In-Depth Interview With Holy Grail Guitarists Eli Santana & Alex Lee

Interview by Avinash Mittur

Pasadena-based classic metal flag bearers Holy Grail released their sophomore album ‘Ride The Void’ earlier this year, and are now out on the road with the likes of Anthrax, Exodus, High On Fire and Municipal Waste as part of the lineup for the third edition of the annual Metal Alliance Tour. On Thursday March 28th, this tour made a stop at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, and after Holy Grail finished their short and powerful set, our man Avinash sat down with guitarists Eli Santana and Alex Lee for a detailed chat about all things Holy Grail, including this tour, the new album, the writing process, past tours and weird experiences, future plans and lots more. Check out the highly entertaining interview below.

First off, this show has been kind of messy so far! Overall though, how has the Metal Alliance tour been for you guys so far?

Alex: It’s been amazing.

Eli: Overall it’s been really good. It’s actually been very structured, where we arrive at 6 PM sharp every day, which is really early but at least I could let everyone know ahead of time. Here in San Francisco, this was the first time where it was like…

Alex: Chaos.

Eli: Yeah! It was like “well, you go on at 8”- cool, it’s a late show! “Now it’s 7:30. You go on at 7:25. You go on when doors open.” So tonight we had to play to people coming in, so right when we started I went down and tried to shake everybody’s hand because there were so few people there.

Alex: It was just like at Soundwave, remember that one day?

Eli: Right, that was the first time we started when doors were opened. That time we saw a seven person wall of death! Those kids were cool, instead of being all rock star-like and talking to them like they were a huge crowd, we said “what’s your name?” to everyone, and met everybody individually. It was really intimate.

Alex: Some kid threw a chicken sandwich to Blake [Mount, bass]. It was out of nowhere!

Eli: Yeah, he took a big bite out of it and spiked it. That was before he had to put it in his calorie counter. He looks great man, he’s lost like…

Alex: 50 pounds.

Eli: 500 pounds.

Alex: Over 9000!

Eli: But seriously, he’s been working really hard and everyone is so proud of him.

That’s awesome! I’m also happy to hear that San Francisco is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the chaos.

Eli: I know Vancouver’s going to be another late show, so we’ll see!

Moving on to Ride the Void real quick. I’m sure you guys were stoked about the finished product, I know I was anyway. Were there any issues on your previous record, Crisis in Utopia, that you wanted to address on Ride the Void?

Eli: Yeah, actually! Because of the chaos of making that record, there was a lot of things that got lost in the shuffle with the tracks- we had to rerecord stuff, there’s still stuff that I hear in my head that I wanted the songs on the record to have. We’re still very proud of it. It came out awesome, and now that time has passed it’s like people don’t hear what you intended, they hear what’s there. I’ve kind of come to terms with that, but we were pretty much ready to make Ride the Void right when we finished Crisis in Utopia. We didn’t know how Crisis in Utopia was going to be received and we just thought that the record didn’t live up to our potential. We were really hungry to work on Ride the Void and there were not many regrets, if any, overall. It was kind of a nice feeling this time around- not to talk anything bad about Crisis in Utopia, I’m very proud of it. It put us on the radar.

Alex, this was your first time recording with Holy Grail. How did the experience differ from your past times recording with your old band, Bonded by Blood?

Alex: It was structured a lot better I’d say, because we have this HTTP website where we just have a massive library of riffs and licks, rough mixes and everything you can think of. It’s all compiled very neatly where you can follow everyone’s contributions. Everyone puts in their own ideas into songs, and they put them in wave forms or mp3s and they’d be labeled like “Doom Riff #1” or something, mostly Eli’s riffs. We’re able to bounce ideas without even being together as a band. We can all work at home and put our ideas into the website. Back in Bonded it was always like, meet at say, [Bonded by Blood guitarist] Juan’s house, and go over a bunch of riffs. A lot of times, we’d be sitting there and our old singer would be texting his girlfriend or something. We weren’t doing anything except for Juan and I- we’d say “hey, what do you guys think of this riff?” and they’d just kind of stand there. It didn’t seem like they cared, but at the same time they did care. It was weird. It was unfortunately kind of unorganized, but for Holy Grail it was very neat, compact and very professional.

