There’s something to be said for going the lone wolf route when it comes to music. Sure, sharing the load and having others to help out can make things easier but it can also lead to a lot of tensions and scheduling issues that can hamper the actual creation of music and lead to all sorts of headaches and conflicts. When it’s just one person and one vision, there’s nothing there to dilute the output. It’s a lot easier to fulfill your artistic goals when you aren’t spending time fighting about who gets what from sales or who has the better idea. There are definitely hardships that go along with the one-man band routine but, at least for James McBain of Hellripper, the pros more than outweigh the cons.
Formed in 2014, Hellripper has steadily been building a name for itself through a variety of splits, singles, EPs, and albums, including this February’s damn fun Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags. The Aberdeen, Scotland-based Hellripper’s third full-length is another dose of the blackened speed metal that has gathered them a cult following in the last near-decade and one that both fans and critics have rightfully taken to. With all the momentum in the world behind the band, McBain doesn’t have any intention of slowing down anytime soon. I recently spoke with the man behind Hellripper to get the story behind the making of one of this year’s most fun releases.
First off, how did Hellripper get started? What made you want to start this kind of band?
James: The initial idea for Hellripper came to me when I was around 17 or 18. I had been jamming with friends for a few years but we never got around to starting a “proper” band as it was always difficult finding members – drummers and vocalists in particular. I wanted to get something done, and I knew that if I kept waiting for people then that most likely wouldn’t happen.
Inspired by the way some of my favourite bands worked (e.g. Midnight, Bathory, and Toxic Holocaust), I decided to start Hellripper as a solo project and keep everything as DIY as possible. I recorded an EP back in 2012 or 2013, but I was not happy with the result and so it was scrapped while I tried to improve on my songwriting and my production skills. Eventually in early 2015, the first EP was released and Hellripper has continued on since then.
What got you into extreme metal in the first place and who are some of your influences for this band in particular?
James: I was aware of metal when I was younger, but it wasn’t until I was around 13 or 14 that I discovered Metallica and Megadeth for the first time and my life changed. From there, I just browsed the internet endless for more metal bands, eventually finding bands like Cannibal Corpse and Bloodbath that got me into more “extreme” metal. Hellripper was heavily influenced by the likes of Toxic Holocaust, Midnight, Bathory, and Darkthrone – both musically and because of their DIY ethics. Bands like these showed me that it was possible to do things by yourself and that you didn’t need a full band or an expensive studio to make great music.
What kind of a challenge is it to do this as a one-man band? Do you ever consider expanding out to other members? Is it ever tough to find players so that you can play out live?
James: The hardest part I would say is finding the time to do everything – between the writing/recording/mixing of the music, organising things on the live side, packing/sending orders, being active on social media, and replying to messages and emails etc., it is quite a lot of work for one person. I enjoy every part of it though, so it’s all good!
Like I said, I enjoy working this way, and prefer working this way as opposed to in a “full band” context and so I have no real desire to get other people involved for anything other than live shows. It’s been easier than I thought to find live band members over the years, and the current version of the live band has been together for over four years now, so I haven’t had to think about that for a while
What’s the music writing process like for the band? Has that changed as time has gone on?
James: Songs usually start with a guitar riff. When I’m at home, I’ll have my guitar on me and I’ll be just messing around. Whenever something good comes to me, I’ll write it down and elaborate on it if I can, or save it for later. Whenever I come up with a guitar part, I try to write the rest of the instruments to match it also. I’ll repeat this process until a full song is revealed! Lyrics are written near the end of the process; usually when everything else is recorded. The process has been the same since the beginning and I can’t see it changing any time soon – it’s just the way I like to work.
How do you come up with the lyrics for the songs? From a lyrical standpoint, what interests you about the darker side of life?
James: The lyrical themes that I explore Hellripper fit the music well, I think.The lyrics this time around were inspired by Scotland – whether it be folklore on “The Nuckelavee” and “Mester Stoor Worm” for example or the works of Robert Burns on the title track. After moving to the Scottish Highlands around the same time that I started writing the music for this album, it inspired me to look more into Scottish folklore and the like.
Between recording the debut, Coagulating Darkness, and recording the most recent record, how do you feel you’ve grown as a band? What have you learned through recording albums that you’ve built upon as time has gone on?
James: I think I’ve improved technically in every aspect and I think I’ve become more confident as a songwriter. I’m now more willing to try and incorporate some different elements into the sound and experiment a bit with song structures, etc. I feel that this has been the case with each Hellripper release, but I think this album is certainly the biggest “leap.”
I’ve learnt a lot over the years writing songs and recording/mixing the albums by myself. You get to know what “works” and what doesn’t, and with more experience the process becomes smoother.
