James Rivera - Memoirs of a Metal Soldier

By Joe Who?

Metal is a word that quite frankly, I don't know how to define anymore. These days it goes off into tangents; nooks and crannys, it zigs, it zags, there's genres, sub-genres, atmospheres, hemispheres, stratospheres, it's enough to make my head spin. James Rivera is definately a name that comes into my mind, in terms of being associated with the "metal" that I remember, more specifically the roots of it, the "classic" power metal bands that we all grew up with, and still enjoy to this day.

The man in black is a text book example of the word "Legend", with a impressive resume, and over twenty years experience on the scene. His amazing voice, and work with such prominent bands like; Helstar, Destiny's End, and Seven Witches, transcends the norm, and puts him in a league with other metal gods like; Halford, Dio, and Dickinson. His street smart, devoid of trends, stick to you guns mentality has earned him not just a long lasting career, but also respect from his peers, and fans alike.

Early this year I had a chance to chat with James about his past, present, and future. He discussed his vast musical history, Seven Witches, future projects, told some humorous anecdotes, and more...


This interview was conducted back in Febuary 2005, at Vnuks Lounge in Milwaukee Wisconsin. At the time James was a member of the band Seven Witches. He has since quit the band. Seven Witches new singer is - Alan Tecchio. (formely of; Hades, Non-Fiction, and Watchtower) - Joe Who?

Wormwood Chronicles: Well, first of all, how's the tour been going?

James Rivera: It's been going good. The main part of it was to just warm up for the DVD shoot. We know that we kind of put it (the tour) together at the last minute, and we didn't expect major turn outs. If you come in with that attitude, it's better, where as if you go on tour, and you're expecting everything's going to be five hundred people, then it will be disappointing. We were realistically looking at ten people a night, who gives a shit, it's practice. (laughs) (The show I saw in Milwaukee, the crowd count was about 20 - 30 people. - Joe Who?)

WC: The cool thing about playing to a small crowd is, you know it's going to be your die hard, loyal fans...

JR: Yeah, they know all the songs, and like I was saying on stage, there's more energy that way.

WC: You have had quite a history on the metal scene. You've contributed to a number of great bands. I was wondering if you could discuss your history on all these bands, how you got involved with them, but first off, how did you get started in the music business?

JR: It just started with me admiring bands as a kid, and deciding to be a singer, rather than going to college to play sports. My dad gave me a choice to buy my first car or a PA, so I got a PA, and then I joined a band that played a bunch of backyard parties. We were so ahead of time, that back in 78, -Ted Nugent and Aerosmith were the big names- we were doing UFO, Priest, and Scorpions stuff already. We just kind of found all this shit in the underground. That kind of led to me bouncing around to a couple of local bands, that aren't even worth mentioning. This led to the one band - Helstar.

They were doing the Maiden stuff already and all that. That was the heaviest shit I heard in my life, so I got the gig there. We were doing the heavy covers of Priest and Maiden, and then we started writing originals. It ended up in Combat's (Records) hands, and they signed us immediately. We did two records with them, they got signed to Metal Blade, we did two more records, we kept moving a little bit more, then one more last record on Massacre, and before you knew it, 11, 12 years of my life passed by.

WC: After Helstar, you were in the band - Destiny's End. How did that band get started?

JR: It's 1995, and it's time to close the book, (on Helstar) and move on. I moved to California to join something a little bit more modern. The band I joined, the sound of it was like - Queensryche meets Pantera meets James Rivera, and then Metal Blade said - No, we want power metal again, because it's making a big comeback. So this is 97, right at that point in time is when Iced Earth and Hammerfall started hitting. So in 99, that's exactly what they wanted - Destiny's End. I did that for two years, and the problem with that band was, they were too green about the business, they wanted too much too quick. Like tonight, they would have been so pissed off, they would have been complaining. (In a complaining voice...) Do we have to do this show? Can't we cancel it? (James uses a bitching back at the band voice...) When were you a "rock star" anyway? To make a long story short, I saw that band go into shambles.

