13 Questions for Ari Lehman

On the night of May 9th 1980, theater audiences were witness to the brutal murders of 13 people—murders carried out in ways never before seen on screen. Finally after 90 minutes of unprecedented brutality, the crowds watched as the heroine of the film, the one survivor, floated on a boat away from the carnage toward the morning light. The calming music, early daylight, and approaching police cars let everyone know it was okay, it was over. That’s when HE showed up: the boy in the lake, Jason Vorhees. He leapt from the water, deformed, covered in seaweed and rot and dragged the last survivor into the water. And thus, the legend of Jason Vorhees was truly born. 

The young actor who played that role is Ari Lehman. He was only on screen for a few seconds, but many people (myself included) feel that those few seconds are the most frightening of the entire Friday the 13th series. Those few seconds of film have terrified audiences for 35 years now. Nowadays, Ari Lehman is an accomplished musician and the front-man of the band First Jason. We caught up with Ari after he had wrapped up a video shoot for the single, “Heed My Warning,” and asked. . .

13 Questions for Ari Lehman
1. Some suggest that the musicians most suited for metal music are those who have been trained in classical and jazz. How do you feel you’re training has helped or hindered your transition?
In my opinion, metal is a vibrant watershed for the best elements of many genres, as well as the common ground for musical virtuosity worldwide. Bands like Gojira, Meshuggah and Macabre are constantly pushing the envelope of what is possible onstage; ensembles like Sepultura, Dimmu Borgir and more recently 12 Foot Ninja systematically eradicate all limitations by blending an intergalactic range of diverse styles, rhythms and sounds. Similar to the effect that Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa had on the musicians of their time: actively daring all of us to go beyond the unknown and outside the box.
Sitting for hours and hours at the table right next to the piano at Bradley's in NYC, age twenty, watching jazz piano greats Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, then studying with Joanne Brackeen, Jim McNeely and Vladimir Shafranov, and going on to perform for Ornette Coleman made me a jazz piano gunslinger at an early age. NYC was sizzling with be-bop and modern jazz in those days, and I was surrounded by saxophonists, trumpet players, drummers, upright bass players, all trying to play better and play faster. It was like watching heavyweight fighters go at it: I saw players like Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, George Coleman and Max Roach, playing so fiercely that you simply could not believe your ears. It was METAL! ...in THAT sense of the word.
Touring with a twenty-piece African Band all over the US in the 1990's led me to be immersed in the sounds of reggae and world music. There were seven drummers in that band! I began to deeply study the polyrhythmic patterns and applied that to my keyboard work. Latin, North African and Arabic music captivated me, and I pushed myself to learn anything and everything that I heard. Working directly with musicians from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Jamaica and Cuba got my hands to learn what my ears were hearing. I found that even the most complicated rhythms could be comprehended easily once the feeling, the actual emotional content of the pattern was decoded. It definitely takes a lot of practice, but once you feel it you got it, and once you get it, it gets YOU.
There is no doubt in my mind that all of these experiences have gone a long way towards developing my sound on the electric metal keytar in First Jason. Exotic scales and polyrhythms, once absorbed, empower musicians to create an international palette of textures. Led Zeppelin, System of a Down and Cradle of Filth provide some classic examples of this crossover. I highly recommend introducing the wild strains of Indian, Chinese, African, Latin and Arabic music to harvest a bountiful cornucopia of diverse techniques to knock 'em dead and leave 'em writhing in the aisles! 

