The yearly migration of metalheads to Houston goes off with a triumph of death.
Words by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar),
Photographs by Maurice Nunez (@devilman.138) and Jake Sanders:
He strides casually about the grounds of his domain. Everywhere he goes, people are shaking his hand, embracing him, patting him on the back. He's the life of the party whilst only engaging in vicarious forms. With confident expression, he grabs several clips of the performers on-stage, circling around the setup with an occasional glance into the peripheral. There's business awareness, and then there's the focus of an artist who has lived the scenario is thinking ahead to what comes next.
Checking the time on his phone, he gives several nods to bystanders, smiles, and is gone again. Such is the workload for Christian ‘Bakka’ Larson, the proud, and weathered curator of Hell's Heroes Festival, at White Oak Music Hall.
For half a decade now, this humble Houston venue has played host to one of the fastest growing extreme-music gatherings in the United States. Featuring two indoor stages, and an outdoor amphitheater that still feels uniquely intimate, the staff of Hell's Heroes have worked exhaustively to ensure that those in attendance are safe, secure, hydrated (often at no-cost), well-fed, and stimulated in an environment that courts three straight days of Heavy Metal in an affordable, convenient, setting that is typically only available in the far lands of the European festival circuit.
After the dust settled from the battles in the south, Christian sat down with us to discuss the events, the evolving post-pandemic scene, Necrofier, and the road forward. Dive in!
Jake: So — you run the festival that doesn't know the meaning of its return diminishing. This year was bigger, bolder, featured a second surprise visit from Athenar of Midnight, more food trucks, quite a few after-parties, and overall just felt grander, by design.
Christian: In general, I always want everything to be BETTER.
How do you build upon it next year, when undoubtedly hundreds more will come scrambling to join the fun?
It'll probably be the same setup. I might expand the footprint so there's more room for people to move around, and so it's not crowded.
It's a good idea. I think y'all have room — there's room to swell, there's just so much space there.
There was a little bit of room. It was comfortable this year. It wasn't like fuckin' crowded, so that was great. But I don't ever want to get it to where it's too much. I don't want people to have a bad experience because there's too many people there.
I think that was the problem with MDF; it just started swelling so big. After three to five stages, you're kind of looking around going, "What now?" I assume the prep time is getting longer and longer, but with the festival moving outside this year, how does that affect the logistics of your venue? Does it add a new dimension in trying to keep it all running smoothly?
With the White Oak staff I work with, like Kristy, Lilia, Luis, my friend Ian, and then Mark, who did all of the production/sound stuff — they really stepped it up. They had everything so organized. The whole weekend just went well. I don't know how to describe it. I was just like, "All right, we're good. Cool!"
It did go well! even though there were a few technical difficulties, it seemed like it was something that got fixed on the spot. Like Spectral Wound — they only had like a brief, ambient pause, where it was like, "Oh shit, is this part of it?"
There's some stuff you can't plan for, like that. The backline head blew during their set! They just had to scramble and get a new head.
Exactly. It just made it more ambient. People were like, "Is this part of the stage show?" But after a minute, we all were like... nevermind. *thoughtful staring*
Honestly, that's some total shit they would do, you know? If you found some people scuffling around, you're like — "Oh okay, it's part of it."
It's very mystical. Dude, you were wearing so many hats this time. You had Necrofier, Night Cobra, and you still have to be the boss at the end of the day. Not to mention there's a litany of after-parties going on to keep everyone riding high into the wee hours of the night. But do you get to enjoy those too? Or is it business afterwards?
I just hang out to make sure everything is going right, just to check-in. I see if everything is okay, not to micro-manage anything, just to be like "Okay, everything is cool." I went out late on Saturday, but then Friday, and Thursday I went home around 12:30, I think.
That's not bad.
It's kind of like just seeing the after-parties kicking off, everyone is hanging out, and I'm like, "Cool. Goodnight."
*laughs* The temptation is not as strong as my will to shower.
Sometimes I just need to rest. I just want everything to be okay, and me to be, at least, on my game. Playing makes it even more ridiculous. But, I just wanna be able to do it, and then be like, "Alright, we're all good."
After you play a show, you're wiped already. If you have to keep walking around, and keep hanging out, eventually that battery is just gonna run lower, and lower. Sometimes it's worth it just to go home and have the reprieve, come back fresh the next day. This past October you were fortunate enough to be twenty feet above me for Mercyful Fate's ominous reunion tour. It featured those huge set changes galore, the costume carousel, all the hits that make 'em legends. There are some more old gods who collected here this year! Triptykon, Possessed, Triumpth of Death — even Satan made it this year! What other mythical beings are you hoping to attract to Houston? Who is the next old god?
I've got some stuff. Some tricks. It should be good. I hope everybody likes it. Hopefully some day Mercyful Fate happens, but I don't think it's gonna happen this year.
Right. There's just so many older bands coming back now. You try to keep up with 'em, but all of the European festival circuit — they get all of the best stuff, and now you're sort of trickling those in. It's a bit weird to be like, "We can either go to Europe or Texas to go see them!"
Right? That's kind of the way. I go to Europe for fests, most of the time, cause a lot of stuff doesn't play here. There's a decent amount of stuff, but it's tough to get to America, sometimes. I go after all the stuff I always want to see. Going to Europe to travel and see a band is not normal. People do it — it's not something super exclusive, but a lot of people aren't gonna be like, "I'm gonna go fly to Germany to see blah play," but they'll be like, "Oh, cool, I'll fly to Texas to see it."
We sort of have a drought on really good festivals right now. It's no wonder that people are flocking to this. Between you, Fire in the Mountains, even Mad With Power festival is starting to build now. We're waiting to see where the American market for festivals when they don't turn into When We Were Young fest. Switching gears, Diego Garza's art once again adorns the face of your show, the merch, and the side of your building. The love is clearly there, and it's an organic following for both him, and yourself here. Why choose him though? Surely there are dozens, maybe hundreds of visual artists who you could surround yourself with? What makes him special?
Diego rules, and I've known him forever. He's done shirts for Necrofier, and he's done other art for show posters. I was doing a bunch of stuff with him — the first one that came to mind — now his art just part of the image, as anything else, it's Diego.
He definitely has his own voice when doing this. People have sort of surrounded themselves with him. There's something about it.
Yeah, Diego is good. I think everybody is fine with it. More people get to see it now. If you've seen Diego's stuff, I assume most people know it's good.
It helps! Sometimes when you get a specific artist with that vision that matches your own, the partnership goes hand-in-hand. Some people never get that lucky. It's nice to be able to have that; I have my two posters I can stick up side-by-side now. There's a uniformity to them, and people love that.
You know you're going to get something in THAT name.
It's like a presentation motif you cling to. I do too. It's why you love Iron Maiden art, because it all follows in that same Riggs vein. You have to appreciate it, because one day you may not have it anymore.
You know what you're getting into, and it's like *excitedly* "...Here we go."
Speaking of Necrofier, you have a new Necrofier album, "Burning Shadows in the Southern Night". It's coming. In fact, you just recently dropped that first single to give listeners a taste, and we caught your first outing of the year, right there in Houston. When does everyone else get to enjoy an up-close showcase of new Necrofier?
The first single is out! But the record is out June second. I'm stoked about this record. I feel like we did a lot more on this record, and we "became more of a band". I'm really excited for everyone to hear it.
It meshes well. Not to mention, that first single and the music video was fun. I think a lot of us out here are pretty excited to get into it. Necrofier has built upon itself already, and it pays off in spades. The theme is there, it's good fun. It's way more different from Night Cobra, so you get to have this two-face perspective where you transform into a different vocalist. People can appreciate the cult of personality behind it.
I like having the two sides of it. It makes everything a lot of fun. If I can do different things with those bands, and it works out, and it's not two things that are somewhat similar, even though they're in the same-ish world.
Exactly — you have your own stage personality. I'm sure you can see it, even vicariously. It's cool to see you step up with ‘the coat’ on in one hand, or with Necrofier, it's a much more raw feeling. It's very Sammy from Goatwhore. You're kind of exposed out there.
Yeeeah, you totally got it.
Lastly here, we're at a strange impasse in the world of artists and venues. Places that formerly treated artists as collaborators and main attractions are now treating them like tenants in a world of landlords. Gone are the drink privileges. No more meal vouchers. Many of them are now expecting extortionist cuts of the artist/band merch, forcing them to take drastic measures to sell their goods, or causing them not to sell at all, to save their return of investment.
I'm sure you saw Russian Circles just recently said, "No merch at this show, sorry." You don't have that predatory instinct, though. But why? You're in America. Why treat artists fairly in a world moving against them? What do you know that the world doesn't seem to get?
Merch cuts are a weird thing, and they've just been around in venues, forever. It's one of those things. You can play venues that *don't* do merch cuts. If you're supporting, you can just get stuck in some of those rooms. Big rooms, of course, have merch cuts. But when it gets to small rooms, small rooms should not have 'em. Have your people fight for you not to have that, if you can.
Khemmis did a good article about it recently.
Dude, he [Ben Hutcherson] has been super outspoken about it, too. He's like, "These are the realities of touring. This is how much it cost me. This is what happens when you start taking these cuts," and I think most people don't have the budgetary knowledge to be like, "Oh, that's what it costs to be an artist right now!"
But it is — it's expensive as hell.
It's totally expensive! Much like everything else, you have to try to do your stuff, and make it work. If it works, it works, but it's not easy at all. Even for bands that everybody thinks are doing great, it's still not easy.
People underestimate the amount of small business know-how that you have to have just to survive, not even turn a profit, out here. Bands? Not exactly a money-making machine. You really have to enjoy it.
It's a tough thing. No matter how well you think you're doing, that stuff really does effect everyone.
It's a bottom-line, and it's hard to argue with. Even if it doesn't feel predatory, sometimes it's just the cost of doing business. Switching gears again, what are you listening to right now? Anybody that we should be getting excited about?
What have I been listening to? Ah, the new Lamp of Murmuur is really good. I was really excited about that one, especially the direction they went. A little more Immortal-sounding.
Very much so. They're toeing the line against their electronic elements versus the black metal appeal of them.
I always like that there's a little bit of hidden goth stuff in it. New Cloak record is good! Listened to the first singles, and I'm super stoked about both of those. What else came out lately? I've been listening to a bunch of old goth stuff on repeat lately. Nothing new, but a bunch of Sisters of Mercy, as always.
Man, the overlap between them and Lamp of Murmuur is insane. Then again, they're massive fans, so can you blame 'em?
Not at all. Other than that, this band Ritual Death from Norway. They put an album out at the end of the year. REALLY GOOD.
On behalf of Heaviest of Art, we'd like to thank Christian for chatting with us again, after such a bombshell weekend. Stay tuned for part two!