When I met Jack (Frost) in Houston, he was telling me about Seven Witches, and he wanted me to sing actually. He called me and asked about a drummer. I turned him on to Brian Craig, because he was the only guy in Destiny's End that understood the big picture, you know? Man, this dosen't happen over night. We were lucky that on our first record, we got to go out on tour with Iced Earth and Nevermore all across America, we got to play Wacken, (Germany's - Wacken Open Air - Metal Fest) we got to tour europe, and I'm like - On the first record you fuckers! It took me twenty years to do that, what the fuck are you crying about? So that's why I think I was a little bit more irritated with it all, being older, and going through it.

So I told Brian - Your the only one that's got a clear picture, you should take this job. These Son Of A Bitches, Fuck This, matter of fact - Do you want me to pull the plug? I'll pull it, if that's what it's going to take to get you in the band. That's what I did, I quit, there is no more Destiny's End, it's over. Now what are you going to do? (James imitates Brian with his voice...) Well, I guess I'll go join them. Yeah, you better, and look what happens, I end up with a gig too. (laughs)

WC: I read you played with Flotsam And Jetsam for a tour. How did you get that job?

JR: Yeah, prior to Seven Witches, I got the gig with Flotsam And Jetsam. I did a Helstar reunion in 2001, we did Bang Your Head, (German Metal Fest) and actually we even did Milwaukee Metal Fest. When I got home from that tour, Metal Blade gave me the number of Craig Nielsen from Flotsam. They had a tour lined up, and Eric A.K. quit after all those years. They had just put out that record called - "My God", and there was an American tour totally booked, everything - deposits in, the whole nine yards. So Metal Blade was like - Either cancel the tour, or find someone to do the tour. They (band) were like - Where the fuck are we gonna find someone to sing that shit? Metal Blade goes - There's one guy, he just got off the road, give him a call, and that was the day I just walked in the god-damn house! I put my bags down, it's Craig Nielsen, (James imitates Craig with his voice...) He's like - Dude, Man, we'll pay ya! I'm a Flotsam fan, I have to show up. Sure enough I turn around and repack my bags, and I'm gone two days later to Phoenix, to rehearse with them. I went up there, and they had a whole different setlist, because they wanted to do a lot more than the newer stuff, not so much because they were not liking the old stuff, it was just Erik couldn't sing it like he used to. When I came into the picture, they were like - Holy Shit, we can do everything off "No Place For Disgrace", and "Doomsday For The Deceiver", let's just change the whole setlist around again! (laughs)

After that I moved to Florida for awhile, and ended up jammin' with the Cannibal Corpse guys. I ended up meeting a whole scene in Tampa, getting into the death metal thing. Next thing you know, it only took me three months of living in Tampa Florida, and one night Painkiller had a heavy metal karaoke, where all these people were at, and I was an instant hero! Everyone wanted to jam with me, so it was weird. (laughs)

WC: You said that you started with Helstar in Texas, are you still located there?

JR: Yes, I still live in Houston.

WC: I remember that Helstar reunion a few years ago, that you spoke of. How did that reunion come about?

JR: It really came about, because of Bang Your Head Germany. The reunion band that they really wanted for that year was Helstar, so they contacted me. I was dragging around Eric Halpern with me, to join Destiny's End later, who is now my right hand man in Distant Thunder. We formed a new Helstar with Jerry Abarca, (bass) and Russel DeLeon, (drums) who was in Helstar for five years on the "Multiples Of Black" record. So I at least had three guys, a nucleus of Helstar, aside from having two new guitar players. So I did it, and that's how it came about.

WC: You mentioned earlier that Brian Craig left Destiny's End to join Seven Witches, which eventually opened the door for you to join the band also. How did you initially land the job? Did Brian help you get it, or was it when you met Jack in houston, or was it a combination of the two?

JR: Yeah, like I said, it was a combination of me meeting Jack first, and him wanting me as the singer, but already giving the gig to Wade Black, (former singer) Jack sticking to his word, and then calling me in return and asking for a drummer. I told him - take Brian Craig from Destiny's End, because this band is done. I'm not going to be around much longer, I'm moving to Tampa Florida, and I'll find something else. I appreciate you offering me the gig, if something happens call me.

