Heathen was/is the one of the best thrash metal acts from Bay Area, after a long period they came back with a new CD. David “Thrash Metal maniac” Leslie made a very interesting and long interview with David White (he answered the questions in the first part of this interview) and Lee Altus. Another lession in Thrash Metal starts now!!!
Greetings Dave! I’m very happy about the comeback of Heathen, you were very absent from me.
Hello and thank you for your kind words! It feels good to be back!
Let we fly a little bit into the past. You have come from Blind Illusion to the band. Why did you leave Blind Illusion? Who were the members of the band in those times?
I left the band for personal differences. There were many different members, basic originals were Marc Biedermann, guitar; Brian Kehoe, guitar; Les Claypool, bass; Bret Hern, drums. Also Chris Olsen, bass and guitar. Later, Ben Hevero, keyboards; Bill Ticson, drums; Mark Serol, guitar; Mike Miner, drums; Gene Gilson, bass.
Your first gig was on the 2/9/1986 at the Mabuhey Gardens in San Francisco. Do you remember about it? How was this gig?
Sure I remember. We were not quite ready for this show. But Doug booked it and insisted we play. But in the end it turned out to be O.K.
Mike Jastremski joined Heathen during the recordings of „Breaking the silence”, after the splitting up of Griffin. Did you know that band? I have never heard about them.
Sure. When I was in Blind Illusion we played with them a couple of times. That’s how I met Yaz. They sounded a bit like Judas Priest.
How was the metal scene at that time in the vicinity of Bay Area? Which bands were active? Tell us please about that period! About the bands, gigs, clubs etc. About everything! Ha-ha!
It was really good. It was a very exciting time. Lots of clubs to play, and lots of bands were active like Exodus, Death Angel, Metallica, Righteous Sire, Metal Church, Anvil Chorus, Laaz Rockit, etc. The clubs were run by Bill Graham, the old Waldorf, and Wolfgang’s, the Stone family, San Francisco, Berkeley, Palo Alto, Mabuhey Gardens, Rock on Broadway, and the Omni in Oakland.
You have recorded the legendary “Open the grave” demo. Which songs were on this tape? In what kind of reception was participated the demo by the fans?
The demo was actually called „Pray for Death.” It included Pray for Death, Open the Grave, Goblin’s Blade, Deaf in the Silence, Heathen and World’s End. It was the #1 demo in Kerrang! Magazine and it also landed us several record offers, which led to our first record with Combat/Relativity.
How would you charakterize the style of the band? Do you regard Heathen a thrash band?
We are heavy metal. No, I do not consider us a thrash band. We are metal. People try to over-categorize things.
Did you get your contract from Combat Records on the base of the demo? At that time were very good bands by Combat (Exodus, Possessed etc.), weren’t it?
Yes we did, Combat was a vey good label for metal at that time.
Your debut album was „Breaking the silence” (1987), an energetic, awesome record. Tell us please about the songs, about the sound, about the lyrics, about the recordings in the studio etc. Do you agree with me, this album is one of the biggest classics of the genre?
Breaking The Silence was Heathen’s first attempt and has a lot of different elements about it. It’s very guitar-oriented. I tried to write lyrics that were very different in each song. I tried to be entertaining as well as interesting. I believe that we were still learning to work together as a group. Actually, we weren’t happy with the production. Our producer, Ronnie Montrose, was not quite the man for the job. He did not have an understanding of metal. The recording went OK; Ronnie was entertaining and we learned a lot from him. I don’t know how to answer that last question. That’s for the fans to decide.
Whose idea was to cover „Set me free” from Sweet? I think, this song didn’t hang out from the line, it is so as if it would be a Heathen song.
Lee and I decided to it, I don’t remember why. But we always were fans of Sweet.
The cover of the album became excellent too, one of the best covers of all time.
Yes, Kent Mattheu did the cover. We were very pleased.
After the releasing of the debut album you have vanished from sight. Why? Did you have problems within the band or with the label?
Yes we did. We had some internal problems and label problems.
Why had we to wait four years for your next record? Did you split up? Why did Mike Jastremski and Carl Sacco leave the band? What happened with you during the four years?
