Healing through Pagan Death Metal: An in-depth Interview with Helsott

By Sebastian Vazquez

Southern California pagan death metal veterans and fresh M-Theory Audio label signees Helsott had a brief moment to spare with Metal Assault recently, to discuss their label signing and upcoming studio release ‘The Healer’, slated for release on April 28th. 

Helsott has traveled across America spreading their voracious death metal tones inspired by the pagan worshippers and viking lore, and in seven years, managed to cultivate a following in the firm belief that American pagan death metal is here to stay.

Their discography is not as lengthy as other bands with similar history, but their self-released debut full length ‘Woven’ allowed for Helsott to make a name in the underground death metal scenes. Now the band is looking to broaden their horizons and has strong belief that their next record will lift them to places they haven’t gone before. Without further ado, here’s Metal Assault’s interview with Helsott:

Good evening fellas. Once again it is a pleasure talking to you all. Right off the bat, I have to say congratulations on your recent label signing to M-Theory Audio. It is an exciting venture for a band coming out of Menifee, CA. Want to elaborate a bit on it?

Eric Dow (vocals): Yeah, Marco Barbieri, the former president of Century Media US headquarters, runs M-Theory Audio and I have personally known him for a while. When we were about to put out ‘Woven’, we actually shopped it to him and he was one of the first industry guys that wanted to work with the band. Things looked promising but things were not clicking between the European satellites of the label so they ended up passing on us at the time.

But there was definitely interest?

Eric: Oh yeah. In shopping ‘Woven’, we developed some interest not only with Marco but also with the likes of Metal Blade and Nuclear Blast, but you know, interest can only go so far, and in this industry, the stars have to align for you to get picked up out of the gate. That is all besides all the hard work you already put in the band and getting it to where it needs to go because if you do not put in the work you are not going to get signed anyway.

And then?

Eric: So in this particular case, Sony bought out Century Media and Marco took off. I don’t think he was enjoying his day gig, and missed running his own label, so he picked up his old imprint M-Theory Audio and got it running again. I think it was last October when we were just about to getting to record ‘The Healer’ and Marco hit us up and explained interest in putting it out via his label. At the time we did not even know he had another label going. Marco is one of the few good guys in the industry that I will fall into battle with. It was a no-brainer to keep in touch with him. You know, we had shopped it to over 300-400 labels but we had our eyes on Marco. We did garner a lot of interests but no one was pulling the trigger. The old guys we are and how impatient we have become with that type of thing, it was really a no-brainer to get it out via M-Theory Audio.

Cooper Dustman (drums): We aren’t that old. (Band laughs)

Mikey Muller (bass): We are pretty old. But we are just happy to be able to get signed to someone of Marco’s caliber. The label is relatively small and new but with a person of his caliber…

Eric: It is not going to be small for long.

Mikey: Exactly.

I would look at it as an exciting development and being part of the label’s cultivation process. Can you imagine your career five years from now?

Eric: I DO! (Band laughs)

David Walston (guitar): The five and ten year plan.

Eric: Yeah, I have a five and ten year plan. But we are also working on our one and two-year plans because those five years pass quickly. This band has been around for over seven years now and let me tell you it went by super fast.

I saw you guys back in May and even that feels like it was yesterday. Let us hear more about Helsott. Is everyone here a founding member?

Eric: I am the last original member.

David: I joined the band around a year ago.

Mikey: In order of band members it is Eric as the original, then Cooper, then me, and then Dave. I have been in the band for 4 or 5 years.

Eric: Yeah, but without a doubt this is Helsott. It was a struggle for the first couple of years of even trying to maintain a singularity or thought process with a consistent group. Getting everybody on the same page is one of the toughest challenges of being in a band. This band has had anywhere from six people as a group and even as little as a power trio. But we knew we had to at least get out there. I used to describe the band and the way I saw it and how it should be and with these guys they make up everything that I had thought of. Like when I talk to promoters and other guys like that and try to talk up the band I knew exactly what I had to say and these guys were the real deal.

Eric Dow – Helsott (photo by Karina Diane)

There is no doubt in the industry that marketing oneself is a skill to have, especially if you are out trying to shop your stuff to 300-400 avenues. I remember speaking to Mikey last year and I asked him about the music and responded that you guys were “An American pagan death metal band”. Wwho came up with that?

Cooper: The genre of our music comes with a lot of influences. One of my favorite parts of this band is that we can get booked on power metal shows, death metal shows, black metal shows, so you know, it is all inclusive (laughs). If it’s heavy hitting, we are there.

Mikey: Don’t forget Kill Devil Hill! (Band laughs).

Cooper: Yeah we even opened up for Kill Devil Hill before.

Mikey: They are an amazing band, but I wouldn’t really say that they are super heavy.

Eric: Yeah, like they were more rock than anything. It was Rex Brown and Vinny Appice and they had this Southern vibe mixed with some Alice in Chains vibe and very ’90s. We had like no business being there (band laughs) and we had people in the audience covering their ears in protest.

They probably branded you guys like cookie monsters! (band laughs)

Eric: What was cool was that Rex came up to me and said that he really enjoyed the set.

Hey no complaints there! But barring from all the wacky billings you have had in the past you have grown a lot as a group in the past year.

Eric: That is something I am really proud of. I have always treated this thing like a business and being able to find a group of guys who can get on board with that is immense. It is hard to see that when you are in it, constantly doing the band thing. Right now, it has taken forever to get to where we got to now, but for our careers it is only the beginning.

Mikey: Especially because a lot of us have been doing this music thing for decades. Back then a lot of us did not know the inner workings of the industry and we ran in circles with bands before Helsott. We also learned the massive financial burden of being in a band. I think that really helped us in the long run.

You guys have been doing this for over seven years. Not a lot of bands have that longevity, and get burned out. But on another note, let us talk about your exciting development, the release of ‘The Healer’. Do you guys have words on the writing process in creating this record?

Eric: Well firstly, this band has a way in writing music specifically for the respective instruments. For example, Cooper almost exclusively writes out the drum parts. Like for one of the new songs on the record, ‘Astralife’, it was one of the first songs he contributed for the band. Steph does all our orchestrations and behind the scenes stuff,  providing the female vox and she takes care of that stuff. Mikey writes out all the bass lines and Dave writes out his own parts. It is uniquely a collaborative process in writing new music from the ground up. We are all very open and almost unfocused in a way where we can all be open in the rehearsal room and get things done.

Cooper: It is basically like showing up to work and getting things done.

Eric: Yeah, I have been in bands and the writing processes just did not click. But for this band, it flows really well. I am proud of that.

How would you all say the actual writing process is? From basic riff to orchestration? From start to finish?

Cooper: I can tell you what I like to do. For songs that have not been written, I like to write out and record drum parts as if I was writing new lines for a new song. I just come up with different grooves and play around with stuff here and there and I have a new voice message memo to show to the guys. On ‘The Healer’ I was playing around with stuff that Dave had shown us and I worked and worked in getting the drum parts to really mesh well. A couple of rehearsals here and there to tighten things up and putting the finishing touches to the score, from start to finish, is a writing process that never ends until you have the finished product.

Cooper Dustman – Helsott (photo by Karina Diane)

So, you as a drummer write your drum parts apart from the rest of the band and then mesh it in with what the other guys bring to the table?

Cooper: That is basically it. But I have to give credit to Eric since he really provides direction on where to apply accents in the music and how to make certain parts feel like if they are going to live and breathe.

Eric: I also help in simplifying things too because he likes to get all crazy with it and that is really cool, you know. But sometimes, and for a lot of times, you just got to make things simple (band laughs). Our writing process is not that conventional, but it works. It also shows for a lot of people who hear our music. A lot of our music has different flavors and temperatures and often does not confide in the genre specific conventions in metal. We like to have our own different quirks. Nothing is off limits.

David: Yeah, like sometimes I record some stuff down on my phone or my computer and I will send it out to the guys and then we start to brainstorm and get my original ideas fleshed out as a group. Sometimes I will go into my older recordings and listen to them and see if I can pick and choose riffs that could flow with what I have in mind. Sometimes we kind of Frankenstein it and it comes out really good.

David Walston – Helsott

Is it a matter of pulling your phone out and clicking a metronome and just playing?

David: It just depends. Sometimes I hear something in my head and I will riff it out. Sometimes I will hit record on my phone and then see what happens. Sometimes you can catch stuff that turns out to be pretty good.

Cooper: Our music is like adding coats to stuff. We all provide a coat to the music and when you coat each layer, the song starts to become structured. Then from there we do the fine-tuning tweaks of lengthening and shorting parts here and there to add the final layer.

Eric: With the vocals, I am very percussive since I have played drums for years and pretty much my whole life, and sometimes I apply a databank of beats in my head and apply my vocals lines like a drum pattern. A lot of the times I develop a particular polyrhythm and I will take one rhythm and apply it to a verse, and apply the other rhythm in the polyrhythm and I will apply that to the chorus. So really, I approach writing vocal lines like writing music as a drummer. I fit the words in where I think the beats should be.

Any words on the bass lines?

Mikey: A lot of times I will try to just keep the originally proposed rhythms and groove with it and try to keep it driving with the bass, especially since we are now performing with only one guitar. I try to write the parts out to provide that base for the music and to keep it driving. I will apply my personal touches here and there where I feel like something a little extra is needed. I am traditionally not that well versed in writing songs, but my skill set is better in applying a creative element to the proposed rhythm lines and to bring that out in full with the bass guitar.

Mikey Muller – Helsott (photo by Karina Diane)

So, in comparison to your older writing processes, like ‘Woven’, what are the differences?

Cooper: We did this one right. There was not anywhere near as much pressure in putting out this record as our last record. We had a very short window for ‘Woven’ and I threw my hip out when we were bouncing tracks and things weren’t setting straight. There was only so much time we had in the studio and we had to make it work. It was a pressure cooker in there. This time, in recording for ‘The Healer’ at Trench Studios, we really spent time on getting a good drum tone. With ‘Woven’, we had 8 tracks with one of them being a 12-minute banger, so that was really my first experience in laying down professional quality tracks. I just felt more comfortable this time around. I knocked out the EP in two days. But with that came the months and months of planned preparation.