So what ends up happening, they (Seven Witches) go on their tour in Europe for "Xiled To nfinity And One", and two days later, the guy (Wade Black) blows his voice out, because he's smoking weed, and walking around bare footed in fuckin' polar weather. I'm at work, and all of a sudden, I get a phone call, and it's like - Hey dude, it's Jack. I'm like - Jack? Alright, Jack Who? Jack Frost you fuckin' Asshole! I'm like - Oh, hey aren't you in Europe right now? Didn't the tour start two days ago? That's why I'm calling you, the fuckin' asshole blew his voice out.

They wanted to fly me there to finish the fuckin' tour, and learn fifteen songs in two days, so I said ok. It was going to cost them like six grand just to get me a ticket at the last minute to come out there, so they didn't do it. I learned some of the stuff, and as soon as they got done, - I think they even fired Wade half way through that tour - they came home, and were invited to play the Cleveland Metal Fest. Jack calls me up again, out of nowhere, and says - I haven't heard from you in awhile. I'm like - Well, I haven't heard from you. He's like - We've got a gig next week. Do you think you can fly out, and do the gig? So that was my initiation, fly out to fuckin' Jersey, learn fifteen songs again in two days, and then hit this gig. (laughs)

WC: So that's what happened to Wade, he was fired...

JR: Yeah, he got fired...

WC: Because his voice wouldn't hold up...

JR: No, it was more than that...(Much more! Read my interview with Jack Frost to find out more!...Dr. Mality)

WC: Oh, really, was it because he didn't like to tour?

JR: I don't know. Jack will tell you more about that story. I just know he's a weird person, or something like that. (laughs)

WC: Earlier you brought up another band your involved with called Distant Thunder. I'm not too familar with this band. Can you tell me how you got started with this band, and is it named after the Helstar album of the same name?

JR: Yes, it is. The reason why Distant Thunder formed is like I said, I was dragging around Eric Halpern in Destiny's End, and we did the Helstar reunion before Destiny's End was no longer going to exist. This was going to be material for the next Destiny's End record. So when I saw that Destiny's End wasn't going anymore, I said - I'm moving to Florida, looks like I'm going to get the gig with Seven Witches. I kind of left him (Eric) hanging. I said to him - Dude, don't worry, we're going to do something, just keep the material, keep sending me shit, we'll keep writing it, and when the time comes, we'll find some guys to make this record happen, we're going to do something, and that's what we did.

WC: Do you plan on making another Distant Thunder album? Will there be a tour for it?

JR: Yeah, but what I think is going to end up happening is that it's going to shift over to being another Helstar record, because it was so much like Helstar anyways. We just did this tour of Europe last november, and we ended up going as Helstar. We headlined this festival, got booked three more dates in Italy, three more in Greece, it was the Distant Thunder band, and we threw in the Distant Thunder songs, but the nostalgia of Helstar was just so tremendous, that we realized we're just pissin' in the wind, let's just go back to Helstar, this is what the kids want, it's obvious. So I think the next record will be under the name Helstar, we'll just go back to that, you know?

WC: Does Distant Thunder have any other ex - members of Helstar?

JR: Just Jerry (Abarca - bass) came out on tour with us. Distant Thunder as far as the record goes doesn't. Mike LePond of Symphony X is the bass player on the record, but he couldn't do the tour, so that led me to drag Jerry out of retirement to do the tour, because he knew the Helstar songs. From the get go, I knew that this tour was going to involve some Helstar songs anyway. That's what brought the Helstar image back immediately, bringing him back with me. Once we got to europe, as far as the fans are concerned - Rivera and Abarca - it's Helstar. (James imitates the fans...) It's not Distant Thunder, you can say it's Distant Thunder, we don't care! So we ended up having to play more Helstar songs. (laughs) We had fifteen songs in the setlist, and only five were Distant Thunder. We did all the classics, and it became a Helstar tour, and that's what it came down to. (laughs)

WC: You're with Seven Witches at the present time, and you're on album number two with the band. You and Jack make a great team, how's the chemistry been holding up?

JR: Oh, man ,it's been holding up great. We work well together in the studio, which is amazing. He brings out a lot of different characters in my voice, that I've always wanted to experiment with, but I just didn't have the right person, you know? Throw me that one, bring out this card, that's what he calls it. Bring out the Dio card on this part, bring out the Dani Filth card on this one, you know? He calls me his little puppet, because I can make him sing anything. I'm the guy with a million voices. (laughs) Seven Witches - the band, with the guy with seven voices! (laughs)

WC: Tell me about the writing process, Do you work separately on lyrics, or do you and Jack usually collaborate?