After Breaking The Silence was released, Carl left the band for personal reasons. Yaz left one year before the recording of Victims, to play guitar in his own band, Pigs. The long wait had to do with working out the right situation for the next album.
Between the albums was briefly Paul Baloff the singer. How did he come for in the picture? Why was he fired from Exodus? When did you come back respectively why did you leave the band?
The band went through an identity crisis, pressure to possibly have a heavier-type singer like Paul. I came back to the band shortly before recording Victims of Deception. I don’t really know why he was fired from Exodus, you would have to ask them.
„Victims of deception” (1991) became an „lighter”, more melodic album than „Breaking the silence”, do you agree with me? In your opinion, do the new members (the rhytmsection) change the style of Heathen? Was a difference between Marc Biedermanns, Darren Minters achivement and Mike Jastremskis and Carl Saccos one? Were they better musicians than the previous ones? I like this album too, but the previous one like I more better.
No, I don’t agree. Victims is much heavier. No, the new members did not change the style. It was a natural progression. Darren joined the band shortly after Breaking The Silence was released and he was definitely more suited for the task. At the time of recording Victims, there was no bass player in the band. So I asked my friend Marc if he could help us out and play bass on the record. He agreed. I don’t really understand how people can like Breaking more the Victims. To me Victims is a better album.
In your opinion, what are the similarities, differences between the both records? Which one do you like? Tell us everything about „Victims of deception”!
I would say that the similarities are that it’s still has Heathen sound and melodic vocals. The differences I would say that Victims has a lot more epic type of material, such as Hypnotized, Opiate of the Masses, Heathen and Fear of the Unknown and the ballad Prisoners of Fate. Also we are much happier with the production of Victims.
On this record was a cover too, „Kill the king” from Rainbow. Why did you choose this song? Was it a kind of homage to Rainbow?
We actually recorded three extra songs, Eye of the Storm, Hellbound, and Kill the King. Paying homage to all three. Roadracer chose Kill the King. We since now have re-recorded Eye of the Storm and Hellbound for this Recovered CD.
„Victims of deception” was released by Roadrunner Records. Why did you leave Combat? Was Roadrunner better than Combat? Did they support the band 100%?
Actually Combat was a much better label and gave us much support. But due to management problems and some internal problems, we were forced to make a change.
You were on tour with Sacred Reich and Sepultura together and you have played in Hungary too. How was the tour? Do you remember about the Hungarian show?
The tour was great, and I remember the show in Budapest very well. It was a beautiful place. We played outside in an ampitheater. It was awesome. The fans were great.
When and why did Heathen split up? What did you do during the ’90-s? What do you think about the metal scene of the ’90-s?
Heathen split in ’93 when Lee left to join Die Krupps. Darren followed shortly after. I played in a band called Inner Threshold with members of Defiance. The metal scene basically sucked in the ’90s. The club scene was dead, metal fell by the wayside to grunge. It was basically depressing.
In 2001 you have played on the aid for Chuck Billy, where have played all of the bands of the Area, it was the “Thrash of the titans festival”. How do you remember about that gig? Who did play in Heathen on this show?
It was a great event. It was cool to play with the guys again. Lee and I, Yaz, Ira and Darren formed the band for Thrash of the Titans.
When did you decide to return in the music business? I have to say, it was a brillant idea.
After Thrash of the Titans, we were invited to play the Wacken Open Air festival. It was a great feeling to play in front of all those fans. I think that’s when we decided to give it a go.
Practically, after 13 years are you back again, and as I visited your website, you became older. You are old and ugly men. Ha-ha!
You have released a new album „Recovered”, which contains demo and cover songs. Didn’t you write brandnew songs? When will be released a new Heathen album?
The first five songs on Recovered we began recording years ago. We had never finished. So as we put the band back together, we wanted to take care of unfinished business and put this material out. We added the songs from the Opiate of the Masses demo to give the fans their money’s worth. And we are currently writing an upcoming Heathen album.
What are your future plans? When will you start writing new material? To which label will you sign?
We’re working on a new album right now and hope to tour after it’s release. We haven’t decided on a label at the moment but we have some that are interested.
