Boundless enthusiasm and youthful fervour must be the very last things expected from people who were standing at the cradle of Metal underground back in early 80’s and are aware of what it has turned into by now. So seeing them literally pouring out of Katon W. DePena, none other than the last survivor of the legendary HIRAX, is something able to put you in doubt about accuracy of your understanding of underground development’s laws based on many years’ experience. Sure, it’s very nice to see a person as highly experienced as Katon being so enthusiastic about the current state of things, but at the same time some tiny but malicious demon of distrust kept gnawing me from deep inside of my consciousness. In order to make him shut up for good I couldn’t think of anything better than to set him free to ask HIRAX frontman anything he dared to doubt in. But even confronted with our (my demon’s and mine) united scepticism, pessimism and distaste for anything new and modern (the complex of an old bore, you know), our old Metal hero armed with his eternal "possession by the fans" hasn’t given up and kept fighting back with his wide-eyed enthusiasm, loud slogans and exclamation marks. Thumbs up. It has already been a week or so that my demon doesn’t bother me any longer.
By no means HIRAX is just your another band. It’s a legend. It’s a religion of its own. A game by its own rules. Or without any rules at all. The qualities I used to respect HIRAX for (besides great music, of course) are your desire to break any borders in your way, your striving for being yourselves above all, being HIRAX, being the band not fitting into any slots. Are these qualities exactly what HIRAX was and still is all about?
“Wow, I am blown away by your question! I can tell that this is going to be a great interview. You nailed it right on the head. You understand what HIRAX is. We always wanted to be ourselves. We wanted to break all barriers and make extreme music. Combining Metal and Punk fusions. Doing the music our own way. We came out during a time when most bands were doing some kind of an image… whether it is Satanic, Black Metal, or whatever you call it. We did our own thing. We never followed any trends and we still don’t. We just play from the heart and we like to play heavy, fast and loud. We are HIRAX!!”
The forces that brought HIRAX to life back in mid-eighties – of what origin were they?
“The underground music scene. Metal heads, Punks, freaks, headbangers, rivets heads, Hardcore kids… we have a totally die-hard following that has stayed with us and grown with us over the years. We call our fans The HIRAX Army because every year they grow bigger and bigger. Our fans are the best and they are the force that drives us. It’s unbelievable. We get fan mail from every corner of the world and we are honored. We take the time out to write back to each and every person that writes us… we are dedicated to them.”
How did you manage to get hold of Tom G. Warrior to draw the original HIRAX logo? He’s much more famous in the scene for rather different talents…
“I knew Tom G. Warrior when he was still in HELLHAMMER and we were under the same promotional management team out of Switzerland along with CELTIC FROST. The more we got to know each other… we became better friends. Tom asked me if he could design the HIRAX logo and I told him… to send me something. He did. The logo that we use now is the same one that he designed back in 1984. Tom is a very talented man. I still love his old bands, HELLHAMMER and CELTIC FROST. Classic Metal. Great stuff!”
Your vocal manners are quite original (especially for Thrash related Metal), who were the ones to inspire you in the beginning of your career, your teachers (not necessary in the literal sense)?
“I grew up on all the early stuff. My favorite singers include: Bon Scott – AC/DC, Phil Lynott – THIN LIZZY, Ian Gillan – DEEP PURPLE, the godfather Ozzy and Lemmy from MOTÖRHEAD, Paul Di’Anno – IRON MAIDEN and Rob Halford – JUDAS PRIEST, Sammy Hagar – when he used to sing for MONTROSE, Guy Sperenza – RIOT, Joey Ramone, Stiv Batters – THE DEAD BOYS, all the classics… so I knew I wanted to sing differently and be myself. I also like Cronos from VENOM, Jeff from POSSESSED, Paul Baloff – EXODUS, Tom Araya – SLAYER, but they had their singing style and I have my singing style. That’s what separates us from sounding alike and I’m glad that people notice the difference.”
Are you fond of answering stupid questions? Anyway, here’s one: what the hell does your moniker HIRAX mean?
“I got it off of a bathroom wall. It has two different meanings… One is a small, furry animal that looks like a cross between a kangaroo and a jackrabbit… it is related to the elephant. It is called the hyrax. #2. An ointment that is used to take away the pain of mosquito bites and any other irritations to the skin. Believe it or not… that is the truth. It turned out to be a good question – so now you know. Most people know only that HIRAX is a fast, heavy as hell, metallic Thrash band!!”
From the very beginning of Speed and Thrash rising you had been right in the heart of this movement, you were lucky to hang out with many people that later turned this music into such a brilliant thing, you are one of them after all! Did you realize back then what impact on Metal for so many years to come that kind of Metal you had been forging was going to make?
“Not really… all of us were childhood friends and all of us knew each other. HIRAX, EXODUS, METALLICA, DEATH ANGEL, LEGACY, TESTAMENT, POSSESSED, even when Chuck from DEATH moved to San Francisco for a short time we were always very close friends. All of us still are. We still remember and miss Chuck Schuldiner and Paul Baloff, but it has brought us together and closer now. The Metal world is back stronger than ever. WE ARE READY TO ATTACK AGAIN!! PUT ON YOUR HELMETS BECAUSE METAL IS COMING!! We never thought that we would be still around making kick ass music still. We know we are lucky to still be alive so everyday we live Metal like it’s our last. I am proud to be a part of this whole movement and I believe it is only going to get bigger! You can’t kill Metal!! THE UNDERGROUND LIVES!! The fans spread the word about bands like us. That’s all we need. Fuck alternative radio and fuck all the alternative record labels! We are real Metal!”
And what else does real Metal stand for in your vocabulary then?
“It has a lot to do with integrity… and not going with trends. All that KID ROCK, SLIPKNOT, LIMP BISKIT, FEAR FACTORY, new SEPULTURA, etc. is complete crap!! I don’t even call that stuff Metal… it’s radio music. I like my music heavy and with a lot of great riffs! No Rap Metal! None of that crap either! Straight up, stripped down, LOUD ASS, HEAVIER THAN HELL, METAL!!! You either know what I am talking about or you don’t. The real Metalheads know who they are. HAIL THE UNDERGROUND!”
Must confess I’ve never been into Punk, be it their music, lifestyle, attitude, whatever really, still I appreciate what it had brought into Metal. Of course, I’m speaking about its role in the formation of Thrash only, not about some Hardcore or Crossover which had never had anything to do with my speakers. Do you think that Thrash (and all Heavy Metal of the 80’s in general) would be very different if it wasn’t for Punk?
“Yes it would be very different. People have the right to like whatever they want. But Punk and Metal are the same as Rockabilly and Rock’n’Roll… they are cousins. They come from the same place. Aggression and attitude. There are even Metalheads who don’t know their Punks and Punks that don’t know their Metalheads… we are all the same. We all bleed the same blood. We have a lot of the same beliefs and we support the bands that we love 100%. Real Metal music would not be the same without Punk. But the same goes for Punkrock… you can hear a lot of Metal in Punk and Hardcore music. I think it’s lame that some people don’t respect both genres of music. You can either listen to BLACK SABBATH or THE RAMONES, or JUDAS PRIEST or VENOM, or DISCHARGE or SLAYER, BLACK FLAG, DEEP PURPLE, HELLHAMMER, GIRLSCHOOL… it’s all a matter of taste. The best thing about this music is that you have the freedom to listen to whatever the fuck you want. Respect each other. It’s more than music… it’s a way of life.”
I used to view John’s hellish drumming as one of the trademarks of HIRAX, as something that complements your incredible music just perfectly. Then Eric came in and "Hate, Fear And Power" displayed more controlled approach to the sound. That definitely brought forth the impression of raised up professionalism of the band, but somehow a small part of your early chaotic charm got lost… How do you look upon it yourself and what were the reasons to change the drummers?
“You are completely right. Two different styles of drummers. John Tabares grew up on Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell, Keith Moon, Brian Downey, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and Clive Burr. I love John Tabares’ drumming. Very powerful. On the second record, “Hate, Fear And Power” we hired Eric Brecht. We were familiar of his drumming from the first DRI record – “Dirty Rotten Imbeciles” – he had the speed that we liked and could play lightening fast. He played more straight ahead. But both records have their own feel and sound thanks to the two different drummers. I like the diversity of both records and they both have a special place in my heart. That’s where it all began for HIRAX. “Raging Violence” 1985, “Hate, Fear And Power” 1986 – Metal Blade and Roadrunner Records. Both records are still out of print at the moment. Keep an eye on www.HIRAX.org for the release dates on all of our titles and reissues.”
When you left the band, it was Paul Baloff, the legendary vocalist of EXODUS who took your place at the mic stand in HIRAX. It seems quite unbelievable at first as your vocal styles were absolutely different, the only thing they had in common was their being so unique. Anyway, it seems there were no records, even unofficial, made with him. How did he end up in the band, how long did his participation last and were there any records featuring him singing with HIRAX at all?
“Your information is totally correct. Paul Baloff was asked to join the band after I quit in 1987. They rehearsed with him for a few months… but it never worked out. Even before he auditioned for the band the rest of the guys had called me up… and asked me what I had thought of Paul Baloff singing for HIRAX. I told them that it would be fuckin great because Paul was a friend of mine… and a very original singer. I would have loved to have heard them do a record with him… but they never did. Can you imagine what it would have sounded like?? Paul Baloff recently died and we are saddened by his loss. We will never forget him. I attended his wake (funeral) in San Francisco this past February. I had talked to Debbie Abono the ex-manager for POSSESSED, and she had told me he had died and given me the details in order to attend his farewell wake. My girlfriend and I jumped in the car and drove to San Francisco from LA… nothing could have kept us from being there.”
Were there anyone else to blame for your break up or was it HIRAX and HIRAX only?
“HIRAX and HIRAX only. We partied all night and day. We never rest and never took ourselves serious. It was only after we broke up… and sobered up… that we realized how special the band was and that so many people love the band. We were lucky to still be alive and to still be making loud as hell music. It’s great to be back!!”
Is it true that one of the reasons that caused the original HIRAX break up was your excessive affection to the booze? Was it really that serious or is it all slightly exaggerated by the journalists?
“No hype… all truth. We were a real band and still are. I mean there was drugs around… and some of us did those… but we drank way more than anything. We really loved to drink… all the time. We could go for days. We drank more than most bands could handle… The four of us were full time alcoholics and that wasn’t very smart. You don’t get much work done if you drink the way we used to. We were either stumbling drunk… throwing up… passed out… or going to the liquor store. I can’t imagine how good we would have been if we hadn’t drank so much alcohol. That was our drug of choice. Booze. We still drink… we’re just better at it now.”
Generally speaking, do you think alcohol may be any good for creating or performing Metal music?
“Yes, alcohol is good. It only takes a little bit to loosen up. But if you get too drunk, that can become a problem. I don’t drink too much anymore. Only after the show because when I’m on stage I can’t give 100% to the audience if I’m fucked up drunk. I owe it to the fans to give them a great show. After we’re done playing I celebrate. When writing music though… it’s always different… if you’re sitting in a room working on riffs and writing lyrics, then it’s time to party, relax… and think about things that inspire you… Something that means a lot to you. Concentrate and it will all come from the heart. Alcohol can always help the mood. If you like to smoke… spark a fire. Relax. Crank up the Music! Always play it loud.”
The birth, life and death of PHANTASM – what were they like? What the motivation was?
“A good friend of mine from METALLICA, Ron McGovney and I put together this band that I had an idea for called PHANTASM. I knew Ron from back in the early days… when HIRAX and METALLICA would hang out… drinking Vodka and beer all night long. So when I left HIRAX I asked Ron… to start a new band. We had two really young guitar players… and then the final touch on drums… was Gene Hoglan… former DARK ANGEL, DEATH, TESTAMENT and now STRAPPING YOUNG LADS, the line up was complete. We wanted to play a little bit longer, and more technical songs… always remaining fast and heavy. I know we accomplished that. PHANTASM was a legendary band. I am honored to be a part of that. With all the hoopla and publicity surrounding HIRAX… and that so many people had asked me about the PHANTASM recordings… finally seeing the light of day. It was such a special band that the record had to come out. I’m glad it did!! CD and 12” clear vinyl – it’s the 1987 demo as well as a live show that we recorded when we were on tour with NUCLEAR ASSAULT from New York City. All I can say is it’s a great CD and the more that people hear it… they can’t believe it! I guess it’s still as good as any other record out there today. I’m very proud of it. The reviews have been great on this record… just like “Barrage Of Noise”. More and more our records are selling. A lot of new people are finding out about us now.”
Didn’t you together with John try to bring HIRAX back to life a couple of years later?
“Johnny and I have always played together since Junior High School and I think we will always play together. Even though he is not an official member of HIRAX anymore we still play together every once and awhile. Metalheads for life! But he’s got a family now so he can only play so often. He’s a family man now.”
Hopefully the readers will be able to get some idea about you as a person if they bother to look throughout out conversation a bit, but what about the other members of classic HIRAX line-up? What kind of people they are or at least they were at the time of…, well, at that great time?
“I don’t speak to the old band members anymore. They all are retired family men now. I’m so busy with HIRAX I am always working on the band with the new musicians – writing songs, recording records, and touring. It is my life. HIRAX is my life – fulltime. The old members were fun loving Metalheads at that time… fans of music. Denim jackets, leather jackets, spikes and studs… loud music and a lot of parties. All we listened to was Metal. ANGELWITCH, HELLHAMMER, MOTÖRHEAD, POSSESSED, CRUMBSUCKERS, SOD, GIRLSCHOOL, TYGERS OF PAN TANG, VENOM, TANK, VOIVOD, TROUBLE, TRUST, BLACK SABBATH, IRON MAIDEN, DEEP PURPLE, THIN LIZZY, ANVIL, all we wanted to hear in those days was Metal. We’re still the same way now!! We were hell bent and living fast.”
At first it was announced that HIRAX was reforming in its full classic line-up, how come you happened to stay the only one left in the end?
“I refused to mellow out or give up! Plus, the support from the fans is really what has kept me going. It is amazing how many letters we get everyday from around the world. It has made me realize that HIRAX must continue on and everyday we grow our army bigger. We’ve stayed true to our music and to our fans. We are reborn – ha, ha, ha!”
As these days you are the only one left of that line-up that turned HIRAX name into the legend, and the time distance happened to be too long to consider your new stuff the natural continuation of your previous works, wouldn’t it have been better to start everything from zero, under the new name and new banners?
“You have to understand… the fans really are the reason that this band continues on. For those who don’t know the history of the band… we’ve always had a diehard following. You either love us or you hate us. And I like it that way. We have such a diehard following that even I am amazed and surprised. HIRAX is more than a band… it is a part of people’s lives. They support and push me on. I feel that HIRAX has a responsibility to the people that support us. We will always continue to put out real Metal! We have integrity and the people that follow our music know that. We are a legend because our fans are legends. They carry on the spirit of the band. We are honored.”
From what I have learned, especially recently, you seem to be the one to respect and appreciate your fans most of all. How important was your fan base during the first incarnation of HIRAX and how important for you is it these days?
“I am truly honored by the people who listen to my music. It has always been about the fans and HIRAX will always continue to recognize and be about the fans. In the early days that’s what kept the band alive. Even before we signed to Metal Blade Records we had a big fan base. Now… it is getting bigger and bigger everyday!! Because of this we are able to survive. What keeps up going is that our records keep selling and our t-shirts keep getting reordered. The money from those sales goes directly into keeping the band operations running. Every dollar we make goes right back into the band. We are completely independent and we know where we come from… the underground. We will never turn our back on those who have supported us from the beginning. Now we have a lot of new fans that also have the history of the band to learn more about. The story of HIRAX continues… We’d rather be remembered years later than be the next trendy metal band. We will be playing Metal when Metal ain’t cool anymore, ha, ha. We love Metal… whether it’s popular or not!”
As it’s said that HIRAX was reborn solely on the fans’ demand, does it mean then that as soon as none cares about HIRAX any longer the band will cease its existence?
“No. We’re not a trendy band. The people that listen to our records listen to them because they are into real Metal. It’s a way of life. It’s our own religion. Whether you’re into Satan or Jesus Christ, or if you’re a fuckin Metalhead or a fuckin Punk… you’re welcome to be a part of our crazy family. We’re not here for a popularity contest, we’re here because we love Metal!! The band’s music will live on even when we’re fuckin dead!!!”
For how many percents do you really believe yourself in your own statement that "Barrage Of Noise" is "the most incredible HIRAX record yet"? What about "Raging Violence" then? Come on, you can’t be serious…
“Yes I can. I still love “Raging Violence” and I still love “Hate, Fear And Power”, those records will always be a part of the HIRAX sound. Every record that we’ve done… there is something special about it. We practiced four times before we recorded “Barrage Of Noise” in one day. That should show you how good the record is. Most bands have months to rehearse and record records… they spend thousands of dollars on their recordings. We laugh at those bands. They are pussies. We only spent $220 on “Barrage Of Noise” recording. Figure out the math… that should show you that all those bands… like SLIPKNOT are fuckin lame. We play real Metal! That’s the bottom line. The record that we do will only get better. Everybody is going to have their favorites. I want you to remember something… I’m just getting started! I’ll be making heavy as hell metallic Thrash records as long as I can breath. I’m proud of what I’ve done. No regrets. No remorse.”
