When everything has been said and done, by a conservative estimate, around a billion times by now, it truly takes something out of left field to feel original. Combining death metal with thrash and throwing in banjos, saloon piano, and hand drums sounds like a recipe for either disaster or something wholly original. Pairing the unique musical nature along with a story about Billy the Kid and the Wild West takes the creativity and the riskiness one step further. What, on paper, should not work somehow does on the latest album from Helsótt, Will and the Witch, out now from M-Theory Audio.
Formed in 2010 in California, Helsótt has been making some of the most unique extreme metal albums around for years now. Whether it’s a record about ancient Egypt, the American West, or Viking culture, Helsótt has gained a solid following based around their technically sound albums about history’s most interesting time periods and events. Now, with their best release yet freshly unleashed on the world, Helsótt is ready to take the next step and garner some more national attention. I recently caught up with vocalist Eric Dow over Zoom to talk about the killer new album and what other dark corners of human history he’d love to travel down next.
What got you into extreme metal in the first place?
Eric: When I was a kid, we used to tape trade in the late ’80s/early ’90s. I stumbled across Morbid Angel and there was nothing on the tape so I didn’t even know who the band was, I just knew it was the heaviest, most crazy shit I’d ever heard. It was Altars [of Madness]. From there I talked to a few friends, played it for them and they’re like “Oh yeah, that’s Morbid Angel.” I’m like “Morbid who? That’s rad.” They introduced me to a couple more people and next thing you know I had Carcass, Cannibal Corpse, Death, all the O.G. bands. This was all before I was ten years old. It was love at first listen. I couldn’t get enough of it. I’ve always been into bands like Mötley Crüe, Iron Maiden, Dio and I could never sing so I’d be driving down the freeway in my car listening to Dio, but I’d be screaming [it] right along with him. I’ve always been a drummer, drumming has always been my number one passion. One day I decided that it was time to sing and decided, well, I can’t sing but I can growl. I’ve been doing it this whole time so let’s go for it.
How did Helsótt get started then?
Eric: I was actually working at Guitar Center and I got an injury. I was working the warehouse and a co-worker dropped a Spider fucking Line Six amplifier on me from nine feet tall. I was bent over picking up trash and it hit me right in the back and I haven’t been able to drum the same since. Walking is tough and I have nerve damage from that but I couldn’t stop playing music. At the time, I thought “Well, I guess I can sing.” It hurts to scream and to be onstage for too long and headbang and all that but not as much as drumming. I thought, “Fuck it, I’ll sing” and that’s when I started Helsótt.
How did you come up with the name and what does it mean?
Eric: I was just going through the sagas and poetics and I’m a huge Norse mythology fan. I’m huge into Germanic tribes and Saxon culture and all that stuff. I was going along that line, trying to find a name that was really super dark and I came across Helsótt. The one I chose, Helsótt with the accent over the “o” was Teutonic/Icelandic and also Germanic and, depending on what your language is, it either means fatal illness or hell’s journey. It’s basically that someone is going to die not honorably and they’re going to go to hell. I saw that and I was like, “Man, that’s perfect.”
What’s the music writing process like for the band and has that changed?
Eric: It’s different every time. We don’t have a solid process, especially as the band has changed over the years. I’m the only member that’s been on the stage every time Helsótt has taken the stage so it just depends. A lot of the time I’ll come up with an idea or some lyrics, and I’ll take it to my brother and me and him will just start working on guitar parts or growl or sing and do a vocal pattern over them. If I’ve written a part out on the keyboard, like a melody, we’ll just go from there and work it out. Sometimes he’ll have a whole song written and all I’ll need to do is put vocals on it and then all Coop[er Dustman] needs to do is add drums to it and we’ve got a song.
This last album, Will and the Witch, was a little different because COVID hit and we had nothing else to do so we just got together once a week in the garage and just jammed as a full band. We basically wrote that whole album as a full band in the garage and it really came together quickly. It was awesome because if parts weren’t working we were able to just immediately fix it rather than most of the time, we’re on tour doing this or that and usually write songs piece by piece. This way we were actually able to sit down and hammer out full songs. Some took a week or two, some one afternoon and we were done with the song and just needed [to do] some fine tuning.
We’ve already got a few songs written for the future and are trying something new with [the next one]. We’ve got our artist doing an album cover for us first so he’s going to deliver the album cover and then off of what the album cover looks like, I will write the title of the album and then we’re going to write a song about it. That’ll be a little different for us but it’ll be fun.
How do you come up with your lyrics and themes? Is it all pretty much just stuff you’re interested in?
Eric: Yeah, basically. Something I’ve read or come across watching a TV show or something. I really love cinema. I’ve always been into movies. This new album basically came out from my love of telling stories versus my love of American history and Wild West and my love of the movie Young Guns and Young Guns II. You put all those together and that’s how I got the elements for this album.
I’ve been really interested in Viking culture, everyone talks about Valhalla and all that but I wanted to write a song about Folkvangr, Freya’s hall. Nobody really even talks about Freya’s hall but I thought it’d be fucking rad to go there. The first EP we ever wrote was Fólkvangr, that’s where I got my elements from. It’d be cool to go to Valhalla but wouldn’t it also be cool to be picked by Freya and go there? The difference is that you’re in a stuffy hall full of the einherjar and maidens serving you beer and you’re always fighting and yeah that’s cool, but [with] Freya it’s a meadow, it’s an open field, wouldn’t you like to get some fresh air every once in awhile [laughs]? The ideas come from a movie or reading old history books or something happens to me. I’m driving and some fucker cuts me off and I want to cut his head off with an axe and next thing you know, I have a song.
I feel like road rage has probably led to more than a few extreme metal songs.
Eric: I guarantee you, especially bands from the cities like bands from New York, Boston, California where we’re from. I guarantee you.
Oh yeah. I drive to Chicago for shows all the time, it can be a real pain.
Eric: I love Chicago man, but driving a van with a trailer there is the biggest pain in the ass.
That has to be awful.
Eric: We’re always like, yeah we’re playing Chicago! Oh yeah, fuck, I drive [laughs].
So what drew you to Billy the Kid?
Eric: If you’re a fan of the American Wild West, what is there not to interest you with that guy? One of my favorite things about the Wild West is the danger. You’ve got heroes, you’ve got villains, and most of it was lawlessness. If you were a hero, you chose to be. You didn’t have to be. It was so much easier to be just an outlaw or a villain or if you needed something and came across someone to just kill them and take it. There’s a TV show that just came out called 1883. I’d definitely suggest people watch that. It’s basically the Oregon Trail but with Sam Elliot, it’s fucking rad. There’s a montage of people just dying by all the different ways you could die in the west. You drink the water, you’re taking a shit and get bit by a rattlesnake, you’re trying to fix a wagon wheel and it rolls over on your head, you just get fever and die…just the roughness, the lawlessness of the whole thing and how brave people had to be, or stupid.
You get outlaws out there and Billy the Kid, there’s not much known about him. There’s not much in the history books. There’s several books written about him but they all say the same shit basically and there’s not much to go by. I think that’s really cool and fascinating that he befriended Pat Garrett, and Pat Garrett became a lawman and Pat Garrett supposedly killed his friend, which a lot of people don’t believe. A lot of people believe Billy the Kid lived till an old age, 70s or 80s or something like that, but a lot of people thought he died as a teenager. I think that’s one of the coolest things about it, the unknown about him but he’s such a famous outlaw. So when they do a movie like Young Guns or Young Guns II about it, to me, it was like wide open to write a prequel to the movie and basically just go crazy with lying and telling part truths and some history, but making most of the shit up and, in my head, what would be the prequel. What made Billy the Kid be Billy the Kid, you know? To me, that was just a fascinating story and a journey I was really happy to take.