Dave, thanks for your answers. What do you want to say at the end of the interview?
Thanks for the interview. Sorry it took so long. Thanks for your support. Metal forever. -David White.
Lee, in the biography I have read, you have Russian roots. Are your parents from Russia? Do you speak a little bit Russian?
Actually, I was born in Russia or what is now Ukraine and we moved to US when I was 13. So yes I can speak Russian really well.
You were one of the former members of Heathen. When and how was Heathen established? Tell us please about your early rehearses!
What happened is when we moved to US, we moved in next door to Carl. At the time he was a drummer for a local band Murder. So I heard him play drums next door all day long! One day he invited me over and we got to talk about music and he said: „Since you like music so much why don’t you start playing guitar or something and you can come over and we can jam’’. So I got my parents to buy me a cheap guitar and I started to learn how to play. I practiced like 10-14 hours a day and when I was able to play a little me and Carl started to jam on some song ideas. After a while he said that he really liked the riffs that I was coming up with and that maybe we should form a band together. And that’s how Heathen got started. It was just me and Carl. Then later we had Jim join and Sam Kress who was a friend of mine. Sam came up with the name Heathen. Our early practices were pretty awful since only Carl could really play. Me and Jim were still learning how to play our instruments. And Sam couldn’t really sing. And we couldn’t find a bass player for the longest time. But we practiced and eventually started to get better and better.
James Sanguinetti joined later Mordred. Why did he leave you? I think, Mordred is/was one of the best and most original acts from the Area, do you agree with me? I like them very much.
You know, it was so long ago that I don’t even remember why he left. But it was one of the best things that happened to me because we got Doug to join and he was a great guitar player who really helped me to get better. I agree with you that Mordred was one of the best acts to come out from the Bay Area. But I didn’t really liked when they went Funk-Metal. You know, not too many people know this, but I was one of the original members of Mordred. Me and Alex and Art and Steve were the original guys. We practiced in Alex’s parents garage. They had a full band so I liked playing with them, but in the back of my mind I always wanted to start my own band. They knew that I was also playing with Carl and when they asked me to chose one or the other I decided that I wanted to play with Carl more and form our own band, so I left Mordred.
Which bands did influence you? Which ones are/were your favourites?
Oh, I have so many! From Deep Purple to Sweet to Judas Priest to Tygers of Pang Tang to GBH and Motorhead. Many favorites. Deep Purple, Sweet, Abba, yes I do love Abba, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy, Scorpions. Then came a lot of bands from that NWOBHM era that I loved. After that Metallica and Exodus. Not too many new bands that I like but one that I really like now days is In Flames. They are great! I really enjoy that Melodic Death Metal.
You have had various line up changes in the early period, when did became complete the line up of Heathen?
Yes we did! I think the first time we had a complete line up is when Dave joined sometime in 1985. It was like we had a full solid band for the first time!
I have asked from Dave too, but I have to ask from you too: how was the scene in the vicinity of the Bay Area in the middle of the eighties? Why was Bay Area the centre of the American thrash movement?
Like Dave already said that the scene was great. Lots of great bands were coming out from here at the time and everyone was really into Metal! I felt really lucky being a part of it all. I really don’t know why Bay Area was the center of American thrash. It just kind of happened!
Tell us please with your own words about both Heathen albums! Everything what it occurs to you. By whom were written the music, the lyrics, what do you think about the records, which songs do you like, are you satisfied with the sound of the albums etc. I helped you, what about I think. Ha-ha!
Well, I’m definitely really proud of both albums. Especially Victims album. That one to me is the better one of the two. I know that some people say that Breaking was a better album and I can’t understand that. Victims is so much better in every way! On Breaking The Silence I can’t stand that production. I can never listen to that album because of it! I do like the songs though. I wish that we could re-record it. Open the Grave is probably my favorite on that one. Doug wrote 3 songs on that one and I wrote the rest and Dave wrote all the lyrics. On Victims album Doug wrote one song and I wrote the rest, and me and Dave wrote the lyrics. On that album I can’t even pick my favorite song because I like them all.
