INTERVIEW WITH LEE ALTUS OF Exodus and Heathen
Interview and pics by Arto Lehtinen
Lee Altus has been quite a busy man with both Heathen and Exodus. Both bands have been activate and touring often. Metal-Rules.com sat down with Lee to talk about the sounds of Heathen, the writing process for the new albums of Heathen and Exodus, and of course a little bit about the industrial and thrash metal in general.
Heathen’s stuff has always been more melodic as it doesn’t sound like some of the brutal thrash stuff like what I was used to with Kreator, Dark Angel, or Slayer – so you were more influenced by The New Wave Of The British Heavy Metal than punk stuff?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s kind of like, you said Kreator or Sodom or like the German thrash is different. They are more like Venom kind of punk rock to me. Where Bay Area metal had a little bit more. It’s just like that basic stuff wasn’t enough for us. I almost kind of like – always kind of wanted do it a bit Metallica and I respected what they do. They always pushed with maunders like, “Who said we can’t do the ballad. Who said we can’t do harmonies? Who said…”. Breaking the rules, that’s more important to me in the thrash, doing whatever you want to have the total freedom. So, that’s where we always – It’s like I grew up on Iron Maiden and New Wave Of The British Heavy Metal, but I also liked punk rock. I liked the speed of it, but I don’t want to sacrifice the melody, just because the speed and the aggression counts. So, somewhere in the middle there, there was Heathen. At the time Exodus was doing their thing, they were more aggressive, a lot of fun. So, there is no reason to copy that already. Every Bay Area band is like they have Bay Area style, but they kind of had their own thing.
At that time, you were able to recognize a band, because they had own identifiable sound. You immediately knew Forbidden, Vio-Lence, Heathen, Exodus, Possessed and so on. The sounds were basically a trademark of Heathen that you can be recognized as Heathen?
Yeah, like you said. It’s nothing like they sit down and design, it’s whatever you are influenced by and it kind of comes out. Obviously Bay area is really are like a band that is influenced more by obviously the European metal – New Wave Of The British Heavy Metal ; Judas Priest Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy and all that stuff. You kind of put it together and we also liked Exploited and GBH and put that all together and this is what came out. It’s not like it’s something that we had a meeting sat down and planned for it. I always like the more melodic singers as well as more aggressive singers. But I looked around in the Bay Areas and said, there is already a plenty of the aggressive singers.
You have kept the recognizable sounds of Heathen, even nowadays, you haven’t tried the modern steps and approach and started to venture into the new direction with Heathen and you have remained loyal to your roots.
It’s not that, like I said it’s not nothing on purpose. Staying loyal to your roots, like we just do whatever we want. Whatever comes naturally – some people said like, “You changed in the last album.” Some people said, “You stayed to your roots.” So, it’s like a personal opinion whatever you hear. That’s what music is. Some people said, “You’ve got a modern production.” And then is like, yeah. It’s not 1982 anymore, so obviously you are going to have some differences. We use the same amps that we like. The recording process is different, so obviously it’s going to be different. We are different people, its 20 years later. What do you expect? It’s going to be a little bit different. We just do what we like. Hopefully everybody else kind of likes it to, whoever likes it great. But it’s not a plan like we don’t sit down and have planned it out. It’s like whatever comes out; you just pick up the guitar, you play a riff, you got cool riff – I’m going to work on this, I’m going to write a song around this.
Do you think that writing songs is more challenging nowadays, because you have to bring a riff to Exodus or to Heathen and knowing which riff is for Heathen or for Exodus?
