Goat masks. Highland cannibals. Bagpipes. Tight leggings. Yep, Rich Holmes had a lively chat with Hellripper’s James McBain, following the release of his new album, Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags…
“I had no expectations for Hellripper other than releasing an EP and maybe 10 people in my local scene hearing it. To see people from the States, Australia or Japan wearing a t-shirt or having the vinyl… it’s crazy.
“I didn’t think it would take off like it has.”
Hellripper’s ascendancy has been startling.
And it’s one of the reasons why founder James McBain is talking to Rushonrock from a room that looks more like a merch factory than a house in Fort William.
The guy’s seriously running out of space.
But maybe that’s not surprising.
Hellripper’s third full-length, Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags was unleashed last month to major acclaim.
The calendar is filling up with high profile tours and festival slots, including a stint with Warbringer in April, County Durham’s Dominion Festival in May and Burning Q in Germany this July.
This hasn’t happened overnight.
Anyone familiar with James will know how much graft he’s put into Hellripper.
Since emerging from Aberdeen in 2015, the Scot has been building his black thrash and metalpunk creation, DIY-style, into a globe-striding, flying-V wielding beastie.
The pandemic? McBain hit it with 2020’s The Affair of the Poisons and turned 2021’s Damnation Festival set into a furnace.
“This is my full time job,” he explains. “I don’t really do anything else other than Hellripper and music. I just wake up in the morning, organise social media, respond to comments and pack merch.
“I don’t go out on weekends. I don’t spend loads of money. I invest basically everything back into Hellripper.”
This dedication is reflected in the rise of the Goat Kvlt, devotees who post pics of their Hellripper leggings on Facebook and swap tips on the latest speed metal, crust and thrash discoveries.
It feels like one big happy family… who wear goat masks.
“I didn’t know many people that were into metal when I was growing up,” says James on the Goat Kvlt’s origins. “I was in Aberdeen, which was quite far away from Glasgow and Edinburgh where things were happening.
“And I didn’t really know about groups on the internet, or metal Twitter.
“When I was discovering metal, it was just me on my own on YouTube trying to find obscure stuff. And I thought it would have been cool if a band I liked had a community, where the band themselves interacted.
“So if people have questions about the band, or if I can give advice on people starting bands, if I can help people in any way, that’s great. I’m happy to do that. I’m a metal fan first of all. People recommend bands to me and give me help too!”
So how has that community reacted to Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags, an album far more complex than the short, sharp shocks of Hellripper’s earlier work?
“I wasn’t sure how some people would react,” he replies. “There are a few different things on the record. There’s the mid-tempo title track, there are acoustic guitars in there and there’s Mester Stoor Worm which is eight and a half minutes, with very little repetition.
“But for the most part, people seem to like it, which I’m very grateful for!”
He continues: “I was very proud of the album. I think it’s my best yet. And it is the happiest I’ve been after the recording process of an album. So I was hoping that the reception would be positive, of course, but yet it was surprising just how positive it has been, and how widespread it’s been.
“The whole process was basically the same as The Affair of the Poisons and everything was done at home on my laptop, and with very minimal equipment – the same equipment that I used for the first EP. But I’m just improving on my mixing and recording abilities, I listen to more music, so I’m able to incorporate more influences, and I’m more confident in my songwriting.”
Indeed, James admits that he would never have attempted including bagpipes on 2015’s The Manifestation of Evil EP, as he has done with his new album’s title track. “I didn’t have the skill to make that work,” he admits.
But a few years on, did he have the skill to actually play them, a la Bon Scott or Jonathan Davis? “No, I did not play the bagpipes,” he laughs. “Someone else did, which my neighbours will be thankful for and the whole street will be thankful for!”
What the folk?
Bagpipes aren’t the only nod to Scotland on Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags – which is named after a line in the Robert Burns poem, ‘Address to the Deil’.
The entire record is immersed in the darker realms of Scottish folklore.
Take The Nuckelavee, for instance. That’s a skinless Orcadian demon that brings plague and death wherever it travels.
Mester Stoor Worm? A sea serpent with putrid breath.
And The Cursed Carrion Crown? It’s the tale of Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean, said to be the leader of a clan that murdered and cannibalized more than 1000 people.
James says that although he’d heard of these stories before, his recent move to the highlands kicked off his interest… and provided the lyrical lifeblood for his recent opus.
“Being surrounded by the mountains and landscapes, and visiting castles around the place inspired me to look into more of this stuff in more detail,” he reveals. “The darker side of things. The devil in Scotland. Witchcraft.
“Originally, I thought I’d get a couple of songs out of it. And I’ve done some Scottish-based stuff before. The track on the Black Arts & Alchemy EP and Vampire’s Grave (from The Affair of the Poisons) are both based on Scottish things. But this was the first time I’ve done a full album with one theme. Every song is based in Scotland in some way.
“I saw just how much these stories fitted the Hellripper aesthetic and could work for metal. I’d heard of the Nuckelevee and things like that, but after looking into it detail, it was like, ‘wow, this is quite metal!’.
“I had so much stuff to write about and so many ideas that I thought, ‘let’s make it a full album’. Having a cohesive theme sounded cool to me.
“Scottish folklore isn’t really a common theme in my sub genre, so I thought that’s a bit different as well.”
Did the lyrical themes seep into the riffs and rhythms of Warlocks Grim…?
“Maybe subconsciously,” James responds. “I started writing and most of it was done before I had any idea of the lyrics. I usually don’t think about lyrics until I’m done with the music. But I did have the idea to have a Scottish theme and I had the ideas for song topics.
“For example, Mester Stoor Worm was half written without any inspiration from the lyrics. I had ideas and riffs and stuff. But then when I came up with a song topic and the story, I kind of went back and rewrote it so that the music would fit the lyrics.
“It’s a linear structure on that song. And the structure follows what’s happening in the lyrics and the story: the black metal parts signify the battle and the triumphant ending, then the aftermath is the quiet part at the end.”
The gates to hell are opening…
True to form, James is already working on two new EPs and the fourth Hellripper album.
He doesn’t seem to pause for breath.
Hellripper’s main man wants to spread the word of the goat to the US and Australia. And there are more tours in the planning stages.
“I want to create good music, to keep doing that, because that’s what I enjoy most about life, that’s my passion,” he says with trademark enthusiasm.
“My partner often comments, ‘do you ever think about what’s going on?’ But it’s difficult to see what’s going on because I’m ‘in it’.
“Every time I get an email saying, ‘do you want to do this show with whoever?’ I’m like, ‘yeah this will be cool’. And then I think ‘this is ridiculous man!’ – like when we got to play with Midnight, who were one of the bands who inspired Hellripper.
“It’s reached the stage where I’m able to play festivals with the likes of Sodom and Orange Goblin.
“We’ve got stuff coming up with Warbringer who are one of the bands that I got into when I was growing up and getting into metal.”
James signs off: “It’s just wild to me. I’m so pleased I get to do this. I’m very grateful for the whole thing.
“I don’t take it for granted at all.”
Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags is out now on Peaceville Records.
Hellripper play Dominion Festival at Ushaw Historic House, Chapel and Gardens, Durham on Saturday, May 6.
Enjoyed our interview with James McBain? Check out his top 10 lockdown albums here.