Singer James Paul Luna Discusses Holy Grail's Upcoming Sophomore Album "Ride The Void"
Band Photo: Holy Grail (?)
A funny thing happened on Main Street in the heart of hippie enclave Burlington, Vermont, this Tuesday past: a METAL show. Deathgrind splatter freaks Cattle Decapitation had booked a series of headlining dates after dropping off Six Feet Under's Autumn Apocalypse Tour. As happy coincidence would have it, California metallers Holy Grail had booked a night off from their ongoing tour with Hellyeah. The two bands' paths happened to cross at just the right time and place for Burlington's metal-starved fans.
Prior to the show in the intimate upstairs tavern Club Metronome, I strolled into the ground-floor establishment Nectars - fabled as the birthplace of Phish - where the five troublemakers of Holy Grail were cooling their heels. After finishing a game of pool, frontman James Paul Luna sat down with me in a booth to discuss his band's current happenings, including the highly anticipated new album "Ride The Void."
Mike Smith (OverkillExposure): Holy Grail almost didn’t make it back across the U.S. border today, thanks to a robbery in Canada. What happened?
James-Paul Luna: Everything got broken into while we were playing our set. They didn’t take any of our equipment, but they took some personal items, like laptops and iPods from our backpacks. They also stole some passports.
Mike: Did they catch the culprits?
James: No, they didn’t catch ‘em. But we did see the guys trying to come back, so we kind of followed them for a while, into these apartment complexes. The police went in later and looked, but it didn’t really lead to anything.
Mike: Yesterday was a national holiday, and the U.S. embassy was closed. How’d you resolve your passport problems?
James: We just kind of went for it, and tried to rely on having a police report and our drivers’ licenses, to see if they’d let us through the border with those. It actually ended up working out fine, ‘cause we were traveling by land. If we’d been flying, they wouldn’t have let us do that, though.
Mike: Tough times like ours can be a real strain on young touring bands. Do you foresee these road challenges piling up for bands like Holy Grail, or possibly diminishing?
James: I’ve seen everything getting a little bit better with every tour, but it’s still nothing to quit your day job over. [Laughs] It’s definitely a commitment and a labor of love. Hopefully this next record, with the reviews we’ve been getting and stuff, and what people overseas have been saying, should be a good thriving force to get us on some bigger tours and stuff like that. Maybe we could do a little headlining tour as well. That’d be cool.
Mike: The record has been finished for a little while now, hasn’t it?
James: We finished mastering it around October, so the actual record was finished… must’ve been late May.
Mike: You recently released a 7” single and lyric video for the new song “Dark Passenger.” Are you releasing anything else?
James: Well, that single has a B-side that’s not on the record, but so far, that’s it.
Mike: I sensed an Iron Maiden vibe on “Dark Passenger” that seems stronger than on Holy Grail’s previous work. Since “Crisis In Utopia”  mixed old school and modern metal styles, I’m curious about the general direction on “Ride The Void.” Does it fork off onto one route, or stay the course?
James: I see things going the same way, but just a little bit more refined and mature. We’re finding our own sound and reflecting inward a little more. We trimmed all the fat we could, and tried to bring out the best riffs, the best solos, the best vocal harmonies, and stuff like that. I think we have really strong choruses, too, which are kind of missing in metal today. I think it’s a good combination of ingredients.
Mike: The state of “strong choruses in metal” might provoke a vigorous debate among some people. What have you listened to that leads you to that opinion? Not to name names or anything, but what kind of stuff you do feel just doesn’t “have it?”
James: It just seems like most of the “mainstream” metal you’d hear, or the most popular stuff on the blogs. It’s not like it was when listening to “Countdown To Extinction” or any Maiden record. Those records almost have a “pop” element, but not like a “sellout” pop element. They didn’t have to sell out to make a catchy song. They just made songs with memorable parts and good hooks.
Mike: Holy Grail is now signed to Nuclear Blast in Europe. How did that come about?
James: We wanted to get bigger coverage for Europe, and [our U.S. label] Prosthetic has some branches there, but we wanted to get a big player involved, a big driving force. We were talking to a few labels, but Nuclear Blast was kind of the most excited. We really liked their vibe and what they’re capable of doing for bands in Europe. So we went with them.
Mike: In light of the signing, are you lining up to tour Europe in the new year?
James: We have a couple things in the works, but nothing’s concrete yet. It changes day to day, so I’m not really sure! There are plans to go back to Europe, though.
Mike: And as for this year, you were pretty busy. You not only toured with Dragonforce, but also opened for Sebastian Bach. How was that?
James: That was amazing! It was also really weird to see that side of L.A., with the whole glam scene and all the groupies. You’d see both moms AND their daughters being groupies for Sebastian Bach! [Laughs] It was just wild.
Mike: For “Crisis In Utopia,” you worked with Danny Lohner, [Nine Inch Nails] who’s not fully a metal producer. For “Ride The Void,” you worked with Matt Hyde, [Slayer, Children Of Bodom] a big metal guy. Do you think that’s impacted the outcome?
James: Matt’s also a guitarist, and has a really strong sense of theory and song structure. It was perfect to balance ideas off him and have a constructive outside opinion that we valued. We butted heads here and there, but it was always for the better. I think it shows in the record, and I think that’s Matt’s biggest impact.