It really not, because when I started – My whole thing was like, I kind of wanted to like – I really liked the Exodus, when I heard BONDED BY BLOOD. Even before the album release, growing up. I want a band kind of like with that kind of riff thing like Metallica and Exodus, but with more melodic singer. Basically kind of combine, maybe bring in like Bruce Dickinson into that kind of riffing. Somewhere in there I see Heathen. That’s what we did, we did the harmonies of Thin Lizzy or Iron Maiden riffing of Exodus, Metallica with a melodic singer. So, it’s not challenging because like if you listen- f.ex “The Ballad Of Leonard And Charles” and that was the Heathen song. We just had so much for Heathen that I said, and Gary heard that song and he’s like, “Come on, let’s do this for Exodus.” All it is like if you change, you take Rob out and we sit down with Dave and work on more melodic lyrics for it, it would become a Heathen song. It Is that easy, transparent to where you can just change it, just because the singer it’s a big signature of the band. There is a lot of guys like the bands that switch singers, it really changed the identity of the whole band.
But you have a history in the past with different singers in Heathen.
No really, we stuck with Dave. One time we caved into this whole pressure a long time ago to Dave. He said, “You guys are so talented, but you need more aggressive singer because that’s what going on now.” And I remember caving in and we were looking around, and then in the end we still came to the conclusion towards like, “No, Dave is the only singer for us.” And we had to go back to him.
Because he has the voice that Heathen is known for?
Yeah. When we were younger like. I would have never made that mistake now. But back then, there is so many people pressuring you, there is a record company, there is lawyers, there is managers. Everybody is whispering in your ears, like if you would only do that, you would be big as this band, you got to do it. You make a wrong choice, they sway you that way. Then at certain point you just turn around and go like, exactly when we were younger we went with the natural, what felt right, instead of thinking like listening to everybody else around.
Does that mean you are putting new songs together with the band?
Yeah. We are working on songs. To guarantee an album, I can’t. If it comes around, I always said it’s like I’d rather not be one of those bands that just puts out an album just to go out on tour. I always want to put out an album, where like you sit there and go, “Yeah, that’s… I’m really proud of this and it’s great.” So, I’d rather not record, unless those songs will come in to where it’s like, “Yeah, its great.” We are not going to record.
Before the album came out, there was a demo tape floating around the Internet and people were expressing their opinions that “this is good old stuff, this is killer stuff”. Would you do the same thing with new songs and put them out and test the water with what people are thinking of that?
No, I don’t think so. Because at that time we were trying to get signed, and that’s why we put out the three songs. Like here is what we have to offer and while we are working on all the rest with the songs, maybe in the meanwhile we can get a deal. So, that’s why the reason why we did that. This time around I don’t see like why we would do a demo. We would demo the stuff, we just won’t put it out there. We have demoed stuff, but…
Feed the curiosity of the people?
Yeah. I understand that, but I think it’s more like we put out songs once it’s finished, maybe put out a teaser.
As for these lineup changes, as you got a drummer issue. The long time drummer, Darren Minter, pulled out of the band and so you got Dette in. But do these unexpected lineup changes bring some kind uncertainty of what will happen next if the guys leave all of a sudden?
Well, of course it does. It is discouraging. You kind of want to keep the guys together. With John even when we play tonight, it’s like we don’t play together as well as obviously with the drummer that we had for 20 years. It’s like we think alike, it’s like whatever he’s going to do next I know. Where you get a new guy and he is a great drummer, but still the chemistry develops over time, it can’t be just overnight. I’m glad that he’s able to help us out and we didn’t have to cancel the tour. But to say that we play as great with him at this point, a second show as was with Darren of course not. You can’t expect that, it’s like…
What happened to Darren, why did he leave?
There are some personal issues, some bitterness. It’s like “Why we are not as big as these other bands, everybody says how great the album is”. People get discouraged over time, I’ve done that in the ’90s when everybody said VICTIM is such a great album and then Grunge came in and nobody wanted to listen to it…
Yup, Grunge came in and flushed everyone out.
Yeah, and so it is discouraging anyhow, but he says how great it is. Well, if it’s that great then “why can I even pay my bills?”. Because in the end I don’t want make it about money, but we have to when we go out just like anybody else, this is our job. So, we have to get some kind of compensation for it so you come back and you are able to go out and buy food and pay rent. Because that’s not free.
Did you call Gary and say “Okay Gary, I need a drummer. – What about Dette because you played with him in Australia”?
