Gamma Ray’s Kai Hansen
Interviewed by EvilG
Transcription by Alxs / Live Pics By Arto Lehtinen & Hanntu
Kai Hansen is easily one of the best frontmen in heavy metal today. I recently caught up with my idol (ha) to talk about the band’s latest masterpiece LAND OF THE FTEE II and other things going on in the land of Gamma Ray. Since our conversation it was announced that Gamma Ray and Helloween would be making a stop at this year’s ProgPower USA festival. Plans for this to be more than a one city stop haven’t been announced yet but even when I spoke to him he said they were working on it…so lets hope it works out! Anyway, enough from me, onto the interview…… Prepare for glory!
RETURN TO THE LAND OF THE FREE
Well I guess I’ll start off and we’ll talk about the new album “Land of the Free” Part II of course. I was just wondering, I’m sure people have asked this in various ways but I’m just wondering if you could tell me how the album took shape. I’m wondering what happened first: were you writing songs and you guys thought ‘ hey this sounds like “Land of the Free”’ or was it you had already decided to do “Land of the Free” Part II and then started writing it in a particular way?
That was more like it yea actually. It just came about that when it was time to talk about the new album or the next album we did so and it was like, we were all agreed on certain things. Having the will to do something that is more cheerful or positive or spirit-uplifting, if you want it like that. “Majestic” was pretty sinister in a way, or more aggressive maybe. We wanted to do something different again and when we described the direction for the new album, what we thought it could be like or what the direction is that we’re going to start songwriting, it was all coming down to like “Land of the Free.” That was kind of the directive. We were sure we wanted a directive for this album, from a strong line to follow. Not to get too diverse in the songwriting, so we always mentioned “Land of the Free” to describe best what we kind of were going for. Then later on we came up with, ‘let’s write “Land of the Free II”. You know, at least give it a try; accept this as a direction. If we think we achieve it or if this could be “Land of the Free”, we could give it the title. If not, well we choose another one.
Besides the musical similarities to Part I, lyrically are there any connections to the first one?
Well, there are some connections. You know, you find some phrases, some words, some parts of the story again, which again, if you take for instance the song “Rebellion in Dreamland” it starts with a certain specific scene. Like, somebody sitting somewhere on a seashore, you know and hearing those voices in a way, or being compelled to walk on and do something and stuff like that. On the second part, the last song is “Insurrection” which actually kind of starts and ends with the same situation in a way. This is like, they’re small connections, but still it’s a bit different. While Part 1. was kind of a little story line in there over a certain character going on a journey or on a search for something and now it’s more a loose compilation of songs that all deal with the theme freedom seen from various perspectives.
Speaking about the lyrics on the album, I believe it’s the track “Real World” that has a reference to religion and ‘welcome to the real world’ so is that sort of an atheist undertone to a song that I particularly liked anyway. Was that the goal that you had in mind there or was that speaking from a character’s point of view?
“God is an illusion and there ain’t no paradise
And there is no underworld below
Out there is no heaven and there ain’t no Antichrist
Welcome to the real world and the show!”
Well it’s definitely coming out of me and my thoughts in a way because I see people around and no matter what they kind of put their over-belief in, you know, it could be UFOs, it could be money, it could be the economy, it could be Islam, it could be Christ, whatever. There’s people that kind of turn away from the real world in their way to neglect it or get so unreal with it that they do strange things. And this is like extremely seen in religious extremes. Where people are so far out from what is real that they do stupid things.
Yea, well when people think that the only life that’s important is the afterlife and what we have here on earth is foolish and doesn’t mean anything, well that’s gone a bit too far.
Yeah, Yeah. Well I never understood why if somebody really strongly believes in the afterlife what the fuck does he care about this world then? Why is he so eager to change this world or do something about it? Which mostly comes along with strong beliefs like that. That’s kind of weird, I never understood that.
No. What’s the importance of, I guess this relates to the lyrics maybe, on some songs… The pyramid has always appeared I don’t know for how many album covers now I didn’t count, but the pyramid is featured prominently on a lot of your artwork. What does that represent to you? Is it just you like the imagery or is it something a little deeper?
Well, yea, the imagery is of course very tempting to deal with because it stands for a lot of things. It stands for our connection to another universe, or race or whatever. Or maybe it stands for the connection between earth and the higher spirit there. Then it might stand for conspiracy. It’s a miracle itself that these people could build these things and it’s got something, you know. I think it’s an interesting symbol and it reappears everywhere where there’s things like mysteries.
With regards to “Land of the Free” Part II, was there a reason why you chose that? Was Part I one of your biggest selling albums, most critically acclaimed albums or maybe a fan or a band favorite or all of those things?