Mike: In terms of songwriting contributions to the new music, has anything significantly changed, or are the same creative forces in play?
James: For this album, we used a lot of [guitarist Eli Santana’s] riffs that started out as “skeleton riffs” and then became songs. It was a lot more heavily guitar-based. I wrote the vocal melodies and collaborated on them with Matt, so that department was mainly him and me. But Eli also had some good ideas. He was probably the biggest driving force in the creation process. He and I were there almost every day working on stuff. Our new guitarist Alex [Lee] brought a different vibe too; he actually wrote two songs on the record. We wouldn’t have had them on the first record, ‘cause it’s a very different style, but really cool. Really heavy.
Mike: Speaking of new members, Holy Grail has revolved the “second guitarist door” for some time now, along with some other changes.
James: Yeah. We have the same bassist we had in the beginning, [Blake Mount] but he was gone for about six months a couple years ago, and then came back. And then with the first record, we went through two guitarists for some tours. But once Alex quit Bonded By Blood, he called us up, and we told him we were still looking for a guitarist.
Mike: Do you feel things are more solidified now for the long haul?
James: Yeah, I feel like we’re finally all on kind of the same page, and looking for the same end result.
Mike: The artwork for “Ride The Void” is pretty gorgeous, and very different from “Crisis In Utopia.” Dylan Cole works on movies; he’s not your typical “metal artist” that every band hires. What kinds of themes were you looking for him to convey?
James: We were kind of going for something… semi-post-apocalyptic, yet semi-King Diamond, with a little “Inception” kind of vibe. The premise of the piece was the title, “Ride The Void.” We didn’t want to have a subject or a character in the cover; we wanted “nothingness” to be the focal point. That’s kind of what we told Dylan. We’d had some rough sketches that we’d collaged off the Internet, and we sent them to him, and he went off and did that awesome piece.
Mike: I’m intrigued by some of the new song titles: “Bleeding Stone,” “Too Decayed To Wait,” and “The Great Artifice.” What’s the meaning, your intention, behind those?
James: “The Great Artifice” is a title Eli penned, but I took it into a more political realm when we wrote the song. It’s somewhat anti-government, an anti-establishment kind of song. “Too Decayed To Wait” has a similar theme. The lyrics throughout the whole album are pretty anti-establishment, and about how we’re nearing a really bad time, and how the economy’s bad, and all that. But no matter how much life sucks, and no matter how much you think you can’t go any further, you just keep pushing further and take it to the next level. That’s the gist of “Too Decayed To Wait” and the title track. “Bleeding Stone” was just a kind of play on words, on that phrase about “trying to get blood from a stone.”
Mike: Two years ago, you gave an interview to Scott Alisoglu for Outburn Magazine. I have that issue with me, and I’m going to quote you…
James: [Laughs] Cool!
Mike: “I think with ‘Crisis In Utopia,’ we might lose some of the diehard, old school, traditional metal enthusiasts. But we’re just starting to gain a lot of fans that are just into metal in general. There are some new fans, though, that like both new school and old school metal. So I think it’ll channel into that market as well, especially the teenage market, which is very much into that kind of thing.”
That’s where you saw things going in 2010. Do you feel that that’s happened?
James: Surprisingly, we didn’t lose as many old school metal fans as we thought we would! It seems like they just kind of accepted it for what is was.
Mike: Has the response been greater from the old schoolers or the new schoolers?
James: It seems about equal, but people are definitely still… how do I put this? For example, touring through Texas outside Austin, people are usually inclined to like the more modern-sounding stuff, versus the stuff that might sound a little too Maiden-y for them. But then again, Europe and Canada seem to love it either way. They’re a lot more open-minded, I’d say.
Mike: Do you generally see much difference between crowds up in Canada and crowds down here?
James: Yeah, I do. Except, for some reason, we go over really well in New England. We haven’t played in Vermont before, but we have played in Worcester and Boston, and people just go apeshit there. It’s pretty awesome. And as for Canada, I DJ’d a Metal Night up in Montreal on our night off, and everyone just seems to accept it all. I’d play Accept next to Hellhammer next to Pentagram, and it’s just all the same to them. It’s pretty cool! Somehow it all seemed to work.
Mike: How do you take care of your voice? I imagine with your vocal style, keeping everything top-notch night after night has to be pretty tough.
James: Oh, totally. I mean, I just try and rest it as much as possible, get enough sleep, and drink enough fluids. And if I drink too many beers, I need to find other fluid sources to rehydrate myself in the morning. Tea helps, coconut water helps, even Pedialyte helps. I saw Vinnie Paul drinking those a lot. It comes in these little packs, like emergency packs. It has a lot of electrolytes and vitamins and stuff for when you’re really dehydrated. You usually give it to little kids or babies.
Mike: We’ve been talking about a lot of old, classic metal. What new music have you guys been digging this year?
James: I really like the new Striker and the new Grand Magus. I like the new Kreator a lot, and the new Testament’s pretty sweet, too.
Mike: So you’re still on the road with Hellyeah. Are you playing more shows afterward, or going home for the holidays?
James: We have one more week with Hellyeah, and it ends in South Carolina, I think. Right after that show, we’re heading straight home to California for Thanksgiving!
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