No, no. Because John played with us last year on the American tour. Darren couldn’t do it because he couldn’t get off his job. So, we did a tour in America with Destruction and John filled in. So, he kind of already knew the songs. So, he was the first choice, the short notice than having somebody else come in. So, we called them and it was like immediate.
Dette has been on headlines because of Anthrax and Slayer.
Yeah, yeah. He’s a great drummer. It takes time, like I said. It all happened the last minute and so we kind of threw him under the fire, coming in and learning more songs and trying put it all together instead of canceling. So, there is a lot of pressure on him and we are still trying to kind of put it together. Because we didn’t have any time to practice or anything. It was basically just go out and do it.
But last year you were supposed to do European dates in August, but you cancelled and including Finland…
Yeah. It’s unfortunate, again I hate to say it but it all came down to money. It’s like it was more expensive for us to come out and do that. That tour we would actually have to pay out of our pockets in order to make it happen. And it’s just, we can’t do that. There is certain guys, like I said. I make pretty good money like from Exodus. So, I can afford to do a little bit more – but other guys, they go back to their regular jobs. So, they can’t just take out and pay for it themselves just to satisfy their fans. It’s disappointing I understand that, but fans also have to understand it, we have to pay our bills too.
Yeah, yeah. I understand that, but they have to. I understand that, believe me, there is nothing more. We would like to come over and play, this is what we do, this is what we enjoy doing. But sometimes it’s just not possible.
Speaking of Exodus, you are going out with Exodus in August as well. So, is Rick Hunolt going to be in Exodus because Gary is in Slayer right now?
Probably. We are still working that out actually. Because Gary can do some shows, some shows we are playing the same with Slayer like Bloodstock and some other ones. So, Gary is going to play those and hopefully Rick can do the other ones.
How did you manage to get Rick back to Exodus last summer ?
Just called him and seeing if he’s available and he can do it. And he was available and he wanted to do it. So it was great to have him and get him back out to play. It was nice to see him excited about playing music again.
He was really excited being on the stage and being off stage.
Yeah, yeah. He’s a great guy, Rick. Like I said, we are all glad that he finally kicked his drug habit. He went to rehab finally, because he’s a really nice guy, really fun to be around. The only problem he had is like when he would get into drugs and it would destroy everything for him.
Do you think it’s a little bit of a tricky situation right now, because Gary is very busy with Slayer, and Exodus is supposed to go out on the tour and supposed to start writing…maybe you have started writing a new album, but it’s a schedule conflict?
It’s a mess. It is pretty complicated to work out all the set. I’m doing Heathen and Gary is doing Slayer. And Robin we are on tour now with Generation Kill, which is Rob’s band. So, we are all kind of got our own things as well. So, to get it all together and Gary is like, “Let’s get back together and write new Exodus album.” That’s why it’s taking this long, because we got riffs, but it’s just time to try to find the time is really hard.
I was about to ask at what stage the album writing is at right now?
Very, very early. We got riffs. That’s about it. Not songs, just riffs.
Have you talked long term, what’s going to happen now; as the whole thing went upside down when Jeff Hanneman passed away unfortunately?
Sure. Like I said, I don’t know. Obviously Gary has got a good gig and we’ve known Slayer guys for ages. And it’s a good gig for him, so we are all happy for him. So, trying to find the time for Exodus – Anybody could understand that he can go out and play in front of so many people, with Slayer and then with some Exodus. So, trying to find the time – it’s really hard. So, it’s like – Not to start any controversies Exodus is over, I don’t think so. But I can say for sure, when I talked to Gary he is into doing the new Exodus album. But when the time is right. Obviously if he wasn’t in Slayer, it probably would come together a lot faster. There is not such an urgency in it as it was before.
Let’s leave Heathen and Exodus behind now and focus a little bit on different things as going back in the time. You moved to Germany in the 90’s to play in a German band called Die Krupps. I remember Die Krupps made it really big when doing this Metallica cover album, but you were not on that album but came in after?
