INTERVIEW AND LIVE PICTURES BY MARKO SYRJÄLÄ
Helloween is a German power metal band founded in 1984 in Hamburg by Kai Hansen on vocals and guitar, Michael Weikath on guitar, Markus Grosskopf on bass, and Ingo Schwichtenberg on drums. Helloween was one of the pioneering and most influential bands of the 80’s European heavy/speed/power metal scene. Their early albums HELLOWEEN and WALLS OF JERICHO fared comfortably, but it wasn’t before the band hired a new vocalist, the 18-year-old Michael Kiske, and released albums KEEPER OF THE SEVEN KEYS pt. I and KEEPER OF THE SEVEN KEYS pt.II before the band hit the big time and found their worldwide success. Hansen left in 1988, and Roland Grapow soon replaced him. The following album, PINK BUBBLES GO APE was somewhat disappointing both sales and musical wise and next, they tried to break some new grounds with 1993’s CHAMELEON. Instead of taking a heavier approach, the band ventured into entirely new territory. They were eschewing its signature double-guitar harmonies for synthesizers, horns, acoustic guitars, country music, grunge, and everything in between. Some changes were needed and so Michael Kiske and then seriously troubled drummer Schwichtenberg was let go. In late 1993 Helloween found itself in a challenging situation. The band had no singer, no drummer, and no record contract (EMI released the band from its agreement because of the disappointing sales numbers of PINK BUBBLES GO APE and CHAMELEON).
Helloween returned in 1994 with a renewed line up which included vocalist Andi Deris (Pink Cream 69) and drummer Uli Kusch (Gamma Ray). They also had a new record deal with Castle Communications, and as a result, MASTER OF THE RINGS was released later that year. The band’s new incarnation proved to be very successful, and the following albums, TIME OF THE OATH, BETTER THAN RAW, and THE DARK RIDE, did all great both commercially and critically. But still, more changes followed when Grapow and Kusch were released from their duties in 2002. New guitarist Sascha Gerstner stepped and made his first Helloween album appearance on RABBIT DON’T COME EASY in 2003. After several drummer candidates in the early 2000s, Motörhead’s Mikkey Dee played on the RABBIT album. The band finally found a permanent player when former Rawhead Rexx drummer Dani Loble joined in 2005. The current lineup has so far released three studio albums: KEEPER OF THE SEVEN KEYS pt.III – THE LEGACY, GAMBLING WITH THE DEVIL, their latest opus SEVEN SINNERS, one live album KEEPER OF THE LEVEN KEYS – THE LEGACY WORLD TOUR 2005-2006 and the Anniversary album UNARMED – THE BEST OF 25’TH ANNIVERSARY. It seems that the band, despite all those changes and troubles in the past, is now enjoying this time of their lives, and there’s no end in sight. Helloween started their latest world tour to support SEVEN SINNERS, and in November and in the middle of December 2010, they came to Finland to play two sold-out shows. In Helsinki, we had a chance to sit down with Mr. Grosskopf and discuss the new tour, past changes, and various other topics.
NEW TOUR AND BLASTS FROM THE PAST
The last time you played here in Helsinki was two years ago with Gamma Ray on the HELLISH ROCK tour, and now you’re touring with the Finnish band Stratovarius. How has the tour has been going on so far?
This is a very good package, and people seem to like it a lot. It’s been a lot of fun. The Stratovarius guys are all right, and I know them from the past already. It’s been a good, fun tour for both for sure.
I have read some recent concert reviews of the tour, and what’s great you have now added some rarely played songs in a set like “I’m Alive”?
Yeah, I squeezed that in because I thought it’s never been played since THE KEEPER, since the good old KEEPER times. That was the last time we played that song, and I thought it would be great to have it in, you know, to play with this line-up, and it’s quite working very well.
And then you have also added some more recent classics like “Handful of Pain”?
Yeah, yeah, that was a good idea to listen and go through the back catalog. It was originally Sascha’s idea, and he got me into this subject, and I was just like again, why not? Something that we played for the very first time, we never did this song ever before.
Not even on the BETTER THAN RAW tour?
We didn’t do it so far, so that is something new. And it’s a cool song to do. It’s something different in between, you know, going through the classics and new tunes. It’s a great tune.
