Interview With Helmuth
By Peter Atkinson
Photos from www.facebook.com/belphegor
It takes a tough hombre to survive for more than two decades in the extreme metal underground. And Helmuth Lehner – or just Helmuth, if you please – is a tough hombre to be sure. As frontman, guitarist and driving force behind Austria’s self-described “diabolical death musick” deviants Belphegor, he’s kept the band going through myriad lineup changes, injuries that prompted the departures of bassist Barth in 2006 and co-founding guitarist Sigurd in 2007, and his own brush with death in 2011 after contracting typhoid fever during a South American tour in support of the Blood Magick Necromance album.
After a year-long struggle to get himself back in fighting shape, Helmuth and Belphegor were back at it – albeit it a bit less rigorously. In late 2012, the band slowly began working on what became their 10th album Conjuring The Dead with Hate Eternal mainman Erik Rutan at his Mana Recording Studios in Florida. The album, which finds Belphegor not losing one iota of their brutality or depravity, was issued in early August.
A few weeks prior to Conjuring’s release, in responses to e-mailed questions, Helmuth offered the following about Belphegor’s endurance, his own return from death’s door and the new album’s celebration of “Diabolical Death Metal.” The ALL CAPS and creative spellings are his own.
Hello Helmuth, greetings from Washington, D.C., hope all is well with you and nice to “speak” with you.
HELMUTH: The pleasure is all mine.
I’m well now. I had to undergo a difficult operation which saved my life in the beginning of October the 4th, 2011. It took me almost a year and a half to come back and be able to perform again. First months after the operation were tough, I couldn’t play music, that was frustrating. Also a lot of setbacks during the healing process didn’t make it any easier. RISE TO FALL AND FALL TO RISE, as one of our tracks from the last album BLOOD MAGICK NECROMANCE (2011) says. I’m pleased that I am allowed to play guitar, front my band again. It feels just great, and I am thankful for it.
I saw some tour dates listed on your Facebook page, will what happened affect how much you are able to tour and has it had an impact on how you live your day to day life? Or is everything “back to normal” now two years later?
HELMUTH: Everything is almost normal. My entire lifestyle had to change, it’s been a rough ride. I’m still a sick Metal motherfukking supporter. I cannot play as many dates as I used to but live performances are the essence, the magick of BELPHEGOR.
Did what you experience with the illness – and literally staring death in the face – ever make you think twice about keeping the band going?
HELMUTH: Definitely. There was a lot pain and misery. I was never in such a situation, trapped in your own sick body, not able to do anything, only hanging around waiting and “hoping.” The first 6-8 weeks, the fear of death was terrible. Also, the idea that I may die in my sleep haunted me for a long time. Hard to describe what it feels like when you think about never waking up again, and that lasted for months.
Step by step, first shows I played only guitar, just to see if I was able to do it again. Then I took over the front man position again. I can’t say that it was easy, on contrary, first we didn’t play shows for over a year, so I need a few months to get into it again. The whole troop practiced hard to get the songs tight. A BELPHEGOR show is like sport, you need a lot of power and energy for this kind of musick, especially when you sing or are playing the drums. Well, I’m still here and allowed to do it again, which is a great pleasure to me.
It’s a tough enough as it is as an extreme metal artist without having to worry about your health/medical bills, etc? And you’ve already had a couple other members bow out with injury-related issues.
HELMUTH: Yeah, it’s tough as musician. I mean, we all try to survive, don’t we? I don’t want to talk too much about my private live, really. It’s all about BELPHEGOR. The musick thrones above all and is what will remain at the end…
By the same token, did it factor into the songwriting on Conjuring? And if it did, how so?
HELMUTH: Yes. It was heavily inspired by my own actual dance with death, as well as the downfall of all humanity. My goal was to create a diabolical Death Metal record. I’m still blown away by the brutality.
My health issues and recovery affected everything regarding the new album, the band, my life. That’s why the songs on CONJURING THE DEAD sound way more brutal, edgy and raw, we put a lot of the epic elements away, concentrated on the sick Death brutality with obscure melodies. Straight in your face. On the new record we celebrate Diabolical Death Metal.
I guess the question everyone is asking is how was it working with Erik Rutan in his studio on Conjuring?