Actually, the Metallica album was the beginning. It’s not that they made it big with Metallica, it was kind of, that was the starting point. Because the albums that we did after were way bigger. But it is kind of, like, I guess open doors for them and I joined right after. I didn’t live in Germany, I just spent a lot of time there. Yeah, it was a fun experience. I got into industrial music because it was like grunge at the time and I was like, I can’t get into grunge, it’s not my thing.
Not even Alice In Chains?
Alice In Chains are okay, but to me not. It’s just not my thing.
But otherwise, the industrial thing became really big that time?
I like the more aggressive stuff, that’s why when I heard industrial it sounded more aggressive to me. I was more drawn to that. So, yeah. That’s something that I can see myself doing.
You toured quite a lot with Die Krupps?
Yeah. Die Krupps basically bought me a house, I’ve made more money with Die Krupps – almost like with Exodus now. Exodus is getting more live for some reason, it’s more and more now as we are getting older, it’s old figure. All of a sudden it’s like a resurgence of thrash metal.
They did really well, it was a number one requested video on MTV and like I said, that was the time at first. First time I was actually able to make money, play music and I bought a house.
Did you know the guys from Die Krupps before joining them?
I didn’t, it was more like put together through like the guys from Rock Hard magazine in Germany that we were friends with. They were visiting in San Francisco and I always, when we were driving to different shows, I don’t remember like whatever the shows were. But I was always playing industrial music in my car.
Like Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Pig Face, Skinny Puppy.
Yeah, exactly. And they were like, “What did you get yourself into, now you are not a metal guy anymore?” I’m like, “I really like this kind of music, I’m almost thinking like putting together something like this.” And they are like, “There is a band in Germany that kind of does this kind of stuff.”
That kind of stuff is still very popular in the underground, but it’s not that big anymore like…
That time is past and I was like, and then they went home and then all of a sudden the singer from Die Krupps called me and said, “I heard that you like this kind of music. And I’m a big thrash metal fan, I have every album from every Bay Area band. I collect the records. Would you be willing to fly out and maybe work on an album. And we have like a short tour coming up, we see how it goes?” And I was like, “Sure, I don’t have anything going on right now. It sounds interesting.” That’s how we came together.
When did you play in AngelWitch? Was It after Die Krupps?
Yeah. That was after, it was a very short. It’s like people say, “You were in Angel.” Its like, “I was never in Angel.” Kevin moved to San Francisco. That’s how we met and we were hanging out together, and he wanted to go out and do some shows. He basically asked me, it’s like, would you to be the second guitar player to help them out. We played like what, I don’t know, four or five shows maybe.
Was it Doug and you playing in Angelwitch?
No. At first it was Doug joining because I was still busy with Heathen and then Doug went to Germany, he met a girl and moved and then Kevin asked me. So, Doug actually never played any shows within there. It was like a revolving door, he also asked Tom Hunting to do it. Tom did some demos with that, but he didn’t go out and play live shows. Kevin basically he was asking anybody who would be interested to do it and was available at the time.
Now you are busy with Heathen and busy with Exodus. Do you have other bands or projects going on, as Rob has Generation Kill?
I think two bands is enough for me, that keeps me busy.
I’m asking this as you like industrial stuff, have you talked about going back to industrial stuff and re-doing that again?
I got a call from Die Krupps to do a reunion, but I turned it down because it’s just too much work. I have a family now, I’m married, I have two kids. I got to spend some time at home, I can’t. Two bands as it is right now is already, I got my hands full. So, yeah. That’s enough for me and I don’t do any more side projects or anything.
I wouldn’t say that. No, I play thrash metal music but that’s not what I grew up on. I don’t go home and listen to thrash metal, I still listen to New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and Old Scorpions, Thin Lizzy. It’s like…I like thrash metal music obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t be playing it.
Back in the ’80s, when the thrash speed became really big, I went to every concert that we had in Finland. It was really big in Finland as well and it exploded everywhere in the world. Were you surprised to see that there was such an explosion of bands coming from somewhere in Europe or somewhere in Australia, there was thrash metal in Brazil and “This is not just our Bay Area thing anymore”?
