Interview mit Henrijs Leja von Helestios

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Two Latvians, a Greek and a Dutchman meet in England… it sounds like the beginning of a silly joke, but it has become serious for HELESTIOS. The international newcomers fronted by singer and guitarist Henrijs Leja recently released the self-produced debut „Your Pain Tastes Good“. What it means to start a new band in the middle of a pandemic, what place throat singing and Lebanese prayers have on a metal record and much more can be found out in the following interview with the main songwriter.

Hello! Thanks a lot for taking the time to do this interview! First of all, let’s address the infectious elephant in the room: How hard has the pandemic hit you personally, are you guys professional musicians or do you have other jobs that provide you with a safe income?
Hi and thank you for having us! We work day jobs and so far been hanging in there although it’s not easy.

What does the pandemic mean to you as a “fresh and hungry” newcomer band that was just formed this year, e. g. how hard is it to gain a foothold in the music scene under these extraordinary circumstances?
Well, it is very unfortunate for any musicians to not being able to perform live and interact with fans properly. So hopefully soon enough we can get out there and communicate with like-minded people and play our new album live!

With the arts and entertainment industry (and thus live concerts) being on hold, and the usual practice of playing live shows in support of a new album, what made you decide to release “Your Pain Tastes Good” despite the current situation?
This is what the whole industry is doing – holding back and waiting for later, so they can cash in. For us it’s more than just money – it’s the message, and especially in times like these it’s important for all of us to have something that can inspire and unite us. So despite this situation, we are staying strong and so wish for everyone!

You’re a new band, so I hope this question isn’t already annoying: What does your HELESTIOS mean and where does the name come from?
We will be developing a mythology to reveal this in the future. Although the fact that it’s a combination of the first letters of my name and surname and Stelios’ is a pure coincidence. (laughs)

You guys are quite a multinational bunch, hailing from Latvia, Greece, and the Netherlands, but now based in England. Can you please tell our readers about that development, like, how the members – some (all?) of them coming from different countries – ended up around Basingstoke, how you guys found each other, and how you ended up in a band?
We’re actually pretty proud about having this mix – proving to be able to work together with having different backgrounds. Technically, only two of us live in Basingstoke – Stelios and me. Ian works from distance and lives in Holland as well as Agnis in Latvia.
It all started when I moved to Basingstoke after having lived several years in London and was searching for musicians to form a band – I met Stelios and our taste matched. As for Ian and Agnis – we knew each other before, and this pandemic thing probably also motivated us to experiment a little bit and work from distance like this.

With respect to musical influences and backgrounds, where do you guys come from? Which artists inspire you, which bands do you listen to, which genres do you like?
I think it’s fair to say that all of us are influenced by metal in general. There are bands you can’t miss – Metallica, Megadeth, Sepultura, Dream Theater. Ian falls for Cradle Of Filth big time. Agnis enjoys Gojira and precision stuff. Stelios would add Septicflesh, his fellow Greek guys to this bunch. I would add Skyforger – in my opinion the best Latvian metal band. The list could go on for a very long time, to be honest.

Can you tell us how the songwriting works in HELESTIOS? For example, do all members contribute or is there rather one main songwriter?
We have one main generator of ideas, which is me, and then we have Stelios, who puts solos on top, although „All Attack“ we did compose together riff-wise as well. Normally, Ian would put in some ideas for the drums as well and Agnis is the guy who does our sound engineering, a little bit of producing, and who makes the bass sound absolutely monstrous! All in allm we have a sort of voting system – this song is good, this song is not, go and get another!

You incorporate a lot of different styles on “Your Pain Tastes Good”. Was it your declared goal to sound multi-faceted or is this just the result of four individuals with different preferences creating music together?
I guess this is just a result of listening to a variety of music and our personalities, something that wouldn’t be too much into one style or another – the main goal is to have great songs that we enjoy playing and others listening.

As far as I see it, the songs on “Your Pain Tastes Good” are fairly concise, compared to other bands that play a style similar to yours. Was it your intention from the start to write concise songs or did that happen naturally during the songwriting process?
Like master Yoda said: „Go with the flow.“ We didn’t want to force the songs to be longer just to have extra time on them – if it feels like this is a great moment to end it, then that’s what it is. You can always put the song again and listen one more time. (laughs)

You start off the album with a throat singing performance – what inspired you to include this style in your album?
Agnis has been developing this skill and we thought it would be a great moment to put his skill into a business, and it really adds to the whole atmosphere and context of the song.

You obviously take a great interest in or have a passion for the Near and Middle East. Where does this fascination come from?
It would be more fair to say any pre-biblical culture and mythologies. It just so happens that in and around Egypt and the Middle East they are more accesible or preserved. And only in the past ten to twenty years, with our technological understanding and capabilities growing, we start to notice that there are massive gaps in what we’ve been taught in school about ancient Egyptians, Mesoamerica, and truly it’s been one of most important philosophical questions of all times – who are we and where do we come from? An Armenian philosopher said in the seventh century: „The past is a tower from which we see the future.“

Interestingly, you included a recording of a Lebanese prayer, which you brought from your stay in Lebanon in 2019, in the intro to “Return To Baalbek”. What was the reason for your stay there, how did you end up amidst mass protests, and why did you decide to put it on the album?
It was a planned journey to Baalbek to visit the massive architecture monuments that date back at least nine thousand years. Many experts in archaeology and engineering who have studied this site draw conclusions that only the top part of it could have been built by the Romans, the rest however comes from much a older period in time and would be a problem to repeat even with our modern technological understanding and tools today. And yet in ancient mythologies, there lived individuals in this region whom our ancestors referred to as gods. If we put myths together with stone monuments where advanced and totally unusual methods to the Bronze Age were applied, we can actually try to make some sense to what was happening in a deep past. So we are talking about pre-biblical events that have been suppressed for a very long period of time and hidden away from ordinary people to make it easier to manipulate with nations and people by giving them something else.

“All Attack” was written in support of the Belorussian people. Why is this issue important enough for you to address it in your music, and what is your view on the country’s state? Do you think the protesters will ultimately succeed or is your outlook rather bleak?
I truly and sincerely hope they will! Lukashenko has been in power since the collapse of the Soviet Union and re-elected every time for one more presidency. Every time they have any opposition – those people either disappear, get in prison or die in some other ways. We have to understand that if we remain passive and don’t react in support of our neighboring countries, this type of control tomorrow might as well be applied to us by some tricks in the name of public good to take your individual rights away.

Do you think that the development in Belarus, maybe as well as the electoral defeat of Trump, is a reason to be optimistic with regard to the rise (and now decline?) of authoritarian ideas around the world in recent years? Or do you rather think that it doesn’t make that much of a difference as long as there are politicians like Putin, Erdogan, Bolsonaro…?
Nothing is over – we have to remain active as individuals and keep together and push for more freedom of speech, no censorship, no racism, no dividing us in any ways – we are all humans, some different but looking for the same things in life – to be appreciated, happy and respected. We should question anyone who wants to send other people to war, regardless of reasons.

A lighter topic towards the end: While your songs represent a pretty individual style, the artwork and the album title are much more (proto)typical of metal. Can you briefly guide us through the decision-making process that ultimately led to this cover image and the title “Your Pain Tastes Good” and tell us a little about its meaning?
The idea was entirely a teamwork of the whole band and an absolutely great work by Artūrs Bērziņš who had an instant vision of putting ancient mythologies, modern technologies, and battle against evil in one picture!

On we usually end our interviews with a short brainstorming session. What comes to your mind first when reading the following terms?
Metallica: Giants
Sepultura: Max is semi god!
Boris Johnson: who’s that
Black Lives Matter: all lives matter equally
Ancient history: is where we come from. do we know where we come from?
Your favourite beer: Mythos, Blonde Trappist, Heineken.

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