"I love this kind of music and I love being involved with it, and I hate seeing these bands that have been around for a long time that have been heroes of mine kind of not get what they should" Kragen Lum, guitarist, and band manager, Exodus, Heathen, Prototype
Kragen Lum is best known for playing with Exodus but also plays with the bands Heathen and Prototype. On this episode, Kragen talks about how he got into the music industry and how playing guitar in these bands eventually led to him working as a manager for a few projects as well. Plus, Kragen produces extensive guitar books for many of the bands, with a new one from Exodus just released which you can find on Sub Level Records. Kragen even worked in the video game industry for a while, working on titles like Guitar Hero and Tonky Hawk Pro Skater. Kragen loves to stay busy and loves what he does, and talks about what fuels him to keep doing it all.
Jeff: Kragen, let's start off by listing everything you freaking do because, I mean, when it comes to being busy in the music industry, you might win the award for that. Just like... I know currently you are playing with Exodus which is kind of how we got connected, which is great, but you're playing with a bunch of other people and doing a bunch of other stuff too. Can you kind of just give me a list and run down the list of everything that you do?
Kragen: Sure. As a musician, you sometimes have to wear many hats to survive. So, most people know me from filling in for Gary Holt in Exodus. I've been doing that since 2013. It looks like that's pretty much coming to an end as Gary's going to be wrapping up his duties with Slayer. It's been awesome. I've had a great time doing it. I love all the guys.
Kragen: And then actually I'm still going to be working with them. I've sort of switched over to the management side, so I'm one of their two managers and I work on a lot of other projects for them, helping them collect royalties, doing production stuff. We just released a single for them through Nuclear Blast which is from an old recording from 1984. It was a live recording and the song was in the Murder in the Front Row movie and we really wanted to get that out to everybody so they could hear it.
Kragen: What else do I do? I'm in a band called Heathen.
Jeff: [inaudible 00:01:44] Heathen.
Kragen: With Lee Altus, also from Exodus, and we are actually working on a new record right now. We're doing pre-production and we're hoping to record in the next couple months. That will be coming out through Nuclear Blast, and we're really looking forward to it as our fans are used to waiting. It's been almost ten years since the last record, so, you know, we're sort of taking our time with it a little bit, more than we expected to, just because we really, we know that after ten years it's got to be killer.
Kragen: So, we're still doing pre-production right now, but hopefully that will be out and then we'll be touring next year for it.
Kragen: So, I'm really looking forward to that.
Kragen: I play in several other bands, most of them are not all that active at the moment. My band Prototype hasn't done a record since 2012; we hope to get one done. The band that I started in in high school, Psychosis, is still active. We actually got the lineup from our 1992 EP Lifeforce together to record some songs from back in '93 that we never recorded properly. That one's actually in motion already. The drum tracks are done.
Kragen: And then besides that, I have a small record label that I release my own band's stuff. I just finished this.
Kragen: The Exodus Tempo of the Damned guitar book, which is available now. I did The Pleasures of the Frets, I'm wearing the T-shirt today, which was the first Exodus guitar book. I love doing stuff like that. Most of these projects, like these guitar books, they're what I call legacy projects, you know? Bands like Exodus that deserved to have guitar books that never got them for whatever reason. I like doing them and it's really cool to be doing that stuff.
Jeff: That's excellent. Oh my gosh, like, you're never bored. I can say that with certain people you can never be bored doing all that kind of stuff. That's really bad. I just want to start real quick talking about Exodus. You said, you know, obviously that you playing with the band is probably going to be coming to an end because Slayer is finally going to be done and Gary's going to come back, but I know we've talked about this in other interviews before, what was it like joining this band and filling in for Gary? Was it a great fit? Did you feel at home playing with the band?
Kragen: Absolutely. I mean, I had done a number of Heathen tours where we supported Exodus. And obviously I knew the guys for years before we even played together.
Kragen: That band is probably the most family out of any band I've ever seen. Those guys are... they all really care about each other and the touring experience with them is great. You know? There's no guys that fight all the time and all that. It really is a family and they make me feel like a part of the family, so it's been really great. I've loved it. I think at first there was probably... I felt a lot of pressure. You know, Gary, he's been one of my heroes since I was a kid, so I felt a lot of pressure to do right by the music and everything, but I just, I worked really hard to try and make it so that if you close your eyes it still sounds like Exodus and nothing's missing.
