why SABBATH JUDAS SABBATH was born. And for a while, I was in 2 international recording acts at the same time. But it’s not enough, because times have changed. A band like VICIOUS RUMORS, SEVEN WITCHES, HELSTAR or whoever, you put out an album. That album has a lifespan of 3 months, if you’re lucky. The band will go over to Europe to tour on that album for 3 weeks. If the band has a strong enough market in the U.S., which is very rare for good classic “true” heavy metal, you might get lucky and do a 4 week stint where you play certain areas on the weekends. And guess what? That album’s’s over with!

So even with being in VICIOUS RUMORS and HELSTAR at the same time, you are putting out an album for both bands and doing as much of the touring as you could possibly do, if I put all of that together, it would be six months of the year. What’s left for the other six months of the year? That’s why the tribute bands became necessary, because I like to stay busy and work hard. Now SABBATH JUDAS SABBATH has been around for 20’s a very unique concept and a cool, nostalgic show. Now I don’t know what happened in the last 5 years, but here in Houston, tribute bands have become like lice on a kid’s head in school. There’s just millions of them now. And what I started a long time ago has kind of lost its luster a bit. If I think of doing a SABBATH JUDAS SABBATH show, it will be like, yeah, give me that Saturday. But you look on Facebook and find out, oh, that other JUDAS PRIEST tribute band JUDAS X is playing the same night. And the night before, that DIO tribute is playing.

So I’ve come up with a new concept, something totally different, that’s blowing everybody away. I thought, I’m going to do something that no one will be able to follow, because it would really be stealing. I’m gonna put everybody in their place and nobody’s gonna be able to do this. It’s going to be a tribute to 80’s dark New Wave and heavy metal called METALWAVE. I’m basically taking old DEPECHE MODE, THE CURE, TEARS FOR FEARS, PETER MURPHY, ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN and transforming it to metal. And three guys from HELSTAR are in that. When people hear it, they’re like, oh my God, I would have never imagined the songs like this! It makes sense because those bands were dark anyway. They just used a lot more synthesizers and programmed drums. We use real guitars and a little bit of HELSTAR riffing in the place of keyboards and the drummer does a little bit of double bass. The vocals are full of range. You listen to this and it’s just, wow, this is amazing.

So that’s my new little thing that I’m very proud of. Europe’s already taking interest and I’ve got write-ups on it in Germany and Holland. It’s an act that’s going to take off and do live shows once life gets back to normal.

WC: Interesting! That’s something I did not know about.

JR: That’s because nobody’s really done it. So it’s very new and different. Although there was a band from Germany called ATROCITY...they were a good German thrash metal band. They did it in 96 and 97 and it was called WURK 80’S. They did pretty much the same thing, but with one difference, which is good for me. They did it a bit more in the vein of RAMMSTEIN or industrial. It wasn’t like a straight up PRIEST or MAIDEN version of New Wave.

WC: I remember ATROCITY. They went through quite a change, from being very brutal to being really Gothic.

JR: Yes, exactly! During that transition is when they did the WURK 80’s records. Here’s the funny thing. METALWAVE is getting signed and Massacre Records is all over it because Thomas, the part owner of Massacre, was in ATROCITY. So he sees the “golden egg” in what I’m doing. He told me that that band sold 250,000 units each of both of their records. “You’re kidding me!”, I went. He said, no, people will eat this up alive. Oh, well, good! (laughs)

WC: I’ve got a good  connection to Massacre so I should be getting that if they handle it. Now if you had to sum up the legacy of HELSTAR, what would you say that is?

JR: Hmmmm, have you guys ever heard of the legendary HELSTAR? No? Well, that’s the band that helped put Texas on the world metal map in 1984 with their record “Burning Star”. They were so European sounding that people didn’t even think they were from Texas. They sounded more like they were from the UK or Germany. I would also say the legacy of HELSTAR is that it’s a band that created a style that was so different...well, let me explain. When newer bands come out, they’re influenced by old schoolers, you know that. And somebody tries to describe them, they go, oh, dude they are totally HELSTAR metal! So the legacy of HELSTAR is that they came up with their own term of metal. You’ve got thrash metal, you speed metal, you got doom metal, you got black you got HELSTAR metal! Well, that’s when the guitars are just way over the top and the singing is so operatic and melodic and dark at the same time. That’s the legend of HELSTAR...we created our own style of metal.