Kragen Lum of Heathen Talks ‘Empire of the Blind’ and Making Music with Feeling

2020-07-30

Thrash metal titans Heathen are back with a new album, "Empire of the Blind," out this September.

Heathen – Story by Anne Erickson, photo by Chrissie Dieu

Kragen Lum of Heathen joins Anne Erickson to talk about the metal band’s new album, “Empire of the Blind,” what’s new with Exodus and more in this in-depth interview

After roughly a decade, thrash metal titans Heathen are finally back with a new studio album, the triumphant “Empire of the Blind,” out Sept. 18 via Nuclear Blast Records. With thick guitars and relentless rhythms, the album offers a variety of heavy sounds that show Heathen’s musical diversity.

Ahead of the release, Heathen guitarist Kragen Lum spoke with Anne Erickson of Audio Ink about the new album, what it was like getting a super group of thrash musicians together for the song “A Fine Red Mist” and his work co-managing Exodus. Read the interview below, and listen to the full chat via the Audio Ink podcast on Apple Podcasts here and Spotify here.

Congratulations on the new album on the way, “Empire of the Blind.” What’s extra exciting is that the new record is the band’s first album in about a decade. What was the reason for waiting so long for a new release?

Well, we started writing the music for this album back in 2012, demoing songs and sort of starting the process. We were hoping to get the album out much, much sooner than this, but I got sucked into the Exodus vortex and started playing live for them, filling in for Gary Holt, and that ended up lasting for basically– I think I was doing it for six years. So, it really wasn’t until 2019 when we had a long enough break where I could focus on finishing writing. It’s unfortunate that the album took that long to come together, but at the same time, I’m kind of glad we had the extra time, because it was– in some cases, I think the extra time was beneficial to the songs, and I could go back with fresh ears and listen again and try and to improve them.

Tell me about how the recording and mixing for this record worked out, because things are so different with how bands are recording due to coronavirus, and also you live in Arkansas.

It was definitely a different process than usual. I moved here a few years ago, and actually everybody in the band lives somewhere different– we don’t all live in the same place. So, it was definitely a different process. I worked here from home, and I basically got the guys all together in the New England area to work with Zeus and get them away from their homes and families, so they could focus on recording, and we just did whatever it took to get the album done. We really wanted to have it sound like the album had a bigger budget than it did, so the guys all recorded with Zeus, and I recorded the guitar tracks here in my home studio and was able to spend a lot more time working on them. Being able to go back and make minor changes here and there was great for creatively. It drew the process out a little bit longer, but the end result ended up how we wanted it to come out.

You have some great guests on “Empire of the Blind,” including Gary Holt from Exodus and Slayer. Tell me about the track Gary appeared on and what he brought to the album.

Yes! Actually, all the guests played on the same song together. It’s an instrumental called “A Fine Red Mist.” I had this idea to put together an instrumental that was half classic thrash and an instrumental where the music sort of takes the place of the vocals, and I wanted to mix that with a shred instrumental. So, guess I was daydreaming one day and thought, “Wow. I would be great if I could get all my Bay Area thrash heroes to play on this together.” I just called them and asked them to do it. It’s Gary Holt and Rick Hunolt from the original Exodus, and Doug Piercy who used to be in Heathen. Basically, I got all those guys, and there’s this long trade off guitar solo section where Gary and Rick trade off, and Lee and Doug trade off, and then I play afterwards. It’s a really cool track. It came out great. Each one of those guys has a very different style, so hearing them trade back and forth is a really cool part on the album, and it really gives the album something a little bit different. We tried to make each track stand on its own, and I think this one really came together and is really strong, and it’s cool for the fans to hear these guys all playing together on a track.

One of my favorite tracks off the record is “Shrine of Apathy,” it has a very different vibe than the rest of the album. Tell me a little about that track and the genesis of it.

Sure! I’ve had that song in sort of different forms for a long time. The idea in terms of the lyrics was it’s about losing someone close to you and the feeling of sort of total despair that you get where you almost don’t care about anything going on around you. The idea was that you’re building this shrine to apathy. That’s the idea of it, lyrically, and I wanted, musically, it to be what I would call a true balled in the sense of the ballads that came out in the late-’70s and early-’80s, like “Dream On” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Those ballads all made you feel something, instead of them just being a soft song. A lot of the ballads that come out these days, I don’t get a feeling from them– they’re just a soft song. I wanted to capture a feeling of the song and give it a vibe so that the music and lyrics were connected. I think we were able to do it. Dave’s vocal performance on that is awesome, and he really was able to capture that emotion. This band has had a number of losses of actual band members and family and friends in recent years, so it felt like something that was really appropriate for the band to do, and it came out great.

Coronavirus has turned the world upside down this year. I know your friend Gary Holt had coronaivrus for a while, and, of course, Will Carroll had a very serious case of it. How is everybody doing in your circle of musician friends?

Thankfully, those guys are all okay from what I understand. I think everybody is taking the precautions necessary to prevent getting COVID-19 or spreading it. I think most of the bands are laying low, and most of the guys are laying low and doing whatever they can. I know the Exodus guys are writing a new record now, as far as the guys in Heathen, we’re all just doing our thing. Two of the guys have day jobs and they are considered essential workers, so they’re still working. I’m just a musician, so I’m a homebody and not impacted too much other than I hate wearing masks to have to go out to dinner or not being able to go out to dinner, but we can’t control it, so we just do what we do and try to stay safe and do whatever we can to stay productive.

You always have so many great projects and bands. I really enjoy your work in Prototype. Is there any talk of you guys doing something this year?

Oh, cool! We haven’t done anything for a few years, we do have some new music but a lot of the projects that I would normally have been working on I had to put on the back-burner to focus on the new Heathen album to get it done and get it out. It was a massive undertaking, so I haven’t gotten back to that place where I’m ready to get creative and everything. I spent all of last year kind of in that mode, that creative and get it done mode, so hopefully we’ll be able to work on new music soon. I’d like to see something come together. We have our first album, “Trinity,” having its the 20th anniversary next year, I’d like to do something in terms of a reissue, if people are interested in it. My band before Prototype, Psychosis, we have some stuff that’s practically recorded that we need to finish, so I do have a never-ending list of projects. I’m working on a couple new guitar books now, too.

You also have a history with Exodus, including touring with them and you co-manage them, too. What’s on the horizon for them?

Yeah, I co-manage Exodus, and I manage Heathen, and I also manage War Curse from Cincinnati and am working with another Bay Area band called Defiance. So, Exodus, so far it’s just been Gary and Tom (Hunting) getting together and working out the music for the new record. They’re looking forward to hopefully starting to record in just a couple months. Gary is really excited about it. He’s not always the most chi-chatty guy, but when he gets talking about the record, boy he’s super excited about it. So, I think he’s just really happy to be back full time with Exodus and working on some new music. He’s been a few years in playing live mode, and I’m sure he’s really excited to be back into creativity, and he’s really enjoying working on the stuff with Tom. Tom’s loving it, too. I’m sure thy’ll have something new– hopefully they’ll be done with the record this year. I don’t know if it will actually come out this year. It will probably come out next year. I’m looking forward to hearing it!

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