Jeff: That's excellent. And you're still going to be part of the family like you said, because you've got kind of the managerial duties as well. We'll get into that, but I want to go all the way back. Even before your high school band and stuff like that, where was... where did it come to pass where you wanted to pick up a musical instrument and start playing? Where did that influence... where did that kind of, like, fire come to you as a kid?
Kragen: When I was eight years old, my mom would leave the radio on when I went to sleep, and at that time every night they were playing this new song, and I kept hearing it over and over again. I'm like, "Man, I like this song." So, I found out the name of it, and had my mom take me to go buy the record, and it was Back in Black by AC/DC.
Kragen: And as soon as I heard that, I wanted to play guitar. I was air guitaring with a tennis racket or whatever. My mom and dad got me an acoustic guitar and at that point it didn't really stick because a) it was an acoustic guitar and b) the teacher wasn't interested in teaching me how to play it the way that they play it. He was trying to teach me strumming chords and crap like that. Which are obviously useful, but at the time when you're eight years old, you want to play and have it sound like AC/DC.
Kragen: So, it didn't really stick but I still loved music and I think when I was about 13 I started playing again, and then I think it was 15 when I started playing along with the song and it just clicked, something clicked right then and I knew that's what I wanted to do.
Kragen: From that point forward, I started playing in bands. I was gigging at 16, 17 or whatever and making demos. All the do-it-yourself stuff that sort of helped me even now.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah. And were there bands before Psychosis?
Kragen: Yeah. I think I had one. What did we call it? I think it was called Guilloteen or something like that.
Kragen: That was like when I was 15 or something.
Jeff: You gotta love those early bands when you're just breaking in. I love hearing about the names, where that even comes from, because we were all kids once, you know? And there's like... I'm sure when it was, like, Guilloteen, it was like, "This is the best!"
Kragen: Oh, we even spelled it T-E-E-N, so it was like teenagers, you know?
Jeff: Oh, I love it! I freaking love it. Oh my gosh.
Jeff: And then we move forward a little bit and the band that you were in in high school, you're still together.
Kragen: Yeah, I mean it's... You know, it's hard now. I moved away from... I used to live in Los Angeles for forever, and I moved away from there, so we don't get together and jam and rehearse and stuff like we used to, but you know, we all still like playing together. It's fun and we love the music. I mean, you look back fondly on things like that. Even though you struggle to try and get anywhere with it at times. So, you know, it's cool. I love doing it or else I would have quit a long time ago. I had a completely different career in the middle, in-between playing music and playing music, so I could have stayed there if I wanted to, but I didn't want to.
Jeff: Well, good. What was that career?
Kragen: From I think it was '99 to 2011, I was a video game producer for Activision.
Jeff: Oh, nice! Wow. How did you go from being a musician into being a video game producer? How does that... Go on that journey.
Kragen: Well, a trip to the hospital, no health insurance, and a kid was the, you know, that kind of stuff drives you to reevaluate and see what else is... what you want to do. I happened to be at home, I was playing a video game, I got really pissed off because I watched my 99 lives die, all go away, because of a bug in the game. And it was an Activision game, and so I was like, "Well, these guys obviously need help testing these games because this fucking sucks."
Kragen: So, I went on their website, and they needed testers actually. And I just got a job and I worked my way up sort of from the, actually I would say the ground floor, but it was actually in the basement.
Jeff: Wow, that's so interesting. I didn't even know that about you. And as a big video game hobbyist, I mean, I've never been in the industry, but I sure do love video games, what were some of the titles that you helped produce while you were there?
Kragen: I worked on a number of the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series games.
Kragen: I worked on a couple other of their what they called action sports games. There was a motocross game that was supposed to be Travis Pastrana's but they changed it to MTX for some reason. And then I worked on a couple of the Guitar Hero games, and then I worked on 007, the Quantum of Solace video game for the film.
Kragen: I did some sort of, I don't know, I guess it would be freelance work, after that, editing audio. I worked on the Elder Scrolls online game; edited and cleaned up all the dialogue in that game and managed a team of other editors, so.
Kragen: I haven't played the game but I've heard all the dialogue.
Jeff: Well, then there you go. You've played the game, basically. I have to ask as a guitarist, when you said you worked on Guitar Hero, what did... Like, did you get to put any of those... both those skills together, video games and guitar?
Kragen: At the very end, I was working on what would have been Guitar Hero 7, which didn't come out. It was... They had a new guitar controller with strings on it, and I was really helping them to try and figure out how to make it work for the average person that's not a guitarist.
Kragen: I mean, part of the sort of beauty of that game was that it's a rhythm game at the end of the day. You don't have to know how to play anything, you just have to know what buttons to hit in the right order. So consequently, drummers are awesome at Guitar Hero, actually.
Jeff: Totally, totally.
Kragen: But, yeah, I mean, that would have been really cool. Being a guitar player actually was kind of a negative in some ways for me working on that game, because it's not at all like playing guitar. They would have meetings where somebody would say that Kurt Cobain is a guitar hero, and I would say, "No, he's not. He might have been a songwriting hero, but he's not a guitar hero." You know? Getting into sort of semantic arguments where, you know, the marketing people didn't care about that. They just wanted to sell the games.
Kragen: Anyway, it was interesting doing that. I was fortunate. Prototype had a song on Guitar Hero III, which was the biggest of the Guitar Hero games. Everybody knows the band from that one song.
Jeff: That's pretty rad, though.
Kragen: It's cool.
Jeff: I mean, those types of games, you know, not even just Guitar Hero, but Tony Hawk too, so many people know punk and metal because of those video games. You know? So many of the younger generation were exposed to all this amazing music because of the Tony Hawk games and the music that they incorporated, and I think that's rad. An era like that, you know?
Kragen: Yeah, I was really fortunate. I mean, when the first... I think it was Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 that blew up.
Kragen: Activision had been re-bought and sort of restarted at that point, like right before that, and I got in at sort of the ground floor of the rebirth of Activision and got to work on quite a few of those games. I even... there was one which wasn't all that successful, but it was my concept, it was called Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam. And I got to take the sort of one-page concept that I wrote for a game and have somebody make it. You know? It was a really cool experience to be able to do that, and then we filmed with Tony. I took my son to get to meet him.
Jeff: I was just going to say, did you ever get a chance to meet Tony? That's awesome.
Kragen: Yeah. Well, I met him several times since I worked on the games, but it was more of a joy for me to have my son who was like 10 at the time meet Tony Hawk, you know? That was, like, legendary for him.
Jeff: That's so rad. That's really cool.
Jeff: So then, let's go forward and how do you then leave that career path and go back to music?
Kragen: In 2011, I got laid off from Activision. Seemingly every five years or so they do a massive lay-off and I was a victim of that. They were downsizing the company. They were focusing on less products. They killed the Guitar Hero franchise and several other things that they were working on, and so when I got laid off I sort of... I mean, there was a part of me that was bummed, obviously. I had just finished working on Guitar Hero 6, which is called Warriors of Rock. I finished the game 28 days early and passed all of the first parties, which is basically the submission process to Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft. I passed all those on the first try. It was the best sort of project working experience that I had had with the company and everybody knew that and felt that I had done a really good job, so when I got laid off it was kind of like, "What? Why?" You know?
Kragen: But at the same time, I looked at it as an opportunity because while it was probably the best job I've ever had in terms of a real day job, and it was certainly a cool career, it wasn't what I wanted to do deep down. I wanted to play music and I wanted to be a musician.
Kragen: So, a few years before that, I had the opportunity to audition for Heathen, and I had already joined the band and we had done tours and released an album, which was The Evolution of Chaos in 2010. And we had other tours lined up and I kind of just decided that I was going to be a musician again. So I just... At times, it can be hard, you know, when you're... At that time I wasn't playing with Exodus yet or doing the guitar books or doing anything else, it was just sort of starting from the beginning, so to speak, again. I was fortunate to be able to be in a cool band and have touring opportunities and really enjoyed it.
Jeff: That's awesome.
Kragen: So, just made a choice.
Jeff: That's awesome. That's very... And now that we're kind of brought up with Heathen and all that, I'm always curious asking musicians about the writing process. What is that like in Heathen? How do you guys attack creating an album, writing a song, that kind of thing?
Kragen: I think it's really different for every band. You know? There are some bands where they like to get in there room and jam together and there are other bands where there's one guy who sits at home and he writes all the stuff. It's obviously harder to sort of collaborate when I live like 2000 miles from the other guys. It's harder to collaborate with them, but now with modern technology I can demo some songs and send them out and get feedback. And then once you get into the studio, you can hammer out little details and stuff like that.
Kragen: So, I mean, that's kind of how Exodus and Heathen work is that there's one... Each person sort of writes on their own and then they come together and hammer things out.
Jeff: Really cool, really cool. And from a tech side too, I gotta ask, I see all the guitars lining the wall behind you and all that stuff, favorite guitar to play on?
Kragen: Okay, to play on? Hm. It's got to be one of my ESPs, probably my ESP E-II. I have one here and I have one in Europe. They're just really, they're really solid guitars and I love them. If you're asking me most cherished, it's probably the red one behind me which was owned by Robbin Crosby of Ratt.
Jeff: Oh, really?
Kragen: That guitar was my main guitar in Psychosis for a long time when I was younger, so.
Jeff: Wow. How did you end up with that guitar?
Kragen: I was not even looking for anything at the time. This was probably in '88 or, I don't know, something like that. I was walking... Back then, on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood they had what was called Guitar Row. So, there was Guitar Center and then across the street there were like two guitar stores and the MESA/Boogie store and then around the corner there were a couple more guitar stores. It was crazy; like, there were just guitars everywhere in a one-block area. You could spend all day going store to store to store and just look at guitars and play guitars.
Kragen: I went in one store, and I can't even remember which one it is, it was across the street from Guitar Center, and I walked in there and I saw this red V, this Jackson, and I was like, "Man, that's awesome." It was pretty much exactly what I was... would have custom-made if I had ability to, you know?
Kragen: So, I went up to the counter and I asked the guy how much it was, and he told me 800 bucks. And I was like, "Okay, cool." I had rule back then, and I sort of still do, where if you go into a store and look at a guitar and you see it and play it and you really like it, you put it down and leave and you come back another day; if it's still there, you're meant to have it, if somebody else bought it, you're not.
Jeff: I like that.
Kragen: I don't know why, it's always kind of been my rule. So, I came back a couple days later and the guitar was still there. And I took it up to the counter and I said, "I want to buy this." The guy said, "Okay, it's $900." I said, "No, I came in the other day and you said it was $800." And they didn't even know what they had, really. I mean, it's a...
Kragen: I took it to... I had a deal with Jackson back in the 2000s and I took it to the Ontario factory which doesn't exist anymore but... Or maybe it does, maybe that's where they make them now. But they all of the information on each guitar on an index card in a little flip thing, so I could see, you know, the Jackson logo is reversed which is something, you have to hold it up to a mirror basically to read it, and that was something that Robbin Crosby did all the time. It's just a cool guitar. I don't take it anywhere anymore. It's a decoration more or less. I get it down and play it every once in a while, but.
Jeff: So, did you find out that it was Robbin's guitar when you took it to the Jackson plant, or did you know before that?
Kragen: I knew before that. As soon as I saw it, with the reversed logo and all of that. I knew it when it was at the store and they didn't know it, you know? Unfortunately, the reality of it is that he probably sold it for drugs because he was heavy into heroin and stuff. So, in a way I feel bad, but at least the guitar lived on and got played onstage many times after that, so.
Jeff: That's excellent. I love stories like that.
Jeff: The other side of it, though, is now you are managing bands; not just Exodus, but you were saying that you do managerial duties for Heathen too, right?
Kragen: Yep, ad also Raven.
Jeff: And also Raven. How did you kind of fall into that? Was that something that you were always looking to do, or did you just fall into it?
Kragen: You know, I don't know what it is but I think probably since I got laid off at Activision I've kind of just gone where life takes me.
Kragen: Instead of trying to swim upstream like I used to, I just kind of roll with it and it's been interesting, you know? I mean, I got exposed... touring with Exodus, obviously got exposed to the business side of it quite a bit for the band, and I think in a lot of ways it helps because it built a level of trust with the guys, and it was early this year really where I started to kind of do it officially. Prior to that, I was helping out with doing the YouTube channel, some social media stuff, things that I felt had been neglected and I wanted to kind of help them grow all of that stuff. So, I started kind of doing that and it just evolved. As the Exodus guys could probably say, they never ask anybody to do anything, they just do it. You know? It's a weird thing, but cool.
Jeff: That is really cool. So that brings me to the question I get to on the show and I love asking everybody this, especially somebody who's as busy as you and just wants to continue to do all this stuff. Through all of the playing, all of the managing, all the guitar books you're making, all of the life's journeys that you've been on, what fuels you to keep going?
Kragen: That's a good question. I mean... I just... I like making things and doing things. I'm one of those people that doesn't have to have somebody tell me to do stuff. I love this kind of music and I love being involved with it, and I hate seeing these bands that have been around for a long time that have been heroes of mine kind of not get what they should. So, you know, just going back and getting royalty deals from their old record deals and things like that, that they haven't had for 30 years, it's like they should at least get royalty statements even if there's no money. You know? So things like that.