Not really, because there were different scenes. The thrash metal in Germany that was going on pretty much the same time as in thrash metal in Bay Area. But like I said, that’s the beauty of thrash metal, because the German stuff doesn’t sound anything like the Bay Area stuff. It’s just different styles. When Sepultura came out from Brazil, you could see the influences that they had, but they kind of had their own thing too, the tribal star. Everybody kind of liked whatever area they came, they put their own little signature on it. That was cool, because now I mean sometimes it just annoys me like to hearing like younger kids and they tell you, “Thrash metal is supposed to be this way.” I’m like, “I think you are misguided, because thrash metal was supposed to be anything you want.” That’s the freedom that we had, there was no rules. How all over sudden you are putting the limits on it and that’s what makes it boring.
Do you think that thrash metal has become more like a nostalgia trip? There are a lot of books about thrash metal, DVD releases, movies and whatever – I think it’s more like nostalgia nowadays, because everybody is glorifying it all the time?
Sure it’s nostalgia, it can’t be the same way as it was. It’s like everybody who wasn’t there in the ’80s, they want to relive that, but I said at that time that was the magical time. That’s the time and place that it happened, you can’t make it all over again. Nostalgia, yeah. Okay, you can emulate that, but it’s never going to be the same. It’s just like there with the Hippies in the ’60’s. You can still be a Hippie but it’s not going to be the same as it was back then. It’s always going to be something new and it’s like with the newer kids that are forming all these thrash metal bands, they try to copy it so much to where I said, that’s where the problem is. It’s okay to copy it first, but then you have to develop into something your own. You have to develop, otherwise it will die again. It won’t die, it will go underground. Because you have to, it’s up to you now. It’s always the new generation that it has to take it and make it into something more. Otherwise, it’s just there is no point of it.
Did you ever come across Finnish speed thrash metal bands in the ’80s,?
I have some CD’s of the names that I don’t remember.
Stone, yeah. I remember. Yeah. And it’s like as it progressed, I’m more like Children Of Bodom. I like the new and old stuff. I don’t like all of it, I really like In Flames. I think they impressed me the most since any band from the ’80’s, like when I first heard Metallica and Exodus. First time when I heard In Flames, it got me that way for the first time again. It’s where I was like, “These guys really have something really cool.”
What did you think when the death metal thing became really big in the early ’90s?
I knew I would love that death metal, obviously. Then it’s like any genre in any music, it’s always like the first, the originators like first. They are all good and then when everybody jumps some more, then they are all doing the same thing it’s boring. Thrash metal had that problem and then death metal had the same problem. There was, first bands came out like Obituary and then they were great. And then everybody jumped on the bandwagon and everybody was doing death metal, it was like now that’s just boring. Of course the originators are always better. And then whoever comes along later it’s like very rarely you would hear something to where you go, yeah. They have to do something really different and cool.
Well, I don’t know what you would consider metal. One of my old time favorite albums… Rainbow Rising, obviously. That’s got to be in there, Thin Lizzy, Thunder Lightning or Black Rose, Deep Purple, Burn. I love all Deep Purple. Scorpions any of the first four, let’s say ‘Taken By Force’ that was… That’s what, four? I don’t know if that’s metal, but that’s something that influenced me… I would say Iron Maiden, Killers. but I can’t leave out Judas Priest. It’s so hard, I love Priest and I love Iron Maiden and it’s a tough, as far as thrash metal goes number one is going to be BONDED BY BLOOD. I think that’s pretty much by default, Reign In Blood. I guess KILL’EM ALL is got to be in there. What we got, two more?
Well name some European bands ?
Destruction’s INFERNAL OVERKILL , I love that. I always love Destruction and the early stuff. And Venom BLACK METAL, I got to have it in there. I don’t know if that’s…
Kreator , Celtic Frost?
Yeah, sure. You said five. You are giving me limited choices here, I got to go.
I’m giving you pressure?
Yeah. If you say ten, then I have a little bit more room here.
All right. But there is a plenty of albums for sure. But I for one thank you for your time for doing the interview…
All right thanks to you.