The Hellfreaks – ‘Haters helped me to become better’

Words: Miljan Milekić

Started in 2009 as a psychobilly band, The Hellfreaks quickly gained the attention of crowds all over Europe. However, not everything was perfect. After a few releases, the band split in 2014 only to return in 2015 with a different lineup, with singer Shakey Sue being the only constant. The new lineup brought a new sound, on the more raw punk rock side. The new sound infused a new energy, turning The Hellfreaks into a real punk rock force. The band will soon hit the road, including the Revolution Festival in Timisoara, Romania, and the Exit Festival in Novi Sad, Serbia, so it was just the right time to catch up with Sue and talk about the new music, upcoming shows, and much more.

This July you will play at the Exit Festival in Serbia, and as far as I know, this will be your first time playing there. What do you expect from the show?
Sue: We’re getting closer and closer to a decade of being a touring band, and after hundreds and hundreds of shows we’ve learned that it’s better if we don’t expect anything. (laughs) But to be honest, the EXIT Festival has been on our bucket list for a longer time, so we are very happy and also feel really honored to have been invited this year, especially as we are talking about a festival without genre boundaries. That makes it even more special for a band like us, who started their road as an underground scene band from a literally rotten cellar. This year the EXIT Festival got the award for the best major festival in Europe, so we are really excited to be part of the lineup and part of the celebration of this acclaim.

Although your energy and stage presence is a great fit for festivals, it seems that your music hits much harder in the club setup. What do you prefer, and where do you feel more comfortable?
Sue: That’s a hard question, as we love both of them! It’s true that we often get the feedback, that we hit way harder live compared to our – especially older – records. But let’s speak openly: we had no idea what we were doing on the first records. It was more or less just a hobby band, without big plans, without anything behind it. We have developed, learned, and also changed so much from the beginning. For example, compared to our first two records, we would feel kind of ashamed if we hadn’t been able to get better by this time and play these songs better than we did so many years ago. We love playing shows, we love being on the stage, as this is the place where the magic happens, where nothing else matters, just the moment itself! But on the other hand, nothing compares to the feeling when your song ideas are getting more and more alive during the recording process. It takes a pretty long time for us till we finish a new song – we re-write them quite often. Many of them don’t even make it to the album, in the end. It is a long road of ups and downs ’till we are satisfied with it. But when it’s finished, it’s the best feeling ever. So, we really enjoy both sides, but luckily, both of them are necessary to be a touring band.

I would go back in time for a bit – to your first single and huge success – ‘Boogie Man.’ The song was a huge success, and to this day it reached almost five million hits on YouTube. Was it something you expected, and how does it feel to have one of the biggest psychobilly songs in the last few decades?
Sue: The video was released in 2011 – so there should be enough time to understand the reasons behind it or to have a clue why and how this could happen, but honestly, we still do not have a single idea. So, it wasn’t planned, very much not. The video clip was more or less realized occasionally, as someone else pushed us to take part in a national program, where we surprisingly won financial support for a music video. But we are proud of it and we think it’s great that some magic can still happen in this hard world for musicians. But it’s also a strange feeling, as we have changed so incredibly much since that time. We still have this song on our setlist, but for a couple of years, our musical style has turned way more into punk rock. That’s why ‘Boogie Man’ feels like a kiss from your Ex… It’s an important part of us as a band, and it’s part of our roots, but it also feels like time travel decades back each time the drums start to hit the beat.

The video came to life with support from the Program For National Contemporary Music Culture. How important the program was for you, and how important it is for the Hungarian scene in general?
Sue: At the time we didn’t even have the money for a proper microphone – so, without this program, we couldn’t have managed to record any kind of music video. It was very important, as otherwise, we couldn’t afford it by ourselves. This program does not exist anymore, but we have something similar, working in a bit different system. It is very important, as, for most of the Hungarian bands, it is almost impossible to make money with gigs in our country. The Hungarian economy is far from its best days, people just don’t have the money to spend in the ways people in Western Europe can, and concert tickets are at an extremely low price anyway. It is totally normal to have a gig with four local bands for a ticket price of 3-4€, and even that is already too much for some! So, you can imagine how hard or even impossible it is to put money aside for recording songs, music videos, for promotion, equipment, etc.

Although it reached much praise, ‘Boogie Man’ also received some criticism and some harsh comments on the Internet. How do you cope with the negative reactions? I guess you’re much better at it now, but was it hard in the beginning when you were much younger?
Sue: I’m so happy, that after all, someone is asking me this question! Indeed, ‘Boogie Man’ is a very opinion-splitting song. The people love it, or hate is, and there is pretty much nothing in between. Haters gonna hate, and as we all know – haters love to hate loudly! So, if you ever have a bad day, go to our video, check the comments, and imagine how it felt, to be the person who they are talking about the way they did or still do, and that this person – me – has read them all.

I’m sure most of the artists would answer that they never cared about those comments, or that they don’t even read them, but I do and I care. Even though, you are totally right: it was hard at the beginning when I was younger. There were even moments when I was thinking about throwing the towel and giving it up, as so many haters suggested. It also hurt me so much, because I could even agree with many of the hate comments that popped up. It was one of the very first songs we had ever written, it was the first time I recorded vocals in a studio – I wasn’t and I’m still not satisfied with it vocal-wise. But at that time, I just couldn’t do it better.

