The Evolution of HEATHEN with David White
by March Lowe
October 1, 2020
San Francisco Bay Area’s HEATHEN is one of the best, melodic thrash metal bands around. Although they may not exactly be a household name . . . yet. Their eagerly awaited, fourth studio album, “Empire of the Blind” on Nuclear Blast , dropped on September 18, 2020. It’s the follow-up album to “The Evolution of Chaos” (2009). “Empire of the Blind” is garnering rave reviews from critics and fans alike. Upon listening to the first notes of their prelude, ”Rotting Sphere”, it felt “special”. Immediately, I was transported into another world. I could see the dark and heavy stage curtains starting to part, and then it hit me hard, as they blasted into their second track, and first single, “The Blight”, with it’s not so subtle EXODUS nuanced riffage. However, the rest of the tracks are pure HEATHEN. This album is impeccably crafted, and a guitar lover’s dream. You are going to want to listen to this album in order, to get the most out of it. The final song/instrumental outro, “Monument to Ruin” bids us a fond adieu, but for me, it was a cue for me to listen to the album again. The highly technical, yet melodic guitar work from Lee Altus and Kragen Lum is a highlight. You want riffs? You got ‘em! Lum is the Yin, to Altus’ Yang. They are a rare breed, and modern day guitar heroes. And then there’s Lum’s dream collaboration, “A Fine Red Mist”, an instrumental, featuring Bay Area thrash guitar luminaries: Gary Holt (SLAYER, EXODUS), Rick Hunolt (former EXODUS), Doug Piercy (BLIND ILLUSION, former HEATHEN, ANVIL CHORUS), in addition to Altus and Lum. Another standout is White’s vocals, he is simply incredible. He shines, and it is especially apparent on “Shrine of Apathy”. White has undeniably given the performance of his life on this album. The new rhythm section of Jason Mirza on bass, and Jim DeMaria on drums, are super solid, and round out the quintet perfectly.
HEATHEN fans are quite a loyal, and patient lot. They know that band founder and guitarist Altus pulls guitar duty in another beloved Bay Area thrash metal band, EXODUS. They also know that between that, the constant band lineup changes, and overall uncertainty, all they were left with was hope. White and Altus are the only two current members of HEATHEN, to have appeared on all four albums. White, was credited as David Godfrey on their debut album, “Breaking the Silence” in 1987, and David Godfrey- White on their sophomore album, “Victims of Deception” in 1991. Prior to joining the band, White was in a Bay Area metal band called BLIND ILLUSION. He started out as the drummer for BL, before switching to vocals. White was also the vocalist for another Bay Area thrash metal band, DEFIANCE, for a few years in the mid-90’s. I had the pleasure of catching up with White, who recently moved from the Bay Area to Florida.
Tell me about the new guys in the band.
This new nucleus of guys, it’s going to be interesting. We still haven’t played together as a band. We’ve only recorded an album together, and that’s where a lot of bonding time happened, hanging out in the studio. , Everybody was just fired up. Our drummer, Jim DeMaria is a New Yorker. He played with GENERATION KILL and WHIPLASH. He plays with TOXIK, as well as, HEATHEN. He’s a busy guy, and he’s also a nurse in New York and he’s been dealing with COVID patients. He’s on the front lines, and he’s my hero. Jason Mirza is our bass player. He lives down south (Southern California). He’s a super solid guy and super cool. It’s just going to be a new dynamic for HEATHEN, as most people know, we’ve been through some lineup changes and Lee and I are the only two original members left. Kragen has been with us since 2007 and he wrote this entire record.
So Kragen wrote every song on Empire of the Blind?
Yes, even the lyrics. I’ve got tracks of him singing. I went over some of the vocals and there were little things that I wouldn’t normally do vocally, and I would tell him, “I would do it this way with the phrasing”, and things like that, but for the most part, the melodies and all that stuff,he just crushed it. It was a trip to work that way, because the roadmap was already set. I think with Lee being busy with EXODUS, it was probably a relief for him, even though he’s got a lot of material, it’s just a matter of when he finishes it. It’s different for me, because I’ve written most of the lyrics on all of the HEATHEN records. Though, Kragen did write two songs on our last album, “The Evolution of Chaos”. He wrote “Dying Season” and “Undone”.
Your last album, “The Evolution of Chaos” (2009) was produced by Juan Urteaga of Trident Studios in the Bay Area, but your latest album, Empire of the Blind was produced by Chris “Zeuss” Harris of Planet Z studios in Massachusetts. How was it working with Zeuss? How would you compare it with your experience with Juan?
The biggest difference with Juan is that we knew each other, so it was very comfortable working with Juan going in. We did a lot of work on songs, because there was a lot of development that still needed to happen with the vocals, and even some of the melodies. We even had to rewrite a song, or maybe two songs, while we were doing the recording. There was that comfort zone with him, and I loved working with Juan, and I would love to work with Juan again.
With Zeuss, he’s a high-profile guy, so I was a bit nervous, and I didn’t know the guy. I’m going into the studio, the pressure’s on, and all that kind of stuff. However, right when I met him, he’s just a super down to earth guy and he’s super talented. Also he’s in the position now where he only does records that he wants to do and he wanted to do this HEATHEN record, so that was a bonus and a plus for us, because he cared about it. He made us all feel super comfortable, and he definitely brought out the best in us. He knew how to do it, and he knew how to keep things rolling and moving forward all the time. The biggest difference was just the familiarity of the whole situation. They both are very talented engineers and producers.
It sounds really good. How long did it take to record?
For the vocal tracks, I had two week-long sessions. I was there for a week at the end of October, and I went back the last week of November. Zeuss was also working on the new HATEBREED record, so he fit us in, during his time off. There was a lot of scheduling going on, but the recording took about three months.
In previous albums, you wrote all of the lyrics, but for this album, Kragen did.. How far did that put you out of your comfort zone?
I didn’t really get totally comfortable until I was actually laying the songs down in the studio. I just worked on them to prepare and just tried to absorb them as much as I could, but when you get in the studio, you really hear what you’re doing, and so I’m pushing myself. Of course, Kragen’s in there too, with Zeuss (Dave laughs) and they’re pushing to bring out the best in every line. That’s when everything started to really resonate for me, and then building upon those songs with harmonies and different things that we did with the vocals and the backup vocals.
One last question, can you tell me about your name change (30 years ago). It was confusing when it changed from Godfrey to White, and I think lots of people thought that HEATHEN got a new singer. I always wanted to ask but never got to, until now. What gives?
(Dave laughs) Godfrey was my stepfather’s last name, and when I started going to school, my mom registered me as David Godfrey, and it stuck. It was never my legal name. As an adult, I wanted to go back and use my given, and legal name, David White. For our second album, Victims of Deception, I was credited as David Godfrey-White, but shortly after, I dropped Godfrey altogether. I remember at one show, a guy in the crowd held up a sign, “R.I.P. David Godfrey” (Dave laughs).