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Helloween - Blast From The Past (Aug 2015)

Helloween photo
That’s what we wanted, we didn’t want a mixed range or whatever, we wanted it as high as possible with screeching and screaming.

Very few bands can celebrate thirty years in the business and still be as relevant today as when they first started out. Helloween, pioneers of Melodic Speed Metal, are one suchband. Having parted ways with guitarist/singer Kai Hansen back in 1989 after the seminal ‘Keeper...’ albums they lost a pivotal influence on their musical direction. The remaining members started to allow their 60s and 70s influences to come to the fore, resulting in the experimental ‘Pink Bubbles Go Ape’ and ‘Chameleon’ albums. As Michael Weikath put it, with Queen being a big influence alongside the Beatles, he felt that Helloween could follow suit in making such diverse albums. Cue a fan backlash and harsh reviews, and coupled with a significant drop in album sales, Helloween were heading towards their nadir. Their saviour came in the form of Andi Deris, plucked controversially from rising stars Pink Cream 69 to replace Michael Kiske, the new singer encouraging them to get back to what made them successful in the first place. The resulting album, 1994’s ‘Master Of The Rings’, saved Helloween from oblivion and helped them claw back huge swathes of disenchanted fans. 2015 marks the release of their fifteenth studio album, ‘My God-Given Right’, which is a straight ahead balls to the wall Heavy Metal album, as good as any in their career and a continuation of the ‘happy Helloween’ style they reverted back to on 2013’s ‘Straight Out Of Hell’. To discuss this and all other aspects of Helloween’s career Carl Buxton spoke with founding guitarist Michael Weikath.

Were all the guys in the band friends growing up? 

No. That happened after I got to know Marcus Grosskopf via a Metal band I was playing in called Blast Furnace. We had tried Heavy Metal but we were looking for a good bass player, and that was Marcus. Then, along with Kai, Marcus and I got to know the other guys. 

Were you aware of Accept at that time because their debut album came out in ’78, which you said was a great year in Hamburg? 

Yeah, we knew about them. I was a fan of the ‘Breaker’ album but the ‘Restless And Wild’ album for me was already something like Accept-from-Mars. It was as though it was from a different planet, kind of strange and I took weeks to digest that album. I liked only the title track and ‘Princess Of The Dawn’. I thought it wasn’t as strong as ‘Breaker’ because that was the best combination of talent from them ever – although their new album, ‘Blood Of The Nations’, is an extremely clever, AC/DC meets Def Leppard approach. I also saw them with Judas Priest on the ‘Screaming For Vengeance’ tour; that was fun. 

Udo was singing in a higher register back in the ‘Breaker’ days and with that hard and fast approach I wondered if that was an influence when Helloween made their first record? 

Yes, in a way. But it was more Judas Priest because Kai Hansen was always a huge Priest fan. Then with Metallica and Manowar you didn’t really need those bands like Accept to find your way. That’s what we wanted, we didn’t want a mixed range or whatever, we wanted it as high as possible with screeching and screaming. Accept’s ‘Breaker’ was like a background influence you may say. 

I was living in Germany at the time Metal Hammer first came out and they were looking for new guys to be the future of German Heavy Metal, after Scorpions and Accept, that were going to follow on alongside Helloween. Were you aware at that time that there was a big groundswell of support that was looking towards Helloween as the band that were going to break out big time?

Well it felt that way, but then we also felt limited with Kai Hansen’s vocals and all the guitar work he had to do at the same time. We were aiming to do something faster, more extreme, more ‘classic’ Accept, because Accept had left that track. However with regards to twin guitar work – because Wishbone Ash or maybe Thin Lizzy were influences – Lizzy had just had a strong effort with ‘Thunder And Lightning’ and we wanted to combine that to the more direct and extreme approach of Accept. Then there were bands like Manowar, Rainbow – bands that were as good as you can possibly imagine – so we were aware that we wanted to have an approach that people could never forget when they heard it. We had a record out and the idea and concept was to do a show and have people not forget your stuff – you’ve got to have a sound so memorable that they go out of the show still humming your melodies, making it as addictively good as you can. That was the plan. 

I had the chorus and I did the rest of the stuff kind of around it with like a Michael Schenker Group feel in the riff and the verse – the verse has always kind of reminded me of ‘Killers’ from Iron Maiden.

On your last album ‘Straight Out Of Hell’ you only contributed two songs. I remember reading that you said that if you’ve got nothing worth offering the band, you’re not just going to give them something if it has no meaning to it. Which songs did you write for the new album? 

I did ‘Battle’s Won’, ‘Creatures In Heaven’ and ‘Claws’. ‘Battle’s Won’ is the new single, and that was just a melody that I had during ‘7 Sinners’ which didn’t make it onto the album because maybe it was too ‘medieval’. But there was one melody in it that I wanted to maximise, and the band added a few more tones. It reminds me most of the Eurovision TV opening theme, which is really good. So I went about finding structures that are kind of similar, but I got the melody on the guitar instead - I just wanted to bring that across in the track because I thought that it would make a great chorus if you ‘optimise’ it. I had the chorus and I did the rest of the stuff kind of around it with like a Michael Schenker Group feel in the riff and the verse – the verse has always kind of reminded me of ‘Killers’ from Iron Maiden. I thought okay, let’s do the Paul Di’anno era! 

It’s interesting that you wrote ‘Claws’ because to me it’s very intricate, the rhythm and melody patterns are very schizophrenic and the twin solos aren’t strictly straight- forward. 

It’s been an idea I’ve had since the promo tour for ‘The Time Of The Oath’. We were on a flight back to Europe from the United States, and I had that thing that went like; (sings) “to feed the claw”... I always wanted to do something with that line and I had two or three approaches that ended up kind of... boring! So I went to the extreme and said to myself, “I’ve got to be more set on this thing if I want it to become a reality”, and that’s when I made it the way it is now. It combines the half-tone riffing that Deris has used on some other tracks before; it’s something a lot of Heavy Metal band do, but I wanted to do that kind of a riff, because, well, I don’t usually like it when I hear it from other bands! Although what’s strange is that you hear almost the same thing on the last Judas Priest record. I couldn’t have known that because I’d done my track before I heard their album but it’s kind of the same riff on that album – so I then adapted a change in it just because of that, which was kind of interesting in itself. 

It must have been hard for Daniel to learn because the drum rhythm is very intricate. 

It’s very extreme. The producer, Charlie Bauerfeind, didn’t like the drums. He tried to come up with simpler and easier patterns because for him as a producer it’s too dense. He would go “too much information, too many events, me no like!” Over the next few days they came back to what was on the demo and I felt kind of helpless. I wondered, “how do I make this track happen?” I thought, we don’t want to keep it too simple but we’d have needed like a world class super-human drummer. So Daniel said, “Okay, but you know I’ve got to drum it and I only have two arms and two legs, and what you programmed on your demo requires five arms and three legs. I’ve got to put it into some understandable form for a drummer!” So I said, “You go ahead and do that and what you play is what you play.” And I think it’s just amazing, it’s so intense - play that to somebody in ’71 and it would be like when ‘Fireball’ from Deep Purple came out, right? 

It’s not something that the average Helloween fan would predict, and that’s what I find so interesting about that song. 

Yeah, I know but I think it’s strange. I mean there’s so much discussion or non-discussion about ‘Claws’. It’s like sometimes people think, oh we’d better leave that subject alone, let’s not even talk about it. Then there’s other people who try to analyse it and that’s exactly what it was for, really, it’s just an experiment. I always wanted to do something like ‘Achilles Last Stand’ so I can try to mimic Jimmy Page in the first solo, with that kind of attitude and even maybe a similar sound. I sometimes try something English... and then people go, “Urghhh...what’s this?” [laughs]. People will like it or they won’t like it, it’s just something I had to do. But it lives you know, it lives, and it’s too pretty to throw it away. 

Was it your idea in ‘Creatures In Heaven’ to introduce the Hammond? It’s a typical Helloween rhythm and melody but with subtle Hammond in the background. 

It was meant to be something like a ‘try it and see’. You have so many great samples, you have so many great Hammond organs - the electric piano. I’ve always been a Manfred Mann fan, so I’ve always wanted to try something like that, but it was a case of how to do it. The intro to that song made me think, “Okay, that’s a good one to try it on” and then the rest of the track is kind of like what the mix of ‘Eagle Fly Free’ was; Quincy Jones’ 50s orchestra with some prominent members of the orchestra coming up with their own respective solo parts. ‘Creatures In Heaven’ is like Ray Conniff’s orchestra, with the choirs it had and the brass and strings and saxophones and stuff; like a swing Metal approach. It’s kind of dubbed from Ray Conniff, a track called ‘’S Wonderful’ which is one of my favourite tracks ever. It’s only available in mono because it’s so old. 

It was meant to be something like a ‘try it and see’. You have so many great samples, you have so many great Hammond organs - the electric piano. I’ve always been a Manfred Mann fan ...

With regards to the solos on the album, who does what between you and Sascha Gerstner? 

We both have a go at everything to see who can play each part best. Actually, I can’t tell you who’s playing rhythm guitars on what you hear because Charlie just let us play and he put in the guitars from the sessions that he considered the best. 

Wouldn’t you like to know? 

Yeah, No one needs to know. Naturally you’re proud of whatever you did but so many things get replaced. I have thought as to whether I played or he played, or whatever, and who’s going to play it live, you  know? But it doesn’t matter, it’s to get the production finished as quick as possible and with the best possible output. We’re not interested in these personal things at all. For example, I played most of the stuff on ‘Better Than Raw’ except for the tracks written by Uli Kusch because he let Roland play them; Uli thought I was playing in a certain fashion and not clean enough. Then Roland came back and said “I’m never gonna play on an Uli Kusch track ever again, because he’s too demanding and there’s no space left for creativity or personality on the guitars!...” I said, “Yeah, okay...” [laughs]” 

I’m surprised at that because they joined forces to create Masterplan, so it’s quite strange that they were having these arguments. 

Yeah, yeah, but it was more the frustration you know. Nowadays I just think what the heck, and I say do what you want with it. If you want to replace everything, erase it. If you see fit to use that material on the actual track, then that’s also fine with me. You know, I don’t really want to know who is who on the albums. 

With you working in Andi’s studio, the time limit surely doesn’t really matter in that sense. Is it down to Nuclear Blast expecting an album from you at a certain point? 

Yeah, which is fine and helps you get finished in a given timeframe. We just do what we wanna do, so we rely on Charlie, he comes up with a timetable which he puts on an on-line calendar made up of several fields. It says rhythm guitars ‘Weiki’, rhythm guitars ‘Gerstner’, bass, vocals, keyboards, choirs, choruses, solo parts and so on. He always marks his little parts when they’ve been done in order to keep the time. The only thing you can actually tell is who plays the solos, obviously. Therefore I’m quite sure I remember what solos I play... eh... no, sometimes I don’t even remember them! But you can assume that this one sounds like a Gerstner solo and that’s like a Weikath solo! 

And who’s doing keyboards on this record? 

It’s Matthias Ulmer, who’s done keyboards ever since ‘Gambling With The Devil’ – he’s from Anyone’s Daughter fame; they’re a German Progressive Rock band. He also plays keyboards for a few German acts that you may not have heard of, so we’re very glad that he takes the time and effort to do keyboards for us as well. He’s a talented superman of keyboards!

Naturally you’re proud of whatever you did but so many things get replaced.

Interview by Carl Buxton





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