2. Response to First Jason’s debut album “Jason is Watching” has been tremendous! What can fans expect from the next album?
I am very grateful to the fans for allowing me to grow musically on my journey towards developing First Jason. The first album was dedicated to the fans of Jason Voorhees. I was seeking a direct dialogue with the fans that I found first through speeding up the songs to a hardcore beat, enabling them to form a mosh pit. The electrifying energy made it clear that I had reached them with upbeat tunes like “Jason Never Dies” and “Machete Is My Friend.” “You Better Run,” which employs a variety of rhythmic ideas, surprised me by becoming a fan fave. The biggest surprise to me was that MY favorite song on the album “Soul Seller,” became far and away the most downloaded, and it's featured in several indie horror films.
I discovered that the fans would indulge my wilder musical influences. The crazier the better. I noticed that the response to solo improvisational work on the electric machete was a highlight to many of the listeners by watching their reactions. Growing up playing jazz, I was taught that a concert is not a recital, it must be different every time. I started to branch out, following that vision towards a deeper, darker part of Camp Crystal Lake so to speak, to challenge the unknown. The result begins to be revealed on the new First Jason album called Heed My Warning. For instance, "Into the Storm" is a complete departure from the previous path. Using Arabic scales over a driving Hard Rock beat, with lyrics about an American GI who falls in love with a Middle Eastern girl overseas. This is the top downloaded song so far...
"Children of the Night" is our first song with a 6/8 Metal groove, for some fun pyrotechnical madness. "Challenge everything you see, revolt against reality, run through the darkness with me, only fear can set you free," I exhort the listeners right at the start of the song. Take a ride to the other side of First Jason, more poetic, more philosophical. I have always felt that deep within the mind of Jason Voorhees as with every demon, there lies an insatiable, inquisitive and powerful mind. Monsters demonstrate for us the fully abstract result of unleashing the extremes. First Jason seeks to manifest this lyrically and musically live onstage. The entire album is recorded with just myself and a Drummer, so the Electric Machete is featured front and center. That is another basic difference between this album and Jason is Watching! which had Nefarious from Macabre on Bass. This is entirely a duo Album.
In many ways the title Heed my Warning reveals the truth: First Jason is still in the process of forming the ultimate attack. There are songs here that harken back to our first album like the obvious "Jason's Bride.” However there are also total departures from the previous pattern, such as “Dream within a Dream” that boasts lyrics by the great American Horror Poet Edgar Allan Poe. Heed my Warning stands firmly between our past and future, recalling the sounds that have helped us win over the crowds in the past, while showing the new directions we are planning to forge ahead.

3. Recently, you shot a video at the Peoria State Asylum. What was that like/ any memorable occurrences?
Yes that photo is from the interior if the Peoria State Asylum, where we in fact shot the new Music Video for the title track of the album Heed my Warning. "Little girl open up your eyes and see the world how it really is. Let it out, overload, you're about to explode..." The lyrics describe a young girl's desire to reject being a casualty of conformity and resurrect herself from the sedentary cemetery of society. This is represented by our leading lady appearing with her eyes and lips sown shut! The fantastic torture fetish model Molly Shrine plays the starring role. It was AMAZING!!! 

The band is playing Heed my Warning to the crowd at the Rail II in Peoria, when suddenly Jason Voorhees appears onstage. The next thing we know we are all running through the halls of the asylum! In a POV confrontation, Molly stands her ground while everyone else runs away, through the horrifying hallways of this turn-of-the-century hospital for the insane. I appear together with First Jason drummer Derek Macabre as the Mad Doctors, as the music plays and madness ensues. The video will be up at the First Jason YouTube channel very soon!

4. Tell us about your musical background/ training: you’ve studied under some amazing talents and worked in many genres, how much does the absorption of different influences filter through your own expression?
Once I started to form First Jason I looked to my own inspirations from bands that I had watched growing up in the NYC area. I was friends with Dave Insurgent and Paul Bakija from Reagan Youth. Dave was very interested in jazz at the time, and used to listen to me practice, which I did and still do for many hours a day. I in turn would ask him to teach me about Punk and Hardcore, and I would go and watch Reagan Youth at CBGB's, where I also saw Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, and White Zombie. Bad Brains were by far my favorite of all of these bands, perhaps since they were originally jazz musicians too, and they loved reggae as much as I did. Years later, when I started to formulate First Jason these bands were on my mind.

I was living in Chicago then as now, with my beautiful wife Elaine, and I started to listen to some local hardcore bands that totally blew me away. Chicago Punk stars Johnny Vomit are delightfully brash outfit that always kicks ass, and the surrealistic punk/metal madmen Maggot Twat never cease to amaze me. I was fortunate enough to get to perform with them early on and it was to me benefit indeed. At that time I met someone who would change everything about how I listened to and played music: the Bass Player from the Chicago death metal band Macabre, known by his stage name "Nefarious.” First of all, if you are not familiar with Macabre I urge you to become so immediately. Their live show is one of the most brutal displays of metal technique anywhere! They had a hiatus and Nefarious joined First Jason for about a year of touring and recording. It was he who kept insisting that I find a way to bring my keyboard skills into the project, since I was just singing at the time. One day I showed up with the electric machete and played it through a Marshall Amp!

