Interview: Kragen Lum of Heathen
Interviewed by Paul Hutchings
It’s been ten years since Bay Area thrashers Heathen released Evolution of Chaos. Since then fans have been desperate for the band to deliver more music and at last, Heathen are ready to deliver with one of the best albums of 2020. Empire of the Blind drops on 18th September and guitarist Kragen Lum was good enough to spend 30 minutes of his time to give Paul the lowdown on the band and the new album.
The Razor's Edge: Welcome to The Razor’s Edge, Kragen, and thank you for taking the time to speak to us. How are things with you?
KL: Yes, man, all good with us. Busy with the new record of course.
The Razor's Edge: It’s been ten years since you released ‘Evolution’. You are deep into the promotion cycle for ‘Empire’. How different is it in 2020 compared to the promotional work in 2010?
KL: The main thing is that we have Nuclear Blast supporting us and they know how to promote metal. No disrespect to the previous labels but they didn’t really know how to promote. Nuclear Blast have a much different approach to the promotion side of things. We're doing a lot more frankly, which is a good thing. We're doing a lot of promotional videos and all kinds of stuff that we didn't do for the Evolution of Chaos. And I think it's more that Nuclear Blast know their target audience, and really knowing how to promote metal. So, you know, in that regard, I think things are great, but they're certainly keeping us busy with all kinds of promotion, whether it's interviews or the promotional videos or audio and ID's for radio stations.
That's all been great. The other part of it that I think is different. It is really that social media is so much more prominent. When we released ‘The Evolution of Chaos’, Facebook was obviously a thing, but Instagram wasn't and Facebook really wasn't as big as it is now. There's so many more sort of social media outlets. Then there used to be, I mean. You know, so that's certainly a change. Everybody has a much shorter attention span these days, so it's kind of harder to keep their attention. When you release a single it's crazy how, just a couple weeks later, everybody's moved on to the next thing. Yeah, and it's hard. You know, it's harder to keep everybody's attention these days. So, a lot more work in terms of promoting on social media and posting. I've been so busy lately. I haven't been able to keep up with my own social media stuff. I just have had to put it on the back burner, and say, well, you know, I'd like to. I'd like to stay active with that. But I just have too much other stuff going on, you know, I run the Heathen store and everything out of my house. You know it's been very busy preparing to ship out everybody's album orders and T-shirts and stuff. We're certainly doing everything that we can. And trying our best to adapt our old school ways to the new technology and sites and everything so.
The Razor's Edge: Obviously like a lot of bands this year, you have been in the position of releasing the album in very strange circumstances. Does that accentuate the fact that you must do almost more social media because people have more time to spend researching what they want to listen to, watching videos, that kind of thing?
KL: We just wanted to put it out when people need entertainment right now and we wanted to give them the new album when hopefully they can focus on it more. Some people are not working or not working as much or working from home and finding that they have extra hours because of not commuting or you know any number of things so we're just frankly just doing everything the best that we can right now. It's a strange situation to be in, that's for sure.
The Razor's Edge: It's been 10 years since ‘Evolution’ came out and I know that you have personally taken the lead for the music and the lyrics on ‘Empire’. And I know that you had quite a lot of it sorted. Certainly, written, and demoed. Did you ever get to the point where you thought this is never actually gonna get released, or was there always light at the end of the tunnel for want of a better expression; that you knew you were gonna get it finished but you just had to be patient?
KL: Yeah, I mean I think I went through phases with that, we signed with Nuclear Blast in 2012. I started working right away. I was very excited and wanted to start writing and I had some Heathen tours, and then I did an Exodus tour in 2013. And yeah, in between all of the touring, I continued to write. I think I had about half the record done by 2014. And there was a point there where everybody was busy with other things. Lee was doing a lot with Exodus, and Dave was going through some personal things. And I kind of wondered whether it was gonna happen or not. At my core, I'm just I'm a creative person, so I like to, you know, create. I like to work on new music. So, even when I got kind of pulled into touring with Exodus heavily for about five years in between tours I would come home, and I would work on music.
I honestly got to the point where I think it was in 2018 on one of the tours I just sat down with Lee and I said, “you know, what are we doing?” I knew that that my commitments with Exodus were gonna be up and I wanted to stay busy and active and working on stuff and we kinda talked about it and I talked with Dave also. They all just kind of said well look you we know you have a ton of music. Let's go with it and so we basically spent all of 2019 finishing writing, doing pre-production, and recording the album.
It was a long time coming and it was a struggle at times to to make everything happen. But you know, I'm, stubborn and persistent. And I just wanted to do everything that I could to try and make it happen. And honestly, I have more music all ready for the next one. So, if Covid continues or we can't tour or whatever, maybe everybody will get a a huge surprise and there will be another album in a very short time (for us) (Laughs!).
The Razor's Edge: I'm not sure whether to be excited about that or depressed, because obviously what I want to do is see this stuff in the live setting and having had the advanced copy to listen to in preparation for this I’m so ready for that!