Yea, well we could’ve chosen “Somewhere out in Space”II or another album no problem, but “Land of the Free” has something very specific. It was specific for many reasons. One was of course me taking over vocals again that was one. The other thing that came out is this is a typical power metal album, down to the point with melodies and everything that belongs in it. We made it exactly at a time point when this kind of metal was proclaimed to be dead as can be. Where it was almost like if a drummer came up with a double bass drum people would say ‘ ya dooga daga yourself out of here man.’ Everything was ruled by Kurt Cobain and the alternative to the alternative and all that kind of stuff. So at that point we made an album like this and it went down very successful. That was cool, that was something special. I think it was the album that gave Gamma Ray the acceptance as being a band not only a Kai Hansen project. That way it was special and it had a special kind of atmosphere and therefore maybe we choose it.
On the new album there’s a couple nods to some of your influences and most notably is the section in one of the tracks that is reminiscent of “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” and I assume that was a deliberate little nod in the music that you did there.
Well definitely everything that sounds a bit like Maiden we do is a nod to those guys, you know, no matter what. When we started with Helloween on “Walls of Jericho” people were giving us the trademark Iron Maiden on speed. So we never mind that. But the fun is with this part in “Opportunity” this is a bass lick that Dirk has been playing since I don’t know how many years; seven, eight years… for a long, long time and he’s of course familiar with Iron Maiden but he didn’t know shit about “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”, I promise. He didn’t know. Anyhow, when I heard this bass line, he was stuck with this song and I said “why don’t you put in this bass riff, we always said you had to put it in a song once” and he said “yeah, that might work.” And he tried and it worked and I put on some vocals and instinctively they were kind of you, you have two chords and the bass run… I mean, what can you do? How can you not sound like Maiden, you know what I mean? So we kind of pushed it even more in that direction, so that’s how it happened actually.
A HELLISH TOUR MADE IN HEAVEN
So you guys have been playing on tour with Helloween doing the Hellish tour dates. I’m sure every single North American journalist you spoke to is asking “will this tour come over to North America?”
(laughs) Well actually, no shitting, you’re the first one I speak to, actually because this is my time now and I’m only off for Christmas and we continue to tour on the fourth of January so I’m only here for a few days. That was time to do some interviews with America.
They’ll all ask the same question I’m sure.
They will, I’m pretty sure. Um, actually the only thing I can say is so far, we’re working on it. It seems to be pretty tough to get both bands over and not losing money. It’s hard to believe that, but it’s the facts. So we’re trying to find out a way to actually get it done and because the band, we want it, we want to do it.
So hope is not lost yet and it could maybe happen?
(laughs) not yet.
Ok. Do you see your band and style of metal getting more recognition over here in North America in say the past five to seven years or does it seem elusive to be accepted and to get more mainstream acceptance in metal here in North America?
Well, I don’t think it’s not possible because I see it has become better because I know for many years it’s like the States, forget. It’s like when people ask “why don’t you tour the states or what’s happening there?” I say “forget it”, there’s nothing happening there with our kind of metal except for a few people scattered across the country. Not only a few, but some thousands it should’ve been, but you never knew where they were and they were scattered. So now it seems like things have become much better for metal and not only the new metal thing, as well for classic metal. I see there’s bands like Dragonforce that have a real good success. We’re not talking about millions sellers here, but for a metal band from Europe, hey, respect. It’s pretty cool.
So when you guys are looking at booking a tour in a foreign or an unfamiliar territory do you use your own tour manager or do you find someone in that country who might know where your fans are located and what nice venues there are to play in?
Well, that’s the way to work. Because we have our booking agency here and they deal out the conditions and possibilities with the local promoter or with one promoter over in the states who again, knows the locals and they tell him what they think about the package, etc. So it goes back and forth until there’s an agreement.
All right, I remember reading that the heavy touring schedule was one of the reasons why you originally left Helloween and now you’re on a fairly big world tour, with Helloween and your band Gamma Ray. So is that a sign that Gamma Ray might be doing more touring now? Are you looking to do a bigger schedule…?
I came up with one kind of rule or one thing that was important for me and I didn’t really exactly know at that time when I left Helloween but I felt that two or three months touring in a row was killing me and it looked like the band would do more like that. Like the others were not really willing to cut it down, so with Gamma Ray we always hold it like that. At latest, after four weeks we return home for one or two weeks again, then go on tour again. Not to burn out. I wouldn’t want to be on the road for two or three months in a row. I don’t mind being on the road, I love it but it’s important for me to get back home for a while and calm down and get into the real world again. (laughs) Because touring is a real different world somehow and then go on the road again with refreshed batteries. That’s much healthier, much better.
