Photo by Jennifer Bong
Minnesota’s Heliosaga are an up and coming symphonic power metal/thrash band in the vein of early Nightwish and Helloween. I spoke with Damien Villarreal (Guitars/Keyboards) about how the band came together and the ensued lineup changes that led to the painstaking development of their debut album, Towers In The Distance.
Tell me a little about the band and how you all got together. What made you decide to play this style of music? What bands were you in prior?
I consider June 2010 as the “official” month the band started. Before that I had been searching for at least one year. I jammed with a few musicians here and there and I also auditioned for a few bands, but nothing worked out. I met our old guitarist Lucas, that June and we really clicked, so we started writing some songs. Also, he was the one who taught me how to use Guitar Pro (a program for writing tablature). I had never used it before, and it became a major tool for me. A few months down the road we met Jordan and before long we had a full band. That exact lineup did not last long though. As for my writing style, my favorite band growing up was Helloween, but I always listened to a wide variety of metal bands across many of the metal subgenres. What I write is a product of all the amazing bands that have influenced me. I was not in any bands prior to Heliosaga. Jordan was in a cover band when I met him and Chelsea was previously in Desdemon.
With a sound this good, it’s truly surprising that a label hasn’t picked you guys up yet. You sound like Nightwish with a more classic power/thrash nature, making for a sound that many have tried, but few succeed at as well as this.
Thank you so much! There is no label interest yet, but it’s still early in the game. We may have to do a few more albums independently before there is label interest (if there will ever be any, of course). I can definitely say that we have a bit of “old” Nightwish in our DNA. I stress the old part, meaning Angels Fall First through Century Child, because I feel that we have very little in common with them in their current form. You already pointed that out by mentioning our power/thrash nature. Others have pointed out that we have progressive and Gothic styles mixed in as well. We are not a bombastic band either and I happen to think that is one of Nightwish’s main characteristics nowadays.
So tell me about the debut, Towers In The Distance. It seems like it was quite a while in the making. How long did it take to write and record this album, and how long had some of these riffs been stewing in your brain prior to release?
Technically, writing for the album began in 2009, because Edenscar and Luminary were largely written in 2009. They underwent some major changes, but would both easily be recognizable in their original, unrefined forms. Hideaway, “Memorativa” and “All Souls” were the only songs written here in Minnesota. Everything else was written in Texas in that period between 2009-2012. It took a year longer than we planned because we lost two members (one before moving to Minnesota and the other while living here). Both were songwriters and we originally intended to use some of their songs on the album. In fact, the album was going to have thirteen tracks. When they were no longer in the band, I basically had to go back to the drawing board. For instance, we were going to rerecord the demo song, “The Conquest” but because that one was lyrically connected to Ken’s song, “The Infinity Brigade” I decided not to use it. I also decided not to rerecord “Farewell Whilst We’re Apart” the ballad from our demo. We planned to record a song I wrote, and which we played at our shows called “Bloodwings” but I really ended up disliking the song as a whole, so I scrapped it. To actually answer your question, I suppose it took five years from start to finish.
When you guys went into the studio, what was it like in there for the first time? What was the atmosphere like and did you find it a difficult or smooth process recording the album? From a listener perspective, everything sounds really fantastic.
We recorded The Light of Ardor there so it wasn’t a brand new experience, but I think we were all a bit nervous. There is a very steep learning curve for recording and producing heavy metal. I knew little to nothing about it and we really just had to trust the engineer to for example, mic the drums correctly, or use the proper vocal mic and preamp for Chelsea’s voice. We did not have a lot of time to experiment with those sorts of things. I think the overall atmosphere was very positive and there were good vibes in the studio, but I think it was a very difficult process in many ways. I don’t like that we had such rigid time constraints. That’s the studio, I understand that. I just don’t like it. I also got very nervous when I had to do some on-the-spot rewriting. I felt cornered and was scared that I would end up not liking what was changed. I’m happy to know that you like the sound. You can thank Michael Hansen and Jacob Hansen for working their magic and breathing life into those tracks. They are true artists and masters of their craft.
The record is comprised of many themes, some seeming of a fantasy nature and others of a more romantic nature. Alternatively, they seem to convey both of these feelings regardless of how heavy or how light the music is. Who does the majority of the lyrics and what inspires them?
I wrote all of the music and lyrics for the album. The primary inspiration would certainly be my own life experiences. Most of the album is about violence, death, loneliness, depression, etc. “Luminary” and “All Souls” are very positive songs though, so the album actually ends on a positive note. Some of the songs are mini stories and I would not call them fantastical in nature, but I can see how others might. There are many metaphors and there is some fantastical imagery, but the underlying themes are very serious, personal and I think relatable to a lot of people.
What could you say inspired your sound both musically and vocally? What other bands besides some of the more Nightwish/Theatre Of Tragedy/Leave’s Eyes references would you say are integral influences to Heliosaga?
Excluding the ones you mentioned, I would have to say Helloween, Kamelot, Elegy, Sonata Arctica, Dream Theater, Therion and Lost Horizon were absolutely integral. I mean, I could name many, many more, but those are a few off the top of my head. The primary vocal influence was definitely Tarja Turunen and I know Chelsea really likes Simone Simons.
What does the band’s name, Heliosaga refer to and who came up with it? Is there a storyline based around this name?
I came up with the name. I asked the band members to give me a list of their favorite words. Ken our former guitarist, said that he really loved the word Heliopolis in the song “Tunnel of Light” by Ayreon. In fact, we had been listening to it that day. So I wrote that down and later on that night combined it with saga, which was a word I had chosen. There is no storyline based around the name, but if you take the meanings of helios and saga, it can actually mean ‘story of the sun.’ The sun itself can be taken to be a metaphor for life, so you really have ‘the story of life.’ That was something that we thought of afterward though. In truth, we were just happy to find something that had not been used before and for which we could get the .com and social media.
Will you guys be doing any shows or going on any self-financed tours for the release?
At the moment we still have an incomplete lineup, but we are working on changing that. Once we are able to, we will definitely start playing shows in support of the album. A tour would be awesome, but it will really come down to finances and logistics.
What do you guys do when you’re not playing music? What do you do as day jobs and what are your hobbies outside of music? What would you recommend?
We are all huge gamers and we would definitely recommend gaming to anyone and everyone! Actually, Heliosaga is our day job; however, since it currently costs us money and makes us absolutely nothing we will be adjusting that very soon. Maybe one day we will be able to make something approaching a living from the band, but that day is likely far into the future.
What would you say are some of your top favorite albums of all time? Why are they special?
Helloween’s Keeper of the Seven Keys Part II was a game changer for me. It was special because it was unique to me. We’re talking 1991 by the way, so power metal like this was still mostly unknown here. I had never heard such fast, double-bass drumming. I loved the songwriting and I felt like “March of Time” and the title track were so mystical that it was almost as if they were written in and for some fantastical universe. I was spellbound when I listened to them! Of course, the whole album was important to me, but especially those songs. Dream Theater’s Images and Words was another eye opener for me, musically and lyrically. The album, to me, has a young blood emotion that is unmistakably ethereal. Finally, Theatre of Tragedy’s Aegis is, in my opinion, a perfect Gothic album. It’s moody and atmospheric and it’s melancholic without being mopey. It’s one of those albums I will always listen to. I can never imagine getting tired of it. There are so many other albums that I consider monumental in my life it would be impossible to list them all.
What do you hope listeners might be able to take with them after they’ve heard Towers In The Distance?
I hope they will read something they relate to or understand on some level, whether it be the experience of feeling totally alone or fearing that death might be the end. Maybe someone will read the lyrics to “Hideaway” and say, “This is exactly what someone did to me emotionally. They took my life from me.” Perhaps it will comfort them to know that they aren’t alone in their struggles; that we all have towers in our lives. And if they read on to “Luminary” and “All Souls” then maybe they will be filled with a sense of hope. I couldn’t ask for much more than that.
Thanks for answering my questions and for a phenomenal album. I really hope the best for you, as this is something that really deserves as much promotion as is humanly possible. There is an audience for this and I’m definitely one of them! Can’t wait to hear what’s next in the future and best of luck to all of you. Thanks for keeping metal alive in the USA! – Eric
Thank you so much. This was a fantastic interview and I really enjoyed answering these questions! Cheers!