JR: We combine things, but for the most part it'll get to where - he'll do a chorus, and leave the song naked as far as the verses, and pre-chorus, and that's usually left up to me. That's how we do it a lot, he'll just initiate the song, and I'll take it, and listen to what he's doing. Sometimes he'll even send me ideas for verses, and then he'll go - I'll send it to you naked, and you do what you think, instead of hearing what I'm doing. I'll turn around and do what I would do to it as a singer. Then Jack tells me - Hey, what you did is 5,000 times better. I'm a singer, that's my job. (laughs)

WC: What inspires you when you write lyrics?

JR: Lately, CNN. (laughs) Um, just everyday life, things that fit in the heavy metal mold, the image of it. People sometimes ask me - Why can't you write about anything pleasant? Why does it always have to be about the end of the world, or war, and I'm like - This isn't fuckin' hip hop. I'm not writing about; having my bills paid, I got my toes in the sand, and I'm in love with my girl. This is a band that's about metal. What is metal? Metal is about the dark side of the world, the sadness of the world, and the bad things about the world. So if your going to do that, do it to the T. Horror movies, War, Apocalyptic shit, just bad things going around the world, things we don't wanna hear about, but we see it everyday anyway.

Those topics to me are the best lyrics, like I was saying, I can sit there in front of CNN, and write a record. Bam - pull that subject out, and this subject out, and that's how I do it, you know? and it comes out natural too. I think I write better naturally when I'm on topics that I... it's funny, because I don't really enjoy it, but I do, you know what I mean? I'm fascinated with the fact, that our world is going to shit. (laughs) I'll be in it when it does, I know that's a weird thing, and people are like - Why don't you just commit suicide? Because I'm smarter than that, I enjoy living. I just enjoy the fact that I see how man is really fucking things up, and it's getting worse and worse. There's nothing wrong with someone being a watcher in the tower, and saying - Man, look at this, it's really coming true, damn it. It won't be too much longer before we're all going to have a fucking stamp on our forehead! (laughs)

WC: Last year you guys played the Milwaukee Metalfest, and you got your set cut short. I read on a news site that Jack Koshick shorted you guys some money. I was just wondering, did that ever get settled?

JR: He wrote a check, and it bounced. (laughs)

WC: That's what I heard...

JR: Not some money, a thousand dollars. (laughs)

WC: That guy is a crook...

JR: Yeah...

WC: Did that ever get settled?

JR: No, not to this day. Unfortunately he's not here hanging out with us. (laughs)

WC: You have a great voice, are you self taught, or did you take singing lessons?

JR: I was self taught in the beginning, but then I took lessons, for about three months with a opera singer. She let me go on my own, after she realized that it was all natural. Basically she just taught me how to breathe right, what to drink, and what not to do. She submitted me to a speech doctor, everything I had to do got very technical, and over the years all these things I took into consideration. Here's the good one for me - most people think I'm lazy, because I sleep ten hours a day, it's not that, it's for my voice, and I love it. (laughs)

WC: What are your future plans with Seven Witches, and do you have any plans with any other bands your working with?

JR: Yeah, there's a couple of things going on. As a matter of fact, I just got a gig with this band called - Killing Machine. It's going to be with Jon Dette, (drums) who was with Slayer and Testament, Peter Scheithauer on guitar, who played with Eric Singer, and he did the first Killing Machine record, and just newly joined on bass is Dave Ellefson formely of Megadeth. So this is going to be a pretty big thing, it's going to be complete balls to the wall "Painkiller" Priest...

WC: That sounds awesome...

JR: Yeah, I already did the demo, and people are blown away with it. People are going - That is fuckin' Halford, I don't care what your saying! Universal and a bunch of labels are fighting over this thing, so it's going to be big, which is going to open the doors for anything else I'm doing. Leatherwolf - has been pounding on the door, left and right. I'm sitting there going - Should I even bother doing the demo for them, because I was never really a fan, but their new stuff is really good...

WC: I remember that band from back in the eighties...

