Steve Hellier, along with frontman Richard Fearless, formed Death in Vegas in 1994. Hellier has writing and production credits on debut album Dead Elvis as well as a writing credit on 1999’s The Contino Sessions.
The Contino Sessions in particular saw Death in Vegas’ popularity sky-rocket, with single Dirge featured in a Levi’s advert as well as 2002 horror movie 28 Days Later, while serial killer-themed Aisha peaked at No.9 in the UK charts.
Yet Hellier, from Catford, south east London, ultimately quit the band in 1999, just as it took off. And speaking as his group – Country & Western outfit Django Rhinestone – prepares to play at the Angel Field Festival in Liverpool – Hellier says the sudden success of Death in Vegas proved ‘scary’.
Hellier, who went on to cement a career as a BBC studio manager, explains: “Initially, I thought it was all a bit of a punt. But all of a sudden we’ve got a singles deal… and it got a bit scary. Other people get involved and it’s not the same gig it was.
“Suddenly you’ve got tour managers and A&R departments, you’re going on tour, and the music almost takes a backseat because there’s so much more to do.
“I was juggling all of this with my job at the BBC as a radio sound engineer and it was the right thing to do for me to leave the band.
“I’d done all the things I’d ever wanted to do and made a bit of money out of it. You can’t ask for more than that.”
Death in Vegas, still fronted by Richard Fearless and which released album Transmission in 2016, is known for fusing various musical genres, from psychedelic rock to techno.
And Hellier isn’t afraid of embracing new territory either with his Country and Americana-inspired Django Rhinestone – which comprises Hellier on guitar and keyboards, Nick Gunner on vocals, Rod Stewart as guitarist, Maggie Stephens on bass, and David Krupski on drums.
The 55-year-old says: “Independent of all my musical leanings, as I was growing up in south east London my dad had a succession of friends stay over – mostly blokes who’d been chucked-out by their partners or wives!
“One of them was a chap called Keith Nelson, a Californian session banjo player. I was 16 years old, desperately keen to find my way into music, and Keith was a mentor for me for almost a year.
“Keith was refreshingly free of any cynicism, blindingly enthusiastic about life, and he took me under his wing as he played two or three times a week at gigs or studios. I’m going to do some terrible name-dropping here but I ended up sitting in pubs with people like Albert Lee, the quintessential Country guitarist and local Deptford boy, and one of the Everly Brothers.
“It was just amazing to be around and to watch and learn from these people.
“At the time I was playing guitar and this experience gave me a real interest in Country music and that form of songwriting.”
Django Rhinestone initially formed in 2017 but, like many acts, was forced to hit the ‘pause’ button during the Covid-19 pandemic.
They’ll play the Angel Field Festival – a ten day-long celebration of the arts organised by Liverpool Hope University – on Friday 2nd July, 8pm, in what will be the group’s first gig for a year and a half.
And Hellier also has some words of wisdom for fledgling groups trying to break into the industry – telling them their ‘over-seriousness’ could be damaging their mental health.
He argues: “I think there are a number of problems for younger kids now, and this has been borne out from my experiences working with younger bands.
“Firstly, they seem to be ridiculously over-serious about it all. The only thing that kept me sane was having a sense of humour, which I think is slightly lost on some of the new acts. There’s an earnestness and seriousness these days that I think is damaging, almost verging on mental health issues.
“Social media means people have multiple avenues to pump themselves up with, too, while the gatekeepers are more restrictive than ever. It’s really tough for them.”
** You can watch Django Rhinestone: Snake Oil – Stories for the Soul at Liverpool Hope University’s Angel Field Festival on Friday 2nd July, 8pm.