Helsott: “Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.” (band laughs).

Eric: That is definitely our motto.

Cooper: The drums came out tits and I couldn’t be happier. It was some of the best tones I have ever heard.

Eric: They are amazing drum tones, actually (laughs).

How was the writing process for the other members of the band?

Mikey: For me it was generally a lot less stress. I had the mindset that was completely different from the last time. We are all three years older and three years more experienced. We also got some tour experience under our belt, so we were more prepared this time around.

Eric: Yeah and another thing is that half of ‘The Healer’ is older songs that we have performed for a while but just now got it recorded. We got some old stuff done, got some new stuff done, and we have even more stuff lined up for a full length next year. ‘The Healer’ is a proper EP, I would say.

Mikey: We also like the fact that this new release is varied. It has a lot of stuff to it that maintains the traditional Helsott canon but also has a new, varying influence.

David: ‘The Healer’ for me is definitely a production of five completely different songs.

Cooper: It was a record of a whole bunch of different personalities.

Mikey: It is a collection of songs with completely different personalities, and that includes the cover song.

Eric: Yeah, the cover is completely different from what we play, which is the song ‘Unconscious Power’ by Iron Butterfly from the ’60s. We brought ’90s-meet-’70s to the song, sped it up and thrashed it out. Steph even added a little synthesizer to it when they only used pipe organs in the past. It definitely isn’t Helsott, but it wouldn’t also take one a moment to decipher that it is Helsott (band laughs).

Mikey: It is not Helsott but we all contributed our own personalities to it.

Eric: One thing I have to say that stayed constant in the process is the artwork. Felipe Machado Franco, the guy who does the artwork for Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody, Rhapsody of Fire, Iced Earth, still does Blind Guardian, Rage, and lots of badass artwork. He is from Columbia but comes to LA often and we ran into him at PaganFest when we played there. He just stopped by after he had a convention, saw us, and hit me up and said that he wanted to do the artwork for the next album. We were all surprised since he was pretty drunk and we were like, “Who the hell is this guy?” It wasn’t until six months later when we played another show in LA and we ran into him again! He was drunk again by the way, and then he hands me his business card and his business card was like a little packet with a very impressive portfolio. I looked at him and said, “I can’t afford you” and he was like “No, you can afford me” (band laughs).

And ever since, he has been our artist.

Mikey: It was fun because he had to do artwork that wasn’t power metal. When we sat down with him and told him we wanted a white album cover for ‘Woven’, he was initially stunned since his forte is in the oranges and blues.

Eric: Yeah, we told him that and he was like, “Fuck yeah!” (band laughs)

Mikey: At his art exhibit during the 70000 Tons of Metal cruise, he had all his art displayed and in the middle of his collection was the ‘Woven’ artwork cover. That is inclusive of Blind Guardian, Iced Earth, and Rhapsody prints too.

That is very cool. So, when is the release of ‘The Healer’, and what is the plan to promote it?

Eric: April 28th. We are playing in Colton, and working out a release show in LA for the 28th or 29th and then we are playing in Long Beach for a Cinco De Mayo show. We are also playing Brick By Brick in San Diego opening up for Evergrey, one of my all time favorite bands, and so we are going to be busy and booked until the summertime. For the fall and winter schedules we have our name in like 7 or 8 different tour hats, so I am sure that we can pull off one or two of those tours. During those tours from summer on we will be working on creating our next full length.

Staying busy!

Eric: Definitely, and we also have an option in our contract to re-release ‘Woven’ too, actually. We do not know if we can do it at this time or even in the immediate future but we definitely want another shot at re-recording the motherfucker. So when looking at the future, we already have the next year-and-a-half planned out.

And to end the interview on a lighter note, are there any funny moments of Helsott that you all would like to reveal? Something particular your fans might not know?

Eric: Well, we called the Woven Across America Tour the KOA across America tour because we stopped at so many KOAs along the way. We had so many shows get cancelled and we had so many shady promoters fuck us over night  in and night out, and instead of trying to find the venue we were trying to find the nearest KOA station camp somewhere.

Mikey: That was definitely the cleanest we ever were on a tour. (laughs)

Eric: Yeah, we had stayed at least 6 KOA camps and thus named our tour the KOA Across America Tour.

Cooper: I think we did more KOAs then we did shows!

Eric: That is just a test for what it is like across the road, you know? A lot of things like that happen in the music industry.

Cooper: Yeah, the KOA thing was good for us because it is cheaper to camp out than it is to get into a hotel. So we literally are pitching tents in the evening.

Eric: I also remember this one time when we were in Nebraska and Arkona and Heidevolk met us in a Walmart parking lot and we turned that shit into a fucking party (laughs). And the one cop on duty in this super tiny town comes up to us and we are thinking that we are going to get screwed and she was totally cool and gave us her phone number and offered any help she could. We busted out the football and started teaching these two Russians in Arkona on how to play and ended smashing one of them in the eye (laughs). Then he goes, “Oh, I think it’s hematoma.” (all laugh)

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