What was the writing/recording process like for the new record, Warlocks Grim and Withered Hags? You got a really great mix on that one. Where did you record and how were you able to achieve such strong production on it? It’s a Hell of a record and I imagine the overwhelmingly positive response must be very gratifying!
James: The process has been the same since the start, really! Not much has changed – I use most of the same equipment that I used on the first EP. Everything was recorded and mixed in my home studio as always, and it was sent to Damian Herring for mastering.
I’m really glad you like the production on it! Like I said previously, I feel that my experience over the years has led me to improve my abilities, and there were some things that I tried, such as increased guitar and vocal layering, that I feel make things sound “bigger.”
The response has been great so far, and I’m very grateful for that!
I wanted to ask about a few of the songs on that record and get the lyrical musical inspiration behind them. What’s the story behind that killer opener, “The Nuckelavee?”
James: “The Nuckelavee” is based on a creature from Orcadian folklore. It’s described as a giant, grotesque, skinless horse-like demon with the torso of a rider attached to its back – though much more malformed.
For the most part, it is confined to the sea by another mythical being, the Mither o’ the sea, but when it does make its way onto land, it brings plague and death to wherever it travels. It is said to have killed horses, cattle and wilt crops with its poisonous breath and that no-one that has encountered the nuckelavee has lived to tell the tale, bar one person – and the lyrics of the track are mostly based on this account.
What about the story behind “Goat Vomit Nightmare?” That’s a pretty great title too!
James: “Goat Vomit Nightmare” was inspired by an ancient Scottish method of divination called a Taghairm. There have been a few different ways of performing the ritual recorded, but it usually involves the sacrifice of an animal(s) of some sort with the goal to see into the future or have desires come true.
I really, really dug “The Cursed Carrion Crown” too. What’s the origin of that one?
James: That one is based on the tale of Sawney Bean. Legend has it that Sawney Bean and his incestuous clan lived in a coastal cave in Scotland in the 16th century. They would hunt for people at night, and would rob and kill them. They would often take the bodies back to their cave, dismember them, and eat them.
The clan were discovered after many years, and it is said that the men were executed in a fashion similar to being “hung, drawn & quartered” and the women of the clan were burned alive.
How about the story behind that epic closer, “Mester Stoor Worm?”
James: In Orcadian folklore, Mester Stoor Worm was a giant sea-serpent that would torment kingdoms. It could devour cities, and would kill animals with its poisonous breath. A sacrifice of seven virgins was offered to the beast every week in order to satisfy it.
Eventually, the King of one country was advised to give up his only daughter to the Stoor Worm, and only then would it leave them alone. Distraught, the King with a few weeks to decide what he would do offered various rewards to anyone that could slay the beast, including the Kingdom and a sword that he had inherited from Odin.
Nobody dared try to battle Mester Stoor Worm, but one person – Assipattle, the son of a local farmer. The day before the Princess was to be sacrificed, Assipattle acquired a small boat and rode the waves into the creature’s cavernous mouth and into the belly of the beast, slicing its liver open and filling it with hot peat. The burning insides of the Stoor Worm caused it to retch uncontrollably, forcing Assipattle back onto land.
The inhabitants of the Kingdom and Assipattle watched on as the Stoor Worm dies in agony. It tries to grip the moon with its forked tongue but falls with a great crash. Different parts of the dead creature then formed various islands such as Orkney, Shetland, and Iceland.
Assipattle received Odin’s sword and married the Princess, and the people of the Kingdom rejoiced that they no longer had to live in fear of Mester Stoor Worm.
I really liked the cover to that record too with that really wicked goat and the creepy hooded figures. Who did the cover and how much direction did you give them? How stoked were you when you saw the final piece?
James: Adam Burke did the cover artwork! It’s amazing and fits the album perfectly, but it wasn’t actually commissioned by myself. Adam had already painted the piece, and while browsing his work, I came across it and immediately wanted to licence it. I usually try to commission something custom for my releases, but this was perfect and fit my vision. I’m very happy that I was able to use the piece for the record.
What’s your local scene like? Is it pretty active and do you feel like it has helped shape the band?
James: I stay in quite a remote area and so there is not really a music scene here. The Scottish scene in general however is in quite a good place I think and is very active at the moment. The Aberdeen music scene when I first got involved was very punk and there were a lot of DIY elements involved, so perhaps that has had an influence in how I like to do things.
Lastly, what’s next for Hellripper? What are your goals for the future of the band?
James: My main focus is on writing good music! We’ll be playing a lot of shows throughout 2023 and 2024 in support of Warlocks Grim… and I hope to have something new to release in 2024! Hopefully the band keeps growing, and that we can play shows in places that we have yet to visit!
Photo at top: Album cover for Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags.