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Tales of Iniquity: A Conversation with James McBain of Hellripper

Humble beginnings, lore of old, warlocks grim, and diehard fandom.

James McBain, Hellripper

Words by Jacob Sanders (@themetalscholar):


Looking down the timeline chronologically at Hellripper's catalogue, one can discern many things.


The quality of each release has increased exponentially, the artist's variety of sound has broadened as the years have gone by, and the thematic approach to the music and lore has increased dramatically. With his latest offering, Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags, Hellripper has forged a longplay that stands to best some of the industry's leading artists, and he executes this as a solo performer, carrying with him the discipline and determination to keep writing music year after year, a skill that exhausts most seasoned musicians playing in larger groups.


After nearly three years of shutdowns worldwide, James McBain has once again emerged from the hills of Scotland to deliver a triumphant end-cap to the pandemic era of music, a jack-of-all-trades display of mayhem and the macabre that this critic couldn't help but fall in love with. Listeners will be impressed, and for those looking for the originality and a sense of "trve-ness" in their sound, this album will undoubtedly be spun many times on the way to understanding how one man can produce such memorable and lasting fills, riffs, and lyrics.


During a calm, sunny morning in January, I sat down with James for an online discussion about the lore, themes, and career that has unfolded over the past decade. Let's dive in!

 

Jake: Greetings from Texas! It's good to finally chat with you after all these years! I'm glad to see that you have been doing well. Dear lord, dude — you've blown up!


James: Yeah, thanks! It seems to be going crazy the last month or so, since the announcement of the album. People have responded well to the first single, and hopefully it continues.


So, you have taken what many describe as a ‘meteoric rise’ in recent years to the top of the metal pantheon in the world of Blackened Thrash, something difficult to do when it's oversaturated with legends who are still out here kicking. Do you feel your own influence in the scene yet, or do you still think you're just the ‘new guy from Aberdeen'?

From my point of view, it's been more of a gradual build, if you know what I mean? It seems with each release, each tour, the bulk of live shows that we play, the band kind of grows a little, so it's not been overwhelming to me.


I can imagine if it was an overnight thing; one album — and you've got a million Spotify listeners! I can imagine that would be quite overwhelming, but for me, it's a natural growth. I have people saying that they're influenced by Hellripper's music, which is really cool. It means a lot, and it's more than I ever expected from doing this.


My only goal was to write music that I enjoy and hopefully people like the music in the end, but I don't really take the time to consider my status in the scene, I guess. I just kind of do my own thing, and of course, I'm always listening to new releases, but I can't really tell you about it. That would be for someone else to say.

When you're on the ride, it's a little bit difficult to look around and say, "ah, here's my setting," because you're in the middle of it. It's moving too fast for ya to keep up with, sometimes.


Yeah, exactly. I do something music related, or Hellripper related, like ninety percent of my time, so Hellripper is constantly in my thoughts. I can't really look at it from a different perspective.


Right. Many newer artists underestimate the power of building your community from scratch, which is something you've done. You've never had that difficulty, I think, and it shows. My first introduction to you was a friendly chat on Twitter back in 2017; you literally thrust ‘Coagulating Darkness’ (2017) at me as a free album. I got one of those codes, and I was stunned by what I received. That album turned me into a fan within minutes, and I ran to go find out everything that I could about you. But why do that? Why give away your gift? Why talk to every fan who shows up in your comments, or your Instagram live-stream? How has taking an active role in your online metal community enlightened you?

Cover Artwork by Skaðvaldur

I was in the scene anyways. I'm actively listening to new bands. I'm just a music fan, first of all. One of the perks of Hellripper is getting to speak to other like-minded people that share the same interests, share the same music tastes.


I think that's cool, especially because growing up — listening to metal — I didn't really have that many friends who were into similar music. Now, obviously, I live in quite a remote area, so there's really no scene here, either.

It's YOUR scene now, homie. *laughs*

Yeah! Another thing as well, if people are taking the time to listen to my music, comment on the music, share the music, the least I can do is try to say thank you when I can. It's really nice of them just to listen to the music, first of all, because there's so much stuff to listen to on the internet. There's not just music, but videos, and you can do whatever else with your time, but people WANT to listen to Hellripper and I appreciate that so much. So, the least I can do is offer a thank you, or interact with people. It's not a chore to me, because I like metal. I like speaking to these like-minded people.

Cover Artwork by Skaðvaldur

It's been a treat, man. I appreciate that. I never thought I'd have an artist convert me by saying, "Here's a free code. Take this."


I'm so glad that it happened — that you felt that way.


You found the organic touch! To this moment, I'm still grateful that I had that so I could jump in, and say "No, no, no, this is something special. I have to get in on the ground floor of this." To me, it felt exclusive. So — I ran out and jumped on ‘Black Arts and Alchemy’ (2019) almost immediately, and I was fortunate I did, because people SUCKED. THAT. UP.

Cover Artwork by Skaðvaldur

Yeah — that sold out quite quickly, if I remember correctly.

You ain't kiddin'. It seriously was a matter of days, if not less.


I genuinely can't remember!! *laughs*

Like I said — everything is moving too fast now.


Little story about that: around that time, obviously, the label pressed the vinyl. We went on our first European tour around the time it was released, but the vinyl didn't make it to me beforehand, so when we returned from the tour about a week later, we found the courier/postman had left my box of however many, one-hundred, or two-hundred vinyl, in my trash! Like — just outside my house.

Tour Flyer Artwork by Skaðvaldur

I just left it there for safekeeping until I returned, and if we returned maybe two days later, they probably would've taken it away [with the trash]. I would've lost a thousand pounds worth of stock, but luckily the crisis wasn't a crisis. We got back on-time!

Somebody would've been confused at your local landfill. *laughs* The scene has been cursed for some time with that weak merchandise game. With the black shirts, and the black hoodies, and maybe a logo patch, or so, but you, on the other hand, have excelled in that field. You feature majestically profane art. I myself have a Goat Priest shirt with the extended hand and the burning church in the background. You have leggings with your artwork. BOOTY SHORTS NOW! By the way — I think I would stake the claim that you doubled down on leggings before a lot of these artists or distros gained a backbone to go after 'em. So, kudos to you on that man. You jumped on the ship before they did! But, after breaking all these boundaries on merch, where do you go next? I mean, what's your next threshold?


It's important to have good merch. Black t-shirts, black hoodies — I'll always have them because they're always the best sellers no matter what, regardless of how many options you have. I just like to have a wide selection of things. If people want something, people will usually just message me saying, "Would you be interested in doing this?" I'll say "I'll see what I can do." If it's possible, and I can make it look good with good quality, at a reasonable price, I have no problem doing it, but it's got to be within reason.


I don't want to go overboard and start putting my Hellripper logo on everything! There is a limit. I don't know what the limit is yet, but we'll see what kind of requests I get.


You don't wanna jump on the Hellripper wheelbarrow scheme?

Yeeeah. maybe that's going a little too far. I love having merch because it gives me a chance to work with loads of different artists whose work I love. Of course, I only put out a release or an album once a year, or once every couple of years. It gives you a chance to work with other artists in a different medium, like t-shirt designs, patch designs. I think it's really fun. I love artwork as well. You can never have too many interpretations of goats. *laughs*


*cackles* You ain't kidding, man. When I saw that 'goat witch’ artwork , I think I immediately messaged you on Twitter with, "What have you done?!"

Photograph by Jacob Sanders

I had to have a wall flag of it, and a shirt of it. It's a dominating artwork aspect, and you've got the market cornered on it.

There's so many goats. I don't know if you can see it (gestures to back of room); we've got a goat thing there *points*, we've got the goat mask behind me *points in the opposite direction*. Behind me, there's just a whole shelf of five-hundred goats and pictures of goats! *laughs*


I see the majestic mask from the early merch pictures!! That's great!