Now that you guys have a ton of tours under your belts, some headlining, a lot opening, has touring become any easier?

Eli: Yeah, it has become easier. You kind of get in a groove. The first time we left for a tour, we brought everything. We made a bunch of dumb mistakes, like bringing all of our merch into the venue, boxes upon boxes of t-shirts! Luckily we went out with bands like 3 Inches of Blood, Amon Amarth and Saviours who were really nice. We tried to go out with no ego and show that we were eager to learn, so they’d help us and say “hey, maybe you don’t need to bring in all your merch to every show” and stuff like that. Now, we get into the groove of it and get things smoother quicker. We load and get off-stage super quick. I’m actually really proud of how fast we get off-stage because some bands take forever! 

Alex: We learned from our mistakes in the past.

Eli: Exactly. It definitely has gotten easier, especially for us. It’s only the five of us in our touring party, so we basically have to do everything. It’s learning how to balance merch, maintenance on the van, getting there on time, warming up and also playing the show… it’s not just the half an hour you see us onstage. I try to tell my girlfriend, “I don’t only work twenty five minutes a night, damn it!”

Despite your experience, have you had any recent mishaps?

Eli: Yeah, we had our van broken into in Montreal last November when we were with Hellyeah. Alex took the brunt of that mishap.

Alex: Pretty much someone stole my backpack and Tyler [Meahl, drums] had his little grooming bag with his shaver and stuff like that stolen too. Unfortunately, my bag had all my stuff in it, all the yo-yos, a MacBook, stuff like that. We all carry individual backpacks with personal belongings that we need on the road like laptops, phone chargers and all that stuff. It happened, and you just got to move on!

Eli: Luckily with the laptop, Vinnie Paul from Hellyeah was nice enough to buy Alex a new MacBook Pro. That was really cool, that doesn’t happen to everybody.

It helps that you guys have no attitudes too. Like you said, no egos.

Eli: We take what we do seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We realize that we’re having fun, and we have a lot of friends that are jealous of what we’re doing. They say “tell us what touring is really like” and it’s like we don’t shower for days, sleep in a Wal-Mart parking lot etc. Then they’ll say “oh, we don’t want to do that!” It’s not just getting on a Motley Crue tour bus like one might think.

You guys had to work on Ride the Void in between tours. Was that an ideal way of working or would you rather have just sat down and cranked it all out in one go?

Alex: It just depends really. It depends on how long we have on the road and how long we stay at home in between tours. We work with our tour schedules for when we write and I think at the end of the writing for Ride the Void, after the Toxic Holocaust tour, we had a couple months to just dish out as much as we could for the album.

Eli: Even a lot of that material came from us being off for a couple of weeks and we’d just grind out a bunch of songs and riffs, and we’d formulate ideas. It was like as soon as we got off the Toxic Holocaust tour, we went right into the studio for pre-production with Matt Hyde and just started putting stuff. It was kind of a no rest for the wicked type of thing. I would kind of like to just stop touring and focus on music, playing and writing, but it’s probably not going to happen that way. Knowing us, we procrastinate and put things off. If we get that much time, we’ll probably just wait until the last minute. It’s probably for the best that we have a specific amount of time to finish something. We have that deadline, and then we ignore it and we go six to eight months past it! [laughs]

I was going to say, it felt like a very long time between Ride the Void and Crisis in Utopia!

Eli: Yeah, it was supposed to come out eight months before it actually released! [laughs] Actually, Crisis was also late- maybe we’re just on California time or something.

I know this is something fans have been bugging you guys about for years, but I want it on the record. Are you ever going to play ‘Exciter’ and ‘Fast as a Shark’ ever again?