Did you also have some other rare stuff practiced for the tour, which was dropped off at the last minute?
We have some songs in spare, which we have like two songs or three songs, two songs we do change every night. Also, Andi is listening to his voice, and whatever condition he is in, he decides which song goes out and which song comes in. The one is more complicated than the other, and then we make it, but it’s always up to Andi. How his voice feels like singing that song or this song, so we don’t cut one out; we just change songs to make it easier for him to choose how the set is going to be.
Please don’t drop “I’m Alive” tonight, “laughs.”
No, no, no, this was never the question. It’s always about “You Stupid Mankind” and “World of Fantasy,” Is there another one we change here and there? I don’t know. Maybe in the future, we have one more to squeeze in whenever he feels like it, doing this, that, or the other song, you know.
Recently you have also played “Forever and One” on some shows, right?
Yeah, it’s a ballad, so I have another break or sharing a nice cold one, so it was my idea “laughs” No, we just felt like it’s a very heavy set we got, so it’s good to have that calmer moment there. I like that a lot.
Yeah, as you said, it gives some balance for your set.
THE CHAMELEON TOUR AND TIME TO CHANGE
Let’s go “back in time” a little bit here… The last time you played in this venue (House of Culture) was back in 1993?
Was it? I can’t remember “laughs.”
What kind of memories do you have from that tour, the CHAMELEON tour, which was the last one with that certain line-up?
Oh, that was a weird tour because the record was weird, kind of. I liked the songs, but it didn’t have a record like this under the name of Helloween is such a weird thing. We had a hard time in the studio putting that together, and so was the tour. It was kind of strange. People expected something different from us, and we played. As far as I can remember, we played quite a lot from that CHAMELEON because it was the time when people wanted to change something, and it was a weird time. The fans didn’t want Helloween to be changed, but then it was just like we weren’t quite a unit, you know, it was like three songwriters doing their own things and trying to present life, I don’t know, it was weird.
Then you also had some serious problems with your drummer, Ingo, at the same time, right?
Also, yes, we had very serious problems with him. It all came together and was really, you know, almost like on the edge where you could skip the whole thing or try to push it in another direction.
Weren’t things in balance within the band then?
It wasn’t a balance. It was just kind of airless, I don’t know how to describe, but it was a very weird feeling.
What was the last thing that made you finally do those major changes back in the day?
That was actually when Michael Kiske came up with some songs after the CHAMELEON written by him where you kind of missed the guitars. It was like, you know, violins and all that classical theatre stuff but no guitars. Well, there were guitars, but he wanted to pull them back and push all that other kind of stuff there, which we didn’t want at this time. People thought we were crazy for firing a singer like Kiske, but then, after all those years and listening to what he’s doing now. I hope people will understand why we made that decision. Otherwise, he would have pushed us into the direction where he is going now, and we didn’t want that. So we told him, “No, there’s no way you are going to do this with us. You’re history”. And if there’s something like this happening that you don’t like, if there are problems, if somebody is trying to push the whole thing into the direction you don’t like, you have to react. It’s not just like we do it for fun and for the hell of it to wind somebody up. It’s a big step in a career. You think about what you’re going to do afterward. You have to react, you have to do something you know, you have to change something hopefully to the better, which was working with the MASTER OF THE RINGS, that was the direction we wanted to go, Michael didn’t want to go this way, so “A goodbye my friend.” It was like that.
There was a big drama in the air back then?
Well, it was a big drama. Every time you do to cruel decisions, it’s always a drama. Being in a band, having a career for like 25 years, it’s nothing that’s not the only party and ah and great shows and fans. There are always these difficult decisions coming to you from time to time. Of course, it’s like you run a business too. It’s not only playing, you know. Those decisions can be cruel but so what? You don’t need to be scared to decide something. It has to go ahead with what you really like.
Back in time when Michael was let go, the record company also let Helloween go, right?
No, that was before we had—the funny thing, I’m having a laugh now “laughs.” It’s one of those things you laugh at a couple of years later. We had a contract with Michael and the new record company, and then we fired him. The record company was quite pissed off because we actually signed to them with Michael Kiske, and then we did the next record without him. So they got pissed off. But then they were having like a masterpiece like MASTER OF THE RINGS. We had to explain to them it’s not going to work like this. So they were like “Oh we signed you” and “Oh we gave you the last chance” and “bla bla bla” and then we fired the singer, they go ah and we go like “Don’t worry it’s going to be all right” At the end of the day it was a funny situation I guess. For them, it wasn’t “laughs.”
THE NEW BEGINNING
I can understand that. Anyway, when Michael was let go, you needed a new singer, and Andi stepped in quite quickly.
Yeah, we knew him from recordings from Hamburg, and we knew Pink Cream 69, we hang out with the guys, and we were drinking together and so on. I believe we were all still living in Hamburg at this time, and when they came to Hamburg to record some material, we hang out again, and our first decision was to ask him in the band.
Did you also have some other candidates for the job?
No, no, we wanted to have him in the band because we knew him and we knew what he’s able to do, what he’s able to write, and we like it together.
How was the recording session of the MASTER OF THE RINGS with that new lineup?
It was very quick because there was a couple of songs Weiki did, and Roland had a couple of stuff and then combined with the stuff Andi brought into the band, you know it was very functioning and amazing because it went all so quick. We had like three months to rehearse, and then the studio was booked, and that was a very quick session, and I kind of liked that. There was also a drummer change because we got Uli Kusch in, but we still did all that within three months. Within three months, we created this masterpiece, if you ask me. So that was kind of pushing the book right out of the mud, getting it back on the track.
Like you just mentioned, Uli came in at the last minute, and he hadn’t the time to do any writing for the album?
No, no, the time when he came in, the album was almost written already.
Later on, he did a lot of great writing for Helloween.
Yeah. Like the one we’re playing now, “laughs.”
The next album, TIME OF THE OATH, was even better. Many critics did say it was your best album since THE KEEPERS…
Yeah, when Andi starts having ideas together with Weiki, they sit together, and they are not only writing. Sometimes, they sometimes have these visions, which you will find when you go back into Helloween’s history. There’s not like just a record for them in mind, there’s always a vision behind; we wanted to go ahead, we wanted to be unbreakable, we wanted to be good, you know, superstar, but that’s what you have to think, you have to feel when you go that way. And that was always there, that big idea, that big vision, they’re very good at creating a vision and having these big concepts around a record and stuff like this like he did with that little game on… there was this little card game… On what record was that?
GAMBLING WITH THE DEVIL?
Thanks. With GAMBLING WITH THE DEVIL, there was this little game you and two fans. They won like the trip to South America and all that. You know they like to create things like that, I like that.
TIME OF THE OATH marked your return to the bigger arenas.
And sales-wise, it was one of your biggest albums ever. I think?
I haven’t got any idea, I thought it was THE KEEPERS, but it might well be that this one kind of topped that, maybe?
ANOTHER CHAPTER OF HELLOWEEN
Things were good for Helloween for the next few years, but then in 2002, there were again lots of changes in the band and…
Yeah, you mean you’re talking about two guys are going and two guys are coming in. Yeah, they had a different vision than we had, so there was always like let’s do this, let’s do this, we didn’t want to end up with only THE DARK RIDE type of stuff and that you know. So we had to say goodbye again.
But I would still say that THE DARK RIDE was an excellent album in every way.
Yeah, but it’s kind of constructed. I think it’s kind of the one we didn’t know is much more. I call it the natural-born album because it was there without management people talking us into something or record company people talking us into something that we actually don’t want to do. Our new album is natural born because we wrote it just like it is, and nobody was telling us to do things this way, do things that way. THE DARK RIDE was kind of constructed, all the people were telling us to try this, let’s do this, you know, it’s a good album, but it’s a very difficult way to do records when there’s somebody always going on your nerves all the time.
Wasn’t it something like that Roland was actually the one who was let go, and Uli left by himself? Later on, was it like that?
No, no, no, we got them both together going, actually.
So they were let go in the same package.
Yes, in one package.
It wasn’t long before you resumed with the album RABBIT DON’T COME EASY. By the way, what does that title mean?
It means nothing. It’s just; we wanted for this album. We had the big idea to have no concept at all. If you always do like big concepts and things like that, you get tired a little bit, and we wanted to have actually no concept at all. And we got this “laughs.”
