The Hellpreacher, the third album from demented Southern death metal supergroup Birds of Prey through Relapse Records, is a concept album, as band frontman Ben Hogg discussed in his prior article on how it all came together, posted on this site. After getting the disc, listening through while reading along to the lyrics and even reviewing it the other day, I found I had a couple questions left over for the man himself, and since he’s a generally amenable sort, he was happy enough to oblige me with the conversation after the jump.
For anyone not caught up, Birds of Prey is comprised of Hogg (also of Beaten Back to Pure and Plague the Suffering), catalyst/guitarist Erik Larson (Parasytic, ex-Alabama Thunderpussy), guitarist Bo Leslie (Throttlerod), bassist Summer Welch (Baroness) and drummer Dave Witte (Municipal Waste, Burnt by the Sun, damn near everyone else). The Hellpreacher follows 2008′s Sulfer and Semen and centers around a character first introduced in the song “Lice Halo” from that album. For the rest of the story, we’ll turn it over to Mr. Hogg:
BEN HOGG: Larson wanted a concept album. I thought about making it about the mongoloid family from the first two albums. I needed something I could get a lot of chapters out of, because it’s 10 tracks, two intros, so I needed something I could get 10 chapters out of. And I flirted with a couple ideas that had nothing to do with previous albums. Larson kept coming at me with these ideas, like eventually the mongoloids would meet the guy from “Lice Halo,” and I was like, “Man, that’s taxing.” So I settled on this story. I had a couple of good ideas to open it up and get everything going in the right direction, and I drew up an outline and went with his childhood would be the focus of the first two songs. Then he had to gather up folks and start up a compound in a couple of songs. The next songs are setting up shop, the next song they’re doing there thing, the next song, you know. It’s sort of an outline that keeps everything running linear from beginning to end. I almost wish I had one more chapter I could have stretched out the time they were working, but that might have been overkill too. But that’s the story and I knew, “The government’ll be involved in track nine, then the whole thing unravels in track 10.” That was the pacing I was working for. The pacing issues and also I had to pick songs with different tempos, fit different moods. Also, you couldn’t have two similar-sounding songs back to back. There was a lot more to it than I initially anticipated, that’s for sure.
Did you set the sequence for the album, then?
Yeah, I had to sequence the songs. That was pretty much all me this time. In the past I’ve had recommendations that we move things around until they all get into place, we’d have 11 finished tracks and just needed to figure out what order to put them in. This time, before a lyric was written, the idea of “Momma” was already in my head, but I needed to know what song is that gonna be. The next song needs to have a different tempo. I had a little chart — it sounds big, but it was just on a little notebook paper — a chart about how I’d pace each song, the level of the riffs, how interesting I found the riffs. I would put a mark on a scale of one to 10. Anything — I don’t want to say a filler track — but songs I wasn’t getting sick to a certain part, I didn’t want two of those together. But before the first word was written, I had to come up with the order. Another component of making it a fuckin’ pain in the ass (laughs).
Sounds like it.
It really was. In the past, I’d come up with 10 silly song titles and then I’d write the song around them. This time I wrote the story and the song titles were the last thing that came to mind. That was the last piece of the puzzle. I think I saw some review, I think the guy was French or something, it wasn’t his first language, and he said, “A lot of zese zong titles are familiar, I’ve seen zem before.” Maybe. “False Prophet,” I know The English Dogs have a song called that. “Blind Faith.” But they’re also appropriate and they keep the story pushing forward. In the past, song titles were a big portion of it. This time, they’re a very small portion of it. They were the cherry on top.
But in the meantime you had a ton of other shit to worry about.