Eli: I think so! I think we’ll definitely play ‘Fast as a Shark’ again, I’m not too sure about ‘Exciter’… I’d love to play it, we played it a couple times actually like in the UK. We have yet to play it with Alex so that might be the lynchpin to bring it all together, so we’ll see. I definitely see ‘Fast as a Shark’ coming back.

I definitely remember badgering you about those songs all the way back on Alex’s first tour with the band over at the Oakland Metro two years ago. Remember how Cauldron barely made it to the show?

Alex: Yeah, their van broke down and they barely made it. And then their van broke down again after the show!

Eli: We’re about to go on and we’re out there pushing Cauldron’s van. We check that they’re good to go, so we run in, grab Cauldron’s stuff and we get onstage and play. That was kind of funny.

Now that’s brotherhood right there.

Eli: Oh yeah! They quickly became our bros- that was actually one of the most fun tours we’ve done. It was super small and kind of DIY, but it was just really fun.

Alex: For me, it was my first time touring with the Grail, but I’d toured with Cauldron before. They were buddies already to me, so it was a really good start for me not having toured in a while.

Those were some of the longest sets you guys have played too.

Eli: Yeah, sometimes it would be an hour.

Alex: We literally played almost all of Crisis minus ‘Cherish Disdain’, which we should totally play sometime.

Eli: It’s true, people really want to hear it. We’ve actually never played ‘Cherish Disdain’ live. I’ve always wanted to play it and we get a lot of requests for it, but the closest we’ve come was in Edmonton. Blake’s bass amp went out and so I played it on guitar for these kids who really wanted to hear it. The kids sang it over me playing guitar, that was the closest we’ve ever come to playing ‘Cherish Disdain’.

I was also at the free show you guys did the Roxy in Hollywood, and the band did this instrumental jam that I hadn’t heard before.

Eli: Oh yeah! We also never played that one again. That was the only time we ever played that. It was actually our interpretation of the Castlevania theme. It was funny because it was supposed to be just a guitar thing, but then I think the Blake and Tyler felt kind of left out, so it became kind of a jam. If we can rework it, I’d like to bring it back.

At that show and on that earlier headlining tour, you also played an unreleased song, ‘For All Eternity’.

Eli: There is a recording of that one, it’s hidden. It might come out as a b-side some day in some shape or form. That was from the first batch of songs and it didn’t get onto Crisis and it wasn’t considered for Ride the Void.

Were there any songs left in the cutting room for Ride the Void?

Eli: Yeah actually, there’s a lot. There’s a couple of unreleased songs, a couple of b-sides and full songs with vocals that just didn’t make it to the recording process. There was a bunch of song ideas that were super cool, some of which I’d like to go back to and rework, same with Alex.

Alex: We had so much on the plate that we had to cut it all off at some point and make it perfect.

Eli: For example, there was my Morbid Angel meets Blind Guardian song that we didn’t have time to flesh out, or it just didn’t seem to fit in with this batch. Maybe one day though!

Do you think that song or other unreleased material might show up on a future Holy Grail album?

Eli: It’d be cool if we did an EP or something, that would be a cool tune to work on. There was actually a song that was more fleshed out, it was more New Wave of British Heavy Metal, kinda Tokyo Blade-ish. It seemed to upbeat for Ride the Void so that might be something that’ll pop up in the future.

On this tour, Holy Grail are sharing the bill with Exodus again. From what I remember, you guys toured with them way back before Crisis in Utopia even came out.

Eli: Right, yeah! That’s actually where we met Alex. That’s when we slowly started courting him! [laughs]

Yup, Bonded by Blood was on that tour as well. I remember [Exodus guitarist] Gary Holt wearing Holy Grail shirts every night. Is it kind of weird to see him again now that Holy Grail are two albums in and now that you’ve really established a career for yourselves?