But after I went through these downs, all this feedback under this video helped me a lot. I started to work on my vocals like crazy and compared to that song, my voice, and the singing style developed so much. It made me totally motivated to prove to these people that I can do it better! On the other hand, it opened my eyes – the hardest thing about being a vocalist is having my own style. To have a unique mark on your voice, something that is different from all the other singers out there. Just imagine how many good singers we know – there are millions of great voices out there, but even though they are perfect in their own way, they are also so similar to each other, that it’s hard to differentiate them. But this is mainly based on genetics. The comments proved to me, that I have the genetics to be something else, to be different because I have a unique mark in my voice from the beginning. I just didn’t know how to use it. Of course, the “how” part is a very long road, and I still think, that I’m far from “done” – but these haters helped me to become better in the end.

You split up in 2014, only to make a comeback in 2015, but with a completely different lineup. Three years in, how do you see The Hellfreaks and the way you “clicked” together?
Sue: To use a silly motivational quote: “Sometimes, the best things in life come from the worst situations.” This one is more than true for us. 2014 was a very fucked up year in each and every aspect. The split up was just one of a hundred things that happened that year. But afterward, this was the best decision ever, as we couldn’t be happier about how it turned out. In 2016, we released our first album with the new generation The Hellfreaks Spirit, which was already a good step in the direction we wanted to go. But now, as we’ve been working on the upcoming album for a year, without any time pressure like we had at the last one, we see it turning out into something really beautiful. Many bands are losing their motivation with time, but not us – it’s just growing from year to year. The new start was the best thing we could ever do.

With the changes in personnel came the change in style. You ditched some of the previous elements of your music in favor of straightforward punk rock, but yet, kept your recognizable flavor. Was it something you planned all along, or it just happened naturally with the new people around you?
Sue: We weren’t planning where we wanted to go with the sound – but it was planned where we didn’t want to go. We felt like being pressed under the water because of the boundaries of our genre before, so all we wanted was to get out of it, take a deep breath, and do whatever came naturally. So, we guess the plan was simply called: freedom.

I personally like your new music more, as it recalls influences of some bands I love – The Distillers, Misfits or Tilt. Also, I feel like the new songs fit much better with your voice and singing style. Am I on the right track?
Sue: I guess so. (laughs) The Distillers have always been heroes to me, so, for sure, they influenced not just my voice, but also my personality. But even when we were doing the old billy-influenced style I was always into the wild and crazy part, and not into the “I’m-a-sweet-pin-up” part. Of course, I know that I have done many pin-up shootings and the ‘Boogie Man’ video shows exactly the opposite, but I have never been and I’ll never be a girl who likes wearing high heels in her free time, a girl who likes wearing short skirts or corsets. I was never the princess type in real life, and I always loved those tough girl bands. I guess that’s why it fits better to my voice, as it is just way closer to the real me than the old The Hellfreaks was.

It seems like you invest a lot of work, and thinking into the visual aspect of your band, and especially your videos. How important is the visual aspect for you? Is it even possible to be a successful band nowadays without thinking of every detail of your band?
Sue: If you ask me as a person, it is not important, as, for me, the music itself is the most important thing of them all. But on the other hand – the visual aspect is the same as the necessity of a Facebook page, of music videos, or even interviews. (laughs) They are not directly about the music, but they are very important and also great ways to spread your music and get doors open. To get more possibilities and open ears for your music. But anyway, I’m not sure if this was really different in the past, but if you want to be an active touring band nowadays, you need to think about every detail. There are so many aspects. If you don’t want to get lost, you need to handle it as your own little business, otherwise, you will sink quicker than you can count 1-2-3. Of course with the time you might be able to outsource the booking, PR, management, etc. But it’s a long way ’till you can afford this, and it’s better to accept the hard work behind it from the very beginning than wait for a wonder that might never happen.

Pretty much every one of your music videos has a storyline, rather than being just a typical music video. Where did you get an inspiration for that approach? How involved are you in the stories themselves, or do you leave that part to the filmmakers you choose?
Sue: We try to be able to do everything, but for some parts, we need help from those who know it way better than us. None of us is able to draw a straight line, so that’s why we need a graphic designer to work with. And none of us is a filmmaker, that’s why we need production teams for our music videos to work with. Each idea came from those teams, but of course, the last word is always on our side, which means we select what we like and we add our own idea drops. We loved the idea and way the video production company Mihaszna, who made our last video ‘I’m Away’ worked so much, that we definitely want to work with them in the future again. Visual-wise, they just have better ideas than we do. (laughs)

You gained significant international success, playing all over Europe and the US. As someone who grew up in Serbia, I know that as a band from Eastern Europe, you had to work twice as hard to accomplish that. How hard was it for you, and did you ever think about giving up?
Sue: It’s quite a complex question. As a Serbian, you exactly know what this world over here looks like. However, we have had the experience that we don’t have to travel far, a couple of hundred kilometers in the western direction people don’t have a clue about life over here. What makes it hard is the economic situation in our country. Just to make it more understandable for the readers – the average income in Hungary is around a third of the average income in Germany. But compared to that, we have almost the same prices; the food can be even more expensive than in Germany. That means that as a band, it takes us three times more time, power, and willingness to put some money aside to make the necessary steps as a band – recording, music videos, etc.

To be able to make one step after another, you need to want it way more than people beyond our Western borders because you have to make a way a bigger sacrifice to reach whatever you want. And it’s funny how we face these differences on our road – just one example out of a hundred: our support bands abroad had years-long way better equipment than we had, but even as the headliner, we couldn’t afford it in our own country. On the other side, I totally believe that these harsher circumstances make us stronger as we had and still have to do so much more for our dreams. To learn and work so much more. I’m sure that if an Eastern European band is able to make it, they will be much more professional and also much more grateful, as they had a harder path to walk.

Next year, you will celebrate ten years as a band. Do you have any special plans for the occasion?
Sue: We have plans and ideas, but it’s not the time to raise the curtain yet! (laughs)

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