Interview with Jason Conde-Houston of Skelator
Conducted by Robert Williams
Seattle, Washington’s true metal warrior’s Skelator hit me like a ton of bricks the first time I heard them. I had gathered a stack of promo’s I received in the mail to listen to on the drive down from Austin to San Antonio for an Iron Maiden concert and from the second their latest album “Agents Of Power” was introduced to my admittedly jaded ears it would be month’s upon month’s before that disc would leave my car stereo. Skelator plays heavy metal with a certain reverence and purity to the genre that is something of a rarity these days. Their songs are finely crafted, revealing reflections of some of metal’s all-time great forefathers while still carving their own respective niche in the genre. Skelator vocalist Jason Conde-Houston recently took the time to speak with Metal-Rules.com about the band’s early beginnings, where they are at as a band now and what all we can expect from them in the immediate future. Do yourself a favor metal brethren and seek out their music at once!
How are you doing today Jason?
I’m actually a bit hungover right now. Last night I went to a kick ass local show to see my buddies Last Bastion and Blood of Kings and lastly to check out our new comrades in True Metal, Iron Kingdom from Vancouver, BC. Many beers, shots and posers were slain that night.
You’ve been writing, recording and performing with your heavy metal band Skelator since the late nineties. Take me back to the early days of the band in San Diego, California – How did you all originally meet and form the band?
In reality we never did shit in the 90’s. I mean yeah we wrote lyrics and drew shitty album cover concepts but we never played a show until May 19th 2000. So my best friend Max Perry and I wanted to start a metal band since 1998. In ‘99 he got a guitar and we both got SUPER into Metallica and Slayer and by accident we got Iron Maiden “Powerslave” on cassette. Our young minds were blown. We wanted to write story based songs a’la Maiden but with the thrash metal fury of Slayer.
So we needed a drummer and a place to practice, luckily I went to High School with Pat Seick and his parents allowed us to practice our horrible attempts at Thrash Metal in their hallway every Saturday afternoon. Basically we would go hangout on Friday night, play video games all night and then jam after we ate burritos for lunch. But we needed a lead guitarist, so I called upon Robbie “the” Houston my cousin. “ROBBIE! YOU MUST SAVE SKELATOR!!!” That was the message I left on his answering machine back in 2000. He was in the band for about a week and then we played our first show.
Chris Fryer was our bassist at the time also a schoolmate of mine. Good kid but I don’t think playing bass was his calling in life. It was also embarrassing at shows because he would wear Papa Roach and No Doubt tshirts. Robbie said he would help us out for the time being but that he would someday “leave Skelator” in the future when his band Session would get better shows and what not… 13 years later Robbie has never left my side. That lineup lasted almost a year I believe? It’s too bad the fallout happened so soon. I wish we could have recorded a better demo of “Give Me Metal” with that lineup instead of reworking the songs a billion times and re-recording the same shit for years to come. But it was going to happen either way because Pat moved to North Carolina to go to University.
Skelator is now based out of Seattle, Washington. What prompted the move from your old stomping grounds in San Diego to re-locate the band to the NorthWest? What did you find most difficult about re-establishing a local following and what would you cite as being some differences between the two scenes?
I have had to answer this question a million times since we started planning the move in 2005. There’s a lot of in’s and out’s. We were kicking ass in SD back in 2003-2005. But that’s when the SD/TJ Metal scene was in full force and there were shows EVERY weekend on both sides of the border. Since we were the only non-extreme metal band in town we were treated like kings. They made us headline every show and people would headbang and sing along. Not only did the metalheads love us but even the punks and hipsters as well. But all the venues were on the verge of closing all the time. Then the great internet war of 2005 rocked the SDMetal.org forums and many friendships were tainted and the scene started to fold. Besides the local scene politics and hoo-ha there were more pressing matters that made us change our outlook on our fair city of San Diego.