It may sound paradoxical at first, but I believe it’s exactly your old, most faithful fans that are the most hard to convince when it comes to any new HIRAX stuff. Of course, they will listen to all of it and try to give it a fair chance and they are sincerely glad to see you back in action, but still at the gigs they will ask for the songs from the past, not present. It’s just something that is beyond us. You see, "Raging Violence" and "Hate, Fear And Power" are what we were growing up with, the albums we shared our youth with, and that’s exactly the time when music sticks to you for the eternity. Well, maybe I should not speak for the others, people are different and somehow I even want to be mistaken here, but I believe nothing can replace the records out of that time in our hearts, so however hard you try, however great your new albums might be… My wife hates me since the day I told her something like this about my first love, so I wonder if you are afraid that at some point you will simply start to hate your own early records for their in a way destructive effect on your current activities? (Whoah, what a question this one turned out to be)
“I love the question. I am very proud of my early records! We will do a lot of songs off of both records when we come on tour and play live. We will obviously throw in some new songs as well. We will never turn our backs on our past… but we will always remember our future. The old fans of the older albums have a right to feel the way they want to feel. They will hear the old songs so they don’t have to worry about that. They will also hear new songs. I am not worried about it. Every night when we play live… we will give the people what they want. We will stay true to ourselves and play the songs that we love as well. I understand the older fans and they will get what they want – A great concert! They will have a lot of old memories as well as a lot of new memories! We will KICK THEIR ASS! It is a new time and a great time! I know they will love the new songs as well! They should listen to the new albums as well as the old albums – “Raging Violence” 1985 / “Hate, Fear And Power” 1986 / “Blasted In Bangkok” 1987 / “El Diablo Negro” 2000 / “Barrage Of Noise” 2001 THRASH TIL DEATH!!”
Many old bands are complaining about their labels and tell how they were ripped off by those "businessmen". Is it something you wanted to secure yourselves from by setting up your own label?
“For us… we don’t mind working a little harder than most bands and running everything ourselves – in fact, we love it! We’re not lazy… most bands are. Yeah, it’s hard shipping out the records and the CDs to all the distributors worldwide, touring, doing interviews, doing mail order, responding to all the letters that come in, etc. but it’s worth it. We know everything that is going on. We’re in contact with the real underground. The people that buy the records and distribute them to all the real fans. I’ve heard all kinds of bad stories about record labels from friends of ours in other bands. Chuck from DEATH told me what record labels not to sign with… the same with Jeff from POSSESSED. I’ve learned a lot. That’s why we do everything ourselves. We really know what’s going on with our music. Best of all, the fans, the concert promoters, record distributors, magazines, fanzines and everybody that supports our kind of music can contact us direct at www.HIRAX.org Or snail mail: PO Box 1474 • Cypress, CA 90630 • USA. We are doing better than most bands that are on bigger labels because we’re heavily involved in all the aspects of our business. HIRAX runs itself… nobody runs us. We have nobody telling us what to do. We are a real underground band.”
Is "Black Devil" exactly how you personally would like to be referred to?
“It doesn’t matter to me. It’s just a nickname that was given to me because I’m a little wild. So we named the record label Black Devil Records. We have a website for both www.BlackDevilRecords.com and HIRAX. Things are going great. Black Devil Records helps distribute all HIRAX merchandise – t-shirts, buttons, patches, stickers, posters, etc., everything is done very professional.”
Anything funny related to your being of not a typical for Metal scene colour of skin? Has it ever helped or, on the contrary, hindered HIRAX in any way?
“It’s a good thing. I feel honored. I mean to even be mentioned with Jimi Hendrix or Phil Lynott from THIN LIZZY is an honor! I have received letters from fans inspired by me… they say I’m the only dark skin Metal singer they had to look up to. If I am a positive influence on somebody… then I have done my job. It makes me proud. I don’t feel different at all… I just feel like Katon.”
How does it feel to be if not the living legend of Metal, then at least the cult figure in the scene? Respect and honour all the way, or rather a kind of a burden?
“I’ve always worked very well under pressure. I love to work hard. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am very honored that people consider me a cult figure. It means a lot to me.”