Hard Rock Corner: Hell Fire

Mania out March 29 on RidingEasy

Mar 25, 2019 By Frank Valish
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San Francisco heavy metal four-piece Hell Fire sure knows how to whip up a raucous noise. The group was born in 2010 when bassist Herman Bandala moved to the Bay Area from Tijiuana, Mexico and placed an ad on Craigslist looking to form a band. The ad caught the eye of guitarist Tony Campos and the two soon realized they shared a mutual love of '80s thrash and New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Various incarnations of the band saw Campos and Bandala honing their craft in the San Francisco area but it wasn't until they hooked up with vocalist Jake Nunn just prior to its 2016 debut, Metal Masses, and drummer Mike Smith prior to its follow up, that things really took shape.

"With the previous band members, it wasn't something they grew up really wanting to do," says Campos. "They loved to do it and had a blast doing it, but it wasn't like me and Herman where we would drop anything and sacrifice anything for it, because it was our dream. Jake and Mike had the same drive."

After self-releasing Metal Masses and a follow up, Free Again, in 2017, the band was signed to RidingEasy Records after a pitch from fans and fellow labelmates Mondo Drag.

"We were playing a show out here at a club called Eli's, and John [Gamino, Mondo Drag keyboardist/vocalist] is one of the bookers there," says Campos. "He bought Free Again and he called Riding Easy right away and goes, 'Hey, I just saw this band Hell Fire, and I know that they're self releasing all their stuff, and I recommend you check into them right now.'"

RidingEasy repressed Free Again, and is releasing the band's third album, Mania. With Mania, Hell Fire has fully realized its hard rocking potential with tracks such as "Warpath" and "Isolator," which thrash like the best of '80s Bay Area and howl like vintage Judas Priest.  

Guitarist Tony Campos spent a moment chatting with UTR about his band, its inception, and the furious fire that is Mania.

Under the Radar: Did you grow up in San Francisco, Tony?

Tony Campos: Yeah I grew up there. My mother's side of the family has been in San Francisco since about the mid- to late-1800s, so we've been there a long time.

What kind of music did you grow up with around the house?
A lot of classic rock and heavy metal. No so much to exactly what Hell Fire turned out to be. But my dad was a big fan of bands like Van Halen and Montrose and Thin Lizzy. He grew up going to a lot of those shows when he was younger. So I grew up hearing a lot of that kind of stuff around the house.

Was that stuff a gateway to the heavier metal?
Yeah, it was kind of a gateway, but I also grew up racing dirt bikes and riding BMX bikes, and around that scene everybody was listening to Slayer and a lot of punk rock, like T.S.O.L. and Gang Green and stuff like that. So that was the gateway to more of the thrash metal and more of the high energy stuff.

You formed the band in 2010 when Herman posted the ad to Craigslist, but you were playing in metal bands before that, right?

Yeah, I was in a lot of different kinds of bands growing up, definitely some metal bands, some punk bands. There was a point when I was younger, learning my way, where I just wanted to be in a band in general. So I grew up being in a couple bands before that, but Hell Fire was really the first band I was able to start from the ground up with something I envisioned.

That was my next question. What was different about Hell Fire when the lineup first coalesced with Jake, before the first album?
When Herman and I started the band, he was the first person I met where it just clicked. He had all the same influences, we played the same style, and it was like, "Alright, that's it, we got it." And then it was just finding the rest of the people. We weren't really established in the scene around here, so we didn't really know of anyone to reach out to. So from that point, it was just putting the band together, and it took a couple years to really learn the ropes of everything and get it rolling.

So Jake came in in 2010?

No, Jake came in right when we recorded Metal Masses, the first album. Those first 4 or 5 years were basically a couple lineup changes and playing locally. We didn't record anything. We were just getting everything together and really finding ourselves and what the band was and tightening ourselves up as musicians.

You've mentioned in the press release that you're more excited about the new album than you'd been about your previous work. What do you feel was different this time around? With this being your third album, were there things you knew you wanted to do differently or perhaps felt you could do better for this one?

