February 2012 - JOE HASSELVANDER

When it comes to heavy rock and doom metal, Joe Hasselvander has been one of my favourite musicians for more than two decades now. It was at the beginning of 1986, when I bought the first self-titled Pentagram record (although strictly speaking it was Death Row) and I was immediately hooked by his vigorous style. Shortly thereafter I have purchased a copy of his first solo album 'Lady-Killer' (review here) which revealed his love for Kiss and Alice Cooper. Furthermore it showed that he had his own vision of heavy music that he refined to perfection over the last two decades. Two milestones in his career have been 'Review Your Choices' and 'Sub-Basement', for the simple reason that he was the creative head behind these two masterpieces (this is not meant as a slight on Pentagram's 'Be Forwarned', but that was the joint work of the old line-up).

And then of course there are THE HOUNDS OF HASSELVANDER where he continues his heavy musical visions. One might ask now why I don't mention other important stations in his career as Phantom Lord, Raven or Blue Cheer, but it should not be forgotten that this is only a foreword to an interview, so I beg your pardon my dear readers. This gets me back to THE HOUNDS OF HASSELVANDER who released a brandnew album entitled 'The Ninth Hour' (review here) at the end of 2011. As was to be expected, that record is a further testament to Joe's unique brand of heavy rock (or doom metal or however else you want to call it). Blues-drenched acid rock, rock 'n' roll and heaviest metal have been merged to an overpowering, ass-kicking dark sonic amalgam of whom younger bands can learn a thing or two. This also means that it was time for me to get in contact with Joe Hasselvander. Our interview gives a deep insight in different topics, from the new album and the old Death Row days to the Black Sabbath "reunion" and more....


Hello Joe, it is a pleasure and an honour for me to welcome you here at Cosmic Lava. Let us start with your new album 'The Ninth Hour' that has been released thru Black Widow Records and Bloodrock Records. Immediately, one takes note of the fact that this is your work and brainchild. You have your very own unmistakeable style for more than 20 years. What do you think about 'The Ninth Hour'? Are you satisfied with it?

I am very satisfied with the song writing on this one, as I took more chances than usual and went outside the contemporary metal formula. I have been into painting with much broader musical brush strokes than in the past. That is partially due to my fascination with Italian and French Library albums of the late 1960's and early 1970's. Some real way out compositions there, with plenty of percussion and other ear candy! I applied a lot of this to 'The Ninth Hour' and went into the darkest recesses of my mind for the melodies. Some of the songs evolved into even stranger compositions as I layered them in the overdubbing process! For the most part, I had a story line for each song and wrote the music around them. I also like the organic sounds that I got from that little studio I use next to the Connecticut River and the awesome mastering done by S.A. Adams, that gives the over all polished effect.

As before, you recorded the album almost single-handedly. Why do you prefer that working method? Does it allow you a wider artistic freedom or what is the reason?

There are a few reasons. I could make this all easier by saying that Tony, Geezer, Bill, Ozzy, Lemmy, Leigh Stephens, Paul Whaley and Dickie Peterson were not available for the session, so I had to play their parts! No, really! When I write songs, I like to keep the original vibe that I caught in the creating process! When putting other musicians through this in rehearsals, you lose the original idea, somewhat. The spontaneity disappears and you are left with a song that is missing the excitement and tonal quality of your original idea. Unless you have endless free hours of rehearsal time and recording time and some ego-less musicians willing to forgo a co-writing credit in order to keep your song pure, it will always behoove the songwriter to record everything or most everything by himself!

That's of course, whether he or she has the talent and the patience to do so. Operating this way, enables me to do more with less money as there are less cooks in the kitchen, as it were! What record companies are willing to spend and what recording studios are demanding in payment, are two different sums of money! I want the best possible mix as well and if you can free up a lot of time in recording the tracks you will have that time to make a much better, near perfect mix! I most always do one take on every instrument, with very few mistakes. You can always teach your touring band the songs at a later date, where they will have finished hard copies of the songs to listen to, so they can go and back engineer their parts.

This time around, keyboarder Paolo Apollo' Negri is involved in the studio line-up. What prompted the collaboration with him?

Paolo was suggested to me by Massimo at Black Widow Records. He thought that it would be cool to have some keyboard parts on certain songs. He is an avid collector of old Heavy rock albums with keyboards on them, as am I. I wasn't too keen on the idea at first but then decided to give it a go and whatever I didn't like, I could mix out of the song. I sent Paolo some music files and he sent back these amazing tracks that really complimented my guitar playing and brought a whole new level of professionalism to the album! I believe Paolo's contribution has made 'The Ninth Hour' much more accessible to the general public! I hope to be working with him many more times in the future!

I was especially pleased to see (and hear) that Martin Swaney (Death Row/Pentagram) played the bass for the recording sessions. When did you have the idea to invite him to THE HOUNDS OF HASSELVANDER and why is it that he has been replaced through Eric 'Orion' Cabana on two tracks?

I thought of Martin early on, as our Death Row reunion of 2009 had been cut so short after our successes in the U.S. and Europe! Victor exited out of the picture and went back to Pentagram. I felt bad for Martin as he had been brought out of retirement for Death Row and had developed a whole new interest in music! It was great to see my old High School friend enjoying the all mighty power chord once again! When I started writing 'The Ninth Hour', I did it with Martin in mind!

The songs that Marty played on were all that I had written at the time and we were also working on an upcoming album called, 'Ancient Rocks' which he also played on. Martin lives all the way down in the middle of Virginia and I live very far in the North East U.S.. It really wouldn't have been worth it for him to drive all the way up to my house in Massachusetts to record two songs so I got the last bassist who had played in The Hounds Of Hasselvander with me, Eric Cabana. Eric is a very good bass player and lives close by in Maine. It was very quick and convenient having Eric come out to the studio and lay down his two tracks!

Please, tell me more about 'Ancient Rocks'. What's the story behind this?

'Ancient Rocks' is an album I recorded in tandem with 'The Ninth Hour'. This album was recorded with a real time band in the studio with Martin Swaney on bass guitar, T.C. Tolliver on drums and me on guitar and vocals. 3 of the songs have Paolo Negri as well on the Hammond Organ. 'Ancient Rocks' is an album of very obscure cover songs from the late 1960's and early 1970's. These versions by The Hounds Of Hasselvander are very authentic to the originals out of respect for the original artists! Some of the bands we cover are: Bang, Pretty Things, Boomerang, Jerusalem and many others! This album will be a "must" for fans of this style of music that is the prototype for all Doom and Stoner Rock! This album will be out in the Spring on Black Widow and Bloodrock Records as well!

To me 'The Ninth Hour' seemed like a soundtrack for a dark and grim movie. What I am trying to say is that the entire record evokes a lot of pictures in my mind, because your music is very inspiring and tremendously empowering. Is it important for you that the songs work on multiple levels?

Absolutely! I want a landscape to appear in the listener's subconscious mind while listening. All good soundtrack music has that effect because, the composers are offering their best music for film to coincide with the scenes. This is why my favorite music comes from soundtrack and library albums! It is always a cut above the mainstream's idea of what is considered good music. I love creating emotional responses in the listener. I know what emotions to go for, as my emotional responses are like everyone else. The world is a sad and tragic place coupled with great feelings of fun and euphoria always trailed behind by dread and creeping anxiety! It's how you serve them all up, and in what order, that makes a great musical casserole! Could you please pass the butter?

Over the past five years you have cooperated with Rock Saviour Records. How come, that you joined forces for 'The Ninth Hour' with Bloodrock Records and, again, with Black Widow Records?

Rock Saviour Records could not afford to do any more of my albums. They had to start streamlining their budget in order to stay in business. I think they are sticking with groups who have funded their own demos, and just going with that! Not unlike the old days during the N.W.O.B.H.M. I can't afford to put out sub par recordings like that and expect to survive in the business.

They did a good job for me even though our association was short lived. Black Widow contacted me about doing a new HOH album in 2009 and I was very happy to be working with them again and they have always put out the best quality CD's and records anywhere! They also understand where I am, musically! This time they wanted to make a joint effort with Bloodrock Records making the CD's while Black Widow took care of manufacturing the vinyl. It actually worked out very, very well!

How long did you work on the new album and how is the workflow? Do start with the guitar tracks or do you prefer to record drums and bass in the beginning?

It took me all of 3 months to write and record the album and possibly 7 days to mix it. I recorded 'The Ninth Hour' over a series of months as I couldn't book the studio in the block time that I needed. I'm sort of glad now, as I had more time to listen back before adding anymore tracking and figured out some production moves that were necessary in making it all work seamlessly, unlike my last studio album where I went in and finished in 3 weeks! In the writing process, I always sit down with a guitar and a very loud amp and come up with the riffs and put them on tape. I play those tapes back on a regular basis and work out drum beats and break downs.

Once I am in the studio, I hopefully have my drum ideas perfected and everything decided upon and lay down a track, all the while hearing the guitar riffs in my head. I quickly strap on a guitar and go for what's called a scratch track and record and play along with the drum track to make double sure that I had all the necessary parts and timings right on the drums. The drum tracks usually turn out perfect and I don't have to do another. Once I have the drum track and guitar scratch track, I have the framework! Then, it's just a matter of replacing the guitar scratch tracks with good ones and layering all the other instruments and vocals over top.

Obviously, you prefer the Gibson SG over any other guitar. Do you agree, and if so, why?

I prefer "my" SG for sure! I bought it in a pawn shop in Texas back in 1983 for $200! It's a 1969 SG Standard. It has the regular squealing Humbucking pick-ups and it sustains notes indefinitely! It also has some very strange overtones in it! Sometimes when I am playing very loud, it sounds like a second guitar or electric cello accompanying me! It's just my guitar! Some of my friends tell me that my guitar is haunted! Well, if it is, the spirit is welcome! It has a real tractor pull rhythm sound like I've never heard before! It sounds good on any amp I play through. I use other guitars occasionally for lighter sounds for dynamics sake. I like Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters too!

A few months ago I visited the website of Russ Strahan and I was thrilled when I noticed that he is in the live line-up of THE HOUNDS OF HASSELVANDER. How did it come so far and is there now a stable line-up? I hope that Marty Swaney is part of the live experience... And when will you visit Europe with THE HOUNDS OF HASSELVANDER? Damn it, that is long overdue, Joe!

Yes! Russ has joined the touring line-up along with Martin Swaney and T.C. Tolliver from The Plasmatics on drums. Paolo will be doing our shows in Europe as well, if schedules permit! We are talking about a tour in October - November of this year with Doomraiser!

In some of the previous questions I mentioned Marty Swaney. Right away I have to think of the Death Row reunion tour in 2010, where I've seen you at the Bastard Club in Osnabrück. I had really hoped that you would record a new album after the tour, but when Victor Griffin joined Pentagram it was clear to me that this will never happen. Since then, two years have passed and I would be interested to know what you think about that reunion today? Do you have still contact to Victor and what is your opinion about the last Pentagram album 'Last Rites'? Have you listen to it?

I thought that the Death Row reunion was a surprising success and I was caught speechless that Victor went back to Pentagram. I think we could've continued making that a bigger and bigger act that might have become unstoppable! As my old guitarist Duck MacDonald from Blue Cheer said, "Things like this rarely come around twice, I think you guys are onto something"!

I agree and I was really mad about that at first, but realized that Victor and I just can't work together and really never could! He has his ideas and I have mine which I am always willing to share, where he is not, especially with me! That is just how it's always rolled between us! I wish him luck though! I make my own music and really don't need his or Bobby's input. As far as the new Pentagram album, I have heard most of it off of You Tube and it really isn't my cup of tea! I'm sure their fans love it. I like heavier sounds!

In another interview you've said that 'Sub-Basement' was Pentagram's 'Sgt. Pepper's' album. That's a very interesting and thought-provoking statement. How did you come to that assertion?

I think 'Sub-Basement' had the perfect mixture of songs and was really quite the variety album! Some "very" heavy moments, as well! 'Sub-Basement' was the closest to a perfect mix that Pentagram has ever had. We had a great engineer and "third ear" in Chris Kozlowski, which allowed Bobby and I to get every type of sound and production trick that we could get on that album. That was in stark contrast to the album made 2 years before, 'Review Your Choices', where the engineer threw Bobby out of the studio for using syringes in the studio bathroom! We were lucky that it ever came out and the wrong drum mics were used which almost had us re-recording the whole thing!

Speaking of Death Row, have you heard that Maniacal Records released the old Hellion demos from 1982? The reason why I asked this question is because Death Row played a lot of gigs with Hellion and The Obsessed in the early 1980's. How are your memories of these times?

