EXCLUSIVE: BELPHEGOR’S HELMUTH DISCUSSES HIS BRUSH WITH DEATH
If this were a normal summer, Bephegor mainman Helmuth Lehner would be on the road raising hell (literally and metaphorically) at metal festivals around Europe and elsewhere. During the past two decades, the Austrian guitarist has been known for his embrace of debauchery and hard living (Blood Magick Necromance isn’t just an album title in his case) and relentless global touring that would sideline almost anyone besides Lemmy. Instead, during the bulk of the past year, instead of touring he’s been fighting for his life, the result of what he thinks was one poor decision after an epic night of drinking in South America. Now recovering and recording (in the United States), he talked to MetalSucks about his illness and long recovery and how the ordeal might have made the legendary madman a bit wiser.
How are you feeling?
Way better than a few months ago. I am recovering, slowly. It’s getting better each month.
I know you had to cancel some tour dates due to a lung infection back in the fall but what was the extent of your illness? What were you struggling with?
I had to cancel all shows and tours for the last nine months. It wasn’t a winning situation. Seriously, I never expected anything like this. Who does? It’s like a punch in the face.
I got a typhus infection in Brazil. I guess it was from drinking water from the sink. What are you going to do when you wake up in the morning after hard drinking and have a raging hangover? Yes, I know, not very smart in the end. I was not vaccinated against typhus. The virus killed my lungs. As we toured Brazil, I didn’t know what was going on. I thought day by day it would get better. On the contrary, it got worse. Breathing was difficult. The last shows were tough, full of pain, vomiting and fever. But we played the last two shows with Morbid Angel. Hey, you can’t say “no, we’re cancelling.”
After eight shows in Brazil, we flew to Venezuela. I couldn’t lift my guitar case anymore, so that was the first time that I went to the hospital. I couldn’t play the show but Columbia was on the plan. I still thought, it will get better… sick, man. I was totally done, couldn’t do the last three shows in Columbia; sorry to all the people involved. I am a fighter, I never cancel shows as long as I can stand on my damn feet, but it was over. It was four days of pain and fever, lying in the bed in Bogota, followed by two damn international flights back to Austria. When we arrived I was totally done; it wasn’t possible to lift my hand luggage.
They put me in intensive care for ten days, to prepare for an operation. There was a lot of water in the heart, liver and legs – everywhere. I looked like a sumo wrestler. Besides my lungs, there was also heart damage. So I had an open heart and chest operation. I could fill a book, man.
You’ve always had an amazingly ambitious touring schedule. Did that have anything to do with getting sick? Will you change it in the future?
I would lie if I say it’s good for the body to do 120-plus shows a year, record LPs and deal with management related things. That’s not to mention the drinking and drugs on the road. Belphegor are known for excess. Yes, I have to change this intense touring schedule and my delirious drinking and abuse.
How did you recover? Were you ever close to death?
Man, I fought five weeks to get my life back. Five weeks in the hospital – three times in intensive care, then six weeks rehab – step by step, I tried to get my life back. I have rock hard will and discipline, otherwise I wouldn’t be here anymore.
When you were sick did you have any thoughts about your career and what you’ve accomplished so far? Any fears?
No. I didn’t think about the band during the first few weeks. I was paralyzed, totally knocked out. I thought I’d never be able to make music again. I was at the point where I couldn’t do eight stairs without help from the nurse. That was my training, to go up and down 8 stairs with the Krankenschwester at my side.
I mean sure, if I would have taken better care of my body, this wouldn’t have happened that soon. But I’m not a whiny bitch; it was totally worth it. I enjoyed living this “fast” exciting suicidal life style. I traveled the world a few times. I have been to and visited places I never thought I would get the chance to see. It was an honor and a huge pleasure, I really enjoyed it, and it was beyond amazing. I saw so much and met so many great people around the damn globe and brought diabolical music to your town.
Were you able to do anything outside of recuperate?
The first nine weeks, no. I was a zombie, totally dependent on other people and doctors. I had never been in such a situation my whole life. I always walked my own path. I never expected or thought that I would get that sick.
What was the biggest help in your recovery…family, willpower…good medical assistance?