Exactly. I guess I was now describing what was going on in that song, what would I use to help convey the message of this portion of the album. Without being too literal – chapter one, childhood, chapter two, juvenile hall, chapter three, on the streets, you know. Without being as literal and cut and dry as that, but at the same time describing the concepts of the song, as opposed to some songs that aren’t on concept albums that other bands do that the song title really has nothing to do with anything. After it was all laid out in front of me, I would just pick song titles off the top. It was changing until the very last minute. I’ll read a review and it’ll comment on the song “The Excavation,” and I’ll have to go look and be like, “Alright, that thing.” Like if we were to play live and someone in the crowd were to shout, “Let’s hear ‘Warriors of Mud,’” I’d be like, “Which one was that?” Once it gets going I’ll remember it pretty well, but right now it’s all so new. Right after I did the album, I stepped back, did it for a week, then stopped and thought where to tweak on it, because I still had another session or two I could go down and tweak on it, but then I was just so absorbed or into it that I couldn’t judge it afterwards. Too close to it. I didn’t touch it for two months until an actual hard copy showed up at my door and I was able to listen to it and read through the lyric sheet and all that and I was able to say, “Good job.” Give myself a miniature pat on the back. It wasn’t so bad. It seemed like a ton of work there for a minute, but now I feel recovered from it and I’m glad it’s done and it’s in the can.
You change your vocals around a bit on the record.
Shifting moods, shifting intensity to go along with that. Hell, if you listen to any of King Diamond‘s shit, he has a different voice for each song or each message or feeling he wants to get across. I’m not saying I’m anything like him, I could only hope, but yeah, I thought that might come in handy. I didn’t just go apeshit. I didn’t add a whole bunch of creepy fuckin’ skeksis voices or some Dark Crystal-sounding bullshit. I kept it in line with what I do. I do about three things, maybe four, and I gave them all a spot where I felt they fit.
The way the story is written and presented in the lyrics, it’s all basically monologue from the character, from the Hellpreacher.
After the song “Momma” was in the can and written, it kind of set the tone for everything else. I guess it would be a cool angle to have like song seven be a crazy news report or something. Didn’t occur to me. That would have been an interesting fuckin’ way of doing things, but it didn’t really occur to me, so it is what it is.
I was going to ask how it felt for you working in a first-person voice, but it being someone else.
Good question. Didn’t think about that. Really, I just knew there was a job to be done and getting this fuckin’ album together. I didn’t really give that any thought, so I don’t know. It seemed fine. It was like writing a fictional story, and the past Birds albums have been maybe miniature fictional stories with just a pinch of real life things, a pinch of real life thrown in to give it some validity, to make it something I can cling to — everything’s obviously amplified by a million, any real life situation. This is the worst case scenario of how real life plays out. But it’s all things that could happen and perhaps have happened in different places, different times, but any resemblance to characters past or present is completely coincidental. I didn’t want to make it sound like David Koresh with a different name. I didn’t think anyone would love that retelling. He wasn’t the only cult leader out there. This is a different guy, different story. He had no name, nothing like that, besides Hellpreacher. But the first-person thing, that didn’t throw me. That was fine. I like to think I can write some, and this actually put me through a test like I hadn’t been through since creative writing class in high school. That’s kind of what it was, a callback to that, to see if I could put something together. I think Larson must have had great faith in me, because he kept pushing and pushing me, and I was fighting and fighting to not do it, but I guess in retrospect I’m glad he did. I don’t know that I hope to do it again next album. None of that’s been discussed, it’s all too fresh. There hasn’t been a peep about the next album, but you never know. Maybe there’ll be one. I think we owe one to the label, so there could very well be one.
Everything you do as Birds of Prey is so over-the-top.
Yeah, that’s true. No doubt about that. It’s almost a cartoon of real life Ben Hogg time and shit. I think “over-the-top” is a pretty fair assessment, definitely. It’s sort of a evil, cartoony thing. When I first started, when we first started doing this, I asked Larson — there was a discussion about being in a death metal band, stoner musicians — and I said, “Alright, if I’m writing words, what’s our motivation here, Larson?” and I said, “Here’s a handful of song titles. Pick the ones that jump out at you to be the band you want to be.”? I can’t remember what they all are, I wish I still had them. A couple of them were dramatic death metal and one of them was “Mangled by Mongoloids,” and he jumped all over that. He goes, “That’s awesome.” And I said, “Well, I guess that shows exactly what kind of band we will be” (laughs). So that’s the route we’ve paved ever since. Over the top, definitely. At that point it was, “Let me see how outlandish I can get with this shit,” and it was “Buttfucked with a Shotgun Barrel,” “Overfucked and Underage,” and songs that I wouldn’t write in any other project that I’m with. It just frees me up to do what I want, and I like it.
Has the band changed at all now that Alabama Thunderpussy isn’t a consideration?
I think Erik was putting a lot of time into ATP and now he puts a lot of time into Parasytic. I don’t know what his role in Parasytic is, I think he’s almost a big brother to that band, whereas in ATP, he was a founder, the main cog of motivation and songs. This band, I think these are all young dudes with this wild young energy, and Larson being the older dude – I think he’s like 10 years older than the next youngest guy — and these dudes with their wild, unbridled stallion energy, they could just be going in 20 different directions, and if Larson can focus them into accomplishing songs, playing tours, doing this. He leads them down a real band road. I think just as much energy as he was putting into ATP, he’s currently using in Parasytic. I don’t know if you’ve heard it yet, it’s really cool.
Nah, I haven’t.
It’s not like Municipal Waste thrash. It has thrash elements, but all the other dudes are crust punks, and Larson comes from a crust punk background, so it’s a crust edged thrash band. Some of my favorite ingredients mixed up together. And my daughter — my daughter’s 18 — and she said the Parasytic singer is the hottest dude in the Richmond scene (laughs). For whatever that’s worth, I thought it was fucking hilarious. But they all smell like shit (laughs). They’re young dudes. I think they revel in it. Larson doesn’t guide them to showering, but Richmond itself is a really crusty area. Even the older crusts tend to get their shit together, but they keep that element in them. But Larson‘s been good for Parasytic. I think they existed before he got there, but they definitely weren’t focused and pointed in the right direction like they are now. It’s just a matter of time. I think they’ve got a small label deal, but it’s just a matter of time till they jump up, because they’re well in their work. They’ll jump out and do 90 days of house parties and garages and shit that I would not have the tolerance to do. No more, no chance (laughs). But he still seems to have the energy for it and loves it, so more power.
What about you, what’s next for you?
Getting the Beaten Back album done.
That’s what you said last time.
Yeah, no shit, man. Well, it’s still next (laughs), so that hasn’t changed. Getting that done I guess is next, but I’ve also go demo tracks for Plague the Suffering. I’ve gotta do my part and wrap them up. They’re fuckin’ great songs. Larson‘s role in Parasytic is kind of my role in this band, but I don’t do it nearly as well. I’ve also gotten a little condo that cost a decent amount instead of the shithole apartment I was living in, so now staying at home ain’t so bad. Everybody I’ve jammed with, Beaten Back and Plague the Suffering, they both rehearse 45 mintues away in different directions, so me making it to practice, it doesn’t happen a lot (laughs). Beaten Back used to practice in my second bedroom, 10 feet from me. That’s what I’m spoiled and used to. Luckily I’m the singer and I just need the finished product. I would like to be there every once in a while to critique and say, “What y’all are doing right now sucks and is boring,” but I usually get to do that after the fact anyway. But yeah, Plague the Suffering demo, Beaten Back album, kind of running side by side right now. Theoretically, Beaten Back would probably be a little more important to get that fucker on the street. But it’s all good music, so when it gets done it’s done.
One last thing: If there’s a lesson to The Hellpreacher, what should people take away from the album?
You know, it was not written with any lesson in mind. “Don’t listen to fanatics who want you to go underground and live like moles.” Never do that. That would be one lesson. “Because he’s probably insane (laughs), and it’s not gonna end up well for anybody.” That would be part one of the lesson. Part two: “If you’re want to be a cult leader, you gotta keep it in your pants a little bit and fuckin’ keep your people with you. You can’t shake ‘em all up and kill ‘em all the first time they fuck around. You probably shouldn’t blind them all, because it really makes for shitty, shitty guards out front because they have to work off their sense of smell. Maybe keep a couple of dudes around with eyes, at least.” So if you either want to be a follower or a leader, there are lessons to be taken from this album.
Tags: Birds of Prey, Relapse