My memories of those times are very good! Death Row was more like a super group and a perfect democracy! We all were part of a budding scene in Washington, D.C.! It was all up to those three bands (Death Row, Hellion, The Obsessed) to make it happen, as we "were" the scene! The crowds got bigger and bigger! We made okay money too! No one was doing anything like this and people were sort of shocked at first! That was what we were selling! "Shock Rock"! We always felt like we were getting away with something along the order of the perfect bank robbery!

Most of the bands that played in bars back in those days played cover songs and dance music! They hated us! It's really funny how it is all very famous today! Back then, it was mostly all of our crazy friends from the local area that came to see us. I guess it all became legendary to the kids that came along years later. I remember Victor retuning to the east coast in the 1990's and him and I going out to a local concert only to be inundated with young fans wanting our autographs! We didn't think anyone remembered us! Suddenly, we were superstars! I think we were one of the very first bands that benefited greatly from the internet.

Do you actually know what people like Vance Bockis (The Obsessed, Overlord, Hellion) or Norman Lawson (Hellion, Overlord, Factory) are doing today?

Actually, I speak with Vance a few times a month. We always have a big laugh about the old days! Norman still plays occasionally. 

Most people know that you have been in Raven and Death Row/Pentagram, but I suppose that only a few are aware of the fact that you've played in a jazz fusion ensemble called Ra Notra Sexte. Please, tell me more about that time and have you ever thought about playing jazz again?

I think I was 16 years old when I did that! I have a live recording of that band playing in a theater. One day, I will release it! We had crazy time signatures and freaky breakdowns like Mahavishnu Orchestra or Chick Corea. One of the guitarists from the High Voltage era of Pentagram, Richard Kueht was our electric violinist! We had a proper Fender Rhodes pianist and a sax player, guitar and bass. We were really ahead of our time and wrote all of our own material. That all stopped when the bassist and I got an offer to join The Boyz and we were opening for Angel at a Washington, D.C. club! After opening for them a few times, I realized that the money was in heavy rock music! So ended my time as a fusion drummer! I still want to do an album like that as I can still lay down those sort of chops!

What is going on with your Blog of Doom (http://joehasselvander.blogspot.com) ? It was always quite entertaining and very informative to read all the old and new stories.

I started that Blog 3 years ago as a lack of something to do! I suddenly realized that I wasn't that bad at writing! More and more people encouraged me to keep the stories coming. I haven't been over there in awhile as I have been so busy recording and touring over the past three years.

Unless I am misinformed, you're musical career started in the late 1960's. With bands like Death Row/Pentagram and Raven you have written music history. Have you ever thought about writing a book about the past 40 years. I can well imagine that you could tell millions of exciting stories...

I plan to write a book about my life's journey and much of what is in the blog will be included! I plan to tell the "whole" story, starting in 1956! Most of that is stranger than fiction, I assure you! Maybe it will keep young kids in line and make them choose more carefully, there options in life!

Ok, before we finish our interview there are three further questions, I would like to ask you. Here are the first two ones: I guess, you've noticed all the drama about the current Black Sabbath reunion which is actually no real reunion but more something like Ozzy & Friends. Since you are a personal friend of Bill Ward, I am really curious what you think about that issue. Don't you find that the original Black Sabbath do not do themselves any favor with the whole story?

It reminds me of when Kiss did their reunion tours in the late 1990's. You could just tell that they were no longer in charge of what was going on! It was all sponsors, management and numerous investors! They, (members of Kiss),also had very different contracts with Gene and Paul making the lion's share! It's sad to see Black Sabbath go through this as they were always the working man's band and a band of the people, not a corporate entity. Bill is such a talent and such an important facet to the band's musical success. I hate seeing him have to ask for anything from them! It should be without saying and all on an honest handshake! I'm afraid there are too many fingers in the cookie jar!

And the last one: Are you interested in the upcoming album of Kiss?

I haven't heard anything about a new Kiss album. I still like them regardless of what anyone says! They have always had the same musical influences as me and it shows in their music! How could I not love 'em?

Ok, that's it for today, Joe. It was my very great pleasure to ask you a couple of question. Thanks a lot! If there's anything you would like to mention at the end of the interview, then please feel free....

I would like to say thank you Klaus for being one of the people that keeps real heavy rock alive! I hope all of you reading Cosmic Lava; pick up 'The Ninth Hour' and add it to your Molten Metal Music collections! Don't forget to look out for The Hounds Of Hasselvander's 'Ancient Rocks' next month on Black Widow and Bloodrock Records!