Eli: Yeah, and you know he’s just super pumped on what we’ve done and everything. It was cool, I saw him and he was asking how the record’s been doing. I asked him “oh, how was playing with Slayer?” and he said “I can’t complain man, I’m flying first class now!” Of course he’ll joke that he has to get back to slumming it on the tour bus. It’s nice that a band that big is already comfortable with us, we already know those guys and that was a really nice and pleasant surprise. We met the Municipal Waste guys before, we didn’t know Anthrax or High on Fire- we’re not on pins and needles, it’s already kind of a relaxed atmosphere, other than tonight where everything got moved around. We can’t complain, this is awesome. We’re in a really good spot.

As I got to see earlier tonight, there were a ton of fans who wanted to get their stuff signed and photos taken. Has that been the case at most of the shows on this tour so far?

Alex: Yeah! It’s been rad because we’ve been doing meet and greets a half hour before doors open. There have been a lot of signatures, and people have been pumped to see us. There’s even talk outside in the lines to go in that’s positive. It’s just really cool to see how many people are there right when doors open that come out to see us opening at 6 PM. It’s just really rad. We feel kinda like rock stars, I don’t know! [laughs]

Eli: Yeah, it’s not until we have a couple friends come out and we have to tell them “hold on, I got to go sign stuff, take a picture and come back” and it’s something that they’re not used to. We’re grateful for that, and it’s a whole other side of it where childhood friends are saying “whoa, you just signed an autograph!” It’s kind of crazy, but it’s kind of weird. We have yet to go that other side where everyone is just a fan or another metalhead. It’s still like they’re all potential friends to us. When people hit us up on Facebook, for us it’s like “oh, it’s that guy I met at the show” and a friend of mine will tell me that Facebook is like our fan mail. Then I think I should probably stop being so drunk when I respond to everyone! [laughs] We gotta be more professional I suppose but eh, it’s rock and roll!

Speaking of old friends, there’s one band that’s starting to rise up from Pasadena as well, Gypsyhawk.

Eli: Yeah, they’re killing it! They’re a whole other side of it. You don’t really realize it, but it’s this little scene in LA with us, Gypsyhawk and Huntress and I guess Bonded by Blood too. It’s very incestuous.

Right, because I know that (Gypsyhawk bassist/vocalist) Eric Harris played in Holy Grail at one point. 

Eli: He was the bass player before Blake. He ended up leaving right as I joined, I’m not too sure what happened there. I hung out with him when we did the Dragonforce tour, he was in Huntress at the time. I’ve known him forever. Erik Kluiber played in White Wizzard, and we met him through that and he was super cool. We kind of hit it off and we’ve always stayed in touch. He got let go or whatever which was a bummer, but we kept hanging out and he started playing Gypsyhawk which was rad. I randomly went on YouTube and I was watching a Gypsyhawk video. Seeing Kluiber onstage with Eric Harris I was just like like “Yes!” It was just really cool and they’re getting huge, and Huntress too.

Have you ever considered doing a Pasadena show with nothing with hometown bands?

Eli: That would be cool!

Alex: We did the tour with Huntress and Dragonforce, and we did something like that on the Cauldron tour at the Viper Room.

Eli: Yeah, it was Gypsyhawk, us and Cauldron. With the Dragonforce tour it was one of those things where people asked “hey, did Tyler hook up his brother’s band to get on the tour?” but no, it just happened to be the two different management companies working it out. Getting Huntress on the bill was so random and small world. We actually ran into the guy who’s producing the new Huntress record last night, it’s just kind of funny how everything works out.

Alright I’ve kept you guys for long enough, to finish things off what’s next on the horizon for Holy Grail?

Eli: We’re probably going to do some headlining shows after this tour so we can get home, but everything is kind of up in the air and nothing’s solidified. A lot of touring, more shredding and we’re trying to get more new stuff ready to play live. Now that we have so much material to pull from, we might do longer sets if we do headlining shows. Maybe the Castlevania theme will come back to the set!

Alex: Anything that we do will definitely be posted to our Facebook or Twitter, all that good social media stuff! [laughs]

Related Links:
SF photo gallery
‘Ride The Void’ album review

Holy Grail Online: