Katon de Pena Comments on New Developments, Old Days of Thrash & Playing The Goregrowler's Ball
Even though Hirax came out of the same Los Angeles, and San Francisco Bay Area thrash scene as Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica, the group has always flown well below those thrash Titan’s radar. Hirax is an essential part of thrash history. Brian Slagel saw their worth and released the group’s first two records, “Raging Violence” (1985) and “Hate, Fear and Power” (1986) to his budding Metal Blade label.
Hirax never became a household name like their friends in Metallica and Slayer because, in part, their 1986 release would be their last full-length recording until 2004. The group split in the late ‘80s, during the golden years of thrash, and returned in the late nineties. Since 2005, Hirax welcomed its most stable lineup and has spent those last few years inciting pits around the globe. The group is still pushing its 2009 release “El Rostro de la Muerte,” a speedy, Slayer-esque release, but is pushing forward with an upcoming album and record contract.
Original vocalist, Katon W. de Pena spoke with Metal Underground concerning these new developments. After having just unloaded his suitcase from a tour in Poland, the purveyor of true metal opined on playing the group’s first appearance in Texas at The Goregrowler’s Ball and the group’s recent business developments. He also flashed back to the early days of thrash metal. Hirax is at the top of its game. Read on and see why de Pena believes this is so.
Darren Cowan (Rex_84). Hirax has a new record deal that you’re getting ready to sign. Can you tell our readers about this signing?
Katon W. de Pena: We’re basically in talks right now. We’re pretty close to getting everything finished up. I guess, I’m probably not supposed to say anything about it, but I will anyway because I think that’s a bunch of bullshit. If it works out, everything will be fine. If it doesn’t, we’ll still find another label. Right now, it looks like we’re going to be signing with SPV Records.
Cowan: What do you think about the possible move to that label?
de Pena: I think it will be a good fit because they have worked with bands similar to us. On the label, they have acts like Kreator and stuff like that and many more acts. There is a lot of heavy shit on SPV. If the deal works out, I think it will be a great fit for us. The future of Hirax is going to be awesome because we are finally going to have a label behind us that will help get our music to the right people. We’ve worked with a lot of good people in the past, but where the band is at now, in our career, we need to step it up. Things are going really well for us now. We want to make our records easier for our fans to get ahold of.
Cowan: What label put out your last record, “El Rostro de la Muerte?”
de Pena: We released our last few records on our own label, Black Devil Records. Then, we licensed the records out to other labels all over the world. We have really good distribution through labels like Nuclear Blast, Century Media and even Metal Blade Records is still doing some of our stuff. It’s been pretty cool, but it will be great to have a label that will be focused on us full time. We still aren’t giving up our creative control. We’re still going to be very hands-on with every aspect of Hirax. It’s a nice position to be in, but it’s just gotten to the point in the last few years where the band has gained popularity and it’s kind of hard for us to keep up with everything, so we need to bring in some other people.
Cowan: It seems like you’re going ahead further than you have before because you’ve only released four albums since you started.
de Pena: We’ve been a lot busier because the popularity of the band has picked up a lot in the last few years. Definitely, we are more popular now than we were in the eighties. I don’t really mind that because we’ve worked really hard to get where we are at. We’re going to continue to do that. It’s a really nice time in the career of the band. We’ve got a good lineup. I’m really happy with the guys we’re playing with. We’ve got the Harrison brothers, which is Lance and Steve Harrison playing guitar and bass. They’ve been very solid with me since 2006. I’ve got Jorge Iacobellis on drums. The newest addition to the band is Mike Guerrero. He is the other lead guitarist. We’re really fired up. We’re getting ready for this show on Saturday in Texas, which will probably be our last show of the year. We’ve got to start focusing on finishing up the new album, so we can have it out by spring time, 2012. Needless to say, it’s probably been the busiest time in the whole history of the band because we have so much stuff going on with new management and the new record deal.