HELL YEAH! RECORD LABELS
After Sanctuary, your former label, became a part of Universal some bands seem to have been left out in the cold and not have regular contact or proper promotion. And some bands probably lost a record deal altogether, I’m not sure… So I’m just wondering what are some of your thoughts on these larger multi-national companies buying up independent labels?
Well, you know, this time it kind of was to our benefit because it was our chance to leave the sinking ship, actually. Because we were bound to the contract to deliver one more album which would’ve been “Land of the Free II” and we already saw that Sanctuary is not working properly anymore. It was a sinking ship that’s for sure. So we feared that we do a good album and it’s going to be wasted because there’s no promotion, no nothing. We just prayed for a miracle to happen to get us out there because by normal chances they wouldn’t have let us go. They wanted to do the album. So when we heard that they were taken over by Universal and that definitely they cannot hold the release date of the album we already had the tour booked. Of course we had a good foundation to go up to them and say “you know it will be very nice and fair if you could just let us go because otherwise you would really harm the band’s career.” They were fair enough to say “All right you’re free to go” and here we are again.
Right, so you think that movement for smaller labels being snapped up by large companies, well in your case it’s worked out good, but overall…
In our case it was good, but that was a piece of luck. Normally it doesn’t really do the bands’ good. It’s horrible. For the smaller labels and the bands: no good.
I assume this label fun is why the Gamma Ray “Hell Yeah” DVD is delayed?
Yep, that’s exactly what it is. When it was finally finished it was already clear that we’re getting too close to everything and especially as well, our normal CD release of this album which was already kind of terminated or planned. So with the new label, we agreed to put it back until next year, before summer and upgrade it. On this next bit of the Hellish Rock tour we’re gonna do some filming in Barcelona and cut in some extras from this tour so it’s going to be an extended DVD thing. It’s doubled already, so maybe it’s going to be three and then it’s going to be complete.
And that’ll be out in 2008, you hope?
Well that’s how it’s planned. (laughs) Before summer.
ON WORKING WITH OTHER BANDS…
OK, cool. There also have been talks over the past year or so about you working again with Michael Kiske. Has there been any developments with that or any writing sessions at all that have taken place?
Nothing at all so far. Because Roland, me and Michael, we’re all busy with our own stuff and that was priority, at least for me it was. So it’s put way back.
I guess the only other question I have on that is do you know whether it’ll be metal or at least hard rock because every one knows that Michael seems to not always have a lot of good things to say about heavy metal these days.
Well you know Roland and me we are metal freaks and we like a good double bass drum and some really heavy distorted guitars so it’s maybe just our job to come up with something that Michael can accept. The harder the better because that’s how we want to hear it but it’s going to be a tough job. Otherwise I wouldn’t mind to have hard rock stuff or rock stuff or a bit special stuff like for instance ‘Queen-ish’ stuff on it which would fit very well as well and which would be a bit different from our normal bands which I think is very important too. So let’s see what we can come up with.
I know you’ve played some classic Helloween material with the band Storm Warrior and I was wondering, have you been asked to produce, write or record for them for their 2008 album; I believe it’s called “Heading Northe” or something.
No, I was just popping in from time to time, having a quick listen. I heard the demo stuff. I think they’re going to do a good job on it. I would’ve liked to go with it and do something like producing or mixing at least, stuff like that, but I don’t think I have the time. So, they’re on their own and I think that they will do a good job.
Are you singing or playing guitar on the new Avantasia CD that’ll be out soon?
I just played one solo.
So you didn’t get to sing this time around?
Another band you once were a part of is Iron Savior. I wonder, do you ever miss working with Piet and would you consider doing something with him again if you had the time?
Well I think time is my biggest enemy. I wouldn’t mind to do that, definitely but we don’t want to create any more confusion with all these project things going around. Maybe I’ll just stay away from stuff like that at the moment. Concentrate on Gamma Ray and that’s it.
Do you stay up to date with the new stuff from all these bands like the Iron Savior and the new Helloween, Edguy, and Avantasia and all these types of bands?
You know, whenever I get a hold of an album I have a listen and normally what I listen to is good.
Do you have much time to check out bands on your own or is it pretty much full-time Gamma Ray?
It’s more or less, I don’t go running around and search for new bands and stuff like that because I think we have enough bands coming up like that. But sometimes there are like demos I get or recordings and of course I have a listen and if I like something, I might give a comment, or whatever.
KAI….GODFATHER OF POWER METAL?
You have been credited by many people as one of the founders of what people refer to as power metal these days. I was wondering, do you agree with that and do you think that Helloween was probably the first power metal band.
Well actually, I never make these distinctions between heavy metal, power metal, whatever metal… I never liked that. For me it’s all heavy metal. I think when we started we didn’t really know what we were doing; we were just doing what we liked and never thought about creating something. We knew we sounded kind of special in a way but in the end we were maybe just taking all our fate(?) plus a little German “schlager”culture and putting it all in one and playing it out. It may be more aggressive and more fast and stuff like that. Nowadays I kind of have to admit that I see where it must’ve been something special we did there but I leave that up to others.
GUITARS GUITARS GUITARS….
There’s been a Kai Hansen Signature model ESP guitar; your infamous pink Flying V.
Has only been out in Japan, is there any reason why it hasn’t made its way throughout Europe or North America or anywhere else?
I don’t know, ESP was never, at least in Europe it was never so big and it just kind of came lately. I think that was in the end a lot with the help of Metallica, featuring the name ESP. Maybe with some other known artists. It grew bigger in Europe. So far, I don’t really know why this model is not like on the market here… because it’s a good guitar.
How much involvement did you have into telling them exactly what specs they needed to make yours?
Well everything in the end because it’s like this guitar when I played in Helloween on “Keeper II” I had this pink Randy Rhoades and that was custom built with my specifications by a German company called Rockinger. Well in the end when I got the deal with ESP, this guitar was pretty wasted already and I still had the body and so everything else, well the body was still the original and everything else was replaced or remodeled or renewed by ESP. So we decided to make a custom model off it, that’s it.
How many of those ESPs do you own now, I mean roughly, do you have just one or two main ones or do you have a whole whack?
No I have my original so-to-say and I have four others.
Are you exclusive to ESP these days?
Okay, so you could for example do an Ibanez Kai Hansen guitar if you wanted to or something?
Well sure, you know but of course if I work with another company and there’s going to be some custom stuff… you know, I don’t like dancing on two weddings, I have to decide maybe. In the end I like to keep the freedom to play whatever I think is cool or whatever I like. At the moment I play a lot of old Hoyer Flying Vs, which is a German company that has ceased to exist some years ago and they built great Flying Vs in the seventies or eighties, so I’m collecting them.
And you do only play six string guitars right?
Which I’m grateful for because it seems everyone these days wants to tune down too far and play seven string guitars.
I don’t need an extra string. I’m busy with six and that’s enough. I don’t need to tune down. What for? If I need aggression it has to come out of my playing not by tuning down. With the down-tuning everything sounds kind of dark and aggressive. You can play whatever, Kindergarten songs and they sound evil. (laughs). Know what I mean? So it’s no big deal, I think.
So have you ever actually played a seven string guitar and just said “this is not for me?”
I put it in my hand and I said “what’s that for? What’s the seventh string for? Who needs that?” But maybe I’m just conservative in that way.
I think the only person seven strings is suitable for is someone like Steve Vai who, he could play twenty strings because he’s on another planet altogether then most guitar players.
That’s for sure, yea.
When you play it just to fakely create aggression, it’s kind of sad, yeah. So speaking about funny songs, Kindergarten songs, you have in the past recorded some funny little things with Gamma Ray like “Money” or the cover “Gamma Ray”. That’s something that you haven’t done a lot of recently, the funny side of the band. Is that something you want to steer clear of and not become too well known for?
No, I don’t know why that is so. Maybe we’ve just become a little more mature, but anyhow I mean still, it’s been mostly on the live shows that we fool around and do some silly stuff like that. Well it’s just the way it is. There’s no game plan behind that.
Well that’s pretty much everything I had to ask. Is there anything else, any other musical items in your 2008 calendar coming up that we haven’t touched on that you want to let people know about.
Well, of course, there’s going to be the DVD like I told you and there’s going to be more touring with Helloween; doing South America and doing Japan and Korea. Besides that, we went from festivals in the summer and then we have to see what comes next. If we kind of think it’s good to do more touring on our own, just as Gamma Ray, doing headline shows or if its maybe good to work on the next album. So, let’s see.
So your next album will be SPV as well, you’re signed to a multi-album deal with them.
Right, ok, excellent. And you’re happy so far, I assume with how things …
Absolutely, no complaints. Really very cool.
Cool. Well thanks for your time and thank you for “Land of the Free II”.
I hope I can see you in the states.
Yeah, if you guys come to Canada, I’ll be there for sure.
All right, that’s cool. And no worries, I think Canada is on the list, definitely!
More pics of Gamma Ray members sharing the stage with Helloween: