By Andrew Bansal
Known primarily as longtime Raven and former Pentagram drummer, Joe Hasselvander has sat behind the drum kit in various capacities for over 50 years, including some outside of Raven and Pentagram, and has also been venturing more and more into playing other instruments. As I’ve traveled North America with Night Demon who’ve been on an extensive run supporting Raven through October-November 2014, I’ve had a chance to get acquainted with Joe Hasselvander and he’s turned out to be quite the character. On November 24th at the Strange Matter in Richmond, Virginia, I sat down with him for a detailed, insightful interview. Enjoy the conversation below as I discuss with him all things Raven, Pentagram, doom and future plans.
I’ve been on this tour with you guys and it’s been a fucking adventure, man. How would you sum it up in sentence?
It’s been an expensive camping trip with lots of heavy rock ‘n roll from Night Demon and Raven, and very successful wherever it went, despite all the problems in between, and the traveling. I was very surprised to see that rock ‘n roll is still alive.
Yeah, specially for you guys as you’ve been around for so long, it’s obviously not the same as it used to be. There’s all this negativity around it with the old rockers saying rock is dead.
Rock is not dead, and it has nothing to do with what other bands are doing. If you have a band, you’re the rock ‘n roll, you’re the song, you’re the music. No trend should ever interrupt what you do. Your creative juices should be unbridled. If you’re going to play music, paint a picture, do photography, or whatever it is, take it all the way. Raise the bar.
I talked to John and Mark about the ups and downs of this tour and the problems with the RV in the other interview I did yesterday. From what I understand, you and John don’t do any of the driving. So when you’re on the side of the road in a broken-down vehicle, what’s going through your mind? You’re just sitting there and beyond a certain point, it’s not like you can do anything.
We have four brains that work together to get the thing fixed. We have GPS all over the bus but sometimes we can’t rely on that and we have to bring people out for roadside assistance and stuff like that. But hey, I’ve done it before and all my life. There’s always something like that happening, whether it’s Europe, America or other places. It’s just the way it goes. This time it was a little worse than others, but we still did the whole United States and Canada. I think we made a big difference and we’re furthering heavy rock and metal when very few people are doing it.
A lot of bands would give up in these kinds of situations, but with you guys it’s the ‘rock until you drop’ philosophy and you always stick to it.
Yeah, you’re either a professional or you’re not. There’s nothing in between. We did have to cancel one gig in Boise, Idaho on this tour, but even for that one we managed to rent a car and we drove at 110 miles per hour through Washington and Idaho to try to get there. We were half an hour out and the guy called the show and said we’re not going to do it, so we pulled over. And then the guy calls us back and goes, “Hey are you guys still coming here? I want you to sign my shit!” And I was like, I don’t think so (laughs). But there was no one there. It was a Monday night in Idaho and probably six metal fans were there.
Yeah, we were there.
Right, I didn’t get to see the scene.
Well, you didn’t miss much. But the other day when we were hanging out in Syracuse, we were talking and you mentioned that Raven has been a better gig for you than Pentagram ever was. What’s the reason for you saying that?
Because Raven takes my drumming to the ceiling, as far as it can go. It’s the most I can do and that’s where I want to be, excelling in things. I mean, I like doom metal but it’s not the funnest thing to play on the drums. How much of it can you really play? I like drum fills, I like it fast, slow, I like it all. I’m not just relegated to music that sounds like you’re swimming through hot asphalt. Not to put it down, because I love Black Sabbath, Witchfinder General, Angel Witch, and Pentagram too. Bobby was a great songwriter with the things he did when he was young. Victor’s a great guitar player. But I had to move on. They wanted to go a certain way and it wasn’t for me. I’m aiming for bigger things and always have been. They’re fine just playing clubs and may be a couple of theaters. I want to do arenas, and I do arenas. It’s a much bigger deal and the whole purpose of me being here is I want people to hear my drumming. It’s been like that since I was six years old. It’s what drives you when you’ve been doing it for so long. I’ve tried other jobs but it never worked. I’ve always been a creative person and I just had to make that my business. My son, I’m afraid, is doing the same thing. He’s a bass player.
Very cool. So, on this tour I’ve seen that the Raven set is slightly different every night. It’s never exactly the same for two nights in a row, specially with the covers medley where you do all kinds of different stuff. Do you dictate that from the drum kit and trigger what song they’re going to play, or is it all together from all three of you?
It’s spontaneous between the three of us. When one of us goes into something, the other two have to follow. We know this stuff so well and how to get around it, we can just cut from one song right into another at any time. It’s just a weird thing we can do. There’s a lot of ESP between John, Mark and myself. We know what’s going to happen in any situation. When it looks like we’re going to have a train wreck in the middle of a song, we bail right out of it and it’s always been that way. We don’t sit and rehearse a song for 30 years, you know. We just do it until we feel good with it and develop it on the stage because that’s where it’s going to be made into a great song. That’s my attitude about it.
I know that you guys are putting out a covers album for the Kickstarter contributors, and you’ve gone really old-school with the tracks you’ve chosen to cover, of bands that existed way before you.
Oh yeah, these are songs we all grew up with in our generation. Mark, John and I are around the same age and that was our heavy metal back in those days. That’s what we got. We didn’t have Metallica but we had Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, Budgie, Slade, Sir Lord Baltimore and I could go on and on. We like all those bands and we’ve heard their albums so many times that when we started jamming on them, we knew them perfectly, like we wrote them or something (laughs). It was very easy to learn them and play them, and I think we did them very authentically, with a very ambient studio sound, almost like an old Led Zeppelin record. It’s got that vibe and people are really going to enjoy it.
They didn’t get to see those bands but there’s the internet. 16-17 year old kids these days listen to Deep Purple and Queen. They like it, they found the real music, they started digging deeper and they know even the obscure metal bands that we all love from the past. They know more about it than I do, sometimes. It really surprises me. But it’s great making new younger fans. Raven has done that on this tour. We see fans of our age bracket come out but there are also kids who we never saw before. They’re loving it, we still have the energy and we’re older guys but we have as much energy as we did when we were kids. We’re all in pretty good health and we’re still doing this. We’re not feeble yet, so we’ll keep cracking while we still have it, even 20 years from now. Who knows.
You mentioned obscure bands, and doom metal has been obscure for the longest time but these days it seems to have become a hipster trend where doom is ‘in’. Does that make you miss Pentagram or feel like going back to a doom metal band at all?
No, and I’ll tell you why, because I love doom metal, I do my band Hounds Of Hasselvander and we have a new album that’s coming out in March, but I do it for myself. I love that kind of music specially for its guitar playing. That’s where it’s fun. It’s all for the guitar, the bass and the singer. You can do atmospheric stuff and you have to, or else the song sounds dumb. At slower speeds it needs to be more dramatic. But the thing about the doom metal scene is, there is no big payoff in it, financially, even though it may be the biggest thing in the world at the minute. Believe me, cult music is the biggest music. The underground has always been bigger than the mainstream. The mainstream is an invented thing from record companies and radio stations. But the best music is always underground. Kids are smart enough to dig deeper and find the real stuff. But the mainstream makes more money because you can connect to more people. I want to make a lot of people happy, not just people who listen to metal. I listen to jazz and rockabilly too. You won’t believe the kind of stuff I’m into. I just think that doom metal is never going to make prime time. I mean, it’s great underground music but it stays there and does very well there. Some of the bands have gotten really big and some grunge bands were definitely influenced by the Maryland doom scene. There’s no doubt in my mind and I’ve read articles about that. But I think it’s had its time. Nothing is as big and famous as it used to be, even if you’re on a major label. It’s almost like cottage industry in a way.Aside from the new Raven album that’s coming out soon, is Hounds Of Hasselvander the only other thing you’re working on, or are there other projects as well?
On this Hounds Of Hasselvander album I have a real band, Marty Swaney from Pentagram on bass and T.C. Tolliver from Plasmatics on drums, two of my favorite musicians. They just came up to my house and said let’s jam together. It’s like we’ve been a band for years. We decided to do a covers record of songs by all the bands we like, and I dug deep into some of my favorites like Blue Cheer, Jerusalem, Boomerang and all the bands that were truly underground when I was growing up. It was just a lot fun but it came out really good and Black Widow Records is putting it out in Italy in March. I’ve been waiting three years for them to put it out and I’m glad it’s finally happening. Anyway, there’s that, and I like to play guitar, bass and I like to sing, if you can even call it that but it’s what I like to do. I’ve played drums for 50 years and I got into other things because if you know how to play drums, eventually you find out that you can play other instruments too. So that’s what I’m doing right now. I have to finish some records for projects that I’m doing with other bands when I get off tour. In a couple of months we [Raven] are going to South America and doing all of it. We’re very excited about it. I can’t wait to go back to Bolivia. That’s the metal capital of the world!
Finally, when you’re touring it can be very stressful and it takes its toll on you. What do you do to get through it and to calm yourself? From what I see, you resort to cannabis.
No, I really don’t resort to anything. I only resort to talking to people. Meeting new people takes the burden off. When I arrive at a venue, I talk to the promoter and sound man. Some of them are funny, some are assholes, but they are definitely interesting people. That’s what life’s about, man. If you’re out there on the road and you have the opportunity to travel around the world, you should meet everyone you can, see how the other half lives. You can learn a lot from that. Life is about learning and it never stops, but hopefully you can graduate.
On that note I’ll end this interview. It was a pleasure talking to you.
Same here, man. Doom on!
Get all the info on Raven’s Kickstarter campaign here.