Cowan: Can you tell our readers more about the new material?
de Pena: Tentatively, the title for the new record is gonna be “Mass Hysteria.” We’ve basically started putting all the material together. We’re still not finished, so there is still quite a bit of work to do. We’ve been so busy touring. We’ve been juggling writing songs and going out on the road. We just got back from Europe. It’s pretty awesome. I’d rather be busy than not busy. We’ve got so much to do, which is really great. The band is so fired up to do all of these things. We just finished up our newest video for “Broken Neck” off our last record. The video is doing really, really well. After this show on Saturday, we’ll begin focusing, hardcore, on the new record.
Cowan: Is there a common theme to the lyrics or the title?
de Pena: Our lives have gotten so crazy since the band’s rise. The last few years, we have been so busy touring the world. We’ve been all over the place. Between Japan, the U.S., going out to do dates in Europe here and there, and then flipping back over to do dates in South America. It’s like mass hysteria for us. That’s the whole basis of the new record. It’s about how crazy things are, and how exciting things have been in the last few years. It was kind of the driving force for me, lyrically, just because I was thinking, “This is so much at one time!” We’re actually very happy about all of this stuff. We’re pretty much living the dream. The record will be based on a few different things that are intertwined. Some of those things we want to be surprises, but the overall concept is pretty much what people expect from us. We’re not going to try to commercialize our sound or change to make radio hits. It’s nothing like that at all. It’s going to be straight, in-your-face metal like we’ve been doing for the last twenty-something years.
Cowan: You mentioned touring Europe. You just returned home from Poland. How was that tour?
de Pena: It was cool. The thing is we are still rebuilding our fan base in Europe. We’ve been gone for so long in South America. We spent the last few years touring through South America. We’ve done a good job there. We have a great fan base. The shows are really big when we play in South America, but we kind of neglected Europe. Now, we are getting back to that. That’s one thing good about signing with a label like SPV. They are a German company. They have a U.S. office, but they are based out of Germany. Going back, working over in Europe and doing more touring there is going to be a nice combination to have a record label that can help support the tours. Poland, to be honest with you, is one of the best places for Hirax when we play Europe because the fans are so die-hard. They are really into the band. They are really crazy and we love that. The toughest part about touring Poland is the drinking. There is so much good Vodka there that you end up partying most of the time that you’re in that country. That presented the only problem. We had a really good time there. We did three shows. For the first time, we played in Warsaw, Poland, which was awesome! We’re looking forward to going back next year. Europe has always been pretty good for us. We’ve played all over the place. We’ve done Sweden, Norway, France—it’s quite a familiar place to us, but we still have other countries that we need to visit. We haven’t done Greece, Italy, the U.K., so those are some of the countries we’ll be hitting in 2012.
Cowan: Our European readers will be happy to hear that.
de Pena: It’s always great going back. Europe has a great scene! The movement over there is still very strong. It’s one of the best!
Cowan: Do you feel that when compared to Europe, America is more commercialized in its metal?
de Pena: There is commercial metal everywhere. It’s just that places like Europe or South America really respect real heavy metal. It’s treated very well. It’s normal to go into a store and hear a heavy metal song playing through the radio or go into a store and see magazines. (Writers Note: I remember buying “Metal Maniacs” at my local grocery store as a teenager. Not anymore!), especially for heavy metal bands that are old school or true heavy metal. A band like Saxon does well in the U.S., but way better in Europe. The movement over there is way bigger for this kind of metal. It’s the same for Hirax: We go over to Europe and do really well. That’s kind of the setback about the U.S. I think that commercial music is a little more popular in the U.S., but to be honest with you, in the last few years there has been a resurgence of metal in the U.S. I expect it to keep getting better.
We love touring through the U.S. We’ve always done really well, especially areas like the East Coast such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Obviously, we do well on the West Coast, hitting places like L.A., San Francisco and Portland. One of our favorite places to play, and I’m not just saying this, we love to play Texas! Texas has always been good for us. For the first time, we’re actually playing San Antonio. It should be an interesting show. I have a really good feeling about it because, like I said, every time we go through Texas it’s been fucking awesome!
