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:: Spotlight :: Interview with Helloween

By: Justin Donnelly

With a history that spans more than twenty years, it’s safe to say that long running German power metal band Helloween have seen plenty of highs and lows throughout their career.

In the early 90’s, Helloween’s future looked more than a little shaky with both 1991’s ‘Pink Bubbles Go Ape’ and 1993’s ‘Chameleon’ seen as too experimental and not up to the standard set by the band’s critically acclaimed ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part I’ (1986) and ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part II’ (1988) albums.
But with the departure of vocalist Michael Kiske, and the subsequent recruitment of former Pink Cream 69 vocalist Andi Deris in the band’s fold, Helloween quickly made amends with their highly acclaimed 1994 release ‘Master Of The Rings’.

For the next decade, Helloween continued to release albums on a regular basis. And while some albums were considered stronger and more consistent than others (1998’s ‘Better Than Raw’ and 2000’s ‘The Dark Ride’ in particular stood out as critical and commercial successes), Helloween still managed to tour extensively throughout the world to an ever increasing fan base.

From 2000 right up until early 2005, Helloween went through a series of member reshuffles, leaving many fans concerned about the future of the band. But with a solidified line-up in place (consisting of vocalist Andi Deris, guitarists Michael Weikath and Sascha Gerstner, bassist Markus Grosskopf and drummer Dani Löble), Helloween quickly laid to rest any lingering fears with the release of ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys - The Legacy’ in 2005. While the title ensured some level of success, ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys - The Legacy’ was once again considered a huge return to form for the band, with the ensuring tour (which was documented on 2007’s ‘Live In Sao Paulo’ CD and ‘Live On 3 Continents’ DVD) the biggest and most successful the band had ever undertaken.

Eager to prove that the album was not a one off, Helloween have recently returned with their thirteenth studio effort ‘Gambling With The Devil’, which has been praised (by both fans and critics alike) as the group’s finest efforts in close to a decade!

Following the release of ‘Gambling With The Devil’, I caught up with founding guitarist Michael Weikath (who happened to be filling in for Deris at the last minute after coming down with a touch of the flu) in Paris to talk about the challenges faced by the band in following up the critically acclaimed ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys - The Legacy’, all the while attempting to forge a new and decidedly modern direction.

“The direction on ‘Gambling With The Devil’ is a very different step for us. When you look at ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys - The Legacy’, it’s essentially an album that is compatible with our past. Everything from the title right through to the sound was linked in some ways with our past, but also showing some move toward a modern sound. The album was really a link between our past and to where we are at in the present. ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys - The Legacy’ was a lot of hard and intense work for us, but it was very worthwhile. We were very happy with the album. But after making an album like that and touring the world in support of it, we decided we had to do things a little differently. ‘Gambling With The Devil’ is us saying, ‘O.K., you have seen the band do something like ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys - The Legacy’ where we had a new drummer and a young new guitarist in the band. Now see what we can do with this line-up now!’ Before we went into the studio, we already had the title of the album ‘Gambling With The Devil’ in place. So having that gave us a subject to work towards, and something to consider when composing songs. Unlike ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys - The Legacy’, working around the theme of ‘Gambling With The Devil’ gave us a lot more freedom, and I think that shows. This album is very different from ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys - The Legacy’. ‘Gambling With The Devil’ is a very modern Helloween album. It has nothing to do with ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys - The Legacy’, or the past for that matter. This album is how Helloween sounds in 2007. We’re very happy with the album, and so far there have been no real complaints yet! (laughs)”

Although there’s generally a two year gap between releases for Helloween, it’s still surprising to find Helloween releasing ‘Gambling With The Devil’ so soon after just completing a double studio effort (‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys - The Legacy’) and finishing an extensive world tour.

“It was definitely a fast process. There was a schedule to be met. The record company told us they wanted what I call a quick shooter. I call it a quick shooter because the writing of all the songs and the recordings took place within a very short amount of time. It wasn’t too short, but everything was very much bang, bang, bang, bang. Our label (S.P.V. Records) told our management that there was a momentum established with the release of ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys - The Legacy’, and they wanted to exploit that momentum, especially given the success of the tour we did after the release of that album. They told our management in no uncertain terms that if we wanted the album to sell this amount and do this well, they had to release the album around this time. So management approached us, and told us exactly where we stood, and that if we were to catch this momentum, it would be very good for the next tour. If the plan worked out like they had planned, it meant that we could do a whole lot of other things that worked in our favour in the future. When you get things explained to you in that way, you soon realise that there’s a lot of people committed to working toward your career. You get the feeling that they really want to do something good for you. Everyone in the band could have complained and asked for another couple of months off or say that it didn’t fit with what they had in mind after a hugely successful tour. That would have been foolish. Instead, we all agreed to follow their advice and immediately go into songwriting mode right after the tour, rather than relaxing in our own beds.”

While the decision to come straight off the road and into the studio could have spelt disaster for the band, it seems to have worked in their favour. Weikath also agrees.

“It’s more or less dangerous to do things this way, but it worked. Right after the tour, we went straight into songwriting mode with virtually no break in-between. Maybe it was a good thing to do, because we didn’t have that much time to over think what we were doing. What we did was obviously a great thing to do really. The results speak for themselves. At the time, it was not something that I could get a grip on. Everybody was so involved recording things here and there on their various bits and pieces. You couldn’t really follow what was going except the producer (Charlie Bauerfeind), who had the demanding task of putting all those pieces together. It really came down to point where he handed me a CD and said that I should listen to our latest album! He told me then I could familiarize myself with it before we started to play the songs live! I was like, ‘Ah, that’s what it sounds like!’ (laughs) It was a pretty strange feeling actually. But in the end, it definitely worked!”

What really makes ‘Gambling With The Devil’ stand out from some of Helloween’s more recent studio offerings is the return of aggression and heaviness that made 2000’s ‘The Dark Ride’ so uncharacteristic of Helloween’s usual power metal fare at the time of its release.

“The heaviness on ‘Gambling With The Devil’ could have been something that we had in the back of our minds producing. But as I said before, there’s no vintage Helloween present on this album. You have a young guitarist in Sascha Gerstner who wants to push the band forward, along with Dani Löble on the drums, who still wants to prove that he’s a world class drummer, and who wants to bring the world to an end with the way he drums. Then you have Andi Deris, who wants to write modern songs because he has a young son that he wants to impress. But then you have me on the other guitar, who also doesn’t want to appear too old. Then there’s Markus Grosskopf, who is the master on the power bass anyway. As a conglomerate, we don’t want to be an old-fashioned early heavy metal band that drifts off towards the grandpa way in the latter half of their career. You can bury yourself if you don’t change and move with the times. We don’t want to do that. But you can’t force change either. It has to come naturally. Sometimes all you need is one new and young guitarist to achieve that change. It’s easier to fulfill those expectations than if you had two old grandpa guitarists like me in the band! (Laughs) I’m always running after the sessions to try and play something that’s going to live up to those expectations and compete with the rest of the band members contributions, and that helps push our sound forward. I don’t want to be the one’s saying, ‘When we were young, we used to play it like this!’ That’s why Helloween is always changing with every new album. We want to be around today, as well as the days that follow.”

Another interesting change to occur within Helloween is the songwriting credits on ‘Gambling With The Devil’. Unlike in the past, the songs on the album have been credited to the entire band rather than individual members.

“The reason for that is that the majority of the band felt that everyone was involved in writing the songs in some way. You have bands like Uriah Heep, Queen and Deep Purple that all reached a certain point where it’s no longer an individual who contributes something, but the entire band that complete the song together. It’s an interesting move for us, especially after the quick production. The outcome means that it’s very difficult to say who does what on the album. But really, it doesn’t make any difference pointing out who does what. If there’s individual tracks, like this one is written entirely by Deris, it wouldn’t truly symbolize what went on while creating and recording this album. Deris’ performances on the songs I wrote are a little different to how I had them on the original demo recordings. He took the melody straight out of my original demo, but the performance on some of the tracks I wrote was something that I really didn’t expect from him. And then you have Löble, who’s drumming on the easy going commercial track ‘As Long As I Fall’ is drummed to perfection. I told Löble that it was exactly how I imagined the drumming should be, it was totally fucking happening, and that he couldn’t have done it any better. And what he told me is that he’s never played anything like that ever before! He never played anything like that in any of the other bands he’s been in before. So for him, that was new. He just drummed it the way he felt it should sound like. You can hear it. That’s what his input was right there. And the same goes for everyone’s performance on this whole production. You can’t begin to measure how this album felt to us as a band in regards to contribution. So we just decided to credit the entire band in the credits in regards to the songwriting. I can’t tell you if that will be case on the next album, but if it happens again like this, you can be sure we’ll all be credited. If there were a way of pinpointing just whose songs belong to whom, then the individual credits would be there. People will eventually find out who wrote what song, but the credits were presented the way they were because of the way everyone contributed to the songwriting. In the past, there were plenty of times where there was nothing that needed to be added to a particular demo. Sometimes, there’s was so much work involved on the track that the end result had little in common with the original demo. If you record your demo in the rehearsal room, in the studio, or at home and send them in on an internet server, like we did with this new album, it depends on the band work that took place on each in particular track. And it’s always different. For instance, there’s the track ‘Secret Alibi’ (from 1994’s ‘Master Of The Rings’) where I recorded everything myself, including the keyboards and the arrangement. Grosskopf’s bass playing and Uli Kusch’s drumming on the song didn’t change from the original demo that much. That’s why that track is credited to me. Sometimes it’s quite easy and straightforward to hear who has written what within the band. So that was another reason why we would try and allow other ideas and contributions into the songwriting from all members of the band on this new album. Plus we were also curious to see how people would react to it, and what would come out of it. It’s actually prompted discussion amongst fans to figure out who wrote what on the album. But I still think you can figure out who wrote what on the album if you know what style the members generally write in.”

While there’s no denying that most Helloween fans rank ‘Gambling With The Devil’ somewhere amongst the band’s strongest releases with Deris, Weikath admits the band are still unsure just where to place this album amongst Helloween’s vast recorded history.

“Nobody within the band knows exactly what we have done with this album. Of course, in a few years time you tend to have a different view about things that you have done. But as of right now, it’s a little too early for us to say because we don’t have a real feel for the album overall. All we know is that we did something right. You tend to hear your latest album a lot in the first few years before dropping it for a while. And it’s only after you pick it up again that you realize what you have done. I can honestly say that I still don’t know where to place ‘Rabbit Don’t Come Easy’ (2003), and that one is already quite old to us. So you tend to approach all your albums in different ways. Sometimes things are really obvious, and you know where to place them. We felt that with ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys - The Legacy’. We knew where that album fitted for a long time. But it’s really something different altogether with ‘Gambling With The Devil’. What I can tell you is how I felt when I heard the album for the first time in its entirety. I had a running order which was suggested from Bauerfeind and Deris, so I just copied those tracks that I had downloaded from the server. I called up a friend, and drove around in my car and listened to it from start to finish. That was the first time I heard the whole album. Before that, I only knew bits and pieces, but never the overall picture. What I sensed when I heard ‘Kill It’ and ‘The Saints’ for the first time was the way the band itself was developing. My first impression was that the album was sounding pretty self confident. I have heard it before with other bands. If you put on Deep Purple’s ‘Burn’ (1974), you can tell there are a few new band members, and they want to show what’s capable of the band now. They’re pretty confident obviously, and they’ve done something where they have to come up with something pretty interesting, or they blow it. I don’t know, but for me, it was one of those moments where I actually feel that this band finally sounds a bit more self confident. That sometimes wasn’t the case in the past due to the inner turmoil and constant member changes. We don’t have those problems now, and with this album, I felt that there really was something different. We had just finished off ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys - The Legacy’, and we were in good form. We’re in a very good place at the moment. I think that was a pretty good feeling! (Laughs)”

Aside from trying something new in the studio, Helloween will also be trying out some new things on the road too when the band make their first live appearance in Australia in late February.

“We have never been to Australia before, so we’re all looking forward to that. We even go to Thailand for the first time as well. There’s so many new thing we’re going to see on this tour, and that’s all thanks to our new management. These things happen when you do a great record with a consistent line-up. It pays to maintain a consistency, because the fans feel better about it because they get to know the band, and they start trusting you. And the same goes for us. So there’s been no bloodshed and murder within the band in some time, so we’re starting to feel better about ourselves too! (laughs) Now all of a sudden we’re doing our first tour of Australia! Things seem to be going so well for us! (laughs) I’m curious to see what things are like down there. We could have done all this at an earlier point, but we never received any offers. If there were any offers, we would have had to pay extra big time. So it wouldn’t have been feasible for us anyway. Somehow it seems to have worked out for us this time, and we feel pretty confident about it. So I’m curious to see what it’s like. And it’s about time isn’t it? (laughs) We don’t have any real expectations about the tour, but naturally we hope that people freak out in a positive way because they want us back there as soon as possible. If things go well, we hope that one day we’ll be able to play stadiums down there. We just hope that a lot of the fans don’t go purchase a new car or a new Dell or Apple Macintosh computer on the day that we play, which will inevitably divert them away from our shows down there! (laughs)”

As a parting statement, Weikath had this message to Australian fans who are thinking of seeing Helloween when they hit the country’s shores in late February.

“It’s like this. We’re a band that uses real guitars. We may be Germans, but we’re not so bad after all. There’s a fun element to the way we speak and talk, and while we may do a lot of things wrong, we do a lot of things right as well. And while you get the usual English and American bands touring Australia, this time you will be sure to get something a little different. We’re a German band, and there’s something about us that’s a little different to most. You may be familiar with Scorpions and Blind Guardian, but that’s not us. We’re Helloween! Besides, how many times are you going to see some German idiots try and make it big in Australia? (laughs) At the very least, you can’t miss that!”

I would like to personally thank Michael Weikath for his generous time. I would also like to thank Chris Maric (Riot! Entertainment) for making the interview possible.

February 26 - The Arena - Brisbane, Queensland
February 28 - The Metro Theatre - Sydney, New South Wales
February 29 - The Forum - Melbourne, Victoria

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