Photograph by James McBain

Yeah, it's cool, and people buy the merch. I try to make things relatively limited; some things I keep reprinting because they become these kind of go-to, or standard items, that a lot of people want.


I do try to have a lot of designs that are maybe only one or two prints before I get a different design. Again, it gives me more chances to work with killer artists and get killer artwork commissioned.


I'd say that people could be learning from that example. You've taken so many designs, and you already do — you have iconic notes. People love that Hellripper standard black logo.


The Hellripper - Scotland logo!

Yeah! I even have this jacket with my 'Affair of the Poisons' patch on here from Pull the Plug. It was sexy, I had to have it.

Photograph by Pull The Plug Patches

I love it, thank you so much! That Hellripper - Scotland was originally supposed to be a limited thing when I released 'Coagulating Darkness'. I only planned them printing a few, but everyone seemed to want one.


It just became the logo for the band, so it's everywhere now. It's on the shorts! It's cool, because it gives the band a logo. *laughs*

Speaking of which; many bands take on an icon to use as their mascot. Whether that's Vic Rattlehead for Megadeth, Eddie the Head for Iron Maiden, or Henry for Black Sabbath, we can all think of a mainstream example of the mascots that work. I can't think of many though, who have managed to hoard an entire animal for themselves, like you have. The humble goat is now intrinsically married to your band's imagery for eternity, and it seems only appropriate. Scotland is a natural home for goats. They've had them for thousands of years, before even the common sheep were around. So, will we be treated to any of the Scottish mythology of — and I hope I'm not butchering this — the ‘glaistig’, with the release of 'Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags'? Or are you tucking away that myth for a special occasion?

Yes... so — there's none of that, unfortunately, on the new album, but it could come later. *Grins* I've got a whole document of different ideas that I never used on this album, so I'll be continuing with the Scottish-themed lyrics as I have on this new album, in the future.


The goat thing, coming back to that — it was like an accident, really. People just kind of started to associate the band with the goat after ‘Coagulating Darkness‘, and the Hellripper - Scotland logo. I don't know how people manage to associate Hellripper as the ‘goat band’ when there's so many bands that have used goats throughout metal's history.


You've got Bathory, Sabbat, even Baphomet, and Angel Witch, and Darkthrone had that on their demo. Countless bands have used goats. There's Archgoat! *laughs* There's so many goat bands that have done things before Hellripper that I don't know how I became so closely linked to 'em.

Moving right along here, being the fan of Darkthrone that I know you are, you understand how breaking up one's sound across multiple tracks creates a diverse album with a lot to enjoy in there. You kickstarted ‘The Affair of the Poisons’ with a gloriously evil introduction to a track that segues and just bombshells fans. When that intro kicked in, I knew something had changed with your sound and fans were not used to that after 2019. It upped the game for them. Darkthrone pulled a similar tactic on their title-track for ‘Dark Thrones and Black Flags’ (2008) — that nice drum cadence leading into the slow crawl. It's one that I know you've heard. So, have you been taking notes on how to make great surprises for your fans?

I think this album definitely is more diverse in that respect. Have you heard the album yet?

I have. Thrice a day currently.


Excellent! I wasn't sure who had heard it or not. This album, I'd say, is way more diverse. I wrote a couple songs near the beginning of the writing process, that, after listening back, they sounded uninspired and forced. Kind of like Hellripper tracks, but not as good as what I'd previously written. So, I got rid of those, and I thought I'd go in a new direction. I'd give myself less limitations. I'd try to incorporate anything that I could, as long as it worked in the context of Hellripper.

Cover Artwork by Dennis Dread

I wanted it to remain speed metal, thrash metal, black metal; in that kind of ballpark. I did try and see what I could get in there to make songs interesting — make things a bit different to what I'd done before.


