James Rivera doesn't mince words when asked about Xander Demos, the guitarist in his Black Sabbath/Judas Priest tribute band Sabbath Judas Sabbath.
"Oh, dude, he's a f------ amazing guitar player," Rivera, the vocalist for 30-year Houston band Helstar told me recently (click full interview in blue at bottom).
Demos is more than a tribute contributor, though. Sure, he has his Xander Demos band and plays in a cover band called Into The Arena, as well as Sabbath Judas Sabbath. But the Pittsburgh resident strikes a somewhat rare balance by blending hard rock and metal licks with soothing melodies and makes it all look effortless. The proof is in the pudding here and on his latest album Guitarcadia, which sports eight shake-your-head-in-amazement instrumentals plus two vocal tunes.
Demos phoned me from Pittsburgh to talk about it all.
Q: I know you were just at NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants, in Anaheim, Calif.) rubbing elbows with the other industry big-wigs and displaying your guitar goods. How did it go?
A: It went really good. Just kind of get out there and enjoy the new stuff coming out.
Q: McNaught Guitars recently completed production of your first ever signature guitar. That's gotta be a dream come true. How did it come about?
A: I've known Dave for quite a long time. He's a fan of my playing, and I'm very humbled from a guy like that who's also a great player. He's wanted to talk to me about doing a signature guitar. That's pretty much how it happened. We started working on it about two years ago.
Guitarcadia is a terrific album. Eight instrumentals out of the 10 songs showcase what you're all about. I always wonder how instrumentalists come up with the titles for their songs.
Q: Do you have any special significance or points of inspiration for some of these songs?
A: You know what? That's a great question, and I really don't. I grew up as a fan of instrumentals, pretty much for the past 30 or so years. I'm also a big fan of movie scores, you know. Not the movie soundtracks but the scores themselves. Sometimes they have kind of interesting names as well. For me, naming instrumentals, I think it has to have a mood. Like in the case of "White Knuckle Driving," it just has that sound. It has that edge. There's something about it that kind of rung out to me like a car-power tune with a lot of energy. A driving bass line. Sometimes it just happens like that.
I especially enjoyed the Beavis & Butt-head touch at the end of "Woodshed Sonata."
(Laughs) We were trying to get that without the other background noise. That was challenging. Yeah, that's cool. Thank you.
Q: Tell me about the band you have playing on the record with you.
A: Those are all basically people I've played with in bands before. Keyboard player (Adam Heusey), who plays on pretty much every song like I do, he's still with me in my solo band. I think he originally played in a cover band with me. Just talked about doing it, and he was like, "Hey, that sounds like a really fun idea. I want to try it." He actually wrote one of the tunes with me. His contributions overall are priceless. The other two guys -- Matt Williams is the bass player and (drummer) Chris Batton is a former bandmate of mine. We all knew each other. Matt was also an Into The Arena member with me and Adam. That was the cover band I was in. And then Chris, he's the kind of guy who gets out there and plays in a lot of different projects. But he was pretty dedicated to the solo thing for awhile. We did that, and we took it live. Last year, I kind of went through a personal time. I chose to step away, then I got a new group of guys, and Adam was still with me.
Q: So who's singing the two songs on the record?
A: Kevin Rasel and Mike Sciullo. Neither of them do any kind of band work at all. Mike used to be in a band, and then I used to play in a power metal band with Kevin, with Chris the drummer.
Q: The two vocal songs are "Under A Darkened Sky" and the Don Henley cover "Boys of Summer." Why did you choose that cover?
A: That one was chosen because, the band I mentioned, Into The Arena, we were a cover band. We primarily focused on '80s and stuff like that. When we did "Boys of Summer," there's kind of a little tribute being paid back in that song. There was a period of time when I kind of did not play guitar, back in the '90s when grunge was really big. It'd just be like metal guitar, and fellows like myself were just really squeezed out of the music scene in general. For maybe like a year. I still played once in awhile, just kind of noodling around. But I heard a Rush tribute album called Working Man, probably 1994, 1995, right around that time. It was an All-Star lineup. On this cover called "Analog Kid" from their Signals album, Michael Romeo, Billy Sheehan and Michael Portnoy -- all these guys are playing on the song. They took the song and made this amazing cover of it. "Boys of Summer," we were messing around with it as a tribute to that because we were going to play that Rush song in our band. We kind of thought, 'Well, we play a lot of stuff that people dance to and fun party music." So we had the same idea with "Boys of Summer" with big guitar solos.
