Getting to know. . . Kragen Lum of HEATHEN
By March Lowe
HEATHEN’s fourth studio album, EMPIRE OF THE BLIND, and the third single/video, “SUN IN MY HAND” dropped on September 18, 2020 on NUCLEAR BLAST RECORDS. They released their first single, THE BLIGHT in late June, and followed up with their second single and title track in August. The long awaited album was a follow-up to their last album, THE EVOLUTION OF CHAOS, released in 2010. HEATHEN started in the Bay Area thrash metal scene in the mid-80’s, and has evolved over the years with many members rotating through, with guitarist, Lee Altus, and vocalist, David White(formerly Dave Godfrey), being the constants. Guitarist Kragen Lum is third in seniority, having joined in 2007, he also wrote all of the material for the latest album. The two newest members are drummer, Jim DeMaria, and bassist, Jason Mirza ( he and Kragen were bandmates in PSYCHOSIS ). I had the pleasure of hosting Kragen on my virtual happy hour show, a couple of months ago.
You’ve been in HEATHEN since 2007, tell us about how you got into the band.
I was living in LA. since I was a teenager. I went up there in 2001, and I saw the Thrash of the Titans benefit show(in San Francisco)and my band at the time was looking for a singer. I asked a guy that I knew that worked for CENTURY MEDIA, if he had any recommendations and he told me to call David White. So Dave actually came down to audition for my band in L.A. and it didn’t end up working out, but we stayed in touch. When HEATHEN was looking for a guitar player, he asked me and the other guitar player in my band, if either one of us wanted to come up and audition. The other guy declined, and I said yes. I think I learned five HEATHEN songs and I don’t remember where we did that rehearsal, or what rehearsal studio it was because I don’t think we ever practiced there again. I played the five songs for the guys and they looked at each other and they asked me if I wanted to join the band. I was always a huge Bay Area fan. I was basically playing the right kind of music, but living in the wrong place. For me to be able to play in the bands that I grew up with, was a dream come true. HEATHEN and EXODUS were my heroes.
We did a record in 2010 called, THE EVOLUTION OF CHAOS. We recorded that at Juan Urteaga’s studio and we did a bunch of touring for that album and then I got sucked into the EXODUS vortex filling in for Gary(Holt) and I did that for about six years. We really just didn’t have time to focus on writing new stuff Lee(Altus) likes to say that fine wine takes time. I think it’s maybe because he’s a little leisurely about it (Kragen laughs). We call him, Leesure but I’m glad that we took so long, because some of these songs were written back in 2012 and 2014, but we had time to tweak and fine-tune them, and get them really where we wanted them to be for the new record.
You said that Zeus produced your latest record, but you mentioned Juan Urteaga from Trident Studios. Did he work on this album too?
Yes, he recorded some guest solos for the new album. I called up Gary Holt, Rick Hunolt (former guitarist for EXODUS), and Doug Piercy (former guitarist for HEATHEN), and asked them if they would all play on the record. They actually, they all play together on the same song. We have an instrumental on the album (“A FINE RED MIST”) and I had Gary and Rick do trade-offs, and then Lee and Doug do trade-offs and then I play. It was a dream come true scenario for me. The only thing is, I was so busy working on the other parts of the album that we couldn’t go there in person and do it together. I really wanted to get everybody in the same room, but we just couldn’t make it happen, so they each did them separately. Gary was on tour with SLAYER, and I had to wait until he was done, around January. Rick recorded his piece in December. Doug actually, had just built a studio of his own at his place, and he recorded his own solos. He’s engineered a lot of stuff.
The first track, THE BLIGHT sounds really good. Are you planning on releasing any more songs before the album gets released?
The title track for the album will be released in August, and then, the third single will come out with the album in September. The album’s been done since January, but we had to wait, , because of the virus. AMAZON is the biggest music retailer in the United States, in terms of physical products, so at the time, they basically cut off taking new products (CDs, albums), because they were prioritizing products that they thought people needed, like toilet paper. I think TESTAMENT’s album was already in their warehouses, so they were able to release theirs. We had to wait, HATEBREED had to wait. There were a bunch of bands where we all finished our albums and they were ready to go but we just had to kind of sit on them so I think HATEBREED is still sitting on their album. I don’t I don’t know when they’re gonna release it, but they finished it right around the same time that we did and they worked with Zeus (record producer) too.
What was the band that were you in when you were in L.A ?
