The Hellfreaks – ‘There’s so much stuff on this album that we’ve never done before’

Words: Miljan Milekić

I feel like every time I got to do an interview with The Hellfreaks, I’ve interviewed a different band. Back in 2018, I interviewed a band rooted in psychobilly, shifting into the realm of punk rock, looking for their place in the world of the European underground music scene. Two years later, I interviewed a fully-fledged punk band, with hardcore and metal influences, who just started crushing everything in front of them, before the Covid-19 pandemic made them hit the breaks. Now, in 2023, I am talking with a band signed to Napalm Records, with their most creative, experimental, and chaotic record to date – ‘Pitch Black Sunset.’ Some things, however, stayed the same – their insane energy, crazy work ethics, and determination to never make the same record twice. And once again, it was a pleasure catching up with singer Zsuzsa Radnoti.

The Hellfreaks / Photo: David Bodhar

First of all, congratulations on the new album! I know this one was in the works for quite a while, so how does it feel to finally have it out?
Actually, we finished the album quite a while ago, but what really took long was finding the release date. We finished the album last June. Actually, the music video for ‘Rootless Soul Riot’ was recorded at the beginning of June last year. So, it was pretty hard to sit on the material without being able to share it. It was a crazy feeling as we couldn’t reveal anything, and we had tons of material that we prepared – the music, and the videos, and we had to sit on them for almost a year. So, that part was really hard, but I felt good in my skin again when we dropped the first single in December. It was a huge relief. It was like – “Okay, something’s happening! We don’t need to sit in silence anymore!” But I had a couple of breakdowns along the way. (laughs)

It’s been a while now since the release date, and I’ve seen nothing but positive reactions so far. How happy are you with the feedback you are receiving on socials, in the media, and especially at shows?
I’m super happy. One of our goals was that, through Napalm Records, we try to reach a new and bigger audience. Maybe some people who are a bit more into metal music, and we’ve definitely done that. We really reached new people. We had more press in the last six months than we had in our whole career. We had a crazy amount of interview requests from all around the world, and we got some mind-blowing reviews. Even the very few that weren’t so positive were saying that it wasn’t their cup of tea, or they didn’t like the way we mix genres. But even those agreed that it was a quality product and that it was unique. But you know, people who only like punk, or only like metal, it’s not for them, and I can understand that. But in general, reactions were great, we had fans reaching out to us from all over the world, and the support was amazing.

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And since you already mentioned them, this is your first album with Napalm. Can you tell me a bit more about working with them, and how does it feel to have support from such an important label in the heavy music world?
Zsuza: It was definitely what we needed as a band. 
You know, we’ve been a Do It Yourself band for such a long time. We really did everything on our own. So, for us, it was the best decision to try a bigger label and see what happens. The hard part was not knowing when the record was gonna get released for so long. There was that issue with the vinyl, which was a global thing, not just for Napalm. Normally, you don’t have to wait for so long. But then, because Napalm Records have some really big bands, of course, they had to prioritize them. That’s just the part of being a small band on a big label, and I totally understand and accept that. You know, there was just so much stuff about being on a label that was new to us. But now we know how it works, and we won’t be surprised in the future. (laughs) I have no regrets.

‘Pitch Black Sunset’ seems like your most progressive and experimental record so far. How did the writing process look like this time around, and how did all these ideas come together?
Zsuzsa: I’ve been asked that so many times, and I know that my answer is not really making you guys happy. (laughs) It all comes to the songwriting, and it’s such a natural process. We never lay down the concept for an album. It’s really like – “Let’s write new songs and see what happens!” (laughs) We are all quite different, but we all hate to repeat ourselves. For example, I still very much love our album ‘Got On The Run,’ but I wouldn’t want to make another record like that, because I would be afraid that I can’t do it better. For that record, we had the idea to make “punk rock with bigger balls,” and I think we did that the best we could. And we all agree on that. So, the next step was to what we can change, and what feels natural.

Obviously, everyone has their own other perspective when we talk about it in the band, but for me personally – I am still going to a vocal coach. I am very much into learning the metal screaming techniques. I started five or six years ago, and it took me a very long time to feel confident about it. And now that I reached that point, I really want to use it, I want to experiment with it, and I want to see how it fits into our music. So for me, it was a very natural process that I wanted to make it a little bit more metal. I wanted to try different vocal techniques. There is so much stuff on this album that I’ve never done before. And it’s just because I have only now reached the point where I can do it and feel comfortable. So I would learn a new thing, try it, and I just hope that it fits.

And for the guys, I think their main drive was not to repeat themself. Our guitarist is also very much into metal music. So we learned where everyone fits in the songwriting process. It’s still our bass player who writes the instrumental part for all the instruments, even the drums. But when it comes to a unique guitar solo, we know we have to have Jozzy, our guitarist, do his little magic. (laughs) I would say it was really just about optimizing the forces that we have. And it’s just where we are. There is no concept. It’s just a natural process.

The Hellfreaks / Photo: David Bodhar

So, as you mentioned, on this record, you tapped into everything from punk to hardcore, to metal, and even some ambiental and atmospheric influences. And somehow, you were able to make it all work and deliver an album that sounds like an album, and not just a collection of songs. How challenging was it to create a cohesive record, especially having in mind there are some elements we never had the chance to hear from The Hellfreaks?
Zsuzsa: To be honest, if it weren’t for Gabi, our bass player, it would be exactly what you just said. It would be a total chaos. (laughs) He’s actually the one who decides what goes on the record, what stays in the song, and what goes directly to the bin. He has a good way to see the whole picture. I don’t have that. I am honest – I don’t have that. He has the skill for that, so he’s the one directing us, in terms of what we could or couldn’t do. Or what we could, but shouldn’t do. (laughs)

Also, when we started the songs, he already saw which songs would be at the beginning, or at the end of the record. So he, kind of, had a concept, and it wouldn’t be possible without him. And it is an important job – if there is just one puzzle missing in this whole piece, it would not work. Because Gabi is much more into punk rock music. I am much more into metal music. Our guitarist is also a little bit more into metal, but he’s listening to a shitload of crazy music that I can’t even go through, you know? (laughs) So I know that, without all these spices, we wouldn’t be able to do this. All these crazy little elements need to come together. But in the end, there was also some luck. (laughs)

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Pretty much your whole career, storytelling was an important part of your music, and videos as well. How hard, and on the other hand, how fun was it to tell all these stories in both, sonic, and visual form?
I like to do video shoots. The guys hate to do them, you have to force them to be there! (laughs) But I actually love it. I don’t like the part where it’s really difficult to organize it. I don’t like that it’s a very risky thing to do because it costs a shitload of money, and you never know if it’s really worth it or not. And it was very difficult for me to come up with concepts for the videos this time. I would say I am a creative person, but I’m creative when it comes to lyrics or music. Writing video concepts is just not my thing. (laughs)

For example – ‘Weeping Willow’ came very naturally. I saw everything in my mind and knew exactly what I wanted to see on the screen. The only difficulty was to put it into words so other people could understand it. But also, they were just some, I would say, lucky accidents. The video shoot for ‘Pitch Black Sunset’ came absolutely randomly. We had a gig in Slovakia, and on my way there, I saw that all the sunflower fields were dry and started to look really awesome. So I thought that it would be a perfect place to do a video. But, the problem is that, normally, if you call up anyone who is into the video business, they will tell you that they are available on August 7th, next year, but only after 5:00 p.m. (laughs)

And I just really had crazy luck because the guy who did that video was actually the guitarist in The Hellfreaks from 2015 to 2017 or 2018. We recorded our third album, ‘Astoria,’ with him. So he is a good friend of ours, and he just started to do videos. I just called him and I was like – “Dude, do you have time, like TOMORROW, to record SOMETHING? I have no idea, I have no concept. Let’s go out, and just record some scenes!” (laughs) And we did it all in maybe an hour. Normally, an hour of video shooting is nothing, but we didn’t have more time because we had to do it after work and before the sun went down. And only after we recorded the scenes, he said that he had the idea and came up with the whole concept.

So, sometimes ideas come naturally, and it’s super easy and super fun. Sometimes, I have to force myself, but when it comes to the videos, the ideas are almost always on me. And, I mean, we could have a very long discussion if I think it’s good that videos are so important right now. I would be happier to be able to focus way more on the music than on the visuals, but the industry has changed, and it’s a “must-do” if you want to get heard. Which is quite ridiculous, because you have to make yourself seen to get heard. (laughs)

Yeah, I know. Although, I am still a bit old school when it comes to that. I will watch the video once it comes out, but after that, I will keep listening to the song on Spotify or wherever.
Zsuzsa: That’s quite normal, it’s just that people discover bands much more through the visual. But that is also changing right now. For years, you would discover bands through visuals on YouTube, Now, we have TikTok, and it’s the first time I feel old as fuck, because I’m so lost on that platform. (laughs) But I see that this is the platform that everyone uses now. Just two years ago, it wasn’t really something where the metal or the punk scene was going, but now you have to be there and promote new music and yourself. So, it’s again something new that we have to deal with in the future. (laughs)

Just before you started rolling out the album, you surprise-released a cover of the Beastie Boys’ classic ‘Sabotage.’ How did it all happen, and how fun was it to work on a song like that?
We never did a cover. It was something we wanted to do for years, but we never really took it seriously. It was like – “Maybe one day we should do a cover,” and that would be the whole conversation, you know? And then, we were at the point where we couldn’t drop any new music because of the release schedules, so I realized that we had to do something. We had to give our fans a sign of life and let them know we’re still here, and that we’re not dead. (laughs) So, our idea was to do a cover song, make a very cheap video, and only post it on our socials. We didn’t even plan to share it on YouTube as a proper video. It was supposed to be some silly content that we could share, and that’s all.

So, the first tricky part was to decide what song we wanted to do. (laughs) The only requirement was that everyone had to agree about it. And this was tricky because there were some ideas that couldn’t get all four votes. For example, the guys really wanted to do Motörhead, and I was like – “I understand, but you hear my voice, right? There is no voice on Earth more different from mine than Lemmy’s!” (laughs) So, there were discussions, and in the end, I don’t know who came up with the idea of doing Beastie Boys and ‘Sabotage,’ but everyone agreed right away. There’s a type of scream – professionally, that technique is called “yell scream,” but the guys had no idea how to call it, so in the band, we call it “rat scream” in Hungarian. So we did Beasty Boys because they also have kind of a “rat scream,” and I can do that. (laughs) 

And that’s how it came together. Then, we just made the video with a budget of 150 Euros – literally nothing. But at that point, we were already on Napalm Records. So we showed them what we did, they really loved it and wanted to make it an official release. And we could do it right away, so we did it. And it turned out so much better than I thought. I think it already has over 200k views on YouTube, which is way more than I expected. And it’s still how some people find us. But to be honest, I really enjoyed the process and really liked that we did this one, but I really don’t see us as a cover band. I think it was a one-time experience.

This might be a bit personal, but years ago, in our first interview, we talked about the criticism you received at the beginning of your career and the negative comments on your singing and your voice. I remember you saying you were thinking about throwing the towel and giving it up, but eventually, you found the motivation in it to become better. Now, listening to songs like ‘Weeping Willow,’ and ‘Chaos,’ and seeing you sing your songs acoustically, or doing one-take videos, it seems like those days are long gone. How does it feel to look back from this perspective, and to raise your middle finger up, while releasing the best music of your career so far?
Zsuzsa: I think there are a few different aspects to it. On one side, it’s exactly what you just said – raising my middle finger to them. That’s true. But also, I’m handling negative comments much better now that I’m older. There are also comments that I really don’t care about. I learned that there are people who are really just there to make hate comments. They are just there to shit in your garden. And I can accept that.

The only comments that hurt me are the ones I kind of agree with, you know? So for example, with ‘Boogeyman,’ I’m still not able to read those comments. I haven’t opened that video for years. Simply because there are a lot of comments that I agree with. Even though I know that I was in a situation where I couldn’t do it better. I was a total beginner. I still was a teenager, and I had no money to go to a vocal coach like these days. And I never thought this was going to be as big as it is. I thought it was just for fun, just a hobby band, and that maybe a few hundred people would see it. So, even though I know the reasons, I still agree with a lot of comments regarding the vocals. And because of that, back then, as you just said, I had some really, really bad downs. But I found the motivation in it. For years, I went to different vocal coaches and started to learn about my strengths and my weak points.

I also learned that I have a certain unique tone in my voice that I am born with, and it’s just on me how I use it. Will I be using it as a weapon, or will I let people use it against me? So I learned that I can use it to create something unique. And for me, uniqueness is always the most important thing, no matter what we are talking about. So, now I’m proud of this uniqueness, and I learned what I have to learn. There is still so much that I have to learn, I’m not saying I’m where I want to be. But if someone threw a chair in my face, I would not lie down. I would stand up and I will do the best I can.

This might be just me, but in the way you as a band communicate with your fans, it seems like we are seeing a bit more Zsuzsa and a bit less Sue. Do you ever think that the Shakey Sue persona was a mask you were putting on to explore different parts of your personality and that now it’s time for her to slowly step away, and make room for the real you?
Oh my God! You are the first person who realized this and pointed it out. (laughs) It’s totally happening on purpose. So, here is the story – when I started this, I really felt like there were two personas. The one in real life who is studying, going to work, and doing the normal life stuff. And then, there is Sue, who is doing her rock band. (laughs) And there is also another angle to it – I have a Hungarian name, Zsuzsa, and I always thought that it’s just easier for others to say, Sue. You know, there are a lot of languages where they can’t even pronounce it. (laughs) But now, I’m in a little bit different environment. I mean, I still have to work, you know? For example, at my job in the past, it was okay that I had a band, but I knew they would not be happy if I talked about it. They handled it like it would be a problem, but they accepted it. And now, I work in a very, very positive environment. They are super supportive, and they would even come to our shows here in Budapest. And I don’t feel that I have to hide myself anymore.

Then, on the other hand, I’m like – I have been doing this for 14 years now, so maybe, just maybe, it’s not too much to ask for people to learn my real name, you know? (laughs) Maybe it’s okay to say that I am Hungarian and have a Hungarian name. I am super happy to teach you how to pronounce it, and I have absolutely no problem if you don’t say it right, but I really appreciate it if you try it. I feel much more complete now. I feel much more one with myself. It’s not a fucking phase that I’m going through! This is me. I’m doing this, and THIS is me! So I think that’s also why I started to use my real name. There were so many interviews lately where I asked them to call me Zsuzsa if it’s possible. But you are actually the first one to realize that and point it out.

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So, with ‘Pitch Black Sunset’ out, and the first few shows and festivals under your belt, what’s next for The Hellfreaks?
Well, that’s a good question actually. We definitely want to play more. We couldn’t really do the number of gigs we wanted to, and I don’t want to get in the loop like during the Covid, when we weren’t able to play the songs live. So personally, I would love to find a booking agency and see what they can do for us. I want to play more shows because I am really missing it. And I really think that we are now on the next level.

It’s also quite funny, but our album release show here, in our own hometown, is in October because we were unable to find a venue that really fits us on an earlier date. So, we decided to change a lot in our live setup, and we’ll be ready for the album release show. Lots of things will be much more professional and much, much cooler. I really want to focus on playing more because I miss it like hell. That’s the main goal, but I guess we’ll slowly start writing songs again. There are already some new ideas that Gabi and Jozzy put together that I just got via email, so we’ll see what happens and if it’s something that moves my imagination. You never know – sometimes you just listen to it and know it’s great, but you don’t know what to do with it, and sometimes it just works right away. 

I’m also thinking about doing more one-take vocal sing-throughs like we did for ‘Old Tomorrows.’ It resonated so well with the audience. And I didn’t expect that. I thought that no one would really care about it because there are so many people who are doing the craziest vocal sing-through. But, they showed me that I was wrong. (laughs) So, I’m thinking about doing more, but the main focus right now is on the live shows.

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*Interview edited for length and clarity

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