HELMUTH: You are right, man.
With Erik, the collaboration was just awesome, way better than I ever expected. My guitars never sounded so precise on a BELPHEGOR album.
Erik came up with many valuable ideas. For example, I played the classical guitar pickings first time with an acoustic guitar, that was an idea from Erik. He also motivated us to track ultra tight performances. He was on top of his game with the production.
Everything sounds exactly as we wanted it to. It was the right decision to fly over to the U.S. and track the album in St. Petersburg, Florida, with Erik. In my opinion, CONJURING THE DEAD is one of our strongest releases.
Was there anything in particular you were looking for him to do for/bring to your sound that you hadn’t gotten before, or was it just a matter of having the opportunity to work with someone different and gain a fresh perspective?
HELMUTH: As I started creating the new sound collages I had a goal. I wanted to put some of the more epic elements aside and concentrate on more direct and aggressive Death Metal with our trademark Black Metal atmosphere and obscure melodies. I always wanted to have that U.S. brutal sound for a BELPHEGOR LP. That’s why we decided for Erik Rutan as the producer.
Given his reputation as something of a task master, and his obvious musical prowess/experience – and your veteran status and obvious chops, were there any serious clashes in the studio? And if so, ultimately was that a good thing?
HELMUTH: There are always clashes if you take it as seriously as I and Erik do. It all helped and was worth it in the end.
Of course the album sounds great. I especially like “Flesh, Bones and Blood,” which has an industrial and at times almost funky feel. It’s a nice, rather unexpected twist.
HELMUTH: That’s great. Thank you. I had an interview few days ago where one said that’s the song he didn’t like. You see how different tastes are. But that’s great, man.
On FLESH, BONES AND BLOOD we touched a new territory. The track comes with an industrial feeling and Slam Death Metal guitars, with an ritual atmosphere in the chorus.
The sort of “Three Tenors From Hell” – you, Glen Benton and Attila – all singing on “Legions of Destruction” is pretty cool, too. How did that all come about? And were you all in the studio together – I guess Benton lives somewhat nearby – or did they record their parts remotely?
HELMUTH: I like that “label,” man!
I just had this vision for a long time, wasn’t a marketing thing. It was just to please my ego, hahahrrr. I mean, it’s really cool to me and, as I said, I appreciate their vocal styles and what their work brought to extreme Metal. I wanted to have those two guys, not just any dudes from some other bands. My plan was either them or fukk the plan. I think I first asked Attila about it in 2007, as we recorded BONDAGE GOAT ZOMBIE. Back then, there was always a problem, they were on tour or we were on tour, it was difficult to the schedule. Both bands in the beginning were very important and inspiring to BELPHEGOR. This is a big honor to me to have these two guys putting their magick on that track.
Your bassist Serpenth has been with Belphegor since 2006, and there have been a lot of people in and out or performing as session musicians since then – and before that, for that matter. Would you like to have a full complement of four “permanent members?” Or does that complicate things – with opinions/egos/etc. – more than just bringing people in as you need them?
HELMUTH: We like it the way it is. When we begin a new album the master plan is to develop, get even more intense. We’ve had the honor of working with many skilled musicians over the years. We always like to recruit new blood to keep things interesting and the fire for extreme musick burning.
Next year will be the 20th anniversary of The Last Supper. Do you intend to do anything special to mark the anniversary – play the album in full, etc? I’m still amazed by the packaging for that album.
HELMUTH: Yeah, its’ one of the sickest artworks in extreme Metal, if you ask me. We had a lot of trouble back then with censorship. There will not be a special show for THE LAST SUPPER, though.
Lastly, the last time I saw you live was with Amon Amarth in 2008. Any plans to tour North America in support of Conjuring The Dead?
HELMUTH: Mid-September through mid-October we’re doing our 9th North American tour. For the first time we headline a full tour in the U.S. It will be great to return and conquer the states again. Direct support is from our Greek Metal brothers in ROTTING CHRIST. BEHEADED from Malta and SVART CROWN from France are also a part of the bill. [The tour was canceled Sept. 8 so Helmuth could tend to his terminally ill mother.]
Thank you for your time and your responses. Safe travels and stay healthy.
HELMUTH: Thank you for the space and support. An honor, this horror.