Are there periods of history that you want to do an album about but haven’t had the chance to yet?
Eric: Yeah, yeah lots. More than we’ll ever have time for. If we do ten more albums, I’d be surprised. Let’s say we get a few more albums in there, I’d love to do William Wallace, a full story album. I’ve sat down and penned a couple of songs about him. Every time I sit down, I write more and more and before you know it, I’ve got easily four songs worth of stuff and I’m like, well, might as well do four more and make a full album out of it. I’ve never done a song about him and that happens a lot. I sit down to write one song about one subject and next thing I know, it’s a whole epic thing.
We really haven’t touched on Roman, the Pagan pre-Christianity Roman times. I’d love, love, love to do that. Anything Mesopotamian, haven’t really touched much on that. I’d really like to do the Holy Wars and the Templars, Jerusalem, and all that. There’s not much with Paganism to do there but it’s super fascinating and (there’s) a lot of fucking death. I could go on and on. I’d love to do something about Deadwood, if we’re gonna stick with the Western theme. Deadwood, South Dakota, Seth Bullock, Wild Bill Hickock was killed there. You’ve got the coward McCall who killed him, and you’ve got characters like Al Swearengen that you could write about, and Calamity Jane. There’s a lot going on in my head that I would like to do and I could probably sit here for an hour telling you all the shit that I’d like to do and probably none of it’s gonna happen.
You have a lot of really cool musical elements on the new album, things like banjos and Native American hand drums. How did those elements come together and how important was it to you to get those authentic sounds in there?
Eric: It was everything for me. When we first started talking about doing it, within the first two minutes of the conversation, it was like “Oh yeah, we’ll get banjos in there.” We already had (Fabio) Lethien (Polo) from Elvenking who did our “Running Down a Dream” Tom Petty cover. He did the violin on that so we already had a guy in mind to do the violin. Our buddy from Arkona, Vlad (Reshetnikov), he’s one of the raddest flute players out there. When we were on tour with him, he had this badass Ukrainian flute that I kept trying to hide from him because he loved it so much. One day I really did, I hid it from him really well. He was fucking pissed, he was crying and all this shit. I told him “I’ll give it back to you but you gotta play it on a Helsótt album some day.” He’s like “Oh you prick, give it back!” He got visibly upset. I think he was about to cry, so I gave it back to him but I still told him he’s got to do it on an album some day. That was about eight, seven years ago now and so it finally happened. We got him to do the flute on an album and it sounds Native American authentic, even though it’s a Ukrainian woodpipe. I knew I wanted banjo on it. I knew I wanted good saloon piano on it.
I think the element that I really wish we had on it that didn’t happen was harmonica. I couldn’t find anybody that could really play a good harmonica. Everyone has one, like the recorder. You get it when you’re in first grade but can you play it? No. I was pretty bummed out that we didn’t get harmonica on there but everything else kind of came together. It was super important. With an album like that, you have to tell the story musically. I knew I had a good artist, I knew I was gonna have a cool story, I knew I could put it out there on the album cover. I knew we could make some good videos and I knew we could get some good visual elements but not everybody is gonna see that, not everybody cares. If you don’t get those elements in the music, on the actual album, you’re just another thrash metal band.
I wanted to ask about that cover. I grew up loving Tom Petty. My dad was a huge fan so he was one of my first favorite singers. Have you always been a Tom Petty guy?
Eric: Always. First fucking time I heard that guy…just love at first listen, man. I think it was “American Girl,” the first thing I heard from him, which is typical but then right around that time he did “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” on the Best Of album, and it was the last thing his drummer did for him before he got kicked out of the band. It was basically the last thing they did to get out of their record contract. They put together that (compilation) and did a cover song and had to put together one last song and that song was “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and holy fuck if that’s still not one of my all-time favorite songs. With harmonica in it, by the way! I’ve seen him a few times. I actually took my wife to see his second to last show ever. He played three shows at the Hollywood Bowl in California and we went to the second to last one. Two weeks later he died so shit’s kind of important. You love someone like that and they’re getting older you have to go out there and see them. We were at the concert and I looked at her and was like, holy fuck, these guys could go another ten years. They were that good still. It’s just a shame for him to pass away a couple weeks later. Rest in peace. Always been a huge fan and, as far as American songwriters go, it doesn’t really get much better in my opinion.
What was the process of making that video for “I’ll Make Ya Famous” like?
Eric: That was a fuckery of a ride for me (laughs). I knew I really wanted a real video this time. Not to disrespect anybody who’s helped us do videos in the past because I appreciate anybody who’s been on team Helsótt, anybody that’s helped us along the way, but we’ve always been lacking in the music video (department). We did a crowdfund through Indiegogo and our fans really came through and our buddy Mikey helped out, kicked us some money that we still owe him, by the way. Don’t worry Mikey, I didn’t forget!
We rented a place called Whitehorse Ranch out in Landers, California, which is the upper desert for those of you who know the deserts of California. It’s a movie studio ranch place that’s all-in-one. They have a wardrobe department, they have special effects. You can rent the guns there, shoot the blanks, you can get horses there if you want. It’s a one-stop shop. I think it was 2019 or whatever, and there was a Super Bowl commercial with Sam Elliot for Doritos where his mustache was dancing around and they had a rapper dancing around with him. That was filmed at that place so it was a legitimate studio and really expensive. We rented one day. You gotta get a million dollars worth of insurance. Depending on the insurance, you can have 25 people on set so we couldn’t have any more than 25 people on set. We only rented four guns cause they were, like, $60 a gun, then bullets and holsters and each bullet was $3 for the blanks. We had to get a trash can, we had to get a Port-a-potty, we had to get food for everybody. It was a whole production, even though it was just one day. Their base rate, when they tell you you can rent it for $2,000 a day, the video ended up costing us $6,000 when it was all said and done.
We weren’t able to pay anybody, we had our friends come out who wanted to be in the video. They brought their own costumes or rented them there. It was super important to have support like that from your friends or you can’t make videos like that happen. I asked a couple of my friends and some older colleagues who have moved up in the world of videography if they wanted to direct the video and all that, and I got two offers to direct the video for $9,000, and that wasn’t even the camera crew, just to direct, and one for $7,000 for the full day. I kind of laughed at that cause there’s no way I could afford that and I also think it’s quite ridiculous. I found a good camera guy and he charged me $1,500 to film the full day and edit the videos, which is peanuts. He really helped me out by not charging so much and he did a really great job.
So I got my camera guy, which is the most important, and I said I’ll fucking direct it myself. I’d never directed anything else myself and didn’t know what I was doing, but I figured if there was a will there’s a way. We show up to this place and they let us camp there, which was cool. We set up our tents at eight o’clock the night before, had some pizza delivered, cracked some beers, and talked about a few things and went to sleep.
(We) got up at 4 a.m. on video shoot day and by the time the sun came up, we started shooting. We got the first video, “I’ll Make Ya Famous,” done just after lunch, just after noon, and then we all had a break for food. Then we got back to it and spent the next two or three hours filming a second video, so we actually ended up getting two videos out of one day of shooting. I’d planned for the one video. I got all the video shots that I wanted. It’s a very involved video with a storyline; there’s all sorts of things to it and I had that all ready to go. The second video is for “Babylon: Scarlett’s Saloon,” which is just a fun drinking song, so we thought we’ll just squeeze everyone in the saloon there at the Whitehorse Ranch and we’ll get the beer and the whiskey flowing and get the camera rolling and everything will take care of itself so we did and that’s what happened. Next thing you know, we’ve got two badass videos. We finally have real videos (laughs). We’re super proud.
How excited were you that first time you watched them back?