The first band I was in was called PSYCHOSIS. Our current bass player, Jason Mirza was in the Bay Area up until about 1990, and then he moved down to L.A. and joined my band PSYCHOSIS in 91. That band fell apart, and we changed our name to PROTOTYPE and we released like three albums, and we just did regional stuff. We never got as far as we wanted to. I got a lot of experience just the last few years on how to be from EXODUS. Regardless of their crazy past, those guys are like a family unit now, and they all really love each other, and love spending time, and touring, and stuff. They want to be a band and that’s kind of inspirational. I see so many other bands that don’t like each other. They just do it for the money kind of a thing.
So Kragen , you mentioned that you are managing the band.. So you’re in the band, but you’re also managing the band as well?
Yeah, I manage HEATHEN. I’m also on the EXODUS management team, I do production stuff for them, tour managing, and stuff like that. I started working for DEFIANCE too, helping them out. Believe it or not, a lot of these guys still don’t have their royalty statements from their old deals, like Roadrunner Records and stuff. I go back and I do the paperwork and get them their royalty statement, so that they see what they still haven’t recouped. It’s like what I call legacy stuff for them. Everybody’s getting to an age where they’re kind of wondering, how much longer are we going to play thrash metal? They want to at least know, did we make money on this record? Where are we? They want to be able to get the statements and it’s kind of sad that it’s been 30 years and they still haven’t gotten the royalties or paperwork for it.
How do or did record labels treat their artists, generally speaking?
Okay, so all those old labels like Combat, Roadrunner, they were all bought by the big labels. Sony owns Combat and Warner Brothers owns Roadrunner. Going back and looking at the old Combat deals that HEATHEN or EXODUS signed, the language used in those agreements is really shitty for the artists. It basically says that the records that they made were a work for hire. It’s as though the music business is designed for the artistic types of people to not be able to figure out how to get their money. Some examples are government mandated mechanical royalties, like nine cents per song per copy sold, there’s a publishing/print royalty, streaming royalty, and more. You do all this leg work just to collect little pennies, but at the same time if you do it right, and the band does well, they should be able to get the royalties owed to them. Especially a band like EXODUS, they’ve been around for 35 years as recording artists they should be able to get royalties from all of their deals and hopefully be able to spread it around to all the different guys that were in the band, and in the band now. Unfortunately, the business is super complicated and I think it was designed that way.
After listening to Kragen talk about contracts and royalties, it was pretty clear that he knew what he was talking about. Can you share your business background with us?
After I finished college, I was just trying to do music: teaching lessons and playing music. I got this rare blood disorder and had to go into the hospital. I also had a young son at the time, and I knew I needed to have benefits, because I didn’t have any at the time. I basically lucked into the video game industry right when it was taking off in the late 90’s.
I started working for ACTIVISION and it was good. I was a game tester and I worked my way up the ladder. I was a video game producer for a long time and that’s where I learned a lot about contracts and negotiations. I had to manage these big projects. ACTIVISION was making GUITAR HERO, and it was a multi-million dollar video game, so there was a lot of responsibility.
I had to learn about business, and I got my education by doing it. I went to college, but I have an art degree/music degree, which didn’t help me in business (Kragen has a BA from UCLA). I was fortunate that I got into the video game industry at the right time. When I got laid off, I basically decided to go back and do what I really wanted to do all along, music!. I kind of got lucky and hooked up with EXODUS and they kept me busy for a long time.
Tell us about your time at ACTIVISION, and from a guitar player’s perspective, what are your thoughts on GUITAR HERO?
I had the opportunity to work on GUITAR HERO III: Legends of Rock. That was the big one that sold more than anything. It’s the one that had Slash on the cover. I turned it down because I thought, this is going to be gone in no time (Kragen laughs). I had the choice between that and working on the 007 game. I was like, I’m going to do the 007 game, it’s tied in with the movie, which was 007: QUANTUM of SOLACE and it had stuff from CASINO ROYALE. I was set with making my choice, and of course, it was a horrible choice (Kragen laughs). However, I did get a PROTOTYPE song into GUITAR HERO.
As a guitar player, I hated GUITAR HERO. It’s a rhythm game and drummers are awesome at it. It’s all buttons, and hitting them at the right time. As a guitar player, I’m sitting there like, “WHAT IS THIS? This isn’t even the right way to do this”. I was terrible at it, and I didn’t like it. That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t really want to work on it. When they offered it to me again, I was like okay, and I worked two of them, the last two, before they canceled the franchise. I think it was cool that kids played it, and then decided that they wanted to play guitar. If that’s a benefit from it, I think that’s great.
Since COVID-19 hit, and put a stop to everyone’s touring plans, what did you guys have planned?