Why didn’t become Marc Biedermann the member of Heathen? Why was he only session bassplayer on the „Victims of deception” album?
We never asked him. We always knew that Marc was into doing his own band and would rather play guitar than bass, so we just asked him to help us out and he did. But I don’t think that he was ever interested in joining Heathen.
You went on European tour with Sepultura and Sacred Reich. It was a brillant thrash package. How was the tour? You have played also in Hungary, do you remember about it?
The tour was great! I do remember Hungary show. It was outside. We had a great time playing there and the fans were great. I can’t wait to come back again! Budapest is a really beautiful city. I really like it a lot!
In your opinion, was Heathen popular at that time? What does it mean for you to be popular or popularity?
I don’t know, I guess we were fairly popular. Everywhere we played we got a great response and most of the people knew who we were. It’s nice but it doesn’t mean that much to me to be popular. I just like to play music. As long as I can do that, I’m happy.
At that time were Rondy Laire the bassplayer of the band, who has died before your West Coast tour. What happened, how has he died?
He died in a car accident. He and his girlfriend were driving at night an apparently she fell asleep at the wheel and the car went of the road and flipped over several times. Both of them died. It was really sad. I still can’t believe that it happened.
Instead of Rondy Jason Viebrooks and instead of Doug Piercy came Ira Black in the band. Why did Doug leave the band? I think, it was a hard period for you, wasn’t it?
It was a really hard period for us. A lot of things were going bad. Randy dying, Dave’s brother dying, being dropped by RoadRunner, and a lot of other stuff happening at the time. Doug just couldn’t take it all and he felt that he had to get away.
You wanted to record a cover EP with a new tune, but it was never released. Why did miscarry the idea? It would have been a tribute to David’s brother, haven’t it?
We actually wanted to do a tribute to Randy and Dave’s brother. That EP was supposed to be kind of like a healing process for us. The whole EP was supposed to be based around ..In Memory of song that we wrote. But then I got a call from Germany from Jurgen. He was a big fan of Heathen. He told me that they were looking for a guitar player to fill in on their upcoming European tour and asked me if I would be interested in doing it. I agreed. After the tour he told me that they wanted to incorporate more metal guitar on their new album asked me if I would be interested in writing with him. And I was definitely interested since I liked industrial metal. So instead of coming home after the tour and finishing the EP I stayed in Germany for 9 months and when I got home the other guys in Heathen weren’t interested in finishing that EP anymore. So it was just left unfinished , until now!
When and why did Heathen split up?
Well, like I said, after I came back from Germany, I think it was sometime in 1993 the other guys in the band weren’t into finishing the EP and so we just went our separate ways!
After the splitting up you were the member of Die Krupps, together with Darren Minter. How did you get in touch with Jürgen Engler? Did you move to Europe?
Jurgen called me. And then after a while I brought Darren into the band as well. No, we didn’t move to Europe but Darren and me spent a lot of time over there that sometimes it seemed like we lived there, but we didn’t. We did a lot of flying back and forth.
On which Die Krupps albums did you play? I think, after Heathen, it was a musically change in your life. Did you know or did you like Die Krupps, before you would have joined them?
I played on all the albums staring from 1993. I think it was like 4 albums. Sure it was a musical change but I also felt like maybe that’s what I needed at the time. The thing that I liked about it that I could still play metal guitar riffs. I’ve never heard of Die Krupps before so I couldn’t really like them. But after they sent me some cd’s I liked it a lot.
Until when did you play in the band? What did you do after Die Krupps? As I as know, they don’t exist, do they?
I played in that band until 1998, and after that I was really burnt out the whole thing so I decided to take a break from touring and recording. As far as I know they broke up after I left.
Tell us please about the present Bay Area metal scene. What could you say about the present scene compared to the ’80-s one? Is the thrash movement strong enough in the vicinity of the Bay Area?
The scene here is nowhere near how it use to be in the ’80s. In the ’90s it was really dead but now it starting to get a little better.
Death Angel, Exodus, Nasty Savage are back, Slayer and Testament will be released new albums in this year. In your opinion, did thrash metal rise from its death? Was thrash metal dead during the ’90-s?
Oh, it was definitely dead in the ’90s! I don’t know if it has risen from the dead, but it’s showing some signs of life.
Did you listen to the newest albums of the bands which I mentioned? Are you satisfied with them?
I love the Exodus album, Death Angel is not really thrash but it’s good. I haven’t heard Nasty Savage album.
What’s up with the early and classic Bay Area bands, like Laaz Rockit, Forbidden, Vio-lence? Do you know something about them? As I as know, Vio-lence have regrouped too, haven’t they?
Last I heard that Vio-lence broke up again, and I don’t think that Laaz or Forbidden have any plans to regroup.
Metallica was one the first thrash pioneers, they have moved from LA to San Francisco. What do you think about them? Do you like „St. Anger”?
I still like them, but I am disappointed with their last album! I don’t know what they were thinking. It sounds like shit!
In your opinion, the first five thrash classic of all time!
Oh, that’s easy!
Exodus - Bonded by Blood
Metallica - Kill ’em All
Slayer - Reign in Blood
Destruction - Infernal Overkill
Death Angel - Ultra-Violence
After 10 years the silence was broken ha-ha!, you are back again. It can be said, you have come back step by step. In 2001 you have played on the “Thrash of the titans festival”, in 2002 you have played on the “Wacken festival”. How do you remember about these shows?
Yeh, I guess you could say that, step by step. Both shows were great. But it was after Wacken that we knew for sure that we wanted give it another shot and do a new album!
Most of the 1992 line up is here (with Mike „Yaz” Jastremski on the bass). Didn’t want Doug Piercy and Carl Sacco to take part in the reunion? What do they nowadays do? Are you in connection with them?
Well, Carl doesn’t even play anymore and even if he did we would do it with Darren. I love Carl and I still talk to him every now and then but Darren is just a better drummer. And as far as Doug goes, he lives in Germany now so it would be kind of hard for him to get to practice ha,ha.
In this year will be released „Recovered”. Tell us please about this release! What kind of songs will be on the record? Did you write brand new material too?
There are nine songs on it. One original In Memory of... that’s the dedication song that we wrote for Randy and Dave’s brother and four covers. Thin Lizzy- Holy War, Queen- Death on Two Legs, Sweet Savage-Eye of the Storm and Tygers of Pang Tang-Hellbound. And as a bonus we also decided to put four songs from the Victims demo. Just to give the people their money’s worth. A lot of people have been asking us where they can find it. So this one is for real hardcore Heathen fans. There’s something for everyone on this album! The NWOBHM fans, Heathen thrash fans and also for Heathen fans that like our more melodic stuf. I know that a lot of people were asking us why we didn’t do a full new album first, and the reason is because we needed to finish this one before we could move on. It was something that we left unfinished and it was very important to us to finish it! Now that it’s done we can look forward to a brand new Heathen album.
When will you start writing new songs? How would you characterize the present Heathen? You became older, wiser, you have gained a lot of experiences etc.
We are writing the new album right now and hope to have it out sometime next year. It still going to be you usual Heathen riffo-rama, you know what I mean?! There are some fast/thrash songs, there is one usual Heathen epic type of song as well as mid tempo stuff like Opiate/ Open the Grave kind of stuff. We’re going to pick it up right where we left of when we broke up. It just going to be the next step. I would say that maybe it’s somewhere in between Breaking and Victims. One thing that this time around not all the songs are as long as they were on Victims. And yes, we’re older but I don’t know about wiser. Ha,ha.
When do you want to release the new album? Do you go on tour? When do you come to Hungary again?
Like I was saying, we hope to have it out sometime next year. And of course tour after its release. I sure hope that we can come to Hungary!
Are you proud of the career of Heathen? About what would you change, if you would have the possibility to start again the band?
Yes, I’m very proud. But I wish that we could have done more albums and tours with Heathen. If I could start again? Wow! You know, there are a lot of things, but there’s no reason to talk about that since it can’t be done!
Lee, thanks a lot for your answers. I wish you all the best and good luck. Please, close the interview.
Thank you for the interview, and hope to see you on tour in Hungary really soon!
by David Laci