Cowan: What has kept you away from San Antonio?
de Pena: We never got an opportunity. We’ve always come really close. We’ve played even smaller places. We played Corpus Christi. We never got the right promoter until now with the guys (Aaron Mendiola, read the interview) from The Goregrowler’s Ball. They were smart. They put this thing together really well. It’s a three-day festival. It should be pretty insane. We’re coming in a little early on Saturday so we can do a couple of in-stores. We’re doing two in-store meet-n-greets where we meet the fans. We’re doing hour sessions. We’re doing an hour at Texas Trash Clothing Exchange at 3:30. Then at 4:30, we’ll be at a record store that has been selling metal records for thirty years called Hogwild Records. It will be nice to meet the fans earlier, and then play the show later on that night.
Cowan: Are you going to give us a taste of the new material at this show?
de Pena: I wish we were. We’re really stoked about one of the songs we’ve already written. We’re really stoked for people to hear it. Now is just not the time. We’ll be coming back through. We’ll be playing Texas next year. I can’t really say right now, but we’ll come back through and probably play three or four shows. Obviously, we’ll play Houston because we have a really strong fan base in Houston, and try to fit in a few other places like Austin and maybe Dallas. We’ll see how San Antonio goes on Saturday, but I feel we’ll be going back there. I hear there is a great metal scene in San Antonio.
Cowan: Some journalists have dubbed it “The Metal Capital of the World.” I haven’t seen that, but I wasn’t here in the eighties or other times.
de Pena: That is the rumor. I’ve heard the same thing. It’s the metal capital of Texas. We’re going to find out on Saturday, aren’t we?
Cowan: Going back to your early days, you came out of L.A. around 1984. At that time, there was a small thrash scene. Metallica was from that area. Later on, you had Dark Angel and obviously, Slayer and Megadeth. What was it like back then? Did you play gigs with those bands?
de Pena: Oh yeah, all the time. It was pretty basic because there were only a few of us, a handful of bands, especially bands playing the faster stuff. There were bands that were around the same time as we were, but were doing different things like Armored Saint, Savage Grace, Warrior—I’m trying to think because you’re taking me way back to the old days. It’s hard to remember everybody. There was more of the heavy metal bands. There was Slayer, Metallica, and then Dark Angel started doing stuff. We would play together with those bands or go see each other’s shows. It was an awesome, awesome time. It was new and really exciting because nobody had ever seen that kind of stuff before. A lot of our early shows were the first time people had ever stage dived or slam danced. It was all brand new. It was a good time to be a part of that.
Now, it has become a big part of the heavy metal history. There was the L.A. scene and also the San Francisco scene. After a while, we started playing in San Francisco because the audience was more accepting of our music. L.A. at the time was a little tough because you had bands like Ratt and Motley Crue coming up. The glam metal thing was doing really well in L.A. We were still drawing awesome crowds down here; it’s just that San Francisco was even bigger.
Cowan: Where you out of the band for a while because Paul Baloff (R.I.P., Exodus) was Hirax’s singer for a while?
de Pena: Yeah, that was interesting because I left at one point. I was fed up with the whole thing. There were issues with the band. We weren’t getting along. When I left, they ended up trying out Paul for a little while. He was in the band for not too long. I was happy about it because I love Paul Baloff. We were really good friends. We got along great, so it wasn’t like I was mad. I was doing other stuff, anyway. I was in another band called Phantasm. Paul ended up not staying in the band. A little bit later on, I came back.
Cowan: Going forward: This style has been going on for almost thirty years. Now, we have a new crop of bands carrying the torch. Do you pay attention to any of the new thrash bands?
de Pena: A lot of those bands have opened our shows. We’ve done different tours with a lot of these young bands opening. It’s kind of cool to see because it’s like looking back thirty years later. We’ll see who withstands the test of time. We’ll see who is still around five-to-ten years from now. Who lasts is really what separates the men from the boys. It’s a great thing to see. It’s been revitalized, not just from the old school but the new school kids who are trying to do a similar style of trash metal. I keep an eye on it because a lot of those kids have played with us or come to our shows and introduced their selves. It’s great to see a big, thrash metal family. People are still involved and loving this kind of music. I don’t think it will be just a fad. Look at where thrash started and where it is now. It has sold millions of records. Now, it’s considered a legit form of music. In the early days, people didn’t even want to hear it. We’ve come a long ways. It will be around for a long time. As long as there are rebellious kids, there will be thrash metal.
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