Eric: It’s hard to put into words because there’s always things you could change or want to do better, especially when you’re signed and you’ve got deadlines. I wish I had another month to edit the video and fine tune it or whatever so at the beginning it’s like, oh I could have done better. Now that it’s months later and there’s nothing you can do, it’s on YouTube, it’s got its views and you’re not gonna take it down, now I’ve got nothing but pride for it. Same thing for the other video, it’s already uploaded to YouTube, ready to go, and Metal Injection just agreed to premiere it so it’s out of my hands (laughs).
You’ve got a lot of really cool guest stars on this album, including Tim Owens. How did those come about and what was it like to work with so many other talented artists?
Eric: When I write stuff, I’m always thinking of guests. It’s just kind of the coolest thing to me about writing an album, bringing people on board. You don’t have to just have your band on every album. Let’s bring some friends in, let’s bring some different elements. Yeah, you can’t do it live. One of my all-time favorite Helsótt songs isn’t even a Helsótt song, off the Slaves and Gods album we’ve got “Winter Smells Like Death” and that was super cool because we just sent Arkona the drum tracks, and that was it and they wrote keyboards, guitar, and vocals to it and sent it back to us. Then I wrote my vocals to it and now we’ve got a Helsótt-Arkona song. Like I said, it’s not a Helsótt song. It’s nothing like we would write, it doesn’t sound like something we would write, but it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. We can’t play it live cause we’ll never have Maria “Masha [Scream” Arkhipova] with us, but little things like that are what’s super important to me and I’m gonna keep that going.
I’ve already got ideas for the next album and who I’d like on there. With Tim, man I’ve been a fan of him since Jugulator, the first Judas Priest album he was on. I walked into my local CD store and there was a little box with the Jugulator guy on it promoting the new single on it, “Bullet Train.” I had even forgot that Rob Halford had quit the band because it had been a couple of years at this point. I was like, they didn’t just quit? The guy behind the counter said they got a new singer and he’s like, “I don’t like it but the tapes are free so take a tape.” It said “Bullet Train” on Side A and “Bullet Train” on Side B so you’d put it in your car and it’d just keep flipping back and forth. I fucking loved that thing from the first. I was like, “This guy has some pipes!” You immediately would have thought “fuck this guy” for even trying, and I’m sure a lot of people did, but luckily I was younger and gave him a shot and holy fuck. I went and saw him the first chance I got, which was the Demolition Tour, and fucking loved him. I was a huge Iced Earth fan at the time and he leaves Priest to do Iced Earth and same thing, “Fucking Matt Barlow is gone, I’m not gonna listen to these guys. Oh, they got Ripper? Well…that’s different!” Then I got that The Glorious Burden album and it was so good!
I love Ripper. He’s always the second guy in command, the follow-up guy it seems like. He was in a band called The Three Tremors with the guy from Cage and the dude from Jag Panzer. They were playing in San Diego and we got asked to open for them, so we played with them, did our thing, and got off stage. I was hanging around by the merch booth and they got done with their set and Tim comes walking down straight to me and just starts hanging out. I asked if he wanted a beer and he said fuck yeah so I went and got him a beer and came back and he’s like, “I can always tell the bands that can be headliners. I played around the world and I can always tell when a band has headliner qualities and you guys are fucking awesome. You guys are it.” I took that opportunity, right then and there, to say “Hey man, would you ever sing for us?” Without hesitation, he said fuck yeah. I got his email and it was about a year later that we had the song for him. We wrote that song with him in mind. The second we started writing the notes we were like, “Ok, this is gonna be the Ripper song.” So we sent it to him and we got it back, I was listening to all of it but he forgot to send me the scream in the beginning, the money shot basically when you get Ripper on your album. I was like, “Dude, this is great but…where’s the scream?” I was trying to be nice about it but he just forgot to send it. He was like “Oh, here it is” and it came a second later. I put it in there and was like, awesome, it sounds just like I want it to. It’s cool man when you can be a childhood fan of somebody and then 20 years later have them on your album. It’s fucking cool, there’s no way else to describe it. I’m so grateful.
