CENTERPIECE: Petaluma’s Eric Lee having a Heavy Metal Christmas

Petaluma, California, USA. Wednesday, November 29, 2017. _ Heavy metal rock band, Hellbender, rehearse in a garage in Petaluma. Most members of the band grew up together in Petaluma and began playing professionally with their first recording in 2013. L-R: Matt McKillop, drummer; Eric Lee, bass; Clee, guitar; and Dollar Bill, lead vocals. (PHOTO BY CRISSY PASCUAL/ARGUS-COURIER STAFF)


Eric Lee clearly remembers the first heavy metal concert he ever attended.

“The band was Death Angel. They were playing with Slayer at The Stone in San Francisco, and it was awesome,” recalls the longtime Petaluma resident. Now a fulltime trainer at the downtown 24-Hour Fitness club, Lee was a teenager when he discovered the high-energy, high-volume joys of thrash metal music.

And at the time, no one played it better, or with more on stage style, than the South Bay’s Death Angel.

“It was around ’82 or ’83, and I was fifteen years old,” says Lee, filling in the details of that life-changing night. “My buddy’s mom dropped us off at the theater in the City, then she came and picked us up after the show. That show — my first live metal show — for me, it was so great. I remember watching Death Angel perform, these five guys just turnin’ it up, and me standing there going, “Wow! I want to do that! I’m gonna do that! And someday, I’m going to play on the same stage as Death Angel.’ ”

Lo and behold, 35 years later, Lee’s teenage heavy metal dream is about to come true. On December 15, Lee’s band Hellbender will be the opening act in a show at Slim’s in San Francisco featuring Death Angel as the headliner.

“Finally, I’m going to be opening for Death Angel, and at Christmas time,” he says with an enormous smile indicating that he’s already received his Christmas present. “It’s so cool I can’t even believe it.”

The Slim’s show, which also features the band Old Firm Casuals, is part of Death Angel’s annual Christmas show, and the first time Hellbender has played the venue or opened with the band that was such a big part of Lee’s rock and roll education.

Lee’s father, the late Jack Lee, was a local opera singer in and around Petaluma, and was an enthusiastic musical theater participant with Petaluma’s Harmoneers.

“I would go see him perform, and though I wasn’t really into it, I saw that he was an entertainer, and I think I was influenced by it early on. And my mom, who was a church organist for years, she got me into playing the piano when I was six. So I did that for a while, till I switched to drums in junior high.”

It was in high school that Lee took up the bass guitar in 1981.

“A lot of my friends were forming bands,” he recalls. “There were a lot of guitar players, a couple of drummers, but no bass players. So that’s why I picked it up - and a month later I was in a band. I pretty much learned how to play the bass guitar by just doing it. It’s pretty much been all metal, all the time, ever since.”

Asked to name the first rock album that he couldn’t stop listening to, Lee mentions KISS’s 1976 “Destroyer.”

“Seeing what Gene Simmons was doing changed my life,” Lee says. “Guys breathing fire and spitting blood and playing the bass. I was like, ‘Wow! This is awesome!’ ”

He admits that his love of such outlandishly over-the-top entertainment was a bitter pill for his classically-inclined parents to swallow, and led to more than one confrontation.

“I got in trouble for playing with fire, trying to be like Gene Simmons,” he admits. “My poor mom. She took all of my KISS stuff away, but she taught me an important lesson about being responsible.”

Since then, Lee has played with a number of heavy metal bands over the years, taking occasional breaks here and there to go to college — he has a degree in psychology — and later to get married and raise a kid. It was in 2010 that he teamed up with an old friend from junior high, guitarist Clee (he goes by that one name) to start a thrash metal band. For the next few years, they played with various other musicians, gradually developing a sound and a stable of players, eventually naming themselves Hellbender. (The band’s first video, “Crossing the Line,” is available for viewing on the Hellbender website,

“Sometimes a band takes a while to form,” he says. “There’s a lot of trial and error, testing out different players to see who fits in, and what kind of sound you can make together.”

Hellbender played its first show in 2013, at Quincy’s in Rohnert Park, performing along with metal bands The King Must Die and Condemned.

“We made enough money from that show to start recording our first album,” notes Lee.

Along with Clee and Lee — often known by his stage nickname The Beast — the other members of Hellbender are “Dollar” Bill Schefler of Santa Rosa on vocals and Matt McKillop on drums.

The band has just completed filming its second video, due out around the first of the New Year, give or take a week. Upcoming projects include a double CD compilation with other Sonoma County metal bands (Due out around Feb. 2018), and a possible tour in the spring or summer.

But first, there’s that concert to play this Christmas in San Francisco. According to Lee, the show is serving as a huge incentive-builder for all the band members, who collectively hope this show will expand their fan-base and lead to bigger and more inspiring opportunities to play the hard, loud, face-melting music they love.

“There’s just nothing quite like metal,” says Lee. “There’s something beautiful and pure about its aggression and its energy, the passion that its players and its fans have for it. It’s just intoxicating.”

And there’s that smile again.

“It’s hard to put it into words,” Lee adds, “but when you’re up on that stage, and you’ve got people out there going crazy, banging heads to your music — it’s the greatest feeling in the world!”

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