What about with the cover art of RABBIT DON’T COME EASY. It somewhere reminds me about the cover of PINK BUBBLES GO APE, and I would say that there’s no sense in neither “laughs.”
It’s funny shit; it’s not what a metal fan would expect, but the album, the tracks I love, really. Maybe the artwork is a bit cheesy, but it’s one of those things you have an idea about. Sometimes it’s not just quite working perfectly, but the material on the album I still love.
Mikkey Dee (Motörhead, King Diamond) played most of the drums on the album. How was he to play with?
He’s great, he comes in, and we had to put like great bricks onto the symbol stand so that he wouldn’t hit them all around the room, and then the levels were just like all in the red level. You know, all alarmed, red alert everywhere. He had to… we really challenged him. The last time he played stuff something like that was when he played in King Diamond in the ’80s, and this type of double bass playing with that kind of stuff we’re doing is not just very easy to play. He had to recall all this stuff. But then he was. Once he tried a little, then he was back on track really fast.
He told me some years ago that it was the most demanding session he has ever done “laughs.”
Imagine you get a call; we need you next week or something. He had like ten days and then for a whole album to actually get it in his head and then coming in and then play to some guitars and all that and tracks he’d never heard before. So, therefore, he did a hell of a job, of course. He’s a hell of a drummer, of course.
Whatever happened for the guy that Mark Cross was originally announced to be a replacement for Uli?
He had to what’s that called, that fever, tell me, he got so sick and then got a neck like this, and then suddenly you get this weakness all over the body and you can’t really play and… I don’t know; sportspeople sometimes get it when they over, I don’t know, overtrain themselves or whatever, and then they kind of stop their career because the only thing they feel is just like weakness. We couldn’t wait any longer, you know, he was sick for two years or something. For a band like Helloween, it’s not really funny, you know. He’s back now, he was back with band Firewind, but he’s out of Firewind, isn’t he?
Yeah, he is.
Oh, all right, I don’t know, so from there, I lost it.
He also played briefly with Kingdom Come. I’m not sure how long, but he was there for a short time. How about Stefan (Schwarfmann), then? He played on some of RABBIT DON’T COME EASY tracks and also did the following tour with you. Whatever did happen to him?
Stefan, when we wrote the new songs, we find out he’s not as like he’s a killer drummer when you talk about Accept and all that kind of stuff, then there’s nobody better than him. Still, with Helloween, we are doing something different, all these different and fast rhythms, and sometimes it was not going to work as well with him. But then again, put him in a band like Accept, or… he was in Krokus for a couple of years as well. Give him that type of music, and then you have a hell of a drummer. But that’s not what we’re doing, actually. That’s totally different music than us. It’s like if you’re not grown with that kind of stuff, and if you’re not playing all that for like a lifetime, then it’s very hard to get in. I mean, you just can’t do this when you never did it. Like Dani, when he was coming in a band, he was always rehearsing this kind of stuff because…” laughs” I call him Bodom Lake Lombardo because he always rehearsed stuff like this and figures like very complicated heavy metal bass drum snare figures and percussions but with very heavy and driven style.
It looks so easy when he’s playing.
Yeah, but it’s not easy. He’s having a hard time, but he’s got the technique down, which means he’s got to rehearse even when everybody else is having a break. He’s in the rehearsal room for like four hours anyway every fucking day.
Going back a little bit to RABBIT DON’T COME EASY period, you then find Sascha, who’s been in the band since then. How he came into the picture?
Oh, that was a recommendation from Charlie (Bauerfeind). We worked with this guy when he was in the other German band; what was that? Freedom Call and they were recording some stuff with Charlie, and later on, we called him up. He went first to meet Weiki because Weiki needed to find a player to play with and communicate and understand, so that was very important. So we got him on the island where we recorded and let him hang out with us a little, and then he decided, “Good, let’s go.”
When he first joined, he looked really young, and his style was quite different from the rest of the band.
Yeah, it was a bit of work, a little paint, some flowers. He looks good now. We did a good job, “laughs.”
He actually looks like the same way that Weiki used to look some 25 years ago “laughs.”
Right, “laughs.” There was some work to do then, but then he was already a great songwriter then, and that’s the most important thing.
THE LEGACY, BACK TO THE KEEPER MODE
KEEPER ON THE SEVEN KEYS, THE LEGACY album; how you ended up continuing the classic saga?
Very drunk after that album because it was such a piece of work “laughs” No, it’s just like how we ended up. Actually, somebody from the Japanese record company told Weiki how happy he is with the new lineup. He said something like, “That lineup is really strong. With that line-up, you can make A KEEPER album” just to say how strong that lineup is, that’s the explanation. And the record company started thinking, “Why don’t you do so?”
So it actually got started by accident?
Actually, but then we got this idea, and then we thought, “Well, why don’t we try it with that line-up?” But then we decided to do it very differently and not to copy. The actual thing was not to copy that old stuff, the good old stuff, but to do something new. I think it’s a very cool album.
It really is.
And it deserves the name, even if some people think it doesn’t. But to me, it was a lot of work, and we were very creative on that whole piece. It’s just like… it’s a masterpiece, I would say.
And although it’s like sixty minutes or something long, there are no weak moments there.
There are some very, very cool tracks on that album.
Okay. With the next album, GAMBLING WITH THE DEVIL, you kind of went back to basics?
Yes, we did.
When THE LEGACY was something like an 80s type of album, this one was a modern and even brutal album.
Well, we wanted to… it was an album without any concept, but still, we had that concept with that little game on it, that little “Crack the Riddle,” “Crack the Riddle,” try saying that ten times. And then, that was nice, it was a great piece of work, and when you do such an output like KEEPER III, it’s like you’ve got to open your head and empty it at first, close it and then start thinking new for KEEPER thing you know, but then it’s very, very hard work. You’ve got to think very differently from what you do when you just write the songs, so to say, just like writing a normal metal song or rock song, it’s very different. But that’s what we did with the GAMBLING WITH THE DEVIL, and I feel very good just doing proper decent songs. You cannot always do this concept thing. Your head is exploding if you do this every time again, you know, “laughs.”
Yeah, I can only imagine that.
You get burned out if you only do concept things. You need to write some, just some metal songs that are just coming easily or something like that. It’s never easy, but once you got an idea, you don’t have to think about “Oh, that’s five minutes missing,” you know. What do I put in to make it fit for the concept? Fit it to make it fit in the concept of something. It’s just like if there’s a song of five minutes or four minutes and it’s cool, you don’t have to think about how it fits in the concept. If the song’s good, the song’s good, it goes on the record. It’s a different way of working, and that’s what you sometimes need apart from having big concepts. I like this, but it’s very complicated to do it all the time.
FROM THE 25’TH ANNIVERSARY TO SEVEN SINNERS
How about the acoustic UNARMED album, the 25’th Anniversary album? That was really different release from you, and it was something that nobody could expect from you?
It’s just like we’ve been asked what to do if we’re going to do fine remakes or re-masters, but then sell the old stuff people get at home anyway just a slightly different sound, it wouldn’t make any sense to us, so we just wanted to give people something new. We’re not going to tell them to buy it. Still, at least we want to have something new from Helloween and nothing that is, does something warm make hot, and you know tasting the same—we actually want to give them something very new from Helloween. We found it a cool idea to make music for such a long time. I think you should be allowed to do some different stuff once in a while, you know, do something. It was interesting playing very interesting and fun to play bass like this that you can hear on that record because I never did this. But so you know, you should be allowed to do something like this from time to time.
Actually, what’s your favorite track from UNARMED?
I don’t know. I can’t tell you. It’s just like the album I kind of like.
When I first heard it, I didn’t recognize it was Helloween. It sounded so different.
It’s different. We wanted to give them something different, something more different than just remix, which would be like, you know,” Buy it and give me your money” We spent a lot of money, of course, to do it like it is. And a remix would cost you ten cents, and then it would cost the same as the product we got out now. You know what I mean. So who’s complaining here? “laughs.”
Well, how would you describe your latest opus, SEVEN SINNERS?
Yeah, SEVEN SINNERS had the concept from like the first—well, there was like the, what was the acoustic album called… UNARMED. After the UNARMED, we were ready for some real stuff, you know, without having discussed what we are going to do, everybody had this will to do some very heavy stuff, you know. And that’s what came out of it is I said I call it my natural-born album. The first two tracks we had were “Are You Metal” and “Where The Sinners Go,” and that was kind of the direction we loved, so we kind of left it untouched, just gave it a heavy sound, and put the other songs around it and it’s not a concept, but it’s just like… it’s just like a great piece of metal. The concept is doing great metal pieces, you know, with some traditional Helloween tracks and some real metal stuff, and so we just found it very cool.