How exciting was it for you that first time you got to listen to the final product?
Eric: Exhaustingly exciting. There’s so much work that goes into it and it’s all in your head until you hear it and you put your trust in a guy like we did with [Jean-François Dagenais]. Obviously we’re not the greatest band in the world. We don’t do everything in a studio and are super professional. We track a lot of it ourselves so when we send it to J-F, we are crossing our fingers that we didn’t fuck up, that it’s good enough for him to work with. That’s the first thing, first and foremost you’re bracing yourself for J-F to email you going “What the fuck did you just send me?” But when he sends you what he’s done, and he’ll wait till he’s got a good mix, and you hear it, you’re like, yes!
We trust him, we know it’s gonna sound good but this particular album, everybody involved just leveled up. He even said it himself, he had to go get new equipment and work extra hard on the new Helsótt album to make himself better. Then he went and mixed a couple albums in between while he was mixing ours. He took a break from mixing ours and then those fuckers got what he learned by mixing our album and the new equipment that he got for our album on their album. Finally, when it comes and it sounds as good as it does, it’s exhausting. It’s mentally exhausting and when it’s finally done and it’s done right and you know it’s good, it’s the world off your shoulders and it’s on to the next fucking bullshit you gotta do. It’s never-ending in a band. It’s super exciting but not without that exhaustion that goes with it. Then you brace for all the keyboard warriors to tell you how your album sucks.
How much do you pay attention to reviews? Do you read them or try to ignore them?
Eric: I don’t ignore it. It’s hard to ignore it because you want to get good reviews but you gotta let it roll off your shoulders. I’ve always said we’re a pagan metal band. I’ve never said we’re a viking metal band. Never once have I said I’m a viking metal band. Yet we did The Healer EP and it’s all, “Vikings from California? How could this happen?” Bad review after bad review and that tale was Germanic, it’s not even Norse. Then we do Slaves and Gods, it’s Egyptian, it’s fucking Khufu, and the Great Pyramids, and the Nile River, and the whole concept is right there for you to see on the album cover. The first five reviews we got were “Vikings from California? How can this fucking be? Oh they don’t know what they want to be. There’s one slow song and then there’s one death metal song and then there’s one actual Viking song on there but they don’t even sing it, they got a guest singer to do it.” I don’t know, maybe we’re too eclectic and not for a lot of people, but we’re not Viking metal. We have nine songs or whatever in our 40-song catalogue or whatever it is that are Norse. We’ll have more because I love that concept but holy fuck. So this album, I’m like, it’s Billy the Kid. There’s no possible way we’re going to get shat on from anybody about Vikings from California? How wrong was I.
Who goals do you have for the future of the band?
Eric: Just keep moving forward. We’ve been a band for 12 years and we had so much momentum going on before COVID and now I feel like we’re dead in the water and have to start over again. That’s fucking upsetting. It takes a lot to build a band like ours. Not everybody likes music like ours. It’s very niche, very small. The people that do really dig us are in Europe, which is a $1,300 flight away then you’ve gotta rent a bus or a van. It costs us $10,000-$15,000 with very little return to tour Europe, where we’re loved. We got spots in the U.S. where we’re loved. They love us in Chicago, Seattle, Portland, California, New York, they love us in Canada, which hardly anybody can get into Canada right now. The U.S. is so vast though, you gotta play a lot of shitholes that never heard of you to get to those places. It’s pretty rough, so my main goal is to just play more big festivals and get our name out there. I’d like to get on a big tour because we haven’t been on a big tour in awhile. Just get back to the basics, I’d say. In 2019 we checked off the bucket list of playing Wacken, and holy fuck, when I started this band that was a checklist.
Photo at top: Album cover for Will and the Witch.