5. I’d love to know about the evolution of the electric machete; how did you come up with the idea and how has it developed?
Essentially an Alesis Micron duct-taped to a six-foot machete with a guitar strap on it, and decorated with an LED Jason mask in the blade itself, the electric machete is a completely unique instrument. There is no other keytar like it on Earth, and even Tommy Cage the "King of Keytar" says that my style baffles him completely, calling me the "Black Hat Outlaw" to his "White Hat Marshall" in keytar town! The key is that I put the Analog Synth through guitar effects with distortion and then through a Gallien-Krueger bass amp. The sound is TREMENDOUS and it is an absolute BLAST to play this thing. I can play bass, rhythm and lead all together with clarity and LOUDNESS, while I vocalize about Jason. The Machete itself was designed by a top team of FX artists here in the MidWest called The Brothers Rich FX.

6. What’s new in your personal life? How do you balance family and friends with the touring lifestyle?
I am certain that that is a challenge for every professional musician out there. Touring is absolutely essential now that they have made almost all music a free download or free listen on the internet. My wife Elaine is an amazing person, who insists that I maintain a high-quality of musicianship in myself and the project. She shares my vision and is my most enthusiastic fan, as long as the music that I am producing is to the best of my ability. I cherish her and do not take this for granted.

I am very fortunate to travel all over the US and EU meeting some of the most creative and imaginative individuals in the world: the people who put together, perform and attend the music venues and festivals that give everyone a chance to levitate above the mundane for a while. I mean let's face it: folks work 40+ hours a week, for their sometime draconian bosses who drain their mental, physical and emotional powers for their own gain, then send them home totally exhausted. Rock bands and shows give everyone a chance to unwind to release the tension, shout and shake out their anxieties together with their friends.

7. What do you remember most about Sean Cunningham and the set of “Manny’s Orphans?” What was it like being a young actor, as far as school, friends, family, etc.?
Working on "Manny's Orphans" was a great deal of fun, and Sean S. Cunningham is a fantastic Director, especially good at working with younger actors. He’s always emphasized not overdoing it, keeping it real and making the feelings come across visually. On the set of "Manny's Orphans" we got to play soccer all the time too! However for me the most fun was working with Tom Savini and Taso Stavrakis on the special effects for the Young Jason Voorhees in "Friday the 13th.” Their devotion and sheer enjoyment of the craft was contagious. In that studio I saw decapitated heads, severed limbs, explosives, weapons, blood, you name it! All the tricks of the trade and Tom kept the busts of Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price on display. The fabulous cinematic heritage of classic horror was everywhere and I was keen to learn about how to be a great monster.

8. How do you celebrate Halloween? What scares you? Do you like horror films, and if so, do you have any favorites?
I am always performing with First Jason on Halloween, which is fantastic, and I am always asked to judge costume contests, which is silly because I want everyone to feel like a winner, so I always ask someone else to pick the winning entry (laughs).
I love to watch all kinds of horror films, from silent films to CGI sagas. I do not enjoy horror films that make any animals seem wicked, like The Birds, although Hitchcock is clearly a genius of the genre. I am a huge fan of German Silent Expressionist Horror Film, Nosferatu, Der Golem, F. W. Murnau's Faust, Dr. Caligari, etc. Also I enjoy the universal classics like The Mummy, but my favorite wolfman is Oliver Reed in Curse of the Werewolf (1961). My favorite all-time horror film is The Night of the Hunter (1955), starring Robert Mitchum, and directed by Charles Laughton for its seamless combination of stark realism with abstract expressionism reminiscent of the German horror genre. Also its use of music and song is magnificent. Please take the time to watch this film, it started the American slasher genre in my opinion! Other notable more recent films include The Orphan, [Rec], Hard Candy, and Tales of Poe, starring my sis Adrienne King.

I have been doing some acting again in some indie horror films. I play the Postman in Easter Sunday that stars Robert Z'Dar and I just played the creepy caretaker Quinn in Cheerleader Camp 2: The Death. Also I am in The Wicked One, coming soon.

9. What tips or advice would you have for young actors and musicians who want to make their own way in the industry?
Musicians, go to see as much live music as you possibly can. Actors, go to as many auditions as you possibly can.
Musicians should make use of the technology that was not available to us earlier and research all of the amazing styles and techniques that can be accessed via the new internet platforms and watching instructional videos on everything from Music Theory to Music History. Make it a point to go see some music that you consider outside of your comfort zone in a live setting. Classical Music, Traditional Music, Electronic Music, find what resonates with you and learn it!

10. What music/ bands are you listening to these days?
12 Foot Ninja, Protest the Hero, Django Rheinhart, Giaccomo Puccini, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Fox, Huntress, Deftones, Gojira, K’Naan, Damian Marley, Tool, NOFX, Hank Jones, Scarlatti.