Patrick needed to find a school where he could finish his degree and not have to start all over again. Community College was not cutting it and the only place that would take his prior credits from North Carolina was Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington. Robbie wanted to get the fuck out of San Diego because he got his degree in sound and wanted to make it in Seattle where there are more musicians than you can wave a stick at. Also on our first tour Seattle was the most successful show we played, everyone was really cool and supportive. All of us decided we would move up together and make Seattle our new home. Unfortunately when push came to shove Jesse Jensen and Rah Davis were still very young and skeptical of making the big move. I couldn’t blame them, it took me a year to get myself ready to move but once I did I never looked back. In 2006 we played our “Final SD Show” opening up for Helstar and Agent Steel we were supposed to record that show but my dumbass friend got there late…. FUCK HIM!
So Seattle… it took quite a while to get really established. I mean think about it we went from being the Kings of San Diego to the new kids on the block in Seattle. Not to mention the fact that we had to find replacements for Rah on Bass and Jesse on guitar. I could write a book on how many fucking people we tried out and worked with and what not but I’ll save that for another day. So add the fact that we are still trying to get notoriety in our new hometown and the fact that we have a revolving door with band mates coming in and out of the band it was pretty hard to get shit going and finish writing our album “Death to All Nations.” But by the time we had the album we were already opening up for bands like Primal Fear and Rotting Christ (go figure…). Also I helped out some kids in a band called Die by Day who had a giant following in the All Ages crowd. We played two shows opening up for 3 Inches of Blood at one show and Helloween and Gamma Ray at the other. Now all those kids are all over 21 and they still praise me for my performance. I was really just there for the ride, but I’m glad I could help them play their final shows in style.
Your latest full length studio album “Agents Of Power” recalls the glory days of eighties heavy metal and early NWOBHM and is also what I’d consider something of a concept album largely centered around the writings of the British sci-fi/fantasy author Michael Moorcock’s “Elric” character. The music and lyrics fit together seamlessly and come across as a perfect marriage of fantasy and metal. How did the idea for the new album come together?
Well the Elric epic has been in the works for quite some time, since the year 2000 actually. Those books really inspired me and so did Manowar’s Achilles: Agony and Ecstacy in 8 parts. The song “Agents of Power” is also based on Elric and his fellow Eternal Champions, Corum, Hawkmoon and Erokose. “Gates of Thorbardin” is based on Dungeons and Dragons: Dragonlance Chronicles. “Dream Dictator” is just a fake Dio song and “Rhythm of the Chain” is about me walking down the street to the rhythm of my chain, not giving a shit, and singing Saxon songs on my way to the store to buy beer… basically. We could have gone with just the Elric songs but then I think the listener would want just a little more. So it’s kinda like “Agents of Power” is a 4 song EP and “Elric the Dragon Prince” is the “real” album.
“The Dark Tower” originally appeared on “The Gore Of War” split you had released with Gutrot in 2006, later resurfacing two years later on the comprehensive “Time Of The Sword Rulers” compilation released through Italy’s Metal On Metal Records (only to be re-recorded for “Agents Of Power”) I guess the idea had always been there to do something epic based on the Elric books?
Yeah, I purposefully postponed the writing of the Elric epic until we were mature enough to tackle the project with a musical approach than our previous works. But Jesse wrote all the riffs to “Dark Tower” and I started singing my lyrics over it, it just seemed to work naturally. Also “The Coming of Chaos” is also about Michael Moorcock’s Corum saga.
I know you guys played a string of West Coast dates in support of “Agents Of Power” can we expect more North American live dates outside of Washington in 2013?
We are planning another West Coast Tour this fall, no details yet.
Speaking of Skelator live in concert… Metal On Metal Records released a limited pressing of hand numbered cassettes for Skelator’s first live album “Live Chaos”. What all do you recall from the three gigs that make up “Live Chaos”? Any chance this may get released on CD at some point?
The 2005 show was opening up for Cattle Decapitation. Rah broke a string on his bass so he had to use someone else’s hence his warm tone was absent. Robbie’s guitar was acting hella strange that night so the first and last song were unusable, which is unfortunate because they were “You Traveled” and “The Wrath of Odin’s Sons”. Also, we went on too long so they pulled the plug on us. But we got the soundboard recording and there are some cool tracks in the middle.
In 2008 we planned to record a double live album with our bandmates Fallen Angels. This was with one of mid period Seattle lineups with Zach Palmer on Bass, Ice Wizard on Guitar and Johan Waymire on Drums. Unfortunately the mics didn’t work very well on the Fallen Angels recording and I wasn’t very happy with my performance on some of the key songs like For Death and Glory. So we scrapped the project and just uploaded a few tracks to MySpace. Looking back we could have released it and it would have been fine, the overall performance was great and the recording sounds pro as fuck.
In 2010 we played at Chop Suey for the first time and once again we got a soundboard recording. This is with our famous “Death to All Nations/Agents of Power” lineup so we are well versed in our own art by this time. It’s too bad this one wasn’t recorded a bit better but the tracks came out great. Some minor fuck ups here and there on my screams but nothing to freak out about.
As for a CD release? I doubt it really. I’d rather focus on a REAL live album in the future.
This past February Metal On Metal Records re-issued “Give Me Metal Or Give Me Death” on CD following the previous year’s limited pressing on cassette. In your opinion, what is it about this early recording that has made it such a sought after release?
Well it’s always been VERY underground and hard to get. Until 2012 there were no physical copies made. Actually when we first signed to Metal on Metal we wanted them to release this album as our first CD. But they didn’t like it, they wanted more True Metal and not some Retro Thrash. We conceded and decided to reissue our EP’s instead. Years later Metal on Metal started to regret their prior decision and realized that the album is full of magic that you don’t get from the other Retro Thrash bands of the time. It’s a very unique album, just listen to the song “Skelator” and list how many genres it covers, jazz, blues, thrash, death and even power metal all in the same package. Only thing that sucks for the fans is that we are so fed up of playing those songs that you might never hear us play songs like “Nightstalker”, “Crusade” or “Wrath Upon the Cross” ever again.
So both Skelator and Midnight Idols both hail from Seattle and share the same record label (Metal On Metal Records) who has also re-issued Bitter End (also of Seattle) What is the connection between your label and The Emerald City? Do you all know each other and play shows together?
Don’t forget Fallen Angels too, I think it’s really just luck. Maybe we should start a local subdivision… hahaha.
Have you guys had the chance to get to work on writing some new songs yet? (And if so) How would you describe your new material?
We are working really hard on our next album. We don’t have a clear vision of what it is yet. Usually I have the whole map planned out way before, but this time I wanted to see what would happen naturally and just let the music happen on it’s own. Each song will have it’s own theme and atmosphere. “Stronger than Steel” is ULTRA power metal inspired with a rippin’ harmonized solo section, “Temple of the Witch” is a mid tempo fist pumper, “Raging Demon” is a fast paced headbanger with lot’s of Grave Digger inspiration, “Curse of the Black Hand” is a hats off to bands like Attacker and Helstar and our latest song “Necromancer” is like a sing along Helloween song with a very powerful harmonized hook. All in all this will be what you expect from Skelator but even more musical than before and better production than we’ve ever had before.
I’ve seen the fan made music video for “Symphony Of The Night” on YouTube where the band’s music is synched to clips of the video game CastleVania. First off, is the song really based on CastleVania? Second – Dude, what was your reaction when you found a fan made video of that caliber for one of your band’s songs? That’s dedication right there!
Yes the lyrics are all based on Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Maybe the worst game in the series (at least in those days, I heard N64 was worse), but the story is great in that game and with the line “What a horrible night for a curse.” how could you not use that in a metal song? But yeah one day I magically get a message from this dude in Greece and my mind was blown! Maybe we’ll ask him to do one for the next album.
I was really impressed when I heard you sing in fluent Spanish on the song “Guerreros de Metal” Did that come natural to you or did you have to study all the words beforehand? How did that tune come about have you toured in any Latin American markets?
I’m half Mexican, I’ve been speaking Spanish all my life. I even have a Mexican flag on my vest now to show my pride. I never wrote a song in Spanish before that and I thought it would be fun to write a metal anthem a’la Manowar. The chorus came out very naturally and it was stuck in my mind for years. Then finally I said that we needed to make this song and we came through. The idea was to record the song and a Spanish cover song and release a split with Dantesco. But we never got funding to make it happen so we scrapped the idea. We even paid for an album cover and everything, it was a big fiasco all together. So now it’s just a bonus track on the “Agents of Power” vinyl and on the Metal on Metal Compendium of Metal 6. Maybe when we release our rarities CD it’ll make an appearance.
As for Latin American markets? We have some fans throughout but nothing major… yet. I was hoping to get the split done and released in Latin America but since that fell through I kinda dropped the ball on all that. I would love to tour Mexico with bands like Voltax or Split Heaven someday, I think it would not just be fun but highly successful.
Skelator also takes part in Skol Records’ “Strong As Steel – A Tribute To Anvil” album. Which song did you guys end up covering? Was it tough to pick a shared favorite between the band members in Skelator or did the song you pick hold a special meaning to you guys as a band?
We did “Cut Loose” because it embodies all the elements of rockin’ ass metal that we strive for.
I hear traces of several different well known multi-octave heavy metal screamers when I listen to your vocals in Skelator. Who would you name as being your primary influences as a vocalist? Are you a self taught singer or were you coached at some point?
I had a little training when I was in Junior Theater and Chorus Class in Middle School. But most of my training was self-taught. No I don’t practice scales and shit, which I should. In 2003 I worked at a head shop in San Diego and I would just sing along to Priest for 8 hours a day everyday. I didn’t care if there were customers or not. My co-worker said you could hear my scream from across the busy street with busses and shit going by. It was then that I learned how to use my diaphragm. Over time I started working more on my notes and making them really solid. In 2008 I worked at a record store and I would crank Dio all day long. Same thing I didn’t give a shit who was around I would just wail. Now I work at a coffee shop and listen to Earth Wind and Fire all the time. I’m a bit more considerate at this job but I still let loose every once in awhile especially if no one is there and I got the Deep Purple rolling.
Favorite Singers: Dio, Rob Halford, Eric Adams, Ralph Scheepers, Ian Gillan, Glenn Hughes, Fabio Leone, James Rivera,Morby, Biff Byford, Chris Boltendahl, UDO, Doro.
How did you originally get into heavy metal music? Who were the band’s that changed your life and made you proud to call yourself a head banging heavy metal maniac?
HAHAHAHAHA…. Metallica! Fuck’em I know, but those first four albums were like the Star Wars trilogy for me. But just like Star Wars Metallica is a hard subject to talk about, or more like too easy to talk shit about. But you know that’s that. Metallica didn’t just offer me four great albums but they also showed me what bands to get into as well. Mercyful Fate, Diamond Head, Motorhead…etc. Me and Max would buy different CD’s and then dub the others to cassette. I also got into bands like Dark Angel, Razor, Cannibal Corpse, Cradle of Filth, Emperor, Enslaved, Obituary… etc. Then I started to going to Death Metal shows across the border when I was 18. But Manowar is what really made me who I am today. ALL HAIL!!!
What’s next for Skelator? Is there anything else we haven’t covered that Skelator fans need to know about?
Well we are very pleased to have our friend and ex-bandmate Rah Davis back in the band. It took six years for him to realize that this was the best band he was ever a part of and he too got mega sick of San Diego and all it’s pompous bullshit. With his help I think this next album and next wave of shows will be more solid than ever.
I’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk metal with me today Jason I really appreciate it. Before we wrap this up do you have any last words for your fans reading at home?
Death to the opposition, Death to false metal, GIVE ME METAL OR GIVE ME DEATH!