I have to admit that Markus Grosskopf writes my favorite tracks on the new album, “laughs.”
Well, I didn’t write the whole album, “laughs.”
Right, but I still got to say that “World of Fantasy” is my favorite on the new album.
Yeah, yeah, we might do this tonight or tomorrow, I don’t know. This is one of those songs we always keep on changing.
SONGWRITING AND THE BASS INVADERS PROJECT
I can’t hesitate to ask whatever has happened for you now because, unlike now, in the past, your name was hardly found from the song credit lists?
No, I was like the part of the band back in the 80s until the mid-90s where the band needed… in Helloween, it was like the rhythm section always doing the rock and roll part of the deal, going out having a party, drinking, and all that stuff. All that was up to us “laughs” Well, that changed when Ingo kind of got sick, so I decided I was there to do something different than only that, but still having fun drinking a little and then hanging out with friends and stuff. But I started writing, and that was the kind of thing I wanted to do. I wanted to change in that direction because I didn’t always want it to be like the bass player always sitting there doing nothing. I just had the feeling I need to do something, you know. And then I tried, and I tried, and I tried, and it was working, now I love it, and now at home I have this idea, and then I work on that idea you know and present it to my friends, and greatest thing that can happen to you is they like it, and they want to have it for the record you know, there’s nothing better than that.
Wasn’t “Don’t Spit on My Mind” your first credited song on the Helloween album? That one was released on BETTER THAN RAW, right?
No, that was… I did some B -sides before. The very first B -side I did was like this. They call it the housewife song, “Shit and Lobster.” Do you remember that one? It was like something, and they found it funny, and I was just like, “Really, there you go.” We call it the housewife song because it’s got this do-do-do-do-do kind of attitude, you know. But you know you start with something “laughs.”
Right, and later on, you also had some songs released on CHAMELEON album B-sides, I do remember now.
This time, I started ending up with my songs on like bonus tracks and B sides. I still write a lot of B -sides and stuff, but sometimes I got that hit on. I make that target to the record.
Like RABBIT DON’T COME EASY’s excellent “Hell Was Made From Heaven.”
Yeah, that was a good one.
So we can expect a full album of Markus songs?
Tomorrow “laughs” No, I don’t know, I definitely will do something one day, but you really need time for this and some, yeah you can’t do it on tour, or while Helloween is doing some activities, you know. There must be the time when you feel like there is something, and then I’ve got a couple of songs ready, but you know you need time to get them properly done to train musicians and all that. That will take a while, I guess. But there are always some ideas there “laughs.”
Have you ever tried singing by yourself?
No, if I want to say something, it’s … I don’t want to make myself a fool singing my safe, you know. I couldn’t even hit an elephant’s ass with a shovel, so why to try singing? “laughs.”
Another interesting release in your career is the album BASSINVADERS, which included such an all-star lineup with names like Billy Sheehan, Marco Mendoza, Rudy Sarzo, and Joey Vera, amongst many other names. How was that project overall, and do you have plans to make another album with that concept someday?
I don’t know? BASS INVADERS was very complicated. It was more an experience than an album for me. I had this idea in a bar to do this with all these guests putting all these guests together. It was just like taking me three-quarters of a year, and they always with no singer, no recorded, only talking on the phones and having emails and talking to managers, and sending tracks back and forth and making sure what part they are supposed to do. It was more than three-quarters of a year, nine months, something like this, to put it all together. And then you start recording, but it was fun, and it was an experience of mine, and I think it’s a cool album. But to do something like that again, you really need a lot of time. I was already starting the Helloween tour and still had to do stuff for the BASSINVADERS album, improving the cover and doing some interviews. If this overlaps, it gets very complicated. And you don’t need too much stress. You know it’s just like you wake up and go shit, I got to do this, no this is Helloween, but then all right, it gets mixed up. It gets a nightmare.
Ok. It seems that we have spoken for over 45 minutes already. Thank you, Markus!
No problem, Want some beer “laughs.”