So, to your mention of ‘The Affair of the Poisons’, this album starts out with 'The Nuckelavee', which goes straight into it, full speed. I wanted to do that in contrast to the last album, which starts out with the heavy, slow intro.



I was listening to a lot of everything, from metal to non-metal, anything really, just trying to figure out how I could incorporate a lot of my favorite things into the Hellripper sound. There's just countless bands I could mention.

You are a die-hard Darkthrone fan, and I'm that too. How have you liked their progression over the years. coming up from ‘Transilvanian Hunger’ (1994), but even leaning into ‘Dark Thrones and Black Flags’, and even into these ‘Old Star’ (2019) and ‘Eternal Hails’ (2021) years.

My favorite Darkthrone albums are the metal-punk era. So yeah, ‘The Cult is Alive’ (2006) but my favorite three would be ‘Dark Thrones and Black Flags’, ‘F.O.A.D.’ (2007), and ‘Circle the Wagons’ (2010). I love everything they've done from that period onwards. I think ‘Old Star’ was one of my favorites as well. The production was great. I think I used that as a reference when I was making ‘The Affair of the Poisons’. I thought 'Old Star' sounded great, sound-wise.


Those metal-punk albums, that I mentioned, are some of my favorites, and they influenced Hellripper so much, especially the early Hellripper stuff with the simplicity and the raw-ness. Finding out that they do everything themselves was influential. I got into metal just as this new wave of thrash and new wave of metal-punk was coming in, so after discovering Toxic Holocaust and Darkthrone — this period — it became a huge influence to me. It was some of the first things I'd heard in that style. I was used to thrash being more complex with more guitar solos and seven minute songs, you know — Metallica, Annihilator, Artillery — even the newer bands like Evile and Warbringer. But then, hearing bands like Toxic Holocaust would lead you to Midnight, Inepsy, and Darkthrone, where things were a bit more stripped down. That gave me the confidence to try and do Hellripper.



I was never confident as a lead guitarist. I always thought you had to have a band to record music. I didn't know it was really possible to do it on your own like a lot of these bands that I discovered afterwards, like Toxic Holocaust where Joel Grind did everything on his own. He recorded things at his house, originally. Darkthrone is just the two guys who don't play live. They recorded a lot of stuff in their rehearsal space. Midnight is just the one guy, and Bathory. So yeah — that period of Darkthrone is a big, big influence. It had a big impact on Hellripper.

You're in that same vein, man. These one man armies are doing everything. I'm glad you brought up Bathory, cause it leads into my next question here. One territory that would seem obvious for you to encroach upon — perhaps you haven't even realized it yet — but, I guess you HAVE, is your ancestor in goat-themed evil music. It's Bathory. With your swiftly approaching new album here, as well as ‘Affair of the Poisons’, you've tread dangerously close. I don't know if you've ever done a side-by-side comparison, but the realm of ‘The Return of the Darkness and Evil’. You're touching that doorstep! You may be one of the few artists who are fast enough, rhythm-wise, to pull off Quorthon's catalogue. Have you ever considered taking Bathory for a spin, just to show off?


Thank you. I've never really considered it like that. My favorite Bathory, personally, are the two tracks on the compilation. I can't remember — is it 'Scandinavian Metal Attack' (1984)?

THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT THAT IS, yeeeeeah!

It's more Motörhead. It's actually slower, kind of more Rock 'n' Roll, especially ‘Sacrifice’. I don't think I've ever learned how to play Bathory on guitar. I was really big into the first Bathory album. That was the only one I was really interested in up until a couple of years ago.


In this new album, you can tell that there's a couple of parts, and in one song in particular — the title track — what my goal was. I was listening to a lot of the mid-period songs, like ‘Under the Runes’ and the' title-track'. I listened to a lot of ‘...And Justice For All’ (1988) by Metallica with the kind of pounding rhythms. I made it about Scotland, as well. It's taking Quorthon's Viking theme and applying it to myself. There's bagpipes in the song, so yeah, Bathory has been an influence as well, in different aspects, different periods, different times.