JR: Yeah, and of course Helstar has another deal on the table. You know, I've got deals up the ass, I'm just like - When do I use them? (laughs)

WC: I saw on your record label web-site, that they had your top 15 albums of all time listed. One of the albums on the list was - "Cowboys From Hell", by Pantera. You know all about the tragedy that happened to Dimebag. I...

JR: Oh, that's Jack. They had him listed as James Rivera, that's not me...

WC: Oh, that wasn't you...

JR: No, that was Jack...

WC: I didn't know that, that's weird...

JR: Yeah, I know. That's a great album, don't get me wrong. Sanctuary's site was so fucked up, they didn't even have who was right on there. You know, that kind of pissed me off, because if I would have named my 15 greatest albums, it would have been a whole different ball game. I was never into "Glam Metal", that's for sure. That's funny, what's more gay? Fuckin' Enuff 'Z Nuff or Depeche Mode? At least Depeche Mode were dark, you know? Because that's one of my favorite bands. "Black Celebration", and The Cure - "Disintegration", fuck that. (laughs) Depends on what faggot you liked more! (laughs) At least my faggots were still into the dark stuff, it was sad, full of sorrow. It wasn't all about - (In a feminine voice...) LA, LA, LA, LA, LA.! (laughs)

WC: So what are some of your favorite metal albums of all time?

JR: "Taken By Force" - Scorpions, "Strangers In The Night" - UFO, "Number Of The Beast" - Iron Maiden, Um, probably "Mob Rules" by Black Sabbath...

WC: Dio rules! ...

JR: Yeah, exactly.

WC: Well, getting back to my previous question, with the recent tragic event that happened to Dimebag, do you have any thoughts or memories of him, that you'd like to share? Did you ever get to meet him?

JR: Oh, yeah, of course I met him, I knew him well, they (Pantera) knew all my stuff. When I played in town they were there, when I played with Destiny's End they showed up, when I did Flotsam...

WC: Oh, yeah, that's right, you're both from Texas...

JR: Yeah, we're both from Texas...

WC: Did you ever go to Dimebag's titty bar?

JR: No, I never made it there, I was too drunk. (laughs) I might have made a fool of myself. (laughs)

WC: Do you have any stories about him? He was quite a character.

JR: Um, just always hanging out with him at the bar, doing shot after shot. Phil (Anselmo) is the one who really loves me. (Imitates Phil's voice...) Rivera - You son of a bitch, come here. (laughs) "Burning Star" (Helstar) is one of his favorite records.

WC: You discussed earlier some other projects you have in the works, but what are your future plans with Seven Witches?

JR: We're finishing up this little run, doing the DVD, and then maybe going to Europe, but we're not sure. There's just so many things in the works. Doing this was ok for the DVD, but from now on, we really need to start... I mean when you do world tours, they're planed four months in advance. I'm just kind of getting burnt on the fact that doing last minute tours lead to not enough people knowing, then you end up in this situation too much. This situation is ok once in awhile, but it is nice to do the 4 - 500 people show too, don't get me wrong. I wouldn't want to keep doing this for another 5 - 10 years, it would just get old, you know, because we're getting older. I think we're a band that deserves to have a little bit more... um...

WC: Credibility...

JR: Exactly. If it can't be done that way, we need to just stop doing it, until it's done the right way. That's how I feel, because physically we can't handle it much more. I know I can't. I'm doing this, and I'm getting by, but I know if this were to last another five weeks, there's no way, I'd break sooner or later, I'm only human. I'm going to be a half century old in about eight years. (laughs)

WC: Do you have any good road stories or Spinal Tap moments, from any tours you've done?

JR: This whole tour has been a spinal tap moment! (laughs) nobody has our rider, nobody knows anything. This booking agent that's been handling out stuff, I don't think she knows what's going on.

WC: Do you guys have to be your own roadies?

JR: Yes, we're doing all that. I should go give Jack a break, and load some stuff too.

WC: Well, thank you for your time. Do you have any final words for your fans out there?

JR: Just thanks for hanging in there, and believing in me, and keep following, you know, that's all I can say. Just remember one thing, that metal is a way of life, it's not a trend. The best will always be the true ones. I won't change, I know that. (laughs) My hair may be grey in another ten years, but it'll still be long. (laughs) I'll still wear black, and I'll still like Depeche Mode! (both laughing)

Pics courtesy of Angela Longoria

Seven Witches' Website