We had two full European tours, and another partial one in South America. We had all this stuff booked, and we were going to take POTENTIAL THREAT out with us for the first tour. For the second one, I was actually trying to get the DEFIANCE guys to get it together, and go out with us over there for a little bit. We had a lot of stuff booked, but we were lucky, because we didn’t front any money for the tour yet. We were able to cancel stuff, but a lot of bands were not as lucky. They basically had to pay upfront for the tour bus, and other stuff, and they lost their asses. I know it’s a bummer that we can’t go out, but we are just going to promote the album as much as we can, and then try and reschedule things for next year and hope that it happens.
Speaking of touring, tell us about playing in EXODUS. You subbed for GARY HOLT, when he was touring with SLAYER.
I think he enjoyed all the playing with SLAYER, and everything, but he’s really happy to be back doing his own thing again. I think he missed it while he was gone, and the fans missed him too. I didn’t have any hecklers or anything, but they wanted their guy, and as a fan, I totally get it. Overall, it was really cool, and the vast majority of the fans understood that this was a great opportunity for him to be a part of another legendary kind of thrash band, but they may not have always enjoyed the fact that he was gone. I think in the very beginning of the U.S. tour, we had a couple of hecklers at one of the shows. Lee stopped playing, and got on the microphone and basically told them, “ this is our guy, and if you don’t like it, then just get the fuck out of here”. After that, I don’t think we had any more hecklers.
I really prepared for the shows. I studied some little stylistic things that Gary does in his playing and tried to replicate him the best that I could. My goal with the whole thing was, if people closed their eyes, I wanted it to sound like EXODUS. I just did as many things as I could. I don’t play like Gary, especially the leads. I really had to do a lot of homework to play more like him, and sometimes, I just had to do my own thing, or my own take on what he played.
I was trained, and I went to school for this, so for me, I don’t know how to play out of key. I just don’t know how to do it (Kragen laughs). So I’d mimic some of the things that he did and ultimately, it was more about trying to find the right phrasing for the things that he did, rather than trying to play the same notes that he played. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “hey, you nailed the solo”, and I’m thinking, I didn’t even play it anywhere close to it (Kragen laughs). It’s more about the intent you put behind it, and the phrasing. Our guitar sound is very different. Gary doesn’t have a separate lead tone, like I do. I like to have some of the high end rolled off, so I can get it to sound a little smoother or whatever, but he doesn’t do that, so I just had to go with how he did it.
Kragen, did you kind of commute from L.A. for a while or did you move to the Bay Area right away, after you joined the band.
No, actually I was still working for ACTIVISION at that time so I had a job. I would work Monday through Friday, then fly up on Saturday and either, practice or record. When we recorded THE EVOLUTION OF CHAOS album, I would fly up on Saturday, Dave would pick me up from the airport, we’d go straight to Juan’s, record. I’’d stay at Dave’s, and then we’d record again on Sunday, then I’d fly home, and then go back to work on Monday. It was kind of brutal for a little while, but I had to, it was the only way to kind of make everything work in the beginning.
So Kragen, you said you got laid off. Is that when you moved up to the Bay Area?
I got laid off from ACTIVISION in 2011, and I stayed in L.A., and I was doing some freelance work on other video games. When I started playing with EXODUS, I never worked at a job again after and I never moved up there. About five years ago, I moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. We played a show there, from when we were on the KING DIAMOND tour. I met my wife there, when we played the show. We were basically together, and trying to figure out what we are going to do. Should she move to L.A. or should I move to Arkansas? She was just starting a business, and I think for for us to try and make it in L.A. with me being a musician, and her having her own business, it would have been financially impossible Actually, in my my really young years, my parents moved us all over the country, so this will be state #5 for me. It’s great, because the people here are nicer than in L.A., there’s no traffic, and I was able to basically sell the house that I had in L.A., and buy this place, so I don’t have a mortgage. My wife and I can really afford to do what we want to do, and we don’t really have to worry, I mean, we still have to worry about money, but it’s not as brutal, especially being a musician, and living on musician money. There isn’t a lot of it, so it’s trying to do more with less, and I think it’s worked out great. Aside from the humidity, it’s great (Kragen laughs). Arkansas is beautiful though. I like it here. They call it, “The Natural State”. We went to the Buffalo River recently, and went canoeing and stuff, and there are a lot of national parks here. It’s really nice and we got lucky and found a really nice place where our backyard looks like nature, there’s like a big rock formation back there. I like being able to have my coffee and look outside, and see that, instead of looking at my neighbors.