That's interesting. I kind of figured. I didn't know how close the overlap was, but I was listening to ‘Bestial Lust’ last night, and it just seemed like, "Shit — James is nailing that, and he doesn't even know."


I just go for whatever sounds good, and if you overthink things, sometimes it gets a bit complicated. You question yourself, and that comes at the end. I like to review things when they're done, but if it sounds good. *nods*

Got a couple more for ya here. What are you listening to right now? What were your favorite albums of 2022 and who do you believe that fans of Hellripper deserve to know about?

So, my favorite albums of 2022; there's a few non-metal albums there.


Editors had a great album in 'EBM'. The two Red Hot Chili Peppers albums: 'Unlimited Love' & 'Return of the Dream Canteen'. I've been listening to them constantly since they were released. Paolo Nutini's 'Last Night in the Bittersweet' — another Scottish guy. Very cool. A lot of his album is kind of seventies sounding this time around.


Metal-wise, there's of course Midnight's album, 'Let There Be Witchery'. That was great. Watain's album, 'The Agony & Ecstasy of Watain', was one of my favorites. Devil Master's 'Ecstasies Of Never Ending Night' was one of my favorites, too.

Cover Artwork by William Lacey

That's a band I think a lot of people are familiar with. Devil Master is kind of in the same ballpark as Hellripper. They're kind of metal-punk, but they're one of the bands I think that are great in this scene because they've very much carved their own unique sound.


Ahh, who else? Oh — Sarcator from Sweden. A young band. Really, really excellent stuff. What else came out? I can't remember.

Last year was a non-metal kind of year. I got sucked into that Weyes Blood album. It moved its way up the charts, now I'm over here singing like Karen Carpenter, going, "Shit — I thought I was a metal guy. What happened to me?"


*laughs* Like I said, there was a lot of non-metal stuff that I tried to incorporate into Hellripper whether it be a song structure or a harmony, or something. I think, "Can I do that in a speed metal way?" I listened to a lot of The Beatles last year, though they didn't have an album out. *grin*

THEY DIDN'T?! OH MY GOD! *laughs* You'd be surprised; I think if Paul and Ringo could get away with it they'd still be doing it right now. If Pantera can have a reunion, why not The Beatles, man? Lastly, if tomorrow you woke up and discovered that your journey through music was complete... what would you do? You've gained notoriety, fans worldwide, a legacy of exceptional music, and determination as a one-man project who has crafted some of the finest underground Thrash the world has seen — and you've done it younger than half of your peers. If you hung up your axe tomorrow, what would James McBain become next?

What would I do?? I'd become very bored. *laughs* Like I've said, ninety percent of my life is music related. Whether I'm writing, listening to podcasts that are music related, watching YouTube videos to do with music, or just listening... almost everything I do is music related. I couldn't even tell you. I've never really given a thought other than doing music.


The one thing I do is write music. So yeah, I'd become bored. I'd probably just sit and watch music stuff and be angry that I can't participate anymore. I'd be an outsider, looking in, wishing I could do it.

That's a pretty great answer, dude. Everyone has this dream of, "Ahh, I'd probably get a 9-to-5'er," but you never really think about what happens if you're like, "No. Music is my life. I couldn't NOT do it."

Yeeeeah. I'm trying to think. I mean... I couldn't. No idea.

What do you wanna be when you grow up?


What I wanted to do was play music!


Dude — you nailed that one! Shit, what are you gonna do after that? You're retired!


Originally, when I played football, I wanted to be a footballer, but then I became a teenager. When I was like thirteen, I discovered metal and really got into music properly. I wanted to play music, though I didn't really think it could be a career for me. It was just kind of an enjoyment thing. Luckily, I've been able to make a living from it, so I'm really grateful to everyone for their support and for making that happen for me. I've got no idea what I'd be doing if not this.

 

Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags is out February 17th via Peaceville Records (Order).

Cover Artwork by Adam Burke

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