11. Do you have any horror stories from the road or touring? What’s the best show you’ve played versus the worst?
The hardest part about the road IS the road, endlessly driving in a van, we have driven from Chicago to: Los Angeles, El Paso, Sacramento, Maine, Florida, Wilmington NC, and we just drove to South Carolina. One time the drive shaft dropped out on the highway near Kalamazoo, but fortunately our friends in the band Menophobia rescued us that time. Another time two deer decided to run right in front of us as we were driving at night back from St. Louis. The most harrowing experience was when we saw a vehicle flip over in front of us and ran towards the scene, where the paramedics asked me to hold the tourniquet on the terribly severed and shredded arm of a female driver, while we waited for the helicopter to bring her to the hospital. There was blood everywhere but this was real, not like in the movies. The Police and EMT's told me I did a great job then asked for my autograph (laughs)! So always remember that the band you see onstage tonight had to travel a dangerous road to get there, and SUPPORT LIVE MUSIC!!!
First Jason has had the great fortune to perform at some big festivals like Phil Anselmo's Housecore Fest last year, where we opened for GWAR, Down, Goblin, Crowbar and Goatwhore, as well as Indianapolis Metal Fest alongside Chimaira and Savage Fest in Green Bay. The band has been featured at some premier nightclubs as well including the Whisky A Go-Go and the Viper in Hollywood. There is a great video of us live at The Viper Room on YouTube called "First Jason Live at the Viper Room.” Please subscribe to the First Jason YouTube channel right away!

12. What do you remember most from the set of Friday the 13th?
What I remember the most, without a doubt, was the feeling of comradeship, the teamwork, the sharing of a creative vision that occurred on the set of that movie. "Friday the 13th" was filmed in Blairstown, New Jersey, so the actors were cast from Broadway, not Hollywood. All of these New York actors were excited to get out of the steaming city to work on a film in the woods by a beautiful lake. Kevin Bacon, Harry Crosby, Adrienne King and everyone else were in an upbeat mood, and eager to make a great film, no matter the genre. To be on a set like that at age fourteen is an amazing feeling, reassuring to the inner artist in me. Although I did not end up choosing movies as my full-time profession, what I learned and experienced there has been translated to my work bringing together bands and even more so on the music videos I am now directing for First Jason and others. Of course, it was Tom Savini and Taso Stavrakis who really made an effort to make the whole process fun for me, even playing The Doors album to get me to sit still for the mask mold to set!

13. Why do you think Friday the 13th has become such a cultural phenomenon? Why has it lasted all these years? Do you think it speaks good or bad of our culture to celebrate such a thing?
Essentially there is an underlying theme that reaches everyone here: a Mother who has lost her child. There is no way to avoid that scenario bringing about an emotional impact on the viewer. Also, as the action unfolds in the original movie, it's not exactly clear who the killer is until close to the end. The film takes a safe place like a Summer Camp and makes it a disaster area, much like Jaws made a bucolic beach the scene of great devastation. Jaws was the film that brought America back to its love of monsters after the mystical, underworldly, female-character driven 70's Horror Films like The Exorcist, Carrie, and Rosemary’s Baby. Friday the 13thsomehow managed to bring those two perspectives of fear into one powerfully scary and fun movie that is for some reason, especially fun to watch together with your friends. To be in a film shot in 1979, that people still watch on a regular basis, is very gratifying.

The character of Jason Voorhees himself is unique in the horror world. More like a child trapped in the body of an indestructible brute on a rampage than a scheming evil character on a killing spree. Therefore I do feel that this is an archetype that has real power in the form of a national legend, an American mythology if you will. Jason is misunderstood, and cannot convey anything except through brutality, but even though there is an element of sympathy, we finally realize that he is indeed evil. Instead of a pre-meditated resentment, Jason represents righteous vengeance gone horribly awry, a killing machine totally oblivious to anything but his own incapability to comprehend human reality. This is a very real threat: violent power is often placed in the hands of the ignorant with terrible consequences, and to this effect, I feel that this character has an important role to play in the pandemonium of horror cinema.

It is a great honor to have been a part of the creation of this diabolical character, and the devotion of the fans of Jason Voorhees is astounding! I am glad to report that there will be a new Friday the 13th feature film and television series in 2015 so come back to Camp Crystal Lake, Momma is waiting for you all!!!

(Source: Sandage, Thomas. Resident Rock Star, December 2014, http://www.residentrockstar.com/hall-of-horror/blog/13-questions-for-ari-lehman )


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