The album is brilliant. I really enjoyed listening to it and I really want to say congratulations to you because it's really a killer album. There is some big subject matter in the album itself. I'm not going to dissect it in any great depth because there is plenty of promotional stuff that covers that. But what struck me today when I was listening to it for about the 15th time was that there's so much stuff which would have been written several years ago, which is as relevant, if not more relevant today, in terms of some of the social observations and that's a really frightening thought when you think about the way that you you've observed something several years ago, and it's still the same.
KL: Well I mean you know a lot of these things that we talk about in the lyrics that's been going on throughout the dawn of time. You know, there’s a concern about propaganda. That’s been going since whenever civilization started and it's always been there, but it's different now because it's so easy to click the share button and spread the messages worldwide in an instant, and it's massive numbers of people doing this, and unfortunately, you know there's a lot of great information on the internet, and there's also misinformation or whatever you wanna call it.
The mindset of people these days is that if it's on Google it's true, which is obviously not the case. But it's kind of amplified the propaganda and the messages and everything that's going on and unfortunately especially now during Covid 19 everybody is emotionally charged. They've been stuck at home. They're struggling financially. All kinds of different reasons.
I think that in a way it's almost worse. So, you know a lot of the social and political topics. Those lyrics were probably written more recently. There's one song, ‘The Gods Divide’, which was one of the earlier demos and that is sort of an observation of what's been happening in our political sort of environment here in the United States where the politicians are trying to divide people in order to win. So, there are sort of a lot of war analogies and things like that in the lyrics. It's crazy how a lot of these things have sort of tied in with what's happening in the world right now. I mean, even just ‘The Blight’. I mean, when the pandemic happened, it's crazy how that just kind of lined up even though this song really doesn't have anything to do with that? A lot of people sort of interpreted the lyrics that way. Which is how I like to write the lyrics. It's better for people to interpret them in their own way. And yes, find a connection with them, it certainly is scary that some of these topics have lasted so long that they're still relevant. I mean, these are things the band has been talking about since its inception. Hypnotised, and Opiate of the Masses and those kinds of things, that's all related. I mean, those may have been more towards the TV preacher kind of things at the time, but it's really the same thing.
It's like people using an electronic method to get their propaganda out to the world and it's very strange how relevant these things continue to be over the years.
The Razor's Edge: Yes, it certainly is. A reflection from interviewing people and reviewing albums and stuff is that you suddenly realise that actually the message is the same for decades and I suppose it's a question really of how involved you actually want to get to try and change it. You're obviously quite active on social media, but music is a is a relatively fast paced arena regardless of what genre or style of music you play. Given that it's been a good while since the last album came out, as band were you worried that there might not be much interest in the band and, I suppose more importantly, were you surprised how much excitement there has actually been with the fact that there's a new Heathen album on the way.
KL: We know that our fans have been hungry for something new for a long time. ‘The Evolution of Chaos’ was really well received when it came out and was considered a great comeback record, if you want to call it that. And I think that we may have made some new fans on that from that album as well, but there was also a large number of people that were fans of the band that didn't even know about it. We're seeing that now. People are saying, “wow, I didn't even know about ‘The Evolution of Chaos’. I love this band from ‘Breaking the Silence’ or ‘Victim’”. So yeah, It's been great that we've been able to sort of reach some of those people that that didn't even know about the band's last record, and I think in some ways that's sort of fed into the excitement because those people hadn't seen anything from the band in 30 years or something. I mean either way, no matter how you slice it, we're just happy that people are excited about the record. We worked really hard at it and wanted to make not just a bunch of great songs, but to make a great album. If we achieve that, that's all we care about.
The Razor's Edge: Well, I think you've done that. The reviews that I've seen and the people that have commented already that have heard it have given universally positive responses. I've seen nothing negative, and I'm sure that when it hits the shops next week and people start picking up digitally and all the rest of it, that there will be a very positive response.
KL: That would be great. We're ready for the positive response, haha!
The Razor's Edge: I just wanted to touch on the Heathen sound because, even though the back catalogue is not huge, if you hear a Heathen track you know it’s Heathen. You know, if you listen to Exodus, there's that distinctive sound. Death Angel is the same, and virtually all thrash bands have that. The Heathen sound is very distinctive in terms of the fact there's lots of melody underneath. This time you were much the main writer, it was your baby. When ‘Evolution’ came out, I think your input was, three or four songs, if I remember correctly. So, to get to the question, did you have a Heathen sound in mind when you write in the music, or is it just what comes naturally to you?
KL: Well, I think it's a combination of both, I mean, I grew up in the Los Angeles area and I was a huge fan of Bay Area thrash. So I already loved all those bands and I loved the sound and I knew kind of what made the sound. The other part of me is I'm a I'm a guy who analyses things and I'll try to break down what makes the Heathen sound.
Heathen doesn't fit the traditional mould of thrash in the sense that there's a melodic singer, and the band isn't afraid to do ballads and some other things. The core of the sound is this mixture between sort of the early Bay Area thrash will call it Exodus and Metallica. The song writing of the band's from like the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, the epic feel of bands like Rainbow and the harmonies of bands like Thin Lizzy. And you put all those elements together and to me, that's what makes Heathen sound.
The band doesn't follow any set of rules. We always write from the heart. We’re never been afraid to try new things and do different things, and add little things too elements to the sound over the years, and so, in a way, that's that's freeing creatively you can do a lot. There aren't very many boundaries so in that way it wasn't hard for me in any way. It’s really liberating when you are free to be able to say, well, I have an idea for a ballad and you know we have a singer that can do it, so why not? Instrumentally everyone's capable and it's been great.
Of course, I put a lot of pressure on myself writing the record. Yeah, I felt like it had to be great because the band has had very few albums over the years and each one of them stands out in its own way, and they're all highly revered by the fans. So I certainly didn't want to let anyone down, and I put a lot of pressure on myself. And I didn't even want to let down the other guys in the band, so I just did everything that I possibly could to make the songs the very best they could be and try and give fans an album to listen to that’s really enjoyable. I mean I went to the extent of where if you put it on repeat the album goes in a circle.
It was a lot of effort and everything, but I'm really happy with the way that it came out. I think everybody in the band is really happy with it. They were all stoked from the songs to the production and you know the recording. Everything was great. It was a great experience working with everybody.
The Razor's Edge: That's really good to hear. And obviously the whole package, including the artwork from Travis (Smith) as well, is exciting. It certainly the vinyl copy that I've got on order something I'm very much looking forward to sitting down and spending some time while the disc spins. Just doing what we did in the old days of sitting there with the vinyl sleeve in your hand and just absorbing that so the whole package has come across as both old school, but also new school. If you know what I mean, it's well.
KL: Yeah, that was our intent, even with the production of the album. It's a cross between sort of classic analogue and modern day digital recording and even Zeuss (Christopher “Zeuss” Harris) did a fantastic job with the mix and everything. The vinyl has a separate master just for vinyl, so it's got more dynamics, just like you would expect from vinyl. We really tried to make every little bit of the album details, whether it was the production or artwork or anything just the very best that it could possibly be.
The Razor's Edge: You've got a new engine room this time around with Jim and Jason in the band for the first time. You've obviously known the guys for some time but they're now part of the band. How have they fitted in and how was the recording with them?
KL: It was great. Both guys are great people. One of the things that we've had a problem with over the years with Heathen is keeping a steady line up and we wanted to sort of put an end to that this time. So, we wanted guys that were going to be with us for the duration, so to speak. And we've known both Jim and Jason for a long time and they’re great people. They're great players and we just knew what we wanted in terms of a fit for the line-up this time. They did such a great job on the recording. There's a real group camaraderie that I don't think that the band has had for a long time because we had so many fill-in members or line-up changes or whatever. Yeah, and so all of that has contributed to the vibe on the record it’s disappointing that we can't go and spend time with them on that on the road. We're really happy to have both guys in in the group and they’ve brought a lot of positive energy and great performances on the record it was it was awesome working with both of them in the studio. We can't get out there and play live with them.
The Razor's Edge: Good and I'm sure like every Heathen fan, we can't wait to see you back out there. And to finish, I know you've got a few dates in the books for next year. If I'm right are you doing the Keep it True festival in Germany? What else?
KL: That's on the books. We've got a couple other ones. All basically rescheduled from this year. We're just gonna have to see how things play out as far as booking other dates. At this point we really don't know what's going to be allowed or not allowed in terms of us traveling from the United States, crossing borders, we don't know if a vaccine is going to be required, or if they're gonna make us go into quarantined for two weeks. I mean that would kill a band financially so, we're just gonna have to see what we can do. We're staying positive and we're planning the best that we can for next year. Yeah, it's gonna be an incredibly crowded marketplace.
Every band on the planet is gonna want a tour next year. I think it's going to be a logistical problem in terms of the number of venues and dates and tour buses available and crew available. It's gonna be a challenge because everybody's gonna want to go out. We're just gonna do the very best that we can, and, and like I said, stay positive and promote the record. And if for some reason next year it proves to be a challenge in terms of touring or it's limited, then we're gonna probably start working on another record. It takes us long enough; we better start the running now!!
The Razor's Edge: Thanks, Kragen. It just remains for me to say I wish you every success with the release of the album. I appreciate your time today. It's been an honour and a real privilege to have a chat with you, and I've really enjoyed it. Hopefully, we'll see you on the road at some point.
KL: Awesome, well thank you so much for the interview. I really appreciate it. Thanks for positive and kind words and we're looking forward to hoping where we're hoping to be over there and lay for everybody next year. We would love to be in the UK, that's for sure.