The Heavy Metal Bard: An Interview with Jason Tarpey of Eternal Champion

I first heard Jason Tarpey’s vocals about ten years ago when a friend of mine played Iron Age’s Constant Struggle for me. At the time I was young, angsty, and really into thrash, and Iron Age’s intensity left me charred and smoking in my slip-on monochrome Vans. Constant Struggle had the spirit of Age of Quarrel, but it had something more, too. Something different. Wasn’t until some six years later that was I able to put my finger on what that something was. Happened when I checked out Jason Tarpey’s latest band, Graven Rite. Since then, I’ve followed Tarpey like Death follows a great knight; that is, from a distance, but ever-watchful, and ever-grateful for the goods bestowed upon me by him. Then, about a month ago, I heard Eternal Champion’s debut full length, The Armor of Ire—having anticipated said album since copping EC’s highly coveted demo in 2013—and I knew it was time. I had to approach the man, if only to say “Right on!”

What follows is the interview I conducted with Tarpey over the course of several days in mid-October.

Hails, Jason Tarpey! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What do you do when you're not performing, or rehearsing with Eternal Champion? Is it true you're a blacksmith?

Yes sir, I work as a blacksmith in a small town called Wimberley which is kind of between Austin and San Antonio. The wife and I bought a house out here a couple of years ago for some peace and quiet. Since then I've become a full time blacksmith and started my business, called HAMMERHALL FORGE. I make ironwork for nice houses, ya know, front door grilles and fireplace sets, and what I really want to concentrate on which is forging swords, axes, armor, ancient and fantasy weaponry. It's going well so far. I also like working out, writing and reading Sword & Sorcery and weird fiction.

How did you get into epic heavy metal, and at what point did you realize you wanted to front a band like Eternal Champion instead of a band like Iron Age?

I can tell you exactly how I got into it. I loved fantasy as a kid. Along with reading Conan comic books I was watching Conan the Barbarian, Beastmaster, Krull, Red Sonja, The Sword and the Sorcerer movies religiously growing up, so I had a penchant for this already. While Iron Age was just beginning, I was wondering where the inspiration for The Icemen song "Shadow Out Of Time" was and I discovered the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name. I was familiar with his name from seeing "The Unnamable" and "The Re-animator" movies as a kid but had never cracked one of his books. After reading Lovecraft for the first time I became obsessed, it had a HUGE impact on me. I must have read every story he wrote within a few months and I wanted to find more bands that had songs based on Lovecraft's works and the works of other writers of weird fiction like Robert E. Howard. That led me directly to MANILLA ROAD. "Mystification" was the first 'Road album I heard and my introduction to epic heavy metal, it remains my favorite album to this day. It all came together after that and it all crept into the lyrics and music for Iron Age during the "Constant Struggle" era. I actually don't consider any of my bands that different from each other, Iron Age is something like epic crossover, we were highly influenced by English Dogs "Where Legend Began" and other records that had an epic theme with aggressive music. When I started playing around with the idea of singing clean, and doing a proper epic heavy metal band, Graven Rite was born and we started writing the demo when Iron Age stopped touring.

What was it that you thought the underground heavy metal world was missing that you wanted to bring out, or back, with Eternal Champion?

Balls. And swords.

Are you a self-taught vocalist? Because even on Graven Rite your vocals are outstanding. While I think The Armor of Ire shows your best performance yet, I think you've always had chops.

Thanks, yep self taught, never had a lesson but I could use one. Maybe before the next album I'll take a couple.

Which vocalists inspire you the most? I hear Mark Shelton, a little Rob Lowe, but I'm sure there are others, too, right? Essentially, who got you into singing?

Pretty good man! You picked the first two singers I would list as my influences. Klaus Meine is a big influence as well as Quorthon's beautiful singing on the 90's Bathory albums. But you know who really got me into singing? Phil Swanson. The debut full length from Hour of 13 is one of the first metal albums this side of the year 2000 that I really loved. When that came out I started singing along to it in my car, it was within my range (mostly), I loved the melodies, and it gave me some confidence. Phil actually got a hold of me on an Iron Age tour a few years after that album was released because he heard from a mutual friend how much I loved his band, and then he told me he was a fan of Iron Age! I was blown away. We became good friends and developed a working relationship releasing some of his bands on my now defunct label Cyclopean Records. Great guy, huge influence.

While you're evidently inspired by the likes of Howard, Lovecraft, and other writers of yore, what is it about Michael Moorcock's works that speak to you so much, and (seem to) inspire you the most?

I think what really stands out in Moorcock's work is the dichotomy of Law & Chaos. It's more than good and evil and frankly a bit more relevant to our world as we live in it today. It's a balance between stagnant law or formless chaos, an eternal struggle that pits an incarnated champion against the unchecked advances of either force. It gives Moorcock the ability to create different worlds in different times in an endless multiverse. It's rife with good ideas, interesting characters with many arcs, which is what I like to write about. Actually, though, I might take a break from writing the Moorcock influenced songs for awhile and focus on other writers of the genre that haven't been given their due yet, such as Fritz Leiber, David C. Smith, Michael Shea, Clark Ashton Smith, etc...

What's the ratio of using your own original concepts versus paraphrasing the work of other authors when it comes to Eternal Champions lyrics?

Well we've only released 8 songs so far and 3 of them are set in a world that I've created so the ratio is exactly 3/8.

Let’s talk about the new album, The Armor of Ire. First of all, how could you forsake "War at the Edge of Time?" I was delighted to hear a new version of "The Last King of Pictdom," but you know I'm greedy and insatiable, and would've loved to hear a new version of "War . . .," too.

We talked about re-recording that song too but we wanted to leave something special and exclusive about the demo, and that early recording is pretty weird, it has a charm that probably can't be recreated.

Thematically and musically, "Invoker" reminds me a lot of "The Summoner's Pit," by Graven Rite. And it's an anomalous song for Eternal Champion both musically and thematically. On one hand it's a perfect side B song, and it leads well into the epic "Sing a Lost Song of Valdese." But while the lyrics are still about courage and the difficulty of doing what's right, they have a more somber nature. Was Solitude Aeternus in mind at all when writing this Lovecraftian ballad?

Yeah I suppose they are a bit similar, both have a ballad quality but I never thought of it that way. "The Summoner's Pit" is a song I based in this world of my own creation, ARGINOR to be more specific. And besides some vague ideas I got out in the Iron Age Saga demos, this was the first time I solidified some kind of mythology within it. The EC song "Invoker" was written right after getting Blake Ibanez in the band and it really bares his mark, probably a little Solitude Aeturnus influence, mostly a Mystic Force/Savatage thing going on in the riffs. The lyrics are pure Lovecraftian pastiche with a little bit of Brian Lumley's approach to the mythos, which is to avoid fainting or going insane and to run straight at these terrible gods.

You recorded your vocals at a different place from where the band recorded, right? Why is that?

No, actually I flew up to Philly and tracked the vocals in the same studio that the drums, bass, and guitars were done with Arthur. The only thing that wasn't recorded there were Blake's guitars that Daniel Schmuck recorded down here in Texas. Half the band lives in PA, the other half in TX, which makes getting together a little difficult.

No Remorse, a label from Greece, put out the split with Gatekeeper and the new album. I'm interested in why you're working with them. Are you more concerned with working with a label that deals more in Eternal Champion's style of music than you are working with a label that's—for a lack of a better term—bigger? I ask because I'm sure you guys have been approached by "bigger" labels. Am I incorrect in that assumption?

Yeah we just don't give a shit about being on a bigger label, it's not like you're gonna make any more money, they usually take more money from you in fact. So you might as well be on a label that understands what you are doing, knows how to present and promote your record and hope the music is good enough for word of mouth to spread because thats what's it's about, if you're good people WILL find out about it, regardless of what record label releases it. No Remorse isn't as big in America as they are in Europe but most of our fans seem to be from Europe so it makes sense to work with them.

The cover art for Ire runs me through with an awesome sword and spills out all of my superlatives. I love it. It's an original work done for you guys, right? Did you guide the artist in any way? How floored were you by the final product?

Thanks man, we love the cover art too, Adam Burke painted it and he really killed it. I gave him a little direction as it's a depiction of the events that take place in the title track.

I once remarked that Eternal Champion could only be from Texas. When I said that I was thinking not only about Pantera, but also about the Texas state-of-mind. It's the lone star state and a lot of lyrics seem to reflect on themes like the sword of Damocles, the responsibility of power, the "burden of empire," if you will. Am I right, do you think? Is there something expressly Texan about Eternal Champion?

Haha yes I think so, I've lived in Texas my whole life, mostly out in the hill country, and I've read before that Robert E. Howard based his "hills of Cimmeria" on the country around Fredricksburg, Tx which is just down the road from me. There is something direct and maybe even brutish about our band, and the theme of standing up and fighting that our songs carry is something Texans are a bit famous for.

Eternal Champion shares members with Sumerlands, who are based out of Philadelphia. How does that work?

Yeah my best friend Arthur Rizk (Sumerlands) stepped into this band in 2014 and saved it from dissolving. He wrote some of our best stuff, gave us some direction and became an integral member. Not only did he play drums, synth, bass and some guitar on the album, he recorded it, mixed and mastered it. So it might take us a bit longer to send stuff back and forth and write songs that way, but it's worth it to keep this lineup intact. Our newest addition on guitar, John Powers, is Arthur's roommate so they can practice and write stuff together and then demo it and send it down to us to work on. We just don't play live that often which is fine by me.

Can you talk a little bit about the show Eternal Champion recently played in New York with Sumerlands? Was the EC's first east coast gig?

Yessir great gig, my voice was in rough shape but I had a lot of fun regardless. That was our first east coast gig and it was awesome to play with our brother band Sumerlands. It was their first show and a record release gig for both bands. Sumerlands is a special band, and one that connects and contains my past interest in heavy metal (which started with Justin Detore), my current inspiration for picking up the singing gig (Phil Swanson) and the future of heavy metal (Arthur Rizk).

So a guy like Justin DeTore, you've probably known him for years. Are you two pretty close? I ask because you've been growing and evolving as musicians almost side-by-side for ten years, at least.

Yes as I mentioned in [answering] your previous question Justin has had a lot to do with the direction I would take musically. We've been touring/gigging together in different bands for 16 years and he was always listening to something sick in the van, usually something I never heard before but really liked. He was the dude who opened my mind to heavy metal again, the dude that showed me the first Mercyful Fate EP, Trouble, later-era Bathory. A man of superb vision, humor, and taste, no matter what kind of band he's playing in you know it's gonna be good. The evolution you mentioned is interesting and it also should be noted that some of the world's best heavy metal is now being created by people raised in the hardcore scene.

What're some major differences between the hardcore shows you used to play in the mid 00s and the metal shows you've played over the past couple years? Are there any surprising similarities?

For the most part, what hardcore kids think about the heavy metal scene is usually accurate. The greasy promoters that stiff bands, rock star attitudes coming from non-rock stars, the separation between artist and fan, it's all true. I know a lot of people think that metal is like some tight knit brotherhood but it's not the real-life Manowar song that people imagine it to be. It's not the small family that hardcore is. That being said I love a lot of current heavy metal bands and people involved in the underground epic heavy metal scene but not many of them live around me here in Texas, it's a small international circle of people that I identify with. And that goes with the hardcore scene too, there aren't many people involved that I relate to but I still like to go to hardcore shows because it's fun to watch the flying bodies, and my friends are there, it's just that the new HC music is probably not something I would listen to at home. At a heavy metal gig on the other hand I'll love the music but the show might be a bore due to the lack of flying bodies. That's the difference for me personally.

What's kept Eternal Champion from touring?

Mostly it's being an older gentleman with responsibilities that keeps me from hitting the road, and also I've gotten over the masochism that compelled me to tour so much as a young man. But who knows, with the right support and bands maybe a short tour could happen.

*****

Thanks to Jason Tarpey for the interview. Pick up The Armor of Ire here

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