The rules of success in metal haven’t really changed since the 1970’s, have they? Maybe the model is slightly modified (physical albums more a collector’s wish versus the means of generating tours), but the end result is consistent roadwork to the right audiences usually leads to the quality acts rising to the top. California’s Holy Grail spent the majority of the past two and a half years on the road in support of their debut album Crisis In Utopia - a record that successfully provided enough melody and harmony elements for the old-school brigade to cheer while also developing the right amount of attack and aggression the 25-and-under crowd desire.
Ready to unleash their second album Ride the Void, Holy Grail took the time to add more shredding and dynamics to their already potent style. Calling his home a couple of days after Christmas, vocalist James-Paul Luna has a soft-spoken, measured demeanor to the questions I ask, but one can tell his enthusiasm for the genre is front and center. Prepare to learn more about this American five-piece who wish to bring the genre back on the map…
Blistering.com: The new album Ride The Void originally appeared set to hit the streets in the fall of 2012- but officially comes out in January 2013. Were there any specific issues that took place to cause the delay as far as writing, recording, or scheduling due to your vigorous touring regiment?
James-Paul Luna: Well, it wasn’t for any of those reasons. The reason we pushed it back was due to our label Prosthetic reaching out to Nuclear Blast in Europe and a few other labels that wanted to get better coverage and support for the European market. And Nuclear Blast jumped on it right away, they were the most enthusiastic. Universal Records in Japan was interested as well. Amongst those two labels and our label in North America Prosthetic, we decided to push it back to January so that all the labels could fire from all fronts and come out all guns blazing in 2013.
Blistering.com: How is Alex Lee (ex-Bonded By Blood) slotting into the Holy Grail lineup? What characteristics do you think are most important when it comes to complimenting the efforts of Eli Santana in terms of the guitar riffing, soloing and harmonies the band employs?
Luna: I never really pictured it from that perspective but I do like how Alex’s playing is very… well let me go back to our first guitarist James LaRue who is more slick and refined, whereas Eli at the time was more of the Dimebag/Zakk Wylde type feel into his playing. But now with Alex into the mix, Eli has taken more of the refined place in the band and Alex and is more of the wild guy in terms of the guitar playing. You can tell in terms of the album, Alex has more of the thrash metal, Testament kind of sound - Alex Skolnick as an influence. They are both more in tune with each other as they both love Cacophony/Jason Becker, and it’s a better fit overall. It really shows on this record, the soloing and the couple of songs Alex added to this record wouldn’t have been possible with the previous members and we are pretty happy about it.
Blistering.com: Do you feel like you have to be in certain mood or frame of mind to write definitive Holy Grail material? Is there a lot of refinement in terms of the initial stages of a song to its final incarnation? Can you give us an example of a possible track from the new album that transformed itself over time?
Luna: Some things change from song to song, and it’s a different case for each one. There have been a couple of songs like “Dark Passenger,” when we wrote that was already written, we just added a bridge to it and that’s about it. The core elements were in place before I even showed the song to the other guys. And then there are some songs that came from the old sessions of Crisis In Utopia that we didn’t actually feel that we had the time to explore them.
Now we are working together a little bit more and knowing each musician’s strengths and weaknesses, we are playing off that a little bit more. You get an overall better product- we re-visited those songs, and rewriting them they came out killer. “Bleeding Stone” was originally the E minor heavy song, it stuck out strangely and we weren’t sure how to approach it. I think touring with a lot more aggressive bands it felt natural to come around to that song. We added a catchier chorus to it and that’s all it needed.
Blistering.com: In support of your debut album Crisis In Utopia, you went on a series of tours from 2010-2012 with acts like Amon Amarth, Exodus, Blind Guardian, 3 Inches Of Blood, Cauldron, Saviours, Eluveitie and Valient Thorr among others. How has the band adapted to road life, what have been some of the favorite places to play/tours, and did any of this affect the growth in terms of songwriting for the new record?
Luna: I think subconsciously playing with those bands and hearing those songs every night starts to marinate inside of you. Without realizing it, it does start to influence you. “Ride the Void” for instance had a very Blind Guardian, power metal element to it. When I first heard Eli’s riffs for that, I totally thought this is what I wanted to be doing, power metal with this modern, shredding kind of sound. Touring with those bands absolutely had a big impact on us.
Blistering.com: I feel that you are one of the newer generation metal acts that succeed in balancing that tightrope act between the explosiveness of traditional, melodic oriented heavy metal while also bringing your sound to the masses in a current way (be it with tonality and/ or heaviness). Has that always been the mission for Holy Grail?
Luna: We never really wanted to be too much of one thing. We have so many different styles and tastes within the band, we all seem to agree on what is good metal and what we don’t really think is awesome metal. Just with that alone we can agree on the same terms of what we like- we just want to make the best metal possible. To us, that is fusing the best of old-school metal: Scorpions, Mercyful Fate with Meshuggah and Nevermore kind of stuff. We run the whole gamut of metal to create a super-metal [laughs].
Blistering.com: What would a typical day look like for Holy Grail in the studio versus your days on the road?
Luna: Tracking in the studio is a lot more… this time around it didn’t really have the whole mystique of being in the studio. I’ll let you know how the process went about. We did all the drumming, bass, and rhythm guitars at our friend’s studio in Silver Lake, the engineer for Matt Hyde [Mastodon, High on Fire] - and we did all the guitar solos and vocals at Matt Hyde’s house, he has a back house with a vocal booth there. We were able to hang out there, go and track a vocal, talk about changing a lyric here or there, re-writing a bridge, it was a lot more casual and hanging out. It was organically making this music that became the album.
Being on tour is very structured, from the moment we load in I have different routines and how late our load in… an hour before our set time, I start my stretching and vocal warm ups. Before that I am setting up and making sure all of our merchandise is good. About three-four hours before our set time is when I have food otherwise I exert so much energy on stage I will start puking. After the set I immediately rush back to our merchandise table to sell more merchandise, then after the show ends we pack up and go to the nearest Wal-Mart or truck stop to sleep for the night. The next day we do it all over again.
Blistering.com: How much time does the band put into social media for instance, and do you enjoy this direct, instantaneous contact with your fans? What’s the coolest story you can tell us about the power of social media and the benefit of it for the band’s sake?
Luna: If it weren’t for social media, we wouldn’t be where we are right now as far as popularity. The word gets out so fast, if you get things in the hands of the right taste-maker, or the right person starts talking about you, that word spreads like wildfire. It can also work against you in the opposite way, but we’ve gotten the better half of the bargain there. The cool stuff is reaching out to fans- years ago you would dream about being 14 and being able to talk to Bruce Dickinson or someone like that. It’s mind boggling to me seeing these young kids reach out to you, telling you that your lyrics stopped them from committing suicide, that your music gave them a purpose in life. That’s the whole reason why you want to be in a band, to move people - it was the reason I started playing guitar and wanted to do this for a living.
Blistering.com: Now are you the type of person that comes in with lyrics prepared ahead of time or do you have to listen to music first before you get inspired?
Luna: I like to write after we have a basis for the music, then I get inspired from that. Sometimes that backfires, because I’ll have 12 or 13 songs that I have to listen to. I started a little notepad and I have a lyric book of concepts and ideas. This time around Eli threw a bunch of concepts at me and I pulled from there with stuff I had to come up with the lyrics.
Blistering.com: How important is regular exercise, a decent sleep schedule and trying to maintain a healthy diet for the performance aspect of Holy Grail? Is it tough on the road to keep your nutrition in balance as a vegan?
Luna: For me personally, I am the only one that eats vegetarian, everyone else would eat Taco Bell if they could. What’s most important is for me to stay hydrated, as long as I get a lot of greens and I have some brown rice protein supplements that I do here and there. Sleep and water is the most important for me - anything else would be finding a good Thai restaurant, I have found my only little ways of getting by. Getting the right nutrients is important to doing the proper show- you have to definitely… the first two shows of the tour I will notice that I’m out of shape and start getting back into it. Towards the end of the first week your body ends up becoming a machine and I’ll be fine.