We feel more accomplished than ever, coming out of the studio with this album. I think a big part of that is when we did our first album, Metal Masses, some of that material we had written a while ago, and were in a rush to get something out to the public so we could show what we were doing. When we did Free Again, it turned out great, we loved it, better than we could have expected, but we felt that we were still growing as a band and finding ourselves. With this last one, we just felt like we had the proper amount of time writing everything together as a band-we've been playing together with this lineup for a couple of years now. We went into the studio knowing what to expect and knowing exactly what we wanted. The record really feels more diverse than anything we've done, but in the best way possible.

I want to talk a little bit about what it's like to play in a band that gets so many comparisons to '80s thrash and New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Do you feel like you have to consistently push against people categorizing you as retro or is that a mantle that you're proud to take up? Or both?

I guess it's a mix. Obviously, those are the inspirations that got us to do what we're doing. And for me, when we were trying to be a band, before forming Hell Fire, and not having any luck with anything, nobody was out there really. The scene in the local area was more new metal and hardcore bands, which felt pretty wild, because when you think of the San Francisco Bay Area, you think of the history of thrash bands, like Exodus and Metallica. You would just think it would be more rich in that sort of music out here. It's not a comparison that bugs us. I like it for where we're at in the Bay Area; no one else is really carrying the flag in that way. But also we don't restrict ourselves like that. We're not strictly a New Wave of British Heavy Metal band or a thrash band. And that's why I think we're so excited with the new album. We broke out of our shell a little more, and people listening to it see that. We're finally sounding like Hell Fire.

What are the touchstones of vintage metal for you, bands that you enjoy? Can you give me a maybe Top 5, off the top of your head?

Of course. In the beginning it was for sure those first two Iron Maiden records. I remember, when I was a kid growing up, Iron Maiden were already huge. But I would remember, growing up, you'd see the art work everywhere, and the first time I was hearing stuff off Killers, I would have never expected it was that band. My whole thing with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was just the songwriting. It's just great songwriting, great guitar harmonies. That's one thing that really jumped out at me as a guitar player. I want to write great songs and have guitar harmonies and have good melody in my music.

Past that, one of my biggest influences was anything Ozzy, and two of my really big Ozzy influences were Randy Rhoads and Jake E. Lee, and just showing the dedication in guitar playing and technicality that made me want to play guitar. Other things were those first couple Metallica records. Being here in the Bay Area, you see how the scene is for all the people who have been around here since Metallica came out. They're all still here, they're all still at shows. The effect that that band had on the scene here and the effect those records had on me from a writing standpoint, the energy in them, the recording process of all of them. That's another thing that basically made me want to be in a band that has a singer like Rob Halford but also plays as fast and has the energy of James and all those guys on the Kill 'Em All record. Angel Witch was a real big influence. They're one of the first ones I was really diving into from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal at a younger age that just blew me out of the water.

How does a kid find Angel Witch these days?!

For me it would be, I don't even know. It's so funny, some of those bands I don't even know. I know some of it almost goes down to Metallica and Exodus and being obsessed with those bands as a kid and looking at what bands they were wearing on their t-shirts at that time. So if you're seeing a bunch of Angel Witch or Budgie logos, you're wondering, "What is this stuff?" Especially when you see a band like Budgie, that album cover with the cat on it [1978's Impeckable], or a band like Riot, the first time I listened to Fire Down Under. I heard Riot before and I got the album cover and I was like, "No way this is that band. There's no way." So for me it would be as simple as seeing a patch on someone's jacket in a photo from back then, and just looking for that band.

Do you find that the crowds that you attract are more older people who maybe grew up on '80s thrash, or do you see a new younger base coming out?

I'd say it's equal of both. When we first started, it was definitely a crowd of the older die hard guys hearing that a newer band from the Bay is coming up. I think people were more excited at first that we were doing Diamond Head and Angel Witch covers, before our songs were really getting out there. But it seems now that a lot of younger kids are getting into it. One of the main parts that is hard is that there's just not as many all-age venues around. We try to make any show we can an all-ages show. Because I remember when I was younger how hard it would be. If you knew a touring band was coming around that didn't come around to your area, it would be always at a 21 and up show, when you're like 17. And those are the people who are most stoked and excited to see you.




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