Kragen: In terms of... I don't know. I mean, I'm just, I'm creative. I want to do projects. I like making something out of nothing sometimes. I don't know what it is that fuels me, besides coffee. You know? It's just... I make lists and I just do things. I like doing stuff, you know? I mean, I like staying busy; I think it's good for me. I'm the kind of person where if I'm not busy, it's not good for me, so I try to just stay busy; probably busier than my wife would like it, but it's a good thing. I guess I'm just driven to be good at what I do and make the best things that I can. That's always my goal. There's a little bit of that competitiveness where whatever I make or do I want it to be better than everybody else's. It's something that I wish more people had, you know? It seems like this day and age people are content to just do things that are okay and I'm like, "Why? Let's be great."
Jeff: Yeah. That is inspiring. That's really rad. You know, you're a fan of what you do. And what I mean by that is that you love what you do; from the manager side to the musician side, you are a fan of it and it shows. And I think that's why it's so inspiring to talk to somebody like you. And speaking of being a fan, you mentioned a couple times, you're playing with Exodus at the moment, but you're a fan of the band.
Kragen: Oh yeah.
Jeff: And that's, you know, so cool. It's not like you just got a job, you know? And you're like, "Ah, I'll fill in." No, it's like you're doing this because there's a genuine love for that. So I've got to ask, do you remember when you first heard Exodus?
Kragen: Oh yeah, I totally remember it. I was in middle school, I think, and I had heard, I think it was Ride the Lightning from Metallica and I went to the metal kids and I was like, "What sounds like this? I want all of it!" And they loaned me a Slayer and Dark Angel and Exodus. At the time, the Exodus album wasn't out yet, but it was available on the tape trade, Bonded By Blood. And once I... I mean, I had two different cassettes and at least two CDs of Bonded By Blood. The cassettes, I just wore them out. I loved that album, and everything that they did after that, really.
Kragen: So, for me to get to play with them and... Even still now, like a few days ago I looked at my phone at the last five calls and I was like, "You gotta be kidding me." You know? When I was 15, if I had known that I would be on the phone with guys from all these bands, I'd be... I wouldn't have believed it. So it's still cool to me. I really enjoy it. I even enjoy teaching; I teach lessons. I enjoy all of the stuff I do. If I didn't, I wouldn't do it.
Jeff: That's awesome. Man, that's awesome. Yeah, it's truly inspiring talking with you. At the end here, our listeners and viewers can follow your journey, obviously they can follow all the bands and I'll put all that stuff in the liner notes, but for you personally is there a way that people can find you? Do you use social media a lot? Is there one that you like better than the other?
Kragen: Yeah, social media is like... I have a love/hate relationship with social media.
Jeff: I know.
Kragen: I'm not one of those guys that lives my life on social media, so to speak. I think some private stuff should be private or family stuff should be family. So, I do post, I have a Facebook page. It's my personal page. I have a Spotify artist page. I have my web store. There's two web stores, actually; one for Heathen that I run from here, and then my record label slash book label, whatever you want to call it, which I also run from here. And when people order from those stores, I'm sending it out myself personally. So, really, probably just Facebook is probably the best at this point.
Jeff: Perfect. I'll put all that in there.
Kragen: I do have a YouTube channel as well.
Jeff: Oh okay. Yeah, I'll put all that in the show too. I know we talked about this a little bit at the beginning, but in 2019 what are some of the things that are coming out for you specifically with your different projects? Anything that you can talk about?
Kragen: Let's see. Well, I mean, later this year, like I said, we're going to be recording a Heathen album.
Kragen: We don't have a release date set yet, so I'm not sure if that's coming out later this year or early next year, but that's probably the sort of biggest project I'm working on. I do have the Temple of the Damned Exodus guitar book that's out now. The next one of those on my list is probably the Fabulous Disaster guitar book.
Kragen: It's the 30th anniversary of the album this year, so I'd like to try and get that out before the end of the year. And yeah, I mean, other than that it's really just helping all the bands that I'm working for and trying to help them all get bigger and take over the world.
Jeff: Excellent! Well, Kragen, I can't thank you enough for taking time and talking with me on the show. It was really a pleasure having this conversation with you.
Kragen: Oh, thanks man. Thank you very much for having me on. I really appreciate it. And thank you for the coffee.