Q: The album is a pretty ripping guitar extravaganza all the way through, then you end it with the soothing "Lady In Red." Is that one about anyone in particular?
A: No, it didn't have a whole lot of meaning. The reason I did it was because I wanted to do something that wasn't going to be all shreddy or all different kind of stuff. Everybody has their guilty pleasures, and I've always liked that feel. One day, I was messing around with a different song and started playing along with it on guitar, and I threw a little wah pedal on there. Then my keyboard player, Adam, he said, "I have a couple of rolling keyboards, and one of them has a sampler on it." So we just sampled the drums on there and put it on a loop. In about an hour, we actually had the tracks for it, so we just went ahead and did it.
Q: And the album was mixed by Firehouse vocalist C.J. Snare. That seems like an interesting pairing for those who remember C.J. from his band's first couple of albums. Have you been friends for a long time?
A: We were already friends on Facebook. He had posted one day where he was pitching his services for anyone that was interested. First of all, I'm a big Firehouse fan to begin with, and I figured if a guy like him would do that work, that could be a different perspective. I wasn't trying to make an album that was Yngwie-like. You know what I mean? With a lot of darker sounding stuff? I knew my stuff sounded almost poppier in a way. So I figured he would be a great choice for that. I just posted on his wall and said, "Hey, I'd love to talk to you about it." And he actually sent me an instant message like, within, 30 seconds, and it was actually kind of cool. He sent me his phone number, and we talked for about an hour the first time out, then we just started working relations. He's actually signed on to do the follow-up album too.
Q: That's really cool. Tell me about your follow-up album. How far into it are you?
A: We did 11 songs, and we've got about seven of them written. Basically all the instrumentals that are going on it -- now remember, the band is going in a totally different direction. It's no longer just instrumentals. I have a full-time vocalist (Mario Brescia). The mood of the music is more progressive rock because the people that are in my band are all progressive rock musicians. It still fits the mold of the stuff on Guitarcadia. There are songs on there that I guess you could say are left over from Guitarcadia. I was advised by my manager and other people, "Don't put 14 or 15 songs on your first album. Put 10 on it." So these are only half-recorded. But live shows for my new band -- wow! The songs are sick!
Q: That's a perfect segue because I was about to ask if we here in San Antonio will get the chance to see you anytime soon?
A: I hope so. There's been a few people that have spoken about us getting down there. Right now, we have some New York things, we're doing Skull Fest in Nebraska in October. We're kind of looking to see what feel we get. We'll go pretty much anywhere and do everything in our power.
Q: Have you played in San Antonio before?
A: No, never.
Well, you're always welcome here.
Well, thank you!
Q: I interviewed James Rivera in October, then met him during Helstar's gig here and asked him about you. How did you guys hook up for the East Coast chapter of Sabbath Judas Sabbath, and what's the latest on the band?
A: Basically, one of our best friends, Bill Staley, he used to live down in Texas for awhile. And he knew James from way back. We're like the quote-unquote "two shredders from Pittsburgh." People think the two shredders will be competing with each other. We don't compete with each other. We'll trade licks all day. I had never met James, but he came up and stayed at my house for like, five days. We did a rehearsal with Sabbath Judas Sabbath, and then we did our weekend shows. And then he flew out the next day to start the Helstar tour. So, we're actually playing with Helstar on March 8 here in Pittsburgh. That will be cool playing with him again. The drummer for SJS is my drummer, and the singer who basically filled in for him is actually the singer for my band now. Everything's kind of a tight-knit family. James and I spoke on the phone last week and talked about the Helstar shows. That's how we got together -- through my friend who knew him in the past.
Q: What can you tell me about your instructional DVD, and when will it be out?
A: Oh, man, that's been more of like a labor of love. It's crazy. I've got a lot of footage. But the company is going to do the technical parts. Some of the stuff has been done, but ideally, there's going to be a few twists and turns on it. Hopefully, people will find it useful. Just try something cool. No release date yet. I have to get back to this company and figure out: "Here's the footage. When can you have it done?" Then I can make an announcement for it.
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