All of those were important and helped a lot. The (biggest) help came from my girlfriend, who didn’t leave me alone through this hard eight months and of course my loyal blood brother Barth (Resch).
Did you hear a lot from fans during the time you’ve been away?
For the first two or three weeks I was totally knocked out, without much contact with family, buddies in general. I had no visitors; I wanted to be alone, because I was in miserable condition. I didn’t want anybody to see me like that. After I felt better and could move a few meters -to the restroom without help there were a lot of people that contacted me and wished me a good recovery, which helped a lot. Thanks to all demons that sent recovery wishes and motivated me to get back on track. Thanks so much.
When were you able to get back to writing and working on music? Had anything changed or did it feel the same?
Everything changed, man. I see a lot of things now totally differently. I was running through the world, sometimes with closed eyes, egotistical if I may say so, hard to describe. It isn’t easy to lead a band like Belphegor. After ten weeks I got my hands back on my guitar in the rehab center. That was like a flash, finally – I had a goal again. It was worth it to live, to fight and get stronger and in better shape.
I understand you are working on new material. Could you tell us about it?
Yes, all is going well. We are in Mana Studios in Florida with Erik Rutan and have tracked drums and bass guitars. The sessions for this project are divided into three parts. Man, it sounds fantastic. It always was a dream to record an album in the states. There is no routine in Belphegor. That’s why we always change studios, producers and hired musicians. I hate routine when it comes to art. It must be fresh. Routine destroys all. It wouldn’t be a challenge to repeat same formula, like too many bands do now. I call them plastic bands. That’s why we are still on fire – ready to go, motivated and into it, because we refuse to follow, to kneel down to trends and formulas. We thrive on fresh blood and experience.
When can we expect a new Belphegor album?
The release date was pushed back to January 2013. Erik has never produced a band like Belphegor before. It will be an extra challenge for Erik and Belphegor. The album, the sound wall, will be very aggressive. The nine tracks are way faster and even more extreme than on the last LP. A combination of European metal coldness, atmosphere and sickest elements crossed with an American brutal sound, is the master plan. This experiment is going to be ultra-sick!
Will your brush with illness factor into the writing of your next record?
Yes. It influenced the whole record, all of the arrangements. We have a lot of new rhythm structures. Everything is very angular, disturbing and edgy. If you want to create obscure art you have to be surrounded by darkness and isolation, far away from the sheep horde. There are only a few bands around that really sound evil, possessed. A melodic death hippie/ trendy core band can practice 25 hours a day and will never get a diabolical (guitar) tone. We’ve also added a lot of tritone intervals; tones that were forbidden by the church in Middle Ages.
When will you be able to go back on the road? I see you are scheduled to play the Barge From Hell tour.
In the beginning of July, we’ll do three big open air shows in one weekend, after a nine-month break. Unfortunately we can’t do an intense touring schedule in 2012, because of my health issues. I’m not fully recovered yet. So we’ll focus on creating and recording.
The end of this year will mark our 20th anniversary. We’ll celebrate it with the re- release of the 2000 album Necrodaemon Terrorsathan in October 2012. It will include our official demo from 1993, Bloodbath In Paradise, and the seven-inch vinyl Obscure And Deep from 1994. As a special bonus we re-record the song “Necrodaemon Terrorsathan” in August. I’m curious as to whether we can capture the spirit from back then. Many people have been asking for these releases for years. It’s like a special thank you.
Bethemoth frontman Nergal said after his bout with cancer that he’s happy to be alive. Do you feel the same?
I guess we both had a lot of luck. Fifty years ago we would be worm food, or ash and sulphur in hell. I also have to say thanks to my home country, Austria. To all the doctors and nurses that helped me survive, I’m sure a few of them will read this, thanks a bunch for saving my ass.
A lot of things changed in my life. Maybe I’m a little bit wiser. The most important thing besides freedom was always to decide what I want to do, take the path that I choose, in terms of my dream and vision. It’s now important for me to have a major goal in life, new challenges to push the band, my guitar playing and the intensity of live shows to an even higher level. So yeah man, it feels great to be back, to be able to create new music.