"We're like a cockroach," explains Hirax vocalist Katon W. De Pena early on in our lively recent phone interview. "You can't kill us." De Pena founded Hirax in Los Angeles in 1984, and if his enthusiasm is any indication, the enemies of metal better start stockpiling Raid. Although they never achieved the towering reputation of the bands they rubbed shoulders with in the 1980s, De Pena's newly reinvigorated outfit is working harder than ever, deep in the once-underground thrash trenches including gradually disinterred, now-ascendant old-schoolers like Death Angel, Exodus, and Testament, and eager newcomers such as Municipal Waste, Hatchet, and Merciless Death.
Hirax has second billing behind Exodus at the 11th Tidal Wave Festival, a free outdoor metal concert taking place July 5 and 6 in John McLaren Park. Way back in 1984, the band got its first big break with a feature in Tim Yohannon's influential Bay Area zine, Maximum Rocknroll, and De Pena overflows with appreciation for the support San Francisco has shown his group over the years: "Playing free is like giving something back to the movement that helped spawn thrash metal. We have a lot of great memories from playing San Francisco."
The outfit has always had a fiercely independent streak, which served them in good stead when a bunch of guys in flannel hacked down the tent pole at the metal big top in the early '90s. Since parting with Metal Blade in 1986, Hirax's members have been the masters of their headbanging domain, releasing albums through their own label and distributing them around the world through licensing deals with major players like Relapse and Century Media Records.
This uncompromising approach has won them widespread respect, and relentless touring has uncovered dormant thrashers desperate for something to rock out to. De Pena has become a connoisseur of the American metal heartland. "In the US, there are cities that are just amazing, like Allentown, Penn.," he says. "We meet these fans, and it puts it in perspective why you do it. They believe in you. That they care so much keeps you caring."
It looks like a new dawn for thrash in America, and De Pena thinks his band is ready to capitalize. Crediting his natural stubbornness and the support of his "total metalhead" wife who saw him through the dark days of the '90s, the ebullient frontman sees a bright future ahead. "I think people are looking for something exciting, and thrash metal has that," says De Pena. "It always was very exciting. Over the last 10 years, music has gotten pop-y or emo or nü metal, and people have wanted something with more edge to it. It's just gotten better and better [for Hirax] every year."
TIDAL WAVE FESTIVAL
With Exodus, Psychosomatic, Havok, Ludicra, Saros, and others
Sat/5Sun/6, noon6 p.m., free
Jerry Garcia Amphitheater
John McLaren Park
45 Shelley, SF